Department of State Atomic Energy Files


Memorandum by the Counselor (Kennan)1

top secret

International Control of Atomic Energy

The Policy Planning Staff has been asked to re-examine the present position of the United States with respect to the international control of atomic energy, and to assess the adequacy of this position in the light of present circumstances, particularly the demonstrated Soviet atomic capability. The following paper is intended to contribute to this re-examination.

[Here follows Part I, 11 pages, in which Kennan examines the existing United States position on international control.]


In approaching the question of the adequacy of the present U.N. majority position, I am proceeding on the assumption that no basic change in the nature of the regime in power in Russia can be brought about by a voluntary subjective act of the Soviet leaders at this juncture, or indeed by anything short of a major upheaval, which would remove the communist party entirely from power in that country, or a long process of erosion and mellowing. I cannot, therefore, look to any agreement on the international control of atomic energy to be the cause or the occasion of a change of heart on the part of the Soviet leaders which would basically alter the nature of Soviet power.

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This being the case, we can reject the possibility of a wider significance of the problem of international control, and judge the adequacy of the present U.N. position to our purposes from the strict standpoint of its relation to our national security in a world where Russia is what we know it today to be.

If, in the light of this situation, it is our final judgment that the elimination of the atomic weapon from national arsenals by international agreement would confront us with a wholly unacceptable situation, and one which we would expect to remain unacceptable in the foreseeable future, then we should certainly not make any new moves at present which could have the effect of bringing us close to international agreement in the foreseeable future. Whether, in such circumstances, we should continue to support the present U.N. majority position is another question, which need not be examined at this point.

If, on the other hand, we feel that elimination of the weapon from our national arsenal by international agreement might conceivably be acceptable to us, in the sense that the risks of such an agreement might be conceived to be less than the risks of no agreement at all, then it can be questioned whether the present U.N. majority plan is entirely adequate to our purposes.

Why is this true? In the first place, the U.N. plan is based in large part on the thesis that there is a serious prospect for the early use of nuclear fuels for peaceful purposes, and that an attempt must be made to meet the problem of how to control production of such fuels. Yet this prospect as far as the Staff can learn, is by no means favorable enough today to be permitted to stand in the way of an abolition of atomic weapons by international agreement, if there were a real chance that this could be achieved.* If there were to be no production of nuclear fuels for any purpose, it might well be questioned whether all remaining atomic activities could not, under relatively moderate safeguards, be left in national hands, and whether an international operating and managing authority could not therefore be dispensed with altogether at this stage, thus removing one of the main bones of contention in the present plan.

This is, of course, the essential feature on which most of the more recent serious suggestions for departure from our present position [Page 24] have been based, particularly the schemes advanced by Daniel and Squires and Newman.§

It is interesting to note that the recommendations of the Acheson–Lilienthal report were based specifically on the belief that the possibilities for peaceful uses were great enough to justify the effort to try to control dangerous activities.

“If atomic energy had only one conceivable use—its horrible powers of mass destruction—” the report said, “then the incentive to follow the course of complete prohibition and suppression might be very great. Indeed, it has been responsibly suggested that however attractive may be the potentialities for benefit from atomic energy, they are so powerfully outweighed by the malevolent that our course should be to bury the whole idea, to bury it deep, to forget it, and to make it illegal for anyone to carry on further inquiries or developments ill this field.

“We have concluded that the beneficial possibilities—some of them are more than possibilities, for they are within close reach of actuality—in the use of atomic energy should be and can be made to aid in the development of a reasonably successful system of security, and the plan we recommend is in part predicated on that idea.

“That mankind can confidently look forward to such beneficial uses is a fact that offers a clue of not inconsiderable importance to the kind of security arrangements that can be made effective.…”

An agreement to forego operation of large reactors at this time would not have to be taken as a permanent renunciation of the possibility of the development of large-scale atomic energy production for peaceful purposes. There is no particular reason why an arrangement would have to be of a permanent nature. On the contrary, there are good reasons why it might be better to have at this time a temporary modus vivendi. In the first place, as pointed out above, the progress made toward beneficial uses of nuclear fuels is not yet such as to make it really important that international society occupy itself now with [Page 25] the thorny problems of control which production of nuclear fuels for peaceful purposes would involve. In a few years, this situation may have a different aspect. In the second place, the international political situation could hardly be less favorable than it is today for the negotiation of any extensive international agreements of a permanent nature. Our policy must be based upon the knowledge that change is the essence of human affairs and upon the hope that change will affect this situation favorably over the course of some years. If so, the future would presumably be a better time to try to arrive at permanent arrangements for international control of atomic energy than is the present.

I must further question whether our non-committal attitude on the matter of stages—an attitude developed during the period when we considered ourselves the sole custodians of the secrets and know-how of bomb production—is wholly justified in a period when that premise has been demonstrated no longer valid.

Surely, as things stand today, there can be little ground for concern about the particular stage at which our atomic secrete should be revealed to other nations in the establishment of any plan of control. It may be asked, therefore, whether it is really true today, as the Atomic Energy Commission stated in its Third Report to the Security Council, that “until agreement on the basic principles of control has been reached, the elaboration of proposals to cover …” the subject of stages “… would be unrealistic and would serve no useful purposes.…”** It does seem that there should be some way in which the Russians could be given unequivocal assurance in the preliminary phase of negotiations that effective prohibition of the weapon and closing down of nuclear fuel producing plants in all countries, including our own, would take place concurrently with, or at least not subsequent to, the establishment of a strict control over raw materials.

A question further exists as to our position on the disposal of stocks of nuclear fuel. It should be noted that if large reactors were to be abolished, strategic advantage in atomic weapons would depend largely [Page 26] upon this factor. It seems generally to have been envisaged on our side that quotas would be so arranged as to preserve for us a clear strategic advantage in the event of seizure.†† One might, however, consider arrangements looking toward a complete destruction of all large stocks of nuclear fuel or the disposal in such a manner as would prevent any cheap and easy seizure and exploitation for military purposes by either side. In other words, one could conceive of an agreement which would eliminate the factor of strategic advantage entirely, as far as atomic weapons are concerned.

Similarly, it would seem that greater clarity could be created on the subject of the veto, in its relation to the problem of enforcement. If, as General McNaughton stated in the consultations of the “Six”,‡‡ emphasis has shifted in the Commission “from the unattainable objective of prevention and punishment of violators by an autocratic and powerful authority to the more reasonable and reliable purpose of setting up an effective system to ensure adequate warnings”, is it still necessary to hold over the Russian head the determination that “there shall be no legal right, by ‘veto’ or otherwise, whereby a willful violator of the terms of the treaty or convention shall be protected from the consequences of violation of its terms”?§§ In other words, if we are to rely on adequate notice, rather than prevention, of violation, is there any reason why we should not go the whole hog and make it entirely clear that in any temporary modus vivendi, at any rate, there would be no question of a weakening of the veto power in the Security Council?

Finally, we could, as indicated above, make an effort to arrange for the discussion of these matters through channels where there would be better possibilities of getting the Russians to talk in a businesslike and revealing manner than in the multilateral U.N. bodies where they have heretofore been discussed.

The above suggestions are not put forward at this point as recommendations for a new “United States plan”. They are put forward [Page 27] merely to emphasize that if it should really be our purpose to move as rapidly as possible toward the removal of this weapon from national armaments without insisting on a deep-seated change in the Soviet system, there are a number of features of our present position which do not seem to give maximum recognition to such a motive. The question of the extent to which these suggestions could be utilized in international negotiation, and of the manner in which this might be done, is a separate question, involving many important considerations of political wisdom and tactics, and will be discussed below.

It is also not intended to suggest that modification of our position along the lines indicated above would guarantee agreement with the Russians or even with our western allies. It is true that with the international authority and the veto out of the picture, and with firm U.S. assurances that staging would not operate to Soviet disadvantage, we would have met what appear to be the principal Soviet objectives [objections?] to the present U.N. majority plan. However, any new proposals along the lines suggested above would certainly raise new questions which have not heretofore had to be faced. There is no assurance that the inspection provisions we would still find it necessary to insist upon, even under a temporary agreement of this sort, would prove to be palatable to the Soviet leaders, although they would certainly be less onerous than the interference in Soviet life which would be called for by the operation in the Soviet Union of an international authority owning and managing large installations.║║

The most serious question is whether the Russians would agree to forego all development of atomic energy in large-scale reactors for peaceful uses. There is every evidence that the Soviet leaders not only attach high importance to experimentation with the peaceful uses of atomic science but that they regard it as a matter of prestige that the “socialist” state keep itself entirely free to proceed with such development, unhampered by any physical interference from the capitalist side. They believe such interference to be implied by the present U.N. plan. They might well take a similar view of the obligations inherent in the sort of arrangements suggested above. In this view, there is probably a reflection of the tendency toward technological escapism which is natural to a country where economic development has been extremely uneven—a country which has highly primitive areas in its economy and which is always searching for means whereby whole stages of technological development experienced by the older industrial nations can be skipped over entirely.

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The assumption that Soviet views run in this direction is borne out by the tenor of Soviet propaganda in recent weeks. The Tass communiqué issued in connection with the U.S. announcement about the atomic explosion in Russia, while not specifically claiming that atomic energy was already being used for peaceful purposes, obviously aimed to leave such an implication in the mind of the reader by talking about “… construction work of great scale … necessitating great explosive work with application newest technical means.…”¶¶

Vyshinski, in his speech before the United Nations, on November 10, 1949, said:

“…these great inventions ought to be utilized in order to raise the economic, social and cultural level of mankind, to raise our level of progress and to expedite our progress. The role of atomic energy in economic and social development is tremendous, we cannot exaggerate it. And this makes it quite clear how evil, how sorrowful, it would be if this question were taken away from the control of sovereign, peace-loving states …”*

Atomic energy, he said, “is assigned an exceptional economic, social and cultural significance” in the national economy of the Soviet Union. He criticized the present U.N. plan as one the implications of which “would make it impossible to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes at all”. All these statements indicate that there will be vigorous Soviet resistance to the suggestion that large reactors be banned.

And we should expect to encounter similar resistance from the British and perhaps from other governments as well.


The problem whether it is desirable for this Government to move now as far as possible and as rapidly as possible toward international control is only part of a deeper problem, involving certain very far-reaching judgments and decisions of national policy, both foreign and domestic. It is not the purpose of this paper to deal exhaustively with this deeper problem or to make recommendations for its solution. But it is important, in any consideration of the international control problem, to identify the larger problem of which it is a part, to see what other things are logically involved in it, and to note certain factors bearing upon it which have particular importance from the standpoint of international control.

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The real problem at issue, in determining what we should do at this juncture with respect to international control, is the problem of our attitude toward weapons of mass destruction in general, and the role which we allot to these weapons in our own military planning. Here, the crucial question is: Are we to rely upon weapons of mass destruction as an integral and vitally important component of our military strength, which we would expect to employ deliberately, immediately, and unhesitatingly in the event that we become involved in a military conflict with the Soviet Union? Or are we to retain such weapons in our national arsenal only as a deterrent to the use of similar weapons against ourselves or our allies and as a possible means of retaliation in case they are used? According to the way this question is answered, a whole series of decisions are influenced, of which the decision as to what to do about the international control of atomic energy and the prohibition of the weapon is only one.

We must note, by way of clarification of this question, that barring some system of international control and prohibition of atomic weapons, it is not questioned that some weapons of mass destruction must be retained in the national arsenal for purposes of deterrence and retaliation. The problem is: for what purpose, and against the background of what subjective attitude, are we to develop such weapons and to train our forces in their use?

We may regard them as something vital to our conduct of a future war—as something without which our war plans would be emasculated and ineffective—as something which we have resolved, in the face of all the moral and other factors concerned, to employ forthwith and unhesitatingly at the outset of any great military conflict. In this case, we should take the consequences of that decision now, and we should obviously keep away from any program of international dealings which would bring us closer to the possibility of agreement on international control and prohibition of the atomic weapon.

Or we may regard them as something superfluous to our basic military posture—as something which we are compelled to hold against the possibility that they might be used by our opponents. In this case, of course, we take care not to build up a reliance upon them in our military planning. Since they then represent only a burdensome expenditure of funds and effort, we hold only the minimum required for the deterrent-retaliatory purpose. And we are at liberty, if we so desire, to make it our objective to divest ourselves of this minimum at the earliest moment by achieving a scheme of international control.

We should remember that more depends on this basic decision than simply our stance toward the problems of international control. It must also have an important effect on our domestic atomic energy program, and particularly on what we do about the superbomb. If we [Page 30] decide to hold weapons of mass destruction only for deterrent-retaliatory purposes, then the limit on the number and power of the weapons we should hold is governed by our estimate as to what it would take to make attack on this country or its allies by weapons of mass destruction a risky, probably unprofitable, and therefore irrational undertaking for any adversary. In these circumstances, the problem of whether to develop the superbomb and other weapons of mass destruction becomes only a question of the extent to which they would be needed to achieve this purpose. It might be, for example, that the present and prospective stockpile of conventional bombs, combined with present and prospective possibilities for delivery, would be found adequate to this purpose and that anything further in the way of mass destruction weapons would be redundant, or would fall into an area of diminishing returns.

If, on the other hand, we are resolved to use weapons of mass destruction deliberately and prior to their use against us or our allies, in a future war, then our purpose is presumably to inflict maximum destruction on the forces, population and territory of the enemy, with the least expenditure of effort, in full acceptance of the attendant risk of retaliation against us, and in the face of all moral and political considerations. In this case, the only limitations on the number and power of mass destruction weapons which we would wish to develop would presumably be those of ordinary military economy, such as cost, efficiency, and ease of delivery.

Depending, therefore, on which of these courses is selected, our decision on the superbomb might be one of two diametrically opposite ones.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the significance of this decision from the standpoint of our military planning in the field of conventional weapons. Obviously, if we make our use of weapons of mass destruction dependent on their prior use against us or our allies, we subject ourselves to the possibility that they may not be used at all, and we then have to be prepared to accept combat with conventional weapons. This affects not only the composition of our armed establishment but also the concept which we may entertain of our objectives in the event of a future war with the U.S.S.R. For what could conceivably be achieved militarily and politically without atomic weapons, whether something better or something worse, is presumably at least different [Page 31] from what could be achieved with them. On this, in turn, must depend some of the allotment of emphasis as between military and political objectives, as well as the concept of what we would be prepared to regard as a favorable issue of the conflict.

This, in turn, raises further important questions, which are more than military, about our relationship to the other countries of the Atlantic Pact group.2 It has a strong bearing not just on what is done by way of preparation for another war, but also on the policies which we would wish to follow in time of peace. It is part of the great question, as yet unsettled in either the official or the public mind in this country, as to whether our conflict with world communism should be regarded as one susceptible of settlement by the devastations of war alone or as one requiring at least a supporting (if not a major) victory in the field of ideas.

Plainly, then, far more than our attitude toward international control is involved in the decision as to the purposes for which we are to hold atomic weapons in the absence of such control. There is a clear warning here against any policy with respect to the international negotiations which does not flow from a basic decision on this point, and is not part of a logical pattern of overall policy in both foreign and domestic fields, likewise flowing from such a decision.

[Here follows Part IV, 17 pages, in which Kennan comments further on factors affecting the United States attitude toward atomic weapons and their function in the national arsenal from the standpoint of international control.]


Any discussion of the military implications of a decision not to rely on the atomic bomb as “our principal initial offensive weapon in any future war” brings up the subject of limitation of conventional armaments. Those who see a real military sacrifice in such renunciation will be inclined to say that the U.S., having thus far successfully resisted any coupling of the subjects of international control of atomic energy and disarmament in conventional weapons, should now, in the light of its atomic superiority, insist upon linking the two subjects and refuse to disarm atomically unless and until the Russians reduce their conventional armaments.

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The subject of limitation of conventional weapons is confused and obscure, due (a) to the high degree of unreality which has marked the postures assumed by both Soviet and American Governments in the past, (b) to the tremendous disparity and lack of comparability in the armed establishments of the two powers, (c) to their respective systems of military alliances and commitments, and (d) to the staggering uncertainties surrounding the possibilities for verification and enforcement of any agreements along this line. The evolution of U.S. policy on regulation of conventional armaments, in particular, has been perfunctory and haphazard, and has left us with no clear governmental position on what we think might be possible and desirable and worth trying to achieve.

A study of the problem of international control of atomic energy is not the framework in which to develop policy recommendations about disarmament in conventional Weapons. Yet there are certain appreciations on this subject which may usefully be borne in mind if the problem of atomic control is to fall into proper perspective. These are the following:

There are important differences in the problem of disarmament, as between atomic and conventional weapons, to wit:
Prohibition of the atomic weapons would have certain special advantages beyond those which would be obtained by disarmament in conventional weapons. These advantages correspond to the special drawbacks of the weapon: the horror which it holds for civilian populations; its capacity for causing nervousness, insecurity and a war psychosis; the difficulty of placing its development into a proper relationship to other measures of defense and foreign policy; and its tendency to influence national policy as well as intellectual life in unfortunate ways. While all distinctions in armaments, from the moral as well as the political standpoint, are ones of degree, who can say that for this reason they are less important? It cannot therefore be argued that atomic disarmament is a logical absurdity unless accompanied by conventional disarmament.
Restrictions on the atomic weapon are easier to enforce than measures of disarmament relating to conventional weapons and forces. The raw materials for atomic weapon production are few and relatively scarce. The facilities and processes necessary for its production are ones peculiar to this purpose and not needed, as things stand today, for any normal peacetime purpose. The installations are costly, cumbersome, difficult to conceal, and delicate to operate. Conventional armaments, on the other hand, involve innumerable productive processes, many of which are part and parcel of a normal peacetime economy, as Well as a great multiplicity of installations and concentrations of men, weapons, facilities and materials.
With respect to conventional armaments, there could be, at this stage, no question of any prohibition—only of reductions. But reductions are extremely hard to arrange unless there is a fair degree of comparability between the establishments of the respective countries, in size as well as in type. In the case of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. this comparability is conspicuously lacking. The scale on which the Soviet ground force establishment is maintained is so out of proportion to that of our own that our ground forces would be substantially balanced out just by the Soviet police army alone, to which Soviet representatives never refer in international negotiations and which they obviously do not regard even as a potential object of discussion from the standpoint of reduction of armaments. Furthermore, their System of military training and of disciplinary control over the population means that demobilized soldiers could be re-mobilized with great speed and effectiveness. In the light of these facts, it is clear that even if the Soviet Government consented to demobilize unilaterally most of the Red Army, with no reduction at all on our part, it would still have both forces in existence and a capability for mobilization entirely adequate to balance all the Atlantic Pact countries could conceivably put up in this line in the foreseeable future. Since it would certainly not do anything remotely as generous as this, but would insist on heavy and significant reductions in western forces as against only such reductions on its own part as would leave at least the major part of the present Red Army intact, it is hard to conceive of any arrangement for reduction in ground forces which would be within the bounds of realistic possibility and which could yet operate to the advantage of the western powers.
It has been suggested that possibly the Soviet Government might be prevailed upon to go in for a mutual reduction of offensive weapons such as tanks, long-range bombers and submarines, and that in this way the total Soviet potential could be at least reduced to a point where western Europe would no longer feel threatened. It is difficult to follow this line of reasoning through to any very hopeful conclusion. Aside from the almost insuperable problem of verification and control of any such undertakings, the Russians would certainly not be interested in them if they altered the general military balance in Europe to the Soviet disfavor. Yet if they did not so alter it, they could hardly carry any real reassurance to the peoples of western Europe. Moreover, it seems doubtful if the distinction between offensive and defensive weapons has any practical validity.
Any commitment on the part of any of the western powers to reduce conventional armed establishments could hardly fail to fall foul of the Atlantic Pact: i.e., of the obligations contained in that pact, and of the military planning accomplished within its framework. No Atlantic Pact power could now negotiate alone with the Russians about the reduction of conventional armaments. This is in itself enough to make any practical result highly unlikely, for nothing is harder than international negotiation by a group of sovereign powers. Moreover, proposals for any actual reduction in western strength, along lines which would be of interest to the Russians, would probably run directly counter to the purposes of the Military Assistance Program, and to obligations assumed in connection therewith. [Page 34] This could hardly fail to cause great confusion, not only to people in Europe but above all to members of our Congress who are being asked to support the program.
In general, it must be recognized that the most important reasons why the Russians today so overshadow the west in conventional weapons lie not in the scale of Soviet armaments, formidable as this may be, but rather in the disappearance of Germany as a factor in the military balance between east and west, in the high cost of armaments to the states of western Europe and North America, and above all in the presence of Russian military forces in the very heart of Europe by virtue of the continued occupation of Germany and Austria.3 If the Atlantic Pact nations wish to redress the present disbalance in the power of conventional armaments, as between east and west, they must find means first and foremost to get the Russians out of the center of Europe; a more easily verifiable, controllable and effective means of relieving the military pressure on the west than promises of reduction of armaments. They must also find ways of harnessing western German skills and energies to the building of defensive strength in the west as a whole, not in Germany alone. Finally, they must face up to the fact that a Russian military potential built on so vast a foundation of sacrifice and discipline can be effectively met only by a western effort in which sacrifice and discipline play at least a respectible, if not a comparable, part. Should the west do all these things, the day might come when the Russians would find incentive for considering a real and significant reduction in conventional armaments, although the chances of anything of this sort being brought about by formal international agreement of a multilateral nature would still be small. As things stand today, the Russians are not going to be so obliging as to relieve the west gratuitously, through some agreed reduction in conventional armaments, of a military disparity in conventional weapons which is one of Communism’s most valuable political assets and an important compensating asset for the reverses suffered by Moscow to date in the European cold war.

It is impossible to say, just in the light of the above considerations, what this Government should or should not do about conventional disarmament. But it is possible to say that if the abolition of the atomic weapon must await agreement on a comprehensive program for reduction of conventional armaments, it may as well be dismissed from present consideration. And in this case, we should plainly not undertake today any new moves in the field of international control.

The same applies, of course, to a voluntary renunciation on our part of the deliberate use of the atomic weapon. Unless we are prepared to accept the situation which would ensue, from the standpoint of our resultant potential in conventional weapons, we should neither offer to give up the bomb nor resolve to forego the deliberate use of it. The possibilities for conventional disarmament are neither great [Page 35] enough nor sufficiently relevant to the problem to provide a plausible escape from this harsh choice.

[Here follows Part VI, 10 pages, which discusses the Soviet attitude toward atomic weapons, citing the Russian practice of minimizing in public statements the effectiveness of weapons of mass destruction. Kennan contends, however, that for both ideological and practical reasons, the Soviet Union does wish to avoid nuclear war.]


It flows from the above discussion that if, as I understand to be the case at the present moment, we are not prepared to reorient our military planning and to envisage the renunciation, either now or with time, of our reliance on “first use” of weapons of mass destruction in a future war, then we should not move closer than we are today to international control. To do so would be doubly invidious; for not only would we be moving toward a situation which we had already found unacceptable, but we would meanwhile be making that situation even more unacceptable by increasing our reliance on plans incompatible with it.

If our military plans are to remain unchanged in this respect, then it is probably best for us to rest on the present U.N. majority proposals, not pressing them with any particular vigor, but taking care not to undermine them by any statements which would suggest a lack of readiness on our part to accept them should they find acceptance in the Soviet camp. It is true that this position is somewhat disingenuous, since if the Russians should accept what we are ostensibly urging them to accept, we might be acutely embarrassed. But the danger of their accepting it is not serious. And in the present circumstances any new departure, involving even the suggestion of a withdrawal from the U.N. proposals or of a willingness to consider other ones, would result in much confusion, as between ourselves and our friends, which would be both difficult to dispel and unnecessary.

Unless, therefore, we are prepared to alter our military concepts as indicated above, thereby placing ourselves in a position where we could afford to take these weapons or leave them as the fortunes of international negotiation might determine, I urge that we consider the question of the desirability of some new international approach to have been studied and answered in the negative, and that we bury the subject of international control as best we can for the present.

The remaining discussion, in this paper accordingly relates only to what we might do if we had reviewed our military concepts, if we had come to the conclusion that we would no longer rely on mass destruction weapons in our planning for a future war, and if we had resolved to work ourselves out of our present dependence on those weapons as rapidly as possible.

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The first thing we would obviously have to do would be to discuss this new state of mind with our allies in the Atlantic Pact group, with a view to obtaining their understanding for our background thinking and their agreement to the modifications of military planning which it implies. If it proved impossible to come to any meeting of the minds with our allies on these points a new situation would be created, which would have to be examined on its merits. The other members of the Atlantic Pact have no formal right, of course, to compel us to plan to wage war with weapons which we had concluded to be unacceptable to our people as weapons of “first use”. On the other hand, we would have to calculate, the political and psychological damage which might be done by overriding their objections too brutally. If this damage seemed exorbitant, in terms of the cold war, then we would presumably have no choice but to carry on with the present position both as respects military plans and international control. However, in this case we should be careful to bring home to the Europeans the full consciousness of the responsibility they were undertaking in asking us to defer to them on this point.

Assuming, however, that our new position with relation to the use of mass destruction weapons was finally to commend itself to the other members of the Atlantic Pact group, we would then be able to take a public position with regard to mass destruction weapons similar to that taken by the Soviet Government: namely that we deplore the existence and abhor the use of these weapons; that we have no intention of initiating their use against anyone; that we would use them only with the greatest of reluctance and only if this were forced upon us by methods, of warfare used against us or our allies; and that in the absence of international agreement on the abolition of such weapons under suitable safeguards we would hold only enough to assure that it would be suicidal folly for anyone else to use them against ourselves or our allies. The President being charged with the supreme responsibility for the operations of our armed forces, including advance planning activities, this position should be taken as a matter of executive policy. To the extent that Congressional opinion might associate itself with such a position, this would be all to the good; but I see no reason why Congressional support need be a prerequisite.

Having taken such a public attitude, we would then have, for the first time since we began to amass stockpiles of atomic bombs, a clear and suitable position from which to address ourselves to the problem of international control. Our first decision would then have to be whether, even in these circumstances, we would be prepared, to accept international control on terms which would yield less security against violation than the present U.N. proposals or whether we would prefer to rest our security on the maintenance of stockpiles of mass destruction [Page 37] weapons for such deterrent-retaliatory value as they might have. This is of course the central question in the whole international control problem; and impressive arguments can be advanced on both sides.

It is my own view that arrangements based on any or all of the suggestions contained in the second section of this report, above, while quite possibly inferior to the present U.N. proposals from the strict standpoint of theoretical atomic security, would still be preferable to a situation in which both sides would be retaining atomic weapons, and presumably other weapons of mass destruction, for purposes of retaliation, with no agreement existing concerning their control or prohibition. I base this conclusion on my conviction that it would be difficult for us, if we are to hold and develop such weapons at all, to keep them in their proper place as an instrument of national policy and to arrive at the delicate judgments which would have to be made currently about the money and effort which should be devoted to their cultivation and the role which should be allotted to them in our military planning. I believe that the peculiar psychological overtones by which these weapons will always be accompanied will tend to give them a certain top-heaviness as instruments of our national policy, and that this top-heaviness, in turn, will inevitably impart a certain eccentricity to our military planning, where there should be equilibrium.

I fear, moreover, that this tendency to eccentricity may not be limited to our military planning but may tend to affect our concept of what it is that we could achieve by the conduct of war against the Soviet Union. Whether or not war on the grand scale can achieve positive aims for an aggressive totalitarian power, it is my belief that it cannot achieve such aims for a democracy. It would be useful, in my opinion, if we were to recognize that the real purposes of the democratic society cannot be achieved by large-scale violence and destruction; that even in the most favorable circumstances war between great powers spells a dismal deterioration of world conditions from the standpoint of the liberal-democratic tradition; and that the only positive function it can fulfill far us—a function, the necessity and legitimacy of which I do not dispute—is to assure that we survive physically as an independent nation when our existence and independence might otherwise be jeopardized and that the catastrophe which we and our friends suffer, if cataclysm is unavoidable, is at least less than that suffered by our enemies. For such positive purposes as we wish to pursue, we must look to other things than war: above all, to bearing, to example, to persuasion, and to the judicious exploitation of our strength as a deterrent to world conflict. The best that war can do is to keep our nation intact, in order that we may have an opportunity [Page 38] to continue to function as a unified and effective society and to employ these other instruments of national policy on which real progress must rest. I feel that the absence of international agreement outlawing the weapons of mass destruction, and the retention in the national arsenals of this country and of the Soviet Union of such weapons, will have a tendency to confuse our people with regard to the realities to which I have just referred and to encourage the belief that somehow or other results decisive for the purposes of democracy can be expected to flow from the question of who obtains the ultimate superiority in the atomic weapons race. We cannot have a clear and sound national policy unless it is based on a correct appreciation by our people of the role and possibilities of the various weapons of war, and of warfare itself, as instruments of national policy. I fear that the atomic weapon, with its vague and highly dangerous promise of “decisive” results, of people “signing on dotted lines”, of easy solutions to profound human problems, will impede understanding of the things that are important to a clean, clear policy and will carry us toward the misuse and dissipation of our national strength.

While both dangers are great, I would hold this latter danger to be a more serious one than that which would reside in an imperfect system of international prohibition and control, and I would therefore favor the latter.

It may be said that all weapons are cruel and destructive, if they are to serve their purpose; that many of the conventional weapons also bring death and hardship to civilian populations; that the destructive horror of the atomic weapon is only a matter of degree; and that the above concept is therefore an unsound one which, if carried to its ultimate conclusions, would lead to a Ghandian policy of unilateral demilitarization, non-resistance and appeasement.

As to the assertion that this is only a matter of degree, I think that the following words of Shakespeare are entirely relevant and applicable:

“Take but degree away—untune that string

And hark what discord follows: …

Then every thing includes in power—

Power into will, will into appetite,

And appetite, a universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce a universal prey

And last eat up himself.Ӥ

These words would have a prophetic applicability even if there were no distinction of substance between the weapons which we know [Page 39] as the weapons of mass destruction and the others. But I believe that there is such a distinction. It may be an inexact and imperfect one; but if we were to reject all distinctions in life on the basis of inexactness and imperfection, no civilization would be possible. The distinction lies in the way in which a weapon can be applied. By and large, the conventional weapons of warfare have admitted and recognized the possibility of surrender and submission. For that reason, they have traditionally been designed to spare the unarmed and helpless non-combatant, who was assumed already to be in a state of submission when confronted with military force, as well as the combatant prepared to lay down his arms. This general quality of the conventional weapons of warfare implied a still more profound and vital recognition: namely that warfare should be a means to an end other than warfare, an end connected with the beliefs and the feelings and the attitudes of people, an end marked by submission to a new political will and perhaps to a new regime of life, but an end which at least did not negate the principle of life itself.

The weapons of mass destruction do not have this quality. They reach backward beyond the frontiers of western civilization, to the concepts of warfare which were once familiar to the Asiatic hordes. They cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary. They fail to take account of the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes. They imply the admission that man not only can be but is his own worst and most terrible enemy.

It is entirely possible that war may be waged against us again, as it has been waged against us and other nations within our time, under these concepts and by these weapons. If so, we shall doubtless have to reply in kind, for that may be the price of survival. I still think it vital to our own understanding of what it is we are about that we not fall into the error of initiating, or planning to initiate, the employment of these weapons and concepts, thus hypnotizing ourselves into the belief that they may ultimately serve some positive national purpose. I doubt our ability to hold the respective weapons in our national arsenal, to fit them into our military and political plans, to agree with our allies on the circumstances of their use, and to entertain the prospect of their continued cultivation by our adversaries, without backsliding repeatedly into this dangerous, and possibly mortal, error. In other words, even if we were to conclude today that “first use” would not be advantageous, I would not trust the steadfastness of this outlook in a situation where the shadow of uncontrolled mass destruction weapons continues to lie across the peoples of the world. [Page 40] Measured against this alternative, an imperfect system of international control seems to me less dangerous, and more considerate of those things in international life which are still hopeful.


To ask that these views find general acceptance in this Government is asking a great deal; and the likelihood that this should happen at any early date seems so slight that I am not sure how useful it is to try to spell out what we should do about international control in such a contingency. A few suggestions along this line might serve, however, to show what our problem would still be in such a situation.

Our first task would be to thresh this question out with those nations who have supported our leadership in the U.N.A.E.C. We would have to inform these governments, in discussions as informal and private as they could be made, of the background of our attitude, and to explore with them what might conceivably be acceptable along the lines of the suggestions contained in Section II of this report. If we did not run into difficulty elsewhere, we would almost certainly have difficulty in persuading the British to consider the abolition of large reactors. It is probable that if they could be brought to this point at all, it would only be slowly and after repeated exchanges of views. If they still refused to consider such a possibility, we would quite possibly have to regard ourselves as having come again to the end of our rope in the question of international control. In such a case we would presumably wish to shift responsibility to the British for the failure to make headway in the international control problem. It might then be necessary for us to make some public statement indicating our own willingness to consider solutions which might vary from the present U.K. plan, and explaining why we could go no farther along this line.

If, however, the outcome of consultations with friendly powers (presumably this would be the other members of “the Six” excluding the Soviet Union) indicated a possibility of taking soundings with the Russians, we would then wish to seek some suitable quiet channel of bilateral discussion with Soviet representatives along the lines of the Malik–Jessup talks on the Berlin blockade.4 The exact channel need not be determined until the time comes. It would be desirable that the person conducting the discussions on our side be someone familiar with Soviet psychology and negotiating techniques, and someone whom they will recognize as probably close to the real source of authority in this Government. This person would try to arrange [Page 41] for a leisurely series of informal meetings with some suitable Soviet representative, so interspersed, that there would be plenty of time for reports to governments and for the receipt of governmental guidance between encounters. It would be best, for this purpose, to avoid on both sides the personalities and channels involved in the U.N. discussions to date.

The U.S. representative in such discussions would avoid giving the impression that he was making “new proposals” or was reflecting a change of heart in this Government. He would rather take the part of one who was trying to get to the bottom of Soviet objections to the present plan and to see whether variations could be found which could obviate these objections. He would make it plain that though he was in touch with the highest circles in his government and they were interested in whatever impressions or suggestions he may gather, he was not speaking as a plenipotentiary empowered to make agreements; he could only recommend to his Government; and any consequences which might flow from the conversations would eventually have to find acceptance not only in his Government but in the competent international bodies.

It is realized that these conversations might lead into other fundamental problems of U.S.-Soviet relations, the U.S. position on which would have to be determined in the light of the conditions then prevailing.

In these discussions, the U.S. representative might sound out his Soviet counterpart along the following lines:

a plan which could be temporary, and in the nature of a technical and political modus vivendi, rather than permanent;
complete prohibition of atomic weapons of every sort;
the abandonment of large reactors for this period;
disposition of fissionable materials to be in such a way as to give reasonable assurance against any one-sided advantage by seizure, if and when agreement becomes permanent;
non-dangerous activities to be left in national hands, but only on the condition of complete “openness” of research and development activity;
no international control authority and no veto provisions;
stages so arranged that termination of activity in large reactors, establishment of formal U.N. custody of large reactors and stocks of nuclear fuels, establishment of U.N. supervision over raw material sources, and prohibition of the weapon would all take place simultaneously; and
an inspection system involving:
a complete showdown on existing operations including full accounting and verification of raw materials utilized to date, existing reserve and pipeline stocks, nuclear fuels produced, etc.;
adequate U.N. observation over all known and declared raw material sources and facilities for investigation, and if necessary, observation over all alleged ones;
U.N. supervision of large reactors during deactivization or dismantling stage, followed by periodic observation over sites of such reactors;
complete openness of laboratories for serious scientific visitors on an international scale; and
Periodic observation of non-dangerous activities, plus ad hoc inspections “if there is the slightest hint of a suspicion” of “any illegal activities”.

If these consultations with the Russians indicated that there was any real possibility of agreement on this basis then several steps would, have to follow, the exact order and timing of which cannot be determined in advance:

There would have to be threshed out, interdepartmentally and presumably also in consultations with Congressional leaders, a more detailed guiding line on exactly what this Government could afford to accept in the way of an interim agreement along the above lines;
The other permanent members of the Security Council and Canada would have to be advised of the results of these soundings and their agreement obtained to a basic position to be taken in future international negotiations. This is particularly important in the cases of the U.K. and Canada.
One of these other governments ought to be induced to take the lead in coming forward with proposals along these lines in the appropriate U.N. body.
We would then have to take appropriate measures, based on what should be by then a public realization that we cannot in any event long adhere to the first use policy, to prepare public opinion in this country for the serious possibility of a modification of our position with respect to international control.

In addition to these suggestions as to how we might proceed, it is perhaps useful to record some things which we ought to avoid:

We should avoid appointing any commission of outsiders to restudy the questions of international control prior to the time when we can be sure of some probability of Russian and British acceptance of a new approach; and even then we should not set up such a commission unless the results of its deliberations are reasonably predictable as ones which we can accept and utilize.
We should avoid this time taking the lead publicly with the [Page 43] advancement of a new scheme of international control.** If there is to be a change in our position, let it come as a response to suggestions advanced by others and not as a spontaneous alteration of our existing stand. The essence of our public position should be: “We have told the world what we thought was the best way of controlling atomic energy. We still believe in that, and the U.N. majority plan stands as our preferred proposal for a permanent arrangement. However, the suggestion has now been made of a temporary arrangement, involving the complete deactivization of the large reactors and a moratorium on development of atomic power for peaceful purposes over a given period. We regret the necessity for this; but if it would contribute to world stability—if this is really what it takes to bring an increased feeling of confidence and security to the peoples of the world—we would be prepared to do our part, even though we are the ones who would have to make the greatest sacrifice in effort and investment.”
We should not undertake the discussion of these matters with the Russians in any manner that puts us on the spot before our own public opinion. This rules out a Presidential meeting with Stalin and any other sensational public approach. Anything of this sort would not only create serious problems in our relations with the governments of the other members of the U.N. Commission, but it would produce a tremendous reaction of suspense and anticipation in our own public, which the Russians would know how to exploit to good advantage.
We should avoid connecting publicly our action on the superbomb problem with the subject of international control of atomic energy.


It may be adduced, with regard to the above discussion, that it charts out a course replete with a whole series of difficulties and obstacles and that there is extremely little likelihood, judged by present circumstances, that we would ever successfully make our way to the end of it, which would be an agreement on international control. From this, it may be argued that it could hardly be worthwhile for us to embark upon it.

This is a respectable argument; and if the progress of world events in our time were slower, simpler, and easier to foresee, it might be unanswerable. But St. Paul’s observation that, “We know in part and we prophesy in part”, was never truer than it is of the time ahead of us, particularly in respect to the development of the international situation, the meaning of war and the function of weapons. In such a time there is only one thing a nation can do which can have any [Page 44] really solid and dependable value: and that is to see that the initial lines of its policy are as close as possible to the principles dictated by its traditions and its nature, and that where it is necessary to depart from these lines, people are aware that this is a departure and understand why it is necessary. For this reason, there is value in a clean and straight beginning, even though the road ahead may be torturous and perhaps impassable.

George F. Kennan
  1. Preparation of this report commenced in October 1949, while Kennan was holding simultaneously the positions of Director of the Policy Planning Staff and Counselor. For documentation on consideration by the Policy Planning Staff of the question of international control, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. i, pp. 191 ff. On January 1, 1950, Paul H. Nitze succeeded Kennan as Director of the Policy Planning Staff. Kennan transmitted the present draft to Lucius D. Battle, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, on January 24 under the cover of a memorandum which read as follows: “Since Paul and the others were not entirely in agreement with the substance and since I was afraid that this report might be an embarrassing one to have on record as a formal Staff report, I have re-done this as a personal paper.

    “I recommend to the Secretary’s attention Section VII, pages 63-71, which is new, and is directly along the lines of his conversation of yesterday evening.” The conversation has not been identified.

    The source text consists of 79 typewritten, double-spaced pages. The extracts printed here, Parts II, III, V, VII, VIII, and IX in their entirety, comprise 40 pages of the report. The report is described in George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925–1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), pp. 471–476.

  2. This discussion of “peaceful uses” is meant to apply only to such peaceful uses as would require large reactors, producing dangerous amounts of nuclear fuel. It is not meant to apply to reactors, like the Oak Ridge pile in our country, producing isotopes for use in research and in medicine. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. A Road to Atomic Peace, by Cuthbert Daniel and Arthur M. Squires; the Christian Century foundation, Chicago, 1949. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. James R. Newman, former Counsel to the McMahon Committee, whose views were set forth in a broadcast over ABC on October 26, 1949, and summed up, without attribution in the lead editorial of The New Republic, Vol. 121, No. 19, Issue 1823, November 7, 1949. [Footnote in the source text.]
  5. The Russians are specific in naming the question of the operation of an international authority in the Soviet Union “… a question of substance … a fundamental point …” (Vyshinski’s speech of November 10, 1949, before the United Nations. Assembly). [Footnote in the source text. Reference is to the address by Soviet representative Vyshinsky at the 33rd meeting of the Ad Hoc political Committee of the General Assembly, November 10, 1949; for the record of his remarks, see United Nations, Official Records of the General Assembly, Fourth Session, Ad Hoc Political Committee (hereafter cited as GA(IV), Ad Hoc Political Committee), pp. 186–189.]
  6. “A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy”, Washington, D.C., March 16, 1946; Department of State Publication 2498, pp. 15–16. [Footnote in the source text.]
  7. The concept of a temporary rather than a permanent agreement is not a new one. In the discussion of the control problem by W. T. R. Fox, in the volume The Atomic Weapon (Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1946) which was one of the first comprehensive private treatises on this problem, contained the following passage:

    “Top priority, must, today be given to the transitional problem of keeping the future open until men can make the fundamental adaptation necessary to civilized life in the atomic era. It cannot be too strongly reiterated that ‘permanent’ solutions which risk atomic war now in order to have permanent peace later are no solutions.” [Footnote in the source text.]

  8. Third Report of the UNAEC to the Security Council, May 17, 1948, Part I (State Department Publication 3179, p. 3). [Footnote in the source text.]
  9. Note the passage from the Acheson–Lilienthal report; “… Once the plan is fully in operation it will afford a great measure of security against surprise attack; it will provide clear danger signals and give us time, if we take over the available facilities, to prepare for atomic warfare. The significant fact is that at all times during the transition period at least such facilities will continue to be located within the United States.…” (“A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy”, op. cit., p. 50). [Footnote in the source text.]
  10. U.N. Document A/Permanent Members AEC/SR.9, October 24, 1949, p. 3.
  11. See footnote 17. [Footnote in the source text. Reference is to the address by Bernard M. Baruch, United States Representative at the First Meeting of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, June 14, 1946, in New York. For text, see United Nations, Official Records of the Atomic Energy Commission, First Year, Plenary Meetings (hereafter cited as AEC, 1st yr., Plenary), pp. 4–14, or Department of State Bulletin, June 23, 1946, pp. 1057–1062. For documentation on United States proposals during 1946 regarding the international control of atomic energy, see Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. i, pp. 712 ff.]
  12. It is interesting to note that neither Squires and Daniel nor Newman considered their ideas likely of acceptance by the Russians. [Footnote in the source text.]
  13. Telegram 2406, September 25, 1949, from the American Embassy in Moscow to the Department of State. [Footnote in the source text. For text of telegram under reference, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. v, p. 656.]
  14. US/C/AC.31/238, p. 18. [Footnote in the source text. For the record of Vyshinsky’s address at the 33rd Meeting of the Ad Hoc Political Committee, November 10, 1949, see GA(IV), Ad Hoc Political Committee, pp. 186–189.]
  15. Note that the Soviets claim that their aim in developing the bomb is only to have “enough” for purposes of retaliation. Vyshinski, in his speech before the U.N. Assembly on November 10, 1949, said: “We in the Soviet Union are utilizing atomic energy, but hot in order to stockpile atomic bombs—although I am convinced that if, unfortunately and to our great regret, this were necessary, we should have as many of these as we need—no more and no less.” [Footnote in the source text. GA(IV), Ad Hoc Political Committee, p. 188.]
  16. For documentation on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, see vol. iii, pp. 1 ff.
  17. See footnote no. 39, p. 30. [Footnote in the source text. The footnote under reference cites The National Defense Program—Unification and Strategy: Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States House of Representatives (81st Cong., 1st sess.), p. 319. The hearings occurred during October 1949. The particular quotation appeared in an article by General Omar N. Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reprinted in the hearings from the Saturday Evening Post, October 15, 1949.]
  18. Documentation on United States policy with respect to Germany and on U.S. policy with respect to Austria is scheduled for publication in volume iv.
  19. From “Troilus and Cressida”. [Footnote in the source text.]
  20. For documentation on conversations between Ambassador at Large Philip C. Jessup and Yakov A. Malik, Permanent Soviet Representative at the United Nations, March 15–May 4, 1949, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. iii, pp. 694 ff.
  21. Such a system would be along the lines recommended in the report issued in February, 1946, by the Committee on Atomic Energy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, entitled: “A Conference Report on International inspection of Radioactive Mineral Production”. This report attached importance to an initial “complete revelation” on raw materials, which, its authors felt, would “make the following phases more or less routine”. [Footnote in the source text.]
  22. Vyshinski’s speech, November 12, 1949. [Footnote in the source text. For the record of this address, see GA(IV), Ad Hoc Political Committee, pp. 207–210.]
  23. Interesting, from the standpoint of informed outside opinion, is the following passage from a private letter addressed to the Director of the Staff by one of the most prominent of the government’s scientific consultants on atomic energy matters: “It seems to me that the time for plans, proposals and systems unilaterally offered by our Government is past, if it ever existed; and if we ever again come up with a set of proposals, it should be on the basis of some prior agreement.” [Footnote in the source text. For the letter under reference, from Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Kennan, November 17, 1949, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. i, p. 222.]