PPS Files, Lot 64 D 5631

Paper Prepared by Mr. Carlton Savage, Member of the Policy Planning Staff2

top secret

Circumstances Under Which the United States Would Be at War With the Soviet Union: Use of Atomic Weapons

Atomic Weapons. The joint communiqué of December 8, 1950, states that President Truman told Prime Minister Attlee it was his desire to keep the Prime Minister informed at all times of developments which might call for the use of atomic weapons.3 This has been informally extended to apply also to the Canadians.4

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There is no other existing U.S. understanding with foreign governments respecting the use of atomic weapons; the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy has been informed that there are no commitments to other governments limiting the President’s freedom to order the use of atomic weapons. There is unanimous agreement in this Government that the President’s authority to order the use of atomic weapons whenever this action is considered necessary, should be in no way limited by commitments to others.

By statute the power to decide on the use of atomic weapons rests with the President. Responsibility for advising the President as to the military desirability of use rests primarily with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Responsibility for advising the President as to the political effects of the use of atomic weapons rests primarily with the Secretary of State.

The statement in the joint communiqué of December 8 does not bind the President to obtain prior British agreement to their use. It does not even bind us to consult with Britain concerning their use. But it does indicate the President’s desire to keep Britain informed “at all times” of developments which might call for the use of atomic weapons. In other words, we should keep in continuous touch with the British concerning respective estimates of existing and developing situations which might call for their use, but we must make no commitments whatever restricting the President’s freedom to order their use.

While the atomic weapon is in some respects just another weapon in our national arsenal, its psychological impact is so great that use of it would doubtless precipitate general war, if war were not already under way. We are unlikely to use it, therefore, unless the vital security interests of the United States compel us to enter into general war with the Soviet Union. Any possible exceptions will be discussed below.

If we accept the thesis that we are unlikely to use atomic weapons except in case of general war we should, in the letter and spirit of the statement of December 8, direct discussions with the British toward the broader problem of “developments” which would bring about general war, thus subordinating the atomic problem. It can generally be assumed that the vital security interests of the United Kingdom are akin to those of the United States; that developments which would jeopardize the survival of one country as a free nation would likewise jeopardize the other. The discussions should help form a common view as to what conditions and situations would compel the two nations to accept a Soviet challenge of war. These are set out in the following paragraphs.

Acts of Force and State of War. In considering this subject it is well to bear in mind that force may be employed by one nation against another, and yet no state of war be declared. We are engaged in large-scale [Page 816] military operations against Chinese communist forces in Korea, but we are not attacking the China mainland and a state of war has not been declared between the United States and China. There can also be isolated acts of force, which do not necessarily produce a state of war. An example is the shooting down of an American naval plane in the Baltic by Soviet airmen.4 In brief, acts of force do not bring about a state of war unless a government commits them with the intent of war or the government against which they are directed elects to consider them as bringing it about. The intent of the parties is the determining factor.

Atlantic Treaty. In case of a Soviet armed attack on the territory of the United States there would be no question of the intent of the attackers, and the existence of a state of war would be declared immediately by the Congress as in the case of the Japanese assault at Pearl Harbor. We would use all weapons at our disposal including; atomic bombs. We would not fight alone in this situation, as Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty would become operative. Each of the other signatories would be committed to “assist” the United States by taking “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty would also become operative: (1) in case of a Soviet attack on the territory of Canada or a European party to the Treaty; (2) in case of a Soviet attack on American, British, or French occupation forces in Germany or Austria and on American or British forces in Trieste; and (3) in case of a Soviet attack on vessels or aircraft in the North Atlantic area of any of the signatories. However, it is implicit that the aggrieved parties are free to determine in any case of alleged attack whether the attack is within the contemplation of the Treaty. Obviously certain acts might be regarded as border incidents; or punitive acts, as when the Soviet forces shot down the American plane in the Baltic. If the circumstances of the attack left no doubt that it came within the terms of the Treaty, a state of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would undoubtedly be declared by the Congress, and we would use all weapons in our arsenal including atomic bombs.

There are, as indicated above, innumerable contingencies under which a Soviet attack could bring the Atlantic Treaty into operation. A Soviet air attack on Britain or the launching of an extensive Soviet military attack in Germany are examples. On the other hand, there are possibilities of Soviet punitive or retaliatory acts or “border incidents” which would be identifiable as such and would not make the [Page 817] Treaty operative. The important question would be whether the Soviet act was such as to make the Treaty operative, and not the subordinate question whether the United States should resort to the use of atomic weapons.

Berlin. The Foreign Ministers of the United States, Great Britain and France agreed on September 19, 1950,5 that their governments should take the following steps to maintain their position in Berlin: (1) reaffirm that counter-blockade measures against Soviet interference with Berlin transport would be taken; (2) request the North Atlantic Treaty countries to cooperate in such counter-blockade action; (3) in the event of an armed attack from whatever source, defend Berlin by force, bring the relevant portion of the North Atlantic Treaty into effect, and present the issue to the United Nations.

It is difficult to visualize a Soviet attack in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, that would not constitute an attack on American, British, or French occupation forces. This act would presumably come within the contemplation of the Atlantic Treaty, if it were not a mere punitive act by Soviet forces. Whether we would use atomic weapons against the U.S.S.R. in this instance would depend on whether we thought general war was forced upon us. If we did, we would use atomic weapons against the Soviet Union and possibly against Soviet troop concentrations and bases in East Germany and Poland. But if the Soviet act appeared to be punitive in nature, it is possible that the conflict would be kept localized and we would refrain from using atomic weapons.

An NSC paper is now being prepared on U.S. policy with regard to a possible new Berlin blockade.6

Vienna. It has been tentatively determined in NSC 73/4 of August 25, 1950,7 that if the Soviet Union should impose a blockade of Vienna the establishment of a full-scale airlift would be militarily unsound and impracticable under existing conditions; and that the United States should implement existing policy to the extent feasible, utilizing a partial airlift to be established by the United States, United Kingdom and any other nations able and willing to contribute.

In the event of a Soviet armed attack on any of the Western occupation forces in Vienna, the situation would be essentially as discussed above in paragraph 2 under “Berlin”.

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Greece. It has been determined in NSC 103/1, approved by the President on February 15, 1951,8 that a Soviet or satellite attack against Greece would threaten U.S. security interests and so increase the danger of global war that the U.S. should assist in opposition to the attack in the manner and scope to be determined in the light of circumstances at the time, including the following general courses of action: (1) place itself in the best possible position to meet the increased threat of global war; (2) seek, by political measures to stop aggression, localize the action, and restore the status quo; (3) provide such military materiel and deploy such forces to the general area as can appropriately be made available without jeopardizing the security of the United States or areas of greater strategic importance to the United States; (4) urge other nations to take similar action, including appropriate measures in the U.N. and N.A.T.O.

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Turkey.9 In the event of a Soviet attack against Turkey, it has been tentatively determined in NSC 73/4 that the United States should provide accelerated military assistance to Turkey and deploy such U.S. forces to its support as can be made available without jeopardizing our national security. Furthermore, we should urge Britain and France to give full support under the Anglo-French-Turkish Mutual Assistance Pact, and make every effort to obtain the support of Turkey by the Moslem world. This consideration would presumably apply in the case also of a satellite attack.

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Iran. It has been determined in NSC 107, approved by the President March 24, 1951,10 that in case of overt attack by organized Soviet military forces against Iran, the United States would have to proceed on the assumption “that global war is probably imminent” and immediately: (1) seek, by political measures, to localize the action, to stop the aggression, to restore the status quo, and by direct diplomatic action and resort to the U.N., to insure free world unity if war nevertheless follows; (2) consider a direct approach to the highest Soviet leaders; (3) place itself in the best possible position to meet the increased threat of global war; (4) consult with selected allies to perfect coordination in plans; (5) while minimizing U.S. military commitments in areas of little strategic significance, take action in this critical area best contributing to the implementation of U.S. national war plans.

There would be no Soviet satellites involved in this situation. If the United States attacked Soviet military forces in Iran or Soviet [Page 819] territory with either conventional or atomic weapons this would probably mean the inception of global war.

Japan, Korea and Communist China.11 In case of a Soviet attack on Japan or an overt Soviet attack upon U.S. forces in Korea, the United States undoubtedly would react by taking military action against the Soviet Union. Whether we would attack Soviet forces and territory in the Far East alone, in order to keep the conflict localized, or in Europe as well, would depend on the circumstances of the time. If we should feel there was a possibility of keeping the conflict localized we would probably not use the atomic weapons; otherwise, we almost certainly would.

It is the policy of the United States not to permit itself to become engaged in a general war with communist China. However, in case of a substantial Chinese communist air attack on U.S. forces in Korea, or in case of a Chinese communist attack on U.S. forces in the Formosa, area or anywhere else along the China periphery, the United States would probably launch an air attack and possibly undertake naval operations against some part of the mainland of China. Atomic weapons would probably not be used as there are almost no appropriate atomic targets in China, except possibly three or four in Manchuria, and to use them would help unite the Chinese people against the United States. The U.S. attack on China might well bring the Soviet Union to. the assistance of communist China under the terms of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Alliance.12 Whether we would thereupon attack Soviet forces and territory in the Far East alone, in order to keep the conflict localized, or in Europe as well, would depend on the circumstances of the time.

In case it might be possible to keep the conflict localized in any of these instances, The Congress would probably not declare the existence of a state of war; otherwise, it almost certainly would. We would have no allies committed to come to our assistance. If as a consequence of our attacking the Soviet Union, Soviet air attacks were made on the United States the Atlantic Treaty signatories might conclude that they were not obligated to come to our assistance by furnishing military aid and base facilities, because the Soviet attack was in retaliation for U.S. action.

Conclusions. The above contingencies are some of those which might arise to bring about general war. There may be variations of these; there may be others; and there may be “fuzzed-up” situations, such as the employment of Soviet “volunteers” in Korea. Furthermore, there [Page 820] is a possibility of a series of Soviet and satellite peripheral attacks, any one of which might not be serious enough to set off general war but the combined effect of which might make it unavoidable. While we cannot beforehand predict the precise nature of situations which may arise, through the continuing discussions with the British, we shall have established machinery and tentative conclusions which should help in determining the implications for our two countries of menaces that may develop.

In discussions with the British we must make no commitments restricting the freedom of the United States to use atomic weapons whenever we consider their use necessary. In turn, we can expect no British commitment, beyond that contained in the Atlantic Treaty, to go to war with us against the Soviet Union in future contingencies. What we can hope to do by continuing discussions is to identify situations of common menace to the security of the two nations. If we can do this, common action should follow.

  1. Files of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, 1947–1953.
  2. The following note from Savage to Paul H. Nitze, Director of the Policy Planning Staff, is attached to the source text: “This redraft was made after you gave your views to John Davies and me. I hope it includes all the points you mentioned.” John Paton Davies was also a member of the Policy Planning Staff.
  3. Documentation on the conversations between President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee, December 4–8, 1950, is presented in Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. iii, pp. 1698 ff. For text of the Joint Communiqué of December 8, 1950, see Department of State Bulletin, December 18, 1950, pp. 959–961.
  4. The State Department informed the Canadian Embassy on December 9, 1950, that the Canadian Government was in this respect in the same position as the United Kingdom Government. This assurance was recorded in an Agreed Minute of June 14, 1951, prepared by the Canadian Embassy and approved by Secretary of State Acheson and Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson (p. 853); no other record has been found in the Department of State files. The assurance was made in response to a Canadian memorandum, “Views of Canadian Government on Possible Use of Atomic Weapons in the Far East,” December 6, 1950, not printed, which stated Canada’s opposition to the use of atomic weapons in the Korean conflict. The memorandum asserted that the Canadian Government had a particular interest in the matter because of Canada’s participation, with the United States and the United Kingdom, in tripartite cooperation for the development of resources and scientific knowledge relating to atomic energy; and urged that “before a decision of such immense and awful consequence, for all of us, is taken, there should be consultation among the governments principally concerned.” (S/AE Files, Lot 68 D 358)
  5. For information on this incident, which occurred on April 8, 1950, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. iv, pp. 1140 ff.
  6. For documentation on the meetings of the Foreign Ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France at New York, September 12–19, 1950, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. iii, pp. 1108 ff.
  7. For documentation on United States interest in the question of Berlin, see vol. iii, pp. 1828 ff.
  8. For text of NSC 73/4, a report titled “The Position and Actions of the United States With Respect to Possible Further Soviet Moves in the Light of the Korean Situation.” August 25, 1950, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. i, p. 375. For specific documentation on the Soviet threat to Vienna, see ibid., vol. iv, pp. 367 ff.
  9. For text of NSC 103/1, “The Position of the United States With Respect to Greece,” a report of February 14, 1951, see volume v .
  10. For documentation on U.S. relations with Turkey, see ibid.
  11. For text of NSC 107, “The Position of the United States With Respect to Iran,” a report of March 14, 1951, see ibid.
  12. For documentation on U.S. concern regarding the possibility of the outbreak of general war in the Far East, see vol. vi, Part 1, pp. 777 ff. and volume vii.
  13. For text of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance between the USSR and the Chinese People’s Republic, signed at Moscow on February 14, 1950, see United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS), vol. 226, pp. 5–9 and 12–17, or American Foreign Policy, 1950–1955: Basic Documents (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1957), vol. ii, pp. 2463–2465.