PPS Files, Lot 64 D 563

Memorandum by Mr. Carlton Savage, Member of the Policy Planning Staff 1

top secret

Possibilities of War With the Soviet Union, 1951–52: Use of Atomic Weapons

The atomic weapon is in some respects just another weapon, but its destruction of life and property is so extensive and its psychological and political impact so great that it is unlikely to be used except in global war. The use of the atomic weapon by either the United States or the Soviet Union would foreshadow global war or follow upon its initiation. It is inconceivable that there would be global war without its use, at least during the next two years, because the Soviet Union has such a preponderance in conventional weapons we would need it to have any possibility of winning.

The United States is the only nation ever to use atomic weapons in war. When we used them, no other nation had them and consequently there was no possibility of retaliation in kind. Now with atomic weapons in the possession of the Soviet Union, if we use them, they will almost certainly be used against us, with the possibility of extensive civilian casualties and much of our industrial plant damaged. Furthermore, our allies would be likely targets for atomic attack, particularly those in whose territory we have air base rights.

We are aware that the decision to use atomic weapons is a fateful responsibility. We shall enter into war with the Soviet Union with the consequent use of atomic weapons only if our vital security interests are threatened, only if Soviet action presents an unacceptable threat to our existence as a free nation and to the existence of other free nations.

It is of course essential that U.S. public opinion be behind the Government in a global (atomic) war, not only for support in the war effort but because civilians in the United States will face unprecedented hardships and destruction. For like reasons, it is also of incalculable importance that public opinion in allied countries be with us. The measure of support at home and abroad will depend on the extent to which it is realized that we have entered into global war only as a consequence of Soviet action which presents an unacceptable menace to free nations.

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The moral aspect of the use of atomic weapons was touched upon during the 1950 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. A move by the Soviet Union to secure approval of a resolution which would brand the first user of atomic weapons as a war criminal was overwhelmingly defeated. The General Assembly instead passed a resolution of November 17 stating that “whatever the weapons used, any aggression . . . is the gravest of all crimes against peace and security throughout the world.” With that resolution we are in agreement. This does not mean that we would use atomic weapons indiscriminately. We would make every effort to avoid needless destruction of civilians both from a humanitarian point of view and also to keep from alienating the support of Russians who might be hostile to the Kremlin and who might be induced to engage in active or passive resistance against it. We must realize, however, that most appropriate atomic targets, except tactical, are in or near large cities and therefore extensive loss of civilian life may be unavoidable.

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 the atomic weapon rests primarily with the Secretary of State. To the extent that time permitted, the President would doubtless consult with Congressional leaders before a decision to use atomic weapons was implemented. With an enemy having a stock of atomic bombs available, we cannot expect a Congressional debate on whether there shall be a declaration of a state of war as there was in 1917, because of the notice it would give the enemy.

There are no U.S. commitments to other governments limiting the President’s freedom of action to order the use of 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. This has been informally extended to apply also to the Canadians. As we should need to use British and Canadian bases for atomic strikes in case of global war, we should keep in touch with the British and Canadians concerning respective estimates of existing and developing situations which might call for the use of atomic weapons. In the letter and spirit of the communiqué of December 8, our discussions with them should be directed toward the broader problem of “developments” which would bring about general war, thus subordinating the atomic problem. The discussions should help form a common view as to what conditions and situations would compel the three nations to accept a Soviet challenge of war. Through these discussions we should have established machinery and tentative conclusions [Page 836] which would help in determining the implications for the three nations of menaces that might develop. If we can identify situations of common menace, common action should follow. It can generally be assumed that the vital security interests of the United Kingdom and Canada are akin to those of the United States; that developments which would jeopardize the survival of one as a free nation would likewise jeopardize the others.

The atomic weapon stands today as a principal deterrent to war. The Kremlin must be convinced that our stockpile is many times greater than theirs. Realizing that we have a fleet of effective long-range bombers and that we have the use of air bases enabling these bombers to reach any part of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin knows that in spite of the defenses it may develop, a large number of atomic bombs would reach their destination in Soviet territory. The people of the Soviet Union, in the face of a devastating atomic attack, would realize that their Government was unable to protect them from huge loss of life and property. This possibility, together with the possibility that atomic war would seriously damage the apparatus of the Kremlin’s dictatorship, must make the Kremlin realize that such a war would jeopardize its chance of retaining absolute power in the Soviet Union and in the areas now under its control. Even though the Soviet Union would inflict great damage on the United States in an atomic attack now and greater damage as its stockpile increases, our ever-present retaliatory threat is making the Kremlin careful to avoid any move which it believes might bring on global war and consequent atomic devastation to the Soviet Union.

There has been a suggestion that before we use atomic weapons and if possible before the Soviet Union commits itself to any action which we should have to regard as a casus belli, the Kremlin should be presented an ultimatum giving it an opportunity to withdraw from the situation it is creating. Such an ultimatum would be in effect a statement to the Soviet Union that if it did not do as requested, we would enter into a state of war against it. If the President should issue such an ultimatum he could be considered to be trespassing on the Constitutional prerogative of the Congress to declare war. Although he might be able to meet the spirit and intent of the Constitution by consulting with Congressional leaders before issuing the ultimatum, this procedure is not well suited to our form of government. Furthermore, as mentioned in the immediately preceding paragraph, the mere existence of our stockpile is a constant warning to the Soviet Union to weigh carefully any move it might make which would bring on global war and consequent atomic devastation. This so-called warning could be supplemented from time to time by such statements as [Page 837] that by the President of July 19, 1950, that those who have it in their power to unleash or withhold acts of armed aggression must realize that “new recourse to aggression in the world today might well strain to the breaking point the fabric of world peace.”2 There could also be diplomatic representations to the Soviet Union along this same line.

This argument does not necessarily mean that we should never resort to the device of an ultimatum, but that we are unlikely to find it feasible or desirable.

If the Kremlin decides on general war, it may attempt to force us to take the initiative against the Soviet Union, as this course would not only strengthen the will to resist of the Russian people but would also confuse public opinion in the West to an extent that might even split the Atlantic alliance. In such a situation we would doubtless be placed in a position where we would use atomic weapons before they were used by the Soviet Union. But we must also be prepared for the fact that the Soviet Union may use atomic bombs against us in a surprise attack. The advantage of surprise to the Kremlin could outweigh from its point of view the advantages which would accrue to it by putting us in a position where we would use atomic weapons first. We can be sure that the Kremlin would never hesitate in first use of atomic weapons, if such a course would fit its design, in spite of all its propaganda for branding as a war criminal the nation first to use atomic weapons.

Atlantic Treaty. In considering the situations under which this Treaty would become operative, it should be borne 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 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. 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.

A Soviet armed attack on the territory of the United States would leave no doubt of Soviet intent. In the ensuing war, the existence of which would be declared by the Congress, we would of course use atomic weapons. Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty would become operative, [Page 838] under which, an armed attack against one or more of the parties in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. 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.” The armed attack and all measures taken as a consequence would be reported immediately to the United Nations, according to the terms of the Treaty.

Article 5 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. In these three categories there are innumerable contingencies under which the Atlantic Treaty might come into operation. However, it is implicit that the Parties are free to determine in any case of attack whether the attack is within the contemplation of the Treaty. Obviously certain acts might be regarded as border incidents; retaliatory acts; or punitive acts, as when the Soviet forces shot down the American plane in the Baltic, and Article 5 would not become operative. The circumstances of the attack might leave no doubt of Soviet intent, as for instance an air strike on Britain, and Article 5 would apply. A state of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would undoubtedly be declared to exist by the Congress, and we would use atomic weapons.

Finnmark. In case of Soviet armed penetration into this area of Norway, which clearly amounted to the opening move in a general conflict, Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty would become operative and there would doubtless be a Congressional declaration of a state of war. If the Soviet move were less than this, there would be occasion for consultation under Article 4 of the Atlantic Treaty which provides that the Parties will consult together whenever the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of them is threatened. Furthermore, the case should be brought before the United Nations. Simultaneously, there would be localized military action by non-atomic means to deal with this aggression.

Bornholm. Soviet occupation of this Danish island, if clearly an isolated Soviet action, would call for consultation under Article 4 of the Atlantic Treaty, and this case of aggression would be brought before the United Nations.

Germany. A Soviet attack on Berlin, or any part of West Germany, would almost certainly amount to an attack on American, British, or French occupation forces. In fact, the Foreign Ministers of these three [Page 839] countries announced in a September 1950 communiqué that their Governments would treat an attack against the Federal Republic or Berlin from any quarter as an attack upon themselves. Whether we would use atomic weapons against the Soviet Union in this instance would depend on whether we judge the Soviet act to mean that general war was forced upon us. If so, Congress would doubtless declare the existence of a state of war, and we would use atomic weapons against the Soviet Union and possibly on Soviet troop concentrations and other appropriate targets in Germany, Poland and other satellites. But if the Soviet attack appeared to be purely local, our troops would make a stand with non-atomic weapons and we would endeavor to keep the conflict localized. In either event the relevant portions of the North Atlantic Treaty would come into effect, and the case would be presented to the United Nations.

Austria. In case of a Soviet attack on Austria, the situation would be similar to that resulting from an attack on Germany, except that the allies have taken no public position on Austria as they did in the 1950 communiqué on Germany.

Finland. This country does not constitute a strategically vital area and a Soviet attack on it alone would not be a valid cause for global war. The case would however, be presented to the United Nations. We should take a vigorous stand against this Soviet aggression which if unchallenged would embolden the Kremlin to make further aggressive moves.

Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey. These three states are of great importance to us in the struggle against Soviet imperialism. They constitute a formidable bastion against aggression in the eastern Mediterranean area. Their combined military strength in being is greater now than that of all the European members of the Atlantic Alliance. Furthermore, if war is forced upon us we may desire from their area to mount an offensive against the Soviet Union.

A satellite attack on Yugoslavia would clearly increase the likelihood of global war. We would furnish military equipment to Yugoslavia, and possibly military (air) support. In case of a satellite attack alone or with covert Soviet assistance, the conflict might be kept localized. We would probably not make atomic or other attacks on Soviet territory. Although there would be appropriate atomic targets in Czechoslovakia and Rumania, we might, but probably would not, use atomic weapons against them. In case of a Soviet and satellite attack on Yugoslavia global war would probably eventuate. Thereupon we would use atomic weapons on Soviet, and possibly satellite targets. The important question in these instances would be localization or generalization of conflict; the use of atomic weapons would depend largely on the answer to this question. In these cases there [Page 840] would probably be consultations under Article 4 of the Atlantic Treaty, and the issue would be presented to the United Nations.

In the event of an attack on Greece, the situation would be similar to that arising from an attack on Yugoslavia. However, our military and political reactions in this case might be more vigorous as Greece is a non-communist country, is culturally and politically aligned with the West, and is closely associated with the United States as a consequence of our economic and military aid programs of the past four years.

Aggression against Turkey would most likely take the form of outright Soviet attack, as there are no satellites convenient for the purpose. All-out Soviet attack would almost certainly result in global war. In this event, Congress would doubtless declare its existence, and we would use atomic weapons. In case Soviet military action against Turkey was of a limited nature, we would furnish military equipment to Turkey and possibly some military support. We would endeavor to keep the conflict localized, and as long as there was hope of this we would not enter into a state of war or use atomic weapons. At the moment of the initial Soviet attack on Turkey, all-out or limited, the case would be presented to the United Nations and there would be consultations under Article 4 of the Atlantic Treaty.

Iran. An outright Soviet military attack on Iran is unlikely. The most likely form of Soviet aggression here is some sort of political subversion or the entrance of Soviet military forces into Iran as a consequence of British military action to protect nationals in the petroleum area. We would endeavor by all appropriate means to keep the conflict localized, including the presentation of the case to the United Nations. We should only resort to the use of atomic weapons against the Soviet Union in the event that global war proved to be unavoidable.

Afghanistan. This country does not constitute a strategically vital area and a Soviet attack on it alone would not be a valid cause for global war. The case would however, be presented to the United Nations. We should take a vigorous stand against this Soviet aggression which if unchallenged would embolden the Kremlin to make further aggressive moves.

Cumulative Aggressions. The above possibilities of aggression have been treated separately. There is always the possibility, however, of a series of Soviet and satellite peripheral aggressions, any one of which might not be serious enough to set off global war but the combined effect of which might make it unavoidable and consequently call for the use of atomic weapons.

The Far East. This area will be discussed later in a supplement to this paper.

  1. The following note from Nitze to Matthews, dated May 25, accompanies the source text: “The attached memorandum has been prepared as possible background for the meeting this afternoon with Ambassador Wrong. I have not yet had an opportunity to go over it but it has been gone over by Mr. Arneson and embodies some of his suggestions. We have not yet consulted with the Military concerning it, therefore it must be considered a tentative draft.” For the record of the meeting with Ambassador Wrong, see infra.
  2. This statement appears in the President’s Special Message to the Congress Reporting on the Situation in Korea, July 19, 1950; for text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1950, pp. 527–537.