PPS Files, Lot 64 D 563

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State ( Arneson )

top secret

Subject: Possibilities of War with the Soviet Union 1951–52: Use of Atomic Weapons

Participants: United States
Secretary Acheson
Mr. Matthews, Deputy Under Secretary
Mr. Nitze, Director, Policy Planning Staff
Mr. Arneson, S/AE
Foreign Minister Pearson
Ambassador Wrong
Mr. Ignatieff, Counselor of Embassy
Mr. Douglas LePan, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for External Affairs

1. Procedures

The Foreign Minister said that the Canadian Government intended to cooperate with the United States to the fullest possible extent in all matters relating to the common defense. Canada recognizes that under NATO the United States has been given responsibility for the strategic air offensive in the event of war and it was Canada’s intention to lend every possible assistance in facilitating the carrying out of this responsibility. He went on to say, however, that for political reasons it was essential that Canada reserve its position as to the use of her territory for such purposes. He hoped, therefore, that the United States would be in a position to agree to the procedures which had been arrived at in [Page 846] recent discussions, for these procedures would make it much easier politically for Canada to give full cooperation in the event the necessity arises for the use of atomic weapons. As to the method whereby the understanding as to procedures could be recorded, he was quite prepared to do this in the most informal way possible. He did not feel that it was necessary to initial a paper on the matter, but he felt it would be important for Ottawa and the Embassy here to have on record their understanding of the present arrangements. It was suggested that he might read the note that the Embassy had prepared on this matter and that the Secretary might indicate whether it seemed to be all right to him. Before commenting on the note after Mr. Pearson had read it, The Secretary inquired of Mr. Arneson whether it would be necessary for him to check the matter further with Secretary Marshall or with the President. When Mr. Arneson said he thought not and Mr. Matthews pointed out that these procedures were indeed already in effect, Mr. Acheson stated that the notes which the Canadians had prepared on the subject seemed to be all right to him. (See attachment)

2. Agreement on Basic Approach to Problem

The Canadian Ambassador stated that the views which had been expressed by Mr. Nitze at the last meeting1 met with a good deal of agreement on the part of the Canadian Government, particularly the general assumptions made and the basic philosophy on which the analysis was grounded. There were some questions which it was thought desirable to discuss, however, and some aspects of the problem on which there was clearly need for additional thought.

3. International Control of Atomic Energy 2

The first point which came to mind was what our position should be with respect to negotiations on international control of atomic energy. There was a seeming inconsistency between building up strength in this field while at the same time seeking to disarm ourselves of this weapon by international agreement. The question, therefore, was whether we wished to continue to press for international control, if and as opportunities arose. Mr. Pearson pointed out that they were under some domestic attack in Canada for seeming to place much greater reliance on atomic armament than on international control. Would it be better, therefore, to drop all attempts at negotiations or should we press for agreement? Mr. Nitze responded that the United States saw no inconsistency between building atomic strength while being prepared to negotiate international control. This was for the very elemental reason that in the United States view Soviet acceptance of effective international control could be brought about only by a very fundamental change in the Soviet system and [Page 847] that if such change were brought about it would result in the willingness on the part of the Soviets not only to accept international control but regulation and reduction of conventional armaments as well. Mr. Pearson wanted to know if we would support any new proposals in the United Nations. Mr. Acheson expressed the view that we should follow the line which had recently been established of working toward a merger of the systems of control for atomic energy and for the regulation and reduction of conventional armaments. He felt that this was the realistic line to follow and other approaches of a different sort would only be confusing. Mr. Nitze pointed out that it was exceedingly difficult to see how, in the light of existing political tensions, e.g. aggression in Korea, and other Soviet pressures around the world, there was any real likelihood of any Soviet intent to negotiate seriously on atomic energy control proposals. Mr. Pearson expressed concern that the Soviet peace campaign3 had made a good deal of progress in Canada and that it would be desirable when possible for the Western powers to seize the initiative on disarmament questions.

4. Assessment of Soviet Motivations

Mr. Wrong recalled that at the previous meeting a good deal of the analysis was based on the assumption of provocative Soviet actions. He inquired whether situations might not arise in which Western actions might be deemed by the Soviets to be so provocative as to be a casus belli. He cited for example the establishment of bases in Turkey, the rearmament of Japan or of Germany. Mr. Nitze responded that such danger had existed for at least the past two years. There was always a danger that the balance might be tipped at any time. However, the United States had felt that it was essential that the Western world build its strength and take what measures were necessary to this end, hoping always to avoid being provocative about it. It was felt that the risk of provocation had to be taken, otherwise we were defeated before we started. Mr. Pearson commented that in substance the situation was that we were forced to take provocative measures in as unprovocative a way as possible. He alluded to the difficulty of divining the Soviet mind and the danger of overstepping the mark through lack of adequate knowledge of the Kremlin’s thought processes. The Secretary said that we had constantly been aware of the great danger that lay in any program of build-up in the sense that the Soviet Union might feel it would be impelled to take vigorous counteraction. Mr. Wrong inquired whether the United States held the view that the inevitability of war was a basic Soviet tenet. Mr. Nitze responded that we did not. He went on to say that while the Soviets might consider that their actions would inevitably bring a belligerent [Page 848] response on the part of the Western world there appeared to be considerable reason to believe that the Soviet system is a dynamic one capable of fitting its actions to new appraisals of new situations. Mr. Pearson said that perhaps the best summation of the matter would be to say that Marxism believes in the inevitability of conflict but not in the inevitability of war. He said he was reminded of a comment he had heard in the United Nations from an Arab delegate who remarked that in the Arab world one did not cut a man’s throat while giving him poison. Mr. Acheson remarked that he was baffled by the inner compulsion of the Soviets continually to apply aggressive pressure. He said he would have thought that, in the light of its conviction that the Western world will fall of its own weight in due course, the Soviets would take the line of letting matters simmer for a generation or so after which they could take over completely. Mr. Pearson commented that dictatorships appear to require hate campaigns in order to keep their subjects in line.

5. United States Views on Inevitability of War

Mr. Pearson said there was a considerable body of opinion in Canada which was based not upon official pronouncements in the United States but rather on the tenor of press and radio and statements of various public figures, that the United States has come to accept the inevitability of war and is, accordingly, launched upon a program to build up strength, not to win the peace but to win the war. Mr. Acheson pointed out that foreign observers would find a good deal of evidence for this conclusion in our public press and radio and in the speeches of various public figures. Although such evidence exists, he said the conclusion was not true. He explained that there is a vicious group of individuals active in this country who are intent on tearing down the structure of government in order that they might take over. They have this objective even though to succeed would mean that they would inherit a ruin. Not only Senator McCarthy,4 but also such people as the radio commentator Fulton Lewis, the Col. McCormick5 clique, and certain Republicans have been engaged in this reckless adventure for some time.

6. Ultimata or Warnings

Mr. Wrong next raised the question of whether it would be possible to issue some sort of ultimatum or warning to the Soviet Union in which one might stake out areas where Soviet aggression would surely mean war. He recalled that the Secretary had commented last time that ultimata were not well suited to our constitutional system of government. Nevertheless, he wished to point out that the three Ministers had indeed delivered an ultimatum concerning Berlin and Western [Page 849] Germany,6 stating publicly that an attack from any source on these areas would be considered an attack on all three of them. He recalled there was a secret understanding among the three Ministers that offensive action by the Bereitschaft7 in Eastern Germany would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union. He inquired whether there were any other areas that might qualify for this type of pronouncement. Mr. Acheson responded that Yugoslavia might present a similar case. Mr. Pearson said that in his view such warnings might serve the very useful purpose of preventing war from breaking out as a result of lack of Soviet realization of where we had drawn the line. For example, without a warning in the case of Yugoslavia, the Soviets might assume that aggressive action there might be a very serious matter but would not bring on global conflict. The same might be applied to Korea. Mr. Nitze pointed out that the President had issued a statement not long ago to the effect that further Soviet aggressions might so strain the general fabric of peace as to bring on war. He recalled that the Secretary had quoted this statement and had applied it specifically to the Yugoslav case. Mr. Pearson said that we might very well find there were four categories in which various contingencies could be placed, namely (1) those situations in which war was certain, (2) those situations in which war might or might not be brought on, (3) those situations which would be referred to the United Nations to handle, and (4) those situations in which no action would be taken because there was nothing to do.

7. Nature of Soviet Aggression: Global War: Use of Atomic Weapons

Mr. Wrong felt that certain tentative conclusions were clear. Massive Soviet armed attack would in all probability mean a global war. In the event of attacks by Soviet satellites, our response would presumably be to attempt to localize the conflict. In the event the Bereitschaft marched in Eastern Germany this would mean war. Disturbances and/or aggressive moves in Finland, Finnmark, and Bornholm probably would not mean war. In other words, the position appeared to be that massive aggression by Soviet forces would probably result in the immediate use of atomic weapons. In situations short of this there would probably be time in which to consider the matter in some detail and for the interested parties to consult together.

Mr. Wrong requested some clarification of remarks at the previous meeting about situations involving Soviet attack on sea forces without the movement of land forces. Mr. Nitze explained that the contingency of a massive Soviet attack on our bases and sea forces in the [Page 850] Far East had been discussed. Our view was that if it were not possible to identify direct Soviet participation in such an action our response would probably be to strike Manchurian bases with conventional bombs. If, however, Soviet participation could be clearly identified and if the magnitude of the attack were large, the United States would probably consider this a clear indication of Soviet intention to launch global war, thus calling for the use of all the means at our disposal including atomic weapons.

Mr. Pearson inquired whether the pressure from the Air Forces would be so great in an emergency situation that there would be no time to consider the question whether suitable warning should be given the Soviet Union. Mr. Acheson responded that the amount of pressure one would have to cope with would doubtless bear a direct relation to the size of the Soviet movement. His feeling was that in most situations there would be time in which to consider such questions as warning. Mr. Pearson felt that the Soviets would in all probability attempt to launch aggressive moves in such a way as to make their intention uncertain in which event there would probably be time for consultation among the principal allies.

8. Indo-China Compared to Formosa 8

Mr. Wrong noted that Mr. Nitze’s presentation at the last meeting had not touched upon Indo-China. He inquired whether there would be any disposition on our part to go into action against Red Chinese forces operating against Indo-China if it appeared that the Indo-Chinese forces could not handle the situation. He thought that action against the Red Chinese might very probably bring the Soviet Union into the conflict by way of the Sino-Soviet treaty, thereby generating general war. Mr. Nitze responded that it was unlikely that we would wish to intervene in that situation. If such became necessary, however, the action would probably be confined to naval and air operations against China. It would be difficult to see how the Sino-Soviet treaty could be brought to bear inasmuch as the Red Chinese were the aggressors. Mr. Pearson inquired whether Indo-China was thought to be more or less important than Formosa from a strategic point of view. Mr. Acheson stated that loss of Indo-China would represent a very serious development for all of southeast Asia. Mr. Nitze added that the loss of southeast Asia would be very serious in economic terms inasmuch as the area provides large quantities of materials needed by the Western world and which if turned to the use of the Soviet Union would be very helpful to them. On the other hand, Formosa—while of little economic consequence—would represent an area of some importance in terms of the defense of the Pacific area.

[Page 851]

9. Exception to Basic Assumption on Atomic Weapon Use: Yugoslavia

Mr. Wrong reverted to the basic assumptions underlying the United States analysis which had been furnished at the previous meeting. He understood that the fundamental assumption, one with which the Canadian Government was in full accord, was that atomic weapons would be used only in the event of war with the Soviet Union. Mr. Nitze said that was the fundamental assumption; however, there might be certain exceptions, specifically Yugoslavia. In the case of Yugoslavia the United States felt it could not foreclose the possibility of the use of atomic weapons, for there was some basis for believing that quick atomic retaliation might quickly localize and abort aggression in that area. Mr. Wrong thereupon said that the basic assumption might be reframed to say that atomic weapons will be used only in the event of war with the Soviet Union except in situations where the use of such weapons might serve to localize the conflict.

10. China

With regard to general China policy, Mr. Pearson recalled that Canada had entertained some hope six months or so ago that there might be real possibility of detaching China from the Soviet orbit. He felt that now, however, a rather more rigid position was being taken on China, particularly in the United States, and he wondered how this rigidity might affect the hope of bringing about a schism between China and the Soviet Union. He felt that the main task of the Western world with respect to China was to do everything possible to make it difficult for the Soviet Union to bring China fully into the Soviet orbit. Mr. Acheson said that the Chinese situation was not at all encouraging. One continued to entertain the view that the basic interests of China and the Soviet Union were antithetical. There were few signs, however, that Titoist motivations existed in China today. There seemed to be good evidence that the Chinese communists are producing a completely new structure of Government in China. Mr. Nitze added that the communists seemed to be in the process of superimposing a completely new regime in China which was producing a situation more satellite than Titoist in nature. The nationalist communist elements were being greatly weakened. While this situation might bring about an eventual explosion in China, there was no present sign that matters had yet proceeded to this stage. Mr. Acheson remarked that Prime Minister Attlee last fall had argued the view that the Chinese communists were more-nationalist than communist. He felt there was very little reason to support that view then, and even less reason to support it now. Mr. Pearson reiterated the question of how best to weaken the hold of the communists on China. Mr. Acheson said that all he could give on [Page 852] that point was a guess which was that military intervention in China would probably solidify support for the regime. Mr. Nitze said that he had thought that air action in China some months ago might have had this effect whereas he thought that at the present juncture such action might tend to loosen the grip of the communist regime on the country. He felt that destruction from the air might well serve as the catalyst for revolt. He stressed, however, that this was an opinion which would very easily be subject to change. Mr. Pearson said that Canada had been rather more sympathetic to the British approach than to the American view some months ago but that Canada too was finding less and less reason to be soft toward communist China. The Canadian Government of course had no contact with the Chinese Reds and therefore there was no way of their learning at first hand about the regime. He was pleased to see that the gap between the British and American positions seemed to be closing.

11. Inclusion of Greece and Turkey in NATO 9

Mr. Wrong raised a collateral point at this juncture. He stated that a number of questions were being raised about the possible addition of Turkey and Greece to NATO. The emphasis of the analysis to date seemed to be primarily military. He thought there were many complicated political questions involved and he hoped that it might be possible, perhaps in this forum, to discuss these questions. He did not propose to do it today but did suggest that a meeting might be held on this question at a later date. Mr. Acheson said that the Department would be very pleased to hear what Canada might have to say on this problem.

12. United States-Canadian Mutual Defense Cooperation 10

Mr. Pearson spoke about the general mutual defense situation as between the United States and Canada. He felt that cooperation in this matter had been proceeding in a very good way but felt that relations had become rather more complicated since 1947 at which time certain principles of cooperation had been enunciated as the basis for guiding mutual defense arrangements.11 That 1947 statement of principles was now badly out of date and he wondered whether it might be useful to investigate the possibility of a new statement of principles of cooperation which would reflect more aptly the current situation. He remarked, for example, that there was a rather involved problem of how to deal with the radar screen project. There were many stations which Canada would not be able to man with its own personnel and would want the United States to operate. At the same time Canada had to retain the necessary accoutrements of sovereignty over these stations. He had in [Page 853] mind that a new statement of principles of cooperation in mutual defense, which would be very general in nature, should be given wide publicity in the two countries. He felt that there were compelling political reasons in Canada to do this and such a statement would serve as the general canopy under which detailed arrangements could be pressed forward. His thought was that the best mechanism for bringing this about would be through the PJBD which might be directed to come up with such a statement for recommendation to their respective governments. The two governments might then announce that they had accepted the recommendations of the Board. Mr. Acheson said that the PJBD mechanism seemed to him an admirable one for handling this problem. He said he would welcome Canadian initiative in looking into the matter.

The discussion was concluded at 4 p. m. It was followed by a fifteen minute briefing on the Korean situation by Park Armstrong.12 The Canadian Foreign Minister and his party departed at 4:15.


Note Prepared by the Canadian Embassy

top secret

Agreed Minute

In the communiqué issued on December 8th at the conclusion of the talks between Prime Minister Attlee and Mr. Truman, the President stated that “it was his hope that world conditions would never call for the use of the atomic bomb”. The communiqué continued: “The President told the Prime Minister that it was also his desire to keep the Prime Minister at all times informed of developments which might bring about a change in the situation”. The State Department informed the Canadian Embassy on December 9th that the Canadian Government was in this respect in the same position as the United Kingdom Government.

Discussions have also taken place between the two governments as a result of the desire of the United States Air Force, in carrying out its responsibilities involving the use of atomic weapons which arise from the North Atlantic Treaty or from mutual defence arrangements between Canada and the United States, to make use of facilities in Canadian territory as outlined in sub-paragraph (2) below.

In consequence, the following procedural arrangements have been put into effect:

Frequent consultations shall take place in Washington between the Canadian Ambassador and the Secretary of State and such other [Page 854] officers of the United States Government as may be designated by him. The purpose of these consultations is to exchange views on developments in the world situation which might necessitate the use of atomic weapons. The consultations are informal and exploratory and are not to be regarded as involving or implying any commitment on the part of either government as to the action it will take or the position it will adopt in particular circumstances yet to arise. It would be the hope that by such consultations it will be possible to arrive at common appreciations of situations which may necessitate the use of atomic weapons.
Requests of the Government of the United States for permission to make use of facilities in Canadian territory for the deployment of atomic weapons (both without and with their nuclear components) and for the conduct of operations involving the use of such weapons, or to overfly Canadian territory with such weapons, are to be addressed to the Canadian Government by the Department of State through the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and the reply of the Canadian Government is to be routed through the same channels. As much advance notification as possible will be given by the Government of the United States, and on its part the Government of Canada will seek to answer such requests promptly.
These arrangements shall be regarded as subject to modification by mutual consent at any time.

  1. For Arneson’s memorandum of the meeting of May 25, see p. 841.
  2. For documentation on international control of atomic energy, see pp. 443 ff.
  3. Documentation on the United States response to the international peace propaganda activities promoted by the Soviet Union is presented in volume iv.
  4. Senator Joseph E. McCarthy of Wisconsin.
  5. Robert R. McCormick, Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Tribune.
  6. Reference is to the Communiqué issued at Washington by the Foreign Ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, September 19, 1950. For documentation on the meetings of the Foreign Ministers at Washington, September 12–19, 1950, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. iii, pp. 1108 ff.
  7. East German security forces trained and equipped by the Soviet Union.
  8. For documentation on U.S. policy with respect to Indochina, see vol. vi, Part 1, pp. 332 ff. Documentation on the question of Formosa is included in volume vii.
  9. For documentation on consideration of Greek and Turkish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, see vol. iii, pp. 460 ff.
  10. For documentation on political and military relations between the United States and Canada, see vol. ii, pp. 870 ff.
  11. The principles were set forth in Department of State press release of February 12, 1947. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1947, vol. iii, p. 104.
  12. W. Park Armstrong, Jr., Special Assistant for Intelligence, Department of State.