S/AE Files, Lot 68 D 358

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Director of the Policy Planning Staff ( Ferguson )

top secret

Subject: Discussions with British regarding use of atomic weapons

Participants: Joint Chiefs of Staff: General Bradley, General Collins, General Vandenberg, Admiral McCormick, General Bolte, Admiral Duncan, General White,1 Admiral Lalor, Lt. Col. Addleman [Eddleman?]
State: Secretary Acheson, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Arneson, Mr. Ferguson
Defense: Mr. Lovett

General Bradley explained that the thing that was worrying the JCS was that political-military talks with the British might end up in some implied agreement or commitment ahead of time. He thought that our Chiefs should discuss the matter with their Chiefs since this would not commit anyone. He said he did not know whether that would satisfy the British. He said that his people had the feeling the agreed paper2 went beyond NSC 303 and NSC 73/44 and they weren’t sure but that it should go to the NSC. He explained that he was not quite sure whether some of it should be used for discussion with the British or what should be done.

The Secretary of State explained that this matter started with the Truman-Attlee talks and the communiqué that was written at that [Page 876] time. He said that Attlee asked to see the President alone and then came out with a paragraph saying that he and the President had agreed the U.S. would not use the bomb without consulting the British. The Secretary said that he and Mr. Lovett went in to see the President and pointed out the disadvantages of such a commitment and the President told them to talk the matter over with Attlee and Franks and work out a new paragraph. This was done and it took the form of the paragraph in the communiqué which said the President would keep in touch with the Prime Minister on the world situation.

The Secretary also explained that Ambassador Franks had come to his house and showed him the Slessor paper and asked what he ought to do about it. The Secretary told him that there would certainly be trouble in starting on a course what would attempt to bind us on prior consultation or limit our use of the bomb. He told Ambassador Franks that he should go along with what the President had approved and Ambassador Franks consulted his Government on that basis. Later the British gave a copy of the Slessor paper to General Bradley and to the State Department. The Secretary said that we had tried all along to limit the thing to a review of the situation. He added that this had a bearing on the talks with the Canadians where we have been trying to get agreement with Canada to use their bases as if they were our own, which we had not been able to do. We do, however, meet with them and review the situation in the world every few weeks, and we think this the best way to go about the problem.

The Secretary said we must avoid a commitment and what we want to do is to work toward a situation in which our allies will go along with us and go along promptly. We can’t successfully take the position that they must give us a blank check. They feel that if a strike takes off from their territory there will be one coming back the other way.

The Secretary said he thought it would be helpful to work out some procedure for political and military talks, together or separately, with the British, giving them in general our view of the situations in the world but with no commitment. He said he had hoped what we could do, perhaps after the President had seen the paper, was to talk over with the British those places in which the dangers looked greater at any given time and those places in which we might act differently than in other places. He explained that of course whatever our views of these dangers were, the decision would always have to be made by the President and we could not commit or bind him in any way.

General Bradley said that their feeling was that if this thing could be approached on the basis of what would mean world war they would not be so worried. When the British try to tie the question to the bomb, the Chiefs feel that they are trying to get a commitment on its use.

[Page 877]

Mr. Lovett remarked that Slessor had talked quite frankly about this and made it clear that they were interested in the use of the atomic bomb.

The Secretary of State said he was sure that the British had started out with that idea, but that it was also true that there is some identity between the use of the atomic bomb and general war. He said he would not draw the conclusion that because the British wanted to do something we did not want to do that we should not talk at all.

Mr. Lovett asked whether there were not two problems: conditions which might precipitate war, and the use of the atomic bomb.

General Collins said that a further complication is that we all agree that in the event of war we will use the atomic bomb tactically. He said that he [if] we could limit the discussion to what would lead to general war it would be okay with him.

General Vandenberg said that it makes one suspicious in view of the fact that the British had tried to get the President on the line, the fact that Slessor and Elliot have tried to smooth the thing over, and the way the paper was presented to the State Department. He thought they were trying to get an implied commitment. He said with the Canadians you can lay it on the table and they will understand it. He thought we should first have military discussions and say we can make no commitment and in this way we can find out whether there is more than meets the eye in the British approach. After these discussions have gone on for some time General Vandenberg felt that we could decide whether to talk on the political basis. He wondered whether the agreed State-JCS Working Group paper should have the blessing of the Secretaries of State and Defense and the President before we even start the military talks. He thought we could talk without actually using a paper in the discussions and that would be an additional protection for the State Department.

General Bradley thought the British would talk on a military level first but that they would insist on political talks and finally talks on the Prime Minister-President basis.

Mr. Lovett asked if we could not say we have nothing to discuss on atomic matters so that the talks would only be about what would kick off a war. Mr. Acheson said he agreed pretty much with what Mr. Lovett and General Vandenberg had said but that of course this was a life and death matter for the British and they will want to know whether we are sober and responsible. He felt that the British had a right to know what the Chiefs and we and the President think about these questions. He feels that if we could get into the heads of the British the idea that we were very serious about these questions we would be in a much better position if a crisis arose. He felt that with respect to the atomic part we could say that their conclusion is [Page 878] ours, i.e. that we cannot imagine a real war without the use of the atomic bomb.

Mr. Lovett wondered if there was not another point and suggested that if Russia stepped into Korea he assumed that would be war as far as we were concerned but that some of our allies might not think so. He said that if we treated it as a full war we would throw the book at them and whether we got into war alone or with allies we would have to use everything. The Secretary of State said that the British needed education on how serious to our national interest an attack by the Russians on Korea and Japan would be.

General Collins said he thought we should start on a military basis and see what the British were after. He thought we could take the line that war would mean the use of the atomic bomb and then look at situations where our military men would recommend going to war. After discussions with the British General Vandenberg thought the Chiefs could get together with the State Department representatives and let them know what the military had learned so that the State Department representatives would be prepared for the political talks. He thought one thing we should find out was whether the British were prepared to deny us bases unless we made commitments.

Mr. Matthews said he was sure this was not the case. Mr. Lovett remarked that on British bases we had to remember we were guests and could not use them if they did not want us to.

General Collins thought that possibly the difficulties we were having with the British over Spain related to the fact that we might secure bases in Spain which we could use for atomic attacks, and Secretary Acheson thought that might be so but that there was nothing reprehensible about it. He said that after all they are now the tail of the kite and they are concerned about where the kite is going. He felt that the British had lodged their paper on the question of the atomic bomb because there had once been an agreement with respect to that and they realize that they cannot get a treaty with us saying neither of us will go to war without the other’s consent. The Secretary said he should hope that what we would do, realizing what the British are trying to do, is say clearly that they will not get a commitment but that we will go over the situation with them. He thought there was real merit in having military talks first. He thought, for instance, that the military could explain that in the event of attack on us in Korea by the Russians the matter would be so serious we would have to react with everything we have. He felt that they should also understand that if we get into war by carrying the burden of defense in the Pacific they would have to go along with us, just as we will go along if Europe is attacked.

Admiral McCormick asked whether the military should have advice from the State Department before talking with the British and General [Page 879] Vandenberg asked whether we should go over the agreed Working Paper and take out what we don’t like and get it cleared. General Bradley felt it would be better if the military simply spoke for themselves.

General Vandenberg asked if the military should insist on talking with the British Chiefs and General Collins said he thought they should and that they should insist in talking to all of the British Chiefs. General Bradley suggested that they say there must be at least one of the British Chiefs present.

General Collins reverted to the agreed Working Paper and said they should not use this paper since it talked about the use of the atomic bomb. Admiral McCormick thought it would be better to have another paper and clear it with the State Department before using it. General Collins did not agree but thought the military should say what they would recommend without bringing the State Department into it. Mr. Acheson said that he would not show the agreed Working Paper to anyone, but if it is agreed that the use of the atomic bomb means war the Working Paper could be used as a basis of discussion. General Collins said that he would go so far as to say that the atomic bomb should be used only in general war but Mr. Lovett felt that we should not say that because it was a self-imposed limitation. General Vandenberg said that the Chiefs did not agree with some of the things in the paper. General Collins pointed out that the military would not use Parts II and III of the paper at all. General Vandenberg thought that even with respect to Section I the object of the talks ought to be to get the British views, but General Collins felt we had to go further than that and tell the British what we would recommend under present circumstances. Mr. Matthews said that if the Chiefs differed with any of the material in Part I of the paper he felt the State Department should go over the disagreements before the Chiefs met with the British. General Vandenberg then said that there was no material difference of opinion with respect to Part I, that the differences related only to Parts II and III which would not be used.

The Secretary of State said that if the Chiefs meant by omitting Parts II and III in the talks that they would not tell the British what those portions were about, that was fine but he felt that Parts II and III would help him if he were doing the talking and might also help the Chiefs.

Mr. Lovett urged that when talking of the atomic bomb we should not speak only of general war because we might be in a war with the U.S.S.R. and use the bomb without it being a general war, and the Secretary of State agreed.

General Bradley said that the Chiefs would go ahead and hold the military discussions and say that if there is war with Russia we will [Page 880] use the atomic bomb. Mr. Lovett then mentioned the possibility of the Bereitschaften moving against our troops in Germany or some of the eastern satellites coming in, and asked whether we would want to limit ourselves and say we would not use the atomic bomb. General Bradley said we would not limit it, we would simply say that we would use the bomb in a war against the U.S.S.R. and whether we would use it in other circumstances would depend on the situation existing at the time.

[Here follows discussion of other matters.]

  1. Lt Gen. Thomas D. White, Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, United States Air Force.
  2. Dated August 3, p. 866.
  3. NSC 30, a report on atomic warfare policy, September 10, 1948, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1948, vol. i, Part 2, p. 624.
  4. NSC 73/4, a report on possible Soviet moves, August 25, 1950, is printed ibid., 1950, vol. i, p. 375.