Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

Memorandum of Discussion at the 199th Meeting of the National Security Council, Thursday, May 27, 19541

top secret
eyes only


Present at the 199th meeting of the Council were the President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States; the Secretary of State; the Acting Secretary of Defense; the Director, Foreign Operations Administration; and the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization. Also present were the Secretary of the Treasury; the Attorney General (for Items 1 through 6); the Director, [Page 1453] Bureau of the Budget; the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (for Items 5 and 8); Assistants Attorney General Barnes and Rankin; Mr. Herbert Hoover, Jr., Department of State (for Item 2); the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; The Director of Central Intelligence; Mr. Robert Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; the Deputy Assistant to the President; Mr. Robert Amory, Jr., Central Intelligence Agency; the White House Staff Secretary; Mr. Bryce Harlow, Administrative Assistant to the President; the Executive Secretary, NSC; and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.

There follows a summary of the discussion at the meeting and the chief points taken.

. . . . . . .

8. Proposal for an International Moratorium on Future Tests of Nuclear Weapons (Memos for NSC from Executive Secretary, same subject, dated May 17, 25 and 26, 1954; NSC Action No. 1106–h; NSC 112)2

Mr. Cutler reminded the Council that the Secretary of State, as chairman of a committee, would report on the question of United States agreement to a moratorium on further tests of nuclear weapons. He pointed out that the Council had before it three reports on the subject; one from the Department of Defense opposing U.S. agreement to the moratorium, one from CIA, and one from the Federal Civil Defense Administration. No written report had come from the Department of State, but Secretary Dulles had some remarks to make on the subject.

Secretary Dulles said that he and his committee had been studying this problem intensively over the last two weeks. He had talked as recently as yesterday with Admiral Strauss, and as a result of these conversations, three or four significant questions had been posed. The subject needed further study before the committee could present its recommendations to the National Security Council. One of the problems which had particularly concerned him, said Secretary Dulles, is how the United States could secure the propaganda advantage it sought from accepting a moratorium without at the same time setting the lower limit to the moratorium at weapons of 100 KT yield. He said that hitherto we had assumed that we would continue to be free to test weapons of this or lower yield, but if we propose the 100 KT as the lower limit, the Soviets might well come [Page 1454] back with a proposal to ban tests of all weapons yielding more than 50 KT. In the process of bargaining they might even try to get an absolute ban, since there was no clear criterion which we could invoke. Accordingly, the more he studied the problem the more clearly he perceived that the propaganda ball might well be stolen from the U.S. by the USSR.

The second important question stemmed from the fact that we do not have very accurate methods of measuring the size of nuclear explosions in the Soviet Union. This would make it extremely difficult to police a moratorium and to assure ourselves that the Soviets were not evading their commitments. Nevertheless, the proposal for a moratorium was now before the UN, and while we have asked that the subject be deferred, we will presently have to decide whether to reject this proposal flatly or to offer some sort of counter-proposal. Secretary Dulles concluded his statement with a promise to put the varying opinions together and to present a comprehensive report at next week’s Council meeting.

Turning to Admiral Strauss, the President inquired as to the degree of accuracy on the size of Soviet explosions which the AEC obtained after it had put together all the results of its investigations. Admiral Strauss replied that there was always a considerable difference of opinion and of debate after the Russians had tested one of their nuclear weapons. It sometimes took as long as a year to achieve final agreement as to the yield of the weapon.

Secretary Dulles inquired whether it wasn’t a fact that the estimate of the yield of a weapon consisted of a composite of a number of estimates which varied greatly among themselves. Admiral Strauss replied that the divergence was not quite as wide as Secretary Dulles suggested, but there were certainly differences as great as 10% in the initial stages of an appraisal of the magnitude of any given explosion.

Mr. Allen Dulles pointed out in this connection that Lord Cherwell had stated that the British initially estimated the yield of the first Soviet thermonuclear explosion at approximately 50% more than the United States had estimated the yield. He understood that since then the British estimate had been revised downward.

The President expressed the desirability of thorough study by the United States of the British calculations as to the character of each Soviet weapon test. Admiral Strauss said he thought that the British were very much less thorough than we were in efforts to appraise these tests. He was not inclined to place high value on the British calculations.

The President then inquired what would be the largest size weapon the Soviets could set off without our knowing about it. Admiral Strauss replied that we would know of any explosion which [Page 1455] yielded more than 10 KT equivalent, unless the Soviets took the most extraordinary precautions to prevent us from learning about a test. He pointed out, however, that the Soviets were due for a new series of weapons tests this summer. Accordingly, it behooved us to reach a decision soon if we proposed to gain any advantage from agreeing to a moratorium on further tests.

The President reiterated the view he had expressed at previous meetings of the Council, that he could perceive no final answer to the problem of nuclear warfare if both sides simply went ahead making bigger and better nuclear weapons. While, of course, he did not want the Soviets to gain a lead on us in this field, it was nevertheless a matter of despair to look ahead to a future which contained nothing but more and more bombs. He therefore believed it wrong for the United States merely to take a negative view of this terrible problem. We must try to find some positive answer, and to do so would require more imaginative thinking than was going on at present in this Government. Soon, said the President, even little countries will have a stockpile of these bombs, and then we will be in a mess.

Admiral Strauss observed that it would be quite a long time before the little countries were in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Secretary Humphrey stated that he simply couldn’t see how this country could jeopardize the one great advantage that it now possesses over the Soviet Union. To him it was unthinkable that we should take any measures to retard our progress in this field. We must keep all the edge we now have.

The President said he could understand Secretary Humphrey’s view, but what was the long-run answer to this problem? Secretary Humphrey then asked the President whether he really believed that the Soviets would honor a promise to stop conducting weapons tests. The President replied that the minute we learned that the Soviets had not stopped testing these weapons, we would ourselves start our own tests again.

Admiral Radford pointed out that, unhappily, we were in the awkward position of being unable to explain to our friends and allies why we felt it necessary to go on testing these weapons.

Admiral Strauss then turned to the President and expressed the hope that he would let him show the President charts indicating the results of prior tests of nuclear weapons, before the President made a decision to accept a moratorium.

The President said that of course he had no intention of making any impulsive decision on so grave a matter, but he did insist that we were now pursuing a course which had no future for us. All we are doing now is to make more certain our capability to destroy.

[Page 1456]

The Attorney General expressed serious concern as to the effect on our own people of accepting a cessation of nuclear tests. This country had taken the development of atomic weapons more calmly than the peoples of other nations, and Americans would react adversely, he believed, to any decision to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Flemming said he felt, with the President, that somehow or other we must develop something that would give hope to our people. Otherwise, we would produce an atmosphere of despair, and people would feel that there was no use in trying to defend themselves against atomic warfare. Such despair would have very bad effects on the whole mobilization program and on the program for civil defense.

Governor Stassen suggested that the answer to this problem might lie in an approach consisting of alternatives which the United States could offer to the Soviet Union. Force was obviously one of these alternatives. But if the Soviets could be induced to move toward peaceful courses of action, we had other alternatives—for example, increased trade—with which to respond. If, however, the Soviets got to feel that the United States was weakening in its determination to maintain the alternative of force, Governor Stassen warned that they would surely take advantage of this evidence of weakness.

The National Security Council:3

Discussed the subject on the basis of oral remarks of the Secretary of State and the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.
Deferred action on the subject until the next meeting of the Council, at which time the report called for by NSC Action No. 1106–h will be presented and will be considered together with the reference memoranda.4

. . . . . . .

S. Everett Gleason
  1. Prepared by Deputy Executive Secretary Gleason on May 28.
  2. Regarding the memoranda of May 17, 25, and 26, to the NSC, see respectively footnote 3, p. 1438; footnote 1, p. 1445; and footnote 1, supra. For NSC Action No. 1106–h, see footnote 5, p. 1428. For NSC 112, July 6, 1951, see Foreign Relations, 1951, vol. i, p. 477. A briefing memorandum on the question of a test moratorium, prepared for Secretary Dulles by Gerard Smith, May 26, in preparation for Council discussion of this agenda item, is in file 700.5611/5–2654.
  3. Paragraphs a–b constitute NSC Action No. 1140, May 27. (S/SNSC files, lot 66 D 95, “NSC Actions”)
  4. The subject of a moratorium on nuclear testing was next discussed by the Council at its 203d meeting, June 23; for the pertinent portion of the memorandum of discussion at that meeting, see p. 1467.