Truman Library, PSF–Subject file, “Atomic Energy—Expansion of the Fissionable”

Memorandum for the President1

top secret

The following notes contain a summary of the discussion at the meeting on January 16, 1952 of the Special Committee of the National [Page 852] Security Council on Atomic Energy, consisting for this purpose of the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Director of Defense Mobilization, at which you presided. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Director of the Bureau of the Budget, and Brig. General H. B. Loper also attended the meeting.

The President stated that in anticipation of this very important meeting he had outlined an agenda which he proposed to follow if the members of the Special Committee found this agreeable. The President then read the items on this agenda.

The President then went on to say that it seemed to him that the fundamental problem involved in consideration of the proposed program for the expansion of fissionable materials production, was the impact of such a program on other vital programs in the rearmament effort on which we were presently engaged. It would be up to the Department of Defense representatives to tell us now their view of the relationship between these various parts of the rearmament effort and which among them were most important. Of particular concern, he added, was the problem of fitting the proposed expansion of fissionable materials production into the general objectives of the Department of Defense as set forth in the recently developed budget for Fiscal Year 1953. Mr. Wilson, added the President, would have to know the facts about this impact if he were to judge its effect upon other programs and upon the civilian economy. Moreover, the President wished to have the whole problem thoroughly thrashed out in the present discussion so that a wise decision could be reached. He then invited Secretary Lovett and General Vandenberg to speak first on the military requirements as presented by the Department of Defense.

Secretary Lovett began his statement with a brief summary of the background of the present proposal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a 50% expansion of plutonium production and a 150% expansion of oralloy production over and above the amounts contemplated [Page 853] by the present expansion program of the Atomic Energy Commission. Secretary Lovett noted the original request of Senator McMahon, Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee, and indicated that the Joint Chiefs’ statement of requirements, originally drawn up in October 1951, was a response to Senator McMahon’s request.2 Secretary Lovett pointed out that planning for the proposed expansion had had to be carefully related both to practical feasibility and to fiscal considerations. He further noted that recent technological advances opened up the prospect of almost limitless possibilities in the use of fissionable materials. Accordingly it was necessary, in formulating the military uses of the fissionable materials production, to take account of weapons which could now be used for tactical as well as for strategic purposes, and by the Army as well as by the Air Force and the Navy. It was no longer necessary to think only in terms of indiscriminate bombing of targets, but of selective strategic bombing and of increasing possibilities for the use of atomic weapons for tactical purposes. It was with all this in mind that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had agreed in October on the magnitude of their requirements and on the desirability of the … expansion which they were now presenting.

Moreover, Secretary Lovett added, the Joint Chiefs were concerned not only with the need for an increase in the stockpile of available atomic weapons, but with the desirability of meeting their requirements at an earlier date than could be reached under presently planned production. Secretary Lovett then stated the figure which constituted the minimum requirements of the three Services, which figure they desired to reach at the earliest possible date. With existing and presently planned facilities, this figure could not be reached until 1965, but if the October recommendations of the Joint Chiefs were followed, they hoped to reach this goal five years earlier, in 1960. In short, said Secretary Lovett, the expenditure of the five billion dollars which the … program would cost, would enable the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attain their minimum requirements five years earlier.

The President inquired whether the … program thus described by Secretary Lovett was an addition to the expansion program upon which we were now engaged.

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Secretary Lovett replied in the affirmative, and then asked General Loper to explain the details more fully by the use of charts.

When General Loper had concluded his presentation, Secretary Lovett said it was important to emphasize the fact that in view of the length of time which would elapse before the completion of the new expansion program, the most severe impact, financially and materials-wise, would not be felt until most of the other rearmament programs had been completed. Indeed, continued Secretary Lovett, he had been greatly surprised and relieved that the impact was not worse than it actually was, and he pointed out his conviction that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had tried to exert all possible restraint in the formulation of their requirements.

Secretary Lovett said that General Vandenberg was better qualified to explain the problems and responsibilities with which, as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, he was now charged. These included the air defense of the United States, strategic operations of the NATO forces, and also a very large-scale tactical air operation requiring perhaps nine thousand conventional aircraft. Secretary Lovett pointed out that colossal savings in the costs of the energy release required to do this job could be expected from the use of atomic weapons, which were, he said, the most efficient energy-releasing units that the world had ever seen. One ton of TNT used in ordinary bombs now costs $1,700. The same explosive effect could actually be obtained from fissionable materials at a cost of only $23.

Secretary Lovett then asked General Vandenberg to enlarge on the subject with which he had been dealing.

General Vandenberg explained the difficulties that the three Services had encountered in their attempt to make a judicious division of the atomic weapons resources available to them. He pointed out that recent technological advances had brought in the Army, as well as the Air Force and the Navy, as having legitimate demands on the stockpile of weapons. While we knew much less about the target systems for the Soviet Union than we had known for Germany in the last war, it was believed that there were … Soviet targets which would have to be destroyed if the war-making potential of the USSR were to be destroyed in the event of war. It would be impossible to accomplish this task unless many more bombs were available. Moreover, room must be left for a considerable margin of error in our knowledge of significant targets in the Soviet Union.General Vandenberg concluded by restating Secretary Lovett’s minimum requirements figure.

The President then turned to Secretary Acheson and inquired his opinion as to the possibility that present disarmament negotiations [Page 855] with the Soviet Union might lead to a situation in which firm agreements could be achieved.

Secretary Acheson said that he was obliged to reply that any such disarmament agreement was highly unlikely in the course of the period covered by the JSC expansion program. He added his own emphatic agreement with the recommendations of the Department of Defense, stated that he felt it was very important to assure these minimum requirements in weapons, and stated his belief that the impact of the new program would probably come at a time when the economy of the country could stand it.

The President observed that the dilemma in which we found ourselves was not unlike that occasioned during the last war by the necessity to manufacture poison gasses even though we devoutly hoped that they would not have to be used, which turned out to be the case.

Secretary Lovett commented that while the analogy was a good one, in point of fact fissionable materials, unlike the gasses alluded to by the President, were not entirely wasted but could be reworked and used again.

Mr. Dean agreed in general with Secretary Lovett’s point, but emphasized that if you were thinking of using increased amounts of fissionable materials for peacetime purposes, you would certainly not build the kind of facilities which were contemplated in the present expansion program. In short, said Mr. Dean, we must not kid ourselves that this production will have peacetime uses, even though the materials themselves would not be dissipated and indeed would be usable even after five thousand years.

The President observed that none of us need worry about conditions after five thousand years. What concerned him was the overhead that is needed and what constituted waste over and beyond the fissionable materials themselves. He presumed this included the cases for atomic weapons and the like.

Mr. Dean reiterated that from the point of view of peacetime uses the facilities at Oak Ridge and Hanford, and so on, must be described as wasted. You would not build such facilities for production for peaceful purposes.

Mr. Dean then went on to state his general position with respect to the … expansion program. He pointed out that because the AEC had not come out strongly in favor of this expansion, it was not to be inferred that the AEC opposed it. What he and the other Commissioners wanted was to assure that the problem was discussed in the National Security Council, where all the pertinent considerations could be thoroughly explored.

Mr. Dean then discussed the problems of the rate and timing of fissionable materials production, under various alternative programs, [Page 856] by the use of charts. These indicated, according to Mr. Dean, the critical importance of time as the determining factor in any judgment with respect to the desirability of the proposed program.

Secretary Lovett concurred that the value which we put on getting our requirements in 1960 instead of 1965 was indeed the decisive factor, and in this point there was unanimity among the military. The Soviets, he said, were building up to a point where their atomic capability would soon become very dangerous.

General Vandenberg enlarged on this point by indicating that the time will come when both the United States and the Soviet Union will have sufficient stocks of atomic bombs to deal one another the gravest kind of blow, or, as he put it, “do a job on each other.” After that point has been reached, said General Vandenberg, all bombs would in a sense be surplus and the crucial advantage would lie with the power which was in a position to make the best tactical use of atomic weapons. The danger point, he said in conclusion, would be at the point when the Soviet Union would be in a position to employ atomic weapons for tactical purposes, which point he estimated would be about 1955.

Mr. Dean then changed the subject, and pointed out the necessity for very high priorities if the dates and demands of the proposed expansion were to be met and results to be achieved in 1957 or 1958. We are already slipping some six months, he added, on the present expansion program. Certainly, without higher priorities than have been given to the present program, it would be impossible to achieve the results contemplated in the … program.

The President then inquired Mr. Wilson’s views on the problem.

Mr. Wilson replied that he wanted to explain and justify the points which he had stressed in his letter of January 7 to the Council on this subject.3 He admitted that the problems which had so concerned him in this letter had been substantially clarified and answered by the discussion he had listened to in this meeting. The only unanswered question and problem now seemed to him to be the possibilities which might exist for substantially increasing production of fissionable materials in the facilities which now existed or were now being built. Is it reasonable to assume, he inquired, that the AEC and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have taken into consideration the potentialities for large increases in production prior to 1955 which would flow from technological advances in existing or planned facilities? If the answer to this question was “yes”, said Mr. Wilson, he would then go along with the proposal for the …expansion. In other words, if we have assured ourselves that, even [Page 857] taking into account the possibilities of increasing output from the existing and planned facilities, there is no hope of reaching the minimum requirements stated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then Mr. Wilson certainly favored the five billion dollar expansion program.

In reply to Mr. Wilson’s question, Mr. Dean said that while undoubtedly considerable increases were to be anticipated through technological improvements, it would still be impossible to close the gap and meet the JCS minimum requirements without their proposed expansion program, in the time limit they desired.

Mr. Wilson then added that one other very good reason for this five billion dollar insurance policy was the possibility suggested by Secretary Lovett and General Vandenberg, that atomic weapons would replace in part conventional weapons. Doesn’t this view, suggested Mr. Wilson, indicate that we should be able to save on other armament to the amount of one billion dollars a year?

Secretary Lovett and General Vandenberg agreed that substitution was possible, and pointed out that this was illustrated by what had been said earlier as to the saving in the use of TNT.

Mr. Wilson said, “Okay, this is not so much an increase, then, as a substitution.” As for impact, he continued, he was not in a position to answer with certainty as yet, but it was his preliminary judgment that the program was feasible from a materials point of view. The resources of certain metals, notably copper, would be heavily strained, but, speaking frankly, in view of the obvious need for the expansion and in the light of what had been said about the phasing out of the programs, Mr. Wilson believed we ought to undertake the expansion and that we could do it. This would mean that we would have to continue cut-backs on civilian production in certain areas beyond the time when he had expected that it would be possible for civilian production to go back to normal—for example, in copper and nickel.

The President inquired if there were any possibilities for substitution of metals, as, for example, silver.

Mr. Wilson replied in the affirmative, and said that these were constantly being explored.

Secretary Lovett said that if the heaviest impact came in 1954 we would not necessarily be in the position of having to make further cutbacks on the civilian economy, but we would not be able to restore the cuts which had previously been made.

Mr. Wilson replied that perhaps the picture was not as bad as that, but that we might find ourselves able to restore only approximately 50% of the cuts which had thus far been made in the civilian economy. Generally speaking, said Mr. Wilson of the proposed expansion program, “we can do it.”

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The President remarked facetiously to Mr. Wilson that by 1954 he might very well have Taft4 for his boss, and that perhaps Senator Taft would know how to do all these things.

Mr. Wilson responded with the statement that he doubted very much whether he personally would have Taft for his boss.

Turning to Mr. Lawton, the President then summed up the sense of the meeting by saying that those present had presented the Director of the Budget with what was apparently a general agreement, and that for that reason he had best go ahead with the proposed expansion program.

Mr. Lawton said that he had but one question to raise, and that concerned the prospects and means for assuring the continuous flow of ores from foreign areas.

Mr. Dean said that he had one final point to make, which was to warn that the effect of accepting the new 50%-150% program was going to be felt before 1954 as well as afterward because the AEC would have to begin at once to put in the orders for pumps and other requirements, to select and place its contracts, to select its sites for the new facilities, and to complete the other basic preparations.

To this, Mr. Wilson replied, “It can be done”, and the President added the words, “Let’s make every effort to get it done.”

After a brief discussion of the problem of finding the needed power resources, concerning which point the President commented on the difficulties he had earlier encountered in asking for very moderate increases in the production of aluminum, the President ended the meeting with the statement: “We will do it, and it’s now up to Mr. Dean to take steps to head off a few prima donnas.”5

  1. The identity of the drafting officer is not indicated on the source text, but presumably was NSC Executive Secretary James S. Lay, Jr. By memorandum of Jan. 14, Lay had notified the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Director of Defense Mobilization that the President would meet with the Special Committee of the National Security Council on Atomic Energy, as well as the Directors of Defense Mobilization and of the Bureau of the Budget, in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Jan. 16 immediately following the regular NSC meeting which would begin at 3:30 p.m. Lay included in his Jan. 14 memorandum an announcement of the agenda for the Jan. 16 meeting which would consist of oral presentations: (a) by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding increased requirements for atomic weapons and the military considerations involved therein; (b) by the Secretary of State concerning the desirability of increased production of atomic weapons in the light of possible future international developments affecting national security; (c) by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission concerning the feasibility of proposed programs for expanding fissionable materials production; and (d) by the Director of Defense Mobilization regarding the effect on the national economy and on other defense programs of the proposed expansion of fissionable materials production. (Truman Library, PSF–Subject file, “Expansion of the Fissionable”)

    On Jan. 17, Lay circulated to the same addressees a summary memorandum of Presidential action at the Jan. 16 meeting. (Truman Library, PSF–Subject file, “Expansion of the Fissionable”)

  2. In a Senate speech of Sept. 18, 1951, Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, advocated rapid expansion of the atomic energy development and production program with a view to achieving a maximum nuclear defense posture. During the remainder of 1951, the Joint Congressional Committee and the Executive Branch, particularly the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense, engaged in extensive consideration of possible expansion of the atomic energy program. For additional information, see Hewlett and Duncan, Atomic Shield, pp. 556–572.
  3. Not found.
  4. Senator Robert A. Taft (R., Ohio).
  5. On Jan. 17, following a meeting with President Truman, Senator McMahon announced that the President had approved an expanded atomic weapons program. Regarding Senator McMahon’s statement, see Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1952, p. 60; and Hewlett and Duncan, Atomic Shield, p. 578.

    At his news conference on the budget, Jan. 19, the President announced that he planned to ask Congress for the authority to spend between $5 and 6 billion over a period of approximately 5 years for the expansion of the production of fissionable material; see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1952–53, p. 55.