Disarmament files, lot 58 D 133, “Panel of Consultants on Disarmament”
Memorandum by the Panel of Consultants on Disarmament1
The Timing of the Thermonuclear Test
As members of the Panel of Consultants on Disarmament, we have been attempting to reach useful conclusions about problems of American policy with regard to the limitation and control of armaments. Early in our work, as a part of a review of the development of armaments, our attention was called to the plan to test a thermonuclear device in November of this year. As we have continued to explore the problem of finding a way to work toward a moderation of the present arms race, we have become increasingly convinced that the projected test may be an event of considerable import for the future. We have found many considerations which argue for a postponement of this test until its full and future implications can be dealt with by the next Administration; we have also found that there are a number of considerations, some of them clearly important, which weigh against such a postponement. This account attempts to spell out and assess these varying considerations, and to state our own balance of feeling, which is that if certain important conditions can be met, it would be wise to postpone the scheduled test until 1953.[Page 995]
In reaching our conclusions, we have proceeded from a primary concern with the relevance of this test to the whole range of questions affecting the limitation and control of armaments; this was the only proper course for a Panel of Consultants on Disarmament. Moreover, we have not undertaken any comprehensive study of the whole range of opinion and judgment that exists in the government; our assignment has been to consult with the Secretary of State and officers of his Department. But the problem of armaments is not a narrow one, and we have been forced to consider questions which are the primary concern of professional soldiers and others. This overlap we fear is inevitable. Our judgments may be right or wrong, but we have not been able to disentangle ourselves from these problems. Unless he examines the character of weapons and the meaning of negotiations, one can hardly have sensible ideas as to how negotiations about weapons can be made useful.
The account which follows falls into five sections. Section I explains why we think this test of a thermonuclear device is so important, and why we think that so many new elements have appeared since thermonuclear development was first ordered in 1950 that the present plan to test a weapon in November is in itself a determinable event which deserves all the care and study that are given to major new problems. Section II suggests some of the disadvantages which we think may result from holding this test on schedule. Section II [III] deals with the possible advantages of postponing the test. Section IV is concerned with the disadvantages of postponement; we discuss some which seem to us not persuasive, and some which seem to us highly important. Section V presents our mixed conclusions.
i. the plan for a thermonuclear test calls for a new decision
A. Character of the Test.
A test of a thermonuclear device is planned by the United States Government for the month of November, 1952. This device is the product of many years of study, culminating in two and a half years of intensive technical effort which began after the Government’s decision in 1950 to proceed with the development of a thermonuclear weapon. Great technical advances have been made in this period through a combination of good luck, great skill, and high dedication. This first test may not work, but among leading students of the problem there is now very little doubt that the scientists concerned are on the right track.
If this test is successful, it will have an explosive power one hundred to one thousand times as great as that of the atomic bomb [Page 996]used at Hiroshima. It will thus be something more than one more in a series of scientific tests. It will be impossible to conceal the fact that this event has taken place, and very difficult to conceal the fact that it is an event of great portent for all men.
The device which is to be tested is not a weapon; it is very heavy and it needs much mothering. In its present form it could not be delivered by any ordinary military means. But the fact that it is not a weapon is important only in terms of time; if the device works, there will be thermonuclear weapons in a very few years, and compared to this test, the test of the eventual weapon will be a discounted anticlimax. About the so-called hydrogen bomb there has always been this one great question: “Is this possible?” This question will be answered if the projected test succeeds.
The test, then, will be a great event if it succeeds. Any such event, in the normal course of administration, is carefully studied by those in authority in order to be sure that it is managed in the best possible way. In the case of this test, however, there is naturally a disposition to believe that the basic decision is past, on the ground that the large questions were those raised and decided when it was originally determined that it was right to try to make a hydrogen bomb. This decision was reached by due process. Should we not regard this test, however striking its results may be, as the natural and routine consequence of the earlier decision? The question is important, because Government cannot permit itself the luxury of perpetual self-doubt.
We think that it may be more accurate to conceive of the decision to conduct a thermonuclear test in November as essentially a new decision, deserving the close attention and mature consideration of the highest officers of the Government. We think that much has changed since 1950, and we think also that the very magnitude of the technical accomplishment urges a review of its meaning.
Many relevant changes have occurred since 1950. First, the course of thermonuclear research has modified one set of fears which lent urgency to the quest for a hydrogen bomb. It no longer seems likely that Fuchs could have been of much help to the Russians in this field, since the information he could have supplied them has turned out in our experience to be misleading.
Second, we now think we know how to make a thermonuclear device that works, and we also think we can make it into a weapon fairly soon. In 1950 the decision to proceed could not but be stimulated in part by the very uncertainty and ignorance that surrounded the problem; now we know what we are trying to do. The decision to learn about a matter is quite different from a decision to act on what has been learned.[Page 997]
Third, our own stockpile of atomic weapons is very much larger than it was in 1950, and it will be larger still by the time the present thermonuclear device can be turned into a weapon. Moreover, extensions of atomic weapons techniques are making available fission weapons of a yield thirty-fold greater than that of the original bombs; weapons of this size are large enough to deal with nearly all important Russian targets. While these changes could in large measure be foreseen in 1950, a stockpile on hand is quite different in its impact on thought from one which is merely on order.
Fourth, present thinking about development of actual weapons with a thermonuclear component is aimed at a set of bombs very much smaller in yield than the projected test will be if it measures up to its reasonable possibilities. There is something odd in the prospect of a test which may be some ten times as powerful as any weapon we plan to produce for at least the next few years.
Fifth, our experience in Korea and in building NATO has deepened our national understanding of the complex task of resisting Soviet aggression and working for freedom. It is now much more clear than it was two years ago that it is vitally important to distinguish among different kinds of strength and force, using only those which effectively advance our chosen purposes.
Sixth, since the decision of 1950 the United States has made a major effort in the United Nations to assert and demonstrate the American interest in the balanced reduction of armaments. On the whole this effort, so far, has had good results on world opinion; but its future may be sharply, perhaps decisively, related to the proposed thermonuclear test. This connection is emphasized by the fact that the General Assembly will be meeting in November, at the very time when the test is now scheduled to take place.
Seventh, it has turned out, quite by accident, that if it goes off on schedule, the test will take place either just before or just after Election Day. In either case, it will come in the last months of what the world now knows to be an outgoing Administration. This accident of timing may affect the impact of the test in a number of ways.
Taken together, these changes from the situation of 1950 persuade us that it is proper to raise the question whether or not the projected test should proceed on the present schedule. We turn, then, to the principal considerations which seem to us to argue for a postponement into 1953.[Page 998]
ii. the possible disadvantages of conducting this test
A. The Test Will Assist the Russian Development of a Hydrogen Weapon.
It seems to us almost inevitable that a successful thermonuclear test will provide a heavy additional stimulus to Soviet efforts in this field. It may well be true that the Soviet level of effort in this area is already high, but if the Russians learn that a thermonuclear device is in fact possible, and that we know how to make it, their work is likely to be considerably intensified. It is also likely that Soviet scientists will be able to derive from the test useful evidence as to the dimensions of the device.
It may be argued that if we are worried by the incentives which our new discoveries provide to the Soviet Union, we shall have to abandon all research and development. The complaint has force, but it is important to observe that the American thermonuclear device is a very special case. First, it is a quite remarkable and complex technical accomplishment—something of a different order from the ordinary new device which the enemy will inevitably discover for himself in good time. Second, it is a device such that the very act of testing it is public and revealing. Third, national prestige is identified to a unique degree with prowess in atomic weapons. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, thermonuclear weapons may be far more valuable to the Soviet Union than to the United States; this last point is so important that we argue it separately below.
B. A Thermonuclear Arms Race May Not Be in the American Interest.
Any successful test in a new technical field inevitably accelerates developments in this field throughout the world. Yet such is the character of the hydrogen bomb that we cannot help feeling that the United States might be better off if no such weapons existed, even from the immediate military standpoint. The West seems to offer more targets appropriate for such a weapon than does the Soviet Union, and the hydrogen bomb is a relatively more valuable part of one’s arsenal if the number of fission weapons available is small; it amplifies the yield of a given amount of fissionable material. Since for the predictable future the United States should have a very much larger number of ordinary atomic bombs than the USSR, we conclude that the advantage of a hydrogen bomb is considerably greater for the Russians than for the Americans.[Page 999]
C. The Test Will be a Barrier Against Work for the Limitation of Armaments.
The United States is publicly committed to the notion that the objective of arms reduction is real and important; in the last year, the American government has taken the lead in reopening discussion of disarmament in the United Nations. This policy and these efforts are likely to be prejudiced if the projected tests should be successful, especially as it would explode in the middle of the annual meeting of the General Assembly.
Above and beyond the question of embarrassment to our policy and our negotiators, moreover, there is the fact that the forthcoming test has a special significance in the international arms race. A successful test will mark our entrance into a new order of destructive power, and this is the last point of departure now in sight. There is no other foreseen stage in technical development at which it will be so natural to say “stop, look, and listen.” If the test is conducted, and if it succeeds, we will lose what may be a unique occasion to postpone or avert a world in which both sides pile up constantly larger stockpiles of constantly more powerful weapons.
D. The Test Will Have an Unsettling Effect on Free Nations.
While some in free countries (perhaps particularly in Great Britain) may welcome the November test as an indication of growing American deterrent strength, it seems likely that an explosion of this character will, on balance, be disturbing to most of the non-American, non-Soviet world. It will lend color to the arguments of those who falsely maintain that the United States is irrevocably committed to a strategy of destroying its enemies by indiscriminate means and at whatever cost. It cannot but add to the fears of those Europeans who recognize that a poker game played with hydrogen bombs is one in which only the two great Powers could buy any chips.
E. It May Have a Hardening Effect on the United States.
We think that there is danger lest a preoccupation with destructive weapons should tend to obscure the subtle and varied character of the ways in which we must try to cope with the Soviet Union while avoiding a third world war. We think this preoccupation might be considerably stimulated by the feeling that “we are successfully entering the field of hydrogen bombs.” (This sort of loose interpretation of the projected test seems to us almost inevitable.) To put it another way, we think it important that the balance of action of the American Government should have the public meaning that our policy is flexibly designed to cope with both the Soviet Union and the dangers of all-out war; such a balance of action is [Page 1000]already hard to achieve, and this test might be a further heavy weight on one side.
F. The Test Comes at a Bad Time.
Those charged with the responsibility for thermonuclear development have been under urgent orders to develop a hydrogen bomb as rapidly as possible; every priority has been given to this program, and it has been assumed that no consideration of politics or policy should weigh against the need for speed. As a result the first full-scale thermonuclear test has been scheduled without regard to any considerations except those of making headway toward a weapon. And by accident it happens that unless a postponement is ordered this test will take place in November, during the last months of an outgoing Administration. We must unhappily state our feeling that this may be the wrong time for an act of such importance.
A thermonuclear test conducted in November, 1952, however carefully considered and however cautiously explained, will be the act of a government not destined to carry the responsibility for policy in 1953 and after. The test will raise questions of purpose and meaning which simply cannot be answered except by the new Administration. What is its bearing on our attitude toward the control of atomic energy and the limitation of armaments? What does it mean with reference to our war strategy? What significance has it for our Allies? How is it relevant to a policy of “negotiation from situations of strength?” To these questions the outgoing Administration may well feel that it has good answers; the trouble is that in November, 1952, the only effective answers will be those that come from the next Administration. Yet the President-elect will hardly be in a position to give a genuine account of the meaning of a great action in which he had no part. Any explanation he might casually attempt would be a dangerous and misleading pretense. We are forced to the conclusion that if the consequences of conducting this test are as large as we think, the decision belongs to the incoming and not the outgoing Administration.
We do not find this conclusion easy to reach; still less would it be easy to state in a report to an official of the outgoing Administration. We emphasize the fact that this is not at all a matter of the Administration’s qualifications to make the decision. The question here is not one of rival qualifications; it is rather this: “When and by whom, in the interest of American peace and security, can this decision best be taken?”
Even if it be agreed that the basic problems posed by this great new technical advance are problems which belong to the next Administration, it may still be thought that the basic task of those [Page 1001]now holding responsibility is to duck no hard choices, and to continue to act in full responsibility until the new Administration is installed. This position in our view still misses the main point. Except in cases of urgent crisis, the great responsibility of an outgoing Administration is to help get the new men off to a good start. The American tradition both expects and honors acts of restraint by executives alive to the claims of those who are about to take on the enormous responsibilities of high office.
iii. the possible advantages of a postponement
A. A Responsible Government.
If it should be possible to postpone the present test with some understanding in the Government and with no great public outcry, the whole matter can then be examined and judged by an Administration fully responsible for the next few years of American policy and answerable for the meaning of its actions. This is the largest and most certain gain which we see in a postponement. A new Administration’s decision to test or not to test could have the character of a fully considered commitment to the future in a sense not possible in November.
B. The Possibility of an Agreement to Abandon Atomic Tests.
Until we have tested thermonuclear devices there remains one opportunity for an international agreement on armaments which would avoid the overwhelmingly difficult problem of disclosure and verification. An international agreement to conduct no more atomic tests could be monitored by each major government on its own. It is a technical fact that no important atomic explosion can take place in the Soviet Union without our knowledge, and there is no reason why the Soviet Union should not develop the same capacity for detecting our tests, if it has not already done so. It is possible to bury a test so far underground that the only thing known about it is that it took place, but this piece of knowledge is all that is needed to monitor such an agreement. Thus an agreement of this character has the unique characteristic that it separates the problem of limitation of armament from the problem of “inspection.” Moreover, such an agreement would have real meaning, since for some time to come no nation will have any proven thermonuclear weapons if it is unable to conduct and learn from the thermonuclear tests.
Yet no agreement prohibiting atomic tests could have much meaning if it continued over a long period as the only existing international understanding on armaments. Eventually, even without tests, hydrogen devices would be constructed which would have an increasing likelihood of effectiveness. Gradually, too, the refinement [Page 1002]of technique and the increase of stockpiles of fissionable material would make the lonely agreement not to test seem bizarre and irrelevant. But for a limited period such an agreement would provide a reasonable assurance against the hazards of a stockpile of hydrogen bombs. In such a period the very existence of an agreement might be an occasion to move forward to more comprehensive and durable areas of agreement.
We recognize that the Soviet Union might well reject any proposal for the abandonment of atomic tests even if such a proposal were made at a time when it involved a limitation upon American development. The Russians would certainly be suspicious. They might simply denounce the proposal as unfair, since we have had many more tests than they. They might also think that the proposal stemmed from American inability to reach a workable design for a thermonuclear device (which might have the effect of moderating their own thermonuclear efforts). They might respond by trying to entangle the American proposal in their own propaganda for a general prohibition of atomic weapons. In general it is quite possible that the Soviet Union would react in an unconstructive way.
But the important point is not that a proposal of this character might be rejected. The main consideration, to us, is that this may be a real chance to inquire into Soviet intentions and attitudes. So great is the damaging effect of our ignorance of the pattern and content of Soviet Power that we should always be glad to find a topic on which discussion itself may be illuminating. A proposal of this character, seriously and carefully advanced to the Soviet Government, should produce valuable evidence of the degree to which the rulers of the Soviet Union understand the character of the race in weapons of mass destruction. It would certainly provide a medium in which the basic American concern with the implications of the arms race can be forcefully presented.
The basic attractiveness of the notion of a standstill in atomic tests is that it offers to the American Government something which is exceedingly difficult to find—an opportunity to reinforce its verbal adherence to the idea of disarmament with a visible and measurable action. Such an action might strongly reinforce all those abroad who believe in the good faith and peaceful purpose of the United States, and it could turn the mind of the American nation itself to the fact that policy in the 1950s must combine strength with moderation and firmness with flexibility.
We are not wholly clear that it would be wise to try for an agreement prohibiting atomic tests; the proposal is simple, but its effects would be complex. But we believe that there is at least sufficient merit in this notion to make it highly desirable that it should be given full consideration by those who will have the responsibility [Page 1003]for American policy in future years. We also think it plain that the idea will have no real chance of success unless it is pressed before we have conducted a successful thermonuclear test. In this sense it is a striking example of the critical character of the problems which are posed by the plan for a test, and a specific reinforcement to our basic feeling that the decision on a thermonuclear test should be postponed.
iv. arguments against postponement
In the course of considering the implications of the proposed test, we have dealt with certain of the arguments which can be raised against any postponement; in particular we have made it plain that we do not think the test is unimportant, and that we do not think it is truly covered by any decision made in 1950. There remain a number of more important arguments to which we now turn.
A. We Need All the Strength We Can Get.
The basic argument against postponing the scheduled thermonuclear test is that it is desperately important for the United States to keep ahead in the race for hydrogen bombs. The test will help us to make such weapons sooner; therefore, the argument runs, it must not be delayed.
This feeling of urgency about the production of a hydrogen bomb has a number of causes. The most striking and powerful is the feeling that it would be disastrous if the Russians should get the H-Bomb first. It is widely believed that the only possible counter to such a Soviet success would be the prior possession of hydrogen weapons by the United States, and it is claimed that the United States would face catastrophic danger if there should be a time in which the Russians had hydrogen weapons and we did not.
We think it far from clear that the only possible way in which we can counter a Russian hydrogen weapon is to have more such weapons of our own. The military position of the two countries is such that the hydrogen bomb is not likely to be a decisive addition to our armory, whether or not the Russians have such a weapon. We now have a substantial stockpile of atomic bombs of various sizes; bombs with many times the power of the Hiroshima weapon are now in production. Our stockpile is growing rapidly, and it is deliverable in a sense that no hydrogen device can be for a considerable time. There is a growing opinion that the basic retaliatory power of this atomic stockpile would be only moderately increased by the addition of hydrogen bombs, since there are very few targets in the Soviet Union large enough to demand the use of weapons more powerful than those we are already making.[Page 1004]
But in any case no one would suggest that we should give up our work on hydrogen weapons. All that we are urging here is a possible postponement of a full-scale test to permit a fully responsible decision on the whole problem of thermonuclear development. Before the Russians can have hydrogen weapons in any real sense, they too will need tests, and it would naturally be a part of any decision to delay our own tests that any Russian test would be met by the prompt reinstatement of our test program.
Plainly, we cannot assert that no risk whatever is involved in any decision which would delay the time at which we have thermonuclear weapons. There is always some risk in any decision to delay the development of any weapon. But in our view the risk involved in postponing the presently scheduled test is not large enough to weigh heavily against the arguments in favor of postponement.
A complementary argument for gaining all available forms of strength is that only strength can persuade the leaders of the Soviet Union to desist from their aggressive activities. Many able men argue that quite irrespective of the special problem of Soviet development of thermonuclear weapons, American possession of such weapons would give the United States another and desirable kind of strength which would help to soften the policy of the Soviet Union. On this view, any failure to press forward would only be misunderstood in the USSR as a sign of weakness; to refrain from testing would be to throw away an evident advantage in return for nothing, since the USSR will go all out to get hydrogen bombs of its own no matter what we do.
While we fully agree with the basic notion that the Soviet Union is influenced by strength, we think it far from clear that all kinds of strength are equally adapted to this purpose. In particular we are persuaded, in the light of our experience with the atom, that the kind of strength embodied in a hydrogen bomb will not persuade the Russians to mend their ways.
The hydrogen weapon would certainly give us a new kind of power in the area of weapons of mass destruction; but consideration of our present stockpile, and of the problems of delivery on the Russian target system, suggests that it would be a limited addition even in this area. It is true, of course, that it would increase the total explosive power of the American stockpile, and in so doing it might permit uses of fission weapons which are currently uneconomical or marginal. In time this could become a substantial addition to American arms. But it is not for us an addition so decisive in character that a limited delay in its production is intolerable.[Page 1005]
B. Arguments Relating to the Morale of Scientists and the Convictions of the Executive Branch.
We have now to consider certain arguments which in our view may weigh heavily against a change in present plans.
First, this test has now been in preparation for many months; ships and scientists are already in action and the whole enterprise has acquired a momentum such that if it were now arrested (or if the task force were to proceed to its destination and carry out other planned tests, omitting the thermonuclear attempt), there would necessarily be repercussions among all those who have been working intensively toward an assigned objective. A last-minute postponement of the thermonuclear test might create among many of the personnel of the A.E.C. a feeling that the political arms of the Government were arbitrary and uncertain in judgment, and unless an understanding of the reasonableness of such a decision could be communicated to these men, it might have serious adverse effects on our technical progress in the field of atomic weapons.
But not only are ships and men on the move; minds throughout the Government have accepted and are set on the decisions which are leading to the test. Considerations such as those which impress us may be wholly unconvincing to able and dedicated men who are fully persuaded that we need to have a hydrogen bomb as soon as we can. Strong convictions of this character exist, we think, in all departments of the Government. If this be the state of mind of the executive branch (and if the view of the legislature should be at least equally energetic), a sudden decision to postpone might be far from having the concurrence of the Government as a whole; even if the President should himself decide to order postponement, he might have to act as the leader of a divided and even hostile administration. Such an apparently arbitrary and unsupported postponement would hardly lay a favorable groundwork for the actions of a new administration.
It is not for us to attempt an accurate estimate of the actual state of mind of the members of the Government, whether they be scientific leaders or policy makers. Neither should we try to assess the degree to which present opinion might be modified if the question were fully reconsidered. These are matters well beyond our assignment. All that we can conclude from this discussion of possible disruption and opposition is that these possibilities are real and important. If the President is to make a new decision, we think it highly important that this decision should have understanding concurrence among interested senior officials, and that it should be accompanied by a substantial effort to make the change of plans intelligible to those concerned with the test.[Page 1006]
There is a final difficulty which is not without its opportunities. It does not seem likely that a decision to postpone the test could be reached and carried out without a public statement at some stage; too many people are involved, and the necessary explanation could hardly be kept within the Government for very long. It will thus be necessary to cope effectively with the difficulty of explaining the decision without seriously limiting freedom of action for the future. But we believe that the act of explanation offers also a great opportunity for a declaration by the President showing affirmative statesmanship in the cause of peace and our country’s security. We think that the decision to postpone a test, with all its difficulties, yet offers a chance to combine words and action in a fashion that may have spectacular meaning for our own people and for all who seek the double goals of peace and freedom.
C. What Could Follow Postponement?
The largest and most difficult of the objections to a postponement is the simple question of what we would do with it if we got it: what line of policy should we pursue to make use of the time that is gained? We have argued the claims of a new Administration, but this claim may not be decisive if in the end the new Administration has no other alternative than to re-schedule the test as quickly as possible. We cannot avoid the question of what we want to do while this remarkable new device is not being tested. Even if we answer this question by saying that the United States should press for an agreement to prohibit all atomic tests, we are faced by the fact that such an agreement will have a fairly short life if nothing else is added. In other words, in order to feel confident about any single step to make disarmament less unlikely, it is necessary to have in mind some reasonable sense of the way in which the whole subject of arms limitation fits into the whole of policy.
Our basic assignment has been to consider this larger question. We have been forced to recognize the strength of the following three propositions which are exceedingly hard to reconcile with one another. First, no limitation of armament is feasible unless it becomes a part of a larger understanding of some sort. Second, most sorts of understanding with the Kremlin are either impossible or undesirable or both; we do not know that peaceful co-existence is possible, but it is plain that even if it be possible, it cannot be comfortable or cordial. Third, unless armaments are in some way limited, the future of our whole society will come increasingly into peril of the gravest kind.
Wrestling with these propositions, we have concluded that just as their toughness arises from the fact that they must be taken together, [Page 1007]so the beginnings of a resolution, if there is one, will be found only when policy is constantly based on all three propositions. It is our feeling that in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to keep our attention fixed on the third proposition—the one which asserts that the whole of our society is in grave and growing danger. Yet it is the reality of this third proposition which makes inapplicable the flawless logic that can be built on the first two propositions taken alone. And it is this reality which leads us to conclude that it is not really necessary—or even possible—that we should know where any given effort to restrain the arms race may eventually lead. What is necessary is rather that we should lose no chance that is not totally foreclosed by the irreducible necessities of our defense of freedom. Before we test a thermonuclear device, we should be quite certain that this moment does not offer us some chance of recognizing all three of the hard realities of our time. We are not sure that it does, but we are far from sure that it does not, and we see no signal danger in a moderate delay.
There is a more modest, and perhaps more persuasive response to those who ask where we are heading. It is that in dealing with the vast and secret Soviet Power, we know only what we find out, and we find out mainly by experiment. For all our policies there is dire need of information about the power and purposes of the Soviet rulers. Opportunities of learning even a little about this matter are not so frequent that they should be cast away simply because we are not sure of all the steps in a possible future course. The principal cause of this uncertainty, after all, is the very fact of our massive ignorance of the Soviet ruling mind.
So on balance, though we recognize the uncertain and unpredictable future of a decision to delay a thermonuclear test, we would accept this as inherent in any attempt to deal wisely with our mounting peril.
v. conclusion: let us postpone the test if such a decision can be understood, explained, and properly supported
Taken together, the arguments for a postponement of the projected thermonuclear test seem to us persuasive. We think that November is not a good time, and we think that the decision should be made by the next Administration. We think that this is a fateful step, and that before it is taken the next Administration should be quite sure that there is no better use to be made of all that we have learned since 1950. We are not persuaded by the claim that postponement would bring unacceptable dangers, and while we admit that it is not clear where a postponement would lead, we have to note that this ignorance applies to any effort to limit the current power struggle. We think the test should be postponed, and [Page 1008]though our first concern is with the limitation of armaments, we think that postponement remains desirable when judged from the broad standpoint of the national security.
The reservation which we set to our conclusion is that we cannot urge a decision to postpone the test unless it proves possible to obtain for such a decision some measure of support and understanding from the senior government officials primarily concerned, to make the decision reasonably intelligible among those who have worked to make the test possible, and to explain it publicly without seriously limiting the freedom of the next Administration. We fully understand that it may not be possible to meet these conditions, but it is not for us to judge such a question. We cannot by a prejudgment of the temper of the Government excuse ourselves from the obligation to record our considered opinion that under the conditions we have stated, the postponement of the scheduled test not only is desirable, but could become a decisive act of statesmanship.
- The date and distribution of this unsigned memorandum cannot be conclusively established. The cover sheet bears a penciled notation “9/5/52,” but that may be an indication of the date received or filed rather than the date drafted or circulated. Since the Panel had considered the question of the timing of the thermonuclear test for some months, this paper may have been prepared prior to Sept. 5. According to testimony by Oppenheimer on Apr. 16, 1954, the panel had discussed its views regarding possible postponement of the thermonuclear test with the Secretary of State during the autumn of 1952 but had made no written report. (U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C., April 12–May 6, 1954 (Government Printing Office, 1954), pp. 247–248)↩