PPS files, lot 64 D 563, “Atomic Energy”

Notes of a Meeting in the Office of the Secretary of State, December 30, 1952, noon1

top secret
  • Subject:
  • Proposal That the President Make a Statement Concerning Recent H-Bomb Developments


  • Department of State
  • Mr. Acheson
  • Mr. Matthews
  • Mr. Nitze
  • Mr. Arneson
  • Department of Defense
  • Mr. Foster
  • Mr. Finletter
  • Atomic Energy Commission
  • Dr. Smythe
  • White House
  • Mr. Murphy

At Mr. Acheson’s request, Mr. Foster outlined the way in which the problem had arisen. He recalled that the PSB some months ago, in its deliberations on the question what should be said about the then-prospective thermonuclear test, had concluded that the event should be handled in a matter of fact way, with emphasis on under-playing rather than over-playing it. Moreover, it was felt that such statement should be issued by the AEC rather than by the White House. Under this policy the Atomic Energy Commission released its statement of November 16, 1952.2 In recent weeks, the Joint Secretaries of the Department of Defense had been giving further thought to the question of what might be said. They received a briefing from Norris Bradbury of Los Alamos3 on the outcome of the thermonuclear test. The Joint Secretaries felt that a weapon was in the offing which, in sufficient numbers, might have the power to destroy the world. They felt that the public should have knowledge of this development in the hope that such awareness might make it possible for statesmen, by renewed efforts, to bring about effective international control of these and other weapons. The Joint Secretaries concluded that a Presidential statement on this subject was desirable. They thought there might be a real advantage if such a statement were a joint enterprise between the incoming and the outgoing Presidents. There might even be some advantage, in order that there would be no question that a statement represented the true voice of the United States Government, that it be joined in by the Congress. Mr. Foster said that he had raised this problem informally with the PSB, with Mr. Murphy, and finally with the President. The President indicated that he thought it was appropriate for this Administration to make some sort of report on thermonuclear developments. Mr. Finletter had thereupon been asked by the Joint Secretaries to prepare a draft which was now before the meeting.4 In recapitulation, Mr. Foster [Page 1051] said that the Joint Secretaries were in basic agreement on three points:

That the American people should be informed of the order of magnitude of the thermonuclear explosion;
That the American people should be brought to realize the seriousness of the problem raised by this new development; and
That no clear solution to these difficulties seemed at hand.

Mr. Foster reported that the consensus of the PSB was that neither the test nor any statement about it would have any impact on the Soviet Union, particularly its people. It seemed, moreover, that the possession of thermonuclear weapons would not give any particular military advantage to the United States. He said that Mr. Bruce doubted very much the merit of having the statement made jointly by President Truman and President-elect Eisenhower. He pointed out that Secretary Lovett was strongly opposed to any further statement on this subject. The question now before the meeting was what should be done.

Dr. Smyth said that the Commission agreed that something might appropriately be said about thermonuclear developments, that there would be some advantage in making the nature of the developments better known to the American people, but that the Commission was troubled by the suggestion of a separate statement on this subject and were also concerned about the manner suggested for doing it.

Mr. Acheson said that he was very troubled indeed by the proposal that had been made. He had thought a good deal about it since the subject was first broached to him and he was certain that a great deal of harm and surely no good could come from the proposal. He summarized four considerations which led him to this conclusion:

To issue a horrendous statement such as the one proposed without suggesting any solution to the situation would generate a sense of utter frustration and lead to public clamor that something be done, however foolish. He stressed that there existed no possibility of doing anything about international control at this time. This was a conclusion that the Department had arrived at only after much soul searching. He recalled that he had appointed a panel to look into the question as to what might be done about disarmament in general. He said that the Panel had come to the conclusion, a conclusion which he fully supported, that we had reached the end of the road as far as disarmament was concerned, certainly for some time to come.5 We were in a position where we were negotiating with ourselves on this subject. In the past year the United States had put forward a series of proposals in the Disarmament Commission each of which got nowhere with the Soviet Union but [Page 1052] which led to urgings from our friends that we make additional proposals. Such an operation was bootless. Our representative in the Disarmament Commission, Mr. Cohen, was given instructions to begin tapering off the negotiations and to avoid any further entanglement in fresh proposals. It was crystal clear that disarmament could not be achieved by itself but only in the context of many other conditions precedent in terms of East-West settlements and that without a change in the entire negotiating environment disarmament negotiations were doomed to failure. In this context, it seemed to him that to excite the American people again, thereby giving rise to a new spate of guilt feeling and public handwringing, would be a considerable disservice and would lead to many bad developments. He recalled that guilt feelings have mounted from time to time in the past, particularly in connection with the original decision to go ahead to test feasibility of thermonuclear reactions. In face of the realization that nothing can be done about international control, to proceed now in any way to frighten the American people even more would lead to the very serious consequence that the Soviets would take advantage of the hysteria and sense of frustration thus created to press us to accept the abolition of atomic and hydrogen weapons which then we would be under great pressure to do by our own people and our friends. There was no point in letting such a situation develop.
The recent Stalin letter. A statement by President Truman along the lines indicated might well be interpreted by many as an attempt by the President to “muscle in” on the EisenhowerStalin exchange.6 It was clear that a Truman statement would not trouble the Soviets in any way but it might well lead to their insistence than any EisenhowerStalin meeting have as its first objective the abolition of atomic and hydrogen weapons. With Soviet policy, and support therefore, embedded in concrete we would end up with a predicament where the people of the United States would be running around like frightened sheep in the pasture, urging all manner of follies upon the Administration.
Effect on the NATO build-up. The proposed statement would doubtless have a most seriously adverse effect on the NATO buildup. NATO members would argue that their efforts were of little avail, indeed less than useless, when the world was likely to be subjected at any time to the devastation wrought by both sides by the use of hydrogen bombs. Such an attitude would be fatal to the build-up of strength in Western Europe.
NSC Special Committee views. Earlier consideration by the Special Committee of NSC on this subject took into account the fact that a thermonuclear test still left us a long way from possession of deliverable H-bombs. The Special Committee, therefore, had concluded that the policy should be adopted of playing down the thermonuclear test and that stress should be placed on the growing [Page 1053] development of a family of weapons of varying sizes without stressing that H-bomb developments presaged a whole new order of magnitude of destruction.

Mr. Acheson asked what good would a Presidential statement do? He felt that the American people probably already had enough information about thermonuclear developments. He doubted whether they needed to know with any greater accuracy than they did what the prospective yield would be from thermonuclear weapons. This seemed so to him at least until such time as the United States in fact possessed deliverable thermonuclear weapons. It seemed to him that the Eniwetok developments and the lessons learned therefrom gave added emphasis to the need for an adequate early warning system and a much more effective system of continental defense.7 He felt that this was a problem to which the Department of Defense should more vigorously address itself. As to the suggestion that a solution for all these difficulties lay in the development of some sort of world government, he was fully convinced that this route offered no solution. In summation, Mr. Acheson said he could see no useful purpose to be served by the proposal.

Mr. Foster said that there would appear to him to be one positive development that would arise from the production of thermonuclear weapons—that was that the existence of such weapons in numbers might make it possible for us to free large quantities of fissionable material for tactical uses. Reverting to the main point of the argument, he said he thought there might be a one in 10 million chance that a fuller recognition by the people of the United States of the nature of this new development might somehow generate new solutions for the peace of the world. The human soul, sufficiently aroused, might yet find a solution. To this, Mr. Acheson responded that the heart of the difficulty lay not in any defect in Western souls but rather in the souls residing in the Kremlin.

Mr. Finletter, by way of footnote, said he wished to correct an impression that seemed to be popular in Washington these days to the effect that the Air Force was neglecting our air defense. He characterized the assumption of a technological break-through as erroneous. Reverting to the main point of the discussion, he said that he had served in this operation solely as amanuensis for the Joint Secretaries and had discussed his draft with Mr. Murphy in only an informal, preliminary way. He felt that Mr. Acheson’s arguments against the proposal were overruling and that unless the President saw fit to overrule the Secretary of State he felt that the whole project should be scrapped. He pointed out, however, that [Page 1054] the President has shown a constant concern about atomic developments and that he appeared to have a very real interest in saying something about thermonuclear developments at this juncture. He felt that the President could not remain silent on the subject.

Dr. Smyth reported that the terrific success of the Eniwetok test had rather changed the thinking in the AEC as to the significance of the event and would appear to support having something said about the implications thereof.

In response to a question from Mr. Foster, Mr. Murphy stated that it seemed to him imperative that the President make some reference to this development in the State of the Union Message. He felt that this was the minimum that was required. The query was whether a separate statement was warranted or desirable. Mr. Murphy went on that as he had recently learned more about the true nature of the Eniwetok experiment he felt strongly that there was need for the American people to have more information. Mr. Nitze expressed the view that the State of the Union Message would appear to be the most appropriate vehicle for any Presidential comment, for then such comment would appear in a suitable context.

Mr. Foster then read four points which one of the wiser and more knowledgeable scientists in this field thought should be made publicly:

The recent test gave a much larger energy release than heretofore.
This event underscored the greater necessity for effective international control.
Stress the constant striving of the U.S. for peace.
In the interests of national security nothing further would be said about the status of development or production of thermonuclear weapons.

Mr. Acheson said that those four points seemed to him to be the major ones.

Dr. Smyth said that the Commission would favor having an appropriate passage drafted for inclusion in the State of the Union Message. The Commission would oppose the issuance of a separate statement which could only appear as apropos of nothing.

Mr. Murphy inquired whether he should inform the President that the sense of the meeting was that an appropriate statement should be prepared for inclusion in the State of the Union Message. Mr. Acheson said that such recommendation would certainly have his endorsement and, as he had gathered, that of the AEC. Mr. Foster said that as far as the Department of Defense was concerned it was clear that Secretary Lovett opposed saying anything on this subject. On the other hand, the Joint Secretaries felt that [Page 1055] some statement should be issued concerning the new order of magnitude that had been attained through thermonuclear processes.

In summary Mr. Acheson said he thought that the State of the Union Message was the appropriate context in which this matter should be dealt with. In such context thermonuclear developments could be set alongside our efforts across the board to negotiate acceptable settlements with the Soviet Union. He thought the statement should mention the growing destructive power of atomic weapons and that this fact lent increased seriousness and gravity to the need for securing adequate settlements with the Soviet Union. He strongly urged, however, that nothing should be said which would leave the impression with the American people that they had been derelict in their duty. Anything that was said about thermonuclear developments and indeed the entire burden of the State of the Union Message should focus on the Kremlin as the culprit rather than the American people and the rest of the free world.

After the meeting broke up Secretary Acheson, Mr. Matthews, and Mr. Arneson discussed further how best to proceed. The consensus was that it probably would not be necessary to try to institutionalize the views of a group on this subject through a paper for the Special Committee of NSC. It seemed clear that Mr. Murphy would reflect back to the President the strong views of at least most of the discussants that a separate statement should not be issued but that appropriate comment should be inserted in the State of the Union Message. The Secretary suggested that Mr. Arneson should work closely with Mr. Shulman8 in drafting an appropriate passage in the State of the Union Message. The Secretary further suggested that we should prepare what we thought ought to be said rather than wait for others to prepare their own drafts.9

  1. Drafted by Arneson.
  2. Ante, p. 1042.
  3. Norris E. Bradbury, Director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory; Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
  4. The “Finletter Statement”, which has not been found, was discussed by Secretary of State Acheson and President Truman on Dec. 29. Acheson’s memorandum of that conversation reads as follows: “The President is aware of Mr. Finletter’s activities in regard to this statement. He is quite clear that no statement should be put out until it has been wholly cleared with State, Defense, and AEC. It will be submitted to us in due course. The President had thought that it might be desirable to put this out on the last day of the year. He has no desire to rush it.” (G/PM files, lot 68 D 349, “‘L’ Panel”)
  5. See the report of the Panel of Consultants on Disarmament, p. 1056.
  6. On Dec. 24, the Soviet Embassy in Washington had released the text of replies by Stalin to questions by correspondent James Reston of the New York Times.Stalin had indicated that he did not regard war as inevitable and would welcome diplomatic conversations with representatives of the incoming Eisenhower administration. For the text of the RestonStalin exchange, see the New York Times, Dec. 25, 1952.
  7. For documentation on continental defense, see pp. 1 ff.
  8. Marshall D. Shulman, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State.
  9. President Truman discussed nuclear weapons and disarmament in the course of his State of the Union message of Jan. 7, 1953. With regard to the hydrogen bomb test, the President stated: “And recently, in the thermonuclear tests at Eniwetok, we have entered another stage in the worldshaking development of atomic energy. From now on, man moves into a new era of destructive power, capable of creating explosions of a new order of magnitude, dwarfing the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” For the complete text of the message, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1952–53, pp. 1114–1128. The passages dealing with nuclear weapons and disarmament are on pp. 11241126.