108. Memorandum of Discussion at the 312th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, February 7, 19571

[Here follows a paragraph listing the participants at the meeting.]

1. The Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development (NSC Actions Nos. 1430–p, 1448 and 1502; NIE 100–5–55; Memo for NSC from Executive Secretary, same subject, dated January 29, 19572)

Mr. Cutler briefed the Council on the main points raised in the report on the subject by the Panel of scholars and scientists, as well as upon the reaction of the Planning Board to the Panel’s report.3 In the course of this briefing, Mr. Cutler indicated the matters on which the Planning Board had expressed misgivings with respect to the program which the Panel had proposed. (A copy of Mr. Cutler’s briefing note is included in the minutes of the meeting.)4 Upon the conclusion of his briefing, Mr. Cutler called on Governor Peterson to express his point of view.

Governor Peterson stated that Mr. Cutler had expressed his, Governor Peterson’s, views as fairly as he had stated those of the Planning Board. He said he did feel that the Planning Board description of the program as something of a “gimmick” was rather gratuitous. Indeed, it was a flippancy which was wholly unnecessary, because there was nothing abnormal in the program which had been proposed by the Panel as a means of bringing home to the American people the character of a future nuclear conflict.

With respect to his own proposal that the program should be placed in charge of a newly created Special Assistant to the President, Governor Peterson said that perhaps the Federal Civil Defense Administration had leaned backwards a little on itself assuming responsibility for the program. In point of fact, FCDA believed that a Special Assistant could do a better job in heading this program because of the prestige which a Presidential Special Assistant would inevitably lend [Page 414] to it. Nevertheless, if there were a decision against creating a Special Assistant to head the program, the Federal Civil Defense Administration would gladly and gracefully accept the responsibility. Governor Peterson closed his remarks by stating that despite all the difficulties which the Planning Board had perceived in the Panel’s proposed program, the basic problem still remained to confront us—namely, that if nuclear war were to occur we could expect the disintegration of the nation if the American public were not better prepared to face such a war than is now the case.

The President commented that the crux of the matter lay in the Panel’s central conclusion that “a massive nuclear attack on the United States resulting in casualties of the order of 50,000,000 without drastically improved preparation of the people, would jeopardize support of the national government and of the war effort, and might well result in national disintegration.” This was a terrible kind of problem which we could not solve with our current military planning, for example, by talking of maintaining six divisions abroad. Speaking with great feeling, the President explained the background of his request that the Panel undertake this study. He went on to point out that the findings of the Panel had a very definite effect on our war plans. If the conclusion he had quoted above was a correct conclusion, the sensible thing for the United States to do in its war planning was to concentrate on what measures we should undertake in the first week of the war. It would all be over by that time. But in point of fact, we ignore this and continue to develop elaborate and long-range plans for prosecuting a future war in which we would be involved. If the views of the Panel are correct, we should certainly revise our war plans. The President was not very sympathetic, either, to the view that the carrying out of a large-scale U.S. shelter program would create anxiety in the Soviet Union and suggest to the Soviet Union the likelihood that we were about to undertake a preventive war. If a mere shelter program made the Soviets nervous, what, presumably, did they think about such things as our missiles program? The problem on which the Panel had concentrated its thinking, the President said, was the most serious problem which had ever faced the world.

Mr. Cutler again explained the Planning Board view as to the need for more details and a more definite program before the Council gave its blessing to a program of the sort suggested by the Panel. He pointed out that the Planning Board had regarded the Panel’s report as interesting, but did not feel that it had sufficient information as to what the Administration would be getting into if it bought the Panel’s proposed program. After all, said Mr. Cutler, we do not wish to get involved again in anything like our ill-fated “Operation Candor”.5

[Page 415]

With respect to the problem of public information about the effects of nuclear war, the President insisted that he had informed the U.S. public on more than one occasion that if the United States became involved in a nuclear war, North America would in effect become a desert.6 At the very least, the Panel’s report emphasizes again the vital need for an effective disarmament program.

The Attorney General expressed the view that in the process of informing the public, more emphasis should be given to discussions with the Governors of the states and the Mayors of our cities, rather than to rely, as the Panel suggested, on an approach to individuals. The approach to local units was the basis for developing our dispersal program, and the Attorney General believed that this was more effective than the mass approach and involvement recommended by the Panel. Governor Peterson replied that both he, in the civil defense program, and Dr. Flemming, on the dispersal plan, had been trying to move increasingly in the direction pointed out by the Attorney General.

Admiral Strauss called attention to the statement in the body of the report, regarding the consequences of nuclear attack on the United States, that “We have satisfied ourselves that sufficient information has been made available to them [the American people],7 but it has not been successfully conveyed to them and incorporated in their feelings and actions.” Indeed, the President had just said that he himself had repeatedly called the public’s attention to these consequences, and cited excerpts from Presidential speeches. Accordingly, the public certainly had sufficient information. This being the case, the only thing we could expect from the kind of large-scale propaganda program recommended by the Panel would be, on the one hand, panic among our people, and, on the other, terrific pressure by the politicians to undertake a vast shelter program. Admiral Strauss expressed the opinion that no shelter program would offer an effective solution to the problem of nuclear devastation. On the contrary, by collecting large numbers of people in shelters located near areas under nuclear attack, all we would do would be to assure that these people would be incinerated or suffocated in their shelters.

Mr. Cutler stated that the Panel was not recommending anything which could be rightly called a propaganda campaign, but proposed an educational program which would be based on small discussion groups and which would be pitched in a low key precisely to avoid panic and hysteria. Indeed, this was one of the problems that had [Page 416] worried the Planning Board. They were unable to grasp how we could achieve the desired effects in the public mind if the program was constantly maintained in a low key.

The President repeated his view that if we accepted the conclusions that the Panel had reached as to the likelihood of national disintegration if a massive nuclear attack should occur, then we have got to follow a wholly different course of action than we are now following. This conclusion of the Panel stated in effect that this nation would be unable to react after a massive attack with casualties on the order of 50,000,000 people. Accordingly, it would seem that the only sensible thing for us to do was to put all our resources into our SAC capability and into hydrogen bombs.

Secretary Humphrey said that to him the problem raised by the Panel’s report had two main facets: First, what the Government does with respect to its own planning, and second, what the Government says to the public about its plans. It seemed to Secretary Humphrey altogether foolish to talk about catastrophic effects of nuclear warfare if at the same time we were unable to offer the American public any means and measures which would ameliorate these catastrophic effects. The public was aware of the horrors of nuclear attack. The public has been told about the probable nature of such an attack. Nevertheless, the public simply does not believe that such an attack is going to occur. Secretary Humphrey repeated his view that it would do no good for the Administration to scare the public to death as a result of being unable to tell them anything about what we are trying to do to ameliorate the catastrophic effects of a nuclear attack.

Secretary Dulles said that he could see no particular objection to the recommendation of the Planning Board that the program proposed by the Panel be studied for another three months. However, it was clear in his own mind that the Government ought never to adopt any such program as the Panel was proposing. We were here involved with a very dangerous and delicate problem which called for our best judgment. In the circumstances, we certainly could not carry out the program proposed by the Panel without creating a mob psychology which would compel us against our better judgment to accept a dangerously faulty disarmament program or else to undertake a vast and costly shelter program. Secretary Dulles did not believe that this country could avoid the perils which the Panel perceived as likely to result from a nuclear attack by creating a world opinion that might force us to do things which we do not want to do and which we think unwise. Instead, we should plan calmly the best measures we can to avert or soften the effects of a nuclear attack.

Governor Peterson replied that while he appreciated the logic behind Secretary Dulles’ statement, we were very likely to be faced with this mob psychology even if we do not undertake the program of [Page 417] involvement recommended by the Panel. Secretary Dulles insisted that we do not wish to incorporate this kind of information in the minds of our people, as the Panel has recommended.

The President broke in and said to Secretary Dulles that in other words the Secretary appeared not to believe in the principle of free government and in giving to the people the kind of information it ought to have. Apart from this, the President pointed out that what had initially got him interested in this problem was the fact that he had observed the evacuations of large cities during the latter years of the second World War. The people were really blind mobs, like a horde of locusts, and completely unmanageable. What the Panel was trying to suggest was that there are certain things we can do which might avoid a repetition of this sort of thing and might enable our people to help themselves more effectively in the event of a terrible attack.

Secretary Humphrey said he still wished to make his point that the Government ought not to scare the people to death by dwelling on the catastrophic results of nuclear war, unless at the same time we are in a position to tell them what to do to meet and counter the situation they would face.

Governor Stassen expressed the view that the points raised earlier by the Attorney General had been very wisely taken. If we followed this recommendation it might well mean the survival of at least local units of government. These could in turn gradually pull the nation together after an attack. He believed that the educational program should stress above all what measures could be taken after an attack to reconstitute society. The President asked Governor Stassen for an interpretation of what he was recommending, and suggested that Governor Stassen meant that we should not try to assure the survival of all the units of government, but to see that such units as did survive a nuclear attack would know in advance how to proceed with the restoration of some kind of order out of the chaos. Governor Stassen indicated that the President’s interpretation of his statement was correct, and that essentially he was advocating steps to assure the decentralized survival of the United States as a nation.

At this point, Mr. Cutler expressed the opinion that the discussion in the Council fortified his belief that the recommendations of the Planning Board for Council action had been sound; that is, that no basis for a Council decision with respect to the program recommended by the Panel now existed, but that the matter should receive further study for a matter of three months. The President commented that he had no objection to the recommendations of the Planning Board, but pointed out that he was searching desperately to find the best thing for [Page 418] us to do at the present time in order to minimize the terrible results of a nuclear attack on the United States, and he was certain that this could not be achieved by simply ignoring the danger.

Secretary Robertson said that the matter of timing was a consideration of great importance. As of the present, we had no solution to provide the people, as Secretary Humphrey had pointed out, and it was therefore dangerous to drive home too much the nature of the disaster which they might face. The President agreed that we did have to have something of a positive nature to tell the people, and Secretary Robertson went on to point out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were now engaged in studying ways and means of moving our continental defense perimeter out further from our borders.

The National Security Council:8

Noted and discussed the Report by the Panel on Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development, transmitted by the reference memorandum of January 29, 1957.
Requested the Federal Civil Defense Administrator, with the assistance of other Government departments and agencies, to study the matter further and make recommendations to the Council within three months (1) as to whether a program of public education and action should be undertaken in this field, and (2) if such a program is to be undertaken, what should be its specific content and proposed limits.9 In making the study and recommendations, the Federal Civil Defense Administrator should take account of the possible difficulties involved in such a program, including those which are set forth in paragraph 6 of the reference memorandum of January 29, 1957.10
Agreed that in the conduct of this study, individuals and organizations outside the Government as necessary may be approached, but that every precaution should be taken to avoid publicity until the Council has had an opportunity to consider the recommendations that are developed.
Requested the Intelligence Advisory Committee to prepare within three months a national intelligence estimate11 on:
The effects over time on human attitudes and behavior in foreign countries of a growing awareness of growing capabilities for mutual annihilation in the event of nuclear war;
The probable attitudes of people in foreign nations toward the initiation of general war by the constituted leaders of nations, or members of power blocs, possessing mutually destructive technological capability; and
Steps being taken in Communist and non-Communist countries to acquaint the people with the implications of nuclear warfare.

Note: The actions in b and c above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Federal Civil Defense Administrator for implementation. The action in d above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Director of Central Intelligence for appropriate implementation by the Intelligence Advisory Committee.

[Here follow agenda items 2-4. Item 3, “U.S. Policy Toward Iran”, is scheduled for publication in volume XII. For portions of item 2 and item 4 on the Suez Canal, see volume XVII, page 99.]

S. Everett Gleason
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Prepared by Gleason on February 8.
  2. Regarding NSC Action No. 1430, see footnote 9, Document 30. NSC Action No. 1448, approved by the President on October 19, 1955, authorized a study of the human effects of nuclear weapons development for submission to the President. NSC Action No. 1502, approved by the President on January 16, 1956, noted the President’s statement that he planned to ask Val Peterson to head a panel for the study. (Department of State, S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, Records of Action by the National Security Council) NIE 100–5-55 was not declassified. (Ibid.,INRNIE Files) The January 29 memorandum contained the Planning Board comments on the report of the Peterson panel. (Department of State, S/SNSC (Miscellaneous Files: Lot 66 D 95, Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development)
  3. The summary of the report is printed as Document 96.
  4. The briefing note was not filed in the minutes.
  5. Not further identified.
  6. See Eisenhower’s remarks at the Conference of the National Women’s Advisory Committee on Civil Defense, October 26, 1954, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954, pp. 960–963; and his comments at his news conference on July 6, 1955, ibid., 1955, pp. 671–672.
  7. Brackets in the source text.
  8. Paragraphs a–d and the Note that follow constitute NSC Action No. 1665, approved by the President on February 8. (Department of State,S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, Records of Action by the National Security Council)
  9. Val Peterson’s report and recommendations to the NSC, dated June 19, are not printed. (Ibid., Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development)
  10. Paragraph 6 of Lay’s memorandum to the NSC discussed certain aspects of the panel’s proposal for a “program of psychological defense” which caused the Planning Board concern. (Ibid.)
  11. SNIE 100–5–57, Document 111.