232. Memorandum of a Conversation, White House, Washington, February 1, 1956, 12:07 p.m.1

ETW MC–6/1

[Here follow a list of participants and a list of subjects discussed.]

The meeting started at 12:07 p.m. Sir Anthony Eden stated that the U.K. was in a position at this meeting to inform the U.S. about its plans for a thermonuclear test.

1. Transfer of Information to the United Kingdom

The Secretary of State suggested that it might be appropriate first to take up the question of disclosure of certain U.S. atomic energy information requested by the U.K. Mr. Strauss then referred to information on the prevention of deterioration of graphite. It was originally believed that it was not possible to transfer this information. The Atomic Energy Commission had now determined that it was possible. [Page 645] The information will be transmitted to Sir John Cockcroft2 when he visits the United States in February.

The Secretary of State referred to information concerning propulsion reactors which had been held up pending a ruling by the Attorney General. He reported that the United States had pushed ahead with this matter. Mr. Strauss stated that, subject to formalizing an Atomic Energy Commission decision and subject to the usual Joint Congressional Committee clearance procedure, the United States could now make a commitment to the United Kingdom to transfer information in the field of naval propulsion reactors for military use exclusively. He also stated that quite probably the United States would transfer the desired information in regard to stationary nuclear power plants and expects that a definite answer on this point can be given by Friday, February 3. He pointed out that there would then be a procedural decision as to whether the existing agreement for cooperation with the United Kingdom should be amended or whether a new agreement should be executed. Sir Roger Makins asked if this United States decision covered all three categories of information requested by the British. Mr. Strauss stated he did not recall exactly the language of the three categories. The information on which we could now give firm assurance related only to naval propulsion reactors.

Sir Anthony Eden expressed the gratitude of the United Kingdom at the outcome of this matter. Mr. Strauss pointed out the desirability of no public announcement until the clearance procedures with the Joint Committee had been accomplished.

2. United Kingdom Testing Plans

Sir Anthony Eden then discussed United Kingdom testing plans. The Maralinga Range in Australia is available for tests of kiloton size. The Christmas Island area appears suitable for megaton size tests. He reported that consultations with the New Zealand authorities had proceeded favorably. Maiden Island is in mind for an air base, and Christmas Island itself for an observer station. A survey of the area to pick the actual test site is under way. Sir Anthony recognized that the question of sovereignty over these islands is a matter of dormant dispute between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom plans a megaton test in the spring of 1957 and two series of kiloton tests this year—one at Montebello and one at Maralinga.

[Page 646]

3. Ballistic Missile Station

The Secretary inquired as to how the matter discussed on January 31 about a ballistic missile range station had been left.3 Sir Anthony stated that he wanted to speak about this matter to the Colonial Secretary and would advise the United States shortly.

4. United States Testing Plans

Sir Anthony asked as to any United States plans for testing in 1957. Mr. Strauss said that no Pacific tests were now planned but that small devices would be tested throughout the year in the United States. Sir Anthony pointed out that after the United States 1956 Pacific tests, there would probably be another wave of demand to stop testing which might cause some embarrassment to the United Kingdom plans for a 1957 test. Sir Anthony expressed the hope that the United States would support the United Kingdom in the matter of handling the resultant public relations problem.

5. Possibility of a Joint U.S.–U.K. Study of a Test Limitation Agreement

Sir Anthony then raised the question as to whether, as a move in the cold war, the United States and the United Kingdom could make some offer in regard to an agreement to limit, control, or restrict testing. He pointed out how this would help the domestic United Kingdom political situation in view of the widespread apprehension about radiation effects that existed there. He believed that there was little chance of Soviet acceptance and referred to Khrushchev’s recent statement to a British news correspondent indicating no real Russian support for control of tests.4

Mr. Strauss said that erroneous estimates concerning radiation hazards have been given currency recently. Total added radiation as a result of all nuclear testing to date was only a fraction of the differential between natural radiation at sea level as opposed to natural radiation at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Test produced radiation was insignificant as a factor bearing on human health. There was a good deal of speculation in regard to the size of the weapons to be exploded in the coming United States tests in the Pacific. Estimates ran as high as 40 to 50 megatons. Actually U.S. tests in the next series will be generally substantially smaller than at the last Pacific test series. Under present technology almost any yield is possible. Therefore, there is no need to test merely to see how large an explosion can be made. United States [Page 647] tests look to improving economy in the use of material and improving logistics. The trend is to smaller, lighter weapons and weapons for use in defense against aircraft.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd then made reference to the discussion at the January 31 meeting5 as to whether it could be publicly stated that the question of limitation on tests was being discussed between the United States and the United Kingdom. Then if the discussion showed that such type of agreement would be impracticable, in three or four months such negative conclusion could be announced. Mr. Strauss pointed out that this might raise great expectations which were quite unwarranted in the view of the United States. Mr. Lloyd proposed that the original announcement be so drafted as to prevent the raising of false hopes. Mr. Strauss pointed out that any joint look at this problem would require a good deal of compartmentalization since it would get quickly into weapons design data which by law the United States is foreclosed from discussion with the United Kingdom. Sir Anthony then suggested that each country might have a look at the problem separately with coordination of their conclusions.6

Sir Anthony then raised the question of the studies being made in the United States and the United Kingdom on the question of radiation and asked when the United States expected a report from its experts. Mr. Strauss pointed out that although some preliminary announcement, which would necessarily be quite general, was expected in April of this year, it would be at least two years before anything definitive could be expected. A long time would be required to gain any comprehensive information about genetic effects. Sir Roger Makins pointed out that the United Kingdom Medical Research Council was making a similar study and he expected that it too would issue some fairly general statement this spring.

Sir Anthony Eden pointed out that the lack of concrete conclusions in these preliminary statements would probably increase pressures on the United Kingdom to cease testing. Mr. Strauss pointed out that the only comprehensive information derives from Atomic Energy Commission studies which have been made since 1948/49. He pointed out the importance of the last United States Pacific tests from the point of view of learning about the phenomena of fall-out.

Mr. Lloyd said that the United Kingdom had no idea of trying to limit United States or United Kingdom freedom of action in the matter of testing.

[Page 648]

Sir Anthony congratulated the Secretary of State for his handling of the question of test moratorium in his recent press conference.7 He pointed out that he would like to be able to say something about our consideration of this subject since the British public felt that there was a sufficient problem here to warrant Government investigation of the possibility of some sort of limitation agreement.

Governor Stassen said that any announcement as to a Joint U.S.–U.K. study might be taken amiss by other countries who are directly interested in this matter.

Mr. Strauss said that there is cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom in the study of radiation effects, recalling that he and Ambassador Makins had arranged for an exchange of information on this subject more than a year ago.

Mr. Lloyd doubted that the United Kingdom could hold its present degree of public support for the next two and one-half years (until the radiation study findings were in) without saying something more on this subject.

Mr. Strauss stated that he would send on to Sir Roger Makins Dr. Libby’s8 recent speech on the question of fall-out and other pertinent information planned for early release.

Mr. Lloyd stated that the problem had two aspects—one, convincing the public that there was no harm in the testing, and two, convincing the public that it would be impractical to limit testing. The Secretary of State pointed out that this was in his judgment too negative an analysis because if testing actually was dangerous to humanity, we would certainly find some way of limiting or controlling it. He felt we should rest our case primarily on the demonstrated fact that all testing to date had merely added to the atmosphere a small fraction of the radiation differential existing between that at sea level and that at an altitude of 5,000 feet. He believed that publication of a statement that the United States and the United Kingdom were pursuing the idea of a test limitation agreement would give credence to the idea that a present danger existed. He pointed out that a negative conclusion resulting from such a study would likely produce a very bad public reaction. We are in just as good a position now as six months from now to say that a test limitation agreement would not be in our interest. He repeated his doubt that technical difficulties alone would prevent a workable limitation agreement—if humanity was actually being injured by these tests.

[Page 649]

The Secretary of State expressed the opinion that there was no broad public concern over tests in the United States. The Secretary of State suggested that the best line to take was to propagate the facts as to the insignificance of test produced radiation and to continue to exchange technical information with the United Kingdom on this subject.

Mr. Strauss pointed out that propaganda against testing had begun before the 1954 U.S. Pacific series. Critics now suggest that it is all right to test A-bombs but not H-bombs. Mr. Strauss said that if we had acceded to critics in the early 1950’s we would be in bad case now with fewer weapons and less capable ones. Sir Anthony pointed out that he had no idea of suggesting cessation of testing but merely hoped that we could say something publicly about looking into the possibilities of test regulation. He spoke of the difficulty of getting authoritative medical opinions on the degree of danger to health from testing. Mr. Strauss said that our National Academy of Science announcement this spring will be reassuring—but not conclusive.

Mr. Lloyd asked if we could not say that the United States and the United Kingdom were keeping a close joint watch on this problem. It was agreed that this would indicate belief that any danger was much more imminent than is the case.

The Secretary of State said that test limitation could be based on one of two theories—first, that it was necessary in order to prevent injury to health, and second, that it would be a useful step in the direction of arms limitation. If one based a test limitation study on health reasons, credence would be given to the claim that a present danger exists and great pressure would be exerted to force the United States and the United Kingdom to agree to some test limitation— unless conclusive information on the health question could be adduced. If one proceeds on the theory that test limitation would be a useful step in the direction of arms limitation, entirely different problems are raised, e.g., the difficulty of drawing the line between permissive and non-permissive tests, and the difficulty of effective control. The Secretary pointed out that one of the Pacific explosions in 1954 had yielded twice the estimate. A cheating nation could merely claim that a non-permissive explosion had been the result of an unintended low estimate. He pointed out the possibilities for testing in areas such as Tibet and China where responsibility for the test would not be clear. A combination of these uncertainties might result in a combined margin of uncertainty of a factor of 4. From this the Secretary concluded that as an arms limitation device, a test limitation would be an extremely fallacious approach. He concluded that we should take the line that we will exchange information with each other to make sure that no danger exists from testing. If there was serious danger we would certainly stop.

[Page 650]

Mr. Strauss stated that the latest AEC calculations indicated that it would require a thousand times more testing than tests to date to produce sufficient strontium 90 in the atmosphere to be detectable in human bones. Sir Anthony said that the danger to health theory was the most significant in his mind. He thought that a test limitation in the disarmament context was merely a cold war exercise.

Mr. Strauss stated his opinion that our detection system had an uncertainty factor of two.

Sir Anthony Eden then asked if there would be any objection if the United Kingdom was to state they were looking into this matter from the disarmament point of view. He emphasized the danger of loss of public support in the United Kingdom for their testing program.

The Secretary suggested that the only public statement on this discussion be along the lines of a statement that the United States and the United Kingdom recognize that testing would be covered in any comprehensive disarmament agreement.

The meeting closed at 1:05 p.m.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 62 D 181, CF 648. Top Secret. Drafted by Gerard C. Smith and given restricted circulation to appropriate U.S. officials on February 7. For the memorandum of the discussion at this meeting on Berlin and force reductions, as well as the list of participants, see supra.
  2. Member for Scientific Research, British Atomic Energy Authority.
  3. See Document 229.
  4. Telegram 1643 from Moscow, January 26, reported that Russian newspapers had noted that Khrushchev had had a conversation with British News of the World correspondent Stanford. (Department of State, Central Files, 961.61/1–2656)
  5. See Document 229.
  6. No mention was made of a limitation of nuclear testing in either the Declaration of Washington or the Review of World Problems.
  7. At his news conference on January 24, Dulles pointed out that U.S.–U.K. discussions on the possibility of controlling nuclear testing had been going on for several years, but that the technical difficulties in formulating a proposal that would protect the interests of East and West seemed insuperable; for the transcript of the news conference, see Department of State Bulletin, February 6, 1956, p. 198.
  8. Willard F. Libby, Atomic Energy Commissioner.