1. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • The Secretary
  • The Under Secretary
  • Mr. Gerard C. Smith
  • Mr. Robert Sprague

Mr. Sprague came in at his own request to discuss the background of his proposal to the President that a study group be given the job of looking into possibilities for fruitful use of the near-term future during which the US will have a margin of strategic bombardment capability over the Soviet Union.

The Secretary congratulated Mr. Sprague on the Gaither report,1 saying that he especially liked the analysis of our need to increase US striking power. He expressed the opinion that the US would be in bad trouble only if we lost this capacity to retaliate with great force in the event of Soviet aggression.

Mr. Sprague mentioned his extensive background in the atomic weapon field to indicate that his views were not the result of a sudden and surprising exposition to the effects of nuclear weapons.

He expressed concern about the prospect of the period starting about 12 to 20 years from now when both the US and the USSR would have complete capability for annihilating the other. He spoke of the dangers of errors that will exist then in estimating whether or not an attack is occurring. He mentioned a recent case of radar misinterpretation which had led to confusion.

During the next 2-1/2 years (more or less) the US position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union will be at its strongest. During this period we can knock out the Soviet Union’s military capability without taking a similar blow [Page 2]from the Soviet Union. Our present capability to do this is increasing. During this period the Soviet Union could in retaliation hurt the US, but could not put us out of action.

Sometime late next year or early in 1960, the Soviets will begin to have an operational capability in ICBMs and the present US margin of superiority will begin to fade. If we are going to force the issue, the next few years will be the time.

The public impression about the Gaither report is a false one in that it suggests that the US is presently in a position of weakness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Sprague suggested that at the present the Soviets might possibly deliver one ICBM, using a one-megaton warhead as against a US capacity to deliver thousands of megatons on Soviet targets from manned bombers.

Given this state of affairs, Mr. Sprague had thought a great deal about what the US should do. He sees only three reasonable alternatives, with possibly a fourth. They are—

Continue the present policy Only if the Soviet Union engages in aggression will we attack it.
Preventive war. The Soviet long-range striking force is on 27 bases. We could destroy this Soviet striking power, and if “clean” weapons were used we could do this without killing a great many Soviet non-combatants. Since US planes are continually flying around the world, it should be technically easier for us to mount a surprise attack than the Soviets to do the same. After striking out the Russian strategic bombardment capability, we could then dictate disarmament terms.
Conduct a “hot” negotiation. This, in effect, would be to threaten the Soviet Union that if it aid not settle on US disarmament terms we would change our present policy against preventive war.
Place reliance in God to find a solution. Mr. Sprague pointed out that during the course of his work with the Gaither panel his resort to prayer had substantially increased. He wonders what device the Lord could resort to in view of past evil actions of Soviet rulers.

Given these alternatives, Mr. Sprague feels that the better opportunities for the survival of freedom lie in alternatives 2 and 3.

He feels that we should enlist the best brains in the country to advise the President as to what the US should do during the few years in which we will retain a margin of advantage. He concluded by saying that his present approach to the Secretary had been motivated by Mr. Carlton Savage having asked him to give some of the background of his thinking, as set out in his letter to the President of November 14, 1957.2

The Secretary recalled that in June 1946 he and Senator Vandenberg had speculated as to whether a resort to force would be justified if the [Page 3]Soviets refused to accept the UN plan for internationalization of atomic energy [Baruch].3

Mr. Sprague then pointed out that technical developments in connection with thermonuclear weaponry had changed the situation since 1946 and discussed in some detail weapon effects of large-scale weapons. He pointed out that the development of large yield weapons in the 1952 and 1954 tests had been the real reason for the US deciding to get ahead with ballistic missiles. Before that time, long-range missiles did not make sense since warheads of kiloton yields did not offer an effective explosion in view of the margins of error inherent in long-range missile delivery systems.

He discussed ballistic missile guidance systems, pointing out that for the first 200 miles ballistic missiles are guided by radio. He analogized this to a gun barrel and indicated that the ratio between this atomic gun barrel and the total range of the missile was much less than the ratio between a 16” Naval gun barrel and the range of its shell fire.

Mr. Smith asked if Mr. Sprague had given thought to the alternative of some disarmament agreement negotiated without changing our present policy of using nuclear weapons only for defense and yet relying on Divine Providence. Mr. Sprague indicated that he did not have competence in the field of disarmament, but that one reason for his proposed study would be to get America’s top brain power working harder on the disarmament problem.

Mr. Sprague speculated about the effect of Sputnik on American policy, indicating that he thought in the long run it would be beneficial. Americans with access to top intelligence information were not surprised at Sputnik or the missile capability which it evidenced.

The Secretary said that he had long felt that no man should arrogate the power to decide that the future of mankind would benefit by an action entailing the killing of tens of millions of people, and he believed that the President agreed with him.

He asked Mr. Sprague if he had any concrete proposals. Mr. Sprague replied that his idea for a further study of the matter was his concrete proposal for the present. He expressed the opinion in closing that making this proposal to the President completed his responsibility in connection with the Gaither panel study.

The Secretary thanked Mr. Sprague for his presentation and said he would like to think over the points Mr. Sprague had discussed.4

  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Dulles Papers, General Memoranda of Conversation. Top Secret; Personal and Private. Initialed by Herter. A note on the source text indicates Dulles saw the memorandum.
  2. The Report to the President by the Security Resources Panel of the ODM Science Advisory Committee on Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age (Gaither Report), dated November 7, 1957, is printed as NSC 5724 in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XIX, pp. 638 661. The report is named for the Panel’s first Director, H. Rowan Gaither, Jr., who was succeeded by Sprague in September 1957. For information on the origins of the Gaither Panel, see ibid., pp. 628 629.
  3. Not found.
  4. Brackets in the source text. In 1946, Bernard M. Baruch was U.S. Representative to the General, U.N. Atomic Energy Commission.
  5. Dulles met with General Alfred M. Gruenther (Ret.) on February 19 concerning a potential advisory council on disarmament; see Document 139.