166. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Proposed U.S. Policy on Nuclear Testing


  • State
    • The Secretary
    • The Under Secretary
    • Ambassador James J. Wadsworth, S/AE
    • Mr. Philip J. Farley, S/AE
    • Mr. Fisher Howe, S/S
    • Mr. Vincent Baker, S/AE
  • Defense
    • Mr. Donald A. Quarles
    • Lt. General Clovis E. Byers
    • Captain Clifford S. Foster
  • AEC
    • Mr. John A. McCone
    • General Alfred D. Starbird
  • White House
    • Mr. Gordon Gray
    • Dr. James R. Killian
    • Dr. Jerome Wiesner
  • CIA
    • Mr. Allen Dulles

Secretary Dulles stated that in his view action will be required in a short time to alter our present policy on unrestricted testing of nuclear weapons. The UK is disposed to go along with a change in this policy in view of amendments which have been made in the Atomic Energy Act.1 There is less certainty that the French will do likewise. In any event, there is much to be done within this government and between governments before a change in policy can be announced. He said that Chairman [Page 625] McCone had given him a paper suggesting a course of action whereby tests could be conducted underground without limit, or continued above ground so long as the off site fission yield was limited to the equivalent of 1 megaton per year for the U.S. and for the USSR.2 The conclusion in the Department, he said, is that these measures are not adequate to meet the international situation. We reach this conclusion regretfully for we recognize the importance of testing and would like to see it continued. The Secretary stated he would nevertheless, in the present circumstances, feel that he had to recommend to the President a contingent suspension of all nuclear explosions except those for peaceful uses under international supervision. The contingencies would be: 1) progress in installing a system for monitoring a test agreement; and 2) progress in future disarmament steps, in particular the cut-off. He did not believe retention of underground testing or limitation of testing to an agreed maximum in the yield would be adequate. He did not say this because he liked to; his original reaction had been favorable to this kind of program. However, he did not believe the Soviets would agree to it, and we would be subject to severe psychological reverses if an agreed monitoring system emerged from the Geneva talks and were not put into effect. Suspension of tests, he said, can be looked upon as a first step toward a disarmament agreement. We realize that it is not disarmament but it is part of the disarmament package. If it is made contingent on further steps, we will have shown a desire to progress toward a disarmament agreement. Such a step would also bring a certain degree of penetration of the Iron Curtain in this field which could be useful as a basis for further steps. On the basis of these factors he felt that we should not stand on present policy.

Mr. Quarles said that he shared Secretary Dulles’ view of the AEC proposal. He considered it to be a rational proposal if we had a real freedom of choice; but when we embarked on the Geneva exercise we abandoned that course and by implication committed ourselves to embark on test suspension if inspection could be agreed upon. He accepted Secretary Dulles’ judgment that politically this is the situation, and that we cannot back out of it. The logic of the Geneva exercise seems to be that a reliable system can be agreed upon for larger above-ground tests, and for some small above-ground tests, and for some underground tests. If we agree on inspection and control, we should limit our political agreement to suspend tests to those greater than the minimal value which can be monitored by the system. Thus we must include not only explosions for peaceful purposes but tests below the minimum yield that can be reliably [Page 626] detected. Also, we should make effective inspection a condition precedent to test suspension.

Dr. Killian said he had at first shared the AEC view but now shared the views that had been expressed in the meeting. The problem was not one of radiation hazard but one of another kind as a result of the Geneva discussions. He agreed with Mr. Quarles that there is no point in trying to eliminate tests below the level that can be enforced.

Dr. Wiesner added that the Soviets can pick the size of tests to be prohibited if we get several alternative monitoring systems agreed at Geneva—if they want maximum elimination of tests, they must accept broad inspection.

Mr. Farley pointed out that several alternative systems had in fact been discussed: 1) a system of 650 stations which, on the basis of the standards adopted by the conference, would detect and identify explosions down to 1 kiloton; and 2) a 170-station system which, it was estimated, would detect and identify with 90% reliability explosions down to 5 kilotons, with a limited capability for smaller shots.

Dr. Wiesner pointed out that there is a level somewhere below the 25 kiloton level where the Soviets could make greater progress than we could by continued testing.

Mr. McCone said that in examining this problem we must also consider current military needs. The emphasis in present tests is on development of defensive systems: warheads for the anti-missile missile, for ground-to-air missiles, and for air-to-air missiles. The enemy has emphasized fallout, but the enemy’s purpose is to stop our development of defensive weapons. There are other areas of current military need: for example, light weapons of the explosive power that the Defense Department says it needs. Now we have achieved only part of the yield desired for the Polaris warhead. Our clean bombs are large; they are not field weapons. We need clean bombs for field use. He said that he had submitted the AEC plan for limitation of tests very informally. He recognized that it would be difficult to phase this proposal with the Geneva conclusions. However, although he had not been in the Government at the time the Geneva talks were undertaken, it had been his impression we had not committed ourselves to a change in policy in undertaking the talks. We must weigh such a change, he thought, from the standpoint of the security of this country.

Secretary Dulles said that he was conscious of national security requirements. However, unless we take a radical step now, our failure to do so will in effect be a step to “go it alone” as a militaristic nation in world opinion without friends and allies. This will become apparent in the course of the year. You could count now nations that will turn from us. Many say it is irrational to turn from us; we have a powerful case for continued testing. But the Government of Japan cannot stand with us; [Page 627] India will not; the Governments likely to come into power in the UK and in Germany will not. Few will want to be our friends and allies, want us to station our facilities on their soil and be willing to stand with us. Stopping tests, of course, exposes us to certain dangers; but the danger of being isolated, encircled and strangled is even greater than the threat of a massive atomic attack so long as we retain our retaliatory power.

Mr. Quarles said we do lose militarily in a test cessation. Consequently, we would hope to associate tests with nuclear cut-off or other measures that are in our interest. But now we are talking of the separation of test cessation from other measures, at least temporarily.

Secretary Dulles stated that we will be separating nuclear tests only temporarily from other measures. In this connection he observed that 36 months seemed longer than necessary, and that a 24-month suspension would be very much better from the standpoint of keeping people in the laboratories. He also mentioned that Section e in the draft before the meeting seemed to be too narrowly drawn and did not make clear that explosions for peaceful purposes would be continued.

General Starbird, connecting on Section e,3 said that Project Plowshare would be slowed up by its provisions. Under it we would either have to reveal advance designs or to employ old designs for peaceful uses. The same sensitive designs are needed for our best weapons as are needed for peaceful uses, namely, clean and small explosive devices.

The Secretary said it was not our intention to give away design data.

General Starbird thought peaceful-uses explosions could be used to conceal weapons tests if there was not very close international supervision.

Mr. Quarles suggested as a matter of procedure that the meeting should develop major points of substance through discussion and refer the proposed policy back to the drafting group for revision in light of the discussion. Secretary Dulles mentioned that we have a time problem in planning our procedures. The report of the UN Radiation Committee would be made public Sunday.4 This would lead to distorted but nevertheless unfavorable criticism of the U.S. position on tests. Shortly thereafter the Geneva technical talks were expected to end. Then, in mid-September, the UN General Assembly would begin.

[Page 628]

Mr. Farley stressed the need to keep the initiative by following up promptly on the Geneva talks. He pointed out that any delay would lead to a Soviet propaganda barrage, which in turn could be used to make any subsequent change in U.S. policy appear to be a result of Soviet pressure.

Mr. Quarles outlined the following points of substance relating to the proposed revisions in the policy. In paragraph 5a (1) and throughout the text he proposed the substitution of 24 months for 36 months as the duration of the suspension. Paragraph 5a (1) also should be amended to reflect the fact that the agreement by which tests would be suspended would include provision for the installation of an effective system of inspection. The paragraph should also be revised to show that testing could be continued below the level of yields reliably detectable above ground and underground.

Secretary Dulles asked if this meant that we would keep our freedom to test below 5 KT if the system presently under discussion in Geneva were agreed, and if Mr. Quarles were satisfied that this would be in our advantage. Mr. Quarles said we should retain such freedom, and that he proceeded on the assumptions: first, that anything we cannot detect the Soviets will do, and secondly, if they are going to do it, there are ways that we also can use experimentation in the lower and fractional KT range to advantage. Referring again to paragraph 5a (1), Mr. Quarles said that we should make as a condition precedent to any test cessation that a method for inspecting that cessation must be agreed.

Dr. Killian pointed out that in incorporating the idea of marginal yield in the policy, and avoiding any obligation to suspend tests below that value, we afforded an opportunity for the laboratories to continue useful work.

Mr. Quarles, referring to paragraph 5a (2), said the draft should clearly indicate that the inspection system referred to was the same as in paragraph 5a (1). He presumed this was the intent of the present draft. In paragraph 5b of the draft Mr. Quarles suggested the substitution of 24 months for 36. In paragraph 5c he felt a revision should make clear that we would refrain indefinitely from nuclear tests under two conditions, both of which must be met: first, that the suspension plan and system of inspection in paragraph 5a (1) was in effect and operating satisfactorily; and secondly, that an agreed plan for the cut-off of the production of fissionable materials for weapons purposes was operating satisfactorily. If there were good faith performance of both agreements, the test suspension would continue.

Secretary Dulles said that if you had a 90% probability of detection in the 5 KT range you would have perhaps 50% probability in certain ranges below that. If tests in these lower ranges were detected, he asked whether you could determine that the test was above or below the allowable [Page 629] 5 KT limit. If you detect a test can you prove that the Soviets have violated an agreement, he asked.

Mr. Quarles said it would not be ascertainable with precision; that it would require adjudication; but that you also have an area of uncertainty that would require adjudication in distinguishing earthquakes from nuclear explosions. Mr. Farley mentioned that this would be relatively less difficult since you would, under the system we propose, be able to investigate earthquakes on the spot.

Mr. McCone said that there has to date been only one nuclear explosion underground, namely, the Rainier shot of 1.7 KT. We are, then, designing a system to detect underground explosions on the basis of hypothetical conclusions on which there is little evidence to date.

Secretary Dulles asked whether Defense could carry on necessary testing underground. Mr. Quarles said we also need tests above ground to determine the capabilities of defensive weapons. Underground tests would give some but not all of the information needed.

Mr. McCone said that our experience with the Soviets has been that they won’t talk about things in which they are behind and hope to catch up. They will not, for example, talk about cessation of production of fissionable material. Our halting of laboratory work through a test suspension would tend to equalize our position into one of stalemate with the USSR. He wondered if we could have a shorter period for a test suspension in order that the competent organization within our laboratories might not be lost.

Mr. Quarles thought paragraph 5b of the proposed policy meant we would try to negotiate in good faith on implementation of the cut-off during the period of the test suspension. Mr. McCone said this was not his understanding of the proposal. It was our attempt to get Soviet acceptance of the principle of the cut-off, with its implementation to be negotiated during the test suspension, which had failed in London. It was hard to envisage reaching agreement with the Soviets on the cut-off at the outset of the test suspension.

Dr. Killian asked about the duration of the test cycle, whether it was not still two years. General Starbird said the cycle was now almost continuous since the laboratories prepared for two years for tests in the Pacific area and conducted simultaneously a two-year cycle of preparations for tests on alternate years in the United States.

Dr. Killian mentioned that the laboratories under the test suspension as proposed by Defense could concentrate work on excepted tests in the smaller ranges.

Dr. Wiesner referred to the 650-stations system discussed in Geneva which could detect tests down to 1 kiloton, and asked whether the Defense Department would want to conduct tests of, say 50 tons even if [Page 630] that system were in operation. Mr. Quarles said yes, that all tests below the reliable range of detection should be continued.

Mr. Allen Dulles said that CIA estimates the Soviet would not attempt to violate an agreement not to conduct any tests if there were substantial risk of being caught; instead, it would either conform or find excuse to denounce the agreement.

The meeting adjourned with agreement that the drafting group should prepare a draft reflecting the suggestions that had been made. Secretary Dulles added that the Department of State would reserve on the continuation of tests in the smaller ranges, and noted that AEC also reserved its position on the proposed draft.

  1. Source: Department of State, Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 64 D 199. Secret. Drafted by Vincent Baker and approved by Executive Secretary Fisher Howe on August 15.
  2. In accordance with provisions in P.L. 85–479, approved on July 2, 1958 (72 Stat. 276), the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (68 Stat. 936) was amended to allow increased exchange of atomic weapons information and material with allies, specifically the United Kingdom. On July 3, Eisenhower sent Congress the text of an agreement with the United Kingdom to exchange classified atomic information for mutual defense purposes so as to permit the British to purchase a U.S.-built nuclear submarine reactor with a 10-year nuclear fuel supply. Under the terms of the new law, Congress had 30 days to veto the agreement, which it did not, and therefore the agreement became effective.
  3. See footnote 6, Document 165.
  4. Section e of paragraph 5 of Enclosure 1 to Document 165. Subsequent references to subparagraphs of paragraph 5 are also to this document.
  5. On August 10, the U.N. Secretary-General released the 228–page report of the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. One of the principal conclusions of the report was that more research was needed to assess the effect of low-level doses of radiation received over long periods of time. The Committee stated that even the smallest amounts of radiation could produce deleterious genetic, and perhaps somatic effects. (U.N. Doc. A/3838 and Corr. 1) For an extract from the report, see Documents on Disarmament, 1945–1959, pp. 1056–1074.