11. Memorandum from Belk to Bundy, May 151

[Facsimile Page 1]

The paper immediately following on “Weapons Custody and Use” is a brief version of the longer paper sent to you by Mr. Seaborg. The paper is primarily a chronological history of the subject. The AEC appears to believe that it should continue to have custody of nuclear weapons and has chosen this rather poor way of saying it. The President should be briefed on this subject soon, but I should hope that someone would present the issues to him in a clearer way than does this paper. Is this a subject for the morning meeting?

Sam Belk
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Maintaining Civilian Control

Legislative history of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was the question of civilian versus military control of atomic energy. The Act authorized the President to deliver fissionable materials or weapons to the armed services and to authorize the armed forces to produce weapons. Under peacetime conditions the development, production, and custody of nuclear weapons would remain with the AEC. In August 1950, however, some non-nuclear components were transferred to bases in the UK and in the next two years more were moved to U.S. vessels and overseas bases under DOD custody. On April 6, 1951, President Truman authorized the transfer of [text not declassified]. AEC Chairman Dean considered this as the “end of the Commission’s civilian responsibility over a portion of our war reserve of atomic weapons.”

Breakdown of AEC Custody

By the spring of 1953, AEC had transferred [text not declassified] to military custody. Since these non-nuclear components would be of no use if nuclear components were not readily available, President [Typeset Page 70] Eisenhower, on June 20, 1953, on the recommendation of the National Security Council, authorized transfer of nuclear components equal in number. Requests from DOD up to October 1954 would have employed about 45 percent of the stockpile, and as a result DOD would control approximately half of the national stockpile. Therefore, in December 1954, Mr. Strauss recommended to the President that, rather than transfer custody from AEC to DOD, AEC retain “custody” of the dispersed weapons. However, the Commission agreed with the Secretary of Defense that custody should be transferred to DOD, and the President authorized the transfer not only of atomic but also thermonuclear weapons. The Commission opposed the transfer of thermonuclear weapons and on August 20, 1955 the President directed that AEC retain custody of all dispersed weapons with a yield of [text not declassified]. Transfers were made under a set of Interim Principles jointly approved by AEC and DOD, but problems arose frequently regarding (1) assignment of AEC “custodians” and (2) the necessity for loading complete atomic weapons in aircraft. Final agreement on procedures, June 4, 1956, permitted AEC-designated military “custodians” and the loading of “complete” atomic weapons in aircraft.

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Emergency Transfer and Use

The issue of automatic transfer of the entire stockpile to military units under emergency conditions was settled by a Presidential directive of April 4, 1956 authorizing such transfer, and implemented by a Memo of Understanding developed by AEC and DOD, effective June 1, 1956. This transfer policy raised more sharply than ever before the importance of defining national policy on their employment.

NSC policy provided that in event of hostilities the U.S. would consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions, and that the U.S. could not afford to preclude itself from using nuclear weapons even in a local situation.

[text not declassified]

Peacetime Operations Involving Atomic Weapons

Although AEC recognized the necessity for use of war-reserve weapons for operational readiness it was concerned about an inadvertent atomic explosion and recommended using training shapes for exercises and maneuvers. JCS study of the matter concluded that the use of war-reserve weapons was essential to the maintenance of acceptable readiness standards; that safety [Facsimile Page 4] features were adequate; and large-scale procurement and use of trainers and shapes was unnecessary and undesirable. AEC finally recommended that the problem be presented to the President for decision; i.e. the problem of the degree to which war-reserve weapons might be used in exercises not directly related to operational readiness. The President approved the original DOD [Typeset Page 71] proposal on November 26, 1960, which included a reporting procedure to the AEC.

Transfer and Dispersal: The Last Stage

The decision in the spring of 1956 marked the end of any concerted effort on the part of the Commission to invoke the principle of civilian control. Increasing requests from DOD for relaxing control on nuclear weapons, resulted in changes in the existing dispersal agreement, and a revised Presidential directive reduced the JCS reserve stockpile in AEC custody to such a low level that it was necessary to revise the emergency transfer agreement of 1956. The revised memorandum, approved by the President on February 3, 1960, eliminated the requirement for automatic transfer and assigned responsibility for such transfers to the JCS or higher authority. The Presidential directive setting the number of weapons to be transferred in fiscal year 1960 and fiscal year 1961 left less than 10 percent of the national stockpile in AEC control.

  1. Transmits paper on “Weapons Custody and Use.” No classification marking on Belk memorandum. Attachment is Top Secret. 4 pp. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, ACDA, Disarmament, AEC General, 11/60–11/61.