304. Memorandum of Conversation0



June 1963


  • United States
    • The President
    • The Secretary of State
    • Ambassador Bruce
    • Mr. McGeorge Bundy
    • Mr. William R. Tyler
  • United Kingdom
    • Prime Minister Macmillan
    • Lord Home
    • Sir Harold Caccia
    • Sir David Ormsby Gore
    • Lord Hailsham
    • Mr. Philip de Zulueta


  • Nuclear Matters, including forthcoming test ban discussions with the USSR

The Prime Minister began with a discussion of the importance of the test ban. It was our one great hope for progress toward peace and we ought to make a really big try. All the rest was really nonsense. We should discuss this problem, and trivial problems of weapons and internal organization of the alliance should be put aside as having really no comparable significance. The Russians may or may not be ready for a real agreement, and they might or might not be really ready to trust us, but we must try—and here the Prime Minister complimented the President upon his success in preventing American generals from making the threatening noises which they frequently made in General Eisenhower’s time.

As the Prime Minister saw it, there were three arguments to be pressed with the Russians:

If we could not get an agreement now, both sides would have to go forward with the effort to develop an anti-missile missile. This would require more and more effort and expense on unproductive weapons, in an endless competition of emptiness. Surely this matter of cost and irrelevant effort was important to Khrushchev.
While the great nuclear powers were in this endless competition to the clouds, other small but dangerous forces would be growing up from the earth. We could offer to keep such small powers out of the game.
We might be able to get 60-70 nations to join in a test ban treaty, and this would create a big pull against further nuclear efforts. China? [Page 753] France? Surely somehow the United States and United Kingdom could deal with France so that it would not pose a threat to the Soviet Union—and indeed the Prime Minister doubted if the Russians were frightened of the French (later in the evening the Prime Minister remarked that he had always wanted to bring France into the exercise, but that General Eisenhower had not agreed with him, in the light of the requirements of the McMahon Act).

China? China was more of a problem for the Russians, but it was conceivable that it would be impressive if there could be a joint note with the Russians to the Chinese.

The Prime Minister then remarked that nearly every time anyone got near to a test ban agreement, someone who wanted testing would invent a new reason to prevent such an agreement. The Prime Minister referred bitterly to the effect of the idea of decoupling in this connection.

So the question arose of the instructions to Hailsham and Harriman—the Prime Minister remarked on the outstanding qualities of both emissaries, and said that he thought the problem of what we could propose was purely political—what can we get away with? The difficulty is to know what really is worthwhile. We must have no more dreary Geneva discussions of technical details—we must somehow get a different vista of the future. Khrushchev was a practical, hard, and brutal man. He might be happy with the current balance and fearful of change through further competition, so that it might be to his advantage to get a settlement now. Great powers were jealous and critical of small powers, and that it was in their interest for smaller powers to conform.

So our problem was to work out the line of instructions. The negotiators should play by ear, quick or slow as circumstances suggest, and not hampered too much by technical advice—which changed in any event every six months.

The President said he felt indeed that this was the summer for an agreement. He also agreed that the experts were often unreliable, and remarked that we had not learned as much from our atmospheric tests as had been predicted. However, the U.S. Government was not unanimous; there were serious divisions within it on the nature of the test ban problem.

Moreover, American opinion was much affected by previous Soviet behavior in such matters as the broken test-ban moratorium and the attempt to introduce missiles in Cuba. The President did not wish to make basic technical judgments this evening. And as he faced the broad political problem he must consider whether it would be better not to have a treaty than to have one which might be badly beaten in the Senate—a close contest might move us forward, but a bad defeat might be destructive.

[Page 754]

The President wondered whether in fact a series of underground tests could be conducted without detection. There was a difference of view here, as there was on the question of how much could be learned from clandestine underground testing of any sort. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had one opinion and the President another which was on the whole that clandestine testing would not be decisive. This was a matter on which he would address himself to the Prime Minister later, and in two respects. (1) Could the Soviets run a series of clandestine tests? (2) How much could such tests alter the balance of power? The balance of power of course was a subtle thing. The President was inclined to share the Prime Minister’s view that we have much too much nuclear strength, but it has had a part to play in international psychology. The French will have “enough” in 4 or 5 years; the U.K. has “enough” now. But we have more, and it has some political importance. If the USSR should seem to make gains, it might be helped psychologically. But if we can get a new view of the technical considerations involved, we might well give instructions to our negotiators.

The third question which seemed to the President central was China. A Chinese bomb would be important, especially psychologically, and the question would arise whether China could be bound by an agreement and, if so, how?

The Prime Minister wondered how new tests on our side would affect Chinese behavior. He also wondered whether the Soviets would gain anything by underground testing or whether they must go to atmospheric testing for any serious results. (This theme recurred several times later in the discussion, on the British side.)

The President remarked that we would have to test if the Chinese tested. On the other hand, if the Chinese could be restrained, that would be the most powerful argument in favor of a test ban. That subject we must try to discuss with the Russians.

A next question was the relation of the French to a test ban. How could they be worked in? We think this is a workable problem.

And, third, was the relation of the MLF to a test ban—and the President indicated his feeling that if in fact a test ban agreement came in sight, it would be desirable and possible to modify our planning for the multilateral force.

The President said that the Chinese are now testing missile systems. From what information we have, these are rather primitive.

Macmillan said that Cuba showed that the important things today “are the pawns and not the queens.” Small countries and highly localized acute problems can endanger the peace of the world by bringing the powerful countries into competition and conflict with each other. He said that one of the curious results of Cuba was that both Cuba and Berlin were now equally vulnerable and tended to cancel each other out. The [Page 755] President said that the Russians may have undertaken their desperate gamble in Cuba in order to try to give the world the appearance of having changed the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States, had their plan succeeded.

Lord Home said he thought that nondissemination of nuclear weapons was of very great importance as an appeal to the Soviets in relation to Germany.

The President said we really had to come to a decision on two points with regard to the test ban talks: (1) What do we say? (2) What are the means at our disposal?

There was a question of whether the Russians would be able to test if we limited ourselves to national means of detection. We would have to ask ourselves three questions: (1) What kind of tests would they be able to get away with? (2) Just how much additional knowledge would such tests be likely to provide them with? (3) Would the Russians then be in a position to apply this knowledge so as to increase significantly their nuclear potential?

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 7 US/Kennedy. Top Secret. Drafted by Tyler and approved by the White House on July 12. Birch Grove was Prime Minister Macmillan’s private residence.