15. Oral Message From Chairman Khrushchev to President Johnson 1

Dear Mr. President:

I have studied your oral message delivered on February twenty-second through our Ambassador Dobrynin.2 In that message you raise the question that our two countries should agree on and put forward a joint declaration of, or make public in some other appropriate way, their intention to cut production of fissionable materials for military purposes. You express the view that this would have an encouraging effect on world public opinion and that it would give new impetus to the talks on disarmament.

I want to tell you at once in this connection that we, naturally, are ready to explore jointly all ways, to use all opportunities that might lead to an improvement of the international situation and to the strengthening of trust among states and that might facilitate progress in the disarmament negotiations. The Soviet Government firmly holds the view that to this end now certain preconditions have developed in the world. The conclusion of the treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater and after it the understanding that has been [Page 32]reached on not putting into orbit objects with nuclear weapons aboard,3 as is now being widely recognized, have helped clear somewhat the international horizon. We were also able to reach mutual understanding on the question of some reduction of military budgets.4 Now it is necessary to proceed further and to try to reach an understanding on further steps directed at reducing the arms race and at creating increasingly favorable conditions for solving the cardinal problem—that of general and complete disarmament.

The Soviet Government has expressed in the Eighteen Nation Committee among other places, its considerations with regard to those measures which we believe desirable to undertake in this direction. You know, of course, our position—we propose to agree on the withdrawal of foreign troops from the territories of others or, by way of beginning, on the reduction of the numerical strength of such forces, on the further reduction of military budgets, on the signing of a nonaggression pact between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Treaty states, on preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons, on the creation of nuclear-free zones in various parts of the world and so on. We are convinced that these are both the most effective, from the standpoint of reducing international tension, and the most realistic measures in present conditions.

However, we gave our full attention to the suggestion set forth in your message, that an understanding be reached on a certain reduction of the production of fissionable materials for military purposes. After thinking it over and consulting our specialists I come to the conclusion that it may be worthwhile to try to seek a mutual understanding in this area also.

Of course, as I understand it, you yourself proceed from the assumption that a reduction of the production of fissionable materials for military purposes does not represent any step forward in terms of actual disarmament. Indeed, in this case neither nuclear weapons stockpiled by the states are to be destroyed nor is even further stockpiling to be stopped.

I shall confide that our specialists have also drawn my attention to the numerous remarks in the American press as well as to the statements of some of your officials to the effect that for two decades the United States has accumulated a quantity of fissionable materials, which in general exceeds all thinkable and even unthinkable requirements for the production of nuclear weapons. If this is really true, it means that a kind [Page 33]of a crisis of overproduction is about to happen in the field of fissionable materials in the United States.

But no matter what the situation is, I admit that the very fact of agreement between our countries about the reduction of production of fissionable materials for military purposes can have positive significance as evidence of our intention to take the way not of further increasing the nuclear weapons race but to go along the way of its gradual slowdown. It is precisely on this basis that we are saying that we are ready to search for such agreement.

You express the opinion that in this field we could take practical steps in accordance with the concept of “mutual example.” I agree with you in this respect. Reducing production of fissionable materials for military purposes is the very field where apparently it is easier to act on the basis of “mutual example.” But then it is necessary of course to seek sincerely an actual reduction of production of fissionable materials since this involves national security and each side takes a certain risk. What good could come out, for example, if one of the sides took the path of closing some enterprises producing fissionable materials while at the same time put into operation others and more powerful at that?

If we have mutual understanding concerning the necessity of a wholly sincere approach by both sides to the question of reducing production of fissionable materials for military purposes and taking into consideration all actually existing circumstances, then I think we could come to agreement. I, for example, even now could inform you that the Soviet Government would be prepared to announce the ending of the construction of two new large reactors for the production of plutonium. However, our specialists have informed me that the United States, having adopted a decision to stop four old plutonium reactors of low power, at the same time is starting a new reactor NPR in Hanford, which has more than twice as much power as all four reactors to be stopped taken together.

Now as for a reduction of the production of uranium-235. Here, too, certain circumstances should be taken into account. For instance, you refer to the announcement of the British Government concerning the ending of the production of uranium-235 for military purposes. It is no secret however that at the same time new large plutonium plants are being put into operation in England. And in France after the forthcoming starting of a large gas-diffusion plant in Pierrelatte, the production of uranium-235 as reported will reach one-fourth of the American level. All this will more than compensate for the stopping of the production of uranium-235 for military purposes at a small plant in England.

I consider it necessary to draw your attention to all this because it is already important to avoid now any reservations which in the future could lead to misunderstandings and to complications that would damage [Page 34]mutual confidence. Your words that the reductions of the production of fissionable materials for military purposes need not be by an equal amount I interpret as an indication that you too take this into account.

So, let us try. If it turns out that a possibility really exists to take agreed steps in the field of the reduction of the production of fissionable materials for military purposes then there might also become more practicable such prospects as the extension of the transfer for peaceful use of such materials out of current production or of accumulated stockpiles. And this would give a considerable impetus to the development of international cooperation in the field of peaceful application of the energy of the atomic nucleus including the implementation of large projects for instance in the field of desalinization of sea water which a number of states need so badly. But let us not forestall events.

You suggest that the British Government should also be drawn in our discussions. We have no objection to this.

Here, Mr. President, are considerations which came to my mind with regard to your oral message of February twenty-second. In transmitting this message to our Ambassador a wish was expressed that the exchange of views on this question as before be of a confidential nature. I agree with this.

Sincerely,5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Head of State Correspondence File, Pen Pal Correspondence, Khrushchev (2), Box 8. No classification marking. Attached is a March 2 memorandum from Thompson to Secretary Rusk, indicating that Dobrynin gave Thompson the oral message at 10 a.m. that morning. After reading the message, Thompson remarked that “the reply did not refer to the President’s suggestion that we might accept inspection of closed plants. The Ambassador said he had no further instructions, but remarked that traditional Soviet policy was ’no inspection without actual disarmament.’”
  2. Document 11.
  3. Reference apparently is to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 1884 (XVIII), adopted by acclamation on October 18, 1963, in which all nations were called upon to refrain from stationing in outer space or placing in orbit objects carrying nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Text in Documents on Disarmament, 1963, p. 538.
  4. An apparent reference to parallel reductions of military budgets in the Soviet Union and the United States.
  5. Printed from an unsigned copy.