130. Editorial Note

In 1963 the Kennedy administration began negotiations on a proposal for the peaceful use of nuclear energy to fuel desalination plants in regions lacking fresh drinking water. Under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States and 10 other nations, including Israel and Tunisia, met twice to discuss the proposal. (Circular telegram 1474, February 11, 1964; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1964–66, AE 6)

President Johnson signaled his strong interest in the project and his belief that science would play an increasingly central role in international affairs on February 6, 1964, in a speech delivered at the 18th annual dinner of the Weizmann Institute of Science in New York. The President announced that the United States and Israel had begun negotiations “on cooperative research in using nuclear energy to turn salt water into fresh water.” He acknowledged the technical difficulties inherent in the problem, but noted that “the opportunities are so vast and the stakes are so high that it is worth all of our efforts and worth all of our energy, for water means life, and water means opportunity, and water means prosperity for those who never knew the meaning of those words. Water can banish hunger and can reclaim the desert and change the course of history.” Johnson also said that the United States was equally ready to cooperate through the IAEA with other countries anxious to cure water shortages. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book I, pages 270–272)

The Soviet Union was one of the first nations to express interest in working with the United States on desalination. On April 30 McGeorge Bundy wrote the President acknowledging that there might be opposition to cooperation in such a sensitive area, but that “our judgment is that this one can be handled in such a way that in this case the criticism should be manageable. We are not dealing with highly classified materials, and the object is one of cooperation in which with any luck both sides would gain.” (Memorandum to the President, April 30; Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, McGeorge Bundy, Box 1) Correspondence between Johnson and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev on this issue is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, Volume XI, Documents 2224 and 26.

Planning for the desalination project with Israel proceeded. In a toast on June 1, during Prime Minister Eshkol’s visit to Washington, President Johnson said: “Mr. Prime Minister, you told me only this morning that water was blood for Israel. So we shall make a joint attack on Israel’s water shortage through the highly promising technique of [Page 236] desalting. Indeed, let us hope that this technique will bring benefit to all of the peoples of the parched Middle East.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book I, page 732)