139. Information Memorandum From the Acting Director of the Office of International Scientific and Technological Affairs (Joyce) to Secretary of State Rusk 1


  • Cooperation with other countries in desalting


The President has repeatedly expressed his deep personal interest in desalting and on several occasions he has offered to share U.S. knowledge and technology with other countries (Tab A).2 The First [Page 248]International Symposium on Desalting, to be held October 3–9, 1965 in Washington, had its genesis in part in the Presidential interest in desalting (Tab B). It will provide yet another occasion for the President to address this subject, and especially its international cooperation aspects. The Committee on Foreign Desalting Programs (State, Interior, AEC, AID, OST and BOB), which you established in December 1964, has established a study group to consider what additional initiatives in international cooperation might be developed to give substance to the President’s interest in this subject.

The Committee’s study group developed several proposals ranging from an intensification of existing activities by AID, Interior and AEC under existing legislation to a large scale program (approximately $300 million for a five-year period) of grants and/or long-term low interest loans to cover capital costs of desalting plants.3


All agencies participating in the Committee concurred in the desirability of intensifying present desalting activity. However, the Department of Interior and the AEC felt that such a program would not be sufficiently responsive to the intense Presidential interest in this subject and that considerations of national prestige justify a bold large scale international desalting program. They strongly advocate the $300 million program,4 contending that the large scale program will advance desalting technology by providing an industrial base and through encouraging construction, expand the activity and competitive position internationally of the U.S. desalting industry, and will enhance the U.S. image associated with efforts to improve man’s living standards, particularly in countries deficient in fresh water.

The representatives on the Committee of State, AID, Bureau of the Budget and Dr. Hornig’s office do not share the enthusiasm of Interior and AEC for the large scale program for the following reasons:

The technology of desalting requires more research and development before it can be employed economically for most industrial and domestic uses, and considerable additional progress will have to [Page 249]be made before desalted water will be economic for agricultural use. The intensive U.S. research effort authorized by the Saline Water Conversion Act of August 11, 1965 ($200 million over a five-year period) is barely under way. While the pace of research and technology development will undoubtedly be rapid, at this time a major international construction program would be premature and would give rise to expectations which the United States could not fulfill.
Because of the rapid development that is taking place in desalting technology, desalting plants constructed in the immediate years ahead may quickly become obsolete.
Since plants constructed under the large scale program are not likely to be economic, they will have to be heavily subsidized. In the case of developing countries, to the extent that the subsidy is not covered by U.S. assistance, such plants become a drain on the resources of these countries and this would have a negative effect on their economic development.
The research and development benefits to be derived from a large scale international program are likely to be small since prototypes will in most cases be constructed in the United States. Foreign plants will reflect improvements rather than basic changes in concept.
In light of existing water shortages in the United States and the lack of a Federal program for the support of plant construction in the United States, the Department and AID would find it difficult to justify to Congress at this time a large scale program of construction assistance in foreign countries.
Problems of nuclear weapons proliferation are posed by the large scale program which contemplates at least 2 large nuclear-powered dual purpose plants, one in Israel and one in Mexico.
Announcement of a $300 million program at the Symposium would prejudice our flexibility regarding the position we might want to take on the expected request for the construction of a $185 million dual purpose power-water plant in Israel.

SCI is of the opinion that the most substantial argument developed by the proponents of the large scale program is that of advancing the national prestige of the United States. However, the technology of desalting, upon which a bid for national prestige would be made, is not yet in hand. Breakthroughs can be anticipated and major advances will undoubtedly be made. When these occur it may indeed be propitious to launch a major international program supported in part by United States resources to bring economic water to the parched areas of the earth. In the interim the United States is appropriately concentrating its efforts on research and the development of the necessary technology; in the international field it should cooperate with other countries extending them as much assistance as feasible under existing legislation.

[Page 250]

Current Status:

Interior and AEC officials have developed a joint recommendation to the President, recommending adoption of a large scale program to be announced by the President in an address to the International Symposium on October 4. This recommendation is now being considered by Secretary Udall and Chairman Seaborg.5

Dr. Hornig’s office is contemplating the convening of a meeting of principals shortly after Labor Day to discuss recommendations to the President on foreign desalting programs. The principals involved would probably be Secretary Udall, Chairman Seaborg, Dr. Hornig, Mr. David Bell, Mr. Charles Schultze, and either yourself or one of the Under Secretaries.

SCI is developing appropriate remarks on the foreign policy aspects of desalting to be used by the President should he decide to address the International Symposium in October. Similar statements are being drafted at Interior, AEC and OST.

  1. Source: Department of State,SCI Files: Lot 68 D 152. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Joseph Rosa (SCI), William Salmon (SCI), and Pollack; and cleared by Richard Cooper (E) and John Wilkes (AID). Copies were sent to Ball, Mann, and Thompson.
  2. Tabs A and B are not printed.
  3. A copy of the committee’s discussion paper is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Nuclear Desalting of Water (Nuclear Power), 3 of 3.
  4. A staff-level working group of the Committee on Desalting was unable to agree on a proposed program and, instead, presented three alternatives for the committee’s consideration on August 23. The committee was also unable to reach a conclusion, and “the Departments of State and AID were unable to state their positions on the alternatives presented.” (Memorandum from Ramey (AEC) and Holum (Interior) to Udall and Seaborg, August 26; Department of Energy, Archives, Records of the Atomic Energy Commission, Secretariat Files)
  5. In a September 13 memorandum for the file, Salmon recounted the history of the proposal: “Recently the Committee discussed three alternative courses of action; several problems were highlighted regarding the third alternative, a $300 million five-year foreign construction program. AEC and Interior agreed to develop a pro and con paper on the third alternative. Apparently, since the meeting, the pro and con paper developed into a proposal from AEC and Interior to the President urging that such a program be undertaken and announced on October 4. Mr. Pollack noted that BOB, OST, State, and AID representatives at the meeting expressed reservations about such a large-scale program at this time and did not believe the President should make such an announcement on October 4.” (Department of State, SCI Files: Lot 68 D 152) In their September 10 proposal to the President, Udall and Seaborg wrote: “The program has been developed under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Holum and Commissioner Ramey in consultation with the Interdepartmental Committee on Foreign Desalting Programs. While the program we propose is consistent with one of the alternatives considered by the Interdepartmental Committee, it has not been reviewed with the principals from the agencies. We propose to do so immediately.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Desalting Projects, Vol. 1) See also Document 140.