166. Memorandum From Admiral Lewis J. Strauss to Former President Eisenhower1


Attention to the debates in the United Nations since the end of May must convince the observer that an end to the trouble in the Near East is not in sight. The introduction of a new and dramatic element will be required to establish a climate in which peace can begin to be negotiated. The resources of diplomacy appear exhausted, and the “lie direct” has been exchanged so often that men can hardly be expected to reach agreement by rational discussion in the atmosphere which has been created.

The two fundamental problems in the Near East are (a) water, and (b) displaced populations. It is these issues basically which have exacerbated international relationships in that area over the years, and they are not to be resolved by political or military measures. By a simple, bold, and imaginative step, it is in our power to solve both problems.

Let a corporation be formed with a charter resembling that of Comsat, with the Government subscribing to half of the stock, the balance to be offered for public subscription in the security markets of the world. The amount thus to be raised, say $200,000,000, would be used to begin construction of the first of three large nuclear plants for the dual purpose of producing kilowatts of electrical energy and desalting sea water, with emphasis on the latter purpose.

Two of the installations would be located at appropriate points on the Mediterranean coast of Israel and a smaller one at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba in either Jordan or Israel, as the most suitable terrain may dictate. Design and construction contracts would be let on bids in the several countries which have had experience in building large nuclear reactors, i.e., the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S.S.R.

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The cost of the plants, beyond the sum raised by subscription to the common stock, would be financed in succeeding steps by an international marketing of convertible debentures. These would bear no interest for the first years (approximately the time required to construct the first plant).

Operation of the plants would be made the responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency, of which agency each of the major belligerents, fortunately, is a member, and that agency would also have jurisdiction and control of reprocessing of fuel elements to insure that all nuclear material was accounted for. The International Atomic Energy Agency would also sell the power and water and service the debentures with the proceeds.

During the Eisenhower Administration, the United States allocated for peaceful uses overseas considerably more than sufficient uranium to fuel these installations, and it is still available. The first plant would be designed to produce daily the equivalent of some 450,000,000 gallons of fresh water (incidentally, more than the combined flow of the three main tributaries which make up the Jordan River). It would also produce an amount of power which, though in excess of the present needs of the area, would attract industry and would be used to pump the fresh water into the water-starved areas of Israel, Jordan, and other Arab countries—perhaps even including part of Egypt east of the Nile Valley.

The introduction of fresh water from all three plants into the arid and semi-arid areas would have the effect of opening to settlement many hundred square miles which heretofore have never supported human life (other than on a nomadic basis), and the controversy over the division of the Jordan River would become de minimis.

The work of building the great plants, laying the pipe lines, constructing reservoirs, power lines, irrigation ditches, etc., will absorb the unskilled labor of thousands of displaced persons. When the plants are in operation, the labor force could be settled in irrigated areas under conditions far superior to any life that they have ever experienced.

Solely as a measure of magnitude, it might be noted that the completed project will represent substantially less than one year’s expenditure on the moon program. It will pay for itself and return income in perpetuity, retiring the borrowings incurred and rewarding the governments and individuals with vision enough to have subscribed to it initially.

Cooperation of the Arab and Israeli governments will be necessary in order to agree upon a modus vivendi for allocating water and power, and it will be apparent that any government which simply declined to discuss or participate in such a cooperative arrangement would have to answer to its citizens sooner or later.

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Were the President of the United States to electrify the world by such a proposal, as President Eisenhower did in his Atoms-for-Peace speech to the United Nations in 1953, it would be hailed and welcomed by millions who now can see no way out of the morass in which the powers are presently floundering with its threat of triggering more widespread war. The proposal might well be the beginning of a new life in the lands of the oldest civilizations.

The proposal, of course, does not settle the boundary disputes and other acute issues now confronting the belligerents, but their settlement would be immensely accelerated and facilitated by the pressure from all sides to get ahead with such a project where delay would be counted in human lives and misery. It could be announced that no affirmative steps would be taken until negotiations at least began. In the atmosphere that would immediately follow such a proposal, the leaders of the Near Eastern countries would be invited to come together on the basis of the proposals. They have a common forum in the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Private capital both in the United States and Great Britain would certainly respond to the challenge of such an enterprise on the initiative of the Government.

Footnote: It may be argued that the cost of de-salted water if it exceeds 15 per thousand gallons will be too high for agriculture (though citrus farming can use water at more than twice this figure). There was an identical objection by those who counselled the Atomic Energy Commission that the development of electrical energy from nuclear fission would never be economic. Although the advice came from respected scientific quarters, it proved to be wrong. The Commission found that the cost per kilowatt hour fell very rapidly as the size of plants increased (from an estimated 18 mills per k.w.h. to less than 3 mills, and the cost is still going down). Within the past year, nuclear power has become fully competitive with power conventionally produced, and more than half of the new power plants contracted in the United States in 1966 are nuclear. The same factors will lower the cost of water.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Box 21. No classification marking. The source text is a copy of the memorandum that Strauss gave to former President Eisenhower on June 23, which the White House did not receive until July 27 when Hornig met with Strauss (see footnote 4, Document 165). An attached cover letter from Strauss to Hornig, July 28, reads: “This is a legible copy of the memorandum we discussed yesterday and which you wanted to show to the President. I hope to follow it up on Monday [July 31] with a memorandum in the brief form that you thought might be acceptable with the cost and other calculations ‘omitting the tables.’ I very much enjoyed my talk with you and Dr. Smith.” No memorandum of July 31 by Strauss has been found.