On September 23, 1949, President Harry Truman announced that “within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR.” Four months later, on January 31, 1950, he announced that he had directed the Atomic Energy Commission to work “on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb.” The president put this announcement in the lowest possible key—strictly speaking what he said was that he had told the commission “to continue its work.” But the country understood it just as The New York Times put it in a four-column headline the following morning: TRUMAN ORDERS HYDROGEN BOMB BUILT. Any uncertainty about the nature of the president’s decision was completely removed in early March when he issued a further secret order calling for an all-out effort.
During these same months, or quite possibly even earlier, a parallel decision was made in the Soviet Union. Soviet accounts do not tell us exactly when Stalin and his scientists agreed to try to make thermonuclear weapons, but there is no evidence of any hesitation—indeed, what little there is runs the other way: Soviet scientists were aware of the possibility of thermonuclear weapons from their own knowledge, from Klaus Fuchs, and from occasional American public statements. Soviet sources say that the follow-up on the first successful test of August 1949 was rapid. Thus we must recognize that it was not just Harry Truman’s decision that took the world inescapably into the age of thermonuclear explosions. Eight years earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt told Vannevar Bush that he should make the successful construction of an atomic bomb a matter of top priority, he was making a lonely decision spurred by false fear of what Hitler might be—but was not—trying to do. The world’s entry into the thermonuclear age is the consequence of two national decisions, not one.
For obvious reasons only the American decision is open to our close study, but in considering what happened and did not happen in the United States between September 23 and January 31, it is right to bear in mind, as men did at the time, that the American government did not have the luxury of deciding alone.
This double decision is one of the largest and most fateful that man has ever taken. Fission weapons in themselves are terrible enough, but the potential destructiveness of thermonuclear weapons is genuinely different. After the world’s first multimegaton explosion, on November 1, 1952, the sense of terror and awe that followed Hiroshima was renewed and intensified; it was perhaps especially strong among those who had been closest to the earlier enterprise. Here is Winston Churchill in 1955:
There is an immense gulf between the atomic and hydrogen bombs. The atomic bomb with all its terrors did not carry us outside the scope of human control, or manageable events, in thought or action, in peace or war. But…the first comprehensive review of the hydrogen bomb [shows that] the entire foundation of human affairs was revolutionized, and mankind placed in a situation both measureless and laden with doom.
It was in this same speech that Churchill went on to speak of the possibility that safety might be “the sturdy child of terror,” and “survival the twin brother of annihilation.” But the comfort was and is cool. In deciding to make hydrogen bombs if they could, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union were making no small choice, both for themselves and for the world. Yet neither government held back and no representative of either government ever raised a question with the other whether there was any alternative. My own belief is that a great opportunity for workable arms control may have been missed, and that the reasons for this result, so far as they can be puzzled out, are interesting.
So I propose to consider how it was in the United States, simply because that is where we can look. Let me begin by pointing out that until late in the game this was a secret debate with only a few participants. The habit of secrecy on nuclear matters was deep and strong. Access to restricted data outside the Atomic Energy Commission was extraordinarily limited. Some of the secrets deserved all of the protection they could get: “How to make an H-bomb” was then unknown in the United States but the exact character of the American ignorance was a subject that it was proper not to discuss in public.
But secrecy went much further, even at very high levels in the executive branch. In 1949 George Kennan was the head of the policy planning staff in the State Department—the secretary’s senior adviser on the policy aspects of this subject—but he never knew, and never asked to know, how many fission bombs his country then had, how many it would or could have in the years that must elapse before any nation could have thermonuclear weapons, or what the power of existing and prospective American fission weapons might be, compared backward to Hiroshima or forward to a possible hydrogen bomb. In this and many other ways most of the men who were asked to help in thinking about this awful decision were flying blind.
Yet the need for secrecy was so deeply felt and so widely accepted that in principle all the participants in the debate fully accepted Mr. Truman’s insistence that the very existence of the issue be kept a secret. When one senator indiscreetly mentioned it on television, on November 1, the government held its breath in hopes that no one would notice. No one did for nearly three weeks, when a single follow-up story appeared, and it was not until the middle of January that first the Alsop brothers and then James Reston wrote accounts of some depth and resonance. The president was furious at the Alsops, whom he called “the sop sisters,” and his response was to press for an early resolution to the matter. (Interestingly, neither the Alsops nor Reston took sides. Reston was then a reporter, not a columnist, and the Alsops too stopped well short of a judgment, exhibiting an awed restraint that might be surprising to readers familiar with their usual disinclination to detachment on contentious questions.)
The president succeeded in his objective. He made his decision before there was a debate. So the process of that decision is deeply different from what we see in such matters today. Our own public debates may be full of error and ignorance; they may often be late and feeble. But we have them, and we can have more if men and women are alert. All this was missing in the case of the H-bomb decision—no sermons pro or con, no dire public warnings from defenders of security or Cassandras of nuclear catastrophe—no public discussion at all, careful or irresponsible. And when the decision was made there was no audible complaint at the way it was made. By habits that had first been set in wartime and then set in concrete by the belief that the secrets of the atom were crucial to national survival itself, the decision was left to the president.
Initial pressure for an American decision to go for a hydrogen bomb came from scientific enthusiasts and their political supporters in Washington. The first recorded recommendation is that of Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, writing to his fellow commissioners on October 5. “It seems to me that the time has come for a quantum jump…we should make an intensive effort to get ahead with the Super…. I am thinking of a commitment in talent and money comparable, if necessary, to that which produced the first atomic weapons. That is the way to stay ahead.”
Strauss was not alone. A similar point of view was soon expressed by three notable and entrepreneurial physicists, Ernest Lawrence, Luis Alvarez, and Edward Teller. Shortly thereafter they were joined by the formidable Brien McMahon, senator from Connecticut and chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. By the middle of October all these men were hard at work advocating a crash program. They had identified and encouraged one another, and they had begun to press their case in the Pentagon. Strauss had also discussed the matter with his old friend Sidney Souers, the president’s senior staff man for national security affairs, and he had received encouragement from Truman through Souers in pressing the matter forward for early consideration and decision.
If the officials and scientists principally concerned with atomic energy had all been of the same mind as Strauss, Lawrence, and Teller, there would have been no argument. But the enthusiasm of Strauss immediately encountered the resistance of David Lilienthal, the AEC’s chairman, and the enthusiasm of Teller and Lawrence encountered a quite different response from even more notable scientists. These encounters have been described with care by many students, especially by Herbert York in The Advisors. The principal protagonists, Teller and Robert Oppenheimer, are quite sufficiently remarkable to make the story full of personal interest and even dramatic confrontation, but what is more important for our purpose is the exact shape and course of the debate in Washington.
The recommendation of Strauss was referred at his own request to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. That committee, of which Oppenheimer was chairman, was at the time the most influential single group of advisers on the scientific and technical choices to be made in the American nuclear program. The committee’s scientific members included Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, and Glenn Seaborg, as well as James B. Conant and Lee DuBridge, two scientists turned university presidents. It had played a commanding role in the successive decisions which had produced a strong and varied program in fission weaponry. Formal authority rested with the five commissioners, but in scientific and technical matters the word of the General Advisory Committee had almost always been controlling.
It was therefore a major event, to the few who knew about it, when the General Advisory Committee, at the end of October, spent a weekend considering “the Super” (with only Seaborg absent) and produced a report that expressed the unanimous “hope that by one means or another, the development of these weapons can be avoided.” The majority of the committee, including in particular Oppenheimer and Conant, further expressed itself in favor of an “unqualified commitment” against such development. The battle lines were joined.
The General Advisory Committee report drew a divided reaction from the five commissioners. Lilienthal, as chairman, promptly concluded that there was no hope of producing an agreed commission position and reported the situation to the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and then to the president. On November 9 Truman received the divided reports of the commissioners, now three to two on Lilienthal’s side, and ten days later he appointed a committee of three to advise him on the matter: Acheson, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Lilienthal.
The effort to reach a decision went forward on two tracks. One was the formal process of the committee of three. That committee met only twice. A first stormy session persuaded Acheson that the differences in temperament and opinion between Johnson and Lilienthal were so severe that there should be no further meetings until he had done what he could to work out an agreed recommendation by shuttling between the two. Moreover the staff work done for the committee of three was slow. The representatives of the Pentagon, as usual, kept their own counsel until their own agreed view had been cleared by their superiors. The representatives of the AEC, themselves of differing views, were interested primarily in learning what the military uses of thermonuclear weapons might be, and got only slow answers from their military counterparts.
The State Department staff also held its hand until it could determine with Acheson where he would wish to come out. So the real discussions of the two months between the middle of November and the middle of January took place elsewhere. The most active efforts were those of the friends of the Super. With the help of William L. Borden, Senator McMahon composed a 5,000-word brief which went directly to the president; even today it is a powerful document. The views of military enthusiasts were persuasively conveyed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chiefs in turn prepared a paper which Johnson sent directly to Truman. The chiefs wanted to go ahead, not with a “crash program,” but with a clear determination to be second to none in the field.
The skeptics and opponents were less active, but Acheson made it his business to talk with two of them, Oppenheimer and Conant. Although he, like them, had been initially depressed at the prospect of an enormous escalation in the competition for nuclear weapons, he found himself unpersuaded by their reasons for unconditional opposition to development. His own advisers agreed unanimously that it must be assumed that the Russians were going ahead. He was unable to understand why Conant and Oppenheimer believed that if the United States held back, the power of its example might lead to parallel Russian restraint. And indeed neither Oppenheimer nor Conant ever produced, then or later, any solid reasons for this hope. Acheson found himself forced to the conclusion that there must be a major effort to determine the technical feasibility of the weapon, and he recognized that any such effort would carry with it a heavy implication that a demonstration of feasibility would be followed promptly by the making of weapons.
And as it turned out Acheson was assisted to his conclusion by the president. By January 19 Truman was persuaded that the position of the Joint Chiefs “made good sense” and he passed the word to Acheson that he hoped for an early report because public discussion was spreading. He wished to act before his hand was forced. Acheson’s response was to accelerate his own effort to get an agreed committee report. He saw to it that a draft was prepared which recommended a prompt decision to go ahead. In a concession to Johnson he removed a paragraph that would have explicitly reserved the decision on development for later consideration, and in a concession to Lilienthal he called for a more general study of military and diplomatic policy that Lilienthal had hoped to use to block any immediate action. (Ironically this general study is what became the canonical statement of unremitting cold war, NSC-68.) It was masterful management of a process of recommendation that was not central to the president’s decision.
When the committee of three, immediately after this meeting, took its two-page recommendations to the president he approved them at once. He liked Lilienthal, but he cut short his speech of regret and of seeming resistance to what he had in fact accepted. The meeting lasted seven minutes. The president did not read the supporting analysis.
My own belief is that, on the evidence before him, Truman made the right decision. The governing considerations had been well stated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the paper which he had already found persuasive: “Possession of a thermonuclear weapon by the USSR without such possession by the United States would be intolerable” and “a unilateral decision on the part of the United States not to develop a thermonuclear weapon will not prevent the development of such a weapon elsewhere.” In the seven-minute meeting Truman sharpened the point. “He asked, ‘Can the Russians do it?’ All heads nodded, yes they can. ‘In that case,’ Truman said, ‘we have no choice. We’ll go ahead.’ ” (This is the account given by Acheson’s assistant for atomic energy, who probably heard it from Acheson himself almost immediately after the meeting.)
To those who believed passionately in the Super, like Lewis Strauss, Truman’s decision came “in the very nick of time.” In the event the first Soviet thermonuclear test came less than a year after the first American test, and in the apocalyptic view of Strauss, the nation would have been at the mercy of the Soviet Union if it had taken the advice of Conant and Oppenheimer: “Had we begun our development after the successful Russian test, there is no reason to believe that we would have been accorded time to equal their accomplishment.”
This conclusion is almost surely nonsense, as Herbert York has shown in The Advisors. On technical grounds York’s case is persuasive: after a careful comparison of the tests on both sides as they actually occurred he concludes that even in the worst case, even if nothing at all had been done by the Americans until the first Soviet thermonuclear test, the United States would have had plenty of time to develop its own thermonuclear weapons in a fashion essentially equal to the program of the Russians. He adds that the Americans would have had ample additional protection in their vastly superior fission stockpile.
York’s argument is persuasive technically, but not politically. No American president could have avoided the heaviest kind of political damage if a unilateral decision to stay out of the thermonuclear race had been followed by an apparent Soviet breakthrough. On the issue as presented, I think the presient made the right choice.
But the issue as presented was too simple and sharp. The choice was not in fact between a unilateral decision not to develop a thermonuclear weapon and an unqualified decision to make one as quickly as possible. Quite different choices were available, and no one presented them to the president. It is this omission, this dog that did not bark, that is my principal concern here.
With some help from hindsight one can reconstruct a course quite different from any that came to the attention of Truman, or even of Acheson. The United States could have proposed to the Soviet Union what we would now call a thermonuclear test ban: namely that neither government would conduct any test explosion involving thermonuclear reactions large enough to enter the international atmosphere. Such an agreement would not have required the elaborate international authority envisaged in the 1946 American proposal for controlling atomic energy—a proposal steadily and ever more sharply rejected by the Soviet Union. It would indeed have required no intrusion whatever on Soviet territory, but only the same means of detection that had brought timely notice in September of the first Soviet fission test.
Furthermore, agreement of this sort would not have foreclosed the theoretical studies that were the necessary first step in any case. (One of the confounding elements of the scientific debates in these months is that no one really knew how to make a thermonuclear device—or even indeed whether it was definitely possible. Prospects were much less certain than they had been when Franklin Roosevelt made his far lonelier decision to try for a fission weapon in 1941.)
This suggestion has hindsight in its details, but not in its essence. When the General Advisory Committee considered the matter at the end of October, two of its members filed a minority report containing that essence. Their language deserves quotation:
The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its existence and the very knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light….
We believe it important for the President of the United States to tell the American public, and the world, that we think it wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate a program of development of such a weapon. At the same time it would be appropriate to invite the nations of the world to join us in a solemn pledge not to proceed in the development or construction of weapons in this category.
Elsewhere in the report the meaning of this recommendation is stated still more sharply: it was a proposal not to develop the weapons if the Russians would agree not to do so, and as the next sentence in the minority report makes clear, the means of verification of this proposed agreement was that any test would be detectable:
If such a pledge were accepted even without control machinery, it appears highly probable that an advanced stage of development leading to a test by another power could be detected by available physical means.
The minority making this recommendation consisted of Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi. These two physicists were as distinguished as any in the country or in the world. Fermi was the master of theory and practice who had built the world’s first nuclear reactor, but in addition he had the practical good sense of one who had known when, how, and why he must leave his Italian homeland. Rabi was the only American of his generation whose broad mastery of modern physics was matched by an ability to apply to practical affairs on the largest scale the street smarts he had learned as an immigrant boy in New York City. The distance from the minority recommendation to what I am calling a thermonuclear test ban is nothing more than a matter of analysis and draftsmanship that one more discussion might have bridged. No such discussion took place.
When the General Advisory Committee completed its report it accepted an injunction to maintain the most complete secrecy about its recommendations: the limited distribution the report received was handled by others. There is no record that anyone ever asked Fermi or Rabi for an elaboration of their thoughts. Nor did they press their views on their own account, and indeed Rabi later remarked with regret that the General Advisory Committee as a whole had left the lobbying to those on the other side. There was no lobby at all for a test ban.
Nor did the staff work done for the committee of three produce any study of this idea. We have already remarked that those assigned to this staff were men who stuck to the agenda of their own agencies, but in its essence this idea was too large to be contained within such bureaucratic boundaries. It married technical and political considerations. It matched the technical feasibility of test detection, and the technical reality that no one could really know he had this weapon without tests, with the Soviet political reality that no intrusive means of inspection could ever be accepted by the Soviets and the American political reality that without some means of confidence in an agreement there was no way of answering Truman’s basic question—can the Russians do it?—with any other conclusion than the one he reached—that we must do it too.
To a later generation these realities and their interconnection are familiar. We have lived with the uninspected atmospheric test ban of 1963 for almost twenty years. But they were not at all clear in 1949. Moreover, some of those who might have been quick to recognize them in other circumstances were well aware by 1949 of the political dangers of any seeming softness on the requirements for international control and inspection. Acheson, Lilienthal, and Oppenheimer had been the three decisive figures in the development of the American proposal of 1946, and each of them had been exposed in different but deeply searing ways to the brutal and cynical rejections of the Russians.
Oppenheimer surely understood the Fermi-Rabi idea—indeed it was he who stated it more clearly than they did—but he also warned his new friend George Kennan in the course of the autumn that any arms-control plan less binding than the existing United States proposal would stir too much debate and dissent to be approved within the government in time to be an element in the president’s decision on the H-bomb. Did Oppenheimer, then, adopt the cruder plan of opposing all development because he thought only a blunt instrument would serve? One cannot know, but the thought does suggest itself.
And was the narrowness of the staff work entirely accidental? The original proposal for the three-man committee went to the president from his naval aide, Rear Admiral Robert Dennison, who suggested that the committee should be invited to consult with a working staff of such members as: “Mr. Kennan, Mr. Oppenheimer, Mr. Conant, General Norstad—and others of similar caliber.” It is no insult to the staff that actually served to say that it did not meet that standard of eminence or independence, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that someone wanted a safer, more controllable process.
The bad habit of obsessive secrecy may be more significant, both here and elsewhere, than any conscious intent to restrict the range of analysis and advice. Truman plainly thought it crucial that he should make his decision ahead of the wave of public debate, not behind it, and the private exchanges between Senator McMahon and the White House make it clear that McMahon’s advocacy of a crash program was accompanied by not very subtle hints that if he did not get it, there might be a nasty reaction on the Hill. But this secrecy had its cost: to keep ahead of public debate Truman needed a decision in January, whatever the state of the staff work, and when the most brilliant and perceptive of the government’s technical advisers were placed under a seal of secrecy that they respected, the field was left clear for others.
Yet neither bureaucratic narrowness nor obsessive secrecy was as powerful a force in these months as the enormous difference, for the men with the final responsibility, between the devil one knew—the Soviet Union—and the devil one did not—a weapon no one yet knew how to make. By the end of 1949 the cold war was raging. The Soviet menace was seen everywhere; the dream of a cooperative postwar world was long dead; the Iron Curtain was solid; the Berlin blockade was a recent and instructive memory; the captive nations were not a slogan but a vivid reality, and Soviet hostility and duplicity were taken for granted. China had “fallen,” and “Who lost China?” was the question of the hour. Alger Hiss was convicted in early January, and Klaus Fuchs confessed just four days before Truman’s final decision (his confession was too late to influence Truman’s action, but it would have had a quite different weight if the president had been leaning the other way.) Whatever the retrospective judgment may be on the responsibility for the cold war (and I would still pick Stalin for the lion’s share) there can be no doubt whatever of the subjective mood of the men at the top of the American executive branch. Truman and Acheson had learned the hard way not to trust the Russians, and both of them now had more critics on the right than on the left.
Even the advisers who feared the H-bomb the most sometimes seemed to be moved less by the opinion that it was necessarily an evil thing than by a conviction that it was the wrong weapon for dealing with the Soviet threat. Conant, who was to become the chairman of the first (and more sensible) Committee on the Present Danger, was explicit about it: a false reliance on this excessive weapon would lead to neglect of what was really needed in reply to the Russian bomb: conscription, a conventional buildup, and a move away from heedless reliance on a vanished atomic monopoly. Conant found the crash program for the H-bomb repellent, in part indeed on straight moral grounds, but also, and perhaps more, because he thought it was strategically wrong. It was not a state of mind that would readily lead him to think of striking a bargain with Stalin to ward off thermonuclear weapons as the common enemy of mankind.
The most that Conant could see, that first winter, was that (as he later put it) “no sane man would advocate the use of an atomic bomb now that the Russians had one of their own.” This was a lot to see; George Kennan saw it too, though the paper in which he developed the argument was not sent to Acheson until Truman’s mind was already made up. After the president’s announcement, Hans Bethe led a distinguished group of twelve physicists in a public appeal for the adoption of such a policy, and even Paul Nitze, in early 1950, thought the State Department should probably press the case for it. But this policy, which we would now call “no-first-use,” was never proposed by anyone to Truman, and it vanished later that winter as the military pressed its insistent conviction that usable nuclear superiority was both indispensable and attainable. This was an issue raised before its time, and the modest attention it attracted served only as a further distraction from the Fermi-Rabi proposal.*
And for that proposal, we must remember, it was then or never. A thermonuclear test ban would serve to ward off thermonuclear weapons only if it was placed in effect before those weapons existed. The time to work for it was before the first test. After Fermi and Rabi, I know of only one man who understood this reality and acted vigorously on that understanding: Vannevar Bush, in early 1952, became deeply seized with a concern that once there had been a true thermonuclear test, the last chance to block these weapons would be gone. Respecting the rules of secrecy, he pressed his case only privately, but he went as far up the government as he could get—to Acheson, though not to Truman. It was too late; the secretary of state would not try to change a plan whose momentum of technical success and political support he now saw—almost surely correctly—as irresistible. No one ever asked Truman to delay the decisive test of November 1952 for this purpose. Indeed even the unrelated suggestion that he should wait until after the election struck him as a proposal to let politics affect a matter of national security.
In assembling so many reasons for inattention to the Fermi-Rabi idea, I may seem to be guilty of my own kind of overkill, but let me offer two more, one general and one quite particular. They are polarization and the president. “Polarization” is my word for what happens when men determine that they are each other’s enemies, and when the determination begins to dominate their approach not only to each other but to a given decision. As far as I can tell, the first to be polarized in this particular case was Robert Oppenheimer. I reach this conclusion reluctantly, because Oppenheimer later became my friend, and one of my teachers in these matters, and also because I believe he was much more nearly right over the years than those who were or became his enemies. Nonetheless I think it likely that in his understandable disgust with the military and congressional lobbying of Lawrence and Teller and Strauss, he allowed himself to adopt a position of sweeping opposition to the proposed development that was at once logically weak and politically unappealing. Polarization was not the only cause of this attitude, but without it one is hard put to explain how Oppenheimer could observe, as late as October 21, that exploration of the possibilities of the Super was unavoidable, and then join, less than ten days later, in flat opposition to any development at all.
What is most serious about Oppenheimer’s polarization, to the degree that it did occur, is that it may have blinded the most persuasive, the best known, and the most widely respected of all the atomic scientists—and also the one with the largest direct experience (limited though it was) of international negotiation—to the possibility of a third and less divisive course. Was it somehow easier to oppose well-chosen enemies than to work out and recommend an alternative that might indeed give them part of what they wanted—quickened research—while exploring the possibility, small or large, that by an uninspected but verifiable agreement a great common human danger might be averted or at least postponed? I do not know the answer, but I do not think the question can be ignored.
Polarization of a somewhat different kind is more plainly visible in Lilienthal. His failure to assert himself as the leader of his divided commission shows a man quite different from the eager optimist who had worked for common ground with and among his diverse colleagues in earlier years. Lilienthal was weary; he had been tested severely in congressional hearings through the summer, and after nineteen years of government service he wanted to get out and make some money. But what had done most to change his approach was his conclusion that Strauss was both a dangerous superpatriot and a dirty fighter. Again and again, he believed, Strauss had chosen to take disagreements into the centers of power instead of fighting them out directly in the commission. In this case his natural distaste for the new weapon was deeply reinforced by the fact that Strauss was its sponsor, and he made no search for a middle ground, or indeed for anything more constructive than a somewhat emotional appeal to the president not to damage his reputation as a man of peace.
More well known, and indeed more powerful and long-lasting, was the polarization of the enthusiasts. Its most dramatic consequence was the later attack on Robert Oppenheimer, and the hearings in 1954 on his eligibility for security clearance remain a fascinating record of public vice and virtue. I resist the temptation to try to find adequate words for the zealot William Borden, who persuaded himself that Oppenheimer was “more probably than not” a Soviet agent, or for the craftily dishonorable Teller, who allowed himself to answer the direct question whether Oppenheimer was “a security risk” by saying that he would personally feel “more secure” if Oppenheimer were not consulted.
Let me instead remark on the intensity of polarization that is revealed by an extraordinary passage in the majority opinion of Gordon Gray, a decent and fair-minded man who hated his task as chairman of the board that heard the case. One of the charges against Oppenheimer—one correctly denounced by men like Bush and Conant—was that he had opposed the H-bomb. Gray pronounced that charge irrelevant, but he nonetheless concluded that it was right and necessary to insist that anyone giving policy advice in these matters should be held to the standard of having “a genuine conviction that this country cannot in the interest of security have less than the strongest possible offensive capabilities.” Certainly part of the intense hostility to Oppenheimer was related to his interest in tactical nuclear weapons and his support for air defense, both of which the air force then detested as competitors for funds and fissionable material. But Gray’s words, in effect if not by intent, made it a test of employability that men should embrace the attitudes of the Strategic Air Command, and among those who would have failed this test was the incumbent president, Dwight Eisenhower.
As for President Harry Truman, I conclude that his way of deciding large matters was badly designed for this case. There are in this particular problem technical, military, diplomatic, and political elements, and when the question was narrowed to the need to keep ahead of Moscow, it was also falsified. No doubt Truman honestly wanted the matter considered in the round by the three men to whom he assigned it. But my own belief is that the assignment in itself represented an abdication of responsibility: the president’s duty in nuclear matters is not simply to decide; it is to understand for himself. One of Truman’s three counselors, Dean Acheson, was as able and dedicated a public servant as his generation produced, in many ways a great secretary of state; but he was not the president, and he seems to have taken as a constant something that a president, on nuclear matters, must always take as a variable: the state of public and congressional opinion. And while Acheson was well able to understand the weakness of the Pentagon’s own case for these weapons, he had neither the time nor the authority to press a proper inquiry into the danger or lack of danger in delay, or in a plan like the Fermi-Rabi suggestion—and indeed we have no evidence that he ever studied that proposal.
I conclude, not from this case alone, that analysis of these matters will seldom be more searching than what a president requires, and even undertakes for himself. There are later and happier cases which do tend to show that a president who makes this matter his own business can get near the root of it—most of them are to be found, I currently believe, in the years of Eisenhower and Kennedy. When serious scientists have three views, the president should understand them all; when military men contest priorities, the president should understand their claims too and not simply quell the debate. Finally, when the conflicting claims of common danger and national defense are presented as a crude choice between racing ahead and falling behind, it is the president above all others who should ask for something better.
In reviewing this one great decision I am not attempting to suggest that even the best and most searching and most unpolarized presidential inquiry would surely have led to the particular thermonuclear test ban proposal that I have sketched, and still less that this proposal would have been promptly acceptable to Joseph Stalin and his colleagues. Nor do I claim that if it had been proposed and accepted there would have been created a permanent barrier against thermonuclear danger. The matter is obviously much more uncertain and difficult than that. I am not even suggesting that the avoidance of thermonuclear warheads would have been an unmixed blessing. Where we are now, there are some things about these kinds of warheads that can be helpful to a sober and moderate policy of deterrence.
In short, I am not prescribing a better path for history. It is enough to call attention to the fact that this alternative path was never even explored, and to note once again, as I did at the beginning, that the two great nations that had already armed themselves with the weapons proved appalling at Hiroshima decided so quickly and with so little reflection to move on to make weapons that can be more destructive still, and by one, two, and even three orders of magnitude. It is not the rightness or wrongness of these two decisions, or even the magnitude of the opportunity that may have been missed that are of permanent instructional value. What matters most is not what might have been, but why men did not even make the attempt.
The causes we have found are not unique to 1949. Bureaucratic narrowness has not disappeared, nor has mistrust of outside advisers. Polarization is perhaps stronger and more destructive than ever, and although there is now much less secrecy, belief that experts know best is still excessive. Soviet decisions are still hard to analyze, and attention to the Soviet danger can still lead to neglect of the common danger; that error even has a doctrine today—some call it “linkage” and wrongly pride themselves on its practice. And presidents still sometimes leave to others the effort to understand which they should be making themselves. Most of the rest of us do the same thing, although today the opportunity to understand is open to all.
One of the ideas that needs more attention than it has been getting, either from presidents or from the rest of us, is the idea of the test ban, in its modern form of a comprehensive test ban treaty. We cannot stuff the thermonuclear genie all the way back in the jar, but if we can get both sides to stop all testing, even now, we can put an important brake on our still unbridled competition in nuclear technology. Herbert York made the achievement of such a test ban his main business in the Carter years, but the White House did not help him, and one cannot expect the military to take the lead in any technological freeze. Yet not everything is worse than it was. A comprehensive test ban, unlike the Fermi-Rabi idea, will require on-site inspection. The Soviet Union has now accepted that principle, and from its successful application much that might help us all could follow. (Henry Kissinger is quite right to claim in his new book, Years of Upheaval, that it was a real step forward to get the principle of inspection accepted for the first time in the otherwise unimportant and still unratified Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974.) The comprehensive test ban needs the kind of understanding now that the Fermi-Rabi idea never got in time.
And not to try to understand, in the nuclear world in which we are now permanently fated to live, may be at once the ultimate intellectual abdication and the ultimate political folly. If we can learn that much from what men at least as good as we did and did not do in other times, the inquiry will not be without its use.
Note: This essay is based upon work in progress for a book about political decisions relating to nuclear weapons. Sources of particular importance are the excellent official history by Richard G. Hewlett and Richard Duncan, Atomic Shield, Wash. 1215, Atomic Energy Commission, 1972; the hearings; and documents, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (US Government Printing Office, 1954), republished with an index by MIT Press, 1971; Herbert York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (W.H. Freeman, 1975), which prints the General Advisory Committee’s reports. Accounts of participants are in the journals of David Lilienthal, the memoirs of of Dean Acheson, James B. Conant, and Lewis Strauss, and in two papers by R. Gordon Arneson in The Foreign Service Journal, May and June 1969.
Many relevant documents are in Foreign Relations of the United States, I, 1949, and I, 1950. Two able young scholars have recently ploughed parts of the ground deeper than I seek to go here: David Holloway has published an important note on the Soviet program in International Security, Winter 1979-1980; David Alan Rosenberg has explored the role of the American military in “American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision,” Journal of American History, June 1979. Earlier accounts by Warner Schilling of Columbia and Robert Gilpin of Princeton are still instructive: Schilling’s is in Political Science Quarterly, March 1961, and Gilpin’s in American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy (Princeton University Press, 1962). Admiral Dennison’s recommendation is in Box 201, President’s Secretary’s File, Truman Library, and I was led to Churchill’s assessment by Norman Moss, whose Men Who Play God is an admirable work of reporting, generally as reliable as it is unfootnoted (Harper & Row, 1969).
May 13, 1982
For a recent proposal for a “no-first-use” policy, see “Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance,” by McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1982. ↩