What Are the Chances?


Former Marine, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and Aide to Governor Stassen at the San Francisco Conference

THE basic outline of the plan designed by the Board of Consultants, composed of Mr. Lilienthal and his four associates, should be familiar to all who have not yet resigned themselves to the inevitability of World War III. It proposes an international monopoly of the raw materials and industrial processes without which atomic bombs cannot be made. This monopoly is to be vested in an Atomic Development Authority representing all countries and responsible to the United Nations. Through its exclusive control of the mining of uranium and thorium and of the industrial plants which can be converted to bomb manufacture, the international Authority will be able to prevent the construction of bombs, while at the same time developing the peacetime uses of atomic energy.

I readily agree that this cooperative development of atomic energy, once established, will be of enormous benefit to mankind. But I should like to raise what seems to me the all-important question concerning the proposals outlined in the Acheson Report. Can they bring to an end the mounting competition for bombs and assure security against surprise use?

The Report contains a tentative outline of the transition period during which the United States is to transfer by gradual stages its present monopoly of the atomic arts to the international Authority. The Board deliberately leaves the definition of these stages vague. In its letter of transmittal to the Secretary of State, the Acheson Committee, to which the Report was submitted by the Board of Consultants, clarifies the Board’s suggested schedule and lays more particular emphasis upon the separate stages of transition than upon any other portion of the Report. Whereas the Board’s attitude toward this transition scheme is tentative and acknowledges that any schedule will have to be adjusted to the needs of other nations, the Acheson Committee defines each stage in some detail and stresses the importance of these particular steps to the security of the United States. The significance of this difference in attitude becomes evident when the nature of the transition process is understood.

According to the Committee’s clarification of the Report, it is proposed that the United States should transfer ownership of its operating plants after the Authority had established exclusive control of raw materials throughout the world and should only as the last step permit control of its stock piles and bomb-making facilities. The Committee further warns that United States membership in the Authority would not commit this country to discontinuing bomb manufacture either “at the outset or at any specific time.”

From the American perspective, such a gradual transference of our present monopoly may appear eminently reasonable and right. In return for surrendering the product of our scientific and industrial genius to the world, we ask only to be protected in the process. If the nature of the transition arouses some hesitancy in other nations, their doubts are to be allayed presumably by our reminding them of “the historically established reluctance of the United States to take the initiative in aggressive warfare.” But how must this step-by-step surrender seem to other nations, which have never shared the traditional American belief in the inviolable honesty of American motives?

When the proposition is viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, it assumes an entirely different shape. There are two objections which must occur to any foreign government. Firstly, all nations are supposed to transfer ownership of their uranium and thorium deposits to the Atomic Development Authority, while the United States retains its stock piles of fissionable material and the ability to manufacture more bombs. This amounts to demanding of other countries that they surrender the only means through which they can manufacture their own atomic weapons in return for the assurance that we will not employ our preponderance of force either in diplomacy or war and will eventually surrender control of our bomb-making facilities.

Secondly, even in agreeing to an exclusive international control of their uranium and thorium, other nations will not gain a definite commitment as to when or if the United States will discontinue bomb production. They are to be given only the promise that at some indefinite later date the question of terminating our bomb monopoly will be decided, in the words of the Acheson Committee, “ by our government under its constitutional processes and in the light of all the facts of the world situation.”

I find it impossible to believe that Britain, Russia, France, or any other nation will ever agree to such a transition period. If the other nations of the world had as much trust in the United States as this scheme presupposes for its success, there would be no atomic armament race today. In commenting on this aspect of the Report, Albert Einstein remarked with mild understatement: “It seems to me that the proposed measures for the interim period are not quite appropriate to bring us nearer to the goal or to induce the confidence of other nations in the loyal intentions of our foreign policy.”

It must be clear by now that other nations do not regard our bomb monopoly as the exercise of a sacred trust, but as an imminent threat to their existence. Until the United States ceases to manufacture and own bombs, foreign governments can be expected to spare no effort in constructing their own weapons. It would be unfortunate if the steps of transition so particularly emphasized by the Acheson Committee should be entirely unacceptable to foreign governments and therefore serve to perpetuate the very armament competition the Report is designed to prevent. It would be even more unfortunate if a proposal including these interim provisions as defined by the Acheson Committee should be used as a test of the peaceful intentions of the U.S.S.R.

A rejection of this transition process would demonstrate nothing but the understandable reluctance of other nations to give up their means of making atomic weapons while the United States continues its monopoly.

Apart from the impossibility of obtaining agreement to such a sequence of events, does not the essential nature of the plan itself prejudice the chances of its general acceptance? In stating that the problems of negotiation “are separable from the nature of the objective of the negotiation,”the Board makes a claim that is open to serious doubt, as an exploration of the security provisions of the plan will indicate.

When the Atomic Development Authority has been fully established, the security of each nation is supposed to be assured by a number of factors. The Authority, being subordinate to the present United Nations, will have neither the police power nor the legal authority to enforce its rules against the five major nations in the Security Council or against the smaller nations which the Big Five may choose to support. It will rely for its success on the good faith and voluntary cooperation of the sovereign nations which form its membership.

The Report recognizes this situation in stating: “It is not thought that the Atomic Development Authority could protect its plants by military force from the overwhelming power of the nation in which they are situated. Some United Nations military guard may be desirable. But at most, it could be little more than a token.” Once the ADA is in operation, however, its monopoly on the dangerous aspects of atomic energy is expected to prevent all nations from constructing bombs so long as there is no national interference with its functions. If and when such interference takes place and a nation seizes the plants and stock piles within its territory, this seizure is supposed to be a clear danger signal to the other nations. Presumably, they will then seize the facilities within their respective territories and begin to construct their own bombs for the inevitable atomic war.

In the event of such a breakdown of international controls, the plan offers two safeguards to protect all nations from the advantages an aggressor might gain from seizing the initiative or from having a superior number of plants and larger stock piles with which to enter the atomic armament race. In the first place, the plants of the Authority will be designed to be as little adaptable to bomb production as possible, and stock piles of dangerous material will be kept small and rendered unsuitable for bombs by a special denaturing process, whose existence the Report revealed for the first time. The Board estimates that these precautions will delay a nation a year or more in converting its seized plants to effective bomb production, and one must accept this hopeful conclusion of men qualified to know.

Secondly, no nation will enjoy any superiority in plants or stock piles, because the original Charter of the ADA is to contain “a systematic plan governing the location of the operations and property of the Authority so that a strategic balance may be maintained among nations.” Unanimous agreement on this “strategic geographic division” is obviously a prerequisite for the initial adoption of the whole scheme and an inseparable part of the negotiations which must precede the establishment of the ADA. What are the chances of achieving such an agreement between the nations of the world, if the Charter of the United Nations is to remain unchanged? They are so small, in my opinion, as to be nonexistent.

Even when the ADA is in complete operation, each nation must continue to rely on its individual armed force for the protection of its rights against others and for defense against the seizure by any nation of atomic plants and stock piles. Therefore, the number of plants and the size of the stock piles of fissionable material which a nation has within its borders will be an essential factor, though not the only one, in its national security.

If nations were politically unconnected units of equal size and economic strength, one could imagine an equal distribution of this vital element of power which might be acceptable to all concerned. Nations, however, do not resemble children’s building blocks, but vary in every conceivable way and are connected by a network of treaties, alliances, and mutual assistance pacts. Any attempt to achieve a strategic balance of atomic facilities in an anarchic world where military strength continues to be the price of national survival will inevitably clash with the contending claims of existing power blocs.

For example, if the U.S.S.R. believed that the United States and the British Commonwealth would be allied against it in future wars, it could hardly agree to equal division of atomic facilities among the three; nor can I imagine either the United States or the Commonwealth consenting to a balance which would give the U.S.S.R. as many plants as they owned together. The number of plants the United States might agree to allow France would depend entirely upon the orientation of French foreign policy, and a change in French government would require the United States to demand a revision of the strategic balance or to face military inferiority when the first attempted interference with the ADA precipitated the atomic armament race and war.

Paradoxically, the original distribution of plants would have to be in perfect balance in order to win the acceptance of all nations. But the more nearly the balance of power between nations approaches equilibrium, the more dangerous becomes any change, political, economic, or social, which shifts that balance, since it provokes the losing side to use force before its chance of winning the war disappears completely. In the past, peace based on a balance of power between sovereign states has proved to be a brief, uneasy interlude of armed truce. A peace based on a nice balance of atomic power is not likely to be any more stable or enduring, whether that power exists as bombs ready for use or as plants capable of conversion to bomb manufacture.

The problem of arriving at unanimous consent to a particular distribution of atomic facilities is further complicated by the impossibility of separating one element of military strength, atomic energy, from all the other factors that affect the warmaking ability of nations. For example, the high level of industrialization, the technological skill, of the United States and our special experience with atomic energy would place us at a distinct advantage in any sudden attempt to convert to bomb production. Other countries might well hesitate to agree to a plan which, upon the first attempted interference with the international authority, will commit them to an atomic armament race which they have little hope of winning against the technological superiority of the United States. They may prefer to continue unrestricted and secret competition for atomic weapons, in the belief that an inferior supply of bombs is more protection than no bombs at all if another nation can construct them with greater speed than their own industrial efficiency permits.

Essentially, the Report proposes a system of voluntary disarmament in the limited field of atomic weapons with the added device of an Atomic Development Authority to ensure that any attempt to rearm will be unmistakably evident to all. Nations have often paid lip service to the principle of disarmament, but with few exceptions they have proved unwilling to put the principle into practice, because they have had no assurance that without armaments they can be secure against attack or protected in their rights. The creation of an ADA will not touch that fundamental source of insecurity. The only recourse it provides against aggression is large-scale warfare, and nations must, therefore, continue to make military power their first and overriding objective.

Armaments are the symptoms of anarchy and, until enforceable laws have replaced the struggle for the means of violence, attempts to limit the scope of that struggle are likely to prove as abortive as they have in the past. Before nations can be expected to give up weapons as decisive as atomic bombs, they must have a more reliable guarantee of their security than is provided in an international control of atomic energy, which must degenerate into war at the first attempted evasion, and which leaves uncontrolled the continuing competition for other types of weapons.

But, let us assume that the provisions for the interim period are changed until they are acceptable to other nations, and that a distribution of plants is agreed upon despite the obstacles I have tried to indicate. Still there remain omissions in the plan so serious as to compromise its underlying purpose. When the Atomic Development Authority is in full operation, the Board states, “the danger of the surprise use of atomic weapons” will no longer exist. It is true that there will no longer be competition for atomic bombs, but every other preparation for war will have to be continued in view of the inability of the United Nations to enforce the ADA’s regulations and the consequent possibility of a breakdown of the entire system. These preparations will include decentralization of vital industries and urban populations, because a nation whose industrial strength is concentrated in a few major cities is peculiarly vulnerable to atomic attack. The few months which may intervene between the breakdown of international controls and atomic warfare will not allow time for this decentralization.

The struggle to perfect existing weapons and develop new ones will go forward. An example of what is possible in fields other than that of atomic energy was the announcement in Congress on May 23, 1946, by Representative Thomas. He stated: “We have something far more deadly than the atomic bomb today — not tomorrow — and, furthermore, it’s in usable shape.” His statement was substantiated by others, and there are indications that the weapon may consist of incurable diseases which can be spread by spraying specially developed bacteria on the cities and countryside of the enemy. Similarly, competition will continue for long-range rockets and larger air fleets with which to deliver the incendiaries and block-busters that devastated Japan and Germany.

Superimposed on this struggle for power, the ADA will be built on explosive foundations and cannot be expected to endure unless, simultaneously with its creation, radical changes are made in the anarchic relationship of the sovereign nations. The Board’s assumption that seizure of atomic plants by any nation would permit “a substantial period of time for other nations to take all possible measures of defense” presumes an incredible stupidity on the part of the aggressor nation. Instead of seizing the plants in its own territory and thereby politely announcing its intention of waging war some months later, a nation bent on aggression would attack its enemies with weapons other than atomic bombs — with bacteria, incendiaries, and block-busters — while at the same time expropriating their atomic plants. The knowledge that such an attack was always possible would hardly contribute to a general sense of security.

There is one common denominator behind all the doubts concerning both the acceptability and the operation of the international monopoly. The assumption throughout the Report is that a workable system of control can be agreed to and put into practice without any change in the basic structure of the United Nations and in the independence of sovereign states. The Board has constructed its entire plan on the conviction that the problem of an armament race for atomic weapons can be solved apart from the problem of preventing war itself. The serious defects of the plan result from this unwillingness to recognize that nations will never cease to compete for every weapon of war until they have a reasonable assurance that war itself is not possible and until they are given another method of resolving their inevitable differences.

An international development of atomic energy for man’s peaceful needs promises a wider future than men have dared to wish for, but that hope can be realized only by fundamental change in the relationship of nations. When they no longer depend on military might for survival, their citizens can begin that cooperation which this Report hopefully anticipates. Not only atomic bombs but man-made epidemics and all the weapons of mass destruction must be prohibited to national governments and their citizens. The United Nations, through amendment, must be given the legal authority and the actual power to prevent the ownership of these weapons and the recourse to violence by its members. I suggest that this may be done effectively and justly by conferring on a world assembly in which the nations are equitably represented the power to make laws binding on individuals as well as on governments. This involves more than a mere change of the voting rules in the Security Council and an elimination of the veto power.

Large nations cannot be expected to grant the authority to make laws binding on their citizens to a world body in which nations, large and small, have equal voting power. A compromise on a system of representation appears to be necessary, which takes into account both variations in the size of populations and perhaps other factors such as industrial strength. Behind the laws, the United Nations must have the preponderance of force necessary to ensure obedience. The disarmament of national governments will never be accomplished unless it is accompanied by sufficient armament of the central authority to provide each member with a reasonable assurance that an attempted resort to violence by other nations will be swiftly met and effectively punished.

An Atomic Development Authority is a necessary part of such a structure both to prevent bomb production and to provide for the cooperative development which can do so much to enlist the higher loyalty of varying nationalities.

Within the security established by these enforceable laws, the ADA can function without being swept away by a continuing competition for military power. The difficulty of achieving a strategic distribution of plants is resolved once national survival is guaranteed by the world authority and no longer depends on each nation’s degree of armed force. Disregard of the ADA’s regulations or seizure of atomic plants will no longer be a signal for a devastating war between nations, but will be met by arrest of the individuals concerned by the world police, followed by trial in the tribunals of the United Nations. Large-scale national revolt will be extremely unlikely against the modern weapons available to the world police alone.

Then also, the dilemma of the transition period is reduced in difficulty by the cession of superior force to the United Nations. Both the desire of the United States to protect its security and the doubts of other countries concerning our intentions can be more easily satisfied by the act of vesting the power to prevent violence in a single central body than by a scries of steps toward a delicate balance of power in the face of continued preparations for war.

At first consideration, the deeper changes that I advocate here seem less capable of achievement than the limited proposals of the Board, which leave intact the institutions of national sovereignty. But as I have tried to indicate, the ADA can never succeed in its purpose except as a part of this political transformation.

There is both reason for hope and danger of illusion in the Report. In its favor, one cannot read its careful prose without a renewed conviction that with honesty and intelligence a third world war may yet be avoided. This feeling grows from the attitude of the Board itself. Here are five men in an official capacity who frankly recognize the irretrievable disaster into which the government of the United States is allowing the world to drift by pursuing a bankrupt policy of peace through power. Here is an admission that secrecy concerning atomic energy and continued bomb production by the United States can only accelerate the drift toward war; here is a warning that delay must intensify the difficulties of any escape from the cycle of suspicion which feeds on suspicion. There is ground for optimism also in the assurance of the Board that, under the conditions it has defined, the danger of undetected evasion is negligible. Finally, there is enduring hope in the Board’s original conception of a cooperative international development of atomic energy.

Hope is dangerous illusion, however, in so far as it is inspired by the Board’s contention that the atomic armament race can be halted without radical transformation of the United Nations Charter. The establishment of an international control of atomic energy and the creation of the institutions which can make and enforce world laws are mutually dependent. They are inseparable parts of the only chance we have of averting the unimaginable catastrophe of another war. As the Report suggests, the initiative lies entirely with the government and citizens of the United States, while our atomic monopoly lasts. When a number of nations have their own bombs and installations, the problem may be both technically and politically insoluble. It will be too late then to remedy the ignorance and inaction of today.