The Search for Atomic Control

As Deputy U.S. Representative on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, FREDERICK H. OSBORN has taken part in some of the most difficult deliberations since the war. He is well qualified for his responsibility. Graduating from Princeton in 1910, he entered an active business career which was interrupted by World War I. In 1928 he retired to devote himself to the advancement of the social sciences and became an authority on problems of population. In World War II he served as Chairman of the Civilian Committee on Selective Service, Brigadier General in Charge of Special Services, and Major General in Charge of Information and Education.



DURING 1947, the twelve delegates to the Atomic Energy Commission were subjected to a harsh process of education. It was an experience in which the satisfaction of warm cooperation among a group of sincere men in achieving a common agreement was offset by a deep sense of frustration. Where unanimous agreement was necessary, the year’s work left the delegates of the Soviet Union and of Poland more opposed to the plan of the majority and more bitter in their denunciations than they had been at the start.

On the last day of 1946, a majority of ten of the twelve members of the Commission had submitted a Report to the Security Council which outlined the principles considered necessary for the control of atomic energy, that it might be used for peaceful purposes only. The delegates of the Soviet Union and Poland abstained from voting. But there was hope that the Soviet Union might be brought to understand the sincerity of, and the necessity for, the proposals put forward in the Report.

This hope suffered a heavy shock when, in February and March, Gromyko attacked the Report in a bitter propagandist speech, and submitted on behalf of the Soviet Union a series of amendments and additions which, if accepted, would have repudiated practically all the principles put forward by the majority. Notwithstanding this setback, the Commission proceeded with a twofold task: attempting to reconcile the Soviet views with those of the majority and, at the same time, expanding the general principles of the First Report.

The discussion of the Soviet amendments got us nowhere. The Soviet delegates stuck to their original positions taken a year before. They seemed unwilling or unable to face the facts on the basis of which the solution had to be found. Only with respect to inspection was their position somewhat modified, and this in an interesting way. At the start of the debate the Canadian delegation asked whether by inspection they meant inspection by national personnel reporting to the international agency, or inspection by international inspectors in the employ of the agency. Gromyko replied that the question was irrelevant, unfair, formed to put him in a hole, and that anyway he had already made his position clear.

For three whole sessions the same question was asked by one or another of the delegates orally, and finally in writing, and always elicited the same reply. Three months later, when we had long since passed on to other matters, the Soviet Union proposed “periodic” inspection by international personnel, but gave no details as to rights and limitations on such inspection. It is difficult to negotiate when replies take so long coming from headquarters.

In the elaboration of the First Report, the Soviet delegates were completely negative. The First Report had proposed that the international agency should control all atomic materials and all dangerous atomic activities, and should carry out inspections to prevent clandestine operations. It would conduct research in its own facilities and encourage non-dangerous research everywhere. Its control would go into effect by stages. At the appropriate time there would be a complete prohibition on the national possession, use, or manufacture of atomic weapons. There would be no veto to protect violators. When the agency was fully established, there would no longer be any secrecy concerning any aspect of atomic energy, or any need for secrecy, because all nations would have disposed of their atomic weapons and would be prohibited from making or using them.

Such an imaginative and extensive plan was felt to be necessary because of the nature of the problem. Atomic energy is derived from any one of three unusual metals, which we call nuclear fuels. Their production requires great plants and expensive materials. These metals have a unique property in common. Under certain conditions they can be made to explode with an unprecedented violence. Under other conditions they can be made to give off heat which may some day be harnessed to produce power. The nation which used these nuclear fuels for atomic power would also have quantities of explosive for atomic weapons.

From the beginning, it was fully realized that the impact of these facts on previously held notions of international relations was tremendous, and that much time and thought would be required for the necessary readjustment of one’s thinking. In the intensive study given by the majority of the delegates, the realities and the logic of the situation led them inexorably to the conclusions that were developed in the First and Second Reports. It was hoped by all of us that the Soviet delegates would take up the problem in the same objective way.

The Soviet Union, however, had never seemed willing to face these practical realities. The majority, who wrote and approved the First and Second Reports, saw no acceptable alternative. Nations could not be allowed to own or possess ores, plants for making nuclear fuels, or the fuels themselves, for that would simply encourage and, in a sense, legalize the national rivalries already developing so rapidly in this field. It seemed to the majority that if there were national ownership and operation of plants, any form of international inspection would inevitably break down in the face of the jealousies, suspicions, and rivalries of great national bureaucracies charged with developing atomic power and prodded by the military to be ready for retaliation with bombs.

But the Soviet delegation simply repeated their original position: national ownership of dangerous materials; national ownership, management, and operation of dangerous facilities; no relaxation of the veto on action against offenders. While the Soviet Union abstained on the First Report, it voted no on the Second.

In order to prepare the Second Report, small working groups were set up to write specific proposals covering the functions of the international agency. Delegates from various nations represented on the Commission were appointed group leaders for the several sections. In all this work, the Soviet delegates, when asked to accept membership on one or another of the working groups, refused. They announced at the start that since they did not agree with the principles of the First Report, they would sit in as observers only.

There were some remarkable aspects to their behavior as observers. They objected vigorously to the method of work, although this had been planned in detail at the start by the full membership and was closely adhered to. To the Soviets there was something sinister about the method. When they saw that it was producing results in the form of carefully thought-out proposals, they became much agitated.

As various working papers were completed in first draft and presented to the informal meetings of the committee, Dr. Skobeltzyn, the Russian scientist assigned to the Commission under Gromyko, would ask for the floor. After making sure that a stenographic record of the proceedings was being kept, he would launch into an attack on the honesty, fairness, and legality of the procedure under which the paper had been produced, making little reference to the actual content of the paper, but attacking motives and personalities, usually those of the U. S. delegates. These speeches did not seem to be appropriate to Skobeltzyn, who is a competent scientist.

What was this extraordinary performance about? These records were not made public. They were released only to the delegates for the use of their governments. These speeches went to the Kremlin and apparently constituted the only recorded comments by a Soviet — and therefore a trusted — observer on what went on in the committee. Is this the type of information on which the Kremlin is basing its political decisions?


EARLY in June, Gromyko called a meeting of the Commission so that he might present formal Soviet government proposals. The Soviet delegation were obviously pleased at this opportunity to present proposals of their own. Great emphasis was placed on them as having standing because they were the proposals of a nation, in contrast to the proposals of the majority, which Gromyko claimed had no real status because they were simply the views of individual delegates. Apparently the Soviet delegates are quite unaccustomed to the giveand-take of negotiations.

The Soviet Union proposed as a condition preceding any control system a convention prohibiting the production, possession, and use of atomic weapons. It proposed that nations should continue with the ownership and operation of dangerous activities. Following the prohibition of weapons, an international agency would be established which would make “periodic” inspection, lay down the “rules of exploitation,” and make “recommendations to the national governments” and “recommendations to the Security Council,” where the rule of unanimity prevails.

To the majority of delegates such a plan seemed naively inadequate — worse, indeed, than no plan at all. It would provide, first, for the unilateral disarmament of the United States; then for the full dissemination of scientific and engineering knowledge in the field of atomic energy; after that, it would legalize the national production by all nations of nuclear fuels easily transformed into explosives, subject to certain undefined “rules of exploitation,” to an undefined system of inspection, and to recommendations by an international agency to the Security Council.

To the majority of delegates, able and sincere men who had spent twelve months wrestling with the problem of effective control, this was a frustrating experience. The proposal was so evidently inadequate that it was difficult to spend time debating it. Gromyko, however, appeared hurt and angry that his government’s plan was so badly received. From that time on, his public addresses became increasingly bitter.

Any man who had spent a year debating the control of atomic energy would have known how inadequate the Soviet proposals were. But Gromyko had never debated the content of any plan of control; he had debated only the motives of those who worked out the majority plan. He paid little attention to the brilliant presentations of de Rose and of Parodi, with their clear French logic and intimate knowledge of the subject, or to the able and informed discussions by General McNaughton of Canada, the leading figure on the Commission, or by the Chinese delegate, Dr. Wei, or any of the ot her delegates. He did listen to the U.S. delegate, apparently in order to make notes for his next denunciation.

I have the impression that Gromyko has studied the Reports of the Commission only in the light of his own preconceptions. Nothing in his speeches indicates any objective appreciation of their content. How can one negotiate under such conditions? What kind of reports does he send back on the activities of the Atomic Energy Commission?

In brief summary, the behavior of the Soviets on the Atomic Energy Commission to date shows these features: —

1. An initial distrust of the proposals of other nations and presentation of the Soviet position in a series of counterproposals.

2. An effort to get concessions from other nations without yielding anything themselves.

3. Reversion to their original position.

These maneuvers were accompanied by bitter denunciation and propaganda, with attempts to sow discord and arouse suspicion, and apparently by a stream of misleading information to their own government.

4. Finally, steady firming of Soviet opposition, as though their own propaganda had a certain selfpropagating quality.

This last feature is most disturbing. Yet the Soviet system seems to have this effect. Public statements from the Kremlin set the tone and give the cue to many organizations and publications throughout the world, which, in some form or other, repeat the Kremlin’s ideas. These are then reported back as the sentiments of the peoples of the world. These reinforcing echoes of their own voices apparently solidify the original views of the Kremlin.

At the start of our negotiations, either from motives having to do with their internal situation or from suspicion of the motives of others, the Soviet representatives took the position that the majority plan was a hostile gesture. Failing to make an objective study of the elements essential to any real control, and with no informed body of public opinion which would cause them to reconsider their original position, the Kremlin has become increasingly committed to a course which is as dangerous to the Soviet Union as it is to the rest of the world.

Personally, I am forced to recognize that a change in the attitude of the Soviet government towards the control of atomic energy is unlikely unless the Kremlin changes its policy or the iron curtain is raised and there develops in the Soviet Union an informed and effective public opinion capable of bringing about a reappraisal of the Soviet position. All the lessons of history indicate that understanding and change are not the attributes of a ruling group which has successfully isolated itself from the main currents of popular thinking. And never has any government isolated its people more completely from world opinion or shown less respect for that opinion than the Soviet government.

Until this intellectual isolation is ended, there seems little hope for the establishment of that condition of world coöperation essential to the effective control of atomic energy.