The Acheson-Lilienthal Report


Background of the Problem

This report is a preliminary study of the international control of atomic energy. It has been prepared to contribute to the clarification of the position of the U. S. Representative on the United Nations Commission on atomic energy set up by resolution of the United Nations General Assembly to inquire into all phases of this question.

The Commitment for International Control

We were given as our starting point a political commitment already made by the United States to seek by all reasonable means to bring about international arrangements to prevent the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and to promote the use of it for the benefit of society. It has not been part of our assignment to make a detailed analysis of the arguments which have led the Government of the United States in concert with other nations to initiate these steps for international action. By way of background, however, it is useful to review some of the main reasons which have influenced the people of the United States and its Government in this course. These reasons were first definitely formulated in the Agreed Declaration of November 15, 1945, issued by the President of the United States and the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Canada. An understanding of the declarations in that document will itself throw considerable light on the criteria by which any specific proposals for international control may be judged.

The Agreed Declaration cites three reasons for seeking international control. This Declaration recognizes that the development of atomic energy, and the application of it in weapons of war, have placed at the disposal of mankind "means of destruction hitherto unknown." The American people have been quick to recognize the really revolutionary character of these weapons, particularly as weapons of strategic bombardment aimed at the destruction of enemy cities and the eradication of their populations. Enough has been said to make unnecessary a repetition of the probable horrors of a war in which atomic weapons were used by both combatants against the cities of their enemy. But it is hardly possible to overestimate the deep impression of horror and concern which insight into these future possibilities has made so widespread.

The second point recognized in the Agreed Declaration is that there can be no adequate military defense against atomic weapons. A great mass of expert testimony is involved in an appreciation of the firmness of this point, but it appears to be accepted without essential reservation, and subject only to an appropriate open mindedness, about what the remote future of technical developments in the arts of war may bring.

The third point, and again we quote from the Agreed Declaration, is that these are weapons "in the employment of which no single nation can in fact have a monopoly." Of the three, this is perhaps the most controversial. Strong arguments hare been brought forward that the mass of technical and scientific knowledge and experience needed for the successful development of atomic weapons is so great that the results attained in the United States cannot be paralleled by independent work in other nations. Strong arguments have also been put forward that the degree of technical and industrial advancement required for the actual realization of atomic weapons could hardly be found in other parts of the world. These arguments have been met with great and widespread skepticism. It is recognized that the basic science on which the release of atomic energy rests is essentially a world-wide science, and that in fact the principal findings required for the success of this project are well known to competent scientists throughout the world. It is recognized that the industry required and the technology developed for the realization of atomic weapons are the same industry and the same technology which play so essential a part in man's almost universal striving to improve his standard of living and his control of nature. It is further recognized that atomic energy plays so vital a part in contributing to the military power, to the possible economic welfare, and no doubt to the security of a nation, that the incentive to other nations to press their own developments is overwhelming.

Thus the Agreed Declaration bases its policy on the revolutionary increase in the powers of destruction which atomic weapons have injected into warfare, and on the fact that neither countermeasures nor the maintenance of secrecy about our own developments offers any adequate prospect of defense.

There are perhaps other considerations which have contributed to the popular understanding of the necessity for international control, although they do not appear explicitly in the Agreed Declaration. The United States is in a rather special position in any future atomic warfare. Our political institutions, and the historically established reluctance of the United States to take the initiative in aggressive warfare, both would seem to put us at a disadvantage with regard to surprise use of atomic weapons. This suggests that although our present position, in which we have a monopoly of these weapons, may appear strong, this advantage will disappear and the situation may be reversed in a world in which atomic armament is general.

The atomic bomb appeared at the very end of hostilities at a time when men's thoughts were naturally turning to devising methods for the prevention of war. The atomic bomb made it clear that the plan which had been laid at San Francisco for the United Nations Organization would have to be supplemented by a specific control of an instrument of war so terrible that its uncontrolled development would not only intensify the ferocity of warfare, but might directly contribute to the outbreak of war. It is clear, too, that in the solution of this relatively concrete and most urgent problem of protecting mankind from the evils of atomic warfare, there has been created an opportunity for a collaborative approach to a problem which could not otherwise be solved, and the successful international solution of which would contribute immeasurably to the prevention of war and to the strengthening of the United Nations Organization. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely that the United Nations Organization could fulfill its functions without attempting to solve this problem. On the other hand, there was hope and some reason to believe that in attempting to solve it, new patterns of cooperative effort could be established which would be capable of extension to other fields, and which might make a contribution toward the gradual achievement of a greater degree of community among the peoples of the world. Although these more general considerations may appear secondary to the main purposes of this report, they are not irrelevant to it. There is another phrase of the Agreed Declaration which rightly asserts "that the only complete protection for the civilized world from the destructive use of scientific knowledge lies in the prevention of war."

The proposals which we shall make in this report with regard to the international control of atomic energy must of course be evaluated against the background of these considerations which have led to the universal recognition of the need for international control. We must ask ourselves to what extent they would afford security against atomic warfare; to what extent they tend to remove the possibility of atomic weapons as a cause of war; to what extent they establish patterns of cooperation which may form a useful precedent for wider application. We ourselves are satisfied that the proposals in this report provide the basis of a satisfactory answer to these questions.

Early Ideas on Safeguards

So much for the main outline of the political action that led to the setting up of the United Nations Commission on atomic energy. There is a further aspect of the general background that also requires discussion at the outset. When the news of the atomic bomb first came to the world there was an immediate reaction that a weapon of such devastating force must somehow be eliminated from warfare; or to use the common expression, that it must be "outlawed". That efforts to give specific content to a system of security have generally proceeded from this initial assumption is natural enough. But the reasoning runs immediately into this fact: The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent. From this it follows that although nations may agree not to use in bombs the atomic energy developed within their borders the only assurance that a conversion to destructive purposes would not be made would be the pledged word and the good faith of the nation itself. This fact puts an enormous pressure upon national good faith. Indeed it creates suspicion on the part of other nations that their neighbors' pledged word will not be kept. This danger is accentuated by the unusual characteristics of atomic bombs, namely their devastating effect as a surprise weapon, that is, a weapon secretly developed and used without warning. Fear of such surprise violation of pledged word will surely break down any confidence in the pledged word of rival countries developing atomic energy if the treaty obligations and good faith of the nations are the only assurances upon which to rely.

Such considerations have led to a preoccupation with systems of inspection by an international agency to forestall and detect violations and evasions of international agreements not to use atomic weapons. For it was apparent that without international enforcement no system of security holds any real hope at all.

In our own inquiry into possibilities of a plan for security we began at this point, and studied in some detail the factors which would be involved in an international inspection system supposed to determine whether the activities of individual nations constituted evasions or violations of international outlawry of atomic weapons.

We have concluded unanimously that there is no prospect of security against atomic warfare in a system of international agreements to outlaw such weapons controlled only by a system which relies on inspection and similar police-like methods. The reasons supporting this conclusion are not merely technical, but primarily the inseparable political, social, and organizational problems involved in enforcing agreements between nations each free to develop atomic energy but only pledged not to use it for bombs. National rivalries in the development of atomic energy readily convertible to destructive purposes are the heart of the difficulty. So long as intrinsically dangerous activities may be carried on by nations, rivalries are inevitable and fears are engendered that place so great a pressure upon a system of international enforcement by police methods that no degree of ingenuity or technical competence could possibly hope to cope with them. We emphasize this fact of national rivalry in respect to intrinsically dangerous aspects of atomic energy because it was this fatal defect in the commonly advanced proposals for outlawry of atomic weapons coupled with a system of inspection that furnished an important clue to us in the development of the plan that we recommend later in this report.

We are convinced that if the production of fissionable materials by national governments (or by private organizations under their control) is permitted, systems of inspection cannot by themselves be made "effective safeguards . . . . to protect complying states against the hazards of violations and evasions."

It should be emphasized at this point that we do not underestimate the need for inspection as a component, and a vital one, in any system of safeguards--in any system of effective international controls. In reading the remainder of this section it is essential to bear in mind that throughout the succeeding sections of this report we have been concerned with discovering what other measures are required in order that inspection might be so limited and so simplified that it would be practical and could aid in accomplishing the purposes of security.

The remainder of this section, however, is concerned with outlining the reasons for our conclusion that a system of inspection superimposed on an otherwise uncontrolled exploitation of atomic energy by national governments will not be an adequate safeguard.

The Technical Problem of Inspection.

Although, as we have said, a system of inspection cannot be judged on technical grounds alone, an understanding of the technical problem is necessary in order to see what an inspection system would involve. The general purpose of such inspection (that is, inspection as the sole safeguard) would be to assure observance of international agreements according to which certain national activities leading more or less definitely to atomic armament would be renounced, and others which have as their purpose peaceful applications of atomic energy would be permitted. The fact that in much of their course these two types of activity are identical, or nearly identical, makes the problem one of peculiar difficulty.

In our study of the technical factors involved in appraising systems of inspection, we were greatly aided by consultations with the Technical Committee reporting to the War Department on the technical aspects of this problem.* We are indebted to this uniquely qualified group of experts for helpful discussions and for making available to us many of their reports, without which we should doubtless have been very much slower to understand the situation.

As a result of our work with this Committee, we are clear: That every stage in the activity, leading from raw materials to weapon, needs some sort of control, and that this must be exercised on all of the various paths that may lead from one to the other; that at no single point can external control of an operation be sufficiently reliable to be an adequate sole safeguard; that there is need for a very extensive and technically highly qualified and varied staff if the job is to be done at all; that the controlling agency must itself be active in research and development, and well informed on what is an essentially living art; and that, for effective control, the controlling organization must be as well and as thoroughly informed about the operations as are the operators themselves. Finally--and this we regard as the decisive consideration--we believe that an examination of these and other necessary preconditions for a successful scheme of inspection will reveal that they cannot be fulfilled in any organizational arrangements in which the only instrument of control is inspection.

A fundamental objection to an agency charged solely with inspection is that it will inevitably be slow to take into account changes in the science and technology of the field. One cannot look intelligently for a factor of whose principle of design and operation one has never heard. One cannot effectively inspect if the purpose of the operator is to conceal the discoveries by which he hopes to evade inspection. In a field as new and as subject to technical variation and change as this, the controlling agency must be at least as inventive and at least as well informed as any agency which may attempt to evade control.

Human Factors in Inspection.

Even more important than the technical difficulties of realizing an adequate system of inspection, against a background of national rivalry in the field of atomic energy or through an organization whose major or whose sole directive is suppressive, are the many human factors which in such an arrangement would tend to destroy the confidence and the cooperation essential to its success. The first of these appears when we ask whether it would in fact be possible to recruit the very large and very highly qualified organization of experts and administrators needed for the work The work itself, which would be largely policing and auditing and attempting to discover evidences of bad faith, would not be attractive to the type of personnel essential for the job. The activity would offer the inspectors a motive pathetically inadequate to their immense and dreary task.

The presence of a large number of "foreigners" necessarily having special privileges and immunities inquiring intimately and generally into industrial and mining operations would be attended by serious social frictions. For adequate inspection the numbers are large. As an example, it has been estimated that for a diffusion plant operated under national auspices, to offer any real hope of guarding against diversion, 300 inspectors would be required. They would have to check not merely accounts and measuring instruments but also individuals personally. Inquiries would need to be made of individuals without regard to rank or general status. Moreover, it would be especially important to check the location and employment of scientists and many technologists, probably including students. Industrial secrets would be at least to some extent open to "prying". The effect of this would vary with countries. It would probably be as obnoxious to Americans as to any others. Its corrosive effect upon the morale and loyalty of the inspecting organization would be serious.

Some of the organizational difficulties involved in intimate inspection "down the line" of one organization by another are known from experiences that are undoubtedly mild compared with what we should anticipate here. The following are illustrative of the political difficulties of practical operation (quite apart from those to be expected in adopting the international system to begin with). Adequate surveillance by inspection as the sole or primary means of control involves a persistent challenge of the good faith of the nations inspected. If this were confined to relations between the chancellories and general military staffs the difficulty while serious might not be insuperable. But official questioning of the good faith of a nation by concrete action of inspectors among its citizens is another matter and would tend to produce internal as well as external political problems. A somewhat similar problem is involved when a government (or its officials or employees) interferes with the functions of inspectors or molests or threatens them personally, or bribes or coerces them, or is accused of doing any of these things. Such incidents could not be avoided.

Some may question whether nations would possess strong incentives to illicit operations, if they actually agreed to forego the production and use of fissionable materials for purposes of war. It is obvious, however, that suspicion by one nation of the good faith of another and the fear engendered thereby are themselves strong incentives for the first to embark on secret illicit operations. The raw materials of atomic energy, potentially valuable for new peacetime purposes and of critical importance for war, are already a matter of extreme competition between nations. The forces growing out of this situation and making for acute rivalry between nations seem to us far more powerful than those which cause the present rivalries with respect to such resources as oil. The efforts that individual states are bound to make to increase their industrial capacity and build a reserve for military potentialities will inevitably undermine any system of safeguards which permits these fundamental causes of rivalry to exist. In short, any system based on outlawing the purely military development of atomic energy and relying solely on inspection for enforcement would at the outset be surrounded by conditions which would destroy the system.

There is much technical information which underlies our belief that inspection can be effective only if it is supplemented by other steps to reduce its scope to manageable proportions, to limit the things that need to be inspected, to simplify their inspection, and to provide a pattern of organization which on the one hand will be of assistance to the controlling agency, and on the other will minimize organizational sources of conflict and the inducements to evasion. Much of this technical information is interwoven with later sections of this report. As the facts on which we base our recommendations for a workable plan of control are discussed, the detailed considerations which led to the conclusion stated in this section will appear more concretely than in the foregoing summary.


*Membership of this Technical Committee on Inspection and Control established by the Manhattan District included L. W. Alvarez, R. F. Bacher, L. A. Bliss, S. G. English, A. B. Kinzel, P. Morrison, F. G. Spedding, C. Starr, Col. W. J. Williams, and Manson Benedict, Chairman.