The Acheson-Lilienthal Report


The Transition for International Control

When fully in operation, the plan described in the previous section would, in our opinion, provide a great measure of security against surprise attack by atomic weapons. But it will take a considerable time before the plan can be adopted, and once the nations of the world have adopted it, a still further time will be required to put the plan into operation. It is essential to consider what will be the condition of affairs during the necessary period of transition.

In particular we must take note of the nature of the commitment already made for international action in order to determine whether the proposal satisfies the conditions attached to that commitment. In the pronouncements which the United States has made and sponsored in concert with other nations, the commitment for action has always been coupled with the requirement that the process of moving toward the goal of complete international collaboration must be accompanied at each stage by appropriate safeguards. It is the purpose of this section to describe the extent to which the suggested plan will satisfy this requirement.

The period of transition may be broken down into two sub-periods. In the first there will be no Atomic Development Authority. There will be discussions in the Atomic Energy Commission of the United Nations Organization, and as a result of these discussions, proposals will be referred to the United Nations Council and Assembly and to the several nations for further discussion and acceptance. From this process, there will result a charter that has been ratified by the various nations. It is at this stage that the Atomic Development Authority will come into being. All of this will inevitably require time. In the second period, when an Atomic Development Authority is created by the ratification by the several nations of the charter which establishes it, it will have an immense task before it, involving many different fields and many different activities. It would, of course, be possible to leave the ordering and sequence of these activities, or rather of undertaking them, to the discretion of the Authority. It seems far more likely that provisions governing the sequence of steps by which the Authority will come into full operation will be provided in the charter.

Two different kinds of consideration will be involved in setting up the steps of discussion and operation. On the one hand there are, as we shall see, certain indispensable requirements for the adoption and the success of the plan itself , which require that certain steps be taken before others can be effective. On the other hand, there is a wide range of schedules all equally compatible with the operability of the plan and affecting primarily its acceptability to the several nations. We shall be concerned in this section with outlining the requirements of the plan as to schedule, and pointing out what other elements are not fixed by the plan itself and in the fixing of which quite new considerations are essential. In other words, we shall attempt to describe those steps which must be undertaken in a particular order if the plan is to become effective at all. We shall also indicate other steps which are a necessary part of bringing the plan into operation, but as to which there is some freedom of choice in determining their sequence. The sequence of the first set of steps is fixed by the plan itself; the sequence of the second set is a matter that will have to be fixed by the negotiation between the nations.

The Position of the U. S. During the Transition

In order to have meaning, the examination of the transition period must take account of the present position of the United States in the field of atomic energy, and that position must be compared with the one that this country would occupy during the period when the plan for international action is being adopted and executed. Today's position must also be compared with the conditions that will prevail when the plan has finally been brought into full operation. We must also consider what our position would be some years hence if we were forced to abandon our present commitment for international action and pursue instead a purely national treatment of the problem.

Today the United States has a monopoly in atomic weapons. We have strategic stockpiles; we have extensive facilities for making the ingredients of atomic bombs and for making the bombs themselves; we have a large group of people skilled in the many arts which have gone into this project; we have experience and know-how obtainable only in the actual practice of making atomic weapons; we have considerable resources of raw material; and we have a broad theoretical knowledge of the field which may appear inadequate in future years, but which enables us to evaluate not only the performance of the past but also what the future is likely to hold.

It is true that some part of our monopoly we hold in common with the United Kingdom and Canada. This applies, principally not to material facilities or to weapons, but to the availability of raw materials, to theoretical knowledge, and to some elements of the know-how.

It has been recognized that this monopoly could not be permanent. There have been valid differences of opinion on the time which it would take other nations to come abreast of our present position, or to surpass it; but it is generally admitted that during the next five to twenty years the situation will have changed profoundly.

International control implies an acceptance from the outset of the fact that our monopoly can not [sic] last. It implies substituting for a .competitive development of atomic armament a conscious, deliberate, and planned attempt to establish a security system among the nations of the world that would give protection against surprise attack with atomic weapons. Above all, it involves the substituting of developments which are known to the world for developments by the several nations which might well remain more or less secret, and where the very fact of secrecy would be a constant source of fear, incitement and friction.

Inherent in the adoption of any plan of international control is a probable acceleration--but only acceleration--of the rate at which our present monopoly will inevitably disappear, since our knowledge and our mastery of practical arts, and to some extent our physical installations, must ultimately be made available to an international agency in the process of establishing control.

Let us consider, for example, the plan we recommend in this report. If adopted and executed in good faith, this will have reached a reasonably full degree of operation in a period of years. At that time nearly all the factors making the present position of the United States in relation to atomic energy a preferred one will have been eliminated. For, when the plan is in full operation, no nation will be the legal owner of atomic weapons, of stockpiles of fissionable material or raw materials, or of the plants in which they can be produced. An attempt will have been made to establish a strategic balance in the geographical distribution of the internationally owned plants and stockpiles.

The security which we see in the realization of this plan lies in the fact that it averts the danger of the surprise use of atomic weapons. The seizure by one nation of installations necessary for making atomic weapons would be not only a clear signal of warlike intent, but it would leave other nations in a position either alone or in concert to take counter-actions. The plan, of course, has other security purposes, less tangible but none the less important. For in the very fact of cooperative effort among the nations of the world rests the hope we rightly hold for solving the problem of war itself.

It is clear that it would be unwise to undertake a plan based on the proposals which we have put forward unless there were some valid hope that they would be entered into and carried through in good faith; nevertheless, we must provide against the hazard that there may not be such good faith and must ask ourselves this question: What will be the state of affairs should the plan be adopted with the intention of evasion or should evasion be undertaken by any nation during the years when it is being put into effect?

The basis of our present monopoly now lies in two rather different things: knowledge, and physical facilities. The ultimate geographical balance toward which a plan for international control must work will witness the loss of both kinds of monopoly. Knowledge will become general, and facilities will neither in their legal possession nor in their geographical distribution markedly favor any one nation. Although both elements of our present hegemony will thus disappear over a period of years, quite different considerations are involved in the sharing of our knowledge and in the balancing of physical facilities.

The Material Aspects of the Transition

The transfer of such facilities to international control; the establishment under international control of similar facilities in other nations; the creation of stockpiles; the gradual building up of groups of men skilled in the various necessary arts--these are changes which from their very nature will require time to bring about, and which can, within not too wide limits, be scheduled and controlled. In the discussions within the United Nations Commission leading up to the adoption of the charter for the Authority, and even more in the early planning phases of the Authority's work, there will have to be some disclosure by us of theoretical information. But these discussions and these plans will not essentially alter the present superiority of the United States. They will not move its stockpiles of uranium or of fissionable material or its bombs or its operating plants, and need not alter the operation of these plants. These disclosures of information, now secret, will not create in any other nation the experience and the know-how which are so great a part of our present position of superiority.

No matter what may be the schedule of operations adopted, this situation cannot change overnight under any circumstances. Nevertheless, it is clear that very serious consideration must be given to the scheduling of those physical and legal changes which over a period of years will bring about a balanced international operation. On the one hand, the general principles underlying this scheduling will have to be the subject of negotiation, and the outcome will in one form or another have to be written into the charter. The charter may, for instance, provide that some things should not be done before a specified number of years have elapsed, or before the activities of the Authority, let us say, in the field of raw materials, have reached a certain stage of effectiveness. On the other hand, the Authority itself may by charter provision be given responsibility and discretion in the planning of its activities. It may, for instance, be called upon to certify that it is in satisfactory control of the raw materials situation before it undertakes certain of its other functions.

We are aware of the great importance which attaches to a prudent and reasonable scheduling of the step by step transition from our present position. But this problem is of a fundamentally different kind from those that have been discussed in this report. In this report we have attempted to discover and describe the conditions which, as we view the matter, a workable system of international control would have to satisfy.

The consideration of the steps of transition by which the special position of the United States may be relinquished involves quite other values. The sequence, the ordering, and the timing of these steps may be decisive for the acceptability of the international controls, but they will not affect its operability. Therefore, they present problems of negotiation between the nations within the UN in the course of agreeing upon a charter for the Atomic Development Authority. Such problems of negotiation, in our opinion, are separable from the nature of the objective of the negotiation. They are problems which cannot be solved now, because they depend, among other things, on the motivation of the participating nations, on the political background of the negotiations, and on what may be conceived to be the separate, as opposed to the collective, interests of these nations.

The extent to which special precautions need to be taken to preserve present American advantages must be importantly influenced by the character of the negotiation and by the earnestness which is manifested by the several nations in an attempt to solve the common problems of international control. These questions lie in the domain of highest national policy in international relations.

We are convinced that the first major activities of the Authority must be directed to obtaining cognizance and control over the raw materials situation. This control may of course be subject to limitations, defined in the charter, on the freedom of the Authority in its early operations to alter the national distribution of raw materials. The problems of making a geological survey reliable and not prohibitively difficult are major technical problems. The raw materials control will bring the Authority face to face with the problem of access, which is both a technical and a political problem. It will bring it face to face with the need for establishing its own research agencies and for their coordination with private and national ones. These undertakings are fundamental for the operation of the Authority and to all of its future prospect of success.

There are other things which no doubt the Authority would wish to do at once. Without much delay it should set up laboratories for the study of nuclear physics and the technological problems that it must expect to encounter in its future work. It should attempt to establish suitable forms of liaison and interchange with private and national institutions working on atomic energy or on its applications or on the fundamental sciences which may be involved. In short, the Authority should get started on its research program and in establishing the patterns of its liaison with other agencies for which it will be responsible in the future.

It would be desirable that even in the earliest days the Authority act to permit the use of radioactive tracer materials and those laboratory reactors which use small amounts of denatured active material, and which seem to provide such valuable tools for research in a variety of fields.

The Authority may need to establish, even in its earliest days, planning boards to make studies of the difficult questions of stockpiling, power development, future plant construction; it may need to set up a system for the interim recording and accounting of operations in the field of raw materials, and in the production plants of the United States.

These seem to us reasonable plans for initial operations. All the other operations of the Authority are certainly subject to scheduling. They may accompany these initial operations, or they may come later. But the control of raw materials is an essential prerequisite for all further progress and it is the first job that the Authority must undertake. It will be a continuing activity, but what we are concerned with is that it should start.

In considering the special position of the United States, there are, as we have seen, the following important components, the discontinuance or transfer of which to the jurisdiction of the Authority will have to be very carefully scheduled by international negotiation: our raw material supplies; the plants at Oak Ridge and Hanford now operating to make atomic explosives; the stockpiles of bombs now in our possession; the stockpiles of undenatured fissionable materials; our atomic bomb plant and laboratory at Los Alamos. Our loss of monopoly in these elements cannot be indefinitely postponed. Some of the thngs we now have will have to cease; some will have to be transferred to the Authority; some will have to be paralleled by activities elsewhere.

The scheduling will determine the rapidity with which a condition of international balance will replace our present position. Once the plan is fully in operation it will afford a great measure of security against surprise attack; it will provide clear danger signals and give us time, if we take over the available facilities, to prepare for atomic warfare. The significant fact is that at all times during the transition period at least such facilities will continue to be located within the United States. Thus should there be a breakdown in the plan at any time during the transition, we shall be in a favorable position with regard to atomic weapons.

Disclosure of Information as an Essential of International Action

One of the elements in the present monopoly of the United States is knowledge. This ranges all the way from purely theoretical matters to the intimate practical details of know-how. It is generally recognized that the transmission of any part, or all, of this knowledge to another nation could provide the basis for an acceleration of a rival effort to make atomic weapons. Even that part of our knowledge which is theoretical, which can be transmitted by word of mouth, by formula, or by written note is of value in this context. If such knowledge were available to a rival undertaking it would shorten the time needed for the solution of the practical problems of making atomic weapons, by eliminating certain unworkable alternatives, by fixing more definitely design features which depend on this theoretical knowledge, and by making it possible to undertake the various steps of the program more nearly in parallel, rather than in sequence. It is not, in our opinion, possible to give a reliable estimate of how much such revelation would shorten the time needed for a successful rival effort. It is conceivable that it would not be significantly shortened. It is conceivable that it might be shortened by a year or so. For an evaluation on this point depends on information, which is not available to us, on the detailed plans and policies of such a rival undertaking, as well as on their present state of knowledge. It is, of course, clear that even with all such theoretical knowledge available, a major program, surely lasting many years, is required for the actual production of atomic weapons.

Our monopoly on knowledge cannot be, and should not be, lost at once. Here again there are limitations on the scheduling inherent in the nature of our proposals, and in the nature of the deliberations necessary for their acceptance. But even with the recognition of these limitations, there is a rather wide freedom of choice in the actual scheduling of disclosures. Here considerations of acceptability and of general political background will make a decisive contribution.

It is clear that the information, which this country alone has, can be divided more or less roughly into categories. The acceptance and operation of the plan will require divulging certain categories of this information at successive times. A schedule can outline the point at which this must occur. In particular, there is a limited category of information which should be divulged in the early meetings of the United Nations Commission discussing these problems. There is a more extensive category which must be divulged some years hence after a charter has been adopted and the Atomic Development Authority is ready to start its operations; and there are other categories that may be reserved until the Authority later undertakes some of the subsequent stages of its operations, for instance, those that involve research on weapons. We are convinced that under the plan proposed in this report such scheduling is possible, though it is clear, as we have pointed out, that many factors beyond the scope of this report, and involving the highest considerations of international policy, will be involved in such schedules. We wish to emphasize that it will involve an initial divulging of information, which is justifiable in view of the importance of early progress on the path of international cooperation.

It is true, as the Secretary of State has said, that there is nothing in the Resolution setting up the Atomic Energy Commission that compels the United States to produce information for the use of the United Nations Commission. But the point that needs to be emphasized is that unless we are prepared to provide the information essential to an understanding of the problem, the Commission itself cannot even begin the task that has been assigned to it.

Let us examine in a little more detail the nature of the information which is required in the early stages. What is important for the discussions in the United Nations Organization Commission is that the Members and their technical advisors have an understanding of the problem of the international control of atomic energy and of the elements of the proposals that the United States member will put forward. They must be in a position to understand what the prospects for constructive applications of atomic energy are and to appreciate the nature of the safeguards which the plan we here propose affords. They must be in a position to evaluate alternatives which may arise, and to have insight into the rather complex interrelations of the various activities in this field. Above all they must have a sound enough overall knowledge of the field as a whole to recognize that no relevant or significant matters have been withheld. For the process of reaching common agreement on measures of international control presupposes an adequate community of knowledge of fact. Much of the information which is required for this purpose is already widely known. We are convinced, however, that there are further items now held by us as secret without which the necessary insight will be difficult to obtain. These items are of a theoretical and descriptive nature and have in large part to do with the constructive applications of atomic energy. In our opinion, they are largely qualitative; and they involve almost nothing of know-how.

On the other hand, when the Atomic Development Authority is in existence and undertakes operations in a given field, it must have made available to it all information bearing on that field--practical as well as theoretical. Thus, if the Authority, as its first major undertaking, attempts to obtain control of raw materials, we must be prepared to make available to it all knowledge bearing on this problem. This will, of course, be a common obligation on all participating nations. Conversely, should it by charter agreement be determined that research and development in the field of atomic explosives will be undertaken by the Authority only at a late date, the specific technological information relating to such developments would not be required by it in the earlier phases. It is important to bear in mind that before the Authority can undertake some of its functions, such as the construction of reactors or the development of power, it will have to spend some time in planning these activities and in research directed toward them, and that information must be made available early enough to make such planning and research effective.

These are examples of requirements for information by the Atomic Development Authority at certain stages of its progress. In accepting the plan here recommended for international control, the United States will be committed to making available this information at the time, and in the full measure required by the operating necessities. Once the sequence and timing of stages has been fixed by negotiation and agreement between the nations, a minimum rate of disclosure of information will have been fixed by the agreement as well. A too cautious release of information to the Atomic Development Authority might in fact have the effect of preventing it from ever coming to life. For one of the decisive responsibilities of the Authority is the establishment and maintenance of the security of the world against atomic warfare. It must be encouraged to exercise that responsibility, and to obtain for itself the technical mastery that is essential.

We may further clarify the nature of the disclosures required by this board's proposals by a reference to a report. We have had the opportunity to examine in detail a report of December, 1945, prepared for the Manhattan District by its Committee on Declassification, a committee of seven scientists, including the wartime heads of all the major laboratories of the Project. 1 This Committee was directed to report on a policy of declassification--that is disclosure--of scientific and technical material now classified as Secret, a policy which would best promote the national welfare, and protect the national security. In interpreting its directive the Committee limited itself to a consideration of these objectives in the absence of any system of international control. It recommended against declassification at the present time of a very considerable body of technical, technological, industrial, and ordnance information, that is information bearing directly on the manufacture of weapons and the design and operation of production plants. But it recommended the prompt declassification of a large body of scientific fact and of technical information of non-critical nature and wide applicability. It expressed the view that the further declassification of critical items of basic theoretical knowledge would conduce, not only to the national welfare, but to the long-term national security as well--no doubt because of the damaging effect which continued secrecy in these matters could have on our own scientific and technical progress. Corresponding to these distinctions, the Committee divided our secret scientific and technical information into three categories, the first of which it recommended for immediate declassification; the second of which it recommended for eventual declassification in the interests of long-term, national security of the United States; and for the third of which it recommended against declassification in the absence of effective international control. We have tried to see what technical information this board would find essential for the sort of understanding that must be established as a basis for discussion in the UNO Commission, and to compare this with the items listed in the report of the Committee on Declassification. Many of the facts needed are already public; many are included in Class One; the remainder are all in Class Two, and comprise perhaps one-third of the items there listed. It is important again to emphasize that the Declassification Committee's recommendation was aimed at furthering our own long-term national security in the absence of international measures.

We wish to emphasize that the initial disclosures will place in the hands of a nation (should it be acting in bad faith) information which could lead to an acceleration of an atomic armament program. We do not regard this circumstance as in any way peculiar to the plan recommended in this report. It is inherent in the concept of international control. The adoption of any workable scheme of international control may shorten the time during which the United States has a position as favorable as it has today. We cannot be sure of this, but we must be prepared for it.

In this section we have been discussing the problem of transition to international control as it affects the security of the United States. During this transition the United States' present position of monopoly may be lost somewhat more rapidly than would be the case without international action. But without such action the monopoly would in time disappear in any event. Should the worst happen and, during the transition period, the entire effort collapse, the United States will at all times be in a favorable position with regard to atomic weapons. This favorable position will depend upon material things; less and less will it rest upon keeping nations and individuals ignorant.

When fully in operation the plan herein proposed can provide a great measure of security against surprise attack. It can do much more than that. It can create deterrents to the initiation of schemes of aggression, and it can establish patterns of cooperation among nations, the extension of which may even contribute to the solution of the problem of war itself. When the plan is in full operation there will no longer be secrets about atomic energy. We believe that this is the firmest basis of security; for in the long term there can be no international control and no international cooperation which does not presuppose an international community of knowledge.

  • Chester I. Barnard
  • Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer
  • Dr. Charles A. Thomas
  • Harry A. Winne
  • David E. Lilienthal, Chairman

Membership of this Committee included R. F. Bacher, A. H. Compton, E. O. Lawrence, J. R. Oppenheimer, F. G. Spedding, H. C. Urey, and R. C. Tolman, Chairman.