5. Memorandum of Discussion at the 235th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, February 3, 19551
[Here follow a paragraph listing the participants at the meeting and agenda items 1–3.]
4. Proposed Public Announcement of the Effects, Particularly Fall-Out, of Thermonuclear Explosions
The President indicated that the OCB had prepared a statement on the reference subject which would be issued presently by the Atomic Energy Commission.2 Accordingly, he wanted the Council’s advice, particularly on the question whether an announcement at this time on the effects of thermonuclear explosions would have an irritating [Page 12] effect on the existing international situation. In other words, was there any good reason for keeping altogether still on this subject or, alternatively, on saying a great deal more than was now included in the draft? There was one possible reason, continued the President, to push ahead. It was generally understood that the British, among others, tend to exaggerate the effects of fall-out from thermonuclear explosions. This he knew from a recent message from Sir Winston Churchill.3 The British were going to make a statement, to be issued on February 15, which would give the British Government’s views on the effect of thermonuclear explosions.4 It would seem undesirable, thought the President, for the people of the United States to learn of these effects from the British Government rather than from their own Government, the more so since we would probably be obliged to state that the British exposition was substantially true.
Mr. Cutler then called on Admiral Strauss, who said that the President himself had largely covered the ground. He pointed out that the draft U.S. statement had been long in preparation, had been carefully worked over in the OCB, and was, he thought, in pretty good shape. The Civil Defense people have been screaming for months for some such statement as this. Secretary Hoover had pointed out that if it is determined to release such a statement, time should be allowed to place it in the hands of our diplomatic missions overseas and for its revelation to the British Government, although there is no necessity of waiting until or after the British issue their own statement on February 15. Admiral Strauss then summarized the contents of the proposed statement, which he described as written in simple and comprehensible language and as answering as many questions as we ourselves could ask. He proposed to release this statement on the 11th or 12th of February.
The President inquired whether, if we showed our statement to the British in advance of issuing it publicly, the British were not likely to ask for simultaneous release of our statement and their statement.
Secretary Hoover said that the arrangement to show our statement to the British in advance of its public release had come about as a result of a conversation at the recent conference in Paris, between Deputy Secretary of Defense Anderson and Harold Macmillan. As a [Page 13] matter of fact, since the British Government was including no appropriation for anti-aircraft defenses in its forthcoming budget, because it felt that there was no adequate defense against thermonuclear and atomic weapons, some facts had to be explained to the British public with respect to this omission. In answer to the President’s question, Secretary Hoover expressed the opinion that the United States should release its statement before the British Government released its statement, although we were committed to cross-check our statement with the British prior to releasing it to our own public.
Admiral Strauss said he did not believe that we had made so firm a commitment to the British, while Secretaries Wilson and Humphrey observed that they could see no particular objection to the simultaneous release of the U.S. and British statements.
The President said that he could see none either, except perhaps that the release of two such statements simultaneously might suggest that this had deliberately been concerted, and give too great and alarming emphasis to the contents of the report and thus cause international anxiety as well as heighten the sense of fear at home.
Admiral Strauss commented that we have no particular reason to believe that the British will accept the U.S. findings as to the effects of thermonuclear explosions, which would probably be presented as less serious than the British would present them. Accordingly, it would be awkward if the release dates for the two statements were the same.
Secretary Humphrey inquired whether there was much new information in the proposed U.S. statement. Admiral Strauss replied in the affirmative, and particularly, he said, with respect to the effects of fall-out. The President suggested that this matter be left to the State Department, with freedom to handle it as they saw fit, except that if the State Department agrees to the issuance of the U.S. statement simultaneously with the British statement, the British must agree to accept the findings in the U. S. statement.
Secretary Wilson thought that such procedure might cause difficulty with our loyal ally, Canada, and said he feared the danger of overemphasis and great public concern if both Britain and the United States issued statements on fall-out at the same time. Agreeing with Secretary Wilson, Mr. Cutler pointed out that Governor Peterson5 was most anxious to issue a statement urging that the United States press ahead with renewed energy and zeal on its civil defense program. He wanted to issue this immediately after the AEC issued its own statement. All this, in addition to a British statement, would tend to snowball the sense of danger rather than to reassure the population. Furthermore, Mr. Cutler was concerned about the effect the snowballing [Page 14] of so many statements and the inevitable official or unofficial comments on them, would have on the Soviets and the Chinese Communists at this particular juncture in the world situation.
Secretary Wilson said that as far as he could see, the United States proposed statement wasn’t going to be very reassuring in any event. Admiral Strauss replied that it would be reassuring in comparison with so much of the “scare stuff” which had recently filled the papers on the subject of fall-out.
Governor Stassen suggested that Governor Peterson be directed to wait ten days after the issuance of the AEC statement before he made any public announcement himself with respect to the Civil Defense program. During this ten-day interval the OCB would study and report to the President on the world reaction and the domestic reaction to the AEC statement.
Mr. Dodge said that, speaking as a former Director of the Bureau of the Budget, he was a good deal concerned lest the issuance of the statement cause a public demand on the budget for increased funds for civil defense. The President said with considerable emphasis that he couldn’t help but feel that the Administration had woefully underplayed the civil defense program. The real answer, said the President, to the problem, as he had mentioned before, was an informed and disciplined citizenry.
The National Security Council:6
- Agreed that a public announcement on the subject, along the lines proposed by the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, revised in the light of the Council discussion, should be released prior to February 15, 1955, after advance notification to U.S. diplomatic missions and to the British Government.
- Noted the President’s directive that other governmental departments and agencies should defer any public announcements following upon the release of the Atomic Energy Commission announcement, pending Council consideration of a report by the Operations Coordinating Board on the psychological reactions to the AEC announcement within approximately two weeks following its release.
Note: The action in a above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Chairman, AEC. The action in b above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to interested Government departments and agencies and to the Operations Coordinating Board to prepare the report referred to therein.7[Page 15]
[Here follows discussion of the remaining agenda items.]
- Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records. Top Secret. Drafted by Gleason on February 4.↩
- No OCB statement has been found in Department of State files, but an excerpt from the minutes of the OCB meeting of February 2 indicates “that Admiral Strauss had given the draft letter to the President covering the proposed nuclear explosion release and that the President agreed to read it and to give his decision soon.” (Department of State, OCB Files: Lot 62 D 430, Atomic and Nuclear Energy) Eisenhower wrote Strauss on February 2 saying he had read his memorandum, called it “excellent,” and questioned only the need for so many specific figures on the size of atomic or thermonuclear weapons, which might give some intimation of the extreme ranges of U.S. weapons tests. (Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, Administration Series, AEC) The statement finally released on February 15 was entitled “The Effects of High-Yield Nuclear Explosions”. For more information on this statement, see Document 7.↩
- Eisenhower presumably refers to a letter and enclosure British Prime Minister Churchill sent him on January 12. The letter did not mention fallout, but the enclosure, a printed document by Churchill entitled Notes on Tube Alloys, 1954, dated December 12, 1954, contains a paragraph summarizing the concerns of British nuclear experts on the dangers of fallout. (Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, ERDA)↩
- The British statement, published in the annual Statement on Defense, was released to Parliament on February 17. The portions on the effects of fallout received no more attention from the press than the announcement in the same publication that Britain would begin to produce the H-bomb. See The New York Times, February 18, 1955, pp. 1 and 4.↩
- Val Peterson.↩
- Paragraphs a–b and the Note that follow constitute NSC Action No. 1320, approved by the President on February 3, 1955. (Department of State, S/S–NSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, NSC Actions)↩
- For later discussion on this proposed public announcement, see Document 7.↩