Atoms for Peace, Atoms for War

Atoms for Peace always seemed like an oxymoron to me. A number of today’s nuclear-armed nations got their start under either the US or Soviet versions, and Iran’s supposedly peaceful nuclear program will soon make it a virtual nuclear power – meaning that, if it so desires, it will be able to rapidly produce a bomb by turning its commercial uranium enrichment to military use. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggests that the close relationship between Atoms for Peace and Atoms for War is no accident:

In 1955, [Eisenhower] told a reporter: “… In any combat where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” When Eisenhower suggested to Winston Churchill’s emissary Jock Colville that “there was no distinction between ‘conventional’ weapons and atomic weapons: all weapons in due course become conventional,” Colville recalled, horrified, “I could hardly believe my ears.”

… Europeans were terrified that the United States would start a nuclear war, which Eisenhower threatened to do over Korea, over the Suez Canal, and twice over the Taiwan Strait islands of Quemoy and Matsu. European allies begged Eisenhower to show restraint.

Public revulsion at the normalization of nuclear war threatened to derail the Eisenhower administration’s plans. The minutes of a March 1953 meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) stated: “the President and Secretary [John Foster] Dulles were in complete agreement that somehow or other the tabu [sic] which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed. While Secretary Dulles admitted that in the present state of world opinion we could not use an A-bomb, we should make every effort now to dissipate this feeling.”

Eisenhower decided that the best way to destroy that taboo was to shift the focus from military uses of nuclear energy to socially beneficial applications. Stefan Possony, Defense Department consultant to the Psychological Strategy Board, had argued: “the atomic bomb will be accepted far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for constructive ends.” On December 8, 1953, Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations … [in which he] pledged to spread the benefits of peaceful atomic power at home and abroad.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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