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Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes arrive at the Gatow Airport in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference, July 15, 1945.SEARCH FOR A POLICY ON INTERNATIONAL CONTROL
(August to November 1945)
Events > Postscript -- The Nuclear Age, 1945-Present

In the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Harry S. Truman and his top officials viewed the Soviet Union as the primary stumbling block in the move toward international control of the atomic bomb.  Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes represented the two poles of an uncertain and divided policy.  Despite his ongoing misgivings concerning the Soviets, Stimson determined that unless the United States offered full partnership in the development of atomic energy the Soviet Union would begin "a secret armament race of a rather desperate character."  Byrnes, on the eve of the first postwar foreign ministers conference to be held in London, remained adamant in opposition to any attempt to cooperate with the Soviets on atomic energy and viewed the bomb as a diplomatic asset that would make the Soviets more amenable.  As Stimson observed in his diary, Byrnes went to London fully set on having "the implied threat of the bomb in his pocket during the conference."

In Byrnesís absence, Stimson approached Truman about a direct offer to the Soviets on controlling the bomb.  "In my plan," Stimson told the President, there are "less dangers than in his and we would be on the right path toward . . . establishment of an international world." Byrnesís approach, he added, meant that "we would . . . be tending to revert to power politics." The United States, Stimson noted in explaining his plan, might propose to stop all weapons work if the Soviets did likewise.  The current stockpile might be impounded if an agreement could be reached on banning the bomb as a weapon of war.  Inducements, Stimson continued, might include exchanging information on commercial and humanitarian applications of atomic energy.  He warned the President that the initiative should be "peculiarly the proposal of the United States" and not "part of a general international scheme." If put before a conference, he cautioned, the "loose debates . . . would provoke but scant favor from the Soviets." Should the United States fail to approach the Soviets immediately and instead negotiated with "this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip," Stimson concluded, then "their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives will increase."

Truman Cabinet Meeting: (left to right) Under Secretary of the Interior Abe Fortas, Postmaster General Robert Hannegan, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, President Truman, Secretary of the Treasury Fred Vinsion, Attorney General Tom Clark, and Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal,  August 10, 1945In the end, neither Stimson nor Byrnes prevailed.  Trumanís Cabinet was unenthusiastic when Stimson presented his proposal on September 21, his seventy-eighth birthday and last day as secretary of war.  Although the core of Stimsonís plan was a direct approach to the Soviets, the Cabinet discussion focused on sharing information about the bomb.  Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal saw the bomb as "the property of the American people" not to be given away without public approval.  Public opinion polls conducted in late September, in fact, revealed that some 70 percent of the populace and over 90 percent of the congressmen questioned objected to sharing atomic secrets with other nations.

Truman never fully committed to Stimsonís proposal.  He had told Stimson that he agreed with his approach that "we must take Russia into our confidence." In an October 3 special address to Congress on atomic energy, however, he called for "international arrangements" for the "renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb," singling out Britain and Canada for initial discussions but not the Soviet Union. Five days later, at an impromptu pressSecretary of States James F. Byrnes and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, July 18, 1945 conference, he seemed to downgrade the significance of international control, noting that the engineering and technical details on the bomb would not be shared with other nations.  The secretary of state, he added, would take the lead in atomic energy negotiations.  As for Byrnes, the London Conference proved a disaster for any hopes that the bomb would make the Soviet Union more tractable.  The Soviets refused to be cowed by the American monopoly -- with Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov at one tense moment during the negotiations asking Byrnes if he had an "atomic bomb in his side pocket" -- and the conference adjourned with little progress.  An exasperated Byrnes returned home disillusioned with the bomb as a diplomatic weapon and with little appetite for negotiations on international control.  On October 10, he told Forrestal and Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson that he was going to urge Truman to procrastinate. As Vannevar Bush observed shortly thereafter, the whole matter of international relations relating to the bomb was "in a thoroughly chaotic condition."

British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and President Truman at the Potsdam Conference, July 28, 1945Opportunity to clarify policy on the bomb came with the mid-November meeting in Washington of President Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Canadian Prime Minister William MacKenzie King.  On November 3, only a week before the opening session, Byrnes asked Bush to prepare a policy paper.  Bush proposed a three-stage approach to international technical cooperation on atomic energy.  In the first stage, all nations would open their research laboratories to foreign scientists.  If this proceeded satisfactorily, a second stage would involve a free exchange of information on practical aspects of atomic energy such as industrial uses.  In the third and final stage, all nations would agree to use atomic energy only for peaceful purposes.  An inspection system, set up during the second stage, would safeguard against cheating and the diversion of fissionable materials to make bombs. As a first move, Bush suggested that the Soviet Union be asked to join with the United States and Britain in proposing that the United Nations create a scientific agency to implement the program of international cooperation and control.  Akin to Stimsonís proposal, the Bush plan differed in one critical respect.  Whereas Stimson urged a direct approach and negotiations with the Soviets, Bush envisioned multinational negotiations at the United Nations, an undertaking Stimson had warned specifically against.

Both Byrnes and Truman liked the Bush approach.  Entrusting negotiations and implementation of international control to the United Nations avoided any immediate need to deal directly with the Soviets on substantive issues, a course of action that Byrnes found particularly attractive.  Even so, the secretary of state had one question. "What would we do," he asked Bush and General Leslie Groves, who had been called in to consult on the proposal, "with our bombs in the meantime?" Not until the next day did they provide a tentative answer. Bush and Groves assumed that the manufacture of fissionable material would continue for the moment.  When negotiations reached a suitable point, they recommended, the President could announce that no more bombs would be produced.  The fissionable material could be stored in bar form for later use in atomic power plants.  An international inspection system, once in place, could verify that the material was not being diverted to military purposes. Bush and Groves reasoned that such restraint would provide partial proof of American good will.

President Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and other dignitaries at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1945.At the Washington meeting, the British and Canadians readily agreed to the substance of the Bush plan.  The three leaders issued a joint declaration, drafted largely by Bush, that proposed establishing an atomic energy commission under the auspices of the United Nation.  The commission would prepare recommendations for the United Nations on international control that would include information exchange, safeguards, and the elimination of atomic weapons.  These would be accomplished in separate, successive stages.

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Sources and notes for this page.

The text for this page is original to the Department of Energy's Office of History and Heritage Resources.† Portions were adapted from the History Office publications: F. G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb (DOE/MA-0001; Washington: History Division, Department of Energy, January 1999), 55-57, and Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939-1946: Volume I, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1972), 417-421, 455-456, 459-466.† Also used were Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 25-36, 41, 45-53; Walter Millis, The Forrestal Diaries (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 95, and McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), 146-148. President Harry S. Truman's Special Message to the Congress on Atomic Energy, October 3, 1945, and The Presidentís News Conference at Tiptonville, Tennessee, October 8, 1945, are both in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Harry S. Truman, 1945 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961), 365-66, 381-83.† The Joint Declaration by the Heads of Government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, November 15, 1945, is in Documents on Disarmament, 1945-1959, Volume 1, 1945-1956 (Department of State Publication 7008, August 1960), 1-3.† The photographs of Henry L. Stimson and James F. Byrnes, Truman's cabinet, Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov, Clement Attlee and Truman, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are courtesy the National Archives.

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