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Barton Bernstein on: The U.S. Decision to Build the H-bomb
Q: What happens in the fall of 1949 after the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission recommends against a crash program to build the H-bomb? Why does President Truman go ahead and authorize such a program?

BB: [AEC Commissioner Lewis] Strauss who is a chief proponent of the pro-H-bomb group argued very simply that whatever weapon can be imagined, we need. Whatever that can be imagined and might be developed, clearly the Soviets will develop it. We should never be behind. We should always be ahead and, thus, we need it. This requires a quantum leap to the next level. And that argument in more muted form was really joined by the Joint Chiefs who did not want America to be at a psychological disadvantage of being without a weapon that the Soviets had.

[President] Truman not knowing initially about the AEC position, I think, but having it brought to him in early November decided to appoint a three member committee to deliberate and make a recommendation. Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, who was the member of the committee closest to Truman, and greatly trusted by Truman. [David] Lilienthal, the chairman of the AEC, Atomic Energy Commission, who is already on record opposing the weapon, and Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, who is already on record supporting the weapons.

So, basically Truman appointed a three member special committee, one person opposed, one person for, and then one person technically not on record, although, I think, for Truman it was clear that Dean Acheson had profound inclinations toward the weapon, unless there were unforeseen and significant liabilities. And thus, when Truman appointed this committee, I think, he appointed it expecting a pro-H-Bomb recommendation. But what is striking, is that he thought that there were enough issues involved and enough need for some deliberation that rather than in November making a decision for a greatly accelerated project, he decided to create the institutions to allow some kind of systematic deliberation...

The three member committee only had two meetings. Partly because Johnson and Acheson greatly disliked, if not hated one another. And partly, I think because it was clear that the key member was Acheson. Acheson consulted with various people including [the scientific director of the wartime atomic project] J. Robert Oppenheimer whom he admired, but regarded on this as too much of a poet as he put it, and not enough of a hard-nosed realist. Acheson talked to others, including George Kennan of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department who opposed the bomb. And Acheson decided, not surprisingly, but after doing his homework in a systematic but limited way that the bomb was essential. And thus, on January 31st, 1950, the members met for either the second or third time in a brief meeting, Lilienthal opposing, Acheson for, Johnson for, and then they decided to go over to the White House to tell the President.

In fact, the President had known for a few weeks what the conclusion was. And furthermore, he knew what his inclination was and he told somebody as early as about a week before, to ten days before, that he, Truman, was going to decide for the H-bomb. On January 31, 1950, when the three members met with the President for somewhere between about seven and 15 minutes - to repeat, the decision had already been basically made, the President knew what he was choosing, he knew what the committee was going to recommend, he knew what Acheson wanted, and it would have been impossible to believe that Harry Truman would have chosen otherwise.

What would have led Harry Truman in the Cold War, at a time that most Americans wanted more weapons and more powerful weapons, to decide against the H-Bomb? It was immoral? He did not view it that way, and that would not have been compelling. It was too expensive? The estimate was 70 to 100 million dollars. At the time the American military budget was probably about 14 billion, so 70 to 100 million is a very small percentage. Was it going to deflect scientists from other activities? That was a danger. That is, it would slow progress on improving atomic weapons. But theoretically, it was possible to add some scientists and some resources and thus you could have an improvement of atomic weapons, a diversified arsenal, and also an H-bomb.

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