By Melvin Hardy in Response to William Lanouette’s Article in Arms Control Today Magazine, May, 2009, “Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons”
The District of Columbia (local community as distinct from federal DC) has long accommodated thought leadership and judgment on matters associated with civil society activism on the issue of nuclear weapons abolition, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Linkage between the creative classes and their creative output in response to matters of nuclear weapons and their impacts on humanity may initially be traced back to Reverend A. Powell Davies of All Souls Church on 16th Street whose work may count amongst the first of DC’s clarion voices against the application of nuclear weapons as tools of war (whether just or unjust).
The author is a member of the non-profit, non-partisan Arms Control Association, and has commented on William Lanouette’s article appearing in its flagship journal, Arms Control Today, May, 2009 at (http://www.armscontrol.org/print/3643) entitled “Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons”. My careful mining of references to Dr. Davies’ work and influence on this issue is not readily apparent in Mr. Lanouette’s article. In addition to this author’s central thesis fusing the arts and peaceful countenance on atomic energy, this article, then, also attempts to contribute to additional scholarship on the matter of civilian control of atomic energy, with an emphasis on Dr. Davies’ role, prominence, and seminal contributions to such scholarship. My comments and Mr. Lanouette’s article appear in full below.
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Davies’ sermonizing and organizing led him to serve with broad coalitions of civil society leaders and scientists; he rose to leadership of the National Committee on Atomic Information and chaired the Civilian Control of Atomic Energy, the first such civil society activist groups to form in direct response to the then nascent nuclear industry. An initial introduction to Davies’ life can be found via Manish Misra’s brilliant summation at www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/arthurpowelldavies.html with additional references to Davies’ life worthy of pursuit found within the article.
An outgrowth of Dr. Davies’ work at All Souls Church was a compassionate gift by the children of the church to children in Japan. School supplies were sent to atomic bomb surviving children of three schools in Hiroshima, most notable of which was the Hiroshima Children’s School. The materials comprised art-making materials including pencils, crayons, paper, watercolors, and paint-brushes. In a gesture of thanks, some months later, the Honkawa children sent a portfolio of (sic) 48 original art water-color, “encaustic” and crayon paintings, and pencil drawings in a variety of erstwhile contemporary aesthetics, subject matter, and imagery. The author of this article serves on the curatorial team of this highly distinctive body of work, which we call the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings, which carries amongst its many signatures messages of hope for humankind’s future, and spiritual reconciliation between and amongst peoples. Such hopefulness is set against the backdrop of erstwhile environmental, geo-political, and civil society strife, that so reveals itself in our contemporary life today. Indeed, and it is the central thesis of this post, the arts (the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings) and Davies’ citizen action on the nuclear issue may find their energies cum point-of-departure from this seminal time in DC’s history, and with this gesture of compassion and kindness. Beyond sentiment, on the nuclear issue, the origins of legislative energies, citizen action, and “peace-oriented” art-making in every dimension, find their founding principles from activities catalyzed from DC’s own All Souls Church on 16th Street; and the work and vision of Dr. Davies.
The author considers that this confluence of events and circumstance lays the foundation for their continued sympathies to be directly followed through the immediate post-war period, through the McCarthy era, through the Civil Rights era, through the Viet Nam war era, through the modern Women’s Rights era (referencing the gender-rights era and the work of current All Souls Church Senior Minister Robert M. Hardies), and into the digital technology age with all attendant implications for justice and fairness in pursuit of a modern American identity. To wit, a documentary film is presently in production, by producer Shizumi Shigeto Manale, and film-maker Bryan Reichhardt, to both chronicle and contextualize the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings story, and, amongst other purposes, to document the DC legacy in “art and peace-building” in modern history.
Over time, the District of Columbia has hosted many marches and conferences, and embraces the many religious and moral authority groups within its geography. This includes, but is not limited, to the Washington Interfaith Network, SANE, Peace Action’s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and so many others groups. Curiously and importantly, the DC Beltway contracting community, replete with defense and armament contractors producing small arms through nuclear weapons, count amongst their staffs and suppliers people of good spirit who harbor their own spiritual dissonance in contributing to production of such products. These persons are matched by practitioners in government, contractors, think tanks, consulting organizations, and non-profit organizations who find themselves on both sides of the nuclear (weapons and energy) matters. In the community based organizations are the Washington Peace Center, and the Hiroshima Nagasaki Peace Committee, amongst others. Counting individual citizen action, amongst the more notable are the late Norman Mayer, Ellen and the late William Thomas, ”Connie” Conception Picciotto, and her friend Jay McGinley, who have maintained an anti-nuclear weapons vigil outside of the White House since 1981. Ellen Thomas survives William, who together founded Peace House in Washington, and she remains stalwart in advancing civil society activism on the anti-nuclear weapons issue. Amongst the expressions of such work is “DC’s Proposition 1” which advanced a DC Legislative Initiative 37 in 1993. Starting in 1994, Shadow Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton put forth House Bill HR 3750 “The Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act” as a congressional expression of Prop1. Mrs. Norton has put forth similar legislation nearly every year since, and has succeeded in winning additional co-signers, though without threshold numbers sufficient for passage to date. The 2011-2012 iteration of the bill is HR 1334 and is expanded to consider energy as “The Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act”. The bill in its entirety follows at the end of this post.
Pursuant to our tracing the “legacy” of fusing art-making and peace-making, in August, 2011, at the first Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition, under the sponsorship of University of Maryland University College, the highest award, The President’s Best of Show Award, went to artist Jo Israelson whose work, “Dovecote: 365 Prayers For Peace“, provides the prowess and currency of creative class contributions to “imagining peace” in our world. A number of us who participate severally in the arts and peace movements find our personal intersections in organizations which embrace practitioners in both. One such organization is International Artists for Peace and World Harmony (IAPWH), an initiative based at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem, NY City, who presented themselves to All Souls Church in May, 2011 during a Nuclear Weapons Abolition “Teach In”. IPAWH has amongst its founding organizations the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence, which rests on The Kingian Principles of building the “beloved community”. In the DC area, PeaceAction Montgomery and the Fund Our Communities Coalition are organizations which have employed graphic artists in message making on the peace-building issue. The history of the civil rights movement includes graphic artists and music makers as pivotal in galvanizing civil society participation in our peace and justice movements.
The international vocabulary of art- and image-making is “spoken” by all in the human family, without respect to geography or social station, and most especially by those, globally, who embrace the principles that undergird fabrication of the “beloved community”. Federal DC, led by a civil society group, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, has erected the MLK monument to honor such principles, during the same month of August 2011, where we referenced Jo Israelson’s Dovecote. Under the aegis of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace Committee (HN-DC), we also memorialized the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th respectively. The HN-DC, under the leadership of John Steinbach, annually holds its peace vigil on the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial and the banks of the Reflecting Pool on the DC Mall, and our most recent event in August, 2011 was characteristically reverential, moving and powerful for all who attended.
The month of August has seen the confluence of much in the cause of art-making, and spiritual and peaceful reconciliation between and amongst people. Smith Farm for the Healing Arts, under the thoughtful and impassioned leadership of Shanti Norris inaugurated its project “The 9/11 Arts Project: Healing 10 Years Later“ as a coordinating effort to coalesce programming for creative expression and civic participation in the “arts of imagining peace”. Out of the 9/11 Project comes awareness of programming events such as Savoring the Art of Peace; and the organization Artpars‘ presentation of their “Dialogues through Art” at DuPont Circle and their “Art For Peace” training. The DC Visual Arts community is replete with artists who regularly and consistently challenge us to mine within ourselves the pursuit of beauty in our lives, in which peacefulness in relationships, one to the other, is the substrate of their creative image making. While the author, by way of background, has a focus on the visual and plastic arts in two and three dimensions, such creative class outpourings is seen thorough DC’s classical, jazz, and hip-hop musicians, our literary, creative writing, and film artists, our architects, lawyers and physicians, and even our primary and early secondary school students. Currently, there is a national mural project sponsored out of California in Bell Multicultural High School was selected as the DC high school representative to this national project.
Local DC has a storied history, and continues to build upon that history by leveraging its artists to imagine a more peaceful world through its creative class citizens and their kin throughout the world who speak the language of art…and peace…and activism…and justice. With respect to the legacies of DC activism in the nuclear abolition movement, from Dr. Davies’ catalytic work in 1945, and All Souls Church, Unitarian of DC’s receipt of the children’s art in the Honkawa Children’s Drawings, I posit these events as the marker of creative class-civil society engagement in fusing art-making and peace-building, placing DC as the incipient gravity center in the anti-nuclear weapons movement.
Further, it was the signature authority of Dr. Arthur Powell Davies’ towering oratory, prescience in vision, and premonitory compassion that continues its legacy in DC through many who “labor in the vineyard” of social justice work with a focus on peaceful uses of atomic energy and the role of civil society actors who play guide in the course of humanity’s progress.
I welcome your responses to this post, your corrections of and additions to the history as herein presented, and especially, the nuance to the story as you might know it. As always, I will reserve the right to acknowledge only those posts which advance our knowledge and provide to our community light on the path forward. Your comments can be left at http://www.melvinhardypeace.wordpress.com.
In great humility, please allow me to join you in community by my offer to “…let peace begin with me”.
PS: A copy of the most recent Legislation on Nuclear Weapons Abolition, delivered by DC Shadow Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, and an appeal to have your friends, colleagues and associates to encourage their legislators to support this legislation follows:
H.R.1334 — Nuclear Weapons Abolition and
Economic and Energy Conversion Act of 2011
H. R. 1334
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
April 1, 2011
Ms. NORTON introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and in addition to the Committee on Armed Services, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.
To provide for nuclear weapons abolition and economic conversion in accordance with District of Columbia Initiative Measure Number 37 of 1992, while ensuring environmental restoration and clean-energy conversion.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.
This Act may be cited as the `Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act of 2011′.
SEC. 2. REQUIREMENT FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS ABOLITION AND ECONOMIC AND ENERGY CONVERSION.
(a) In General- The United States Government shall–
(1) by the date that is three years after the date of the enactment of this Act, provide leadership to negotiate a multilateral treaty or other international agreement that provides for–
(A) the dismantlement and elimination of all nuclear weapons in every country by not later than 2020; and
(B) strict and effective international control of such dismantlement and elimination;
(2) redirect resources that are being used for nuclear weapons programs to use–
(A) in converting all nuclear weapons industry employees, processes, plants, and programs smoothly to constructive, ecologically beneficial peacetime activities, including strict control of all fissile material and radioactive waste, during the period in which nuclear weapons must be dismantled and eliminated pursuant to the treaty or other international agreement described in paragraph (1); and
(B) in addressing human and infrastructure needs, including development and deployment of sustainable carbon-free and nuclear-free energy sources, health care, housing, education, agriculture, and environmental restoration, including long-term radioactive waste monitoring;
(3) undertake vigorous, good-faith efforts to eliminate war, armed conflict, and all military operations; and
(4) actively promote policies to induce all other countries to join in the commitments described in this subsection to create a more peaceful and secure world.
(b) Effective Date- Subsection (a)(2) shall take effect on the date on which the President certifies to Congress that all countries possessing nuclear weapons have–
(1) eliminated such weapons; or
(2) begun such elimination under established legal requirements comparable to those described in subsection (a).
PLEASE ASK YOUR REPRESENTATIVE TO CO-SPONSOR HR-1334!
You can do this online at
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation – www.wagingpeace.org/goto/hr1334 – or at
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – www.wilpf.org/2011AprilNuclearBillAction
Note: On April 1, 2011, Washington DC’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton issued a press release: “Today, I am introducing the Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act of 2011, a version of which I have introduced since 1994, after working with the District of Columbia residents who were responsible for the Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion ballot initiative passed by D.C. voters in 1993.
“This version of the bill now requires the United States to negotiate an international agreement to disable and dismantle [all] nuclear weapons by 2020, and provides for strict control of fissile material and radioactive waste and for use of nuclear free [and carbon-free] energy resources. The bill continues to provide that the funds used for nuclear weapons programs be redirected towards human and infrastructure needs, such as housing, health care, Social Security and the environment.
“The bill is particularly timely as Congress continues to make cuts to important human and infrastructure programs and as the world confronts nuclear catastrophe in Japan…. It is painfully ironic that the one country that has been attacked with nuclear weapons is now struggling to control its own nuclear capability after the plant meltdown. The U.S. has an obligation to lead in ridding the world of nuclear weapons.”
Further information about DC’s initiatives can be procured through Ellen Thomas at:
Proposition One Committee – PO Box 26, Tryon NC 28782 – 202-210-3886
Website: www.prop1.org – Email: email@example.com
Global information about the nuclear weapons abolition movement abounds, and a nexus point is found at http://www.mayorsforpeace.org and 2020visioncampaign.org.
Melvin Hardy’s Peace Blog Response to William Lanouette’s Article, “Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons, Appearing in Arms Control Today, May, 2009. Comment Posted on the Arms Control Association website November 26, 2011. Melvin Hardy is a member of the Arms Control Association.
Bill Lanouette’s high scholarship as presented in his article delivers a brilliant recitation of our civil society attempts at insertion into non-military civic engagement in atomic energy management. I have missed, however, the inclusion of an important actor from the religious community in Washington, specifically, the Reverend Dr. Athur Powell Davies of All Souls Church, Unitarian of Washington, DC. His was an awareness of the Manhattan Project and he anticipated the horrors of this particular application of atomic energy in the theaters of war. Indeed, he rose to leadership in the National Committee on Atomic Information and the Committee for Civilian Control of Atomic Energy. Given his sermonizing platform from the cathedral church of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, his audience of Supreme Court Justices and the executives in the erstwhile administration, and his influence in media management for messaging (amongst the first closed circuit radio broadcast of sermons. It is my contention that his is a story deserving of some focus.
I will write an introduction to that story under separate cover, as a point of departure for other researchers’ investigation as appropriate.
Mr. Lanouette’s article follows:
Civilian Control Of Nuclear Weapons
Ever since the Manhattan Project, which built the first U.S. atomic bombs during World War II, tensions have persisted among civilian and military leaders over the control of nuclear weapons. Those tensions are highlighted anew with a proposal to move the U.S. nuclear weapons program from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense. President Barack Obama this year asked the Office of Management and Budget to study the shift and report on the pros and cons by September. The concept has raised concern on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Former Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary recently said that civilian control is good public policy and a good model for other countries to follow.
What exactly is meant by “civilian control” of nuclear weapons? Over the last seven decades, this elusive and evolving topic has blended and sometimes blurred two related concepts: authority and administration. The authority to order the use of nuclear weapons rests with the president, based on the U.S. Constitution. The administration of the nuclear complex and arsenal is based on legislation that created a civilian nuclear authority and specified new roles for the president.
Authority comes from the “civilian control of the military” that the Constitution guarantees by giving Congress power to declare war while making the president commander-in-chief. As commander-in-chief, the president and his civilian secretary of defense have the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. That authority has never been in dispute.
Administration is what has changed over the decades since it first became politicized after World War II by scientists and politicians who opposed “militarization” of the atom. Thus, the debate that helped frame the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and spelled out the role civilians should play in the nuclear enterprise re-emerges with the Obama proposal. It is essentially about administration, not authority.
At issue is a tangle of traditions, laws, presidential directives, and ad hoc practices that have evolved since 1939, when scientists at Columbia University first saw that the awesome power of the atom could play a decisive role in the coming war. The civilian-military interactions that followed have fostered a massive nuclear weapons program that swelled during the Cold War and is only now in serious decline. Throughout this history, many scientists working on nuclear weapons have asserted their independence and mistrusted the military, and those attitudes may yet influence the decision at hand.
To appreciate these attitudes, it is helpful to trace these civilian-military interactions to the dawn of the nuclear age, from the time when nuclear scientists dominated policymaking to the present, when they have some influence but no power. During the spring and summer of 1939, physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard demonstrated that nuclear chain reactions might work and then co-designed the world’s first nuclear reactor. Also at Columbia, chemist Harold Urey devised a way to separate the rare uranium isotope U-235 that could fuel it. Yet, with the science of nuclear weaponry at hand, a way to integrate science and the military was still missing.
At first, the scientists were the only ones who foresaw nuclear weapons as a possibility, and their interactions with the military were frustrating and nearly futile. Szilard urged Fermi to approach the U.S. Navy that spring, but when he told Navy scientists about the atom’s potential both as a power source for ships and a powerful new weapon, he was ridiculed. That summer, Szilard drafted and helped deliver a warning letter from friend and colleague Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt that detailed recent German atomic bomb research and urged a prompt U.S. effort. When a federal government Uranium Committee was finally created that fall, however, Army and Navy members mocked Szilard’s ideas as little more than a type of science-fiction death ray.
Still, Fermi and Szilard persevered; and their research finally garnered the first government support in 1940, allowing them to conduct experiments at Columbia that eventually paid off in December 1942 with the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Beginning then, it was clear that an atomic bomb was possible. By the fall of 1942, however, the Army’s Manhattan Project had absorbed their work, and tensions soon arose between scientists and military leaders. Szilard enjoyed “baiting brass hats” and resisted the gruff demeanor and no-nonsense management style of the project’s commanding general, Leslie R. Groves, who considered the scientists he supervised to be “crackpots.”
In 1943, soon after the secret Los Alamos laboratory was established, physicists Isidor Rabi and Robert Bacher protested the Army’s “militarization” of the scientists and their work, and a compromise was negotiated so that the scientists did not need to wear Army uniforms. The same year, physicists Hans Bethe and Edward Teller proposed giving “full responsibility” for the atomic bomb project to the scientists. “It was natural,” historian Martin Sherwin noted, “that many scientists came to believe that they, themselves, rather than the military, bore the ultimate responsibility for victory and the security of the nation.” Szilard especially believed that scientists should participate in policy decisions for two reasons: they had expert knowledge of what was and was not possible, and they had rational powers that could clarify public policy issues. From the beginning, Szilard eagerly offered his self-proclaimed “sweet voice of reason” to anyone who would listen.
One wartime leader who heeded that voice was Vannevar Bush, the civilian director of the U.S. atomic bomb effort. In the spring of 1944, Szilard bombarded Bush with proposals for a postwar control commission that would be dominated by scientists and other civilians. Bush proposed the scheme to Roosevelt that summer, saying that “experts,” not politicians or the military, should run the commission. A year later, in the summer of 1945, the Interim Committee that President Harry Truman had created to advise him on postwar nuclear policies proposed a nine-member commission with five civilians holding sway over two Army and two Navy officers.
This history of the scientists and their mistrust of the military is important because it set the stage for the rancorous legislative struggle over “civilian control” that defined national policy following the war’s end. First, the scientists lobbied for international control of atomic energy, warning of a postwar nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. In that context, they insisted that only civilian control would convince other nations to cooperate in such a broad-reaching alliance. *
*Editor’s Note: It is in this passage that Dr. Davies’s work is referenced but not mentioned.
The Manhattan Project scientists were quick to oppose Groves and the May-Johnson bill that was introduced in the House to continue Army control over all nuclear programs. They found a champion in the Senate with Brien McMahon (D-Conn.), who considered the atomic bomb “the most important thing in history since the birth of Jesus Christ” and viewed the scientists who had created it to be secular saints. Following their lead, McMahon proposed creating a five-member civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
Groves inadvertently made the scientists’ case for civilian control when he refused to turn over classified atomic bomb information to Congress, a move that highlighted potential problems with continuing military control of nuclear research and weapons. At the same time, the scientists decried as intolerable the restrictions on scientific research proposed by the May-Johnson bill.
In Congress, the debate over postwar control of nuclear weapons eventually came down to a fight between the scientists and the military. In a national radio broadcast in March 1946, McMahon denounced the “militaristic oligarchy” that Army control would bring. But on Capitol Hill, a legislative compromise driven by Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) undermined the concept of an independent Atomic Energy Commission by creating a statutory Military Liaison Committee that would soon come to dominate the civilian commissioners’ deliberations on nuclear weapons policy. Also created in the amended bill was a scientists’ General Advisory Committee , whose opinions over the years were heard but seldom heeded. The Atomic Energy Act that Truman signed gave the president authority to appoint AEC commissioners and to order the AEC to transfer nuclear materials to the Pentagon. Truman had supported the McMahon bill as first proposed but also accepted the amendments that weakened its emphasis on civilian independence. Truman came to recognize that, from the beginning, his authority was not absolute in practice. Indeed, he acknowledged that he had not actually authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman only acted decisively on August 10, 1945, when he ordered that the third bomb, which would be ready in about two weeks, should not be used without his explicit permission. As Groves later remarked, Truman was “like a little boy on a toboggan who never had an opportunity to say yes. All he could have said was no.”
Truman voiced his continued fears about losing his authority over the atomic bomb’s use in 1948 when he said that he did not want “to have some dashing lieutenant colonel decide when would be the proper time to drop one.” That year, Truman professed that the atomic bomb “isn’t a military weapon” because of its widespread destructive power and thus should not be integrated into the Pentagon’s operational plans. At the time, Truman’s budget director, James Webb, supported the president’s view by arguing that atomic bombs are “symbolic” and that the military’s failure to grasp this reality was a good reason not to transfer them.
Gradually, Truman’s authority came under challenge, especially after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in August 1949. During the Korean War, it was not a dashing lieutenant colonel but a flamboyant general, Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who claimed he was prepared to dispatch nuclear-armed bombers under his command on his own authority. LeMay argued in 1950 that he should have the authority to receive nuclear weapons from the AEC if Washington were ever destroyed by Soviet attack. This claim was not authorized, but the same year, Truman ordered that nine MK-4 non-nuclear assemblies be transferred to the military for training purposes. Then, in April 1951, AEC Chairman Gordon Dean agonized in a memo to fellow commissioners about whether it was legal to heed another order by Truman and transfer to Guam nine complete weapons. Dean did so, ceding physical control of usable nuclear weapons to the military for the first time.
Civilian control of the atomic bomb’s administration shifted again from the AEC to the Pentagon when, in a more bureaucratic way, the Eisenhower administration created a new post: assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy. President Dwight Eisenhower also approved transfer and deployment of weapons to secure U.S. bases overseas. Next, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allowed the Pentagon to manufacture weapons and weapons components. That same year, nuclear weapons were dispersed around the United States and abroad to assure their greater safety from Soviet attack and their operational readiness. Still, in the decades since the act’s amendment, the Pentagon has continued to rely on the AEC and its successors for nuclear expertise and weaponry rather than developing the capability itself.
Unavoidably, as the nuclear stockpile’s size and diversity expanded, it became increasingly impractical to arrange for AEC civilians physically to transfer nuclear bomb components to the military. Also, with the advent of thermonuclear hydrogen bombs, Eisenhower ordered that only these new and more powerful weapons, with yields of more than 600 kilotons, would require the AEC to maintain custody of the capsule that contains fissionable material. In 1956 the AEC said it no longer needed to insist on civilian control, and from then on, transfers from the weapons complex to the military became so routine they were called “allocations.” Near the end of the Eisenhower administration in 1959, more than 80 percent of U.S. nuclear weapons were in military custody.
This trend did not pass unnoticed, however, and in 1960, Representative Chet Holifield (D-Calif.) took to the House floor to sound the alarm. Holifield decried the loss of civilian control over nuclear weapons, blaming in part the “gradual step-by-step surrender to the steady pressure of our strong and entrenched military bloc” while acknowledging “that technological change has made obsolete the old and cumbersome procedures.”
In the 1960s, questions arose about the president’s authority to order nuclear attack as the Eisenhower administration’s “massive retaliation” policy shifted under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to one of “flexible response.” A massive retaliation with strategic nuclear weapons would be ordered from a central military command, whereas a flexible response with tactical nuclear weapons might be ordered by a field commander.
The Kennedy administration was the first to fit the weapons with electronic permissive action links (PALs), which are coded mechanical or electrical locks. According to political scientist Peter Douglas Feaver, that step provided a change from “custody” of the weapons to “assurance” that weapons could only be used if so ordered by the president. In 1966, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg proposed that all finished nuclear weapons be automatically transferred to the Pentagon, a practice Johnson ordered in 1967.
Since then, the AEC’s successors-the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Energy Department, and the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration-have retained administrative control over the nuclear weapons enterprise.
Yet, that control may have less practical value than it did when the debate over the issue began more than 60 years ago. In part, PALs provided an attractive technical fix. They afforded practical assurances that command-and-control systems used to implement a presidential order were reliable, even when the weapons were in military custody. This arrangement settled the question of authority, but the question of administration continues to this day.
At issue in the current debate is the perspective that “civilian” scientists and bureaucrats can bring to questions about the utility, safety, reliability, and ultimate value of the still-vast nuclear arsenal. These topics assume special significance as the United States pursues policies aimed at reducing that arsenal and eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide. In this context, the scientists’ resistance to “militarization” when the Atomic Energy Act was new may still survive to inform the debate.
William Lanouette is author of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb. A writer and journalist who has covered nuclear energy and nuclear weapons for more than four decades, he was a senior analyst for energy and science issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office from 1991 to 2006.
1. Matthew L. Wald, “Bomb Plants Could Shift to Control of Pentagon,” The New York Times, February 7, 2009, p. A11. See Lisa Hoffman, “Military to Control Nukes?” Scripps-Howard News Service, February 6, 2009.
2. William Lanouette with Bela Silard, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb (New York: Scribners, 1992), chaps. 13-15. See Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson Jr.,The New World: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, 1939-1946 (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1972), chap. 14.
3. Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows, pp. 284-297. See Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), pp. 568-569, 574-578.
4. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), p. 59. Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows, pp. 237-238.
5. Sherwin, A World Destroyed, p. 55.
6. Ibid., p. 48.
7. Peter Douglas Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 90.
8. Ibid., p. 91; Hewlett and Anderson, New World, pp. 412-413.
9. The Army’s bill for its continued control over nuclear affairs was introduced in the House by Military Affairs Committee chairman Andrew Jackson May (D-Ky.) and in the Senate by Edwin C. Johnson (D-Colo.).
10. Stewart L. Udall, The Myths of August (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), p. 32.
11. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, p. 93.
12. Hewlett and Anderson, New World, p. 434.
13. Section 6(a) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which is entitled “Military Applications of Atomic Energy,” authorized the AEC to research and produce atomic bombs. It gave the president authority to direct the AEC to “deliver such quantities of fissionable materials or weapons to the armed forces for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense” or “authorize the armed forces to manufacture, produce, or acquire any equipment or device utilizing fissionable material or atomic energy as a military weapon.” In this sense, the AEC’s “monopoly” over weapons development and production was already undermined by the new legislation.
14. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, p. 100.
15. J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan, rev. ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 86.
16. Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, “The Fight Over the Atom Bomb,” Look, Aug. 13, 1963, p. 20.
17. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, p. 120.
18. Ibid., p. 125.
19. Ibid., p. 123.
20. Fred Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp. 133-134.
21. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, p. 50.
22. Ibid., pp. 134, 138. See Gordon Dean and Roger Anders, eds., Forging the Atomic Shield: Excerpts From the Office Diary of Gordon E. Dean (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), pp. 107-109, 136. See also Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Atomic Shield: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-1952 (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1972), pp. 522, 538-539.
23. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, pp. 158, 161.
24. Ibid., p. 159. For a broader assessment, see Walter B. Slocombe, “Democratic Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons,” Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) Policy Paper, No. 12 (April 2006).
25. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, pp. 163-164.
26. Ibid., pp. 168, 202.
27. Ibid., p. 178. See Congressional Record, Feb. 9, 1960, p. 2169.
28. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians, p. 195.
29. Ibid., p. 203.
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