An Earlier 9/11: Nuclear Lessons for Today

B. Cameron Reed, Alma College.

This year’s quinquennial Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review will be occurring at a difficult time for advocates of that important agreement. Since the last such review, the United States and Russia have withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, the Iran JCPOA seems grievously imperiled, no successor to the New START agreement is in the offing, and the various nuclear powers of the world are undertaking expensive and potentially destabilizing expansions of and/or upgrades to their weapons systems. While the current nuclear landscape may look grim, more trying circumstances were overcome in the past. Looking back can provide us with some perspective, and suggestions for the future.

In the aftermath of World War II in the fall of 1945, President Harry Truman, barely five months in office, faced a totally new and uncharted nuclear world. On September 11 of that fateful year, the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, sent him a six-page memorandum summarizing his thoughts on how to deal with Russia and the new “atomic bomb” [1]. Stimson, a model of selfless public service, was 78 years old, exhausted, in failing health after serving for over five years, and about to retire. He was also deeply concerned with the future course of civilization. Remarkable for its clear-headedness, appraisal of the world situation, prescience, and humanity, his memo still has lessons for today.

Stimson opened by recognizing that “ … the introduction of this weapon has profoundly affected political considerations in all sections of the globe.” Seeing the bomb as “ … a first step in a new control by man over the forces of nature too revolutionary and dangerous to fit into the old concepts” and considering “the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as … virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb”, he went on to propose a remarkably liberal approach to forestall what he feared could be a “ … secret armament race of a rather desperate character.” The essence of his proposal was that the United States, after discussions with and perhaps the involvement of Britain, directly approach Russia with the idea that “ … we would stop work on the further improvement in, or manufacture of, the bomb as a military weapon, provided the Russians and the British would agree to do likewise. It might also provide that we would be willing to impound what bombs we now have in the United States provided the Russians and the British would agree with us that in no event will they or we use a bomb as an instrument of war unless all three Governments agree to that use.”

Stimson was not naïve as to the nature of Russia. In a covering letter accompanying his memo, he wondered “ … whether we could be safe in sharing the atomic bomb … while she was still a police state and before she put into effect provisions assuring personal rights of liberty to the individual citizen.” However, he had “ … come to the conclusion that it would not be possible to use our possession of the atomic bomb as a direct lever to produce the change”, and that “ … this long process of change in Russia is more likely to be expedited by the closer relationship in the matter of the atomic bomb …”. His best advice appeared on the third page of the memo: “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.”

Tragically, Stimson’s vision foundered against the growing paranoia of the Cold War. The world of today is much different than that of 1945: Multi-polar, China ascendant, nine nuclear-weapons states, some former or once-near nuclear-weapons states, and yet other aspirant ones. The nuclear cat has been out of the bag since 1945 and will likely never be impounded, but it can be more tightly corralled. Our philosophy now would be “trust but verify” as opposed to simple trust, but Stimson would have understood and considered it worth a try. Multiple means of verification are available, and trust can be rebuilt. Seventy-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, delegates to the NPT review should give his old-fashioned advice a fresh look.

[1] A scan of Stimson’s memo can be viewed at

B. Cameron Reed

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.