By using its atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States revealed that it possessed weapons of unprecedented destructive power. Following the war, the question arose: How should this knowledge and technology be shared with the rest of the world? The Acheson-Lilienthal Report was the United States` first effort to answer that question. Although the report generated a great deal of discussion, it was ultimately unsuccessful.
Two schools of thought emerged immediately after the end of the war. One school, which had Secretary of War Henry Stimson as its chief spokesman, believed that the "secrets" of the atomic bomb were scientific in nature and could not be sequestered forever. They further felt that to hold the bomb ostentatiously in reserve while negotiating with the Soviet Union would simply drive them into developing their own weapon to restore the balance of power.
From the other school were men like Secretary of State James Byrnes, who felt that America`s monopoly on atomic weapons had been honestly gained and should not be surrendered. In their view, the Soviet Union understood only power and nowhere was power so obviously concentrated as in the sole possession of atomic weapons.
President Harry S. Truman was torn between the two positions. Increasingly distrustful of the Soviet Union, he still didn`t want to lead the world down a path of destruction. He continued to solicit views from both sides. Stimson presented his position in a final cabinet meeting on September 21, 1945, Stimson`s 78th birthday and final day in office. Thereafter, the task of promoting his approach fell primarily on Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson.
Acheson and Stimson had advocated direct negotiations with the Soviet Union, while Byrnes and Vannevar Bush, the director of the office that controlled the Manhattan Project, preferred to use the United Nations as the forum. On that issue, Byrnes carried the day. His proposal to pass the responsibility for the control of atomic energy to a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was endorsed by the Soviets at meetings in Moscow in December 1945.
That success left Truman and Byrnes with a dilemma. They had the forum, but the United States had not yet articulated a policy that it wished the new commission to adopt. To resolve the problem, Acheson was appointed to head a committee to set forth U.S. policy on atomic energy.
The other members of the committee were scientists James Conant and Vannevar Bush, John McCloy, and General Leslie R. Groves, who had been the military officer in charge of the Manhattan Project, that had produced the first atomic bomb. Acheson decided that the committee needed technical advice, so he appointed a board of consultants with David Lilienthal, the well-regarded chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, as chairman. Another member of the committee was even better known than Lilienthal. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Groves` counterpart on the science side of the Manhattan Project, provided influential advice. Oppenheimerís contribution lay in the idea of policing the production of atomic weapons at their source mines.
On March 16, 1946, the committee`s report was presented to the State Department, which released it to the public on March 28. The Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy soon became known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. The primary message of the report was that control of atomic energy through inspections and "police" operations was unlikely to succeed. Instead, the report proposed that all fissile material be owned by an international agency called the Atomic Development Authority, which would release small amounts to individual nations for the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy.
In the first years of the atomic era, it was generally believed that the great obstacle facing a would-be developer of an atomic bomb was the acquisition of sufficient fissile material. In response, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report proposed that the complete path from the uranium and thorium mines to post production be under international ownership.
In addition, the report proposed that the United States abandon its monopoly on atomic weapons, revealing what it knew to the Soviet Union in exchange for a mutual agreement against the development of additional atomic bombs. Truman accepted the report in general, but by appointing Bernard Baruch to carry the proposal forward, he opened the door to modifications of "immediate and sure punishment" for violations.
Baruch presented his reworked plan to the UN commission inJune. In addition, those penalties could not be vetoed by the U.N. Security Council, both modifications that neither Acheson nor Lilienthal accepted. Those modifications ultimately led to the planís rejection by the Soviet Union.