Civilian Control Of Nuclear Weapons

William Lanouette

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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."[4]

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.[5] 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."[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] At the same time, the scientists decried as intolerable the restrictions on scientific research proposed by the May-Johnson bill.[12]

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.[13] Truman had supported the McMahon bill as first proposed but also accepted the amendments that weakened its emphasis on civilian independence.[14] 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.[15] 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."[16]

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."[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

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."[27]

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.[28] In 1966, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg proposed that all finished nuclear weapons be automatically transferred to the Pentagon, a practice Johnson ordered in 1967.[29]

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.