Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink

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Two years after the London Naval Conference a grand World Disarmament Conference began its sessions at Geneva, where it continued to meet, at first quite regularly and then ever more desultorily, until it adjourned sine die in 1934. As early as 1926 a “preparatory commission” for this parley began meeting at Geneva. It prepared so thoroughly that according to one of its members, Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo, of Spain, one subcommittee alone used 3,750,000 sheets of typescript, enough to allow the commission’s Polish or Swedish delegation to walk home on a path made of committee paper. But all in vain! Despite speeches from the heads of the approximately sixty delegations, real disarmament would depend on the proposals of the great powers, and each was busy grinding its own axe. The French government proposed a complicated scheme for an international police force, heavily weighted toward its own security. The British government tended to take a hands-off view of land disarmament. The American government under President Herbert Hoover made what at first seemed like an audaciously clarifying proposal: all nations should reduce their armaments by one third. After further thought, it became evident that this economical proposition would play into the hands of Germany, whose armaments were already near zero, and of the Soviet Union, then also weakly armed. Not much more was heard of the Hoover plan. The Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, went even further and proposed the abolition of all armament. The Russians and Germans in 1930 were poor relations, militarily speaking, always ready to suggest vows of poverty for the entire family of nations. Litvinov’s call produced only embarrassed hostility. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Geneva talks became more and more abrasive. Finally, they were quietly abandoned.

At the end of the Second World War, the disarmament question was once again thrust forward with a new and terrible urgency, thanks to the atomic bomb. The new desire for disarmament was strongest in the United States, the nation that for a short four years, from 1945 to 1949, possessed a monopoly on nuclear arms. The reason was not only the horror of the world and of many Americans at the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition the highest officials of the American government, sensing that the American monopoly would not continue forever, were looking to the longer future. They felt secure in taking the initiative because they did not think that the Russians would be able to build an atomic device in the same four-year period that had proved necessary for America.

In the immediate postwar months the Truman administration, wishing to make a formal proposal for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, carefully prepared a case. The details were worked out by a government committee chaired by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and assisted by a board of consultants including the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, David E. Lilienthal. Among other preparations, a cram course in nuclear physics was given Acheson and others on the board by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most distinguished scientists associated with the atomicbomb project. After four days of most careful drafting at the Washington mansion Dumbarton Oaks, the American proposition for a future ban on^atomic weapons and for the international sharing of atomic-energy production (to become known as the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal) was ready. But for the actual presentation of the American proposal to the United Nations in 1946, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and President Truman chose the senior statesman Bernard M. Baruch. This proved to be a fateful decision.

The choice of Baruch was essentially political. Byrnes proposed him to Truman because Baruch was a distinguished citizen of South Carolina, and Truman accepted the aging financier because he had the respect of the most conservative of the republic’s citizens. Because there was considerable opposition to the “idealistic” plan of giving up America’s nuclear secrets, Truman chose Baruch to keep the conservatives off his back on this particular crucial issue. Unfortunately, the overpowering egotism of the old adviser to Presidents tended to turn the whole task into a piece of careerism. Baruch soon got on Truman’s nerves by assailing the President with a long series of advice-giving sessions, leading Truman to describe him privately as “that old goat.” Moreover, he refused to accept the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal as the official American proposition and turned it into the Baruch Plan (under which name it became far better known) by adding what he described as enforcement provisions: whenever a signatory broke the proposed agreement—something to be determined by international inspection—the other signatories might go to the United Nations and demand “swift and sure punishment.” In such a case the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council would not be usable.