Michael KreponThe Gilpatric Committee Report

What’s the most important U.S. government report on nuclear and arms control matters that has gotten little notice and even less respect? My vote goes to the Gilpatric Committee report. presented to LBJ in January 1965. So let’s open the shoe box files to Roswell Gilpatric, and give credit where it’s due.

Gilpatric was one of “the best and the brightest” who went to school at Hotchkiss, Yale, and Yale Law. His resume included the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; a “presiding” partnership at the prestigious New York law firm of Cravath, Swain & Moore; and a stint as Deputy Secretary of Defense in Robert McNamara’s ill-starred Pentagon, a post he held until 1964.

Gilpatric’s obituaries did not mention what, in my view, was his most important accomplishment – his chairmanship of a blue-ribbon panel formed to help LBJ deal with the fallout from China’s first nuclear test in 1964. The State Department had been urging the White House to arm U.S. allies – especially West Germany and Japan, and perhaps even India — with nuclear weapons. The Pentagon and the newly created U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency lined up against Foggy Bottom, wanting the President to make nuclear non-proliferation a high national priority. McGeorge Bundy, LBJ’s national security adviser, rounded up the usual graybeards – including Arthur H. Dean, Allen W. Dulles, Alfred M. Gruenther, George B. Kistiakowsky, John J. McCloy, and Herbert York, then a mere youngster – to break the impasse. Gilpatric, fresh from his Pentagon assignment, was given the delicate task of forging a consensus.

Nothing matters more than the composition and timing of a commission. If the membership covers too broad a spectrum of policy views, the commission is unlikely to break new ground on contentious issues. (One contemporary example: Bill Perry and James Schlesinger still have difficulty agreeing on whether the Senate should consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.)

The timing and composition of Gilpatric’s panel were well-suited to achieve significant results. LBJ’s administration was at a policy crossroads, and significant decisions could not be postponed further. While some old diplomatic hands believed that giving the Bomb to friendly nations was the most prudent course of action — one idea then in circulation was having European crews join the United States in manning nuclear-armed naval combatants — new concerns over a proliferated world were beginning to swell. Ireland was championing the notion of a new international agreement to promote disarmament and nonproliferation at the United Nations. It was also evident that prospects for improved U.S.-Soviet relations and ending the deep freeze with Beijing would be minimal if U.S. nuclear assets were shared with Bonn and Tokyo.

The Gilpatric Committee report weighed in with far-sighted and even radical proposals that subsequently led to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the initiation of strategic arms reduction talks with the Kremlin. The Committee warned that, “The world is fast approaching a point of no return in the prospects of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons.” It’s unanimous bottom line:

“Preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons is clearly in the national interest. … the United States must, as a matter of great urgency, substantially increase the scope and intensity of our efforts if we are to have any hope of success. Necessarily, these efforts must be of three kinds: (a) negotiation of formal multilateral agreements; (b) the application of influence on individual nations considering nuclear weapons acquisition… and © examples by our own policies and actions.”

Here are some key elements of the Gilpatric Committee’s reasoning and recommendations:

Although one might be tempted to accept Indian or Japanese nuclear weapons to counterbalance those of China, we do not believe the spread of nuclear weapons would or could be stopped there. An Indian or Japanese decision to build nuclear weapons would probably produce a chain reaction of similar decisions…

We must acknowledge the importance of the Soviet Union in efforts to stop proliferation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that others can be induced to abstain indefinitely from acquiring nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union and the United States continue in a nuclear arms race. Therefore, lessened emphasis by the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons and agreements on broader arms control measures must be recognized as important components in an overall program to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

We believe that the Soviet Union, because of its growing vulnerability to proliferation among its neighbors, probably shares with us a strong interest in preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. Further, we believe that the change of leadership in the Soviet Union… may now provide an immediate opportunity for joint or parallel action in the near future to stop the nuclear spread

The rewards of long-term success would be enormous; and even partial success would be worth the costs we can expect to incur.

Measures to prevent particular countries from acquiring nuclear weapons are unlikely to succeed unless they are taken in support of a broad international prohibition… We should intensify our efforts for a non-proliferation agreement and seek the earliest conclusion of the widest and most effective possible international treaty on non-dissemination and non-acquisition of nuclear weapons… We should be prepared to go ahead without the participation of France or China.

We should actively support the establishment of.… nuclear free zones.”

We should undertake early initiatives toward the following United States-Soviet arms control agreements as a means both of reducing tensions… and creating an atmosphere conducive to wide acceptance of restraints on nuclear proliferation.”

We should increase our efforts to build up the IAEA… We should exert stronger influence on all nations… to accept IAEA safeguards on reactors and separation plants and should offer, in return, to extend safeguards to additional United States facilities.”

Not bad for government work. The Gilpatric Committee endorsed a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty; a fissile material “cutoff” agreement; a verifiable freeze of new deployments of strategic delivery vehicles along with 30% reductions in deployed force levels; and a halt in ABM construction. These proposals represented outside-the-box thinking for the Graybeard Establishment in 1965.

Can you name another Commission that was more influential and less well known than that chaired by Roswell Gilpatric?


  1. Boom-Boom (History)

    Thanks for the history lesson, Michael. It’s very interesting to learn the origins of today’s policy, especially when it has been generally overlooked through the years. And it all happened in the turmoil of the mid-sixties, wow!

  2. Citizen (History)

    And at the very same time, LBJ was decding that he could live with Israel’s emerging “bomb int he basement.”

  3. sdemetri (History)

    The following recommendation is certainly notable:

    “…As long as Israel remains a non-nuclear power, we should continue to give Israel assurances against being overrun by the UAR. We should make clear to Israel that those assurances would be withdrawn if she develops a nuclear weapons capability and that we would be prepared to consider other measures as well…”

    There is a back story here that would be very interesting to know more about. It is Israel’s undeclared nuclear capability that is the significant driver for proliferation issues in that neighborhood today. What form did US resistance/support toward Israel take in the mid to late 60’s in light of the Gilpatric report’s recommendations?

  4. V.S. (History)

    I totally agree that the Gilpatric report shaped policy in what was to become the non-proliferation regime as no other document.

    However my favorite one still remains Acheson-Lilienthal. I would dare say that we should name it the Acheson-Lilienthal “Prophecy” because it explains why any non-proliferation regime could be successful but never all the way and not for ever. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report, at the very dawn of the nuclear age, forsees and describes what is likely to follow, which is what actually followed, and to a great extent sketches out what’s going on today with Iran and the DPRK and more important, explains why.

  5. krepon (History)

    I will yield to others who know far more than me on the Israeli nuclear program, but my sense is that the Johnson administration did not look the other way, and tried to use leverage against it. The cave in happened during the Nixon administration.

  6. J House (History)

    I’d say the cave-in happened long before Nixon.The U.S. did little to prevent the French from providing much-needed assistance…

  7. MarkoB

    The Gilpatric report also states,

    “as additional nations obtained nuclear weapons, our diplomatic and military influence wane, and strong pressure would arise to retreat to isolation to avoid nuclear war.”

    Or as Kenneth Waltz put it in his debate with Scott Sagan for Washington nuclear proliferation is opposed because “it cramps our style.” Notice that the “strong pressure” ultimately comes from the domestic population. During the war in Vietnam the realist scholar Hans Morgenthau argued that US credibility was not on the line in Indochina, the source of his opposition to the war; however, he agreed that if it were risking nuclear war with the USSR and the PRC would be worth it to maintain US credibility. Although that was almost universally shared amongst elite opinion, the Gilpatric Report shows that elite policy makers were aware that the broader population did not share such absurd notions.

    We might even argue that the same applies in the case of North Korea. Washington perceives its “credibility” to be on the line. So it is prepared to risk war rather than diminish credibility and agree to two-party talks. This is not even to speak of the ethics of placing external sanctions upon a nation that has gone through famine. Granted the famine has been caused by North Korean autarky, but two things are relevant here (1) The North wanted two party talks in order to increase its integration with the global economy. If nuke and missile trade concerns us one would have thought that this tendency ought to have been encouraged (2) the arms control community, by exclusively focusing on proliferation, tends to forget that the biggest victims in all this are the long suffering people of North Korea. Nobody from Kim Jong il, to George Bush to Barack Obama gives much of a shit about them. The arms control community must always couch its analysis within the broader picture. Placing sanctions upon a nation that has gone through famine because of proliferation is immoral.

  8. anon

    The only people to have placed sanctions on North Korea are its leaders. They alone have the power to end the sanctions.

  9. Major Lemon (History)

    To MarkoB, mind your language please!

  10. Alex W. (History)

    “Can you name another Commission that was more influential and less well known than that chaired by Roswell Gilpatric?”

    On the topic of influential but unknown committees, the most important from my own research is the Tolman Committee on Declassification (1945-1946). This group of top-flight Manhattan Project scientists (Richard Tolman, chair; Robert Bacher, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Spedding, and Harold Urey) was commissioned by General Leslie Groves in November 1945 to write him a report that would, in effect, set up the architecture for the modern classification/declassification system that is still basically in place today. Their report involved a rather enlightened consideration of the nature and goals of scientific secrecy, and proposed what are today the “obvious” ways of implementing a system of organized declassification: declassification “guides” that would be regularly maintained and used by “responsible reviewers” to evaluate whether a given document could be safely released. Their recommendations in their report (the original of which is at NARA, but can also be FOIAed from Los Alamos) were approved by Groves and used as the postwar Manhattan Engineer District’s system of declassification, which was then adopted in its entirety by the Atomic Energy Commission. As far as I can tell the basic system is the same one used by virtually all federal declassification today.

    There are a few brief mentions of their existence in documents relating to the Oppenheimer, primarily (there’s a brief shout-out in Acheson-Lilienthal, and a brief discussion about them in his 1954 hearings), but the extent of their influence is not well known, and is actually quite vast. Most people are somewhat surprised to find out that the modern declassification system was not created by politicians or military/intelligence people, but a group of physicists and chemists.

  11. sdemetri (History)

    Here’s an interesting history provided by the Federation of American Scientists regarding the development of Israel’s nuclear program.


  12. MK (History)

    Alex W:
    Thanks for making me aware of the Tolman Committee. You make a very strong argument.

  13. Abdul Al-Okullah (History)

    Very interesting expose’ of American perfidy. As long as the US views the world in terms of good nukes and bad nukes we will have this situation.

    Under which moral or legal precedent should NoKo be denied possession of nukes?

  14. Tim

    Ok, some people’s anti-American bias is blinding them.

    Taking NK’s statements at face value is beyond silly. The NK’s don’t want two party talks in order to make nice with the U.S. They want two party talks so that they can blackmail and cajole the U.S. without China in the room.

    Proof of this is the fact that the U.S. offered unlimited two party interactions as part of the multilateral talks, and the NKs didn’t bite.

    The NKs want to be able to play games, tell each side different things, and play the powers off against each other to NK’s advantage. Neither China nor the U.S. is falling for it, which is the real reason the talks are going nowhere. The idea that this entire standoff is due to Bush’s policy of not talking to the NKs directly is naive in the extreme.

    Bush certainly made a mess of the NK situation, but insisting that the NKs negotiate with all the major stakeholders in the room was NOT a mistake.

  15. Yale Simkin (History)

    Major Lemon wrote;
    “To MarkoB, mind your language please!

    Using the Roth v. United States, (US Supreme Court 1957) test, we must use language which is deemed fit by the “average person, applying contemporary community standards.”

    The community standards for ACW can be seen here, or here, or here, or here

    Look in the upper left corner of each ACW page:

    about ACW – All the stuff about WMD, intel and the national security bureaucracy by Dr Jeffrey Lewis and friends too wonky or obscene for publication.

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