Atoms for Peace

United States - Scott #1070 (1955)
United States – Scott #1070 (1955)

“Atoms for Peace” was the title of a speech delivered by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly in New York City on December 8, 1953:

I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new — one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use.

That new language is the language of atomic warfare.

The United States then launched an “Atoms for Peace” program that supplied equipment and information to schools, hospitals, and research institutions within the U.S. and throughout the world. The first nuclear reactors in Iran, Israel and Pakistan were built under the program by American Machine and Foundry (AMF, a company more commonly known as a major manufacturer of bowling equipment).

The speech was part of a carefully orchestrated media campaign, called “Operation Candor”, to enlighten the American public on the risks and hopes of a nuclear future. It was a propaganda component of the Cold War strategy of containment. Eisenhower’s speech opened a media campaign that would last for years and that aimed at “emotion management”, balancing fears of continuing nuclear armament with promises of peaceful use of uranium in future nuclear reactors. The speech was a tipping point for international focus on peaceful uses of atomic energy, even during the early stages of the Cold War. It has been argued that Eisenhower, with some influence from J. Robert Oppenheimer, was attempting to convey a spirit of comfort to a terrified world after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the nuclear tests of the early 1950s.

It presents an ostensible antithesis to brinkmanship, the international intrigue that subsequently kept the world at the edge of war.

However recent historians have tended to see the speech as a cold war maneuver directed primarily at U.S. allies in Europe. Eisenhower wanted to make sure that the European allies would go along with the shift in NATO strategy from an emphasis on conventional weapons to cheaper nuclear weapons. Western Europeans wanted reassurance that the U.S. did not intend to provoke a nuclear war in Europe, and the speech was designed primarily to create that sense of reassurance. Eisenhower later said that he knew the Soviets would reject the specific proposal he offered in the speech.

Dwight D. Eisenhower. White House portrait, February 1959
Dwight D. Eisenhower. White House portrait, February 1959

Eisenhower’s invoking of “…those same great concepts of universal peace and human dignity which are so clearly etched in…” the UN Charter, placed new emphasis upon the US’s grave responsibility for its nuclear actions— past, present and future. In a large way, this address laid down the rules of engagement for the new kind of warfare: the cold war.

Two quotations from the speech follow:

It is with the book of history, and not with isolated pages, that the United States will ever wish to be identified. My country wants to be constructive, not destructive. It wants agreement, not wars, among nations. It wants itself to live in freedom, and in the confidence that the people of every other nation enjoy equally the right of choosing their own way of life.

To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you — and therefore before the world — its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma — to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.

Prior to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech the state of atomic development in the world was under the strictest of secrecies. The information and expertise needed for atomic development was bound by a pact of secrecy between allies (the secret Quebec Agreementof 1943) and thus not devoted to peaceful processes but instead as a weapon to defend against other countries developing and using the same such weapons. With atomic development kept so far under wraps there were no safety protocols and no standards developed.

Eisenhower’s speech was an important moment in political history as it brought the atomic issue which had been kept quiet for “national security” into the public eye, asking the world to support his solution. Eisenhower was determined to solve “the fearful atomic dilemma” by finding some way by which “the miraculous inventiveness of man would not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” Unfortunately, Eisenhower was not completely effective in his repurposing; Eisenhower himself approved the National Security Council (NSC) document which stated that only a massive atomic weapon base would deter violence from the Soviet Union. The belief that to avoid a nuclear war, the United States must stay on the offensive, ready to strike at any time, is the same reason that the Soviet Union would not give up its atomic weapons either. During his time in office the nuclear holdings of the US rose from 1,005 to 20,000 weapons.

Atoms for Peace opened up nuclear research to civilians and countries that had not previously possessed nuclear technology. This made it possible for some countries to develop weapons; however, the Atoms for Peace program that came to be from Eisenhower’s speech had great impacts on the world. Eisenhower argued for a nonproliferation agreement throughout the world and argued for a stop of the spread of military use of nuclear weapons. Although the nations that already had atomic weapons kept their weapons and grew their supplies, very few other countries have developed similar weapons – in this sense, it has been very much contained and Eisenhower was successful. The Atoms for Peace program also created regulations for the use of nuclear power and through these regulations stopped other countries from developing weapons while allowing the technology to be used for positive means.

Atoms for Peace created the ideological background for the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but also gave political cover for the U.S. nuclear weapons build-up, and the backdrop to the Cold War arms race. Under Atoms for Peace related programs the U.S. exported over 25 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to 30 countries, mostly to fuel research reactors, which is now regarded as a proliferation and terrorism risk. The Soviet Union also exported over 11 tons of HEU under a similar program.

NS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, the first commercial nuclear power cargo vessel, passing under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge enroute to the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.
NS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, the first commercial nuclear power cargo vessel, passing under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge enroute to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed building a nuclear-powered merchant ship as a showcase for his “Atoms for Peace” initiative. Eisenhower desired a “peace ship” that would serve as an ambassador for the peaceful use of atomic power. According to an Eisenhower administration statement to Congress “The President seeks no return on this vessel except the goodwill of men everywhere … Neither will the vessel be burdened by proving itself commercially feasible by carrying goods exclusively.” Although initial proposals used a copy of USS Nautilus’s power plant, a conscious decision was made to design a propulsion system to commercial design standards with no connection to military programs. The result was the NS Savannah , launched on July 21, 1959, and named after SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. She was in service between 1962 and 1972 as one of only four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built.

Scott #1070 was issued on July 28, 1955, in Washington, D.C. to commemorate Eisenhower’s speech. Designed by George Cox, the 3-cent deep blue stamp depicts two spheres showing each side of the globe encircled by the orbital emblem that has become symbolic of atomic energy. The words “Atoms for Peace” in white-faced modified Gothic is displayed across the two spheres. Placed in three sides of the stamp is a quotation from Eisenhower’s speech: “…to find the way by which the inventiveness of man shall be consecrated to his life.” The stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the Rotary press in a final quantity of 133,638,850. Produced horizontally in sheets of 50, the stamps were electric-eye perforated in a gauge of 11×10½.

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