Commentary October 16, 2020

“Atoms for Police”: The United States and the Dream of a Nuclear-Armed United Nations, 1945-62

In commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, Ryan Musto unveils the forgotten history of the dream to arm the UN with nuclear weapons and why three U.S. presidential administrations ultimately rejected the idea in the earliest decades of the Cold War.
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Abstract: This paper examines the U.S. approach to the idea of arming the United Nations with nuclear weapons in the earliest decades of the Cold War. The main protagonist is Harold Stassen, who in 1945 publicly proposed a nuclear-armed UN air force as a way to control the bomb, stop proliferation, and strengthen the UN. The Truman Administration rejected the idea because of the questions it raised about the use of atomic weapons and the capabilities of the UN, as well as the threat it posed to the U.S. atomic monopoly. But the idea reemerged in the Eisenhower Administration. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought to provide the UN with agency in nuclear decision-making, a pitch that inspired Stassen to revisit his earlier enthusiasm for a nuclear-armed UN. Stassen again touted its deterrent effects, but, unlike before, looked to use the proposal to consolidate an unequal nuclear order. After the Eisenhower Administration rebuffed Stassen’s “Atoms for Police” proposal, the idea transitioned to plans for general and complete disarmament and became a tenuous feature of an initiative put forth by the Kennedy Administration. Overall, the idea spoke to the struggle of the United States to achieve progress in disarmament while it clung to its nuclear arsenal. To highlight its core principles, this paper concludes with a brief comparison to the UN’s 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.  

Read the rest at  The Wilson Center