John McCone Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reflections on a Life in Government Service: Conversation with John A. McCone; former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; 1987-88 by Harry Kreisler

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The Eisenhower Years

Was Eisenhower concerned that our expenditures for defense if excessive might undermine our national security?

Yes, he had a problem because, when he took over, the military budget was enormously inflated as a result of the Korean War. The Korean War was over, but the budget stayed up there. Eisenhower had to get it down, and he had a hard time doing it. It took him two years refusing the demands of the military to get the budget where he thought it ought to be.

And that was the key to his being able to do that?

Sure. He knew all about it. He had been chief of staff of the Army. He had grown up with military budgets, so it was an area that he was familiar with.

What are your thoughts about Eisenhower's presidency?

President Eisenhower was a remarkably balanced man. He saw the need for this nation to settle down to a protracted period of peace so that there could be a peaceful climate to organize this society and its industry. And that was his determination before he took office and during his period in office.

This goal was very salutary, very appropriate because we had gone through a most serious war. The society and our economy were badly disrupted. We had made a reasonable start on overcoming our disruption when we became involved in the Korean War so Eisenhower recognized the necessity of having a sustained period where we would live as a peaceful nation. He was very successful with that. I think that was really his great contribution to this country. You know better than I the disruption to our society and our way of life caused by the Korean War. You also know better than I the very serious effects of the war in Vietnam from which we have not fully recovered to this day. Eisenhower with his philosophy would not have gotten into the Vietnam War.

You served Eisenhower as head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Tell us about the argument that you made during that time concerning a possible test ban.

We were testing through the 1950s, and there was a demand to stop it. In the meantime, I became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and under the Atomic Energy Act, the commission was responsible for ensuring that we were making maximum use of our atomic resources and that no other country was getting ahead of us. So it became necessary for us to know what the Soviets were doing, and we made various attempts at a treaty which would suspend nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Everybody was in favor of it. It had to be a treaty that could be verified.

So then they -- the Soviets -- proposed a moratorium. They said that they would not test. This was appealing to Eisenhower, but it was not appealing to me as chairman of the commission because our resources were detecting what they were doing. They would not guarantee against their violation of any arrangement. We wouldn't know if they were continuing with development tests. They were only small weapons but large enough to advance the state of the art as far as they were concerned. It posed a very tough argument to the president.

It was then that I had this joint Committee on Atomic Energy up on the hill breathing down my neck ... and I couldn't say in all honesty that the Soviets were not making advances that we couldn't make because we were respecting this moratorium. So finally this argument was pursued all the way through the last year of the Eisenhower administration and on into the Kennedy administration.

Your first contacts with the Kennedy administration were also over the test ban issue?

There were several members of the Joint Committee who came to me and asked me if I would go and talk to President Kennedy and explain to him my position.

I wouldn't do it. I said: "He knows my position, it is well publicized, and I know his, and if I went to see him, either I would change my mind, or he would change his mind, or we'd end up in a disagreement. So I know I'm not going to change; I don't think he is. There is no purpose for me going and talking to the president and ending up disagreeing, which makes headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times." So they went to the president and he said the very same thing. There was no use having this discussion for the very reasons that I mentioned.

Then after a little while the Soviets suddenly exploded a big bomb that was detected, and the question arose as to what the United States should do about it. And at that point President Kennedy asked if I would come talk to him and I did. That was the first meeting on this subject that the president and I had. He said, "I got the opinion of the State Department, opinion of the Department of Defense, opinion of the Atomic Energy Commission, and I want to talk with you" -- which was very complimentary. He said, "I'd like it in a week."

So I went to the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories, and had some discussions there on the state-of-the-art developments in the months that I had been away and wrote a report and took it back to the president. In the meantime, he received reports from others and had decided on a course of action which was about the same course of action that I recommended. I found that everybody else had said about the same thing. There wasn't anything new in my paper.

Did the debate on the test ban involve you in further controversy?

In 1956, Adlai Stevenson had made a speech in San Diego in which he advocated that the United States unilaterally abandon all testing of nuclear devices. He was quite sure that if we did, the Soviets would follow the lead. I violently opposed that approach because I didn't think that the Soviets would follow. I didn't think we had the detection devices to know whether they were following for sure, and that became a source of argument with several of the professors at California Institute of Technology who were supporting what Stevenson was advocating.

Now, being a trustee of Cal Tech, I was very provoked at the professors getting involved in a political argument. I told them so, and it leaked to the press. My dander was up on it pretty bad so the press picked it up and the professors were all mad at me and so were most of the trustees and so forth. In any event, we finally got an arrangement with the Soviets that was satisfactory. We improved our detection capabilities so that they could not light a match without our knowing it -- to say nothing of exploding an atmospheric nuclear bomb. When I saw that the technical capability detection had developed to the point to which it had developed, then it made it an entirely different picture. So long as you could know what they were doing, then it didn't make any difference whether you had a moratorium or a treaty.

Next page: The Kennedy Years

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