He was right. Dr. Arthur F. Pillsbury, my father, was a life-long Conservative who understood the problems we still face today with pollution, water, air and land. Dad was named to the first EPA in 1969.
This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
No change in a fast-changing world presents a greater challenge 2– no problem in a world full of problems calls for greater leadership and vision – than the control of nuclear weapons, the utter destruction which would result from their use in war, and the radioactive pollution of our atmosphere by their continued testing in peace-time.
It is not a simple problem with simple answers. The experts disagree – the evidence is in conflict – the obstacles to an international solution are large and many. But the issue of nuclear tests and their effects is one which should be discussed in the coming months – not as a purely partisan matter, but as one of the great issues on the American scene.
It was well, therefore, that this issue was raised last Sunday in a constructive way by the Governor of New York. His statement contributed to the dialogue on this basic issue – it represented the position of a leading figure in the Republican Party – and he did not attempt to evade the question. So I commend Governor Rockefeller for stating his views, and I hope they will be considered and debated by interested citizens everywhere.
But I must also express my own emphatic disagreement with his statement, which called for this country to resume nuclear test explosions. Such a proposal, it seems to me, is unwise when it is suggested just prior to the reopening of negotiations with the British and Russians at Geneva on this very question. It is damaging to the American image abroad at a time when the Russians have unilaterally suspended their testing and the peoples of the world are fearful of continued fall-out. And, while Mr. Rockefeller did suggest that the testing take place underground to prevent fall-out, he also – according to press reports – “discounted” the harmful effects of fall-out – which I am unwilling to do.
While many competent scientists agree that there has been no great harm done to mankind as a whole from the amount of radiation created by bomb tests so far, it is also true that there is no amount of radiation so small that it has no ill effects at all on anybody. There is actually no such thing as a minimum permissible dose. Perhaps we are talking about only a very small number of individual tragedies – the number of atomic age children with cancer, the new victims of leukemia, the damage to skin tissues here and reproductive systems there – perhaps these are too small to measure with statistics. But they nevertheless loom very large indeed in human and moral terms. Moreover, there is still much that we do not know – and too often in the past we have minimized these perils and shrugged aside these dangers, only to find that our estimates were faulty and the real dangers were worse than we knew.
Let us remember also that our resumption of tests would bring Russian resumption of tests – it would make negotiations even more strained – it would spur other nations seeking entry into the “atomic club”, with their own tests polluting the atmosphere – and, in short, it could precede the kind of long, feverish testing period which all scientists agree would threaten the very existence of man himself. And, perhaps even more importantly the ability of other nations to test, develop and stockpile atomic weapons will alter drastically the whole balance of power, and put us all at the mercy of inadvertent, irresponsible or deliberate atomic attacks from many corners of the globe. This problem – called the nth country problem, because we do not know how many nations may soon possess these weapons – is at the real heart of the Geneva negotiations. For once China, or France, or Sweden, or half a dozen other nations successfully test an atomic bomb, then the security of both Russians and Americans is dangerously weakened.
The arguments advanced in favor of a test resumption are not unreasonable. The emphasis is on weapons development – the necessity to move ahead “in the advanced techniques of the use of nuclear material.” This reason is not to be dismissed lightly. Our basic posture in world affairs relies on technical military superiority. We need to develop small tactical nuclear weapons and so-called “clean” nuclear weapons, in order to deter their use or other forms of limited aggression by the enemy, and in order to facilitate a decision to respond in good conscience with atomic weapons when necessary. We need to increase the flexibility and range of weapons in our arsenal in order to increase the flexibility and range of diplomatic possibilities. This is not, I might add, justification for cutting back our ground forces and our ability to wage conventional warfare – but it is nevertheless important. Certainly the destruction rained upon us all by a small nuclear battle – and this our weapons development program is intended to deter – would be many times the damage caused by all the test fall-out in the future. But such a weapons development program cannot be suspended indefinitely in a free country without our scientists and technicians scattering to other positions in other laboratories. In addition, France and other nations on the verge of becoming nuclear powers will resent a ban – and their goodwill is also important.
But it is even more important that we find a way out the present menacing military situation. And let us remember that our present test suspension is implicitly conditional on a continued Russian test suspension. If we are not developing new weapons in the absence of tests, so, in all probability, will they. And the facts of the matter are that, generally speaking, we are ahead of the Russians in the development of atomic warheads of all sizes but behind in the development of delivery systems. Until this lag can be overcome, there is a lesser value for us in testing and developing further “techniques in the use of nuclear material.” In short, for both sides to resume atomic tests today might well turn out to be more of a disadvantage to the West militarily than a help. The Soviet Union – which apparently made great progress in it 1958 tests – is quite as likely as we in any new tests to score a break-through with some new means of destruction which will make all the more delicate the present balance of terror.
I would suggest, therefore, the following alternative position:
1. First, that the United State announce that it will continue its unilateral suspension of all nuclear tests as long as serious negotiations for a permanent ban with enforceable inspections are proceeding with tangibly demonstrated good faith, provided that the Russians do not meanwhile resume their own tests. The latest extension of our test suspension announcement expires on December 31 – and we cannot take the chance of continuing it indefinitely without an inspection system – or afford the cost of extending a temporary suspension so long that our scientists disperse and our laboratories break down. But neither can we afford to undercut negotiations close to success – to resume polluting the atmosphere while the Russians pose as moral leaders. As long as serious, good faith negotiations continue into the early month of 1960 – and are not prolonged indefinitely beyond that – we must continue our suspension beyond December 31.
2. Secondly, the United States must redouble its efforts to achieve a comprehensive and effective agreement to ban all nuclear tests under international control and inspection – and this means developing a single, clear-cut, well 2– defined, realistic inspection proposal of our own. We do not have this today. We have not made as concentrated and effort on techniques for preserving mankind as we have on techniques of destruction. Nor do we have a clear, concrete policy for the general arms control of disarmament program which must necessarily follow an agreement on testing if it is to be meaningful. But the whole international climate could benefit from this demonstration that East and West can reach significant, enforceable agreements. At least a part of the burdensome arms race would come to a halt. The danger of new nuclear powers emerging would be lessened. For the first time the Russians would have accepted effective international controls operating within their own territory. The hazards of health would be over. Such an agreement, in short even if not perfect – even, for example, if it looks to further modification regarding inspection systems for underground or outer-space tests – would nevertheless be worth far more effort than we are presently exerting. And it would be far more valuable than the military benefits to be gained from test resumption.
3. Third – if our best efforts do not succeed, the negotiations collapse, the Russians resume testing and it becomes necessary for our test to resume, even then they should be confined to underground and outer-space explosions, and to the testing of only certain small weapons in the upper atmosphere, in order to prevent a further increase in the fall-out menace – and in hope, moreover, that the Russians and others will be forced by world opinion to follow our example.
4. Fourth and finally, we must step up our studies of the impact of radioactive fall-out and how to control it, through the Public Health Service here at home and a special United Nations monitoring commission abroad. Let us not discover the precise point of danger after we have passed it. Let us not again reject these warnings peril as “catastrophic nonsense” (to quote Mr. Nixon), as they were rejected in 1956 when put forward by a great Democratic standard-bearer, Adlai E. Stevenson. There is every indication that had a test ban been accomplished then, it would have been far more useful, far more easily accomplished and far more beneficial to our national security than it would today, now that the missile gap had widened so far.
These four policy positions that I have stated are no magic solution – nor can they be achieved overnight without effort. The course which I am suggesting is full or risks. It will require more effort, more leadership, more moral courage than merely “running scared.” But the new and terrible dangers which man has created can only be controlled by man. And if we can master this danger and meet this challenge, we will have earned the deep and lasting gratitude, not only of all men, but of all yet to be born – even to the farthest generation.