The term “custody dispute” is one we usually associate with acrimonious divorce proceedings. But there was a very real nuclear custody dispute in the 1950s, one which I’ve often been surprised that even folks fairly well-versed in nuclear history weren’t aware of.1
The issue in a nutshell: When Eisenhower took office in 1953, there were around 1,000 nuclear bombs in the US nuclear arsenal and all but a few dozen were in the hands of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When he left office in 1961, the nuclear stockpile contains some 18,000 weapons (of widely varying size, yield, and delivery mechanism), and 90% of them were under military control.2 That shifting of control — of whether it was a civilian or a military organization that physically had responsibility over the bombs — was the essence of the custody dispute.
The backstory to the dispute is rather simple. As part of the Congressional battle over postwar domestic legislation to regulate atomic energy, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (the McMahon Act) assigned all control of the manufacture, development, and possession of nuclear weapons to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This was not accidental — the key push by Senator Brien McMahon was that this was “civilian control” of the atom, as opposed to “military control.” (The bill the McMahon Act was meant to replace, the May-Johnson Act, was castigated as a “military” bill, which was not entirely true.) The fear, in 1946, was that a military-controlled nuclear complex would result in an un-reflective arms race, preempt democracy, and make an unpleasant atmosphere for scientists. (Thank goodness civilian control resulted in none of those ills!)
The Atomic Energy Act allowed for the possibility that the President could, “from time to time,” direct the AEC to give the military access to fissile material and weapons “for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.” Otherwise, all weapons would be kept by the AEC.
Thus the custody dispute: the military was, over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s, meant to be ramping up its integration of nuclear weapons into its war plans. And yet, they did not physically have access to live nuclear weapons. In fact, they didn’t even have access to weapons casings to practice with, on account of the weapons casings being classified as “restricted data,” and required Q-clearances (with full FBI investigations) to even look at!
- My source for this is a rather classic document for information about US nuclear deployments: History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978. What I mean by “classic,” here, is that lots of other folks seem to have known about this document for a long time, but I was only made aware of it when I asked a former Harvard colleague of mine, Dan Volmar, who is doing a dissertation on nuclear command and control systems, for something about the custody issue. [↩]
- Peter J. Roman, “Ike’s Hair-Trigger: Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60,” Security Studies 7, no. 4 (Summer 1998), 121-164, on 121. [↩]