Year XXIX, 1987, Number 1, Page 7



The Baruch Plan as a Precedent for Disarmament and World Federal Government

In June of 1946, while memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still vividly in people’s minds, the United States proposed a plan to the United Nations for the international control of atomic energy. The plan provided for the abolition of the Security Council veto and for creation of a strong atomic development authority; the authority was to be granted by the United States, through several stages, all US atomic technological information, raw materials, production plants, stockpiles of fissionable materials, and finally its remaining atomic bombs. The plan — known as the Baruch Plan, after the principal US delegate — augured the avoidance of a nuclear arms race and even the “elimination of war”.
The failure of the Baruch Plan has had such enormous consequences for world peace that it continues to draw attention of scholars and some policy makers as a precedent for arms control and disarmament negotiations. Today, when so little seems possible, it may be instructive to look back historically at the Baruch Plan.
It was a bold and magnanimous US proposal. It failed because negotiations were pressed in an atmosphere of atomic diplomacy, and because the plan was constitutionally inadequate for effective international control. Larry Gerber, who has most recently surveyed the literature, concludes that Baruch’s “realism” about US national security as a world power, combined with his “Wilsonian internationalism” aimed at a liberal capitalist world order, and supported by similar attitudes and assumptions of other American policy makers, “prevented them from considering the possibility of agreement on anything but American terms”. Barton Bernstein has similarly concluded that “neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was prepared in 1945 or 1946 to take the risks that the other power required for agreement”, such as sharing atomic secrets or destroying the bomb stockpile, as the Russian demanded, or submitting to controls and inspections that would interfere with economic affairs, as the American did.[1]
My argument is that recent histories of the Baruch Plan stop short at trenchant critiques of the “realist” conduct of foreign policy, without leaving the reader with a clear sense of a better alternative for the future. If, as Joseph Lieberman has said, the Baruch Plan was a “disastrous failure of statecraft”, what might have been a success? If, according to Gregg Herken, the national security state has given us only the “illusion of security”, what could give us real security and permanent peace? I answer, with Bernard Baruch himself, before the State Department limited his policy proposal, that it is an international authority granted sovereign powers to control atomic and conventional weapons of mass destruction and able to enforce its decisions on individuals. I reply also, with Grenville Clark, one of his critics, that mere elimination of the Security Council veto is not enough to make such a plan work, but the United Nations must be fundamentally reformed along the lines of a limited, federal world government, for only so extensive a reform would give nations and their peoples the confidence that the UN can be relied upon for their national security.
The political situation in 1946 was certainly more receptive to courageous proposals like the plan of the United States, but in many ways all that has changed is our memory of principle. After the Second World War, soldiers and people throughout the world were determined that never again would there be another general war. Statesmen were willing to bring their nations into closer relations within a general security organization. The United Nations Organization was founded on a universal basis. After the Moscow declaration of 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull stated: “There will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power”, and these words were repeated by President Roosevelt a year later.
The idea of world federal government, empowered by the nations to enact world law reaching to individuals, was in the air. After atomic bombs were first used in war, Albert Einstein called for world government as the only form of international organization able to control the new force. The atomic scientists, who acquired immense prestige after 6 August 1945, and who felt acutely their responsibility for leading science into the business of war, broke free from wartime secrecy restrictions, became politicized and publicly advocated a policy of the international control of atomic energy. Many of the atomic scientists, individually if not as organizations, went further and advocated world government.
The immediate policy consequence of this political ferment was the Acheson-Lilienthal report of March 1946. It recognized that the US atomic monopoly could not last and it called for international control, even the “end of all war”. The authors expressed hope that, in solving the problems of atomic energy, “new patterns of co-operative effort could be established which would be capable of extension to other fields, and which might make a contribution toward the gradual achievement of a greater degree of community among the peoples of the world”. As for the actual mechanism of international control, they limited themselves to an authority to superatomic disarmament and to maintain “strategic balance”, without powers of enforcement. The authority could only provide an early warning system; in case of great power violation, all nations would revert to atomic development and production of bombs, just as in an uncontrolled arms race. The only enforcement conceivable was war.
Bernard Baruch’s unique contribution was to conceive of enforcement on individuals, as in the contemporaneous trials at Nuremberg. Baruch was conscious of the honour of his appointment as US delegate to the newly created UN Atomic Energy Commission and of his historic opportunity to bring atomic energy under international control at the very start of the atomic age. He demanded and received a part in determining policy. From March to June 1946, he assembled a team of aides, wrestled with the issue, and eventually prevailed on President Truman to set a policy for the effective limitation of US sovereignty under the proposed atomic development authority. In the process, a first-rate internal debate about the world government implications of an adequate plan — very little known to this day — took place between Baruch and Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The debate revealed the fundamental difficulty of all plans for effective disarmament.
Baruch’s original idea was that the United Nations should be strengthened. Acheson squelched the idea: any new organization, like the UN itself, could only be established by treaty. But Baruch was convinced that atomic energy was revolutionary, that the only way now to satisfy the people’s demand for peace was to abolish war once and for all, and he discussed such measures as a unilateral testing moratorium, control of conventional weapons of mass destruction, elimination of the veto power, world command of all armed forces, reduction of national forces to police levels, constitutional prohibitions against the threat or use of force in international relations, and enlarged world courts. “This may seem like an ambitious program”, he wrote privately, “but here is the opportunity to go towards the light at the end of the tunnel-eternal peace”.
When the team began to explore the difficult question of what to do in case of violations, they recognized that the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal was a deception. It did not really provide controls and safeguards, nor did it abolish war. The public were being misled. Acheson retorted that the only alternatives were collective security, which meant war, or world government, which meant not a “damned thing”. Any government is based on the emotional, spiritual acceptance of it by 95 per cent of the people. Not a fraction of that would exist for any new world government. Nevertheless, Baruch continued to maintain with Secretary of State James Byrnes and later with the President that some power of enforcement was essential, and it could only be provided by an enlarged international court or tribunal like that at Nuremberg for enforcement on individuals. An early warning system, he remarked at one point, was not “worth a damn”. “Why not try to do the thing which must be done, rather than do something piecemeal which would raise hopes for peace, but never quiet the fears of war?”
Finally, on 7 June, Baruch won the President’s agreement, and on the 14th he announced the US plan in the UN with a stirring speech that reads well to this day. But the plan was not well thought out. It remained the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal, with Baruch’s elimination of the Security Council veto and some florid talk about “individual responsibility and punishment” added on; nothing was said about cessation of U.S. testing as a good faith gesture, and the time-table for implementation of full international control was passed over in silence.
The New York Times reported glowingly that the United States had made a first step toward a “world government over split atoms”. The Russian press was suspicious of any Western proposal to convert the United Nations into a “world state” whose “mission it will be to save the world from atomic war”. Grenville Clark, a prominent New York attorney who had worked with Secretary of War Henry Stimson during the war and who now was concentrating on the organization of peace, wrote Baruch that abolishing the veto, while leaving the league structure of the UN intact, was not enough to make the international control of atomic energy really work. The General Assembly would have to be transformed into a world legislature, according to a plan of weighted representation, for abolition of the veto to be acceptable to the Russians. They have to feel that they can carry decisions in the international organization on their merits. Then the Security Council would have to become an executive branch, and the World Court a judiciary.
There was never any fundamental modification of the US plan in subsequent negotiations. A few days later Andrei Gromyko presented a Soviet plan that called for a convention to “outlaw” atomic weapons, destruction of the American stockpile, and then establishment of a system of control to insure compliance with the convention. National authorities would enforce the treaty commitments. He absolutely rejected the proposal to abolish the veto, since the unanimity of the permanent members of the Security Council was one of the cornerstones of the United Nations.
As the essence of the American proposal was limitation of sovereignty, so that of the Soviet was equality of sovereign power. The Americans demanded agreement on a control system before abolition of nuclear weapons; the Soviets, abolition before control. This initial Soviet response was seemingly so fundamentally contrary to the spirit of the American proposal that it was widely viewed as a rejection. But actually, the “outlawing” of nuclear weapons was an idea that had occurred first to the Acheson-Lilienthal group about six months before; the logic of the problem compelled them to turn to an international authority. The Russians, too, gradually saw this, and by September they reached unanimity on scientific and technical questions, and by November agreement on inspections. By the time of the crucial vote on 30 December, only four sentences (all about the veto) were in dispute.
For the revolutionary project of establishing the international control of atomic energy, time, additional signs of good faith, and modification of the negotiating text were needed. None of these were forthcoming. Truman, apparently to solve an Army-Navy inter-service dispute, permitted the Navy to undertake its highly provocative atomic tests at Bikini atoll only two weeks after Baruch introduced the US plan for the international control of atomic energy. After the second one at the end of July, the Soviets formally rejected the Baruch Plan. Meanwhile the State Department “clarified” the relation of the authority to the United Nations. Abolition of the veto was to apply only to cases involving atomic weapons, and then only if not “incidental” to a conventional war. This emptied the plan of all meaning. Then in September, Henry Wallace, the last New Dealer in Truman’s cabinet, was forced to resign after he criticized the threatening American conduct of negotiations. Wallace vividly showed that the atomic build up, the development of the long-range B-36, and the acquisition of strategic bases all around the globe were undermining Russian confidence. Moreover, he declared, the American stand on the veto was “completely irrelevant” since enforcement by the Security Council could only mean war.
Could the proposals have been reconciled? We now know that the Soviets were actively pursuing their own atomic energy program (they achieved a sustained nuclear reaction just before the vote on the Baruch Plan). Their “convention” would not have hindered this program except for final production of bombs. But neither would it have interfered with the American program, except to require destruction of existing bomb stockpiles. The ores, reactors, plants, labs, and fissionable materials were technically exempt. The international authority proposed by the Americans, however, would have terminated the Soviet program, for the authority would have sent out a small army of controllers, inspectors, licensors and researchers, who could hardly not have seriously interfered with the weakened, postwar Soviet economy. The Americans, by contrast, would have been allowed to retain and even add to their bomb stockpile until the last stage. “In time in America”, Gromyko remarked in August 1946, “your plan will be seen to be unfair”.
Acceding to Soviet demand of ceasing nuclear testing and destroying all atomic bombs might have been enough of an American good faith gesture to move the Russians to more seriously consider the necessary structure of the authority. The atomic scientists were quick to point out that the danger was not in the bombs, but in the plants and materials to make bombs. We now know that the number of bombs in the American “stockpile” was twelve. Could not twelve bombs have been sacrificed for the “elimination of war”?
On the other hand, the United States had already made a major good faith gesture in the offer itself to surrender its atomic power to an international authority, on condition of adequate safeguards. A like offer to give up a new strategic weapon, on which its future security might rest, could not be found in all national history. Even the timing of the disarmament stages was secretly planned to be only four to six years. Could not four years of American atomic diplomacy have been endured to place atomic energy, as the Soviets said, in the “service of humanity”?
Russian refusal to countenance the abolition of the veto was as understandable as American refusal to destroy the stockpile. Both were shaky props of national defense. The veto was one point on which the USSR could have budged. By upholding so rigidly the principle of great power sovereignty, the Russians were really defending the founding principle of the League of Nations, which had failed them so disastrously in 1938, and they were blocking reform on the United Nations, whose league structure had been proved inadequate by 1946.
On the other hand, the American proposal to abolish the veto only in cases of national violation of international atomic energy rules — leaving the veto intact for larger questions of aggression — was certainly unfair and unwise. Without a veto, the Soviet Union would have been exposed to the “majority” in the Security Council, then effectively within the sphere of influence of the United States. Council action according to the confederal rules of the UN would mean war. Acheson understood this (as did Wallace), and so did Gromyko. Yet retaining a veto over general questions was no solution, for any atomic dispute could hardly not escalate into a general one, and then the UN would be paralyzed as before.
The proposal of national enforcement vs. that of UN sanctions without protection of veto was a real impasse. Without organs of world law to reach individual violators, how could the international control of atomic energy really work? Only national leaders were apt to be guilty of clandestine atomic armament. The Russian proposal would have national law enforcement agents arrest national executives (Stalin, Truman) whose chief duty was enforcement of the law. The American would have the UN apply sanctions, ultimately including war, against a whole nation whose leaders were arming it with atomic weapons. Actually, the Baruch Plan was the more dangerous for the United States, for it would have allowed a combination in the Security Council to decide to make war on the US. This was hardly a “formula of lasting peace”. Neither proposal went far enough toward world law.
Negotiations then followed the familiar pattern of the early Cold War. There came an awful moment on the day of the critical vote on the plan, which Baruch hurried despite progress in order to show that the Russians were to blame, when the old man admitted that enforcement under the plan meant war. “Let all nations that willingly set their pens to the terms of this treaty realize that its willful breech means punishment and, if necessary, war. Then we will not lightly have breeches and evasions”. The vote was 10-0-2, the Russians and Poles abstaining. Although this was not an absolute rejection, and though negotiations continued until May 1948, the spirit of good faith was gone out of them.
This would be the end of the story, were it not that, parallel to the Baruch Plan negotiations, Grenville Clark was guiding through the United Nations a true world government proposal. This effort has not yet been noted by historians, but it casts valuable light on the US plan.
Shortly after use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, Clark had assembled a prestigious conference of internationalists in his home town of Dublin, New Hampshire. They issued a bold declaration calling for universal world federal government, in place of the new United Nations, in order to control atomic energy. After many interventions in high places, which Clark’s prestige made possible, two appropriate resolutions were placed on the UN General Assembly agenda in 1946. One called for a Charter review conference, the other for a study committee on Charter review. A good deal of politicking and vote trading, exactly like that to get a bill through a state legislature or Congress, took place as the resolutions were guided by Clark’s protégé Alan Cranston through a subcommittee of the Assembly’s Political and Security Committee (First Committee). Meanwhile, as negotiations over the Baruch Plan broke down, President Truman and Foreign Minister Molotov engaged in a propaganda conflict in the First Committee itself. Russian refusal to accept abolition of the veto was proof of its refusal to make the UN work; American demands to abolish the veto were inconsistent with the Charter and a cover for maintaining monopoly of the atomic bomb. Then Carlos Romulo, the Philippine delegate, rose and made one of the great speeches in the United Nations.
Romulo compared US and British demands to abolish the veto in atomic energy matters with their refusal to abolish it in the context of thoroughgoing UN reform. He roundly excoriated the great powers for their subversion of the United Nations. The United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom at San Francisco demanded the veto as the price of any charter at all. Since the advent of atomic energy, however, many of their statesmen had expressed willingness to limit or abolish the veto. The United States proposed to abolish it in atomic energy matters; the Soviet Union, in the daily operation of their counterproposed general disarmament commission. Yet all three voted against the clear proposals to call a general review conference for the fundamental reform of the UN. “Is this fair to the United Nations?” Romulo asked. “Is this fair to the people of the world?” The tendency of great powers to revert to national programs of military defense, he concluded was “doing the United Nations to death”. “We sit here and feel the United Nations tremble. We watch it fail to meet forcefully the great issues in our time. We know in our hearts that its structure is faulty. We know that therefore no nation — yes, no nation, great or small — trusts the United Nations to provide its security and peace”.
To conclude, then, the failure of the Baruch Plan meant not only collapse of one of the great initiatives to establish the international control of atomic energy, but also meant the end of the United Nations as an effective international security organization. Or at least it meant the end of the UN as presently constituted. The Baruch Plan was never developed by the United States into even a fair proposal for the control of atomic energy, the Soviet Union did not respond to its potential, and very few countries were prepared to support a call for a general review conference to redraft the UN Charter. The plan was constitutionally miscast. As it stood, it actually provided that a veto-free atomic development authority, under the Security Council (where the veto would apply in full), would enforce its decisions by a kind of United Nations war.
Bernard Baruch sensed that the advent of atomic energy required an effective political response to control it, and he perceived that the veto was the source of paralysis in the existing international organization, but his thought did not progress much beyond a notion of “strengthening the United Nations”. The State Department did not support him, and the Kremlin seemed only to delay. Why? We now know that the Department was preoccupied with the crisis in Eastern Europe, it was formulating the containment policy (which was announced in March 1947), and, most of all, it felt a need to retain the atomic bomb as a diplomatic instrument at a time of headlong American demobilization. The Russians, for their part, were certainly very slow to respond to the challenge of atomic energy, if not deliberately delaying, and they plainly resented the American atomic threat to their cities after suffering twenty million deaths in driving out the Nazis.
The spirit of nationalism and national habits of thought and action remained very strong. Hence, negotiations easily degenerated into a propaganda conflict. The United States could pretend it wished to abolish the veto, because it would still command a majority in the UN, where the Western European and Latin American countries were securely in the American sphere of influence. The Soviet Union could claim that American refusal to first destroy the bomb stockpile betrayed a belligerent intent, when probably what the Russians wanted was time to develop their own atomic bombs. They could charge that an atomic development authority not subject to the veto was in violation of the Charter, when really, as Gromyko acknowledged later, the Russians had no confidence in a “majority on whose benevolent attitude toward the Soviet Union the Soviet people cannot count”.
World statesmanship, of a type very rarely as yet in history, was necessary to achieve the “elimination of war”.
The lessons for the future seem to be that a fair, adequate plan is necessary for any project of disarmament, and that negotiations must be flexible and pursued in good faith, without threats of nuclear destruction in case of failure to reach agreement.
Although the United Nations by the end of 1946 ceased to be the real basis of international security, it has not ceased to be the locus of efforts by many dedicated people to restore the UN to its proper place in international relations. Grenville Clark continued his efforts to formulate an adequate plan of UN reform, and this was published in 1958 as World Peace through World Law. In 1952, the UN Disarmament Commission was established, uniting the Atomic Energy Commission, which had been the aegis for Baruch’s efforts, and the Commission for Conventional Armaments, which had grown out of the Soviet counterproposals. Henceforward there would be no more artificial distinctions between atomic and conventional mass weapons. The Commission has developed into the Committees, Conferences, and the Campaign for Disarmament of the present day. The Special Session on Disarmament (1978) very clearly recognized that the goal was twofold: general and complete disarmament, under effective international control. “Effective international control” has gradually acquired in the public mind the status of an indispensable principle, whose realization lies upon the lap of history.

[1]For full citations, see my article, “Was the Baruch Plan a Proposal of World Government?”, International History Review, 7 (November 1985), pp. 592-621.



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