U.S. Nuclear Stockpile Secrecy: A View from 1949

09.02.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The question of whether or not to disclose the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal “goes to the very heart of our democratic system of government,” said Senator Brien McMahon (D-CT) in a newly rediscovered 1949 speech (pdf) on secrecy in nuclear weapons policy.

“Do we possess five bombs, or fifty bombs, or five hundred bombs?  Are we strong or weak in the field of atomic weapons?  Only the Atomic Energy Commissioners, high-ranking military men, and a few others know the correct answer to these vital questions,” Sen. McMahon said.

Sen. McMahon (1903-1952) was the principal author of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which established the Atomic Energy Commission and placed control of nuclear weapons in civilian hands.

“Though I have been a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy since its inception, and though I have just been elected its chairman, I do not myself know how many bombs we possess or how rapidly we are making new ones,” he said.

“It is interesting to note that concealment of atomic production rates is secrecy of a scope which has never been attempted before during peacetime in the United States,” Sen. McMahon said. He indicated that he had not reached a definite conclusion as to whether the size of the stockpile size should be made public.

The text of Senator McMahon’s January 31, 1949 address to the Economic Club of Detroit was entered into his rather voluminous FBI file, which was obtained by researcher Michael Ravnitzky.

Illustrating the often glacial pace of secrecy reform, it was not until May 3 of this year that the current size of the nuclear arsenal was officially revealed for the first time.