Harry S. Truman photo

Address in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

October 14, 1948

Governor Thompson, and fellow Democrats of Wisconsin:

I am certainly most happy to be with you tonight. I have been all day--all afternoon coming across Wisconsin, and I have met the most enthusiastic and progressive people in the world. I am just as sure as I stand here that Milwaukee and Wisconsin are going to give overwhelming majorities to the Democratic ticket, on the second day of November, because the Democratic ticket stands for the welfare of the United States as a whole. You are going to elect a Governor and the whole ticket in the State, and I am sure that you will send a congressional delegation to Washington that I can work with for the next 4 years.

Now I am going to discuss with you tonight one of the most important subjects with which this country is faced. It is one of the key issues in this campaign, and I want you to be carefully interested in what I have to say to you, for it is more important.

During the last few weeks, I have been talking to people all over the country about the vital issues in this campaign. I hope you folks have been reading what I have been saying, because--unlike the Republican candidate for President--I have been saying exactly where I stand on vital issues.

I believe from the bottom of my heart that we are engaged in a great crusade to determine whether the powers of government will be used for the benefit of all the people or for the benefit of just a privileged few.

Tonight I'm going to talk about something that ought not to be in politics at all, but the Republican candidate has brought it in, and I have to tell you about it.

When he did this, he displayed a dangerous lack of understanding of the subject.

At the same time, he clearly implied a belief that there should be private exploitation of a tremendous asset which belongs to the people of the United States.

He blundered into a subject which is of immediate concern to every person in the United States and in the whole world. That is atomic energy.

This is a force which holds great danger of catastrophe in the wrong hands. At the same time, it holds great promise of a better life in the right hands. Everyone must understand clearly what is involved.

Atomic power is so overwhelming that most people have difficulty in seeing how it affects their daily lives. But the fact is, the future of every one of us depends in large measure on whether atomic energy is used for good or for evil.

There are three fundamental facts about atomic energy that each of us should understand.

First of all, the atomic bomb is the most terrible and devastating weapon that man has ever contrived.

Second, because atomic energy is capable of destroying civilization, it must be controlled by international authority.

And third, if properly controlled, atomic energy can enrich human life for all the generations to come.

You remember how the atom bomb project began.

We were fighting a great war. We knew that the Nazis were trying to construct atomic bombs. We drew on the world's scientists and our whole heritage of organized knowledge to win this race with death. This called for foresight. And it called for courage.

It took foresight in 1940 to order the first research on atomic energy for military purposes. It took courage in 1942 to launch the atomic bomb project on a full scale.

Fortunately, we had a President who possessed both courage and foresight-Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt did not live to see the outcome of that great venture.

It was after I became President that the first atomic explosion was set off in the New Mexico desert. That was while I was in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. Until that time, we did not know whether the bomb would work or not. Secretary of War Stimson came to Potsdam and informed personally of the awe-inspiring result of first explosion. Nothing like it had ever before been known.

That first explosion in the desert left a crater 1200 feet across. The sand in and around the crater was melted into glass. The steel tower--90 feet high--from which the bomb was exploded had completely vaporized. There wasn't a vestige of it left.

What this meant for the future was staggering to think about.

As President of the United States, I had the fateful responsibility of deciding whether or not to use this weapon for the first time. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. But the President cannot duck hard problems--he cannot pass the buck.

I made the decision after discussions with the ablest men in our Government, and after long and prayerful consideration.

I decided that the bomb should be used in order to end the war quickly and save countless lives--Japanese as well as American.

But I resolved then and there to do everything I could to see that this awesome discovery was turned into a force for peace and the advancement of mankind.

Since then, it has been my constant aim to prevent its use for war and to hasten its use for peace.

Three months after the bomb was used, I met in Washington, D.C., with Prime Minister Attlee of Great Britain and Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada. These two great countries were Our partners in developing the atomic bomb.

After this conference, our three governments proposed that a United Nations Commission be established to work out a plan for the international control of atomic energy--a plan which would further the welfare rather than the destruction of mankind. We were joined by France, China, and the Soviet Union in sponsoring the establishment of such a commission.

The commission first met in June 1946. The United States offered to stop making atomic bombs when an effective system of international control had been set up. We offered to dispose of our existing bombs, and to turn over to an international agency full information on the production of atomic energy.

Now, my friends, that is the first time in the history of the world that the greatest nation on earth has been willing to turn over its greatest asset for the welfare of the whole world.

I believe that these proposals by the United States Government will be regarded by history as one of the world's greatest examples of political responsibility and moral leadership. In these proposals lies the best assurance for world peace and for the security of this great Nation.

There has been no change in the American position. We still want atomic energy to be placed under international control-on a practical, realistic basis that means control that will work. Only on this basis can atomic energy be removed as an ominous threat to mankind and turned to the purpose which has been in my heart from the beginning: peace, prosperity, and progress for all nations and all people everywhere.

Until the right kind of international control is assured, we have no choice but to proceed with the development of atomic weapons. We Americans are not a warlike people. We want peace worse than anything else in this world. The world knows that the United States will never use the atomic bomb to wage aggressive war.

But in the hands of a nation bent on aggression, the atomic bomb could spell the end of civilization on this planet.

My friends, that must not happen.

The fearful power of atomic weapons must be placed beyond the reach of any irresponsible government or any power-mad dictator.

Now, all of you know the difficulties we have encountered in trying to achieve international control.

The great majority of the countries on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission agreed upon a plan for an international agency with powers of ownership, operation, management, and inspection which would make effective control possible. But the Soviet Union rejected such a plan as an intrusion upon its national sovereignty.

The majority of the nations felt that the control agency ought not to be subject to a veto by any nation. The Soviet Union insisted upon its right to veto.

The issues which have thus far blocked agreement are serious. But I do not regard the situation as hopeless. Even now, in Paris, discussions are under way in the United Nations on this very subject. It is our hope that the Soviet Union and all members of the United Nations will see the wisdom, logic, and the necessity for adopting the plan of control so overwhelmingly supported by the United Nations Commission.

The conscience of humanity will not permit the awful force of atomic energy to be used for the self-destruction of the human race.

Now, my friends, of course, there is a price to be paid for mutual security of nations against the horrors of an atomic war. All nations must reckon with that price. The plain fact is that the international control of atomic energy does demand some sacrifice of national sovereignty.

The atom is no respecter of sovereignty of nations.

From the moment the atomic bomb came a reality, the United States has stood ready to do its share--to make its sacrifice-so that a lasting peace can be achieved.

But we will not make a one-sided sacrifice. The United States will not be satisfied with anything less than a plan of international control which is clearly meant to work, and which will work. A "make-believe" control would be worse than none at all.

Now, while we are making these efforts toward international control of atomic energy, we have also been working to strengthen our atomic security and to hasten the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

When the war ended, we faced a critical decision as to the means by which our work should be carried forward. Some people honestly believed that the development of atomic energy should be left in the hands of the armed services.

I could not agree to that.

A free society requires the supremacy of the civil rather than the military authority. This is in no sense a reflection upon our Armed Forces. It is part of the spirit of our free institutions that military specialists must always be under the direction of civilians.

Because of the power and world significance of atomic energy, I was convinced that it had to be placed under civilian control. The Democratic 79th Congress enacted a law which made civilian control possible. The wisdom of that decision has been proved again and again during the past 2 years.

We are steadily making advances in the field of atomic science.

I can assure you that the civilian Atomic Energy Commission has maintained the leadership and readiness of the United States in atomic weapons--despite the presence of what the Republican candidate for President is pleased to call the "dead hand" of government !

The progress we are making in developing atomic energy for peaceful uses may at first seem less dramatic than the creation of the atomic bomb. But, in fact, it promises the world a whole new age of creative abundance.

The Atomic Energy Commission has begun work on the first experimental plant intended to supply atomic power for industrial purposes.

Great progress is being made in the use of atomic materials for research in biology and medicine. Here, we are warring against cancer and other diseases which will take their terrible tolls of human lives.

Atomic materials are also opening up tremendous new possibilities in agriculture and industrial research. And these same radioactive materials are among our most important research tools in the field of fundamental physical science.

Fifty years from now, the world will be a vastly different place because the power of the atom is being harnessed. It is our job to see that atomic energy makes the world not a wasteland of destruction but a vastly better place in which to live.

Atomic energy is not just a new form of power--like coal and oil. It is a force which can be compared only with the cosmic energies of the sun itself.

The fission of--now, listen to this--the fission of a single pound of uranium releases as much energy as the burning of 3 million pounds of coal.

A force like this cannot be handled on a "business as usual" basis.

The Republican candidate for president made a speech on atomic energy at phoenix, Ariz., on September 23d.

The obvious implication in that speech is that the Republican candidate feels that the peacetime uses of atomic energy should be taken from the Government and turned over to private corporations.

Here again is the basic conflict between the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Here again is the vital issue between the people and the selfish interests.

I believe that atomic energy should not be used to fatten the profits of big business.

I believe that atomic energy should be used for the benefit of all the people.

Now, my friends, the largest private corporation in the world is far too small to be entrusted with such power, least of all for its own profit.

Most responsible businessmen know this. Most men who know what atomic energy means do not talk about the "dead hand of government."

For our own protection and to insure our national security, we must continue to develop atomic energy as a public trust.

Our atomic materials are very precious, and must be guarded closely.

Atomic energy cannot and must not be another Teapot Dome for private exploitation-any more than it can be allowed to enter into competitive armaments. That is one of the most important things we are faced with. We don't want to make atomic energy the private interest of any corporations, no matter how big.

Our atomic plants cost billions of dollars of public money to build, and millions more to operate each year. They belong to all the people. They belong to us.

The use of atomic materials presents technical hazards which require very careful safety measures.

And here is the most important point of all. You cannot separate peacetime use of atomic materials from their potential military use.

Atomic material in a power station is not far from being an atomic arsenal. This is the blunt fact that requires an international control that will really work. The same fact makes it absolutely necessary to insist upon public ownership and control in the United States.

At the same time, we must make full use of the skill and initiative of private business. Business concerns have had and will continue to have an indispensable part in this great venture. This is a basic principle of the McMahon Atomic Energy Act of 1946-one of the wisest laws ever put on our statute books.

And, the success of our whole atomic energy program, military as well as peaceful, has been based on constant and effective teamwork between Government and private enterprise.

Today, over three thousand private contractors and suppliers are participating in our atomic energy program.

Today, the great atomic plants at Oak Ridge, and Hanford, and elsewhere are operated by private industrial organizations under Government supervision.

Today, scores of college and university laboratories are carrying out important atomic research.

Everything possible is being done to find legitimate opportunities for even greater participation by private enterprise, consistent always with public interest. But we must not put profit-making above the national welfare, my friends.

The platform of the Republican Party upon which my opponent is running for election fails to mention atomic energy.

I assumed at first that this was merely an oversight.

It is clear now, however, that this omission was deliberate.

It is clear from the comments of the Republican candidate that powerful, selfish groups within the Republican Party are determined to exploit the atom for private profit.

I shall fight this effort with all the strength I have.

The Government is the indispensable trustee of the people for the development of atomic energy. Someday it may be 'possible to fit atomic energy more closely into the normal pattern of American business. But I cannot tell you that this is just around the corner. I will make no light promises of this sort.

Our national policy has been that atomic energy is such a vast new force in our lives that it must be kept under public control as long as the safety of the people's interest require. We must continue to follow that policy.

That is the only way we can assure the development of atomic energy for the benefit of humanity.

That is the only way we can assure that it will be used not for death but for a better life.

This great discovery belongs to the people and it must be used for the people.

There has been no more vital issue before the American people in this century.

The existence of civilization itself depends upon the wisdom and prudence of the American people in choosing the course we are to follow.

I pray that your decision will be the right one.

Note: The President spoke at 8:32 p.m. at Botcherr Field in Milwaukee. His opening words "Governor Thompson" referred to Carl W. Thompson, Democratic candidate for Governor of Wisconsin. He later referred to Prime Minister Clement R. Attlee of Great Britain and Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King of Canada.

The address was carried on a nationwide radio broadcast.

Harry S Truman, Address in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/233585

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