60 Years of "Atoms for Peace"

US President Eisenhower addresses the United Nations General Assembly, New York, delivering his "Atoms for Peace" speech, 8 December 1953, New York. (Photo: IAEA)

On 8 December 1953, US President Eisenhower addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and delivered what became known as the "Atoms for Peace" speech. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race were the background for the President's speech. According to historians, President Eisenhower chose not to merely focus on the perils of atomic war, instead he lauded the civilian nuclear applications in agriculture, medicine, and power generation. He proposed the establishment of an "international atomic energy agency" that would promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy "for the benefit of all mankind."

The historical record also tells us that when President Eisenhower decided in 1953 to deliver a major speech on nuclear issues, he initially planned to talk about nuclear fears rather than about nuclear hopes.

However, during the several months of drafting, the speech's emphasis slowly changed. As historian Ira Chernus explains, "the focus shifted steadily away from the American-Soviet rivalry to this new perspective of humanity versus weaponry." The specific proposal to establish an International Atomic Energy Agency appeared late in the drafting phase and was Eisenhower's own initiative.

Eisenhower specifically addressed the developing countries. Nuclear technology was presented as a means to advance progress and welfare worldwide.

Following the speech, work began to draft the statute of a new international organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency. In October 1956, the draft was presented by a twelve-nation group, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, India, Portugal, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, to a conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where the Statute was opened for signature. A Preparatory Commission took up its work to arrange the first general conference of the new Organization. On 29 July 1957, the IAEA's Statute came into force. In October 1957, the first IAEA General Conference took place in Vienna, and the city was chosen as the location of the new Organization's permanent headquarters.

In his statement to the United Nations General Assembly in November 2013, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said, "in 1957, the IAEA began work in Vienna. Since then, the Agency has worked hard to bring the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology to all parts of the globe and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The world has changed enormously in that time. But the Atoms for Peace mission has lost none of its relevance. The Agency has successfully adapted to changing times and the evolving needs of Member States."

- This article is excerpted from a forthcoming article in the IAEA Bulletin by Elisabeth Roehrlich, Department of Contemporary History, University of Vienna

Last update: 28 October 2014