5. The bomb and the onset of the Cold War

The timing and context of the explosion are impossible to ignore: 1949 was a year of extraordinary tension in the Cold War world. There is, of course, much to say about the Cold War, though most of it is best said somewhere else. Suffice it to say here that, by 1946 anyway, the United States and the Soviet Union had fallen out in a bitter dispute over a host of issues. They disagreed over the disposition of postwar Germany: To what extent should it be punished? Should its size be reduced? Should it be united or divided into spheres of influence controlled by its liberators? They argued over other European states too, with the Americans insisting on free elections in the Soviet-liberated nations of Eastern Europe (especially Poland), while the Russians argued that whoever liberated a country got to shape its political future; as the British and Americans had done in Italy in 1943-4, so the Soviets would do in Bulgaria, Romania, and any other nation where the Red Army had sacrificed soldiers to the elimination of Fascism. There were quarrels over money and goods—the United States had an abundance of both, some of which the Russians wanted for relief and reconstruction—over ideology, principles, and values, over who constituted a danger to whom, over such seeming arcana as the internationalization of waterways, the repatriation of German prisoners, the meaning of language in treaties and agreements, and the definition of such terms as ‘imperialism’, ‘freedom’, and ‘socialism’. On 9 February 1946 Stalin accused the capitalist West of having started the Second World War in an effort to ‘re-divide the “spheres of influence” in their own favor’, insisting that capitalism ‘contains in itself the seeds of a general crisis and of warlike clashes’. Two weeks later, the Moscow embassy’s George Kennan warned, in his famous ‘Long Telegram’, that the Soviet Union represented ‘a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the [United States] there can be no permanent modus vivendi’, and on 5 March Winston Churchill claimed, before an American audience and with Truman sitting next to him, that the Soviets had rung down an ‘Iron Curtain’ between Eastern and Western Europe, and that the proper response, ‘strength’ and not ‘appeasement’, must be made by ‘a fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples’. Stalin equated the speech with an attack, and there quickly followed in the Soviet Union a campaign of conformity and messianic Marxism-Leninism spearheaded by the ideologue Andrei Zhdanov. Matters declined from there.30

The atomic bomb played a role in the onset and intensification of the Cold War. ‘Before the atom bomb was used, I would have said, yes, I was sure we could keep the peace with Russia,’ said Dwight Eisenhower after visiting Moscow just after the war ended. ‘Now I don’t know... People are frightened and disturbed all over. Everyone feels insecure again.’ The bomb, argue Gar Alperovitz and Kai Bird, was ‘a primary catalyst of the Cold War’, not only initiating a dangerous arms race between the adversaries but enabling the American reconstruction of West Germany along capitalist lines, easing US strategic concerns for Western Europe enough to permit American interventions in Korea and Vietnam, and broadly negating any possibility of accommodation between the two powers because of Soviet suspicions regarding the bomb’s use and American efforts to preserve its secrets. Certainly the bomb lurked like a specter at the table during every Cold War colloquy. Certainly, too, the Soviets and Americans, along with their friends, allies, and international subordinates, regarded the bomb as an ominous presence even in their day-to-day affairs. Molotov’s weirdly jovial exchange with Byrnes—‘I’m going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it’, Byrnes ‘joked’—in September 1945 indicated the Soviets’ acute consciousness of the bomb’s influence. ‘Atomic bombs’, Stalin told a British journalist a year later, ‘were meant to frighten those with weak nerves’, implying that his nerves were steady but perhaps leaving the opposite impression. In January 1948 he told the Yugoslav diplomat Milovan Djilas that the bomb was ‘a powerful thing, pow-er-ful!’ Djilas thought Stalin’s expression ‘full of admiration’. When six months later Stalin ordered a land blockade of Berlin, the United States responded with an airlift ofsupplies to the beleaguered residents of the West and, more pointedly, by sending sixty B-29s to bases in Britain. While the bombers were not armed with nuclear bombs nor even equipped to carry them, the Truman administration maintained a studied silence about these facts. Perhaps the presence of the bombers in Europe made Stalin more cautious than he otherwise would have been; in any event, he ended the blockade in May 1949. It is plausible that the B-29s reminded him, if a reminder was needed, that the Americans had the bomb and at that point he did not.31

The Americans, too, were keenly aware of their monopoly of the bomb from 1945 to 1949. Rationally, it was not always clear that it provided them with a strategic advantage in the Cold War. Some derided the possibility of maintaining the ‘secret’ of the bomb for any length of time, in spite of Groves’s optimistic (and continually sliding) estimate that the Soviets would not have the bomb for decades. Stimson knew the ‘secret’ would not last and thus proposed, in his memo of 11 September 1945 to the President, that information about the bomb should be shared with the Russians. Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Commerce until Truman fired him in September 1946, noted that research on the nucleus had ‘originated in Europe ...It was impossible to bottle the thing up no matter how much we tried.’ Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and leading scientific adviser on the Manhattan Project, told Truman in September that the atomic ‘gun on our hips’ had limited diplomatic and strategic utility. ‘There is no powder in the gun, for it could not be drawn, and this is certainly known,’ he said. So Byrnes evidently discovered at London that same month. (Bush later wrote incredulously of Admiral William Leahy: ‘His view was like the postwar attitude of some of the public and many in Congress: There was an atomic bomb “secret”, written perhaps on a single sheet of paper, some sort of magic formula. If we guarded this, we alone could have atomic bombs indefinitely.’) Truman himself had bleak thoughts that fall. Following Byrnes’s failure to sway the Soviets on a range of issues at London, the President glumly told his budget director, Harold Smith, ‘there are some people in the world who do not seem to understand anything except the number of divisions you have’. Smith objected: ‘Mr President, you have an atomic bomb up your sleeve.’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘but I am not sure it can ever be used.’32

Sensing the same thing, and worried over growing Congressional efforts to take control of the atomic-energy issue, Byrnes, in January 1946, called Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and appointed him chair of a new committee charged to ‘draft a plan for the international control of atomic energy’. Acheson objected that he knew nothing about the issue; Byrnes told him not to worry, because the committee would include men who did, among them Bush, James Conant, and Groves. Not satisfied, Acheson added a board of consultants to the committee, including several engineers, Robert Oppenheimer, and, as head, David Lilienthal, former czar of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Part of the point was to outflank or outvote Groves. Acheson had doubts about the way the administration had thus far handled the issue of international control—‘Byrnes and Truman didn’t understand anything about the bomb,’ he told Lilienthal. As Acheson knew, or soon learned, Oppenheimer’s and Lilienthal’s doubts ran even deeper. ‘What is there that is secret?’ Lilienthal wrote in his journal following his appointment to the consultants’ group. ‘If my hunch that in the real sense there are no secrets (that is, nothing that is not known or knowable) would be supported by the facts, then real progress would be made.’ Tutored after hours in nuclear physics by Oppenheimer, Acheson, along with Lilienthal, steered the committee away from Groves’s insistence that nothing of significance be shared with the Soviets. In mid-March, the committee produced its findings, dubbed the Acheson-Lilienthal report. It called for the creation of an international Atomic Development Authority, empowered to control radioactive raw materials including uranium, oversee the process of fission worldwide, and manage all research involving atomic explosives. There was deliberate vagueness in the plan, and it established no timetable for the release to the international body of information and resources by the United States. But Acheson and Bush were clear when they described the report on the radio: ‘The extremely favored position with regard to atomic devices, which the United States enjoys at present, is only temporary. It will not last. We must use that advantage now to promote international security and to carry out our policy ofbuilding a lasting peace through international agreement.’33

Faced with such a flexible yet resolute commitment to the internationalization of atomic research—a possible return to a ‘republic of science’, or at least a global oligarchy—Truman balked. Rather than approve the Acheson-Lilienthal plan and release it to the public, as Acheson urged him to do, the President instead appointed Bernard Baruch head of the US delegation to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, and asked that he ‘translate’ the report ‘into a workable plan’. Baruch, who had made a fortune in the stock market, was in 1946 75 years old, nearly deaf, and puffed with pride over his reputation—‘without foundation in fact and entirely self-propagated’, thought Acheson. ‘I am one tough baby,’ Baruch proclaimed on accepting the translator’s job. He now refused all scientific counsel on the bomb, because, as he told Bush, ‘I know all I want[ ] to know. It went boom and it killed millions of people.’ Appalled at what he considered Acheson-Lilienthal’s generosity toward the non-nuclear world and especially the Soviets, Baruch translated the report by transforming it. He emphasized, in his amendments, the need for inspections, sanctions levied against wrongdoers, and maintenance, during an indeterminate process of divulging atomic ‘secrets’ to something called the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), of a virtual veto on decisionmaking by the United States. Under his plan (for it soon gained independent status as the ‘Baruch Plan’), presented to the United Nations in June 1946, ‘the Americans would still retain their arsenal of atomic weapons long after the Russians had surrendered the crucial information about their raw materials sources and the state of their research and development’, as Daniel Yergin has written. In the midst of the UN debate on the American plan on 1 July, the United States tested an air-dropped atomic bomb at Bikini atoll in the South Pacific. Missing its target, the worn out battleship Nevada, by 2 miles, the bomb nevertheless impressively went boom. The test seemed to punctuate Baruch’s intention to retain an atomic monopoly for as long as possible. The Soviets counterproposed with the destruction of existing nuclear weapons, the retention of national control over nuclear weapons’ programs, and the endurance of individual vetoes on the IAEA. By September Baruch, who refused to bend on his proposal, admitted to Truman that talks had reached an impasse, and by the year’s end, as Gregg Herken has put it, ‘the atomic curtain had been firmly rung down’. The Russians applied the coup de grace with a veto in the Security Council.34

So the Americans would go it alone, testing weapons openly at Bikini in the summer of 1946 and again, at Eniewetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, in the spring of 1948. The latter series of tests in particular signaled to the Soviets that the United States had enough atomic bombs to afford the luxury of detonating three of them just to see how well they worked—and indeed one of them yielded 49 kilotons, easily the most powerful bomb yet. The Russians, and for that matter the British and others, could glean what clues they wanted from the tests, but there would be no decision to release atomic information. ‘It was [Baruch’s] ball, and he balled it up,’ wrote a disgusted Acheson. The United States hid behind Groves’s misplaced faith that the Soviets were years away from developing a bomb, hoping, somehow, that its nuclear monopoly would preserve its security and that of Western Europe, hoping, somehow, that its scientists had caught lightning in a bottle, a feat of genius, technology, and good luck that would be impossible for others to duplicate.35

This was wishful folly. But so too, in all likelihood, was the hope of Stimson, Lilienthal, and Acheson that an international agreement that envisioned, even in the short run, an American nuclear monopoly might dissuade Josef Stalin from building his own bomb. In the way that the American decision to drop the bomb on an enemy’s city was largely determined by Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to develop the bomb in the first place, so also was the Soviets’ resolve to make a bomb of their own established with unbreakable momentum by Stalin in August 1945, and perhaps even with Stalin’s authorization of a small nuclear project in spring 1943. The bomb was central to the Cold War; the Soviet leadership felt it as acutely as did the American. Stalin was not certain that the atomic bomb would prove, in itself, a militarily decisive weapon in a future war. Officials from the Soviet embassy in Tokyo who visited Hiroshima in September 1945 reported that, although destruction was great and death plentiful from the bomb, the effects of the bomb generally had been exaggerated by the Japanese press. Of course, as long as the Russians lacked the bomb they tried to reassure themselves that they were not in mortal danger from an American bomb. After his bizarre repartee with Byrnes at London in September 1945, Molotov met the secretary again, in Moscow in December. Also present at this meeting was James Conant, determined to get a reading of the Soviet attitude toward the bomb. Incredibly, Molotov repeated his performance of three months before, this time asking Conant (the American recorded) ‘if I had an atomic bomb in my pocket’, and joking, in a Christmas Eve toast, that Conant should reveal the bomb he had no doubt stashed in his ‘waist-coat pocket’. Stalin interrupted Molotov. The bomb, he said sternly, was ‘too serious a matter to joke about’. ‘We must work together’, he added, ‘to see that this great invention is used for peaceful ends.’ After dinner, Conant walked over to Stalin to say good night. Stalin offered ‘heartiest congratulations to the American scientists for their accomplishment’ and repeated his hope that the bomb would inspire world peace. And, he admitted, Russia was currently ‘behind in science’. The following September, Stalin told the British Sunday Times correspondent Alexander Werth that atomic bombs ‘cannot decide the outcome of a war, since atomic bombs are quite insufficient for that’.36

Stalin was right about this. The American military, which began devising plans for a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, realized that a bomb dropped on Moscow and other cities would leave the Red Army, intact and angry, in Europe, while bombing the Red Army could have disastrous consequences for the innocent people living nearby. Yet the strategic conundrum the Americans faced, possibly understood by Stalin, was hardly enough to curtail the urgency of his pursuit of his own bomb. If he did not claim, with some American planners (like Baruch), that the bomb would be the ‘winning weapon’ in the Cold War, he nevertheless felt that the US monopoly had damaged the balance of power between the two sides. As long as the Soviets believed the Americans might use it against them as they had against the Japanese, the bomb was a diplomatic tool of considerable force. Or so Stalin evidently told Kurchatov and Commissar Boris Vannikov in mid-August 1945: ‘Hiroshima [he said] has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed.’ Stalin found confirmation for his fears as the Cold War unfolded. The Americans he viewed as moderates— Harry Hopkins, Stimson, Wallace—were shunted aside in Washington. Churchill threatened, Byrnes swaggered, and Truman seemed to endorse them both. The Americans refused to provide, on reasonable terms, a loan to the Soviets. They made clear, by the fall of 1946, their intention to keep Germany divided and to restore to prominence the western half of it. They would not discuss making the Dardanelles as accessible to the Russians as the Suez was to the British or Panama to themselves, and when he contrived to see Stalin’s hand at the back of a communist insurgency in Greece, Truman responded, in March 1947, by dividing the world into two ideological camps and requesting economic and military assistance for Turkey and Greece, two nations much closer to the Soviet Union than to the United States. Three months later the Americans announced a clever plan of aid for all of Europe and the Soviet Union, one containing a poison pill requiring Soviet economic transparency and that Moscow donate rather than receive funds. And, above all, there was Baruch’s grotesque charade, performed to mask the essential truth that the Americans had no intention of sharing the atomic bomb. So thought the Soviets.37

And it rankled. More than anything else, the atomic bomb had become a symbol: of American prowess and power, but also of great power status, of scientific status (‘we have to learn five times, ten times more than we need to know today,’ Khariton told his group at Sarov in 1947), of ideological fitness and bureaucratic efficiency—even of male potency, for, while Soviet scientists called their experimental plutonium reactor ‘Annushka’, they called the test shot itself‘Stalin’s rocket engine’. Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador in Moscow, wrote in late 1945 of Soviet psychology concerning the bomb. The Russians, he said, had felt good about their victory over Germany and their position in the world. ‘Then plump came the Atomic Bomb’. The balance of forces was in their judgment ‘rudely shaken’. The vast divisions of the Red Army no longer seemed so powerful. The Russians briefly hoped that their American allies would share the bomb’s secret, continuing a pattern of cooperation established during the war.

But as time went on and no more came from the West, disappointment turned to irritation and, when the bomb seemed to them to become an instrument of policy, into spleen. It was clear that the West did not trust them. This seemed to justify and it quickened all their old suspicions. It was a humiliation also and the thought of this stirred up memories of the past.

‘We may assume’, Kerr concluded, ‘that all these emotions were fully shared by the Kremlin.’ It was a safe assumption. David Holloway has written: ‘As the most powerful symbol ofAmerican economic and technological might, the atomic bomb was ipso facto something the Soviet Union had to have too.’ Thus, even if the United States had made a good-faith effort to share the bomb with the Soviets—and the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, whatever its inadequacies and notwithstanding its hijacking by Baruch, was such an effort—the Soviet project to develop the bomb would have continued apace. ‘Stalin’, concludes Holloway, ‘would still have wanted a bomb of his own.’38

The Soviets did not immediately publicize the successful test of ‘Stalin’s Rocket Engine’. An American B-29 airborne just east of Soviet Kamchatka on 3 September registered a sharp spike in atmospheric radioactivity on its test filter paper. For several days American and British pilots and scientists chased the cloud as it spread in both directions from Kazakhstan. Officials in Washington were informed on the 9th. Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense, refused to believe the Russians had detonated an atomic bomb, first dismissing the intelligence that indicated it, then deciding that a Russian reactor must have exploded. Truman also refused to believe it, or rather to accept that it had happened. Like Johnson, he doubted the intelligence; when persuaded of its accuracy, he told Lilienthal that ‘German scientists in Russia did it’. When Lilienthal pressed, the President agreed to authorize the appointment of a committee of experts to sift the evidence. Bush was made the chair, but he relied heavily on Oppenheimer’s expertise. A year earlier, Oppenheimer had told Time magazine that the US ‘atomic monopoly is like a cake of ice melting in the sun’. Now, after meeting for five hours on 19 September, the committee concluded that the ice had become water. Lilienthal carried this finding to Truman. Still disbelieving, the President wanted Lilienthal and the other committee members to sign a statement ‘to the effect [that] they really believed the Russians had done it’. Four days later, Truman announced that ‘an atomic explosion’— he still hoped it might have been a reactor—had ‘occurred in the USSR’.39

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