The First Proliferation: Waiting for the Soviet Bomb
RED CLOUD AT DAWN: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly. Michael D. Gordin. xii + 402 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. $28.
At a time when the world is reluctantly learning to live with North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and is trying to keep Iran from joining the club, it is useful to be reminded of how it felt to be waiting for nuclear proliferation the first time around.
In Red Cloud at Dawn, Michael D. Gordin describes the key decisions made with regard to nuclear weapons policy during the period when the United States had a monopoly on such weapons after World War II. Topics covered include U.S. expectations regarding how long that monopoly would last, the extent to which spies advanced the Soviet nuclear weapons program, the establishment of the U.S. system for detecting the first Soviet detonation of a test bomb, and the reaction in Washington when the first Soviet test was detected in August 1949.
The book opens dramatically at the Big Three summit that convened at Potsdam (a suburb of Berlin) near the end of World War II, between the surrenders of Germany and Japan. The date was July 17, 1945, which happened to be the day after the world’s first nuclear explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico. American President Harry S. Truman felt empowered by the news that he had a new weapon, but he only hinted of its existence to Joseph Stalin, not wanting to consult with him about its use.
Although Stalin knew about the U.S. program, when he learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, he reportedly said to the leaders of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed.” He then made the development of the nuclear bomb the highest national priority—as had the United States when it feared the emergence of a nuclear-armed Nazi Germany.
This reaction on Stalin’s part had been foreseen by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson as well as scientific leaders of the Manhattan Project. A month after Hiroshima, Stimson advised Truman that
unless the Soviets are voluntarily invited into the partnership upon a basis of cooperation and trust, we are going to maintain the Anglo-Saxon bloc over against the Soviet in the possession of this weapon. Such a condition will almost certainly stimulate feverish activity on the part of the Soviet toward the development of this bomb in what will in effect be a secret armament race of a rather desperate character.
Gordin is certain, though, that the Republicans in Congress would have “eaten the President alive” if he had proposed sharing U.S. atomic secrets with the Soviets. Truman decided instead that the United States should continue to make nuclear bombs for “experimental purposes.”
Washington politics also apparently explains Truman’s otherwise inexplicable choice of Bernard Baruch to present to the United Nations the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal for international control of “dangerous” nuclear technologies such as uranium enrichment and reprocessing. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which J. Robert Oppenheimer helped to draft, advocated establishing an international Atomic Development Authority that would own all nuclear materials on the planet; the United Nations would be in charge of decisions about their use. Thus the report advocated a form of nuclear disarmament for the United States. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal, who was soon to be appointed the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, considered Baruch, a vain 76-year-old financier, totally unqualified to be America’s nuclear spokesman. Truman felt, however, that he needed someone Senate conservatives would trust. Baruch lived up to Acheson and Lilienthal’s low expectations, making changes to the proposal that made it easier for Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov to reject it, characterizing it as “a control so shaped as, on the surface, to appear international, while in reality it is designed to secure a veiled monopoly for the United States in this field.”
After the failure of the Baruch Plan, despite occasional rhetoric about the importance of nuclear disarmament, no one in Washington felt that it would be useful to negotiate with Moscow on the subject. Indeed, there was no summit meeting between Truman and Stalin during the roughly eight years after Hiroshima that both men continued in office.
The possibility of a preventive war to stop the Soviet nuclear program was discussed—just as it was later with regard to nuclear weapons programs in China, North Korea and Iran. But then, as now, it was realized that such a strike would be only the first shot in a major war, and Truman did not pursue the idea seriously.
Nevertheless, it was a tense time. The Soviet Union established puppet governments in East European countries, and the fact that the Soviet Army had only partially demobilized at the end of World War II raised fears that it might overrun Western Europe as well.
Nuclear deterrence was the U.S. answer. But how long would the U.S. nuclear monopoly last? General Leslie Groves, who had organized the development of nuclear weapons during World War II, was all over the map with his estimates but eventually settled on 20 years. According to Gordin, Groves based this conclusion in large part on the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom had arranged exclusive contracts with most of the world’s uranium suppliers. However, Manhattan Project scientists such as Leo Szilard and Hans Bethe believed that a Soviet crash program might not take much longer than the Manhattan Project had.
Although Gordin’s perspective is original and interesting, most of the story he tells will be familiar to those who have read previous books on the nuclear programs of the United States and the Soviet Union. The chapter on the genesis of the U.S. airborne system for detecting radioactivity in the upper atmosphere is based on new research, however. The system came on line just in time for the first Soviet test. A key agitator for this system turns out to have been Lewis Strauss, who is best known today as the Atomic Energy Commission member who conspired with Edward Teller to bring down J. Robert Oppenheimer after he opposed the crash development of the hydrogen bomb.
When U.S. political leaders were informed of the Soviet test that took place on August 23, 1949, they had the same shocked reaction that Stalin had had after the bombing of Hiroshima. Their ultimate answer was to give the go-ahead for the development of the H-bomb.
The explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb was two to three thousand times that of the equivalent weight of chemical explosives. The first H-bombs would be yet another thousand times more powerful. Primitive instincts combined with technical genius, and within a few years both the United States and the Soviet Union produced bombs capable of destroying the largest city with a single explosion. A decade later, the U.S. nuclear stockpile had increased from about 200 warheads in 1949 to more than 30,000 in the mid-1960s when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was finally able to end the U.S. quantitative buildup. Included in this buildup were thousands of “tactical” nuclear weapons deployed in Western Europe: bombs, artillery shells, short-range rockets and even mortar shells. The implicit message was that with such heavily nuclear-armed NATO forces, if the Warsaw Pact nations attacked, nuclear war would be inevitable.
A social scientist writing about nuclear weapons should have a knowledgeable expert review technical passages. Unfortunately, Gordin apparently did not do this, and Red Cloud at Dawn contains two important technical mistakes. First, he seems to believe that plutonium-production reactors require enriched uranium as fuel; for instance, he refers to Operation Trinity having used plutonium generated from enriched uranium. But in fact most plutonium production reactors—including Hanford B, which supplied the plutonium used in Operation Trinity—have been fueled by natural (unenriched) uranium. The second mistake is the idea that the spread of the bomb can be limited by controlling the sources of natural uranium. Uranium is ubiquitous; it could even be extracted on a large scale from seawater, although no country has done that yet.
These are minor flaws, however. Gordin has opened up an important new perspective on the early U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship.
If there is a moral relevant to today’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps it is that insecurity inspires proliferation. The acquisition of nuclear weapons is especially attractive to U.S. adversaries today because U.S. conventional military power is so overwhelming. If we don’t want nuclear proliferation, somehow we will have to work out live-and-let-live accommodations with our enemies.
Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist, is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.