The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950

I worked at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado where plutonium parts were made for nuclear weapons and have a natural curiosity about the policy decisions made by the government that led to that plant being built in the early 1950s. This book by Gregg Herken answers some of the questions. I do find it curious that the author mentions several times in the book that “too much was made” of the amount of information gained by the Soviet espionage on the Manhattan Project, code named “Enormoz.” My reading of other sources indicates the Soviets learned everything they needed to know to build and detonate an atomic bomb years before it had been predicted.

The dust cover of the book explains that American diplomats tried but “…failed to make the nation’s nuclear monopoly an advantage in negotiating with the Soviet Union. The author explains why the atomic bomb, supposedly the ‘winning weapon’ in military strategy and diplomacy, turned out to be a dud in such a confrontation as the 1948 Berlin crisis.”

Many American officials, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, believed that the bomb would make a decisive difference in postwar dealings with the Soviet Union. However, Byrnes was said to be humbled by the first meeting of the victorious powers when he observed that the Russians were going to be difficult. He said they were “stubborn, obstinate, and they don’t scare.” Diplomacy accomplished little after World War II. Churchill and later the United States accused the Soviets of raising an “iron curtain” as America began erecting what the author called an “atomic curtain shutting out the rest of the world.”

FDR told Truman very little about anything before his death, and he certainly did not tell Truman about the Manhattan Project. The first that Truman heard of the bomb was in a briefing by James F. (Jimmy) Byrnes upon returning from FDR’s funeral. Truman wrote in his memoirs “that the weapon might be so powerful as to be potentially capable of wiping out entire cities and killing people on an unprecedented scale… (and) might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”

Truman was fully briefed about the project by Secretary of War Stimson accompanied by General Leslie Groves on April 25, 1945. Groves told Truman that a deliverable atomic bomb would be ready for its first test in the summer, that the U.S. and Britain “…had virtually cornered the world’s known market of fissionable uranium and thorium…”, and that the Soviets had been spying on the Manhattan Project. Truman had already clearly signaled to the Soviets that he was not going to be as accommodating as FDR. He had a stormy meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov. Truman had told Henry Wallace that he found Russians to be people “…whose manners were very bad.” Truman told Stalin about the bomb at the Potsdam Conference, and Stalin famously showed very little response other than to say he hoped the U.S. would make “good use” of the bomb against Japan.

There were many guesses by U.S. officials on how long it would take for the Soviets to have the bombs. James Conant made the best estimate of three to five years (from 1946). General Groves claimed it would take up to twenty years for the Soviets to obtain a bomb. He believed that mostly because he thought the U.S. had taken control of most of the world’s fissionable materials. Groves had initiated a secret program code-named Murray Hill Area to identify and purchase uranium ore around the world.

In February 1946 Stalin announced a series of five-year economic plans for postwar reconstruction. He boasted “…that Russian industrial capacity and scientific prowess would match that of America before many more years…” His statements were taken by some to be “…a virtual declaration of World War III.” George Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” to the State Department February 22, 1946 warning of the Soviet fanatical belief there could be no peace with the U.S. The book describes in detail the lengthy process followed by the U.S. to negotiate some sort of international control of atomic energy, which resulted in no agreements.

The early days of military planning recognized that the Soviets had a massive advantage in troop strength, and that the U.S. would be required to use its atomic monopoly to overcome that advantage. The problem was that in the first few years after World War II the supply of atomic bombs was small, none of the bombs in stockpile were fully assembled, and there were few bombers equipped to deliver them. Regardless of those shortcomings, an intelligence report commissioned by the Joints Chiefs of Staff titled, “Strategic Vulnerability of Russia to Limited Air Attack,” which was intended as a basis for future planning and not as an operational plan, selected twenty Soviet cities for nuclear attack in the event of war.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff completed a series of military plans that involved either first nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union if it was deemed they were staging for an attack or in response to an attack. The first was code name Pincher prepared in June 1946 that posited a Soviet-American war between the summers of 1946 and 1947. The plan was based on a deliberate but limited provocation from Russia which miscalculated U.S. resolve. The plan specified a “limited” number of atomic bombs, since the Joint Chiefs did not know the size of the atomic arsenal. Twenty cities listed as targets were three to five hundred miles beyond operational range of B-29s from European bases. The plan predicted protracted conventional fighting in which the Soviet army would overrun most if not all of Europe and the Middle East. The U.S. would have to establish defense of Britain, Egypt, and possibly India, Italy, and China. Pincher was followed by Boiler, which said 400 bombs were needed for a hundred Soviet Targets. Boiler was briefly replaced by Frolic, which was quickly renamed to Grabber when someone rethought the wisdom of naming a nuclear war plan Frolic.

Diplomatic distance continued to be created between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the U.S. war planners continued to increase their estimates for the number of atomic bombs needed for more Soviet targets. U.S. officials continued to underestimate how quickly the Soviets would be able to break the atomic monopoly. A minority believed the Soviets would have a bomb as early as 1949, which they did. The CIA in 1947 reported it doubtful the Soviets could build a bomb before 1953 and that they were almost certain they couldn’t build one before 1951. General Groves, believing he had taken over the world supply of fissionable materials, continued to predict that they would not have the bomb before fifteen to twenty years.

The good news for the U.S. was that the problem of limited atomic bomb production was aided in the beginning of 1948 when the British allowed access to their remaining stockpile of atomic raw materials to create more fissionable weapons material. The changeover from laboratory production of bombs to assembly-line production doubled the stockpile in 1948 from fifty to about one hundred. There continued to be a shortage of atomic bomb capable bombers and trained bomb assembly teams, but the U.S. strategy of deterrence with the threat of atomic annihilation worked.

The book has a great deal of useful information, but I continue to be puzzled by the author’s insistence that Soviet espionage of the Manhattan Project and beyond gave them little useful information to help them build the bomb. That’s a subject I need to contemplate further.

One thought on “The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950

  1. I hope you get the WGN Network on your cable. There is a series on there, Sunday nights, called “Manhattan”. It is also available on demand from Comcast. It is the story of the Manhattan Project, and it is very well done. Anyone who had any role in or interest in the nuclear complex in its infancy will get a kick out of it. The only drawback for me is having to constantly pause the recording to explain nuclear weapon esoterica to my wife. Check it out.

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