Nuke Opera 2020: Atomic Era Begins (1949-1962) — Part One: 1949-1954

Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part One (1949-1954):

On September 24, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon. The test itself, nicknamed “First Lightning” by the Soviets and “Joe 1” by the Americans, had occurred on August 29, 1949.

Surprisingly, the news didn’t incite a panic among Americans – partly due to the government instructing reporters not to overplay the significance of the news. Additionally, panic didn’t appear because this news wasn’t unexpected. After all, Americans had had four years to imagine the possibility of their cities being atom bombed. Not to mention, the idea that the Soviets would develop their own bomb was widely regarded as simply a matter of time.

Instead, the primary reaction was the desire to see America increase its lead by stockpiling more nuclear weapons. The Hearst newspapers called for the US to stockpile four bombs to every Soviet bomb [(1)] while Life magazine said America should maintain a “clear, unchallenged, demonstrable” nuclear supremacy (Bomb’s Early Light).

In addition to increasing the US stockpile in terms of numbers, there were also calls to make weapons that were significantly more powerful.  The idea of a ‘superbomb’ had been being discussed for years, with Edward Condon warning in early 1946 about the possibility of bombs a thousand times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On January 31, 1950, President Truman authorized the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to begin work on the hydrogen bomb, also known as “the Super.” [(2)] The program for building the Super dwarfed the Manhattan Project and led to the AEC tripling in size from 55,000 to 142,000 employees and from a handful of sites to over a score. The project used 7% of the United States’ electrical output and exceeded the combined market capitalization of Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Alcoa, DuPont, Goodyear and General Motors.

The American public’s reaction was largely favorable. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 1950, 69% of Americans favored building the hydrogen bomb with another 9% expressing reluctant approval. Only 14% of those polled expressed disapproval of the hydrogen bomb.

While the world celebrated the end of World War II, there was still the fear that there would eventually be another war. In October 1945, for example, a poll found that 59% of Americans believed there would be another war within the next twenty years; this figure grew to 77% by late 1947. By 1948, a Gallup poll found 57% of Americans expected another war within a decade and 43% thought it would happen within three or four years.

It happened in two, when on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invaded Capitalist South Korea, capturing the South Korean capital of Seoul three days later. The United Nations responded by assembling an international force of 16 nations to combat the invasion. These forces were led by US General Douglas MacArthur. US-led UN forces landed in South Korea in July 1950, beginning the Korean War.

For more information on the Korean War, I recommend the following videos

Welcome to Korea:

For our purposes, the Korean War is important because it was the first shooting war of the Atomic Age and it came at a time when there were two nuclear powers instead of one. There were calls to use nuclear weapons against the North Koreans and the Chinese, not only from within the military but also among the American people.

According to an August 1950 Gallup poll, 28% of Americans were in favor of using the atomic bomb in Korea. A year later, when the war was becoming more costly and frustrating, 51% supported the atomic bombing of military targets.[(3)]

General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations forces fighting in the Korean war, requested authority to employ nuclear weapons in December 1950, going so far as to submit a list of “retardation targets” in Korea and China, which would require 34 atomic bombs.[(4)]

In April 1951, Truman did make arrangements with the AEC to transfer nine nuclear bombs into military control, though there was some concern about both MacArthur’s lack of technical knowledge about the weapons and their effects as well as fear that he might use the weapons prematurely. Rather than place the bombs under MacArthur’s direct control, authority to deploy the weapons was given to Strategic Air Command, which planned to bomb industrial cities in North Korea and China rather than air bases and depots.

While the option was still being discussed as late as 1953, ultimately, nuclear weapons were not used during the Korean War. Work on the hydrogen bomb, however, did begin at this time and continued on throughout the war and beyond.

Despite favorable polls, not everyone in either America or the rest of the world was in favor of the H-bomb. In March, 1950, members of the Permanent Committee of the Partisans of Peace (an extension of the World Peace Congress) met in Stockholm, Sweden. In a meeting led by Frederick Joliot-Curie, son-in-law of Marie Curie, the members adopted a resolution aimed at banning nuclear weapons. The resolution, officially the Stockholm Peace Appeal, was dubbed the “Ban the Bomb” pledge. In addition to demanding a ban on all nuclear weapons, the pledge also called for holding those who refused to comply accountable for that refusal.

The Appeal was widely circulated, collecting 1.5 million signatures in the United States, 10 million in France, 60 million in China and 115 million in the Soviet Union. In Brazil, 3.75 million people signed, including 2,000 illiterate peasants who used their thumbprints to sign.

There were those who looked on the early nuclear disarmament movement as subversive, even treasonous. This led to some activists retreating from the cause, while others continued to fight against what they saw as a rising threat of nuclear war.

Some who denounced the Stockholm Peace Appeal did so out of a rejection of the Appeal’s connection to communism. Representative Peter Rodino, Jr, (D-NJ) called for members of the clergy of all faiths to reject the petition due to “the insidious danger of atheistic communism” that he felt the petition exemplified. He also decried the Appeal as “a war petition calculated to give Soviet Russia time to stockpile atomic weapons while we are lulled into a false sense of security.” (Intondi, p. 36).

Across the aisle, Representative Bernard Kearney (R-NY) denounced the petition as an attempt to “confuse and divide the American people and paralyze their resistance to Communist aggression.” (Intondi, p. 36)

Red Scare II: The New Batch:

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”Senator Joseph McCarthy.

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In that speech, he announced that he had a list of 205 (or 57, or 81 or…) men in the State Department who were not only members of the Communist Party but also members of a spy ring.

There was one problem: the list didn’t actually exist– hence the ever-changing number of supposed Communists in the State Department. However, because of growing fears of the Communist Soviet Union, the press jumped on McCarthy’s statement and ran with it. This catapulted the junior senator from Wisconsin into the national spotlight and helped begin the second Red Scare.

While Senator McCarthy is often linked with things like the blacklisting of writers and actors in Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he wasn’t actually involved with either of those things. They were happening concurrently with McCarthy’s investigations into the alleged communist infiltration of the US government. In actuality, McCarthyism became the point where both elite and public opinion turned against the Red Scare – likely because McCarthy went so far as to alienate other anti-communists by overreacting and overreaching himself. [(5)]

By the time McCarthy began attacking the Army, in trials broadcast on national television between April and June 1954, his fifteen minutes of fame were beginning to wind down. His bullying of witnesses helped turn public opinion against him, leading to the US Senate voting on December 2, 1954 to censure McCarthy. A move McCarthy ignored, but that no one else did – then-President Eisenhower quipped that McCarthyism was now “McCarthywasm” (TV Tropes Useful Notes, Joseph McCarthy)

For more information on McCarthyism:

Spies Like Us:

It’s easy to characterize the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s as simple, baseless hysteria. But there were Communists working within the US to funnel information about the US nuclear program to the Soviet Union. Granted, not as many as some feared, but those who were doing the spying were well-placed.  In fact, there had been spies within the US nuclear program from the beginning of the Manhattan Project.

Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British theoretical physicist who was part of the British delegation at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.  He’d begun spying for the Soviet Union while working on the British Tube Alloys program (predecessor to the Manhattan Project).  Fuchs voluntarily confessed to being a spy in January 1950, with some of his statements being used to implicate other spies.

Among those Fuchs implicated was Harry Gold, an American who himself confessed to acting as a courier for Fuchs and David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg. Gold was a key witness against Greenglass, who in turn also gave evidence against his sister and his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg.

The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted for their role in coordinating and recruiting members of an espionage network that included Greenglass.  Since the US and Soviet Union were allies at the time, they couldn’t be charged with treason but were convicted of espionage in 1951. They were executed on June 19, 1953, despite an international movement that demanded clemency and which included appeals from leading European intellectuals and even the Pope. Eisenhower justified the execution of Ethel Rosenberg — who many felt had not been involved in atomic spying — by explaining to his son that if he spared her, then the Soviet Union would use that as an excuse to recruit female spies.

While the Rosenbergs were involved in espionage, their trial and conviction occurred under less than ethical conditions. Greenglass originally testified that his sister had nothing to do with his atomic espionage, placing the blame solely on Julius’s shoulders – however, ten days before the start of the Rosenbegs’ trial, Greenglass changed his testimony, including Ethel in his accusations. This new testimony was in exchange for a deal that would protect Greenglass’s wife, Ruth, who some scholars believe may have been more involved in the atomic espionage than Ethel was.

The H-Bomb:

Note: the terms ‘hydrogen bomb/weapon’ is synonymous with ‘thermonuclear bomb/weapon’ and ‘fusion bomb/weapon.’

When all was said and done, despite protests and petitions and debates, work on the hydrogen bomb began with the Operation Greenhouse tests at Eniwetok Atoll  [(6)] in the Marshall Islands. This series of tests assessed design principles that would be pivotal for the first hydrogen bomb design.

On November 1, 1952, the US conducted its first hydrogen bomb test at Eniwetok Atoll.  The test was designated Shot Mike, of Operation Ivy (aka Ivy Mike). The weapon was nicknamed “the Sausage” because its cylindrical shape was, well, sausage-like. You can watch video footage of the test.  You can watch a longer video, with additional footage and context at OPERATION IVY 1952 HYDROGEN BOMB TESTS at ENEWETAK ATOLL 80294

Due to its size, Ivy Mike wasn’t dropped on Elugelab, but was instead built on the island and detonated from the ground. The blast destroyed the island of Elugelab, leaving behind a crater over a mile in diameter and roughly 16-17 stories deep. You can still see the crater on Google Earth images of the atoll.

Additional Info:

Stop Copying Me!:

Whatever advantage was gained by being the first to build and test the H-bomb was short-lived. The Soviet Union tested what it claimed was its first thermonuclear device, RDS-6 (nicknamed Joe-4  by the Americans) on August 12, 1953. While the test’s yield wasn’t in the megaton range (it was “only” 400 kilotons), the Soviets still took the win, in part for propaganda purposes. In particular, they drew attention to the fact that their fusion weapon was deliverable by air, something the Americans wouldn’t accomplish for another six months.

Castle Bravo:

On March 1, 1954, during the Operation Castle series of tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, test shot Bravo was dropped. This test represented the most powerful nuclear device detonated by the United States and was our first lithium deuteride fueled thermonuclear device. Until the Soviet Tsar Bomba test in 1961, Castle Bravo was the most powerful artificial explosion in human history.

It was also one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Due to unexpected additional reactions within the explosion, the yield was nearly three times stronger than what had been expected. Instead of being “only” six megatons, the blast’s yield was 15 megatons, meaning the blast’s effects reached higher and further than expected.

Fallout, primarily in the form of pulverized coral fell on the islands of the Rongelap and Utirik Atolls. At the time, it was dubbed “Bikini snow” and led to the inhabitants of the islands suffering from radiation sickness – something exacerbated by the fact none of those inhabitants were evacuated until three days after the explosion. Twenty-three crew members of the Japanese fishing vessel, Daigo Fukuryuu Maru (Lucky Dragon #5) were also contaminated by heavy fallout and experienced acute radiation sickness. One member of the crew, Aikichi Kuboyama, died on September 23, 1954 and is considered the first victim of the hydrogen bomb [(7)]

Additionally, fallout in the form of gases and finer particulate matter spread around the world, and was detected in Australia, India, Japan as well as in the United States and even in parts of Europe.  The Southwestern United States received the greatest amount of fallout of those areas outside the South Pacific.

The Castle Bravo tests ended up sparking international incidents, especially in Japan, who reached a settlement with the United States, wherein each of the surviving victims of the Lucky Dragon received $5,500 ($52,800 in 2020 money).

The effects of the Castle Bravo tests are still impacting the people of the Marshall Islands to this day. In addition to being forced from their homes and exposed to radiation (albeit inadvertently), radiation related cancers and birth defects are still major problems faced by the Marshallese. While the Marshall Island Claims Tribunal exists to award compensation for these health effects, there are things that money cannot buy.

Lani Kramer, a Marshallese councilwoman has said, “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage, our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation.”

Nuclear Strategy:

Additionally, now that there was a second nuclear power in the world, the US military had to develop strategies and plans for fighting a nuclear war.

The 1950 war plan, OFF TACKLE, stated that in case of nuclear war, SAC was to expend all of its bombers, crews and weapons within the first three months of war being declared. The thinking was that a nuclear war would either be over in 90 days or there would simply be nothing left to fight over. Unlike earlier war plans, in OFF TACKLE plan, SAC was to ‘destroy’ targets rather than ‘direct’ bombs against them.

It’s also at this point in time when we begin to see the first efforts at what would come to be known as “Continuity of Government” – basically, the ability for the (in this case) US government to continue working after a nuclear war.

The first bomb shelter intended to protect against atomic bombs was built during Truman’s presidency. Construction was authorized on August 1, 1950 though word of the shelter didn’t reach the public until April 18, 1951. The shelter cost roughly $881,000 in 1950 money, though despite authorizing the cost, Truman had no intention of using the shelter when the day came. As he told his naval aid, Robert Dennison:

Of course, you’ve got to go ahead with all this planning and all of these arrangements, but  I want to tell you one thing. If a situation ever develops where execution [of the evacuation order] seems to be indicated, I don’t intend to leave the White House. I am going to be right here. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

Truman further told Dennison: I would like to be as sure as I can that there’s some way that I can get on the air to talk to the people of the United States, to assure them that I am here, that I’m not up in the hills some place, and to tell them what I can of the situation. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

As well as providing for his own safety (despite his unwillingness to use it), Truman also created the Federal Civil Defense Administration on December 1, 1950. He later explained his reasoning: So long as there is any chance at all that atomic bombs may fall on our cities, we cannot gamble on being caught unprepared. (Raven Rock, p. 31)

The FCDA would later produce dozens of films, pamphlets and other materials, including a traveling show, “Alert America” that traveled via tractor-trailer to 70 cities in 1952. Among the films FCDA created were Survival Under Atomic Attack, What you Should Know About Biological Warfare, and the infamous Duck and Cover.

Truman left office on January 15, 1953, delivering a farewell address that included the following:

Now, once in a while, I get a letter from some impatient person asking, why don’t we get it over with? Why don’t we issue an ultimatum, make all-out war, drop the atomic bomb? For most Americans, the answer is quite simple: We are not made that way. We are a moral people. Peace is our goal, with justice and freedom. We cannot, of our own free will, violate the very principles that we are striving to defend. The whole purpose of what we are doing is to prevent world war III. Starting a war is no way to make peace. But if anyone still thinks that just this once, bad means can bring good ends, then let me remind you of this: We are living in the 8th year of the atomic age. We are not the only nation that is learning to unleash the power of the atom. A third world war might dig the grave not only of our Communist opponents but also of our own society, our world as well as theirs. Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman as President, inheriting not only the Korean War but also the Cold War. A war hero and a former general who had served as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe– a position that included being the commander of NATO’s Allied Command Operations in Europe, Eisenhower had never actually faced combat as a soldier. He was however intimately familiar with the damage and destruction that World War II had caused in Europe.

During the first months of Eisenhower’s first term of office, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke on March 5, 1953. He was temporarily succeeded by Gregory Malenkov, who was ultimately succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who would be the primary adversary of the United States until his “voluntary” retirement in 1964.

Eisenhower was, in the words of Garrett M. Graff, a man who “loved soldiering, but hated war.” (Raven Rock, p. 44)  Having become president at a time when nuclear weapons were becoming more powerful as well as easier and cheaper to make, Eisenhower valued taking his time and making decisions carefully. He had campaigned on a “New Look” for US foreign policy, one that emphasized greater focus, strength and clarity than Truman’s ‘erratic” and “militaristic” policies.

Of the US presidents who served during the Cold War, Eisenhower’s term in office was one of the longest[(8)] — lasting from January 20, 1953-January 20, 1961 and helped shape America’s response to the Soviets. We’ll be discussing more of his impact in our next article.


[1] By 1950, the US had a stockpile of 299 nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union’s five, so to get this ratio, we would have had to stop producing until the Soviets built another seventy bombs.
[2] At this point in time, the AEC had full authority over nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
[3] Which sounds good, but remember that Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Tokyo and Dresden – were considered military targets during World War II, despite being civilian cities that happened to contain military bases or industrial centers.
[4] This doesn’t necessarily mean there were 34 targets, as some nuclear strategies call for using multiple bombs on a single location.
[5] Something similar happened during the Salem Witch Hunts, wherein public opinion began to turn against the witch hunts as they continued on and more and more people began to be accused, including members of the elite classes.
[6] Eniwetok Atoll is an alternate spelling of Enewetak Atoll. From April 14, 1948 to August 18, 1958, 43 nuclear tests occurred there, for a yield of roughly 31.8 megatons or about 6% of the total test yield of ALL nuclear tests conducted worldwide.
[7] During treatment for acute radiation syndrome, the crew of the Lucky Dragon were given transfusions with blood infected with hepatitis. Kuboyama died from cirrhosis of the liver that was compounded by this hepatitis infection.
[8] Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both served a total of 2,922 days in office. Reagan served from January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989.