Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot: Cold War History 1945-1949:
Welcome to the Atomic Age. From this point forward, we live in a world where nuclear weapons exist. There will be no going back.
The World After Trinity:
Once the atomic bomb had been successfully tested, it was time to move on to the next step: deploying the weapon.
By this point in the war, Germany had already surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific, on the other hand, was still in full swing and didn’t seem likely to end. While the atomic bomb had originally been designed with the intention of using it against Nazi Germany – either as a deterrent or to retaliate if Germany dropped atomic bombs on Allied targets.
We’ll never know if the Allies would have used the atomic bomb against the Nazis because of two things: firstly, the Allies learned by mid-1944 that the German atomic bomb program was a bust, removing the fear of a Nazi atomic first strike. Secondly, by this same time it was becoming clear that Germany was fighting a losing battle and that victory in Europe was imminent.
Even before Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the Manhattan Project’s targeting committee was focusing entirely on Japanese targets. During this time, Truman was told that atomic weapons might also be a good way to intimidate the Soviets into curtailing their more expansionist tendencies.
The list of potential Japanese targets was finalized on May 28, 1945 and included the cities of Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata and Kyoto – though Kyoto was dropped from the list and replaced with Nagasaki because Truman was reluctant to attack Japan’s former capital city. Tokyo wasn’t on the list because, by this point, it had already been hit hard by conventional bombing raids, particularly during Operation Meetinghouse on March 9/10, 1945.
There was some debate among the Manhattan Project scientists as to whether the first atomic bomb should be dropped on one of the targeted cities or whether it should be dropped on an uninhabited island as a demonstration. Even the Undersecretary of the Navy, Ralph A. Bard said that dropping the bomb on a populated area without warning was contrary to “the position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation” particularly since Japan seemed close to surrender.
Some Manhattan Project researchers, many refugee scientists from Germany, were reluctant to see the bomb used against Japan. Leo Szilard, the man responsible for the concept of both the chain reaction and the atomic bomb as well as the author of the Einstein-Szilard letter that persuaded FDR to begin the Manhattan Project, was an early critic of the military use of atomic weapons. In July 1945, he drafted a petition to be sent to President Truman, calling for him to not use atomic weapons against the Japanese. He circulated his petition among his fellow Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgic Laboratory. On July 17, 1945, the petition, with 70 signatures, was submitted to the President but was never seen by either Truman or the Secretary of War prior to the bombing of Hiroshima.
Szilard’s petition wasn’t the only one. Two petitions, inspired by Szilard’s, circulated at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and garnered a total of 85 signatures between them. Szilard was also a signatory of the Franck Report, which had been issued in June 1945 and requested that the bomb be demonstrated prior to being deployed against Japan. The report suggested, in part:
From this point of view a demonstration of the new weapon may best be made before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America would be able to say to the world, “You see what weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future and to join other nations in working out adequate supervision of the use of this nuclear weapon.”
This may sound fantastic, but then in nuclear weapons we have something entirely new in the order of magnitude of destructive power, and if we want to capitalize fully on the advantage which its possession gives us, we must use new and imaginative methods. After such a demonstration the weapon could be used against Japan if a sanction of the United Nations (and of the public opinion at home) could be obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate a certain region as an alternative to the total destruction of this target. (The Franck Report, June 11, 1945)
Not all Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to military first use of atomic weapons. In response to the Franck Report, the Interim Committee which had been formed to serve until a more permanent committee could be established to deal with the issues nuclear weapons were creating, met to discuss the issue. The Committee, made up of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton and Ernest Lawrence, found in favor of military first-use without demonstrations. Their report stated:
The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use. (Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons, June 16, 1945)
Ultimately, the decision was made to use atomic weapons against Japanese cities. Hiroshima was chosen as the first target because, in part, it hadn’t already been targeted for the US conventional bombing raids which had already destroyed over sixty Japanese cities, including the capital of Tokyo. Hiroshima was also home to an “important army depot and port of embarkation” and the surrounding hills meant that the blast damage would likely be focused and increased. There was also the psychological impact of the new weapon to be considered.
Conventional Bombing vs. Atomic Bombings:
The most destructive single bombing raid of World War II wasn’t either of the atomic bombings of Japan. Instead, that dubious honor falls to Operation Meetinghouse, a US conventional bombing raid that occurred on the night of March 10, 1945. During this raid, 279 Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers dropped 1,665 short tons[(1)] of bombs over Tokyo while another 19 that weren’t able to reach Tokyo bombed targets of opportunity or of last resort.
During the raid, over 100,000 Japanese civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed in the resulting fires. One million people were left homeless and over 16 square miles of Tokyo burned. The raid lasted over two and a half hours; within the first half hour Tokyo fire departments were overwhelmed by the flames.
By comparison, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima from a single plane at 8:14:17 local Hiroshima time. It fell for 44.4 seconds before detonating at 8:16:02 local time.
At one-tenth of a second, Little Boy’s fireball had expanded to 100 feet in diameter and had reached a temperature of 500,000 degrees Fahrenheit[(2)]Neutrons and gamma rays were released and reached the ground, causing most of the radiological damage to all exposed people, animals and other organisms.
After two- and three-tenths of a second, there was a release of infrared (heat) energy that caused burns to exposed skin for miles in every direction. Additionally, the intense heat caused roofing tiles to fuse together, melted a bronze Buddha statue and evaporated the internal organs and viscera of humans and animals. By this point, the blast wave was moving at 7,200 miles per hour (2 miles/second).
At one second, the fireball was 900 feet in diameter and the blast wave had slowed to roughly the speed of sound (about 768 miles per hour). The temperature at ground level at the hypocenter of the blast is 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s at this point that the mushroom cloud begins to form.
Within this first second, 60,000 of the city’s 90,000 buildings were demolished by the combined effects of wind and the firestorm.
It’s estimated that the initial blast killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people in Hiroshima. Another 90,000-166,000 people are believed to have died in the four-month period following the bombing.
The bombing of Nagasaki resulted in the destruction of roughly half the city and the immediate deaths of between 40,000 and 75,000 people. Total deaths by the end of 1945 might have been as high as 80,000.
On August 9, 1945, President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima to the nation as part of a larger speech delivered via a radio address. By the time of the address, 10 pm Washington D.C. time, Nagasaki had already been bombed and destroyed as well. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s intention of surrender on August 15, 1945 referring to the atomic bomb in his remarks:
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. (source: Surrender of Japan (Wikipedia))
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have contributed to the end the war in the Pacific, but they were not the sole reason Japan surrendered. In fact, in 1946 the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded the Japanese would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bomb or without the Soviet Union entering the war or its invasion of Manchuria. A full exploration of this debate is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links of interest for those interested in researching more on their own:
- Surrender of Japan (Wikipedia)
- Would Japan have surrendered without the atomic bombings? (Stars and Stripes)
- Debate over the Japanese Surrender
- Was It Right?
- If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used
Reactions to the Bombings:
According to a Gallup poll conducted the week of August 24-29, 1945, 69% of Americans felt the development of the atomic bomb had been a good thing; only 17% felt it was a bad thing and 14% were of no opinion. Regarding the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, 85% of Americans polled approved versus 10% who disapproved.
The callousness of this attitude needs to be seen in the light of two points. Firstly, a devastating, meat-grinder of a war was finally over. Secondly, no civilians knew anything about the aftermath of the bombings until August 1946, when The New Yorker dedicated an entire magazine to John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima, which personalized the events by focusing on the personal accounts of six survivors[(3)].
On the other hand, many Americans wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor – as borne out by the results of a Roper poll conducted two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which 22.7% of respondents said that the US should have quickly used as many more of the bombs before Japan had a chance to surrender, essentially killing as many Japanese as possible. (source: Intondi, p 11)
This thirst for revenge was driven at least partly by racial prejudice – throughout the war, the Japanese were referred to as gorillas, subhumans, beasts and otherwise conflated into a monolithic group mindlessly following the orders of their leaders. This is in sharp contrast to how we referred to the Axis powers in Europe, where distinctions were made between the Nazis and Italian Fascist leadership and the German and Italian people.
The case could be made that some of this rage against Japan stemmed from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to seeming underhanded, it also demonstrated very clearly that America’s geographical distance from the rest of the world was no protection from what was going on in the rest of the world. Additionally, Americans were quick to demonize Germans (and German-Americans) after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.
That said, “We were bigoted and abusive to those guys too!” is a terrible justification. The fact that there’s an entire Wikipedia article about American mutilation of Japanese war dead and a fairly famous picture of a young lady posing with the trophy skull of a Japanese soldier that her sweetheart sent to her says a lot more to me about why nearly 25% of Americans in that Roper poll thought we should have nuked Japan until we ran out of bombs. Especially since there are no reports of German or Italian skulls having been taken as trophies in Europe[(4)].
The Japanese military and government did do some absolutely horrible things during (and before) World War II both to their enemies and to their own people. There’s an entire Wikipedia article about war crimes the Japanese committed before and during World War II (please, read at your own risk – and keep in mind that there’s a list of American war crimes during World War II as well). And to this day, there are deplorable attempts by some in Japan, mostly right-wing nationalists, to revise this history, to sanitize it and sweep atrocities and abuses under the rug of history. These attempts don’t negate the fact that revenge played some part in the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on civilians.
Not every American was pleased by the bombings. We’ve seen already that many Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to the use of atomic weapons and after the war ended, a group of them formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in November 1945 (renamed Federation of American Scientists in December of that year). The group distributed educational materials, including the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which became the definitive source for anti-nuclear information. As the world learned first about the existence of the atomic bomb, but also about the effects it had had and the dangers it posed, other voices joined the scientists in protest. Not many, not at first, but the anti-nuclear movement would grow over time.
Some other early condemnations came from members of traditional peace groups, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and religious organizations like the American chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group formed in 1915 in opposition to the US entry into World War I. In December 1945, the FAS created the National Committee on Atomic Information (NCAI) as an umbrella group, intended to bring together labor, religious, educational and professional organizations to help educate the general public about atomic weapons and, later, science in general[(5)].
Surprisingly, some of the opposition to nuclear weapons came from within the United States military. In 1946, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who had commanded the US Third Fleet during the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the last months of the war, stated publicly that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment” because the Japanese had “put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before [the bomb was used].” Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American 5-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe before he became the second US President of the Cold War era, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson in July 1945 that he was opposed to using the atomic bomb against Japan. As he recalled in 1963, “I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”
Admiral William Leahy, who’d been the White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, wrote in his diary in 1950 that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Additionally, he wrote, “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
- Source: Hiroshima: Military Voices of Dissent (for quotes in the two preceding paragraphs)
But, whatever regrets or remorse might have been felt after the bombings, the fact of the matter was that atomic weapons existed and had to be dealt with – not just by the United States but by the world as a whole.
Old Man Atom: when Einstein’s scared, I’m scared:
It didn’t take long for people to start being worried about what the atom bomb meant for the world in general and the United States in particular. The world was still reeling from the impact of World War II which had devastated huge swaths of Europe and Asia. While American had escaped relatively unscathed – a position that gave us an economic advantage in the post-War years and led to the boom times of the 1950s and 60s – our allies and our enemies weren’t so lucky.
In Europe alone, there were at least 11 million people who’d been displaced from their homes by the war, with about seven million of them in what was now Allied-occupied Germany. The European economy lost 70% of its industrial infrastructure, leading to its collapse at the end of the war. Millions died during the war on both sides, both civilians and military personnel.
The Fallen of World War II, an animated video by Neil Halloran, illustrates the toll World War II had in human lives and compares the death tolls to past and previous wars. The video is animated and not graphic but might still be disturbing to some. You can find it on vimeo by following the link above.
In the aftermath of World War II, there was tension and chaos as countries struggled to deal with the decline of European colonial empires in Latin America, Africa and Asia with India becoming one of the first nations to throw off colonial rule in the post-World War II era. It wouldn’t be the last – something that would contribute to later Cold War tensions as the US and USSR became involved in proxy wars.
One of the outcomes of World War II was the formation of the United Nations. The hope was that the UN could serve as a more effective version of the League of Nations and help prevent future wars. Some called for the United Nations to be given complete control over all the world’s nuclear weapons – which, at this point, meant the United States’ nuclear weapons, of which there were about 9 in 1946, the year the UN General Assembly met for the first time[(6)].
During the early post-War years, there was a call for the formation of a world government, based on the belief that there was no place for nationalism in the atomic age. This idea was supported by Manhattan Project scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jasper Jeffries, as well as Albert Einstein, who argued: “A World Government is preferable to the far greater evil of wars, particularly with their intensified destructiveness.” (source: Raven Rock, p. 12). Carl Spaatz, head of the forerunner to the Air Force, the US Army Air Forces, also favored a world government, as did President Truman, who said during remarks at the University of Kansas City on June 28, 1945:
We live… in an age of law and an age of reason, and age in which we can get along with our neighbors. …It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for you to get along in the republic of the United States. Now, if Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over a watershed they don’t call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring suit in the Supreme Court and abide by its decision. There isn’t a reason in the world why we can’t do that internationally. There were two documents signed at San Francisco. One of them was the charter of the United Nations. The other was the World Court. It will require the ratification of both of those Charters, and the putting of them into effect, if we expect to have world peace for future generations. This is one of the tasks which have been assigned to me. I am accepting the responsibility. I am going to try to carry it out. (source: “World Government” at Wikiquote)
While the idea of a single world government had supporters, it was ultimately seen as impractical to implement. The first resolution passed by the United Nations on January 24, 1946 established “[A] Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy” which had as its goals extending basic atomic science information among nations, controlling atomic energy’s use for peaceful purposes and eliminating atomic weapons from national stockpiles (which, again, at this point meant only the United States) and establishing safeguards such as inspections and other means to enforce the prohibition against nuclear weapons or the militarization of atomic power. (source:
The resolution didn’t succeed, in part because while the United States claimed to be willing to give up nuclear weapons, we wanted everyone else to give them up first while we’d stop producing weapons and disassemble the ones we had…later.
On June 14, 1946, Bernard Baruch, an American financier and political consultant, who’d been appointed to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) by President Truman, presented his plan for the control and regulation of atomic energy and weapons. The Baruch Plan was a modified version of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which had called for placing the world’s uranium and thorium mines under international control in order to prevent anyone wanting to develop a nuclear bomb from getting the necessary fissile material to fuel it. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan also called for the US to abandon its monopoly on atomic weapons and reveal what it knew to the Soviet Union on the condition that both sides would agree not to create additional atomic bombs.
Baruch’s plan proposed extending the exchange of basic scientific information between all countries and implementing control of nuclear power to the extent necessary to ensure it could only be used for peaceful purposes. It also called for the elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons of mass destruction from national arsenals and for the establishment of effective safeguards such as inspections or other means necessary to ensure compliance.
The Soviet Union objected to the Baruch plan on the grounds that the United Nations was dominated by the United States (again, the only country at this time that possessed actual working nuclear weapons) and its fellow capitalist allies in Western Europe. The Soviets felt that this meant the UN couldn’t be trusted to fairly exercise any authority over atomic weapons, particularly against Communist nations like itself and the members of the Eastern Bloc.
A Little Piece of Poland, A Little Piece of France…:
In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which ensured neutrality between the two countries (something that ended when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1942). This agreement also included a secret secondary agreement that divided Eastern Europe between the two countries, establishing Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence” in the region.
During the war, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania until Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis invaded and took these territories for themselves. Once the Nazis were defeated, however, the Soviets were able to re-occupy these territories and others in Eastern and Central Europe, taking advantage of post-war chaos to overthrow non-communist governments in Albania (1944), Poland (1944), Bulgaria (1946), Romania (1947), Czechoslovakia (1948), East Germany (1949) and Hungary (1949). These nations would go on to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955 but that’s for another article.
While the capitalist West and communist Soviets fought together toward a common end during World War II, once the war was over, the old divisions sprang back up. Stalin’s first major post-War public speech to the Soviet Union on February 9, 1946 effectively ended this truce. In his remarks, Stalin announced that another war was inevitable, since communism and capitalism were mutually incompatible. Because of this, Stalin said, the USSR would have to concentrate on national defense in preparation for this future war with the West.
Twenty-four days later, on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The speech is titled “Sinews of Peace” but is more commonly known as the “Iron Curtain Speech”:
““From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” (Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech)
Ultimately, the hopes of a single, world-wide authority with control over nuclear weapons were crushed like ants under the feet of the warring elephants of Capitalism and Communism.
Berlin Blockade and Airlift:
At the end of World War II, the territories Germany had seized during the war were returned to the countries they’d been taken from. Germany itself was divided into four occupation zones, with the US, UK, France and USSR each taking control of a section for administrative purposes. The German capital, Berlin, was entirely inside the zone controlled by the Soviet Union. While it was divided into four sections, the occupying nations controlled the city jointly.
Under the Allied occupation, Germany would split into what would come to be known as West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). This split came about due to increased tensions between the occupying forces, due to philosophical differences and the burgeoning Cold War between the US and the USSR[(7)].
The tensions came to a head on June 24, 1948 when Stalin closed all land access (roads, barges and rail traffic) to the areas of Berlin that were under Western control. The Berlin Blockade was the first international crisis of the post-World War II era. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade, but only if the newly introduced Deutsche Mark was removed from circulation in West Berlin.
Instead, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin. The airlift ran from June 28, 1948 to May 12, 1949, when Stalin ended the blockade.
During the Blockade, which lasted a total of 323 days, 2.5 million tons of supplies were dropped over Berlin. Aircrews from the United States, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa flew over 200,000 missions. At their peak, they were able to deliver 12,941 tons daily, exceeding the original expectation of 3,475 tons a day.
Despite having superior numbers, not only in Berlin but also in Germany, the Soviet Union allowed these supply drops for fear of starting another shooting war at a point when they were struggling to rebuild their own war-ravaged nation. While the blockade of land travel into Berlin was lifted on May 12, 1949, the Berlin Airlift didn’t officially end until September 30, 1949.
Atomic Testing in the Pacific:
On February 10, 1946, Commodore Ben Wyatt, the Military Governor of the Marshall Islands, told the 167 residents of Bikini Atoll that they were being relocated so that the United States could conduct atomic bomb tests. They were told their sacrifice was “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.”
The people of Bikini Atoll agreed withnine out of eleven families relocating to nearby Rongerik Atoll which was a sixth the size of Bikini and had inadequate water and food supplies. It was also believed to be haunted by demon girls. While the US Navy left supplies, those soon proved to be inadequate as well. You can see a 1946 film, Bikini – The Atom Island, though be warned that the narrator’s tone is patronizing in the extreme.
The first US nuclear test in the Marshall Islands occurred on July 1, 1946 and was part of Operation Crossroads. The first test, code named Able, was the first nuclear test since Trinity and the first nuclear detonation since Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The bomb, nicknamed Gilda after Rita Hayworth’s character from the movie Gilda (1946). The second test, Baker, was an underwater test with the bomb, Helen of Bikini, being detonated 90 feet underwater on July 25, 1946. Radioactive sea spray contaminated the ships being used as targets, which led to the cancellation of a third test, Charlie, because the ships couldn’t be decontaminated.
All told, the United States conducted over 100 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1963, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty barred signatories from conducting atmospheric and underwater detonations. Taken as a percentage of the total number of nuclear tests conducted by the United States from July 7, 1945 through to September 23, 1992, the Marshal Islands tests represent barley a tenth of the weapons detonated. In terms of the yield represented by these weapons, however, the Marshall Islands tests represent seventy-seven percent of US nuclear tests (150,732 kilotons out of a total of 196,514 total kilotons).
The effects of the tests in the Marshall Islands are still being felt by the people of the area to this day, over 70 years after they were told they were the “children of America” and that we would take care of them.
And Then There Were Two…:
The Manhattan Project began due to fears of the Nazis getting the atomic bomb first. During World War II, members of both the Allies and the Axis worked on developing nuclear weapons but only the Manhattan Project was successful.
However, post-war fears of a second nuclear state were quick to spring up, with most predicting that the next member of the Nuclear Arms Club would be the Soviet Union. When exactly they’d join was a matter for some debate. General Leslie Groves, who’d headed the Manhattan Project, testified before Congress that it would take the Soviets 20 years to develop atomic weapons and some scientists predicted it would be at least 1970. Others were less optimistic, with predictions ranging from within “five to ten years” (of 1948), while others were downright pessimistic, speculating the Soviets would have the bomb by 1952 or 1954. (Source: Estimating when the Soviets could produce a nuclear weapon)
The problem with keeping the making of an atomic bomb a secret was, first and foremost, that the science behind how the bomb worked simply wasn’t a secret. Nuclear fission was established science and relatively common knowledge in physics circles. Add to that the fact that the Soviet Union had spies well-placed within the Manhattan Project, who’d fed them information on how the US bombs were designed. And, while obtaining fissile material was considered to be the biggest obstacle to any non-American nation wanting to create its own atomic weapons, the Soviet Union not only possessed roughly 40% of the world’s uranium stores, it was also able to make use of captured German uranium supplies. And German scientists[(8)].
The Soviets exceeded expectations and managed to test their first atomic bomb – based largely on the Fat Man design – on August 29, 1949 in Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan (then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic). The test, known in the Soviet Union as RDS-1, Device 501 or First Lightning, was nicknamed Joe-1 (after Stalin) by the Americans. Work on designing First Lightning began at the Kurchatov Institute, then known only as “Laboratory No. 2” in April 1946. The plutonium for the bomb was produced at an industrial complex then designated Chelyabinsk-40 but now known as Mayak[(9)].
The detonation had a yield of 22 kilotons, comparable to the Trinity and Fat Man bombs. It was an implosion-style weapon with a solid plutonium core. Radioactive debris from the test was collected by a WB-29 US weather reconnaissance aircraft that flew from Misawa Air Base in Japan to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and when this data was crosschecked with data from other flights, it confirmed that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon.
President Truman announced the Soviet Union’s entrance into the Nuclear Arms Club on September 23, 1949 – which surprised everyone, including the Soviets who didn’t know the US had created a test-detection system.
First Lightning was a turning point in the Cold War, not only because it destroyed the American monopoly on nuclear weapons but also because it led to increased pressure within the US military to develop the first hydrogen bomb, code named “the super.”
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- Approximately 1.5 kilotons; also, the planes that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, were also B-29 Superfortresses)
- By comparison, the hottest star yet discovered, WR 102, in the constellation Sagittarius, has a temperature of 378,000 degrees Fahrenheit
- Hersey’s essay was published as a book later that same year. It was a best seller at the time and has never gone out of print. My high school history teacher, the pseudonymous Mr. Herodotus, allowed people to do a book report on Hiroshima as extra credit in his world history class.
- While the practice was officially condemned, it wasn’t uncommon for for American soldiers to mutilate Japanese war dead and take body parts for trophies.. To this day, trophy skulls are still occasionally turned in by the relatives of soldiers who fought during World War II.
Note: Links above contain racial slurs against the Japanese; the slurs are referenced in quotes from sources at the time; links also contain images of dead bodies and parts of dead bodies – mostly skeletonized.)
- As part of their educational efforts, FAS published a collection of essays by atomic scientists, One World or None, and also released a movie of the same title.
- By the time construction began on the UN’s New York City headquarters in September 1948, the US nuclear stockpile had grown to roughly 50 bombs. When construction was completed in October 1952, that number had increased nearly 17-fold to approximately 841 bombs, while the Soviet stockpile was approaching 50. (source Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010)
- From here on out, despite it being overly simplistic to refer to the two sides of the Cold War as if it was only between the US and USSR, I’m going to do just that because it might be inaccurate but it’s also a heck of a lot easier.
- And that was in addition to making use of captured German scientists, since the Soviet Union, like the United States, engaged not so much in a game of chess but more one of Pokémon Go after World War II, wherein each side tried to capture as many Nazi scientists as they could in order to help give them the a post-war edge against the other side. In the United States, this recruitment scheme was called Operation Paperclip and mostly involved sanitizing the backgrounds of Nazi scientists to make them seem like “good Germans” who’d been caught up in a bad situation. The Soviet Union’s scheme, Operation Osoaviakhim, occurred on October 22, 1946 and involved rounding up German specialists and their families at gunpoint from Soviet-occupied Germany and taking them to the Soviet Union.
- It was also known as Chelyabinsk-65; both designations were based on the site’s postal code. No word on whether or not there were any birth certificates with “Chelyabinsk-40” listed as the place of birth.
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- ‘They died with stones in their mouths’: Hiroshima’s last survivors tell their stories
- Atomic War or Peace — Einstein’s advice to the international community about how to live with the bomb.
- Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff
- The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Missesby Dan Carlin
- African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement by Vincent Intondi
- The Cold War by Norman Friedman
- The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan
- Someone Is Out to Get Us: A Not So Brief History of Cold War Paranoia and Madness by Brian T. Brown.
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (co-writer), Justin Eisinger (co-writer), Steven Scott (co-writer), Harmony Becker (Artist)