Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly

Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet test bomb, dubbed "First Lightning," exploded in the deserts of Kazakhstan. This surprising international event marked the beginning of an arms race that would ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation beyond the two superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States.

With the use of newly opened archives, Michael D. Gordin folows a trail of espionage, ...

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Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly

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Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet test bomb, dubbed "First Lightning," exploded in the deserts of Kazakhstan. This surprising international event marked the beginning of an arms race that would ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation beyond the two superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States.

With the use of newly opened archives, Michael D. Gordin folows a trail of espionage, secrecy, deception, political brinksmanship, and technical innovation to provide a fresh understanding of the nuclear arms race.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a book full of great details . . . Gordin's main argument is that . . . if now so fixated on espionage and secrecy, maybe the two antagonists could have figured out a way to forestall the arms race. [A] striking, thoroughly researched book.” —Nicholas Thompson, The New York Times

“Gordin brings considerable scholarship to the subject of how the Soviets succeeded in building an atomic bomb. . . . Weaves an impressively wide range of sources into a brilliant narrative about the intelligence war.” —History Today

“Gordin has crafted a quite wonderful book . . . [It] greatly expands what we should know about the contest for nuclear supremacy in the early Cold War. Heartily recommended.” —Ed Goedeken, Library Journal

“More than a tale of scientific ingenuity, [Red Cloud at Dawn] probes the human motives of those involved in a high-stakes drama . . . A perceptive study, rich with implications for a twenty-first-century world still fraught with nuclear tensions.” Bryce Christensen, Booklist

“Michael Gordin brings vividly to life the end of the American atomic monopoly. By focusing on what each side knew—and did not know—about the other, he sheds new and original light on the origins of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. This is a stylish book, with important implications for how we think about nuclear weapons past and present.” —David Holloway, author of Stalin and the Bomb

“Nothing about the early cold war can be understood without grasping the terrifying first few years of nuclear weapons. Everything was in play: who would have them, who would control them, would they be used to enforce a pax Americana. Spies, diplomats, treaties, and detonations—nothing gripped decision makers as much as the atomic arsenal, from screaming headlines to the silent intelligence analyses on both sides of the divide. In Red Cloud at Dawn, Michael Gordin zeros in on the crucial years from Hiroshima to the first flash of ‘Joe 1’ in 1949, the first Russian bomb and the ninth nuclear explosion. Using a spectacular variety of sources from Soviet and American sources, Gordin gives us a book that must be read to understand how we came to the sprawling nuclear proliferation in which we now live.” —Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

“Beginning with Truman’s revelation to Stalin that the United States had an unusually powerful weapon, Michael Gordin tells the story of the Soviet A-bomb and the origins of the Cold War arms race. The ‘dialectical dance’ of the superpowers entailed a deadly embrace that cost millions but miraculously avoided nuclear holocaust. This is a story of intelligence in both senses of the word—of spies and scientists, of information rather than simply fissionable material and devices. The red mushroom cloud rose on August 29, 1949, and, as Gordin’s compelling narrative shows, the fallout, in its many senses, remains with us today.” —Ronald Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History, University of Michigan

Nicholas Thompson
…full of great details…[a] fine, thoroughly researched book
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The world waited anxiously for the other shoe to drop, according to this history of the fraught period between America's atomic bombing of Japan and the Soviet Union's 1949 test of its first nuclear device. Princeton historian of science Gordin (Five Days in August) treats the era as a study in the pitfalls of incomplete information. American officials tried to keep nuclear technology secret (but not too secret: they fretted that not publishing crucial data would tell the Soviets what to look for) and conjectured endlessly about when Russia would get the bomb. Meanwhile, the Soviets, working from espionage and revealing American public sources, wondered whether their information on bomb making was trustworthy and struggled to overcome huge gaps in their knowledge. When American radiological monitors detected a Soviet nuclear blast in 1949, American officials worried about the geopolitical fallout from revealing their knowledge of the Russian success, which Stalin kept secret. Gordin's suggestion that the mania for information control furthered an arms race that might have been avoided seems dubious, but his account of the epistemological hall of mirrors that was the early cold war is fluent. 7 b&w illus. (Oct. 7)
Library Journal
In 1951 the world had about 200 nuclear weapons. By the beginning of the 21st century there were over 20,000 of them scattered all over the planet. This is a problem. Gordin (history of science, Princeton Univ.; Five Days in August) has crafted a quite wonderful book that focuses on the early years of the atomic age—that period when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear bomb in August 1949. This event, which shocked the United States, forever changed the relationship between the two superpowers of World War II and launched a vigorous arms race that shows no sign of letting up now that nations such as Iran and North Korea have the ability to join the nuclear club. Gordin's contribution is especially valuable in that he has plumbed the recently released Soviet archives and thus brings to light those early Cold War years from the standpoint of Stalin and his chief advisers such as secret police chief Lavrenty Beria. VERDICT While Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains the seminal work, Gordin's new book greatly expands what we should know about the contest for nuclear supremacy in the early Cold War. Heartily recommended.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews
A detailed look at the period between and the first U.S. nuclear test, in 1945, and its Soviet counterpart in 1949. Gordin (History of Science/Princeton Univ.; Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War, 2007, etc.) begins on a dramatic note at the Allied conference at Potsdam on July 24, 1945, when President Harry Truman informed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin of the existence of a new and powerful U.S. weapon that he believed would end the war with Japan. As with many key events in the book, Gordin refracts this private conversation through a kaleidoscope of sources-interpreters and aides on both sides give their versions of how both men acted and reacted-providing the reader with a bright, readable mosaic. It becomes clear that the Americans were somewhat unprepared for the Soviets' determination to catch up in the new arms race, and the Soviets were able to gather information about American nuclear weapons despite stringent controls. Indeed, the first Soviet nuclear test took place years before the U.S. government had estimated, and Gordin examines how Cold War policies soon took firm hold. The author's command of this material is impressive, particularly his ability to humanize the proceedings at key moments through his smart choice of sources. The clipped diary of Atomic Energy Commission chairman David Lilienthal, for example, recounts Truman informing him of the Soviet test, and sketches a seldom-seen picture of the president: "He took off glasses, first time I saw him without them, large, fine eyes. Considerate, fine air of patience and interest." These intimate touches set the book apart from similar histories. A well-constructed work about a key era in U.S.-Sovietrelations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312655426
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/23/2010
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,407,626
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael D. Gordin is an associate professor of the history of science at Princeton University. He is the author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War.

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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations xiii

Introduction What Happened at Potsdam 3

1 Atomic Monopoly 25

2 How Much Time Do We Have? 63

3 Larger Than Enormoz 89

4 First Lightning 133

5 Making Vermont 179

6 Dramatizing the Situation 214

7 The Year of Joe 247

Epilogue Traces and Tailings 285

Notes 307

Selected Sources 377

Acknowledgments 381

Index 383

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