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

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

by Gordin

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On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet test bomb, dubbed First Lightning, exploded in the deserts of Kazakhstan. The startling event was not simply a technical experiment that confirmed the ability of the Soviet Union to build nuclear bombs during a period when the United States held a steadfast monopoly; it was also an international event that marked the beginning


On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet test bomb, dubbed First Lightning, exploded in the deserts of Kazakhstan. The startling event was not simply a technical experiment that confirmed the ability of the Soviet Union to build nuclear bombs during a period when the United States held a steadfast monopoly; it was also an international event that marked the beginning of an arms race that would ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation beyond the two superpowers.

Following a trail of espionage, secrecy, deception, political brinksmanship, and technical innovation, Michael D. Gordin challenges conventional technology-centered nuclear histories by looking at the prominent roles that atomic intelligence and other forms of information play in the uncertainties of nuclear arms development and political decision-making. With the use of newly opened archives, Red Cloud at Dawn focuses on the extraordinary story of First Lightning to provide a fresh understanding of the origins of the nuclear arms race, as well as the all-too-urgent problem of proliferation.

Editorial Reviews

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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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Red Cloud At Dawn

Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly

By Michael D. Gordin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Michael D. Gordin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-25682-1



Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.

And being restrain'd, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.


What did the world really know about nuclear weapons on August 15, 1945, the day the Japanese government surrendered and World War II was declared over? Not much. Everyone knew that the Americans had developed a new "atomic bomb," and that they had used it, twice, on Japanese cities. The residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki knew most directly the horrific destruction of fission bombs, but they had very little access, until the end of American occupation and censorship, to knowledge about how the bomb worked and its implications. The citizens of the world knew essentially three facts about the bomb: that a strange metal called uranium could power a massive weapon, that the Americans were the only ones to have done so, and that the Americans would not hesitate to use these weapons. These were the new facts; the new theories about what to do with them would take some time to emerge.

For while the world had changed after the war, it had not changed completely. Many of the problems that had beset the industrialized nations in the 1930s — labor unrest, economic disruption, Stalinism — remained all too evident, only to be supplemented by dramatic new crises. Some of these, such as the wartime carnage and destruction that transformed demographic, economic, and agricultural patterns radically across Europe and East Asia, were to be expected. Others seemed to pose new dilemmas, ones that few had considered before the end of the war simply because most were ignorant of what lay on the horizon. The atomic bomb posed a series of such new dilemmas, ones most people (including most Americans) professed themselves unprepared to meet.

Nuclear weapons became facts at precisely the moment that global geopolitics was beginning to freeze into an East-West standoff: a confrontation between the Soviet Union and its allies on the one hand, and the United States and its coalition on the other. The transition from a wartime alliance that was never extremely close between Franklin Roosevelt and Stalin to a brittle and hostile state of extreme tension in the postwar years happened rapidly but not instantly. The recriminations and accusations about who "started" the destruction of East-West cooperation began even before the deterioration of relations had fully set in. Atomic weapons and the cold war not only were born at the same time, but each also deeply shaped the development of the other. America demobilized from its wartime footing remarkably quickly. By December 31, 1945, almost 1,670,000 men and women had been released from the U.S. armed forces ahead of schedule, and it soon became apparent that Soviet ground forces dwarfed any possible American counterpart. While American military budgets were constrained under the tight bookkeeping of the Truman administration, Soviet military expenditures increased by perhaps 30 percent between 1948 and 1949, and American intelligence estimated that the Soviets could mobilize 470 divisions and 12 million men within six months, not to mention their 2.5 million–man standing army. Conventionally speaking, the West was outmatched.

Various influential parties in the United States were convinced that the bipolar postwar settlement in Europe was only the prelude to an armed confrontation, and since the Americans could not hope to deter any potential Soviet aggression with manpower, the atomic bomb was quickly seized upon as a panacea. General Lauris Norstad, high-level planner for the Army Air Forces, had already in mid-September factored the atomic bomb into his calculations to balance Soviet forces, requesting from General Leslie Groves at the Manhattan Project a stockpile of 123 atomic bombs as a minimum with an optimum of 466 (taking into account only large-yield strategic bombs, like the ones used in Japan, and not supplementary, as yet nonexistent, tactical nuclear weapons). Although Norstad counted on such stockpiles, the American president did not accelerate nuclear production. When Norstad was writing, for example, there was exactly one nuclear bomb in existence. General Carl Spaatz correctly noted the problem America faced if it was to rely on nuclear deterrence: "The bomb is enormously expensive and definitely limited in availability." Spaatz was correct: The bomb was expensive. The only military option more expensive, however, would have been to maintain a high level of conventional forces. Choices about forestalling the Soviet Union, about defending Western Europe, about restructuring Japan, about building nuclear weapons, about demobilizing the American army were in large part economic decisions. The United States was in a favorable position to make such choices, being the only major belligerent to suffer no wartime destruction in its heart-land. At the end of the war, America possessed two-thirds of the world's gold reserves and three-quarters of its invested capital; it contained more than half the world's manufacturing capacity, and produced more than one-third of the world's goods. It also dominated shipping and export markets. In 1945, the gross national product of the United States was three times Soviet Russia's and five times Great Britain's. At war's end, America believed it faced a national security problem in Stalin's Soviet Union, but it also had the economic and — with the fortuitous advent of the atomic bomb — the military means to counter it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their solution for the military problem was framed in economic terms: monopoly. Specifically, an atomic monopoly. The terminology of monopoly was omnipresent, even though this was not, strictly speaking, a monopoly because there was no closed market, no opportunity (or desire) to trade in nuclear weapons. But the language was suggestive. Although the world at large may have known little about atomic weapons, the scientific, military, and political elite in Washington knew a great deal. They knew, for example, how to make a bomb, knew that they had the production process ready to make more (albeit not as many as one might think, and not as rapidly) — but they also knew that the Soviet Union was starting to work on nuclear weapons, and that, unless action was taken, it would likely succeed. The Americans also believed in this postwar world that there was something historically unique in being the sole possessors of this weapon, as the Yale University political scientist Arnold Wolfers observed in 1946: "Until that day [the monopoly's end] comes, and if only for a passing moment of history, this country occupies a unique position among the nations — one, in fact, that has no parallel in history ... There may never have been a time when all other great powers were so dependent upon the attitude of one major country."This chapter is about that attitude.

The atomic monopoly — the control of this new weapon by the United States alone — contributed heavily to the emphasis on nuclear weapons for deterring the Soviet Union, and also to the sense of American exceptionalism that fueled the ideological fires of the cold war. The very notion of a monopoly implies control, and that control meant staving off any proliferation of nuclear weapons for as long as possible, ideally forever. Thinking about the monopoly in terms of what would later be called a "nonproliferation regime" forces us to think about not just a monopoly of hardware, of bombs, but also in terms of a monopoly of knowledge and information. The attempt to control atomic knowledge led to a series of efforts to prevent a nuclear arms race, and those efforts would all eventually fail. How and why they did proves not only interesting but crucial for understanding the emergence of a nuclear cold war arms race.

We now know that the Soviet Union proliferated in 1949, and that early nuclear arms control was a staggering failure. But we should also heed the Princeton physicist Eugene Wigner's observation that those in the monopoly did not necessarily expect it would take this course: "Today it is puzzling that so many able people could have seriously hoped that the atomic bomb would bring world peace. But it is important to recall that we did." Part of the reason the Americans were cautiously optimistic about preventing an atomic arms race lay in the fact that during World War II tight American controls on information had played a role in preventing the nuclear proliferation of Nazi Germany, in the sense that the Germans remained unaware of the existence and extent of the Manhattan Project and thus did not prioritize their own work on nuclear weapons. The wartime framework thus set the first expectations of how to keep a lid on the atomic genie.

The first advocates of tight control of nuclear information even before the war started were, like Wigner, not military men but nuclear physicists. Shortly after the discovery of the fission of the uranium nucleus in December 1938, scientists around the world noted the possibility that the tremendous energy released by the process could be harnessed in an explosive. Since the discovery of fission took place in Berlin, physicists in Britain and America (especially refugees from Hitler's Germany) understandably expressed concern that the Nazis might begin work on such a weapon. No American scientist wanted to inadvertently help them.

The solution was not to stop research but to stop publishing that research. Here we see a pattern that would continue throughout the atomic monopoly: not to change the practices of science in the laboratory but instead to change the flow of knowledge. The easiest way was to self-censor, no longer submit or publish articles on fission. Gregory Breit of the Uranium Committee in the United States managed to coordinate a cessation of publication through the National Academy of Sciences and a few other contacts. The British were also able to stanch the leakage of scientific information fairly easily by contacting the editors of the six main scientific journals concerned with physics and convincing them to submit any articles on uranium fission for vetting to the Directorate of Tube Alloys (the British organization in charge of its atomic project, suitably concealed behind a meaningless code name). Once the scientific press was under control, the popular press was less worrisome. If the Germans wanted to learn about the properties of uranium, they were going to have to work it out themselves.

Among the Western Allies, only the French refused to play along with self-censorship; while Soviet magazines continued popular discussions of the physics and implications of uranium fission well into 1943 — long after complete silence on these matters had settled over all the other belligerents. Soviet openness can be attributed both to lack of coordination between the organs of military and civilian censorship in the Soviet Union, and to the limited interest in weaponizing uranium.

That low level of interest was to change rather dramatically during the war, and it changed, ironically, more than anything else because of Anglo-American self-censorship. The point of the physicists' censorship was twofold: primarily not to provide valuable information to German scientists, but also to downplay the importance of fission by not talking about it, the silence drawing attention away from the furious pace of investigation in the Manhattan Project. This led to some unintended consequences. Georgii N. Flerov, one of a small prewar group of Soviet nuclear physicists, submitted an article to the American Journal of Physics on the spontaneous fission of uranium — an interesting phenomenon but one with no applications for atomic weapons. The American physicists, after some deliberation, decided to print the article, believing that not printing it would tip off the Soviets to their budding nuclear program.

Flerov anticipated at least some scientific reaction to his piece, but there was nothing. Not only did no one respond, no one responded to any of the earlier articles on fission. And it was not as though the American nuclear scientists had moved on to different, nonnuclear topics; they simply were not publishing any research at all. This silence was troubling, and Flerov wrote to S. V. Kaftanov, the scientific consultant to the State Defense Committee, in November 1941 to alert the Soviet government to his fears:

Well, the fundamental point is that in all foreign journals there is a complete absence of any kind of work on this question. This silence is not the result of the absence of work; they are not even printing articles that appear as the logical development of earlier printed work. There are no promised articles. In a word, the stamp of silence has been laid on this question, and this is the best sign of what kind of burning work is going on right now abroad.

Where there is no smoke, there might be fire. When Kaftanov did not move fast enough to satisfy Flerov, he wrote directly to Stalin, urging him to begin an atomic-weapons program (although he cautiously estimated the chances of success at 10–20 percent).

Flerov's inferences demonstrate an important feature of classification regimes: When a censor blacks out lines in a document, he or she alerts others — and not always just the intended foe, which in this case was Nazi Germany, not Soviet Russia — that his or her country is trying to hide something and often tells them a good deal about the nature of what is supposed to remain hidden. For example, in early 1945, Leslie Groves persuaded the U.S. Army Air Forces to bomb the Auer Company's metallurgical facilities in Germany. Rather than forestall Soviet specialists from acquiring the relevant technology, the choice of this specific facility because of certain equipment it contained for uranium purification allowed Stalin's scientists to deduce which equipment that was.

General Groves's strict conception of security thus often proved counterproductive. After the end of the European war, the Soviet Union celebrated the 220th anniversary of the founding of its Academy of Sciences and invited leading scientists from around the world to attend. The guest list happened to include some scientists working on the Manhattan Project. After visas had already been granted and attendance confirmed, Groves yanked a number of physicists with no explanation. Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir, one of the Americans who did attend (he performed no atomic work during the war), testified succinctly to Congress about the implications: "I believe that these attempts to maintain secrecy resulted in giving to the Russians the very information which the Army most wished to keep from them. Any sensible Russian scientist knowing of these facts would have believed that we were developing an atomic bomb and were keeping it secret from the Russians."

The Americans, British, and Canadians wanted to keep both Germany and the Soviet Union out of the nuclear race, and they were to be kept out by information denial. The Quebec Agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of August 1943 created a subsidiary secret alliance within the Big Three alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Churchill and Roosevelt concluded: "We will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys [i.e., atomic weapons] to third parties except by mutual consent." The only third party in serious question was the Soviet Union, which was thus excluded — only with respect to atomic information — from other extant wartime weapons-sharing agreements. The postwar exclusion of the Soviet Union from the atomic alliance followed as a matter of course.

Retiring Secretary of War Henry Stimson acutely felt the impending problems posed by atomic energy and initiated the first serious attempt within the Truman administration to address them. The so-called Stimson Plan had a very short life — proposed in mid-September 1945, it was dead by the end of the month — yet it exposed two features that permeated American thought about nuclear arms control for decades: the centrality of the atomic monopoly for American thinking about relations with the Soviet Union, and the postulate that all negotiations should be transacted in the currency of knowledge.


Excerpted from Red Cloud At Dawn by Michael D. Gordin. Copyright © 2009 Michael D. Gordin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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