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

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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 of an arms race that would ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation beyond the two superpowers.

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

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Overview

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.

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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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374256821
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (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

Introduction What Happened at Potsdam 3

1 Atomic Monopoly 25

2 How Much lime Do We Have? 63

3 Larger Than Enormoz 89

4 First Lightning 133

5 Making Vermont 119

6 Dramatizing the Situation 214

7 The Year of Joe 241

Epilogue: Traces and Tailings 285

Notes 307

Selected Sources 311

Acknowledgments 381

Index 383

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