Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly [NOOK Book]


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 ...

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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.

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.
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429942416
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,072,101
  • File size: 977 KB

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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Read an Excerpt

And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the loves increase:
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
It was not supposed to happen this way. Somebody had to tell him, and soon, before anything was .nal. He was going to be sus­picious. He might ask questions, questions that could not or should not be answered. And what should he be told, anyway? The important thing was to make him think he knew everything, with­out actually letting him know anything important. Time was run­ning out.
The path to Cecilienhof Palace runs through a picturesque gar­den alongside the lakes of Potsdam. Calling it a palace might be a tad grandiose. It was built as the residence of Crown Prince Wil­helm just before World War I, and it looks like nothing so much as a bloated Tudor country home somewhere in East Anglia. It would be a lovely place for a casual meeting among friends, except this was no casual meeting, and there were no friends here.
In July 1945, this picturesque garden happened to be located in the Soviet sector of occupation a few miles to the southwest of the smoldering rubble that had been the capital of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Here, in the suburbs of Berlin, American President Harry S. Truman arrived with his diplomatic and military entourage for a meeting, code- named Terminal, with the heads of state of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Only .ve months had passed since their previous meeting at Yalta, yet the cast of charac­ters had changed almost as completely as the setting. Winston Churchill had been defeated in the elections earlier that month by Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, and the Tory came along more as an honored guest and adviser than as one of the Big Three. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died on April 12 and was suc­ceeded by Truman, former Missouri senator and onetime haber­dashery salesman who, like Attlee, did not have the bene.t of knowing what had happened, exactly, at Yalta. Only Joseph Stalin stood as a .xed point of this .nal postwar meeting. He was once again the host.
The Big Three had a great deal to discuss at Potsdam, but the issues clustered around one major and one minor axis: negotiating the postwar settlement in Europe and orchestrating the entry of the Soviet Union into the Anglo- American war with Japan. (Stalin had abrogated his neutrality pact with Japan in April but had not yet initiated hostilities in Asia.) Most of the discussions—often heated—concerned the former set of questions: What to do with Poland? Were there to be reparations, and if so, how much? How was an occupied Germany to be governed? An occupied Austria? All of these issues were contentious, and the faint .ssures that would crack into the chasms of the cold war began to snake across the surface of the wartime alliance.1
The minor axis was touchier, because Truman and his new sec­retary of state, James F. Byrnes, were not positive they needed Soviet entry to conclude the war against Japan. If it could be avoided, they certainly did not want it; dealing with the Soviets in Europe was bad enough. Military advisers to Truman still called for Soviet entry, and the sooner the better: Pinning down Japanese land forces in China and Manchuria would be dif.cult without the Red Army, and every bit of force was welcome. But Truman and Byrnes at times thought they could do without the Soviets, for they had something else, something new, something that might perma­nently give the West an edge over the Communists—not to men­tion over Emperor Hirohito.2
On July 16, a day before Terminal began, scientists working for the Manhattan Project had detonated the world’s .rst atomic explosion in the desert outside Alamogordo, New Mexico: Opera­tion Trinity. Atop a hundred- foot- tall tower, pieces of plutonium (a heavy metal generated from enriched uranium in atomic reactors—themselves new inventions), carefully machined and sculpted into segments of a sphere, were imploded into a dense core, which then began to .ssion. The heavy nuclei in the centers of the plutonium atoms split apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy. This physical process was discovered only in December 1938; plutonium was .rst secretly synthesized as recently as the winter of 1940–1941, and now the Americans held a deliverable weapon. The test had gone perfectly, and the Fat Man bomb, and a simpler uranium 235 gun model, code- named Little Boy, were being shipped off to the Paci.c to be detonated over specially selected Japanese cities. Perhaps the Soviets were not needed af­ter all.
But still, Stalin needed to be told. Of.cially, he was an ally, although neither party trusted the other, and technically he was not yet an ally in the Paci.c war. Many of the American attendees harbored a growing feeling that Roosevelt’s wartime alliance with Stalin either had been a mistake or was about to become one. Per­haps this was one area where the tendency to get too cozy with the Soviets could be checked. The Manhattan Project, begun as an Anglo- American collaboration, had deliberately and explicitly excluded the Soviet Union from the beginning.3 As far as Truman and Byrnes knew, Stalin remained completely ignorant of their determined efforts to weaponize uranium and plutonium—but he would certainly know once the .rst city was destroyed in early August, and he would know he had been left in the dark on pur­pose. Byrnes’s initial impulse was to leave him there.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson disagreed. Stimson was an aged and dedicated Roosevelt appointee and onetime secretary of state under Republican President Herbert Hoover. (Stimson re­mained an adamant Republican under the two Democratic presi­dents he served.) Byrnes, not wanting the interference, made a point of not inviting him to the Potsdam meeting, but Stimson came anyway, mostly to advise Truman about S- 1 (his code name for the Manhattan Project). The time for stalling Stalin was over. The minutes of the recent meeting of the Anglo- American Com­bined Policy Committee on July 4, 1945, record that the secretary of war was already convinced that Potsdam was the place to lift the veil for the Soviets, at least a little:
If nothing was said at this meeting about the T.A. [tube alloys = atomic] weapon, its subsequent early use might have a serious effect on the relations of frankness between the three great allies. [Stimson] had therefore advised the President to watch the atmosphere at the [Potsdam] meeting. If mutual frankness on other questions was found to be real and satisfactory, then the President might say that work was being done on the devel­opment of atomic .ssion for war purposes; that good progress had been made; and that an attempt to use a weapon would be made shortly, though it was not certain that it would succeed.4
The Interim Committee—a group of civilian and military of.cials lightly peppered with scientists that Stimson had convened to dis­cuss the wartime and postwar implications of the atomic bomb— had earlier “unanimously agreed that there would be considerable advantage, if suitable opportunity arose, in having the President advise the Russians that we were working on this weapon with every prospect of success and that we expected to use it against Japan.”5 At .rst, Truman was hostile to the idea of informing Stalin, and
Winston Churchill was equally resistant. But the news of Trinity changed everything—for them and for Byrnes. Stimson recorded in his diary that Churchill “now not only was not worried about giving the Russians information of the matter but was rather inclined to use it as an argument in our favor in the negotiations.” He continued: “The sentiment . . . was unanimous in thinking that it was advisable to tell the Russians at least that we were working on that subject and intended to use it if and when it was success­fully .nished.”6
On July 24 around 7:30 p.m., after a hard day of negotiations on European issues, Truman sauntered over to Stalin during a pause in the discussions, leaving his interpreter behind, and exchanged a few words. We will never know exactly what he said, or exactly what Stalin answered. The exchange would have enormous reper­cussions, but Truman, Stalin, and the latter’s interpreter, V. N. Pavlov, have left no immediate transcript of what happened. Tru­man’s interpreter, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, stayed back as his boss made his move:
Explaining that he wanted to be as informal and casual as possi­ble, Truman said during a break in the proceedings that he would stroll over to Stalin and nonchalantly inform him. He instructed me not to accompany him, as I ordinarily did, because he did not want to indicate that there was anything par­ticularly momentous about the development. So it was Pavlov, the Russian interpreter, who translated Truman’s words to Stalin. I did not hear the conversation, although Truman and Byrnes both reported that I was there . . . Across the room, I watched Stalin’s face carefully as the President broke the news. So offhand was Stalin’s response that there was some question in my mind whether the President’s message had got through. I should have known better than to underrate the dictator.7
Bohlen was not the only one who thought there might have been a miscommunication. Everyone in the know—Bohlen, Stim­son, Byrnes, Churchill—watched the conversation carefully, al­though not too carefully, for they did not want to tip off Stalin that the exchange was important. As Byrnes recalled in his 1947 memoirs:
He [Truman] said he had told Stalin that, after long experimen­tation, we had developed a new bomb far more destructive than any other known bomb, and that we planned to use it very soon unless Japan surrendered. Stalin’s only reply was to say that he was glad to hear of the bomb and he hoped we would use it. I was surprised at Stalin’s lack of interest. I concluded that he had not grasped the importance of the discovery. I thought that the following day he would ask for more information about it. He did not. Later I concluded that, because the Russians kept secret their developments in military weapons, they thought it improper to ask about ours.8
By 1958, in his second set of memoirs, he had slightly revised his view:
I did not believe Stalin grasped the full import of the President’s statement, and thought that on the next day there would be some inquiry about this “new and powerful weapon,” but I was mistaken. I thought then and even now believe that Stalin did not appreciate the importance of the information that had been given him; but there are others who believe that in the light of later information about the Soviets’ intelligence service in this country, he was already aware of the New Mexico test, and that this accounted for his apparent indifference.9
The Soviet dictator did not leave his own account of the exchange, but some in his delegation did. It is hard to take Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov’s memoirs as completely reliable, for he recalled something that no one else in the room managed to observe—his own presence at the conversation—yet it seems cer­tain that Stalin informed him about it immediately after. Here is Molotov’s account: “Truman took Stalin and me aside with a secre­tive look and told us they had a special weapon that had never existed before, a very extraordinary weapon . . . It’s hard to say what he himself thought, but it seemed to me he wanted to shock us. Stalin reacted very calmly, so Truman thought he didn’t under­stand. Truman didn’t say ‘an atomic bomb,’ but we got the point at once.”10 There are three important features about this Soviet ver­sion: Truman never speci.cally mentioned the nuclear character of the weapon; the Soviets knew what was actually behind his words, although they did not reveal it; and Stalin and his entourage saw this as a veiled threat. Marshal Georgii Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army and thus a crucial .gure at Potsdam, believed that Truman had gone up to Stalin “obviously with the goal of political blackmail,” but noted that Stalin “didn’t give away any of his feel­ings, acting as if he found nothing important in H. Truman’s words.”11
Which leaves us with the important question: What did Stalin think? What, in fact, did he really know about the atomic bomb before Truman’s comment? Truman was certain that he knew nothing. As he stated in an interview in 1959: “When [New York Times journalist William Laurence] says that Stalin knew, he did not. He knew nothing whatever about it until it happened . . . He knew no more about it than the man in the moon.”12 Yet, as is now abundantly clear in evidence from the Soviet archives, Truman misjudged his opponent. Stalin knew quite a lot. On August 7, the day after the destruction of Hiroshima by the Little Boy uranium bomb, Molotov (now back in Moscow) met with U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman. He told the American: “You Americans can keep a secret when you want to.”13 Harriman observed “something like a smirk” on Molotov’s face, and later noted that “the way he put it convinced me that it was no secret at all . . . The only element of surprise, I suppose, was the fact that the Alamogordo test had been successful. But Stalin, unfortunately, must have known that we were very close to the point of staging our .rst test explosion.”14
Harriman’s intuition was correct. Zhukov noted that Stalin took Molotov aside that evening of Truman’s casual conversation and said, “We need to discuss with Kurchatov the acceleration of our work.”15 Igor Kurchatov was the scienti.c director of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Stalin not only knew about the bomb, he was building his own; Truman had not only failed to forestall Soviet proliferation, it appears he had accelerated it.
We now know that Stalin had authorized a Soviet atomic project much earlier, although it was still far from achieving a working nuclear device. Years away, in fact. Vladimir Merkulov—a commis­sar of the NKGB, the foreign intelligence branch of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and thus under the direct command of Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief and also overall director of the Soviet atomic project—reported imme­diately after the Yalta conference: “No time- frame of any certainty is available for the production of the .rst bomb, since research or design work has not been completed. It is suggested that the pro­duction of such a bomb will require one year at least and .ve years at most.”16 Meanwhile, Stalin had to act calm. It would not do to show the Americans that he was concerned about the atomic bomb or about the fact that the Americans were the sole posses­sors of this new weapon. In an often- quoted September 17, 1946, interview with Sunday Times correspondent Alexander Werth, Stalin dismissed the notion of atomic blackmail:
I do not consider the atomic bomb as serious a force as certain political actors are inclined to consider it. Atomic bombs are designed to frighten the weak of nerves, but they cannot decide the fate of a war, since there is a completely insuf.cient number of atomic bombs for this. Of course, monopolistic possession of the secret of the atomic bomb creates a threat, but against that there exist, at least, two remedies: a) monopolistic possession of the atomic bomb cannot continue for a long time; b) the use of the atomic bomb will be banned.17
This playing down of the bomb became the standard strategy of Soviet diplomacy during the American atomic monopoly, and we can see its origins in that very exchange between Truman and Stalin at Cecilienhof Palace. Stalin remained poker-faced, indicat­ing that nothing terribly new had happened, nothing to get upset about. This was an eminently sensible approach to handling an East- West confrontation that looked as though it was going to get worse.18 (Privately, Stalin may have felt more strongly. His daughter Svetlana reported that her father turned silent on hearing the news of Hiroshima, sullenly withdrawing to his chambers, at which point he became ill.19)
The day after Truman’s conversation with Stalin, on July 25, the initiation of atomic bombing was authorized, and on the 26th the United States and United Kingdom—but without the Soviet Union, which was not yet a belligerent in the Paci.c war—issued the so- called Potsdam Proclamation, which threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not unconditionally surren­der immediately. Here Truman also did not explicitly mention the atomic bomb. Only on August 6, 1945, would the world under­stand what he had meant.20
Truman was by that date in the middle of the Atlantic on the USS Augusta. He had left Germany immediately after the conclu­sion of the conference on August 1—“I don’t want to have to answer any questions from Stalin,” he told an aide.21 And he would never have to. In a press conference on May 27, 1948, he in­formed America that “I have never had any communication from Mr. Stalin since Potsdam.”22 Yet this should not lead us to believe that the conversation had been meaningless. The awkwardness of the way Truman .rst broached the topic of nuclear weapons between the two superpowers gave Stalin an excellent pretext to change his policy of cooperation with the West, and in the mean­time inclined Truman to dig in his heels about any further revela­tions on the atomic front. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scienti.c director of the atomic- bomb- designing laboratory of Los Alamos, thought that the failure to be absolutely clear and open had already soured any potential for cooperation with the Soviets regarding the international control of nuclear weapons, and somewhat melodra­matically told Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace that “the mishandling of the situation at Potsdam has prepared the way for the eventual slaughter of tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of innocent people.”23 We now know that the global nuclear holocaust did not happen, but Oppenheimer’s worries that secrecy would breed animosity and then overt aggression seemed real enough at the time. The most important implication of Pots-dam, however, may have been in what Truman did not say: the words “atomic bomb.” Given that Stalin already knew about the Manhattan Project and American plans to use it against Japan, the roundabout and vague way Truman went about “informing” the Soviet Union of his plans spoke volumes. As the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa perceptively put it: “To Stalin, the most important reve­lation was that Truman was withholding information about the atomic bomb.”24 By trying to be oblique, Truman turned out to be too clever by half. It was not supposed to happen this way. Excerpted from Red Cloud at Dawn : Truman, Stalin, and the end of the atomic monopoly by Michael D. Gordin.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael D. Gordin.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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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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