Reviewed by Günter J. Bischof (CenterAustria, ED196, University of New Orleans)
Published on H-HistGeog (December, 2010)
Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg
The Nuclear Age: The Great Bomb and the Cold War
Do we need another book on the atomic bomb and the origins of the Cold War? After Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s brilliant Racing the Enemy (2005) on the complex triangle of U.S.–Soviet–Japanese diplomacy prior to the dropping of the bombs over Japan, and Andrew Rotter’s less persuasive Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008) trying to explain the building and dropping of the atomic bombs as international history and not an exclusively American affair, is there still new wine available to be poured into old skins with unique vintages to be expected? For one, it is in the nature of the scholarly venture to rake over old evidence again and again by identifying new sources, asking questions from new methodological grandstands, or simply gaining wisdom from the benefit of hindsight. Historical events that wrought sea changes in the international arena inspire each new generation of scholars to rewrite history by identifying gaps in the old arguments and adding information from new sources. Scholars are still wringing insights out of the terse Melian dialogue, and they are still trying to figure out why Hannibal famously crossed the Alps. So naturally, the advent of the atomic bomb, with its infinite capacity for civilization-ending destruction and its wreaking of interminable foolish, costly, and dangerous arms races still defining international politics today (Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of Nuclear Arms Races ), will never cease to attract bright minds.
Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko have coauthored a smart and highly readable book that impresses with both its economy of language and tightness of argumentation--the Anglo-Russian team serve us a fine vintage. The major contribution of this duo of scholars crossing the old Cold War ideological divide is the combination of the best of historical evidence from both American and Soviet archives. It is this full integration in their argument of well-known American documentation with new Soviet sources that carries the highly argumentative threads of this slim volume. Radchenko brings keen linguistic competency and a vast knowledge of the current Russian literature on the bomb project to this joint venture, including the multivolume Atomnyi Proekt SSSR (2007). This gives the text an authority that books written by American Cold War scholars reading only the translation of some Soviet documents and then thinking “now we know” do not have.
A good part of The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War treads familiar ground on the politics and motives of both big players across the Cold War divide, summarizing the current literature and well-worn arguments very competently. What Craig avers in his review of Rotter’s Hiroshima, namely, that it does “not add substantially to the larger treatment of the same topic,” could be said of some chapters in this book as well. It still constitutes a valuable entry into the huge library of books on the bomb due to two new perspectives. First, it integrates “atomic spying” into the narrative--how it aided the Soviet atomic project and greatly restricted President Harry S. Truman’s domestic political maneuvering space. Secondly, it follows early arguments for international control of atomic weaponry from Niels Bohr’s campaign in 1943 to the politics and diplomacy of the Baruch Plan in 1946 from both the U.S. and Soviet perspective. These discourses add a freshness to this text that makes it an excellent candidate for assigning in undergraduate courses on World War II, the Cold War, and U.S. diplomatic history.
The first chapter on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wartime atomic diplomacy is the most pedestrian. Based on the U.S. new status of being the premier capitalistic power, Roosevelt wanted to build an international world order after the war based on an American order of open markets and liberal values. In spite of repeated representations from his principal science advisers to share the atomic secrets with the Soviets, Winston Churchill’s advice to keep the “Manhattan Project” secret prevailed. This invited the Soviets to spying on the Anglo-American bomb project. Initially the Americans even considered restricting the scientific interchange with their British allies. Top White House science advisers, like Vannevar Bush and James Conant, feared larger risks of espionage in case of full collaboration with the British. In the end, Churchill’s fierce representations prevailed and only in 1944 did Roosevelt agree to a full exchange of information with the British. Eventually, it was Joseph Stalin’s aggressive and expansionist diplomacy in Eastern Europe that pointed toward postwar East-West confrontation rather than collaboration. American “atomic secrecy, political and military tentativeness, and growing rhetorical combativeness toward the Russians” during the last months of Roosevelt’s presidency made a peaceful and cooperative postwar world order unlikely (p. 33).
Chapter 2 treads much of the same ground that David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb (1994) so brilliantly covers but adds some nuance in the interaction of atomic science, atomic spying, and lack of interest on the part of Stalin in an American inspired postwar order. In their darkest hours of World War II after Adolf Hitler’s attack in June 1941, state-directed Soviet science concentrated on advances in conventional weaponry and abandoned atomic science. Where the Soviet scientists missed out on advances in nuclear fission and fusion, Soviet spies made up through their massive information gathering on the Anglo-American bomb project. American scientists were right in warning Roosevelt about leaks among their British allies; as early as 1941 the high-placed Soviet mole Donald Maclean sent reports to Moscow about the British interest in developing an atomic bomb and technical data on the separation of lighter uranium isotopes from natural uranium (p. 44). While Anglo-American scientists advanced their atomic bomb project with enormous investments of resources, Soviet foreign intelligence “proved exceptionally important for the Soviet atomic project” in delivering many of the key findings in the Manhattan Project in the Kremlin (p. 55). As the Red Army was beginning to defeat Hitler’s military juggernaut on the battlefield in 1943, Stalin upgraded the Soviet bomb project. He never showed any interest in the American liberal world order as his worldview was “fundamentally incompatible” with Roosevelt’s (p. 56). Stalin was thinking about territorial gains in Eastern Europe, control over Poland, and the long-time weakening of Germany, while Roosevelt built castles in the air about a postwar Wilsonian world controlled by the United States while using the A-bomb to put pressure on Stalin to make concessions; here lies the beginning of American “atomic diplomacy,” later practiced with reckless abandon but little success by James Byrnes.
In chapter 3, our two authors are singularly unimpressed by Truman’s “haphazard” early diplomacy in general and uncoordinated “atomic diplomacy” in particular (p. 80). Truman “equivocated” in the White House debate on revising the “unconditional surrender” doctrine vis-à-vis Japan; Truman was disinterested in “abstract questions,” like international control; the inexperienced new president was “cool” toward the scientists’ “atomic idealism” of sharing the atomic secrets with the Soviets to prevent future arms races; this provincial politico from Missouri bumbled into the Potsdam Conference and was full of trepidation in meeting the larger-than-life figures Churchill and Stalin; in his first meeting with Stalin, the “immature” Truman got Stalin to agree on what the generalissimo already agreed on at Yalta--the Soviets would attack Japan; yet after the first successful test of an atomic bomb (“Trinity”) only a week later, Truman and his Secretary of State Byrnes were no longer interested in Soviet participation in finishing off the Japanese (pp. 70, 66ff., 72, 77).
Craig and Radchenko here weigh in on what they call the “the most contentious and long-lasting debate” about the dropping of the two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They preface it by noting that it stands “as the worst atrocities ever committed in the history of warfare” (p. 81), never mind the German killing of the Jews in the “final solution.” Truman did not decide to drop the bombs; that decision had been made much earlier by committee. Being mindful of the domestic context, the two authors rightly argue that there is no way Truman could not have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima to speed up the Japanese surrender and save American GIs’ lives. But they make the distinction that the Nagasaki atomic bomb was dropped to make the Japanese surrender sooner so the Soviets would not invade Manchuria and demand a joint occupation of Japan. Thus they ingeniously split the difference in the old controversy between “traditionalists” and “revisionists.”
In Stalin’s eyes, the two American atomic blasts destroyed the world’s balance of power. Yet the Kremlin would not be intimidated by American “atomic blackmail,” the subject of chapter 4, and projected its power deep into Europe and Asia (pp. 90, 97). Vyacheslav Molotov ignored Byrnes’s “atomic pressure” during the London Council of Foreign Ministers Conference in September 1945, pursuing his diplomatic agenda in Eastern Europe and Northern Africa with a vengeance (p. 101). International control was not on Molotov’s agenda. Craig and Radchenko have unearthed a fascinating episode of Kremlin infighting of Stalin listening to a more moderate Maxim Litvinov and making concessions on international control. Stalin feigned a “semblance of cooperation” toward international control of atomic energy to be negotiated through the United Nations where he could bring the matter to a halt with the Soviet veto in the Security Council (p. 105). Meanwhile, the Soviet dictator made the building of a Soviet bomb in a race against time his “problem No. 1” and committed unprecedented resources to the Soviet bomb project; the Kremlin also continued to rely on a full court press of atomic espionage (p. 106). In a fascinating bit of detail, Craig and Radchenko mention that Soviet military intelligence had two agents on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to send home samples of melted rock and a charred human hand days before American investigators arrived on the ground (p. 95). Without saying so explicitly, Craig and Radchenko intimate that the great game of one-upmanship in intelligence was easily won by the Soviet side at this early stage of the emerging Cold War.
The politics over international control of atomic energy through the sharing of nuclear know-how in chapters 5 and 6 is the heart and soul of this book. While on the outward Truman still advocated international control, the breaking of the Igor Gouzenko spy scandal in Canada made international control impossible to advance in the arena of American domestic politics now turning viciously anti-communist. It became impossible for Truman to seriously advocate the sharing of atomic secrets at a time when the Soviets were so blatantly spying in North America (p. 117). It is this domestic political linkage that undoes plans for international control and postwar East-West cooperation that makes a genuine contribution to the discourses about the A-bomb and helps to explain the origins of the Cold War in 1946. When the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan of March 1946 advocated international control under a regime of inspections, Craig and Radchenko plausibly suspect that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover leaked the Canadian spy scandal to the public to stop all schemes of international control (p. 122). Truman’s “disastrous” appointment of Bernard Baruch to the new United Nations Atomic Energy Committee (UNAEC), scheduled to meet later to establish international control, was a tactic of railroading the idea of international control onto a dead track, reflecting this growing anti-communist climate unleashed by Hoover (pp. 121ff).
The Baruch Plan aimed at both ending Soviet veto power on the Security Council in matters of international control and demanding full territorial inspections and strict penalties in case secret bomb projects were discovered--fat chance Stalin would ever sign on to this and reveal his atomic establishment. It “was never meant to be a serious proposal that the Soviet Union would possibly accept” (p. 128). In an intriguing analogy, Craig and Radchenko compare the unacceptable Baruch Plan with the American offer of Marshall Plan aid “based on market capitalism” to the Soviet satellites. Such “brilliant maneuvers,” they argue, “placed the USSR in a no-win situation” (p. 129). The Soviets would never allow their satellites in Eastern Europe to gravitate into an American-controlled economic system just like they turned down the inspection and sanctions regime of the Baruch Plan. The problem with Craig and Radchenko’s revisionist reading of the seriousness of the Marshall Plan offer to Eastern Europe is that it, too, is not as straightforward a matter as they suggest; in fact, it is highly contested historiographical terrain.
American and Soviet foot-dragging in the UNAEC in the fall of 1946 was all about the “blame game.” Washington charged the Soviet side with turning down international control while the Soviets kept up their charge of U.S. “atomic blackmail.” The Soviets would have liked to get a hand on the American atomic secrets through international control arrangements but they did not want inspections--not now and not later in the Cold War when a full-fledged nuclear arms race had broken out. Henry Stimson, the American secretary of war, became the principal advocate of international control during his final months in office; Stimson was right, if no international control regime was being established, nuclear arms races would proliferate.
The history of the Cold War also became a history of nuclear arms races. The post-Cold War world is still defined by nuclear arms races and refusals by newcomers to the nuclear club to allow for thorough inspections. We have recently seen this in Iraq and are witnessing it daily on the news in Iran. The United States and the Soviet Union were not prepared to sacrifice their sovereignty on the altar of an effective international control regime enforced by a sort of international government (p. 170). Why should Iran do that today? That is one of the rather stark conclusions of this book.
Craig and Radchenko are remarkably uninvested in the old historiographical battle turf of the previous generation of Cold War scholars between “traditionalists” and “revisionists.” For them the United States and the Soviet Union have plenty of blame to share for not being serious about international control of atomic energy and therefore unleashing a predictable arms race that defined the Cold War. Ideology hardly is mentioned in their reading of the origins of the Cold War. It is cold political calculus--international and domestic--that led the two powers to this impasse. Unlike in Frank Costigliola’s reading, the emotions of those involved in decision making play no role.
. Campbell Craig, “Whose Bomb Was It?” review of Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb by Andrew Rotter, Diplomatic History 34, no. 4 (September 2010): 742.
. Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, ”The Tragedy of American Diplomacy? Rethinking the Marshall Plan,” and the responses by Marc Trachtenberg, Gűnter Bischof, John Bledsoe Bonds, Laszlo Borhi, and Charles S. Maier, as well as the reply by the authors, Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 97-181.
. Frank Costigliola, “After Roosevelt’s Death: Dangerous Emotions, Divisive Discourses, and the Abandoned Alliance,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 1 (January 2010): 1-23.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histgeog.
Günter J. Bischof. Review of Craig, Campbell; Radchenko, Sergey, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.
H-HistGeog, H-Net Reviews.
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