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January 2009

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The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War
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Reviewed by Paul H. Carew, Ph.D.

Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War, Yale University Press, 2008, pp 232, $27.00

There is no shortage of scholarly, historical literature addressing the development and ultimate use of the atomic bomb, the climactic end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.  Some of the most vivid memories of this period have been recorded by such disparate figures as Edward Teller, Dean Acheson, General Leslie Groves and Harry S. Truman.

These first hand accounts have tended to be more or less straightforward discussions of the events as best remembered by the participants and tempered by time and whatever intellectual or professional bias they might have brought to the enterprise. Of course none of these authors should be accused of writing a post hoc justification for their actions taken during the periods addressed in their memoirs, but it is conceivable.

Campbell Craig, professor of International Relations at the University of Southampton, and Sergey Radchenko, a tutorial fellow in international history at the London School of Economics, have taken a fresh and interesting approach to this historical period in The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War

The authors’ thesis is that the Cold War arose as a byproduct of the increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War II, and that afterward the new “superpowers” were unable to pursue any substantial international cooperation. During their brief wartime alliance and especially in the last year of the war, the gulf between U.S. and Soviet conceptions of the postwar world grew more apparent and the absence of traditional diplomacy aggravated the problem and virtually guaranteed a future confrontation.  All this was made worse by the fear engendered by the atomic bomb.

As World War II drew to a close, President Roosevelt sought to find a way to cooperate with the Soviet Union and other major powers in founding a new kind of postwar Wilsonian global order that provided for collective security patterned on the Western concepts of a liberal world economy and international law, a highly ideological posture. This notion was impossible to achieve as friction grew between the United States and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt rationalized using the bomb as leverage with Stalin in order to get him to agree to this postwar vision that included a free and democratic Eastern Europe.  Stalin, ever paranoid about the West’s motives and well aware as early as 1942 of the atomic bomb and its development through his espionage agents in Los Alamos, avoided the trap. 

As the authors note, Stalin was dismissive in initially viewing the atomic bomb as just another weapon in a military arsenal and secondary to divisions of soldiers in the field. Though Stalin sanctioned a rudimentary experimental nuclear program during the last years of the war, the atomic bombings of Japan were a wake-up call in terms of the Soviet Union’s achieving superpower status and parity with the United States. Consequently, a massive nuclear development program was instituted to catch up with the West.     

Any further thought of accommodation with the Soviet Union became even more remote when Harry Truman acceded to the presidency after FDR’s death. Frustrated with Stalin’s aggressive disregard for the post war agreements addressing the status of Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and buffeted by angry public consternation when the Soviet Union’s World War II atomic espionage was revealed, Truman ultimately realized that it would be political suicide to continue any overt accommodation with the Soviets. But the thorny issue of international atomic control and cooperation was on the table and had to be addressed.

One of the more interesting revelations in the book is the authors’ analysis of the intrigue surrounding international atomic control and the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. Immediately after the surrender of Japan, Secretary of War Henry Stimson proposed a plan to President Truman for international atomic control. Stimson was certain that the Soviets were hell bent on developing their own atomic bombs and without some sort of international control including the mutual sharing of information on the commercial and humanitarian uses of atomic energy, a fierce arms race with the Soviets would ensue. A committee was created by Secretary of State James Byrnes and chaired by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal, former director of the TVA, to address the issue of international control. The committee’s lengthy report proposed a method whereby the United States could gradually transfer scientific knowledge, nuclear material, and whatever bombs it possessed, to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC). Strict inspection and verification regimes would be established to prevent other nations, i.e., the Soviet Union, from secretly building a bomb.

As the Acheson-Lilienthal Report was being prepared, the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson dropped a journalistic bomb by revealing the existence of a large Canadian spy ring connected with the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. The ring had penetrated the Manhattan Project.  The columnist also noted the “possibility” of atomic espionage from within the United States itself. It is posited by the authors that this leak to Pearson came from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who opposed international control and the sharing of our atomic secrets. The Truman administration was now caught in a difficult political dilemma with the President’s tacit support for international atomic control facing the angry public outcry about Soviet atomic espionage.  

As the authors note, the smart political solution was to torpedo the Acheson-Lilienthal report’s proposals. To do so the President, on the advice of Secretary Byrnes, appointed Bernard Baruch as head of the delegation to UNAEC.

How Baruch, a successful Wall Street speculator who knew nothing about atomic energy and was considered by many a pedant and an egomaniac, was recruited for this influential position has never been made clear. Dean Acheson and Leslie Groves, in their autobiographies, make little or no mention of how or why the appointment originated, and Robert Donovan in his definitive biography of Harry Truman noted that the choice of the legendary Baruch was made to influence public opinion and gain support from senior Republican Senators. The implication that the hawkish Byrnes and forceful Baruch, both native South Carolinians with a long-standing friendship and similar political philosophies, colluded in Baruch’s changes to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report proposals may explain the appointment. Baruch immediately announced significant modifications to the Acheson- Lilienthal proposals (the Baruch Plan) and these changes were immediately denounced as unacceptable by the Soviet Union. The authors note that the Baruch Plan, ostensibly proposed to establish effective international atomic control, backfired and was one of the first acts of the Cold War.

The book, though stimulating in its approach, seems to be a scholarly journal article stretched to book length. Too much repetition and stressing of similar points over and over again detract from the presentation. Furthermore, the authors’ reliance on a plethora of secondary sources diminishes the freshness of their argument, though the citation of documents from Soviet governmental archives helps provide academic rigor. The most disconcerting aspect of the book is the speculative methodology taken by the authors in attempting to explain an historical event.  Oftentimes, the rationale for the decisions made and actions taken during a period in history is shrouded in mystery or clouded by the mists of time and the death of the participants.  Speculation, as a substitute for documented facts of the event, whether using counterfactual reasoning or some other technique, can diminish the validity of the discussion. In their zeal to provide the reader with a comprehensive analysis of the topic, the authors have fallen into this trap. But putting this criticism aside, the continued interest in this critical period in American history, and indeed world history, should be welcomed and encouraged.


carewPaul H. Carew, Ph.D., is a retired Defense Department executive who served 38 years with the Department, the last 23 years with the Defense Nuclear Agency. Carew was a charter member of the Senior Executive Service and is the recipient of the Meritorious and Exceptional Civilian Service Medals. Currently, he is a regional vice president with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) and a member of the American Diplomacy Board of Directors. He co-authored Vanguard of Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949.

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