Peace That Was No Peace
Just outside of Dayton Ohio, within the enormous hangar that houses
the Air Force History Museum there rests, like a gigantic stuffed pterodactyl, one of the
most imposing artifacts of the nuclear age: the B-36 bomber, with its six rear-mounted
propellors, its four jet-booster engines, its extended cylindrical fuselage, its great
droopy wings stretching almost the length of a football field, and its miles of wiring
linking the latest vacuum-tube technology of the B-36’s youthful days. The B-36,
built and deployed during the late 1940’s, could carry a 10,000-pound bomb load
10,000 miles. This meant it could have taken off from a base in the United States, dropped
its lethal cargo on the Soviet Union, and then returned without refueling. Four hundred
forty six of these immense planes were built, costing more than a billion and a
half-dollars. Never did a B-36 drop a bomb during combat.
Once weapons are developed, it is often assumed, occasions will be
found to use them. This is not always the case though. The Cold War in fact proved that
the opposite therein might be true. The Cold War saw a build up of weapons between the
United States and Soviet Union that bordered upon insane. Indeed, close to 70,000 nuclear
weapons have been produced between the United States and Soviet Union, not one of which
has been used for military purposes since the Fat Man devastated Nagasaki over fifty-years
ago. What was the purpose, or better yet, what was the point in wasting so much money on
building and subsequently dismantling all these nuclear weapons? A nice succinct answer is
simply to say that it was not necessary. We know in the United States the build up was due
to fear and lack of precedent on how to act in such a new situation. Not surprisingly, by
looking at Soviet documents and interviewing Soviet leaders of the time, it is shown that
Soviets were afraid and had the exact same concerns as the United States. By examining the
Soviet Union’s actions, the United States’ perception of the Soviets and
exploring the psychology of Cold War politics it will become clear that nuclear weapons
prolonged the Cold War and implemented, as George Orwell predicted, "a peace that is
As paradoxical as Orwell’s statement sounds, it became highly
accurate in explaining the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union did avoid a direct
conflict, but there existed a constant warlike mentality of fear, high production of arms
and concentration on developing new nuclear weapons. George Orwell, highly critical of
nuclear weapons, clearly forecasted all of these Cold War characteristics and more in his
book 1984. 1984 depicts a future planet divided into competing superpowers
in a state of perpetual non-nuclear war. Orwell predicted that,
The fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons
yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them. It
would mean the division of the world into two or three vast super states,
unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal
This is eerily prophetic in light of what took place during the Cold
War. In writing 1984 Orwell foresaw the super powers in a future standoff, but he
also foresaw that they would not use nuclear power unless they were certain they could
destroy the other. Of course, there was no way the United States or Russia could ever be
certain one could destroy the other. The Cold War era was cloaked in governmental secrecy
and political bluffing. The Soviets kept their secrets secure behind the so-called iron
curtain. And as a rule, fears arise for what is not known or can not be seen.
So what exactly did Americans fear the Soviet Union might unleash?
After all, there is no doubt something about Soviet behavior following World War II
triggered a great deal of anxiety in the United States. The early November 1945 issue of Life
magazine illustrated the fears Americans had quite vividly. Subscribers to Life
received their magazine to find, in lurid detail, depictions of a mushroom cloud rising
over Washington, a view from space of rockets raining down on other American cities, an
invasion of the United States by gas-masked airborne troops equipped with infrared
goggles, and a depiction of weary technicians checking for radioactivity in front of the
New York Public Library’s marble lions. It was a nightmarish illustration of the
vulnerability and potential threats Americans had come to fear. Fear of the Soviets was
very real. A week after Japan’s World War II surrender New York Times writer
C.L. Sulzberger commented that, "the most important political development during the
last ten years of localized and finally global warfare has been the emergence of the Union
of Soviet Socialist Republics as the greatest dynamic and diplomatic force on the vast
Eurasian land mass which stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans." Despite
these realizations and fears in 1945, American military planners rested assure the United
States was safe. Russians had relatively little new warfare technology. Their navy was no
more than a coastal defense force; their air force had no capability for long-range
bombing and their building of an atomic bomb did not seem imminent. Indeed, General Leslie
R. Groves, never one to be complacent about the Russians, thought it would take them up to
twenty years to develop an atomic bomb. General Groves could not have been more wrong.
General Groves really had no way of telling where the Soviets were
in their quest to develop an atomic bomb. "The history of the Soviet strategic
program is at the same time a history of U.S. perceptions," wrote a team of
historians and political scientists in a once classified history of the Cold War strategic
arms race. As long as the Soviets maneuvered behind their iron curtain, academic and
government analysts interested in explaining Soviet military policy had to resort to
"inferences drawn by long chains of logic" to interpret the sparse data
available. The primary sources and data needed for research were simply not available.
However, with the close of the Cold War once classified Soviet documents were
declassified. By 1993, as acclaimed Cold War historian John Gaddis vouched, "the
trickle of sources from the ‘other side’ was becoming, if not a flood, at least
a substantial inundation." The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow
Wilson Center in Washington has, and continues to, play a major role in making Cold War
era East European documents easily accessible. Research is in its early stages on all of
these documents, but what has been revealed so far is to say the least intriguing.
One of the more interesting revelations, as shown by these
documents, was Stalin’s and other political leader’s reluctance to throw their
full weight behind an atomic weapons program. In late 1942 Stalin authorized a small
research project. He remained skeptical though. Stalin’s reaction, after being
informed by spy intelligence that London and Washington were collaborating to build a
uranium bomb, was characteristically suspicious:
I do not believe this. And I advise you not to believe
that it is possible to win a war using some kind of chemical element that no
one has seen. Doesn’t this seem like pure propaganda to you? Done deliberately
to distract our scientists from work on new kinds of weapons for the army?
It would take the course of events and Soviet scientists to convince
Stalin a full fledged atomic weapon program was needed. The scientific director of the
Soviet nuclear project, Igor Kurchatov, wrote to Stalin on September 29, 1944 to try and
convince him that a larger research effort was needed:
Though I know you are extremely busy, in view of the
historic meaning of the uranium problem, I all the same decided to disturb you
and to ask you to order an effort which would correspond to the potential and
significance of our Great State in world culture.
Soviet espionage, in light of what we now know, played a major role
in helping Soviets stay up to date on atomic weapons development in the West and also in
helping Russians develop their own bomb. Kurchatov commented that espionage made it
possible "to bypass many very labor-intensive phases of working out the problem and
to learn about new scientific and technical ways of solving it." Once the Manhattan
Project was completed and the atomic bomb’s capabilities were proven in Japan, Stalin
was ready to throw full weight behind the effort to build an atomic bomb. "Hiroshima
has shaken the world," Stalin admitted to Soviet physicists soon after the event.
"The balance has been broken. Build the bomb – it will remove the great danger
By 1946 Stalin was convinced of the right path to take as shown by
Kurchatov’s notes based on a January 25, 1946 conversation he held with Stalin:
Viewing the future development of the work Comrade
Stalin said that it is not worth spending time and effort on small-scale work,
rather, it is necessary to conduct the work broadly, on a Russian scale, and
that in this regard the broadest, utmost assistance will be provided.
Solving the problem of constructing an atomic bomb as soon as possible required
mobilization of all the country’s resources. This job called for the establishment of
a new state management body endowed with appropriate power. The Special Committee, headed
by L.P. Beria, served as this independent state control body directly subordinate to
Joseph Stalin. The committee functioned for almost eight years before being abolished in
June of 1953. However, before being abolished the Special Committee covered a very
important formative period in the Soviet atomic project. The committee completed four
important tasks during its existence: (1) Establishment and growth of USSR atomic
industry. (2) Development and testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb. (3) Further
development of newer atomic bombs. (4) Development and virtual completion of the first
hydrogen bomb. The complete work of the Special Committee consumes 300,000 typewritten
pages compiled between 1943-1953. Most of these documents relate to the construction of
the Soviet’s first atomic bomb, dropped on August 29, 1949. Significantly sooner than
General Leslie R. Groves predicted.
Although the dropping of the atomic bomb was a landmark event for
the USSR, development of the hydrogen bomb had already become a priority by 1949. Work on
the Hydrogen bomb by Soviet scientists had commenced in 1948. Meanwhile in the United
States, there was much soul-searching being done prior to deciding with the go ahead for
developing the Hydrogen bomb. To Soviets, "the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb
was seen as the next logical step." Only after the Soviets detonated the hydrogen
bomb on August 12, 1953 did the soul searching begin. Soviet physicist Andrei Sakahrov
past buildings destroyed by the blast, braking to a
stop beside an eagle whose wings had been badly singed. It was trying to fly,
but it couldn’t get off the ground. One of the officers killed the eagle with
a well-aimed kick, putting it out of its misery. I have been told that
thousands of birds are destroyed in every test; they take wing at the flash,
but then fall to earth, burned and blinded.
It is odd that the fate of birds would stick so vividly in the minds
of witnesses, but there were few other means of comprehending the bomb’s power on a
human scale. Calculations placed the size of the blast at 400 kilotons; twenty times the
size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Atomic bomb tests had impressed most but not all
Soviet observers, no one who observed the Hydrogen bomb came away without an elemental
feeling of awe mixed with dread. N.A. Vlasov who saw the first Soviet test, claimed
"The impact of it apparently transcended some kind of psychological barrier."
Sakharov sensed this "psychological" encroachment, and subsequently began to
regret helping develop such a weapon.
When you see all of this yourself, something in you
changes. When you see the burned birds who are writhing on the scorched
steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of
cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted
glass, you immediately think of times of war… All of this triggers an
irrational and yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of
one’s responsibility at this point?
Kurchatov, so effective in helping build Stalin’s atomic bomb, decided to abandon
further work on nuclear weapons.
Soviet scientists were particularly horrified with their creation,
but a few politicians also worried about what the innovation of the Hydrogen bomb might
mean. Georgii Malenkov, the head of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, saw visions of
an apocalypse beginning to form. In his electoral address on March 12, 1954 Malenkov
commented that war between the United States and the USSR "considering the modern
means of warfare, would mean the end of world civilization." Malenkov was berated by
fellow leaders for making such a comment. Krushchev called Malenkov’s allusions to
thermonuclear destruction as being "theoretically mistaken and politically
harmful." Molotov claimed that "a communist should not speak about the ‘destruction
of world civilization’ or about the ‘destruction of the human race,’ but
about the need to prepare and mobilize all forces for the destruction of
bourgeoisie." By 1955 Khrushcev had ousted Malenkov from his post for his ‘anti-Communist’
like comments. Khrushcev, however, was well aware Malenkov had been correct in his
statement. Other communist party members were affirming what Malenkov had said. In a
memorable conversation with United States President Dwight Eisenhower at the Geneva Summit
of 1955, Soviet Defense Minister Georgi Zhukov agreed with Eisenhower’s statement,
"now, with the appearance of atomic and hydrogen weapons, many notions that were
correct in the past have changed. War in modern conditions with the use of atomic and
hydrogen weapon became even more senseless than ever before." Zhukov agreed and noted
that "he personally saw how lethal this weapon is." Eisenhower continued:
"Even scientists do not know what would happen if, say, in the course of one month
200 hydrogen bombs would explode and if the conditions would cause the spread of atomic
dust." Zhukov emphasized in his reply that he "personally favors the liquidation
of atomic and hydrogen weapons." Most significant about Zhukov’s reply was that
he had spoken under the advice and consent of Khrushcev. Many years later Khrushcev would
recall that the Geneva summit "convinced us once again, that there was no pre-war
situation in existence at that time, and our enemies were afraid of us in the same way as
we were of them."
Despite a realization of the consequences nuclear weapons brought,
the Soviet missile and nuclear arsenal continued to grow. The race for nuclear-missile
power and fear of lagging behind the competitor outweighed common sense. As the Soviet
missile and nuclear arsenal continued to grow and develop, it became an important part of
Soviet diplomacy. For instance, during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 Moscow reminded
British and French leaders of their vulnerability to Soviet rockets if they did not
withdraw forces from Egyptian territory. Along with playing a tough game, Khrushcev was
willing to launch dangerous adventures with regard to the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises,
which brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.
Khrushchev soon realized nuclear weapons could be used as a potent
internal force in domestic struggles as well. The leadership troika of Malenkov,
Khrushchev and Molotov conspired to oust Beria from his head position of the Special
Committee. The troika cued Beria’s subordinates such as the Minister of Medium
Machine Building, V.A. Malyshev, to make accusations that Beria
put his signature on a whole number of important
decisions without informing the Central Committee and the government for
instance, on the working plan 1953 for a very important research and
development bureau working on the design of atomic bombs….He hid them from the
government, signed them single-handedly, taking advantage of his position of
the chairman of the Special Committee.
Beria was accused of having "positioned himself above the
party" and the "treasonous schemes" attributed to him became the basis for
his indictment and execution in December 1953. After Beria’s arrest the atomic
complex came under the control of the Defense Department Central Committee of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU) and also by the military-industrial
commission of the USSR Council of Ministers. Following this incident Khrushchev advanced
the new strategic concept of "peaceful coexistence between the capitalist and
socialist systems." Despite this declaration, the confrontation between the two super
powers was exacerbated rather than lessened during the sixties.
By 1961, despite informal talks for a moratorium on testing nuclear
weapons in 1958, pressures to resume testing were building in Washington and Moscow for
both technological reasons and as a reflection on the tense international situation. The
tense international situation came as a result of Gary Powers U2 spy plane being shot down
over Russia, the embarrassing Bay of Pigs fiasco and the newly erected Berlin Wall. As a
part of the political power game occuring between Khrushchev and Kennedy at this time,
Khrushchev announced a new round of explosions that would include a 100 – megaton
bomb. The effort to build a bomb of this size had been under way in the Soviet Union for
some time. Ironically Sakharov, who had been so appalled with the hydrogen bomb, was the
key figure behind the effort to build this device. Sakharov and his colleagues saw the
"Big Bomb" as a way to demonstrate "the absolute destructiveness and
inhumanity of this weapon of mass annihilation, to impress on mankind and the politicians
the fact that, in the event of a tragic show down there would be no winners."
Sakharov managed to convince Khrushchev that a 50-megaton bomb, not a 100-megaton bomb was
sufficient for testing. It is lucky Sakharov convinced Khrushchev of this, for the
50-megaton bomb dropped over Novaya Zemlya island on October 30, 1961 remains to be the
single largest blast humans have detonated. The flash from this 50-megaton monster was
visible 600 miles away, its mushroom cloud rose 40 miles and the atmospheric disturbance
orbited the earth three times. A cameraman that witnessed the blast reported it as
The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance
were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and
even clouds began to glow and become transparent. At that moment, our aircraft
emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright
orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter.
Slowly and silently it crept upwards….Having broken through the thick layer of
clouds it kept growing,. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The
spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.
Based on results of this 50-megaton bomb, a 100-megaton bomb would have created a
firestorm equaling the size of Maryland. Khrushchev wanted to "let this device hang
over the heads of the capitalists, like a sword of Damocles."
The "Big Bomb" did not gather the political effect
Khrushchev hoped for though. In fact, the explosion of such a device made Khrushchev look
more ridiculous than awesome. The bomb was impractical militarily, it could never have
been used in real combat. Superweapons are rejected by contemporary military doctrine, and
the proposition "now we have even more powrful warheads" is ridiculous. The bomb
served more as a one time demonstration of force. Another reason for the ineffectiveness
of the "Big Bomb" politically was due to a speech given by Deputy Secretary of
Defense Roswell Gilpatric nine days before the bomb’s testing. Gilpatric was assigned
by the Kennedy administration to give a speech revealing that , based on satellite
photographs and intelligence reports, the United States knew there was no missile gap as
Khrushchev had bragged. The speech blunted the impact of the "Big Bomb" and
exposed Khrushchev’s pompous posturing and belligerent bellowing.
Khrushchev was subdued, at least for a time, after Gilpatric’s
speech. Although during December of 1961 Khrushchev reverted to his blustery ways by
announcing that the Americans "do not have fifty-and one-hundred megaton bombs….we
have them already and even more." The politics of the Cold War era had become almost
farcical in nature. Stanley Kubrick, Hollywood directing great, apparently thought
politics had become ridiculous too. In a Kubrick classic, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I
Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, Kubrick turns unthinkable horror into an
unbearably funny black comedy. In this 1963 classic a renegade general in the U.S. Air
Force decides to use a loophole in the nuclear safety provisions to start World War III by
launching an attack on the Soviets. Unknown to the rest of the world, the Soviet Union has
created a doomsday device that makes certain that if the Soviet Union suffers a nuclear
attack, the rest of the world will be destroyed. The U.S. President, played by Peter
Sellers, works with lunatic military officials in attempting to assess ways to stop the
renegade U.S. general and enlist the cooperation of the Soviet Premier. Sellers also plays
a British exchange officer working, under the renegade general, who suspects the orders
the general is giving are not real. Finally, Peter Sellers also plays the insane Dr.
Strangelove, a mad German scientist from the Nazi era being secretly employed by the
United States so it can build its own doomsday device. This hypermasculine Cold War
posturing comes across as being devastatingly funny, but nightmarishly frightening in its
accuracy. Dr. Strangelove is, surprisingly, not overly far-fetched. A report by
scientists working on the 50-megaton bomb concluded, "A successful result from the
test of this device opens the possibility of creating a device of practically unlimited
power." Molotov worried about this new idea of world nuclear annihilation as
suggested in Dr. Strangelove: "How can it be asserted that civilization could perish
in an atomic war?…Can we make the peoples believe that in the event of war all must
perish? Then why should we build socialism, why worry about tomorrow? It would be better
to supply everyone with coffins now."
The fact is that both countries were scared and did not know what to
do with their nuclear weapons. The conviction persisted that there must be some
advantage in possessing nuclear weapons, if only strategists and statesman could figure
out what that might be. A 1956 comment by Eisenhower states the basic reasoning for
the nuclear arms race: "The United States is piling up armaments which it well knows
will never provide for its ultimate safety. We are piling up armaments because we do not
know what else to do to provide for our security."
And as ridiculous as it may seem, much of the Cold War was about
this not knowing what to do or how to act with nuclear weapons. The United States is now
able to see the Russians were as fearful and repulsed by nuclear war as themselves, but at
the time Khrushchev’s swaggering covered this fact. Many Americans believed Russia
might indeed be willing to engage in an all out nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove
displayed the fear of that "ultimate" weapon those "Russkies" might
have. Americans pondered, "would the Russians really risk civilization over an
ideological battle?" Thankfully for humanity, this did not happen, but had a
"Strangelovian" type of doomsday war taken place Mao Zedong made probably the
darkest but most observant comment in saying, the end of the world "would hardly mean
anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar
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