The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War

January 15, 2009

The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will mark the latest attempt to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. For some it will be a chance to breathe new life into pursuing the abolition of nuclear weapons. Sixty years ago, US and Soviet leaders first grappled with getting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, at a time when the Soviet Union was striving to catch up with America, who held a monopoly. Was there a serious prospect of agreement in 1945 or was the Cold War inevitable?

In The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War, Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko provide a highly stimulating and thought-provoking attempt to address this question. Drawing from new sources and recent historiography, they present valuable new insights into Soviet behaviour and bring fresh perspectives to American policymaking. While perhaps reluctant to conclude in the inevitability of the outcome, they nevertheless show the enormous obstacles to progress.

President Truman did not have a game plan for pursuing his aspiration of the international control of nuclear weapons immediately after the war, and by 1946 attempts at progress gave way to manoeuvring within the UN to score points off the Soviet Government. Craig and Radchenko argue persuasively that a key factor in this was the publicity about Soviet atomic espionage, which meant that it would be "political suicide" for the Democratic President to consider any scheme that involved trusting the Soviet Union while giving up America's monopoly. The resulting US Baruch Plan was preordained to fail.

There were those in Washington, notably Henry Stimson, who recognised the imperative of agreement and gave serious thought to how it might be pursued. It is clear, however, that there were no Henry Stimsons in Moscow. Stalin was determined to build the bomb regardless of cost or effort. If international control meant surrendering the weapons to an international authority then it would remain unacceptable for the Soviet Union whatever Washington's tactics. And if Americans thought atomic bombs might lever concessions from Moscow, Stalin thought otherwise. Craig and Radchenko argue that the short-term reaction to Hiroshima was a hardening of Stalin's policy and Molotov's rhetoric.

One important lesson from these years is that American vice-presidents need to know something about foreign policy just in case they become President. Truman knew little of the Soviet Union and nothing of the atomic bomb when Roosevelt died. So what if Roosevelt had lived longer? Craig and Radchenko present an intriguing claim that Roosevelt intended to practise a form of atomic diplomacy. How that might have taken shape, and how indeed he might have pursued his foreign policy after 1945, are large and complex questions. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War nevertheless suggests that obstacles to agreement on atomic energy would have remained insurmountable.

Craig and Radchenko are keen to explore the ideas and initiatives of leaders and officials, although they also show how these were constrained in the hugely different environments of Stalin's Moscow and Truman's Washington. Their conclusion points toward the inevitability of history, with a Hobson's choice between "sovereignty and international government". Since 1945-46, arms control and disarmament regimes have come a long way and the failed efforts of 1946 might be attributed to the principle of unripe time.

For the authors, whatever the importance of Soviet espionage and Stalin's determination to build an atomic bomb, the most important factor in 1945 was the bomb itself. Neither state could countenance even a 1 per cent chance of its adversary cheating.

Since then much thought and ingenuity have been given to that problem. Whether today's generation of leaders and officials can surmount these challenges remains to be seen.

The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War

By Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko. Yale University Press, 232pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780300110289. Published 1 October 2008

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