Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)
Part 3: More MADmen
It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis–and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions.
President John Kennedy, Television Address to the Nation regarding the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Monday, October 22, 1962
“The Abyss of Destruction.”
Pretty strong words! The US had fought in WW1, according to President Woodrow Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy.” But obviously that hadn’t worked.
So we’d fought WW2 to finish the job. And finish it we thought we did, with a display of power the likes of which the world had never seen. It must have seemed, to the average citizen, that after we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the Japanese to their knees, SURELY the world was safe now. America would be the policeman of the world, as it was the nation with the Biggest Billy Club. In fact, the only nation with that Club.
So how did we manage to get from there in 1945 to the edge of the “Abyss of Destruction” a mere 17 years later?
From the Wikipedia entry, History of Nuclear Weapons
The Soviet Union was not invited to share in the new weapons developed by the United States and the other Allies. During the war, information had been pouring in from a number of volunteer spies involved with the Manhattan Project (known in Soviet cables under the code-name of Enormoz), and the Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov was carefully watching the Allied weapons development. It came as no surprise to Stalin when Truman had informed him at the Potsdam conference that he had a “powerful new weapon.” Truman was shocked at Stalin’s lack of interest.
The Soviet spies in the U.S. project were all volunteers and none were Russians. One of the most valuable, Klaus Fuchs, was a German émigré theoretical physicist who had been a part in the early British nuclear efforts and had been part of the UK mission to Los Alamos during the war. Fuchs had been intimately involved in the development of the implosion weapon, and passed on detailed cross-sections of the “Trinity” device to his Soviet contacts. Other Los Alamos spies—none of whom knew each other—included Theodore Hall and David Greenglass. The information was kept but not acted upon, as Russia was still too busy fighting the war in Europe to devote resources to this new project.
But once the war was over, the Russians hurried to begin making use of all of that Spy vs Spy information.
(Speaking of MADmen…the Spy vs Spy classic cartoon characters debuted in January 1961 in Mad Magazine—creator Antonio Prohias had only months earlier fled from his native Cuba under threat of arrest—or even execution—for his satirical parodies of the new Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.)
And the Russian scientists were quick learners.
Two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the U.S. government released an official technical history of the Manhattan Project, authored by Princeton physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, known colloquially as the Smyth Report. The sanitized summary of the wartime effort focused primarily on the production facilities and scale of investment, written in part to justify the wartime expenditure to the American public.
The Soviet program, under the suspicious watch of former NKVD [the Soviet Secret Police] chief Lavrenty Beria (a participant and victor in Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s), would use the Report as a blueprint, seeking to duplicate as much as possible the American effort. The “secret cities” used for the Soviet equivalents of Hanford and Oak Ridge literally vanished from the maps for decades to come.
And it only took them four years…some of it taken up with some bumbling of their efforts…for the Soviets to duplicate what was in the Report.
On August 29, 1949, the effort brought its results, when the USSR tested its first fission bomb, dubbed “Joe-1” by the U.S. [in reference to Joseph Stalin], years ahead of American predictions. The news of the first Soviet bomb was announced to the world first by the United States, which had detected the nuclear fallout it generated from its test site in Kazakhstan.
The loss of the American monopoly on nuclear weapons marked the first tit-for-tat of the nuclear arms race. The response in the U.S. was one of apprehension, fear, and scapegoating, which would lead eventually into the Red-baiting tactics of McCarthyism. Yet recent information from unclassified Venona intercepts and the opening of the KGB archives after the fall of the Soviet Union show that the USSR had useful spies that helped their program, although none were identified by McCarthy.
Joe-1 had a yield of 22 KT of TNT, very similar to the US Trinity and Fat Man bombs.
In order to test the effects of the new weapon, workers constructed houses made of wood and bricks, along with a bridge, and a simulated metro [electric railway] in the vicinity of the test site. Armoured hardware and approximately 50 aircraft were also brought to the testing grounds, as well as over 1,500 animals to test the bomb’s effects on life.The resulting data showed the RDS explosion to be 50% more destructive than originally estimated by its engineers.
And the race was on.
To clarify what happened next, it is necessary to understand the difference between “A-bombs” and “H-bombs”—or “thermonuclear weapons.”
The original atomic bomb used nuclear fission, in which big atoms (uranium or plutonium) were split into littler ones in a chain reaction, releasing vast amounts of energy.
The hydrogen bomb employs nuclear fusion, in which little atoms (various forms of hydrogen) fuse together to make bigger ones (helium), essentially the same process that occurs in the sun.
The only way to get enough heat to make this fusion process work … 50 million degrees… in a hydrogen bomb is to literally “ignite” it with a nuclear explosion—a fission bomb! So strangely enough, every H-bomb has an A-bomb inside its casing.
The basics of most thermonuclear weapons of the past and present: Radiation from a primary fission bomb compresses a secondary section containing both fission and fusion fuel. The compressed secondary is heated from within by a second fission explosion.
The bottom line of all this? Fission bombs are a million times more powerful than conventional chemical bombs. And fusion bombs are a thousand times more powerful than fission bombs.
And therein lies the race to the Abyss of Destruction.
The US took the first step three years after the Russians proved they could compete in the race. On November 1, 1952, the US tested its first thermonuclear/fusion device. It wasn’t really a weapon they planned to use… it was too big, at 20 feet tall and 140,000 pounds, for any plane to “deliver” it in warfare. It was just a prototype to test their thermonuclear theories.
So the bomb, code-named “Mike” and part of a multi-test series dubbed “Operation Ivy,” was detonated on an island in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.
Its explosion yielded 10.4 megatons of energy—over 450 times the power of the bomb dropped onto Nagasaki— and obliterated Elugelab, leaving an underwater crater 6240 ft wide and 164 ft deep where the island had once been. Truman had initially tried to create a media blackout about the test—hoping it would not become an issue in the upcoming presidential election—but on January 7, 1953, Truman announced the development of the hydrogen bomb to the world as hints and speculations of it were already beginning to emerge in the press.
And the Race was on…
Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union exploded its first thermonuclear device, designed by the physicist Andrei Sakharov, on August 12, 1953, labeled “Joe-4” by the West. This created concern within the U.S. government and military, because, unlike “Mike,” the Soviet device was a deliverable weapon, which the U.S. did not yet have. This first device though was arguably not a “true” hydrogen bomb, and could only reach explosive yields in the hundreds of kilotons (never reaching the megaton range of a “staged” weapon). Still, it was a powerful propaganda tool for the Soviet Union, and the technical differences were fairly oblique to the American public and politicians.
And the race continued. Although both nations held many other tests, the next significant one was the US March 1, 1954, Castle Bravo test over the Bikini Atoll, also in the Marshall Islands.
The Bravo bomb yielded 15 MT of energy … and a lot of very bad publicity.
[The Castle Bravo test] became the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history. The combination of the unexpectedly large blast and poor weather conditions caused a cloud of radioactive nuclear fallout to contaminate over 7,000 square miles (18,000 km2), including Marshall Island natives and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, as a snow-like mist. The contaminated islands were evacuated (and are still uninhabitable), but the natives received enough of a radioactive dose that they suffered far elevated levels of cancer and birth defects in the years to come.
The crew of the Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon 5, returned to port suffering from radiation sickness and skin burns. Their cargo, many tons of contaminated fish, managed to enter into the market before the cause of their illness was determined. When a crew member died from the sickness and the full results of the contamination were made public by the U.S., Japanese concerns were reignited about the hazards of radiation and resulted in a boycott on eating fish (a main staple of the island country) for some weeks.
The dropping of the two atomic bombs at the end of WW2 seemed very “justifiable” to most US citizens, and were no doubt more of a cause for pride in the present rather than fear for the future in the US at the time. But the Castle Bravo incident changed all that.
The hydrogen bomb age had a profound effect on the thoughts of nuclear war in the popular and military mind. With only fission bombs, nuclear war was something that possibly could be “limited.” Dropped by planes and only able to destroy the most built up areas of major cities, it was possible for many to look at fission bombs as a technological extension of large-scale conventional bombing—such as the extensive firebombing against Japan and Germany during World War II). Proponents brushed aside as grave exaggeration claims that such weapons could lead to worldwide death or harm.
Even in the decades before fission weapons, there had been speculation about the possibility for human beings to end all life on the planet, either by accident or purposeful maliciousness—but technology had not provided the capacity for such action. The great power of hydrogen bombs made world-wide annihilation possible.
The “Castle Bravo” incident itself raised a number of questions about the survivability of a nuclear war. Government scientists in both the U.S. and the USSR had insisted that fusion weapons, unlike fission weapons, were “cleaner,” as fusion reactions did not produce the dangerously radioactive by-products of fission reactions. While technically true, this hid a more gruesome point: the last stage of a multi-staged hydrogen bomb often used the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions to induce fissioning in a jacket of natural uranium, and provided around half of the yield of the device itself.
This fission stage made fusion weapons considerably more “dirty” than they were made out to be. This was evident in the towering cloud of deadly fallout that followed the Bravo test. When the Soviet Union tested its first megaton device in 1955, the possibility of a limited nuclear war seemed even more remote in the public and political mind. Even cities and countries that were not direct targets would suffer fallout contamination. Extremely harmful fission products would disperse via normal weather patterns and embed in soil and water around the planet.
Speculation began to run towards what fallout and dust from a full-scale nuclear exchange would do to the world as a whole, rather than just cities and countries directly involved. In this way, the fate of the world was now tied to the fate of the bomb-wielding superpowers.
At some point late in his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was pressured by some of his more hawkish advisors to approve development of some new sort of nuclear weapon that they were convinced would allow the US to “win” such a war. Eisenhower’s famous reply:
“You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
Alfred Nobel (yes, the one who set up the Nobel Prizes) was the inventor of dynamite in 1867. He had this to say about his invention:
“My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace. ”
Sounds quite a bit like the sentiment of the earlier quote in this series from 1870 by Wilkie Collins, doesn’t it!
“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace”.
Nobel seemed to have thought he’d provided an agent destructive enough that people from then on would indeed “abide by golden peace.”
He was wrong.
We will continue our investigation into just how wrong in the next installment of this Special Report.