Targeting the USSR in August 1945

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 27th, 2012

If the World War II alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom was the special relationship, what was the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union? The especially problematic relationship? The relationship that could really have used to go to counseling? A relationship forged out of extreme crisis that later seemed like a sketchy thing? (Easily abbreviated as the sketchy relationship, of course.) My wife suggests perhaps calling it the shotgun marriage.

Maybe special fits the bill there too, in the sense of it being odd. Case in point: by August 30, 1945 — before World War II was officially over — some part of the U.S. military force (I'm not sure what branch; the Army Air Corps are a likely suspect) had already taken the time to draw up a list of good targets for atomic bombs in the USSR... and even overlaid a map of the Soviet Union with the ranges of nuclear-capable bombers, along with "first" and "second" priority targets marked on it.1

Click image to zoom.

How many other war alliances end with one side explicitly plotting to nuke the heck out of the other ally? Probably not too many.

This amazing map comes from General Groves' files, and was sent to him in September 1945 as part of a list of estimates for how many atomic bombs Curtis LeMay thought the US ought to have. I'll talk about that another time, but here's a hint: it was so many that even General Groves thought it was too many. Whoa.

A few things: the majority of these "dark" plots are B-29s (the same bombers that carried Fat Man and Little Boy), and they are going out of all kinds of "allied" bases (some currently in their possession, others labeled as "possible springboards") around the USSR (Stavanger, Bremen, Foggia, Crete, Dhahran, Lahore, Okinawa, Shimushiru, Adak, and Nome). Which is an interesting way to quickly conceptualize the Cold War world from a military standpoint.

The very large, empty plots are for B-36s, which didn't exist yet. They wouldn't get fielded until 1949, but were already in the planning stages during the war. The actual B-36s as delivered had somewhat longer ranges (6,000 miles or so, total, if Wikipedia is to believed) than the ones estimated on here.

The target cities are a bit hard to make out (the next time I'm at NARA, I'll try to get them to bring me the original map), but the "first priority" cities include Moscow, Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Stalinsk, Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk, Kazan, Molotov, and Gorki. Leningrad appears to be listed as a "second priority" target, which surprises me, but it might just be the microfilm being hard to read. All in all, it's not the most interesting list of cities: they have literally just taken a list of the top cities in the USSR (based on population, industry, war relevance) and made those their atomic targets.

Stalin has a well-deserved reputation as a paranoid guy. But, as the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.

  1. Citation: "A Strategic Chart of Certain Russian and Manchurian Urban Areas [Project No. 2532]," (30 August 1945), Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 4, Folder 3, "Stockpile, Storage, and Military Characteristics." The microfilm image I had of this came in two frames, a top and a bottom, and I pasted them together in Photoshop. This took a little bit of warping of the bottom image in odd ways (using Photoshop's crazy "Puppet Warp" tool) because it didn't quite line up with the top one due to folds in the paper and things like that. So there is a tiny bit of manipulation here, though none of it affects the content. []

8 Responses to “Targeting the USSR in August 1945”

  1. Ologe says:

    Your Blog is really informative and interesting. Your approach to analysing archival materials, and the way you expose value in items that seem to have none, are together brilliant. I always have something to look forward to on Wednesdays and Fridays (and occasionally, on other weekdays, I get a “surprise package”). Please keep going…

  2. It’s fascinating (and disturbing) to see that even from the very beginning, there was no rationality to the nuclear targeting process.

    • Graham J. says:

      …or all too much rationality, I would say.

      • Mike Lehman says:

        I’d say it strongly suggests that ideology was a major factor in how LeMay saw the world — and the targeting process. Right from the beginning of the Cold War, it’s apparent that the pernicious influence that causes one’s own side to begin to take on characteristics of the enemy appears to be at work. Was it Stalin who was paranoid, LeMay, or both? Yet another reminder just how lucky we were to manage to get through the Cold War without it turning into a hot one.

        I’m very curious what reaction Groves had to this early possibility of needing to feed what became the drearily familiar addiction of LeMay to nuclear tonnage as the answer to virtually any military problem. It certainly throws a new light on Groves’ own reluctance to join in the feeding frenzy once Robert Oppenheimer was bloodied and in the deep waters of the events that led to the 1954 hearing on his security clearance and his eventual purge from government service.

        The Air Force’s role in that affair was significant, but Groves appears to have never fallen under the spell of the bloodlust that seemed to drive the junior service’s reaction to Oppenheimer’s position that thermonuclear weapons wouldn’t prove as useful as the service thought they’d be. Such an incident suggests he’d already had an opportunity to take his measure of LeMay.

        • Hi Mike: I’m not sure I would use the term ideology here, unless you mean it very broadly, like, “target everyone unless you know otherwise,” rather than its usual Communism/Capitalism overtones. Even “paranoid” isn’t really the right word (though I’m the one to invoke it first, I know) — this is just the “natural” result of running a security calculus on the entire world, pure realpolitik (and this is why I might not use the term ideology).

          Contemplating Groves and LeMay is an interesting proposition. They are really quite different men, despite their dual reputations for brusqueness and heartlessness. A very flip formulation might be to suggest that Groves always wanted to be ready for war with the USSR, while LeMay actually wanted to start it. I’d need to re-dip into Racing for the Bomb, though, to look at Groves’ postwar years at the head of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, though, to really make sense of what a postwar Groves is like with respects to a postwar LeMay, because I think that’s where you’d start to see the similarities and differences.

          (It’s also worth remembering that Groves was very, very exposed during the Oppenheimer hearing. He was the one who had repeatedly affirmed the importance and loyalty of Oppenheimer despite the questionable behavior, and by 1954, it was clear that the Manhattan Project had been a leaky ship from a security standpoint.)

  3. […] which was about as high as it went during World War II. (That the report came with an attached map showing projected US atomic capabilities in the USSR probably didn’t help with that.)1 Click […]

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