There are lots of important and exciting years that people like to talk about when it comes to the history of nuclear weapons. 1945 obviously gets pride of place, being the year of the first nuclear explosion ever (Trinity), the first and only uses of the weapons in war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the end of World War II (and thus the beginning of the postwar world). 1962 gets brought up because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 1983 has been making a resurgence in our nuclear consciousness, thanks to lots of renewed interest in the Able-Archer war scare. All of these dates are, of course, super important.
But one of my favorite historical years is 1946. It’s easy to overlook — while there are some important individual events that happen, none of them are as cataclysmic as some of the events of the aforementioned years, or even some of the other important big years. But, as I was reminded last week while going through some of the papers of David Lilienthal and Bernard Baruch that were in the Princeton University archives, 1946 was something special in and of itself. It is not the big events that define 1946, but the fact that it was a liminal year, a transition period between two orders. For policymakers in the United States, 1946 was when the question of “what will the country’s attitude towards the bomb be?” was still completely up for grabs, but over the course of the year, things became more set in stone.
1946 was a brief period when anything seemed possible. When nothing had yet calcified. The postwar situation was still fluid, and the American approach towards the bomb still unclear.
Part of the reason for this is because things went a little off the rails in 1945. The bombs were dropped, the war had ended, people were pretty happy about all of that. General Groves et al. assumed that Congress would basically take their recommendations for how the bomb should be regarded in the postwar (by passing the May-Johnson Bill, which military lawyers, with help from Vannevar Bush and James Conant, drafted in the final weeks of World War II). At first, it looked like this was going to happen — after all, didn’t Groves “succeed” during the war? But in the waning months of 1945, this consensus rapidly deteriorated. The atomic scientists on the Manhattan Project who had been dissatisfied with the Army turned out to make a formidable lobby, and they found allies amongst a number of Senators. Most important of these was first-term Senator Brien McMahon, who quickly saw an opportunity to jump into the limelight by making atomic energy his issue. By the end of the year, not only did Congressional support fall flat for the Army’s Bill, but even Truman had withdrawn support for it. In its place, McMahon suggested a bill that looked like something the scientists would have written — a much freer, less secret, civilian-run plan for atomic energy.
So what happened in 1946? Let’s just jot off a few of the big things I have in mind.
January: The United Nations meets for the first time. Kind of a big deal. The UN Atomic Energy Commission is created to sort out questions about the future of nuclear technology on a global scale. Hearings on the McMahon Bill continue in Congress through February.
February: The first Soviet atomic spy ring is made public when General Groves leaks information about Igor Gouzenko to the press. Groves wasn’t himself too concerned about it — it was only a Canadian spy ring, and Groves had compartmentalized the Canadians out of anything he considered really important — but it served the nice purpose of dashing the anti-secrecy lobby onto the rocks.
Also in February, George F. Kennan sends his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow, arguing that the Soviet Union sees itself in essential, permanent conflict with the West and is not likely to liberalize anytime soon. Kennan argues that containment of the USSR through “strong resistance” is the only viable course for the United States.
March: The Manhattan Engineer District’s Declassification Organization starts full operation. Groves had asked the top Manhattan Project scientists to come up with the first declassification rules in November 1945, when he realized that Congress wasn’t going to be passing legislation as soon as he expected. They came up with the first declassification procedures and the first declassification guides, inaugurating the first systematic approach to deciding what was secret and what was not.
March: The Acheson-Lilienthal Report is completed and submitted, in secret, to the State Department. It is quickly leaked and then was followed up by a legitimate publication by the State Department. Created by a sub-committee of advisors, headed by TVA Chairman David Lilienthal and with technical advice provided by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report argued that the only way to a safe world was through “international control” of atomic energy. The scheme they propose is that the United Nations create an organization (the Atomic Development Authority) that would be granted full control over world uranium stocks and would have the ability to inspect all facilities that used uranium in significant quantities. Peaceful applications of atomic energy would be permitted, but making nuclear weapons would not be. If one thought of it as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, except without any authorized possession of nuclear weapons, one would not be too far off the mark. Of note is that it is an approach to controlling the bomb that is explicitly not about secrecy, but about physical control of materials. It is not loved by Truman and his more hawkish advisors (e.g. Secretary of State Byrnes), but because of its leak and subsequent publication under State Department header, it is understood to be “the” position of the United States government on the issue.
April: The McMahon Act gets substantial modifications while in committee, including the creation of a Military Liaison Committee (giving the military an official position in the running of the Atomic Energy Commission) and the introduction of a draconian secrecy provision (the “restricted data” concept that this blog takes its name from).
June: The Senate passes the McMahon Act. The House starts to debate it. Several changes are made to the House version of the bill — notably all employees with access to “restricted data” must now be investigated by the FBI and the penalty for misuse or espionage of “restricted data” is increased to death or life imprisonment. Both of these features were kept in the final version submitted to the President for signature in July.
June: Bernard Baruch, Truman’s appointee to head the US delegation of the UN Atomic Energy Commission, presents a modified form of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report to the UNAEC, dubbed the Baruch Plan. Some of the modifications are substantial, and are deeply resented by people like Oppenheimer who see them as torpedoing the plan. The Baruch Plan, for example, considered the question of what to do about violations of the agreement something that needed to be hashed out explicitly and well in advance. It also argued that the United States would not destroy its (still tiny) nuclear stockpile until the Soviet Union had proven it was not trying to build a bomb of their own. It was explicit about the need for full inspections of the USSR — a difficulty in an explicitly closed society — and stripped the UN Security Council of veto power when it came to enforcing violations of the treaty. The Soviets were, perhaps unsurprisingly, resistant to all of these measures. Andrei Gromyko proposes a counter-plan which, like the Baruch Plan, prohibits the manufacture and use of atomic weaponry. However, it requires full and immediate disarmament by the United States before anything else would go into effect, and excludes any international role in inspection or enforcement: states would self-regulate on this front.
July: The first postwar nuclear test series, Operation Crossroads, begins in the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Now this is a curious event. Ostensibly the United States was in favor of getting rid of nuclear weapons, and in fact had not yet finalized its domestic legislation about the bomb. But at the same time, it planned to set off three of them, to see their effect on naval vessels. (They decided to only set off two, in the end.) The bombs were themselves still secret, of course, but it was decided that this event should be open to the world and its press. Even the Soviets were invited! As one contemporary report summed up:
The unique nature of the operation was inherent not only in its huge size — the huge numbers of participating personnel, and the huge amounts of test equipment and number of instruments involved — it was inherent also in the tremendous glare of publicity to which the tests were exposed, and above all the the extraordinary fact that the weapons whose performance was exposed to this publicity were still classified, secret, weapons, which had never even been seen except by a few men in the inner circles of the Manhattan District and by those who had assisted in the three previous atomic bomb detonations. It has been truly said that the operation was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted.” Paradoxically, it may also be said that it was the most publicly advertised secret test ever conducted.1
August: Truman signs the McMahon Act into law, and it becomes the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. It stipulates that a five-person Atomic Energy Commission will run all of the nation’s domestic atomic energy affairs, and while half of the law retains the “free and open” approach of the early McMahon Act, the other half has a very conservative and restrictive flavor to it, promising death and imprisonment to anyone who betrays atomic secrets. The paradox is explicit, McMahon explained at the time, because finding a way to implement policy between those two extremes would produce rational discussion. Right. Did I mention he was a first-term Senator? The Atomic Energy Commission would take over from the Manhattan Engineer District starting in 1947.
September: Baruch tells Truman that international control of atomic energy seems nowhere in sight. The Soviet situation has soured dramatically over the course of the year. The Soviets’ international control plan, the Gromyko Plan, requires full faith in Stalin’s willingness to self-regulate. Stalin, for his part, is not willing to sign a pledge of disarmament and inspection while the United States is continuing to build nuclear weapons. It is clear to Baruch, and even to more liberal-minded observers like Oppenheimer, that the Soviets are probably not going to play ball on any of this, because it would not only require them to forswear a potentially important weapon, but because any true plan would require them to become a much more open society.
October: Truman appoints David Lilienthal as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Lilienthal is enthusiastic about the job — a New Deal technocrat, he thinks that he can use his position to set up a fairly liberal approach to nuclear technology in the United States. He is quickly confronted by the fact that the atomic empire established by the Manhattan Engineer District has decayed appreciably in year after the end of the war, and that he has powerful enemies in Congress and in the military. His confirmation hearings start in early 1947, and are exceptionally acrimonious. I love Lilienthal as an historical figure, because he is an idealist who really wants to accomplish good things, but ends up doing almost the opposite of what he set out to do. To me this says a lot about the human condition.
November: The US Atomic Energy Commission meets for the first time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They adopt the declassification system of the Manhattan District, among other administrative matters.
December: Meredith Gardner, a cryptanalyst for the US Army Signal Intelligence Service, achieves a major breakthrough in decrypting wartime Soviet cables. A cable from 1944 contains a list of scientists working at Los Alamos — indications of a serious breach in wartime atomic security, potentially much worse than the Canadian spy ring. This information is kept extremely secret, however, as this work becomes a major component in the VENONA project, which (years later) leads to the discovery of Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and many other Soviet spies.
On Christmas Day, 1946, the Soviet Union’s first experimental reactor, F-1, goes critical for the first time.
No single event on that list stands out as on par with Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the Berlin Crisis. But taken together, I think, the list makes a strong argument for the importance of 1946. When one reads the documents from this period, one gets this sense of a world in flux. On the one hand, you have people who are hoping that the re-ordering of the world after World War II will present an enormous opportunity for creating a more peaceful existence. The ideas of world government, of the banning of nuclear weapons, of openness and prosperity, seem seriously on the table. And not just by members of the liberal elite, mind you: even US Army Generals were supporting these kinds of positions! And yet, as the year wore on, the hopes began to fade. Harsher analysis began to prevail. Even the most optimistic observers started to see that the problems of the old order weren’t going away anytime soon, that no amount of good faith was going to get Stalin to play ball. Which is, I should say, not to put all of the onus on the Soviets, as intractable as they were, and as awful as Stalin was. One can imagine a Cold War that was less tense, less explicitly antagonistic, less dangerous, even with limitations that the existence of a ruler like Stalin imposed. But some of the more hopeful things seem, with reflection, like pure fantasy. This is Stalin we’re talking about, after all. Roosevelt might have been able to sweet talk him for awhile, but even that had its limits.
We now know, of course, that the Soviet Union was furiously trying to build its own atomic arsenal in secret during this entire period. We also know that the US military was explicitly expecting to rely on atomic weapons in any future conflict, in order to offset the massive Soviet conventional advantage that existed at the time. We know that there was extensive Soviet espionage in the US government and its atomic program, although not as extensive as fantasists like McCarthy thought. We also know, through hard experience, that questions of treaty violations and inspections didn’t go away over time — if anything, I think, the experience of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has shown that many of Baruch’s controversial changes to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report were pretty astute, and quickly got to the center of the political difficulties that all arms control efforts present.
As an historian, I love periods of flux and of change. (As an individual, I know that living in “interesting times” can be pretty stressful!) I love looking at where old orders break down, and new orders emerge. The immediate postwar is one such period — where ideas were earnestly discussed that seemed utterly impossible only a few years later. Such periods provide little windows into “what might have been,” alternative futures and possibilities that never happened, while also reminding us of the forces that bent things to the path they eventually went on.
- Manhattan District History, Book VIII, Los Alamos Project (Y) – Volume 3, Auxiliary Activities, Chapter 8, Operation Crossroads (n.d., ca. 1946). [↩]