Roots of arms race: how nuclear policy evolved in the '50s

By , National correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Soviet buildup. Missile gap. Counterforce. Soaring defense budgets. Vulnerability. It all sounds like 1983 and today's debate over the Reagan defense buildup. But these are the sounds of the 1950s and an earlier crisis in US-Soviet relations.

Newly available information shows that US leaders 30 years ago were grappling with nuclear issues as thorny as those of today. Declassified documents reveal that American officials were deeply worried by the rapid, inexorable growth of Soviet strength - especially after Moscow detonated its first H-bomb in 1953.

One of those most troubled was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the first president in American history to face a potential enemy capable of physically destroying the United States.

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In meetings with the National Security Council in 1956, President Eisenhower spoke of the ''chaos and destruction'' that a nuclear war could bring. Top secret studies of the day predicted that by 1958, even with advanced warning, the US would be virtually defenseless against devastating Soviet attack.

So concerned was Eisenhower that he noted in his diary the possible need for a ''surprise attack'' against the Soviets if it looked as if they were preparing to begin a war.

Insights on US nuclear policy in the 1945-60 period are available in a new study by David Alan Rosenberg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston. His study will appear in the spring issue of International Security, published quarterly by Harvard University.

The study, utilizing many once-secret documents, describes America's first, stumbling steps to establish a nuclear war policy. It later details the huge buildup of US nuclear forces, the difficulty of selecting targets, service rivalries over strategy, and the surprising growth of Soviet power.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Dr. Rosenberg's study was the key role played by Air Force planners in setting nuclear policy in the 15 years after World War II.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, who became commander of the Strategic Air Command in 1948, led a drive to sharply expand the striking power of the Air Force. SAC grew from just 60 nuclear-carrying aircraft in 1948 to 500 B-52s and over 2,500 B-47s only 11 years later.

Air Force planners sought to make America's nuclear arsenal a ''cocked weapon ,'' Rosenberg notes. Their aim: to deliver enough force in the first hours of a war to incapacitate the Soviets.

Yet as the years passed, this Air Force goal became more and more elusive, until President Eisenhower realized by the mid-1950s that it was an impossible aim. And when President John F. Kennedy took office, that goal was eventually dropped.

Dr. Rosenberg's story, however, begins in those first, formative years after World War II when US officials - including President Harry S. Truman - hoped that a nuclear arsenal would never be necessary. The Truman Years

At first, President Truman wanted all atomic weapons placed under international control, and his policy delayed creation of a US nuclear strategy. As the Soviet threat became evident, the US found itself unprepared:

* When the Berlin blockade erupted in 1948, the US had only 50 atomic bombs - and none of them was assembled. The bombs were so heavy (10,000 pounds) that they could be loaded only by digging an 8-foot-deep pit, putting the bomb into it, then rolling the aircraft over the pit and hoisting the bomb aboard. Ten years later, hydrogen bombs 50 times as powerful weighed only 600 pounds.

* US war planners had such poor data on the Soviet Union that they were sometimes forced to use pre-World War II and Czarist-era maps to plot targets.

* So desperate were US strategists for data on the Soviets that on a number of occasions the CIA, in ''Operation Moby Dick,'' sent large balloons equipped with Air Force cameras drifting from Europe across the USSR to Japan. But the photos were of little use, since the agency wasn't able to determine the balloons' exact courses.

Throughout these early years, however, President Truman clung to the hope for international control. He saw the atomic bomb as a ''terror'' weapon, and seemed unwilling to consider its use on a wide scale.

By 1949, however, he gave up hope. He told top advisers: ''I am of the opinion we'll never obtain international control. Since we can't obtain international control, we must be strongest in atomic weapons.''

The Air Force had its marching orders. The massive buildup of air power began.

The need for growth of US nuclear weapons was enforced by a study that shocked some planners. The study group, headed by Air Force Lt. Gen. H.R. Harmon , found in May 1949 that even if all 133 atomic bombs in the US arsenal at that time were dropped on their precise targets in 70 Soviet cities, it would fail to ''bring about capitulation, destroy the roots of Communism, or critically weaken the power of Soviet leadership to dominate the people.''Soviet ability to overrun parts of Europe, the Mideast, and Far East ''would not be seriously impaired.'' Follow-up attacks would be needed.

One effect of the study was a quick expansion of nuclear weapons output.

The study also made officials realize the importance of improving the process of target selection. Should bombs be dropped on cities? On military targets? On petroleum facilities? On electric power plants? Should they be aimed at halting a Soviet advance into Europe? Into the Mideast?

At first, planners selected targets - mostly urban areas - designed to break the Soviets' will to fight. Gradually this was shifted to targets designed to crimp the Soviets' ability to fight.

For instance, one aircraft which had been programmed to drop its bomb on the Kremlin was retargeted to a point halfway between the Kremlin and an electrical plant a mile away.

Later, in 1950, targeters added a new, critical aim point: Soviet atomic facilities.

In 1951, in what proved to be a major development, the dominant planning role was moved to General LeMay at SAC. Under his guidance, the US quickly moved toward a policy of massive nuclear retaliation using thousands of atomic - and later hydrogen - bombs. It was SAC's goal to be able with a single blow to blunt the Soviet ability to wage war in Europe or to launch an atomic strike against the US.

SAC dominated intelligence gathering and research on nuclear issues, and in the 1950s neither the President nor the Joint Chiefs nor the National Security Council had the necessary expertise to counter SAC arguments for an ever-expanding force. The Eisenhower era

One factor that steadily drove up the need for US air power was the expansion of Soviet strength. SAC argued that if a Soviet nuclear strike against the US was to be prevented, SAC needed to knock out Soviet military targets. But the number of these targets grew . . . and grew.

Even during President Truman's years, Air Force officials reported that the number of Soviet targets which ''would have to be destroyed in the event of war'' were between 5,000 and 6,000. Those estimates continued to rise in the Eisenhower years until the US had amassed 18,000 nuclear bombs by 1960.

Was all this explosive power necessary? Or was it the source of what critics today charge is nuclear ''overkill''?

Behind the scenes, some military officials thought the Air Force had gone too far. For example, in the 1950s, nine nuclear bombs were aimed at the mid-sized city of Minsk.

Eisenhower himself sometimes fumed at Air Force proposals: ''They are trying to get themselves into an incredible position of having enough to destroy every conceivable target all over the world, plus a threefold reserve,'' he grumbled in 1959.

Even so, after studying all the data, Eisenhower approved the Air Force request for an updated weapons facility.

One reason was growing Soviet power. In 1955, two years after the Soviets exploded their first H-bomb, the US went through another scare: the bomber gap. Fears grew, based on poor intelligence reports, that by the late 1950s the Soviets would have a larger bomber force than the US.

Behind the scenes, however, Eisenhower had another worry. For the first time, he realized that even if the US struck first, it would soon be unable to prevent a Soviet attack against his country. Within the government, the mid-1950s brought the first inklings of what has now become the era of mutually assured destruction (MAD) - also known as the mutual balance of terror.

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