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

By John DillinNational correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1983

Cambridge, Mass.

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.

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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.

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.