Scientific Knowledge and Power Politics
On September 1st, 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) informed President Harry S. Truman that a WB-29 reconnaissance aircraft had detected a significant quantity of radiological debris in the atmosphere over Soviet Central Asia. After two weeks of frantic, exhaustive analysis, AEC physicists concluded that this kind of radioactive pollution could only have been produced by a sizeable atomic explosion. For the Truman administration, the news that the American atomic monopoly had passed was both unexpected and troubling, especially since it came on the heels of the Berlin Blockade and the mounting successes of Mao Zedong’s communist forces in China.
Initially, the White House responded by instructing the Department of Defence to expand the United States’ atomic stockpile. However, several key government figures were quick to point out that such a measure would act as a stop-gap at best. It would only be a matter of time before the Soviets began mass-producing the bomb, and when they did, it was thought that the resulting atomic stalemate would leave U.S. conventional forces in Europe at a disadvantage.
Fortunately, there was another option on the table—the United States could build a so-called ‘superbomb’. 1 After some vigorous encouragement from AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss, Truman decided to instruct the relevant government departments, agencies, and organisations to consider whether it was in the national interest to undertake a crash-programme aimed at developing such a device. As part of this process, the AEC asked its General Advisory Committee (GAC)—a body chaired by J. Robert Oppenheimer and comprised for the most part of respected atomic scientists—to put together a short report on the scientific and technical aspects of thermonuclear weaponry.
Working with the utmost haste and under a considerable amount of pressure, the committee completed its task on October 30th. Its recommendation was clear, unanimous, and unyielding—the United States should not develop the ‘super’. To do so, the report concluded, would be morally wrong, strategically unnecessary, and diplomatically irresponsible. The panel was adamant that the destructive potential of thermonuclear weapons put them in a completely “different category” from their atomic counterparts. Since their detonation would “damage an area of the order of hundreds of square miles” and “unleash thermal radiation effects extending over a comparable area”, the new bombs would be weapons of genocide devoid of military utility.
What is more, the report argued that even if the Soviets successfully developed their own ‘super’—which was by no means a foregone conclusion—Strategic Air Command’s large arsenal of atomic bombs would still provide a credible deterrent against the Kremlin’s threats. Whilst the majority of committee members felt that this was reason enough to reject the president’s proposal, Enrico Fermi and Isidor Isaac Rabi went one step further. In a minority addendum attached to the report, they suggested that the United States should publicly repudiate the possession of fusion technology in a bid to put international atomic control back on the agenda.
What is particularly interesting about the GAC’s report is the curiously lopsided manner in which it deals with the various facets of the nuclear question. Having been asked to study the technical feasibility of constructing a thermonuclear warhead, it seems rather surprising that committee chose to focus so heavily on the moral implications of such a venture. Indeed, the majority opinion—most likely written by Oppenheimer himself—does not even make reference to the industrial, scientific, and procedural issues at play. Instead, it explicitly states that the report’s recommendation is based on the normative inclinations of its authors. Whether this approach to the job at hand was prudent or not is a moot point. There is no doubt that the committee’s intimate knowledge of the physics of nuclear explosions gave them a unique understanding of the “extreme dangers to mankind” posed by a world full of ‘superbombs’. One cannot help but wonder, though, whether the GAC could have made more of an effort to balance its proselytising with hard-headed scientific analysis.
Whatever the case, the GAC’s final report did not find a receptive audience in Washington. Although the committee’s apocalyptic rendering of the H-Bomb wedged its way into the memoranda flitting back and forth between the Oval Office, the Pentagon, and the State Department, the political bureaucracy took a very different view of its significance. For if this new weapon was so powerful—more powerful than anything that had gone before—then how could they be sure that the increasingly belligerent Politburo would refrain from developing it? The answer was that they could not, and this is something that Oppenheimer and his colleagues failed to seriously consider in their report.
By 1949, the domestic and international political climate was simply not conducive to grand conciliatory gestures. And as the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out, the “possession of a thermonuclear weapon by the USSR without such possession by the United States would be intolerable.” Ultimately, it was this argument which carried the day. During a National Security Council meeting held on January 31st, 1950, Truman bluntly asked: “Can the Russians do it?” All those present confirmed that they could. “In that case”, Truman replied, “we have no choice. We’ll go ahead.”
Given its seemingly perfunctory nature, a number of scholars have used the GAC report to back up the claim made by revisionist historians such as William Appleman Williams that the United States was predominantly to blame for the onset and perpetuation of the Cold War. While such an interpretation is not without merit, I would be so bold as to suggest that it is lacking in historical context. After all, the cliché that “it takes two to tango” is true in this case. As David Holloway notes, Stalin was an especially enthusiastic dance partner.
To my mind, the value of this document goes beyond arcane historiographical debates: it highlights the tension which exists between idealism and realism, ethics and exigency, erudition and governance; it gives us a remarkable insight into the role of scientific knowledge in the world of Machtpolitik; and it reminds us that states and governments are not monolithic entities. For these reasons, students of history, strategy, and international relations all have something to learn from the GAC report of October 1949.