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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.

Image by The Official CTBTO Photostream Scientific Knowledge and Power Politics

  1. The idea to construct a ‘superbomb’ (or as it became known, a hydrogen/thermonuclear bomb)—an immensely destructive device which harnesses the power of nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission—had been around since at least 1942. []

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James A. Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live. ...more →

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29 thoughts on “Scientific Knowledge and Power Politics

  1. 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.

    Did the people involved have any premonition that intercontinental ballistic missiles would make the deterrence value of manned long range bombers obsolete within a decade?

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      • First of all, you know as well as I do just because something exists in the military, doesn’t mean it’s entirely useful. Especially if it hasn’t been tested in actual battle.

        But specifically, I’m talking about the deterrence value of an all bomber nuclear force. This is trivially countered by a missle nuclear force, sea or land based, as the first strike time is measured in 10s of minutes, while the counterforce time is measured in hours.

        Long range bombers have an irreplacable use today, but its pretty narrow – taking out enemy air defenses. And their only advantage over sea based TLAMs in this regard is you can just execute from Guam or Missouri or wherever, instead of at least a week of platform prepositioning.

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      • Bombers have value because they permit visible displays of capability without expending expensive ICBMs in testing or revealing the location of submarines (whose value as a platform depends on their covert deployment).

        Visible displays of capability are a vital part of the game-theory calculation that stops nuclear war from happening. If you don’t know how good someone is, then you might get the idea that you can kill them, and the instant you get the idea that you can kill them then you have to do it before they decide to do it to you.

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    • IIRC, we had the rockets, but not the guidance systems at the time, so I’m not sure if it had occurred to them (although I am willing to bet that someone in the Pentagon had an eye towards that, just waiting for the tech to mature enough).

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        • But a larger warhead means you need a more powerful rocket to overcome the gravity well. This is why Best Korea still ain’t a playa in The Game; they have yet to figure out how to big badaboom in a small enough package.

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        • It wasn’t terminal guidance that was the issue, but initial and transit guidance. We could do it with single rockets because ground crew could observe navigational telemetry and affect course corrections. An ICBM had to be able to do that all on it’s own, because the human crew might be dead, or very busy doing other things.

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            • Before advanced guidance systems, the only choice was terminal ballistics, which is why we had strategic bombers.

              Seriously, launch trajectories that are hitting the upper atmosphere/LEO are, you know, rocket science. Your launch vehicle has to be able to tell when it’s off course, right now, and be able to make the necessary course corrections, right now, so that it can reach the correct point above the earth necessary to release the warhead such that terminal ballistics can get the job done.

              It doesn’t matter how big your warhead is if you shoot for Moscow and hit the Rybinsk Reservoir instead because high altitude winds pushed you off course.

              ETA: I know the old saying is that close only counts in horseshoes and thermonuclear warfare, but high altitude ballistics have extremely small margins for error at the top of the arc.

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              • For pinpoint accuracy yes, only bombers would do. The first real Soviet ICBM, the SS-7 had maximum range of 11,000 km with a 5-6 Mt thermonuclear warhead and 13,000 km with a 3 Mt warhead. The missile had a circular error probable (CEP) of 2.7 km. This is exactly why you needed such a large warhead.

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                • Right, and the SS-7 was another 12 years after the event in the OP. The guidance system itself probably wasn’t even developed until 1960 (since the organization that built it was started in 1959). Remember that the 50’2 & 60’s were something of a heyday for electronics, as the first operational transistor had just been built in 1947.

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  2. Wonderful post, fascinating. I confess, I am dubious that any wording of the report would have prevented the building of the thermo’s. Can we think of any time when humanity has achieved the technological capacity to build something but then hasn’t built it?

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  3. Well done post.

    There is a current parallel with the debate on autonomous weapons. This too contains a moral aspect that tends to overshadow the technical issues. Notable in this debate are the 2013 Human Rights Watch report Losing Humanity, and the 2015 open letter against AW signed by various science and AI luminaries.

    As with the H bomb debate the “can we” question tends to overshadows the “should we”. The Russians are apparently working on an autonomous bomber capable of making the jump to space to deliver nuclear weapons.

    So any historical lessons we can learn have the potential, if not likelihood, of informing current issues.

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