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The Origins of the Cold War and How We Grew to Love the Bomb

March 3rd 2009

Book Covers - Atomic Bomb

The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War, Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, Yale University Press. 2008. 232 pages.

Probably the last occasion which directed the attention of most non-specialist historians, and certainly most lay folk, to issues related to the motivations and impact of American “atomic bomb diplomacy” during and after World War II was the 1965 publication of Gar Alperowitz’s metaphorically “explosive” book, Atomic Diplomacy from Hiroshima to Potsdam, which argued that the primary drive behind the use of nuclear bombs against Japan was to politically intimidate the Russians in the postwar world.

Published on the verge of major American escalation in Vietnam, when at least in retrospect, historians, the news media and the general public, often lived in an age of political innocence (but then, was it not ever thus?), this argument that the bomb’s use had any goal other than to end World War II as quickly as possible and with the least possible loss of American lives was a concept that left many “shocked, shocked.”

Adding to Alperowitz‘s mixed reception was the lack of availability of key government records, which made it difficult to even “trust but verify” his account, which was heavily based on interpreting scattered fragments of statements and documents.

Adding to Alperowitz‘s mixed reception was the lack of availability of key government records, which made it difficult to even “trust but verify” his account, which was heavily based on interpreting scattered fragments of statements and documents.

This volume, by two British scholars, suffers from the same problem of necessary reliance on a great deal of tea leaf reading and speculation, since, though many relevant documents have surfaced since 1965 (including here a considerable amount of Russian archival materials and secondary sources), as the authors note “the combination of military secrecy and the basic national stakes associated with the atomic bomb often caused leaders to make their policies outside of straightforward cabinet decision making, leaving us with a bare documentary record and official explanations of actions that often make little sense.”

The authors do convincingly establish that the political implications of possession of atomic weaponry were evident to world political leaders from the inception. In one documented case, the Americans agreed to share nuclear secrets with the British during World War II in return for Churchill’s acquiescence to Russian demands for the opening of a second front in northern Europe (he was more interested in southern Europe, both to undermine Russian interests in the Balkans and to protect British supply routes to India and other colonies).

They also document that Russian atomic espionage considerably speeded up Stalin’s acquisition of the bomb (some have argued that nuclear physics was based on fundamental scientific principles that could not be kept secret and that therefore the impact of espionage was insignificant, but the authors convincingly demonstrate that the Russians considerably sped up their atomic research and development as a result of effective spying).

But the authors’ ultimate argument, that the development of nuclear weapons ultimately made the Cold War, um, well, inevitable? Prolonged? Unsolvable? (It’s never made clear) might be termed, to use a Scottish legal concept “unproven.” Partly this is due to the vague slipperiness of their argument and partly to the continuing lack of documentation, but, above all, because both the present authors and other leading historians of the early Cold War (such as John Lewis Gaddis, in his 2005 summary The Cold War: A New History) make clear that post-World War II conflict between the United States and Russia flowed out of the fundamental irreconcilability of their goals and ideologies.

This centered especially upon what amounted in practice (if not in proclamation) to American determination to dominate political and economic affairs on a world-wide basis and its clash with even stronger Russian determination to control eastern Europe (while constantly mouthing Marxist shibboleths about the inevitable triumph of communism over decadent capitalism, posturing that was, realistically, largely meaningless given the physical, economic and human wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1945, but which fueled and were used to justify both American fears and its far more realistic world-wide hopes and plans).

This not an easy book to read (it is stuffed with lengthy excerpts from internal documents of indeterminable significance) or, especially, for a non-specialist, to evaluate. For these reasons and those noted above, it’s unlikely to have much impact and is most likely required reading only for specialists in the early history of the cold war.

Robert Justin Goldstein is Emeritus Professor of Oakland University, and Research Associate at the Center for Russian & East European Studies, University of Michigan.


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