Four reports shed light on Cold War thought

Four reports shed light on Cold War thought
Military planners prepared for war with the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
There was the secretary of state who didn’t quite grasp the impact of a nuclear explosion. There was talk of preventative war and perhaps a showdown with the Soviet Union.

    To understand the legacy of the Cold War, look first at its inception -- an angst-ridden historical era in which officials took blind steps forward. George Washington University’s National Security Archive titles one section of its website, “The Nuclear Vault.” Documents within it tell the story of the Cold War in the memos and drafts of the key players.
    Here are links to four reports that shed light on the progression of thinking as politicians, civil servants and military officials adjusted to a nuclear world:

1. The first targets

The document: "Notes of the Interim Committee Meeting Thursday, 31 May 1945, 10:00 A.M. to 1:15 P.M. - 2:15 P.M. to 4:15 P.M.," n.d., Top Secret. 

Subject: The report is based on a meeting May 31, 1945; atom bombs were dropped on Japan two months later, in August. During a lengthy discussion, a committee led by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson discussed several subjects, notably, the effect of dropping the bomb. “It was pointed out that one atomic bomb on an arsenal would not be much different from the effect caused by any Air Corps strike of present dimensions,” the report says. “However, Dr. (J. Robert) Oppenheimer stated that the visual effect of an atomic bombing would be tremendous. It would be accompanied by a brilliant luminescence which would rise to a height of 10,000 to 20,000 feet. The neutron effect of the explosion would be dangerous to life for a radius of at least two-thirds of a mile.”

Quote, unquote: “The secretary expressed  … that we could not give the Japanese any warning; that we could not concentrate on a civilian area, but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible. …The secretary agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses."

To know more: Stimson served in key Cabinet positions under four presidents. He was secretary of war under President William Howard Taft, secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover and secretary of war under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman. He was also appointed governor general of the Philippines by President Calvin Coolidge. See his biography on the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website. An interview with Oppenheimer can be found on the Voices of the Manhattan Project website.

2. After World War II—A Soviet-U.S. showdown?

The document: Proceedings, Commanders Conference, April 25, 26, & 27 1950, Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, Top Secret. 

b. Proceedings, Commanders Conference, April 25, 26, & 27, 1950, Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, Top Secret, Excerpts - 2 of 2

(Note: Other related documents can be found on the archive website.)     

Subject: Military leaders gathered in 1950 to talk about the Soviet Union. The document begins with a long list of top brass in attendance, one of whom suggests that they ditch the uniforms and attend future meetings in sport clothes because “it is pretty hot around here.”
     But things were heating up in more ways than one. In 1949, the Soviets tested a nuclear weapon. And that very month -- April 8, 1950 -- the Soviets shot down a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft over the Baltic Sea.
     So with the niceties out of the way, the officers began to talk war, and specifically, the Soviet’s atomic stockpile, which was quickly amassing. 
     “The fundamental objective of the Soviet Union is the domination of the world,” reported Charles P. Cabell, an Air Force general who was director of operations and intelligence. “In analyzing that objective, a clear conclusion stands out. The United States, as the principal center of power in the non-Soviet world, and as the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion, is the one nation which must be vanquished by any and all means if the Kremlin is to achieve its ultimate objective. Possession of atomic bombs and the means to deliver them provide the Soviets with a capability to attack the United States directly and effectively. This is the first time in United States history that it has been subject to direct and effective attack. It must be expected that this capability will make the Soviet Union more fanatic and aggressive in pursuit of its objectives, and, indeed, there are many signs of growing cockiness on their part.”
     Not everyone agreed with this assessment. Cabell noted, “The CIA report asserts that the Soviet Union hopes to achieve its objective of world domination through subversion and revolution rather than conquest, exploiting in the process wars between third parties while waiting for the inevitable downfall of capitalism. Thus, the CIA not only fails to identify correctly the military character of the Soviet threat, but also fails to realize that in the present by-polar world, Soviet opportunities to exploit major wars between third parties no longer exist. Therefore, it misses the cardinal point that from the Soviet viewpoint, war must of necessity be between the United States and the Soviet Union.” 
     General Samuel E. Anderson presented a plan known as “Offtackle,” which, in part, called for a pre-emptive war. Among the objectives: “To conduct at the earliest practicable date a strategic air offensive against the elements of the Soviet war-making capability.”

Quote, unquote: "Such a peace as the United States is experiencing is not a peace; it is, in fact, a war, at which its survival is at stake." -- Cabell. 

To know more: The National Security Agency website has a historical article on espionage that discusses the downing of an American military aircraft in 1950: Dangerous Business, The U.S. Navy and National Reconnaissance during the Cold War. The Cold War Museum's website has articles about the first Soviet bomb test and the Baltic Sea incident. Cabell later became deputy director of the CIA. His biography can be found on the Air Force Historical Research Agency website.

3. Schooling the secretary of state

The document: Memorandum for the file; discussion with the secretary

Subject: What if you discovered that your boss, who happened to be the U.S. secretary of state, didn’t quite grasp the potential impact of nuclear war? This was apparently the predicament for Gerard C. Smith, special assistant for atomic affairs to John Foster Dulles. This memo, written in 1955 by Smith, begins by noting remarks by Dulles during a press conference, “about the effects of small-scale atomic weapons.” Smith recounts that he pointed out that the destruction of military targets by megaton weapons “would cause tremendous destruction of life and property in the surrounding areas.” Dulles responded, “I don’t know where you get your information from but I have been advised differently.” Later, Smith set the record straight. This is only a two-page document, but it’s an interesting two pages.

Quote, unquote: “I told him [Dulles] that everything I had learned over the past years …indicated that if SAC [Strategic Air Command] strikes were successful most major Russian cities would be destroyed and Russian casualties would be in the tens of millions.”

4. A developed viewpoint: Dulles

The document: Memorandum of Conversation, 7 April 1958, with 20 June 1969 cover letter from Gerard C. Smith, Top Secret.

Subject: During a 1958 meeting, Dulles, along with members of the state and defense departments, discussed U.S. nuclear strategy. The report noted, “Since 1950, the destructive power of nuclear weapons had immensely increased. The Soviet Union has developed a very large nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could result not only in destruction of the Soviet Union and the U.S., but could make all of the Northern Hemisphere uninhabitable, or, in any event, risky to inhabit. The secretary questioned whether massive use of nuclear weapons could be consistent with the survival of the U.S.”
     Later in the report, Dulles summed up that “in 1950 and succeeding years, the concept of massive retaliation was imperative because it was a practical concept. He feels now that the strength of the deterrent derived from that strategy will rapidly deteriorate as the consequences of putting the doctrine into action become so appalling.”

Quote, unquote: “Secretary Dulles pointed out that the world works not unlike a small community. He pointed out that policemen didn’t have machine guns. The London police for years used only sticks. He acknowledged that circumstances had forced us to depend on a strategic concept which was quite limited and one that won’t work in the coming years. Fortunately, future circumstances may no longer require the doctrine as an exclusive one.”

To know more:  During Dulles’s tenure as secretary a consensus formed that the peace could be maintained through containment of communism, recounts his biography on the U.S. State Department’s website.   


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