On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

America's Atomic Monopoly

By David Clensy

American Studies Today On-line

In a new venture this year, the American Studies Centre organised an essay competition for American Studies students at the John Moores University in conjunction with the American Studies Section of the JMU. The first prize winner was David Clensy, with this essay in which he examine the four years following the devastating atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the United States enjoyed an atomic monopoly. He looks at how the two Superpowers found themselves in the arms race of the Cold War and asks why even America's atomic monopoly could not 'make Russia more manageable'

On 16th July 1945 a mushroom-shaped cloud of dust rose in a flash of light above the New Mexican desert. The atomic age began. This first atomic bomb to be tested was the culmination of years of research and development in the top secret Manhattan Project, which continued throughout the last three years of the Second World War at thirty-seven sites throughout the USA until a workable bomb was produced.

In this essay I will examine the four years following the devastating atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the United States enjoyed an atomic monopoly - looking at how both American and Soviet foreign policy changed once the United States obtained atomic capabilities and how the two Superpowers found themselves in the arms race of the Cold War following the end of the Second World War. In doing so I would like to discuss why even America's atomic monopoly could not 'make Russia more manageable' as Secretary of State Byrnes had hoped in 1945.

Many historians believe that the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary in terms of bringing about the end of the Second World War. The decision to use it is often seen as having been more significant as a decisive warning to the Soviets of the power that the Americans had harnessed. In this sense it can be seen as the opening fire of the Cold War rather than the closing fire of the Second World War. The historian Hugh Higgins however in 'The Cold War' (1974) claimed that Stalin called Truman's bluff:

'He acted on the assumption that the atomic bomb was a 'paper dragon', that strategically it could be ignored while tactically it must be taken into account. Thus he put a high priority in the making of a Russian bomb and at the same time refused to be intimidated by the American bombs.'

The Americans were conscious of the powerful monopoly that they held in the world and intended to use the threat that the atomic bomb created to ensure the victory of capitalism over communism. However, as Stephen Ambrose asserts in 'Rise to Globalism':

'…all the atomic scientists agreed that it was only a question of time before the Soviets developed the bomb.'

The speed with which the Soviets caught-up in this atomic race undoubtedly shocked the Americans, however the question remains - why didn't the Americans make more of a decisive effort to stop the spread of Communism, and perhaps even to defeat world Communism completely, whilst they had their four year atomic monopoly?

There is a line of thought by which it is suggested that the power that these early atomic bombs gave the Americans is actually over-rated. It is all too easy, living in this era where the threat of mutual assured destruction has been with us for more than thirty-five years, to forget the power of America's nuclear arsenal in the 1940's. Whilst the world had never seen such power - giving the Americans the ability to destroy an entire city with a single bomb, their nuclear capabilities were infinitesimally small compared to the intercontinental missiles that had been developed by the post Hydrogen-bomb era of the 1960's. At the same time the Soviet Union's Red Army of this period is all too easily underrated, overshadowed as it is by the mushroom cloud. Following the Second World War the Red Army was by far the largest standing army in the world, and quite simply could not have been defeated by America's power, which was economic and atomic, but not military.

The other main factor in America's failure to fully take advantage of their four-year atomic monopoly was connected to the image that the atomic bomb had achieved of being the ultimate weapon. In this sense America's boasts of achieving ultimate power through this technology was rather like shooting themselves in the foot. In fact just two months after the bombing of Hiroshima President Truman admitted that:

'The horror of the bomb dropped created inhibitions that were lacking when the weapon was a novelty.'

The President had however been politically sound in his judgements concerning the representation of the atomic bomb since the destruction of Hiroshima. Throughout the weeks following the atomic strikes Truman clearly rationalised the two incidents of atomic destruction to the American public in terms of American and Japanese lives saved by not needing to invade Japan.

After so many years of fighting in the Second World War however, most Americans simply wanted to return to a normal life-style - and were more concerned about the reconstruction of their home lives than international matters. The Americans were able to return to their lives in such a way, as the U.S.A. emerged out of the war by far the strongest nation economically - its economy had more than doubled, spurred into life by wartime production. Russians however returned home from the war to a much bleaker scene - nearly a third of its former wealth had been destroyed. This, coupled with the American's new-found atomic monopoly, left Communism susceptible to the Capitalist advance. However Stalin reacted to halt this degeneration. On 9th February 1946 Stalin addressed the Soviet people in a speech at the Bolshoi Theatre. In his speech he gave stern promises of recovery, initiating further five-year plans. He also took steps to strengthen Communism by claiming that the capitalism and imperialism in the world made future wars inevitable. He explained that:

'The development of world capitalism proceeds not in the path of smooth and even progress but through crisis and the catastrophes of war.'

This was taken very seriously in Washington as a delayed declaration of war against capitalist nations - primarily the United States. Hugh Higgins however in 'The Cold War' denounces the American over-reaction, suggesting that:

'…Since it was an election speech, it is hardly surprising that Stalin extolled the strength of the Soviet system.'

In response the State Department's Soviet expert in Moscow – the staunchly anti-Soviet George Kennan was asked for a background summary of current Soviet foreign policy. Unsurprisingly Kennan's response was a dramatic warning that the Soviet Union posed a major threat to the American way of life. His eight thousand word message has gone down in history as 'The Long Telegram', and it caused anti-Soviet panic in Washington, claiming that the Soviets found it:

‘…desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.'

The fact that such overtly anti-Soviet rhetoric was taken seriously in Washington would lead me to reasonably judge that probably more so than any other individual opinion this was to fuel the suspicion and paranoia in the U.S.-Soviet relationship of almost the next fifty years.

The telegram was distributed throughout the Washington government establishment. However on 5th March 1946 Winston Churchill publicly made similar warnings about the Soviet threat. Churchill, who had been replaced by Attlee as Prime Minister the previous year, was appearing at Westminster College in the small town of Fulton, Missouri. In his address Churchill famously coined the term 'Iron Curtain', as he sternly warned that:

'From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.'

Stalin reacted angrily to Churchill's speech, comparing him with Hitler and suggesting that Churchill was a racist who desired world domination for English-speaking peoples. In a direct reversal of the American accusations of the previous month he suggested that Churchill's speech was a call to arms by the West against the Soviet Union.

March 1946 also saw the British withdrawal from Iran. The British and the Soviets had jointly occupied Iran since 1941 in order to protect her oil reserves from falling into German hands. In so doing both the Soviets and the British had agreed to withdraw their troops after the war. However when the allotted date arrived the Soviets refused to withdraw their occupying forces. Secretary of State Byrnes presented the case to the newly formed United Nations Security Council on 27th March 1946. When the Soviet representative, Andrei Gromyko, failed to get a postponement of the debate the Soviets walked out. The Security Council had however stood up to the Soviet Union, and Stalin was not prepared to risk evoking a war with America. Six weeks later the Soviet occupation of Iran was withdrawn.

Stalin's imperialistic attitude had however forged serious concerns in Truman's mind. In order to ascertain how serious a threat the Soviets could pose he commissioned his special counsel, Clark Clifford to write a secret report on post-war Soviet behaviour, together with Clifford's assistant George Elsey. The Clifford-Elsey report was almost as damning of the Soviets as Kennan's telegram, describing the Soviet Union as:

'…a real menace to freedom in this world; freedom in Europe; freedom in the United States. So we must prepare for it.'

For Truman this was the strongest indication yet that a war with the Soviet Union was a real possibility, and so the report was kept top secret.

At the end of July 1946, days before the opening of the Paris Peace Conference the United States detonated two atomic bombs in tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. There can be little doubt that these tests were deliberately timed to remind the Soviet Union of the American's atomic power before the conference. Twenty-one nations gathered at the conference to attempt to resolve a number of issues to arise out of the war, however in this atmosphere of mutual distrust between the two major Superpowers little was achieved. The British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, is reputed to have privately commented that:

'…the Russians are frightened and the Yanks are bomb-minded.'

Attempts had been made by the United States to avert this tension earlier in the year. On 16th March 1946 they had released a plan which suggested allowing international control of the atomic bomb. The Acheson-Lilienthal proposal did not satisfy the Soviet Union, however, as it involved the United States retaining full control of their atomic bombs during the plan's transitional stages, whilst development of a Soviet atomic bomb would not be allowed. The plan failed with the Soviet's refusing to discuss international control of atomic weaponry until all existing stocks of atomic bombs were destroyed.

This was followed by a proposal by Bernard Baruch, the American delegate to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission. Baruch's proposal however was even more one-sided than its predecessor, suggesting as it did a restriction of the Soviet's veto power. There was never any chance of the Soviets agreeing to it; the Americans however had importantly appeared to show a willingness to aim at international control of atomic weapons.

The U.S.-Soviet relationship degenerated further following Secretary of State Byrnes' speech in Stuttgart on 6th September 1946. Byrnes suggested returning the government of Germany to the German people, and questioned the validity of the new German-Polish border - much to the displeasure of both Poland and the Soviet Union, who felt that the control of Germany was central to the effectiveness of their 'buffer zone'. This was a highly charged issue in both countries - which had already been invaded by Germany twice in the twentieth century.

The Soviet Union's 'buffer-zone' of satellite states - Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, with their pro-Soviet puppet governments, continued to be an ideological threat to the Americans. However it was in the Eastern Mediterranean that the next serious signs of Soviet expansion came. Both Greece and Turkey appeared to the Americans to be under threat of falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. Greece had been in a civil war between Communists and Monarchists since its liberation from Nazi occupation by British forces in 1944. The Americans suspected Stalin to be funding the Greek Communists. In fact it was the Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito who supported them, as Stalin had agreed that Greece was part of the Western sphere of influence in a secret meeting with Churchill in October 1944.

Turkey however was faced with pressure from Stalin to allow Soviet shipping access through the Dardinelles and the Bosporus. Truman advised the Turkish to stand firm against the Soviets, and when the Turkish Ambassador to Washington died Truman had his body carried home to Istanbul, through the Dardinelles, on their largest battleship - the U.S.S. Missouri. After this show of American support Stalin backed down.

By February 1947 however Britain could no longer afford to continue economic and (in the case of Greece) military aid to these two countries. Truman feared that the resulting poverty in both countries would continue the Communist 'domino effect' down to the Mediterranean. He had to act quickly to prevent the Communists taking hold, and so on the 12th March 1947 Truman asked a joint session of Congress for $400 million of aid for Turkey and Greece. In what would later become known as the Truman Doctrine the President announced that:

'…it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.'

The policy of the United States had now been made clear, and the request was eventually passed. This led to the European Recovery Program of Marshall Aid later in the year. The Soviets however were suspicious that the Americans were merely trying to extend their sphere of influence in Europe, and so responded with the Molotov plan of aid for their satellite states.

The Cold War, even by this early stage, had clearly become as much a war of economics as of military threats. The atomic presence however was still firmly in the minds of both Superpowers, and would become of even greater concern in the next two major incidents in Czechoslovakia and Berlin.

Post-war poverty had hit Czechoslovakia badly, especially after the poor harvest of 1947. Washington refused the country aid because of the Czechoslovak desire to not take sides in the politics of the East-West tensions. As a result of this Soviet aid in the form of 600,000 tons of grain was received with popular support. By February 1948 President Benes, under pressure from Moscow allowed a Communist take-over in Prague. Having already failed to utilise their economic power, the Americans were only left with their atomic power to prevent the Communist take-over. However the atomic bomb's image as the ultimate weapon meant that this was not a realistic option to the Americans, who simply had to stand by and watch Czechoslovakia fall to Communism.

The Americans refused to make the same mistake in Italy. They were aware that the Communist Party was becoming strong in Italy and seriously feared a Communist victory in the elections of April 1948. The Americans responded in two ways. The first involved a letter-writing campaign in which ten million letters were written by Italian-Americans to their families in Italy, encouraging them not to vote Communist. The second American response involved the newly created Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) pumping millions of dollars into the Christian Democrat's anti-Communist propaganda campaign. As a direct result the Christian Democrats won a landslide victory in April 1948.

In June of the same year an argument developed between East and West over the future currency of Berlin. In response the Soviets placed a blockade on all roads, railways and canals bringing supplies into West Berlin. In order to keep the city alive the British and Americans were forced to initiate an airlift on a scale never before attempted. The airlift, which lasted until the blockade was finally lifted in the spring of 1949, reminded the Soviets of the West's technological superiority, caused the Western allies to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and nearly brought the world to the brink of another major war. There were many calls in the United States during the crisis for nuclear retaliation to be used against the Soviet Union. One such call made by Army Secretary Kenneth Royall, created an angry response from President Truman, who made it clear that he was not considering nuclear retaliation:

'…I have got to think about the effect of such a thing on international relations. This is no time to be juggling an atom bomb around.'

The American atomic monopoly was however in its final days. On 29th August 1949 at Semipalatinsk in north-east Kazakhstan the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb. The test, code-named First Lightning, was carried out with a plutonium implosion bomb of the type used by the United States on Nagasaki. Within a week a U.S. B-29 flying over the North Pacific discovered that the radioactivity levels were three hundred times higher than normal. As this radioactive cloud circled the Earth, finally dispersing over Scandinavia, the United States were able to confirm that the Soviet Union had developed the atomic bomb, four years earlier than the C.I.A. had predicted.

The tension of the Cold War now became an atomic stand-off. The result was an ever increasing arms race that continued for the next forty years, very quickly seeing the development of thermonuclear devices such as the hydrogen bomb - more than a thousand times more powerful than its atomic predecessors.

It can be suggested that as a direct result of this arms race both the United States and the Soviet Union in their own ways became 'Garrison States' along the lines of the theory created by Lasswell in the late 1930's. Both Superpowers witnessed the militarisation of politics, economics and even cultural life.

The question that I have examined in this essay of why the United States did not make more of its atomic monopoly while it had one is both complex and speculative. Perhaps we all should be grateful however that they did not, as a full scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union at this time would surely have led to atomic devastation on a scale of which the Earth has never seen. 



Ambrose, Stephen E.; 'Rise To Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938' (1971) - Penguin (London), ISBN 0-14-022826-8

Boyer, Paul; 'By the Bomb's Early Light' (1985) - Pantheon (New York), ISBN 0-394-74767-4

Donovan, Robert J.; 'Conflict and Crisis' (1977) - Norton (New York), ISBN 0-393-05636-8

Garraty, John A.; 'The American Nation' (1991) - Harper Collins (New York), ISBN 0-06-042244-0

Higgins, Hugh; 'The Cold War' (1974) - Heineman Books (London), ISBN 0-435-31396-7

Hogan, Michael J. (Ed.); 'Hiroshima In History and Memory' (1996) - Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), ISBN 0-521-56682-7

Immerman, Richard H. (Ed.); 'John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War' (1990) - Princeton University Press (New Jersey), ISBN 0-691-04765-0

Isaacs, J. & Downing, T.; 'Cold War' (1998) - Bantam Press (London), ISBN 0-593-04309-x

Lacey, Michael J. (Ed.); 'The Truman Presidency' (1989) - Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), ISBN 0-521-37559-2

Luard, Evan; 'The Cold War: A Reappraisal' (1964) - Thames and Hudson (London)

Pemberton, William E.; 'Harry S. Truman: Fair Dealer & Cold Warrior' (1989) - Twayne (Massachusetts), ISBN 0-8057-7783-0

Truman, Harry S.; 'Year of Decisions' (1955) - Hodder and Stoughton (London)


American Studies Today Online is published by

American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom

Tel 0151-231 3241

International(+44)151-231 3241


The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre, the College or the University.

© 1999, City of Liverpool College, Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors.

Articles in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.