Atomic Explosion in the USSR Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union (officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) exploded an atomic bomb at a remote site in Kazakhstan, making it the second world power to have atomic weapons. The United States had used two atomic bombs at the end of World War II against Japan, and the Soviet Union had been in pursuit of this technology for a decade. The bomb, code-named First Lightning, produced an eighty-kiloton explosion. On September 3, a specially equipped US plane picked up radiation readings off the coast of Siberia, telegraphing the event. On September 23, US president Harry Truman revealed to the world that the Soviet Union had the bomb. With this announcement came worldwide fear that tensions between the two nations could escalate into a catastrophic event, and the international community scrambled to regulate and control first atomic, then hydrogen-based thermonuclear weaponry. The nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States would be the primary concern of international affairs for the next several decades.

Summary Overview

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union (officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) exploded an atomic bomb at a remote site in Kazakhstan, making it the second world power to have atomic weapons. The United States had used two atomic bombs at the end of World War II against Japan, and the Soviet Union had been in pursuit of this technology for a decade. The bomb, code-named First Lightning, produced an eighty-kiloton explosion. On September 3, a specially equipped US plane picked up radiation readings off the coast of Siberia, telegraphing the event. On September 23, US president Harry Truman revealed to the world that the Soviet Union had the bomb. With this announcement came worldwide fear that tensions between the two nations could escalate into a catastrophic event, and the international community scrambled to regulate and control first atomic, then hydrogen-based thermonuclear weaponry. The nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States would be the primary concern of international affairs for the next several decades.

Defining Moment

The United States unleashed the greatest destructive weapon ever known when it dropped two atomic bombs, known as Little Boy and Fat Man, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These were developed by a team of scientists in the United States through a program dubbed the Manhattan Project. The United States and the Soviet Union were uneasy allies during World War II, but opposing ideologies and deep-seated mistrust ensured that the alliance would be strained further after the US nuclear advantage was revealed. Indeed, some scholars have theorized that the bombs dropped on Japan were as much a reminder to the Soviet Union of US dominance as a strategic way to end the war.

The United States was well aware that the Soviet Union was in pursuit of the technology needed to produce a nuclear weapon, but intelligence reports estimated in 1946 that the Soviets were four to seven years away. In fact, the Soviet Union had access to German scientists who had been involved in the Nazi atomic program, and a complex network of Soviet spies involved in the Manhattan Project had been providing vital information for years. Scientists had a variety of motivations for spying—some were Communist sympathizers; others believed that the only way to control this deadly technology was to have it shared by opposing powers in order to have a balance of power. During the war, some scientists believed that the Soviets would use it to destroy Nazi Germany. The Soviet weapons program began in earnest in 1943 and leapt forward in June 1945. Detailed information about the Fat Man atomic bomb, then untested, was leaked by German-born Klaus Fuchs, a physicist who was instrumental in designing the US nuclear program.

The Soviet Union's single greatest hurdle was its lack of uranium. After the fall of Germany, some uranium was captured. After 1945, uranium was obtained from Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, and eventually in the Soviet Union itself. Secret cities were set up, in which nuclear development, including uranium enrichment, and testing could take place in secret. There were at least four such cities at the time of the first test in 1949. Plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bomb was produced at one of these cities, Chelyabinsk.

First Lightning was detonated at 7 a.m. on August 29, 1949, in the remote steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. Engineers had designed an entire city, including buildings, bridges, even a mock subway, and had filled the area with caged animals to study the effects of an atomic blast. The blast was later found to be eighty kilotons, much more powerful than its originators had expected and initially reported. The mock city was entirely destroyed, and the test animals incinerated. A specially equipped US plane picked up radiation readings off the coast of Siberia on September 3; the United States tracked the nuclear fallout and determined that an atomic test had taken place. On September 23, President Truman announced to the world that the Soviet Union had the bomb, marking the most significant development to that time in the new Cold War. Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, soon called for an evaluation of foreign policy by the National Security Council, which resulted in massively increased military spending and the accelerated push to develop ever more powerful weaponry.

Author Biography

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884, the oldest of three children. His father, a farmer and livestock dealer, was well connected to the local Democratic Party, and Truman served as a page in the 1900 Democratic National Convention. After graduating from high school, Truman worked as a railroad timekeeper and a bank clerk. Truman served in the Missouri National Guard during World War I, despite very poor eyesight, and was elected captain by his troops. After the war, Truman opened a haberdasher shop in Independence, Missouri. The shop failed, but Truman was elected a county court judge in 1922 and served in a variety of public offices until he was elected to the United States Senate in 1934. While in the Senate, Truman became known for investigating claims of graft and corruption in military industries. He was nominated to be Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president in 1944 and became president of the United States on April 12, 1945, upon Roosevelt's death. Truman learned about the development of the atomic bomb after he became president, and he made the decision to drop two of them on two cities in Japan in August 1945. Truman oversaw the end of the war, the establishment of the United Nations, and the implementation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. He supported a policy of containment to control the spread of Communism. Truman won a narrow victory in 1948 for a full term as president, but did not seek reelection in 1952. Truman retired to Missouri and died in 1972.

Historical Document

I believe the American people to the fullest extent consistent with the national security are entitled to be informed of all developments in the field of atomic energy. That is my reason for making public the following information.

We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.

Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected.

This probability has always been taken into account by us.

Nearly four years ago I pointed out that “scientific opinion appears to be practically unanimous that the essential theoretical knowledge upon which the discovery is based is already widely known. There is also substantial agreement that foreign research can come abreast of our present theoretical knowledge in time.” And, in the three-nation declaration of the President of the United States and the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and of Canada, dated November 15, 1945. It was emphasized that no single nation could, in fact, have a monopoly of atomic weapons.

This recent development emphasizes once again, if indeed such emphasis were needed, the necessity for that truly effective and enforceable international control of atomic energy which this Government and the large majority of the members of the United Nations support.

Document Analysis

By its brevity, President Truman's statement emphasizes the serious nature of the news he is reporting. He opens with the reason he is making the announcement. The American people have a right to know about developments in atomic weaponry, as long as the information does not compromise national security. This announcement was not just intended for the American people, of course, but would inform the world of this frightening new development, and Truman's speech was carried across the globe. Truman does not explain how the United States got the information, but says that “we have evidence” that there had been a recent explosion in the Soviet Union. This statement was made plainly and without embellishment, underscoring its gravity.

Truman argues that this was not an unexpected development, however. Since “man” (by which he meant the Americans) had unleashed this new power, it had been anticipated that another nation would acquire it. In fact, Truman uses this as an opportunity to argue that the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada had agreed as far back as 1945 that nuclear capability could not be held by only one country and that he had known even then that the technology needed to produce an atomic weapon was so similar to that already widely available, that “foreign” research would catch up in time. Truman thus portrays the discovery of the Soviet atomic test as a serious development, but also an anticipated one, downplaying the surprise that they had developed this technology so quickly. Yet despite Truman's downplaying of the atomic test, it threw the United States into a panic, as the nation was forced to accept that it no longer had a monopoly on atomic weapons.

Truman's tone at the close of this statement is not belligerent, however. He returns the attention of the world to the need for “truly effective and enforceable international control of atomic energy.” This would prove difficult, and mistrust and conflicting ideologies prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from reaching agreements that would control their nuclear arsenal. Both nations, instead, raced to outgun each other, producing more dangerous weapons and stationing them throughout the world.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this speech is the impact on the world of the Soviet atomic test. The tone is somber, but not belligerent, and a hopeful note is struck at the end that the world will develop and respect controls on this dangerous weapon. The speech takes as a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would develop the bomb. In fact, the verification of a successful atomic detonation was very shocking news indeed, as the United States and other Western nations had assumed that the Soviets were several years away from acquiring this technology and, for this reason, hoped to be well ahead in weapons development by then or have worked with the United Nations to ensure that atomic energy could only be used for peaceful purposes. The news of the First Lightning detonation was a turning point in US-Soviet relations and would result in an increasingly hostile arms race between the two superpowers.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Craig, Campbell, and Sergey Radchenko. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
  • Toropov, Brandon. Encyclopedia of Cold War Politics. New York: Facts on File, 2000. Print.
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