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H-Bomb Development Summary

On September 23, 1949, President Harry S. Truman shocked the world when he announced that the Soviet Union had conducted a successful test of an atomic weapon the month before. Although many scientists and some in the US intelligence community had predicted the Soviets would acquire this advanced technology shortly after the Americans, the general surprise nonetheless sparked a sense of panic in the United States. Already distressed about the growing division and militarization of Eastern Europe, in addition to the triumph of the communists in the Chinese civil war, high-ranking officials in the United States government quickly mobilized in an effort to reassert American interests on the world scene.

Initially, Truman sought the advice of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Formed in 1946 to oversee the research and development of nuclear weapons, the AEC directed a moderate stockpiling of fissionable materials following the Second World War. Though aware that scientists involved in the Manhattan Project believed the manipulation of atomic energy could trigger an explosion of unlimited magnitude, AEC Director David Lilienthal saw no reason to promote such research during peacetime. But following the Soviet show of force during the summer of 1949, one Commission member, Lewis Strauss, criticized Lilienthal’s decision to dismiss further analysis of thermonuclear weapons. Arguing that the only way to regain nuclear superiority would be the creation of a crash program aimed at the development of a new type of weapon — a hydrogen bomb — Strauss began an aggressive campaign to convince Truman of the merits of his proposal. Since the AEC could not reach a consensus on its own concerning the H-bomb, Lilenthal instructed the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Commission to study the matter further and offer a recommendation as soon as possible.

Consisting of scientists and directed by Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, the GAC discussed the merits and potential dangers of developing hydrogen bombs in the United States. After two days of debate, the Committee recommended an expansion of the production of tactical atomic weapons, but the majority also urged a commitment to not pursue the H-bomb issue any further. Agreeing with the conclusions drawn by the GAC, Lilienthal submitted a report in October 1949 to the President on behalf of his commission that rejected the additional study of the “super” (so dubbed because of its potential to cause mass destruction). Aware that key members of the AEC supported an increase in the nuclear arsenal that included hydrogen bombs, Truman referred the matter to a committee of three he created to offer him further advice: Lilienthal, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson. Much like the AEC, this committee also proved unable to reach a unanimous decision concerning future U.S. national security policy. Ultimately in January 1950, Acheson and Johnson endorsed the research and production of the H-bomb while Lilienthal remained steadfast in his opposition to the proposal.

During the five months subsequent to the Soviet nuclear detonation, a secret debate raged among government officials, military officers, and scientists. Hoping to keep the issue from the public until a firm decision had been made, Truman instructed all individuals involved in the process to avoid any mention of the possible hydrogen explosive to the press. Despite his caution, at a weekly press conference on January 19, 1950, the President received a question about the “super.” Less than two weeks later, Truman, determined to avoid a public debate, announced his decision to the American people. Concurring with his Secretary of State, Truman felt the United States had no alternative but to proceed with research and development of all forms of atomic weapons, including the hydrogen bomb, since negotiations with the Soviets regarding the issue seemed hopeless. Two days after Truman’s proclamation, British authorities arrested German native Klaus Fuchs; accused of selling secrets he obtained while working as a scientist in the Manhattan project to the Soviets, this unforeseen case of espionage solidified Truman’s resolve to obtain a technological advantage over the Soviet Union. On March 10 the President directed the AEC to develop a program specifically geared toward the investigation and eventual production of H-bombs. This decision, in conjunction with the Soviet response (four days later) to design their own “super,” escalated the arms race and heightened the distrust between the two superpowers for years to come.

Research by Kathleen Johnson
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Sources:

Bundy, McGeorge. Danger and Survival. New York: Random House, 1988.
Hershberg, James C. James C. Conant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Holloway, Rachel. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Politics, Rhetoric, and Self-Defense. Westport: Praeger, 1993.
Stein, Jonathan B. From H-Bomb to Star Wars. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1984.

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