James Chace. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 1. January/February 1996.
Shaken by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fearful that the American atomic monopoly would spark an arms race, US Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson led a push in 1946 to place the bomb and all atomic energy under international control. But as the memories of wartime collaboration faded, relations between the superpowers grew increasingly tense, and the confrontational atmosphere undid his proposal. Had Acheson succeeded, the Cold War might not have been.
What Might Have Been
Colonel Stimson was worried. A week earlier, a few days after the atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima, he had had a small heart attack. With intimations of mortality, the weary secretary of war, who was nearly 78, had decided to resign. His deepest concern, however, may not have been his health but the future of the atom. The reports of what had happened when an American B-29 bomber dropped the bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, had been devastating. Almost everything within a 500-meter radius of the explosion had been incinerated, and buildings as far away as three kilometers had burned. A second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki on August 10, and the two blasts had killed more than 150,000 people and injured at least another 100,000.
Henry Stimson was shaken. He had never opposed using the bomb to end the war and save American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese islands. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he had even believed that possession of the bomb would be a “master card” in the hands of American leaders, which they could use as leverage in settling the great issues of the postwar world. But in the aftermath of the bombing, Stimson changed his mind and, along with Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, initiated an attempt to place all future atomic weapons under international control. Had their approach been followed, the United States and the Soviet Union might well have reached an agreement that would have checked the spread of nuclear weapons. But their plan, which depended on superpower cooperation, was undone by Cold War politics. A half-century later, with the Cold War over and nuclear weapons still at large, their ill-fated efforts are worth recalling.
Stimson’s Last Stand
Not until August 13, after he had received news that Japan was about to surrender, were Stimson and his wife, Mabel, finally able to get away to the Adirondack Mountains for a rest. Surrounded by old friends in what one of his biographers described as “an atmosphere of idealism and high-mindedness,” the old warrior concluded that if the United States tried to keep atomic technology secret and then endeavored to use this monopoly to pressure an increasingly truculent Soviet Union to follow domestic and foreign policies that the United States dictated, it was bound to fail. That strategy might even lead to “a secret armament race of a rather desperate character,” as he later put it.
Stimson called on his assistant secretary, John McCloy, to help him compose a memorandum to President Truman that would articulate his thoughts on what to do with the bomb. During the war, McCloy had personally tried to persuade Truman that the Japanese be informed “that we had the bomb and that we would drop the bomb” if reasonable terms of surrender were not promptly accepted. The essence of Stimson and McCloy’s approach was their belief that the United States did not possess real atomic secrets as such—only the American know-how needed to construct a bomb. Having abandoned any notion of using the bomb to transform Soviet society, Stimson envisioned a “covenant” between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would halt efforts to develop its own atomic weapons, while the United States would make available information on atomic energy’s peaceful application and would also “undertake not to employ the atomic bomb or any development of it as an instrument of warfare.”
When McCloy came back to Washington and discussed these ideas with Secretary of State James Byrnes, the latter asserted that it would be a “long time before [the Soviets] were at the stage where we were now.” Looking ahead to the foreign ministers’ meeting in London scheduled for early September, Byrnes told the assistant secretary of war that “the Russians were only sensitive to power and all the world, including the Russians, were cognizant of the power of this bomb, and with it in his hip pocket he felt he was in a far better position to come back with tangible accomplishments even if he did not threaten anyone expressly with it.” After hearing Byrnes’ perspective, McCloy traveled back to St. Hubert’s Club in the Adirondacks with a heavy heart to complete his work on the presidential memorandum.
Returning to Washington on September 3, Stimson went to a cabinet lunch the next day at the White House. Afterward he had a long and distressing talk with Secretary Byrnes. “I took up the question I had been working on with McCloy up at St. Hubert’s, namely how to handle Russia with the big bomb. I found Byrnes was very much against any attempt to cooperate with Stalin. His mind is full of the problems with the coming meeting of the foreign ministers, and he looks to having the presence of the bomb in his pocket, so to speak, as a great weapon to get through the thing.” Later that day Stimson had a 15-minute meeting with the president, in which he told Truman that he was unhappy with Byrnes’ approach, for it guaranteed a return to “power politics.” Realizing he needed more time to explain his own position, Stimson arranged for a longer meeting on September 12 to discuss his still-unfinished memorandum.
Stimson considered a direct approach to Stalin the best way to avoid a devastating arms race. Regardless of how long the Soviets might take to develop their own bomb, it was vital that the United States work to ensure their cooperation in the postwar world. Because of the issues at stake, Stimson insisted that the president and he read the finished memo through together on September 12. The central argument was that American-Soviet relations “may be irretrievably embittered by the way in which we approach the solution of the bomb with Russia. For if we fail to approach them now and merely continue to negotiate with them, having this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip, their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives will increase.” In singling out Byrnes’ cowboy approach, Stimson stressed the difference between that stance and his own.
He concluded by urging one-on-one negotiations with the Soviet Union. An offer through the newly formed United Nations or any other international group would not “be taken seriously by the Soviets”; it must be “peculiarly the proposal of the United States.” As a capstone to his argument, Stimson counseled Truman: “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show him your distrust.” Truman agreed with Stimson that “we must take Russia into our confidence.” But, as events would demonstrate, the president’s position was not hard and fast. Truman then encouraged Stimson to present his views to the cabinet on September 21, 1945, the day Stimson would turn 78 and his last in office.
To prepare for the meeting, Stimson sent his memo to Dean Acheson, who, he believed, “is evidently strongly on our side on the treatment of Russia.” Unlike Truman, who greeted the destruction of Hiroshima with the words, “This is the greatest thing in history,” Acheson’s first reaction was horror: “The news of the atomic bomb is the most frightening yet. If we can’t work out some sort of organization of great powers, we shall be gone geese for fair.” After Stimson’s retirement, his scheme would be in the hands of Acheson, in many ways his moral successor.
At 51 years of age, Dean Gooderham Acheson was approaching the period of his greatest power and performance. Acheson was very much a realist, distrustful of “universal plumb-plans” and international organizations as substitutes for great power diplomacy. His goal was to bring into balance American morality and power, for he believed that “morality, if it is not to be divorced from the practical world of action, must inform itself and relate itself to things as they are.” Like Truman, Acheson thought that any problem can be solved with a little ingenuity and without inconvenience to the folks at large.”
Open Atomic Secrets
“The discussion was unworthy of the subject.” That was Acheson’s verdict on the fateful cabinet meeting at which Stimson expounded his thoughts on the atom bomb and the Soviet Union. Before his colleagues, Stimson emphasized the distinction between the disclosure of basic scientific information about atomic power and the technological secret of the bomb’s design. He proposed sharing the scientific information with the Soviets as a good-faith gesture; the technology would eventually be developed in any case. “We do not have a secret to give away—the secret will give itself away,” Stimson declared.
Cool and elegant in his argumentation, Acheson, present as acting secretary of state with Byrnes in London, strongly supported Stimson. But the discussion soon veered from the central issue of how to approach the Soviets on questions raised by America’s development of the bomb, of whether Stimson’s one-on-one strategy was the right one. Instead, the debate, such as it was, centered on the spurious issue of whether or not the United States should “give” the bomb to the Soviet Union.
The fiercest opposition to Stimson’s plan came from Secretary of the Navy (and future Secretary of Defense) James Forrestal. A self-made, driven Wall Street investment banker before coming to Washington at the outset of the war, Forrestal was already a hard-line anticommunist. His obsession with the communist menace fed his growing paranoia, eventually leading him to resign as secretary of defense in 1949 and not long after to commit suicide by jumping out a window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Forresta viewed the secret of atomic weaponry as “the property of the American people” and doubted that the Soviets, so “essentially Oriental in their thinking,” could be trusted. He recorded in his diary that Acheson saw “no alternative except to give full information to the Russians,” though in the context of gaining “some quid pro quo in the way of a mutual exchange of information.” Acheson, Forrestal noted, “could not conceive of a world in which we were hoarders of military secrets from our Allies, particularly this great Ally upon our cooperation with whom rests the future peace of the world.”
The meeting was inconclusive, but the president, who nonetheless professed to have found the discussion “exhilarating,” ordered the participants to submit their opinions to him in writing. Four days later Acheson’s memorandum arrived at the White House. It was, Acheson admitted, “deeply influenced by Colonel Stimson’s paper.” In calling for the United States to approach the Soviet Union soon and directly, Acheson reiterated Stimson’s contention that “what we know is not a secret which we can keep to ourselves,” for “this scientific knowledge … relates to a discovery more revolutionary in human society than the invention of the wheel.” Moreover, “if the invention is developed and used destructively, there will be no victor, and there may be no civilization remaining.”
He then argued that the joint development of the bomb by the United States, Britain, and Canada “must appear to the Soviet Union to be unanswerable evidence of an Anglo-American combination against them.” His logic was impeccable: “A government as powerful and as power conscious as the Soviet government” would feel compelled to act as vigorously as possible to restore “the loss of power” that the discovery of the bomb had produced. It would most certainly do so if the United States tried to maintain “a policy of exclusion.” For America to declare itself a “trustee of the development for the benefit of the world will mean nothing more to the Russian mind than an outright policy of exclusion.”
Acheson proposed approaching the Soviets directly, after consulting with the British and explaining the objective to Congress. Otherwise “the public and Congress will be unprepared to accept a policy involving substantial disclosure to the Soviet Union.” He was especially sensitive to this last point, for the day after the cabinet meeting, the press had been full of reports that Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace had suggested revealing the secret of the bomb to the Soviet Union—the so-called Wallace plan. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, reflected the sentiment prevailing in the Senate when he declared that “complete secrecy should be maintained regarding the atomic bomb.” It was surely in response to this criticism that Acheson insisted that discussions with the Soviets “need not involve at this time any disclosures going substantially beyond those which have already been made to the world.”
But Truman was pulled in a number of directions. He was increasingly distrustful of the Soviet Union, while at the same time hopeful that negotiations with Moscow on several fronts would bear fruit. But with the growing hostility to the Soviet Union in both Congress and the press, he averred that he would not turn over “the plants and equipment” needed to make a bomb. On the other hand, he knew that to try to keep the bomb solely in America’s hands might mean the end of the newly born United Nations. In his message to Congress on October 3, Truman followed Acheson’s reasoning; indeed, the opening paragraphs of his speech had been drafted by Acheson’s assistant, Herbert Marks. The president called for “international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb.” Unless the United States pursued this path, “a desperate armament race” would ensue. Truman affirmed the claim that the theoretical underpinnings of the bomb were already generally known, and he called for discussions, first with Great Britain and Canada and then with other nations. Acheson believed that “the road had been kept open” for Stimson’s approach.
Then, at an impromptu press conference at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, Truman explained that the American secret lay in “the know-how” that put the scientific knowledge to work, “just the same as know-how in the construction of the B-29.” He was not willing to share that know-how with the Soviets: “If they catch up with us on that, they will have to do it on their own hook, just as we did.” Truman then spoke of his meetings with Stalin at Potsdam and pointed out that misunderstandings there had been cleared up; by speaking frankly, a practice on which he prided himself, one could reach agreement with the Soviets. Thus he concurred with Stimson and Acheson that direct talks with the Soviets were necessary, but he was not about to give away the secret of the bomb. This was the real Harry Truman speaking, shooting from the hip. Moreover, he believed he had the right man for the job: Secretary of State James Byrnes.
Let the United Nations Handle It
Byrnes, however, did not favor dealing directly with the Soviet Union. Although Truman’s comments had been in response to the Stimson-Acheson proposals, Byrnes did not consult Acheson as he prepared for a November meeting in Washington on this issue with the British and Canadian prime ministers. Instead, he solicited advice from Vannevar Bush, the scientist who had obtained F.D.R.’s approval in 1940 to organize and speed the atom bomb research effort. Eager for collaboration with the Soviets, Bush urged a technical approach that was not concerned with questions of political feasibility; his final objective was an inspection system that would offer protection against a surprise atomic attack. Both the technical process and the means of setting it up would be entrusted to the United Nations.
Byrnes embraced Bush’s U.N. approach. It avoided the difficult task of discussing matters with the Soviets on a strictly political level, of trying to find out what they were willing to negotiate, and it allowed the Americans to safeguard their technological expertise until the Soviets proved more cooperative. In Acheson’s view, however, by bringing the discussion of atomic energy control to “a large group of nations that included many small ones of no demonstrated power or responsibility,” Byrnes was following a course that was “the opposite pole” from what he and Stimson had intended.
The meeting with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his Canadian counterpart, Mackenzie King, only reinforced Byrnes’ position. In late August 1945 Attlee had been convinced that on atomic matters he, Truman, and Stalin should “take counsel together.” By November, with Britain prepared to develop its own atomic bomb, he decided that “we should all lay aside our nationalistic ideas” and take the problem of atomic energy to the United Nations. The November conference in Washington made clear that the direct approach to the Soviets would never take place. No one suggested talks—let alone joint action—with the Soviet Union.
Surprisingly, Acheson got another chance to press forward with his hopes of working with the Soviet Union on atomic energy. Soon after the British and Canadians agreed to take the issue to the United Nations, Byrnes headed to Moscow for a meeting with Stalin, with the reluctant British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, in tow. Although the conference was supposed to settle differences between the Western allies and the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe, Japan, China, and Iran, Byrnes also wanted to get the Soviets to sponsor a U.N. commission on atomic energy. Far from keeping the bomb out of negotiations with the Soviets, Byrnes reversed his position and placed the atom squarely on the table.
The discussion centered on the proposed U.N. Atomic Energy Commission. No one asked any specific questions about the atomic energy policies of the protagonists. The Russians readily acceded to Washington’s proposals, insisting only that the commission be accountable to the Security Council, where both countries wielded veto power. “Much to everyone’s surprise,” wrote Harvard University President James Conant, in Moscow as Byrnes’ scientific adviser, to Vannevar Bush, “the Russians didn’t argue or talk back.”
As the conference ended, Byrnes, who tended to view foreign affairs in much the same light as domestic ones, believed he had come back with a good horse trade. (He had once observed that negotiating with the Soviets was just like dealing with the Senate: “You build a post office in their state, and they’ll build a post office in our state.”) It was a singular moment of accommodation in what was fast becoming a grim period of confrontation.
Controlling the Source
Byrnes may have been successful in Moscow, but he still faced opposition at home. Not only had he angered Truman by not keeping him fully informed of his dealmaking in Moscow, but he had also irked Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, by not consulting him. Far from seeing the Moscow conference as a further step forward in bettering relations with the Soviet Union, Vandenberg viewed the Byrnes accords as a possible threat to America’s control over the secrets of the atom—”one more American giveaway,” as he wrote his wife. Fortunately Acheson suggested a solution, which Vandenberg was able to call his own, demanding that what had been decided on in Moscow be “subject to congressional approval.”
But what exactly did the Americans want? No program had been articulated in Moscow, only the guiding principles of a U.N. commission. The solution, as Byrnes saw it, was to appoint Acheson head of a committee that would formulate American policy. As Acheson tells the story, Byrnes phoned Acheson, who was in bed with the flu, and asked him to chair a group to devise a plan for the international control of atomic energy. Acheson protested, “Mr. Secretary, I don’t know anything about this.” But Byrnes was about to depart for Moscow. He said, “My plane’s going in a few minutes, and I have no time to argue. The President wants it done, and you are appointed.” Acheson claimed his fever went up six degrees. The other members of the committee were the scientists James Conant and Vannevar Bush, John McCloy, and General Leslie Groves, a hard-driving executive who had overseen the Manhattan Project.
Acheson was well aware of his limited understanding of the scientific aspects of atomic energy. To assist the committee, he appointed a board of consultants that would work out the details of the proposal. Its chairman was David Lilienthal, an energetic, optimistic man who had successfully headed one of the most admired achievements of the New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority. By far the most influential consultant was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist who had been the director of the Los Alamos laboratory during the war and was now at the University of California at Berkeley.
At Los Alamos Oppenheimer had demonstrated a singular gift for organization; he had mobilized a great number of scientists to work on the project, ending up with a work force of some 3,000 people. For Acheson, Lilienthal, and McCloy, he became their indispensable teacher. Each evening after dinner he would lecture Acheson and McCloy with the aid of a borrowed blackboard on which, in Acheson’s telling, “he drew little figures representing electrons, neutrons, and protons bombarding one another, chasing one another about, dividing, and generally carrying on in unpredictable ways. Our bewildered questions seemed to distress him. At last he put down the chalk in gentle despair saying, ‘It’s hopeless! I really think you two believe neutrons and electrons are little men.'”
Despite his grave reservations about exploring the international control of atomic energy through a U.N. commission rather than directly with the Soviets, Acheson strove to come up with a workable plan. Both he and Lilienthal believed that the facts of atomic energy would translate into public policy. Thus scientists as well as individuals “schooled in government or statecraft” would be involved in the plan’s formulation, so that it might be understood by laymen and experts alike. Without the scientific input, Acheson said, it would be “as if one called in a very intelligent and well-intentioned South Sea islander and said, ‘There are too many cows being killed on railroad tracks, and I want you to do something about it.’ But the South Sea islander, although smart and meaning well and wanting to be helpful, has never seen a cow or railroad.”
On March 17, 1946, the Acheson-Lilienthal report was ready. The key was an Atomic Development Authority that would control the whole field of atomic energy, from mining through manufacturing. Rather than rely on international inspection teams—what might be called atomic cops-the consultants proposed to control potential cheating at the source, the uranium and thorium mines. This solution, developed by Oppenheimer, Acheson termed “brilliant and profound.” The Acheson-Lilienthal report recognized that with the fundamental of atomic energy widely known, it was impossible to outlaw atomic weapons. It concluded that “so long as intrinsically dangerous activities may be carried out by nations, rivalries are inevitable” and that, therefore, a single international authority should become the only legal participant in activities associated with atomic arms.
The report was endorsed by all the members of the committee, although Groves may have signed on because he did not believe the Soviets would ever agree to it. Nonetheless, the consultants recommended that the United States abandon its monopoly on the atomic bomb and rest its hopes on cooperative control of the terrible weapon. Then, the very day Acheson presented the secretary of state with the formal report, Byrnes told him that Truman had asked Bernard Baruch to sell the plan to the rest of the world.
Derailed by a Dilettante
Bernard Baruch, a self styled “parkbench” philosopher and self promoting “adviser to presidents,” was 75 years old. He had made a fortune speculating on Wall Street and multiplied his admirers in Congress with his lavish hospitality and gifts of money to senatorial and congressional campaigns. Franklin D. Roosevelt had tried to keep him at a distance, but Byrnes and Truman believed that his influence in the Senate would help them pass the necessary legislation. Acheson and Lilienthal were appalled. Acheson futilely tried to dissuade Byrnes. Lilienthal wrote in his diary that when he read of Baruch’s appointment, “I was quite sick. We need a man who is young, vigorous, not vain, and whom the Russians would feel isn’t out simply to put them in a hole, not really caring about international cooperation. Baruch has none of these qualifications.”
Baruch made it clear he was not about to accept the report as written and present it to the United Nations; as he put it, he would not be “a messenger boy.” Moreover, he would not include any scientists among his advisers. Baruch assured Lilienthal that he could “smell his way through.” On June 14, 1946, at the opening session of the Atomic Energy Commission, held in the Hunter College gymnasium in the Bronx, Baruch set forth his own version of the American plan with the portentous opening words, “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.” But he made two key changes in the Acheson-Lilienthal report that proved fatal. He insisted that swift and sure penalties greet violations and that punishment not be subject to a Security Council veto. Such conditions, Acheson believed, were a prescription for failure.
The now-dubbed Baruch plan was very much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. America would relinquish its stockpile of atomic bombs, which in June 1946 numbered just three, only after firm guarantees were in place that no other nation could arm itself with these weapons. Since General Groves believed it would take the Soviet Union between 10 and 20 years to develop atomic weapons, the American nuclear monopoly would extend well into the future. (Most scientists believed it would take the Soviets only three to five years, which proved far closer to the reality.) But Groves was right when he assured those sitting near him during the translation of Baruch’s speech that the Soviets would never accept these conditions.
Nor was it clear what Baruch’s “immediate and sure punishment” meant. In a talk with Truman, Baruch said that punishment meant “war.” Acheson certainly understood that any effective punishment of a great power did mean war, but he also realized that no country would go to war over such an issue. The whole idea of punishment was an illusion, and he was too much the realist not to detest “paper police sanctions,” as he called them. Controlling uranium through the international authority was the best way to prevent cheating.
Truman, however, endorsed Baruch’s no-veto provision, and the plan was effectively dead. Although the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, offered a counterproposal and Stalin hinted in September that there might be some way out of the impasse, Baruch was not inclined to negotiate and forced a vote by the end of the year. Unsurprisingly, the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission approved the American plan, with the Soviet Union and Poland abstaining; it was then killed by a Soviet veto in the Security Council. Truman later confessed to Acheson that choosing Baruch was “the worst mistake I have ever made.” Acheson described Baruch’s role more succinctly: “It was his ball, and he balled it up.”
A Different World?
Had serious negotiation over the control of atomic energy ever been possible? Once Truman agreed to put the issue in the hands of the United Nations rather than approach the Soviets directly, any such plan may well have been doomed. Stimson was probably right when he wrote to Baruch that with that decision, the “time had passed for handling the bomb in the way I suggested to the president last summer.” However, the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, though limited by the U.N. framework, gave some hope that the atomic problem might have been resolved had the two superpowers shown any true disposition to negotiate.
No evidence demonstrates that Truman really understood the Acheson-Lilienthal report or even read it with care. His policy, as McGeorge Bundy described it in his history of the nuclear age, Danger and Survival, “seldom went beyond the counsel he had to choose from. He was not an initiator but a chooser; the buck stopped here, but he waited for the buck to arrive.” No one, not even Dean Acheson, really pressed him to go further than he did. Byrnes, not Acheson, was his secretary of state; just as Byrnes vacillated in his dealings with Moscow between accommodation and hard-line rejection, so did Truman. In early 1946 no Cold War consensus yet dominated the policymaking world.
As long as the United States possessed the atomic bomb, Stalin was determined that the Soviet Union would also have it. In August 1945 he told his leading nuclear physicist, Igor Kurchatov, to “provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time. You know that Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The equilibrium has been destroyed. Provide the bomb—it will remove a great danger from us.” But this does not mean that his views could not have been changed. The Stimson-Acheson proposal was designed precisely to avoid perpetuating a threatening monopoly. The two men were doubtless right in September 1945 to press for an early approach to Moscow. Had Roosevelt lived, that might well have occurred. McGeorge Bundy makes the case that “Roosevelt would have taken to heart the quest for a workable international agreement” and “made the matter his own most pressing business.” Truman did not.
Never far from Roosevelt’s strategy toward the Russians was his belief that the great powers should order matters to prevent the outbreak of another world war. Eager to avoid the weaknesses of the League of Nations, F.D.R. had toyed early in the war with the idea that the “Four Policemen”-the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China—would share the responsibility for maintaining the postwar peace. This notion became enshrined in the ll-member U.N. Security Council, in which the Big Five (the Four Policemen plus France) retained a permanent veto. Roosevelt saw the great powers acting as a kind of world steering committee overseeing the global balance of power as well as embodying the ideal of collective security.
Roosevelt, recognizing that the Soviet Union insisted on being accorded great power status, would doubtless have understood Stalin’s determination to possess atomic weapons as long as the United States did. In this respect, he might very well have endorsed Stimson’s original recommendation. Roosevelt might also have explored the alternative, an agreement to limit the production of atomic bombs to the great powers and to negotiate some specific number of weapons each might possess. This scheme would have represented great power gendarmerie with a vengeance, a very hard sell given the postwar rhetoric of collective security.
Acheson himself understood as well as anyone the need to treat the “power-conscious” Soviet Union as a great power. Washington could not—and should not—pursue a policy of atomic exclusion. Had President Truman fully adopted this view and explained to the public that discussions with the Soviets did not imply giving away some secret scientific information, the Stimson-Acheson proposal might have been tried. But in this period the Truman administration had not yet found its footing in foreign affairs, and dealing with the Russians solely on the basis of great power relations, when the ideological struggle between the two powers was intensifying, was becoming ever more difficult.
Had the Russians responded to a Stimson-Acheson approach, the history of the Cold War would have been substantially different. Hiroshima would have produced a balance of power rather than a balance of terror. Soviet behavior would likely have been far less confrontational, especially after Stalin’s death in 1953. A bilateral effort, which Stimson had originally urged, would have formed an even more solid basis for postwar cooperation on a broad range of security issues. In the end, the Acheson-Lilienthal plan was the best that anyone could come up with. Once Truman and Attlee had agreed to turn the problem over to the United Nations, the notion of a U.S.-Soviet atomic partnership was probably destined to fail. Then, despite Acheson’s best efforts to reopen the path to Moscow, Baruch put up the final barrier.
As relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated, Moscow pressed forward at full throttle with its nuclear weapons program. At dawn on August 29, 1949, four years after America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Russia successfully tested its own atom bomb on the steppes of Kazakhs. Stimson’s “secret armament race of a rather desperate character” had begun.