The American Nuclear Weapon Programme: Scarcity to Abundance

  • John Simpson


It was not until late in 1947 that a coherent policy started to emerge in the United States to guide its peacetime development and procurement of nuclear weapons. A number of factors accounted for this delay. First, the Manhattan Project had been rigidly aimed at producing ‘laboratory weapons’1 for use in the war. Peace led to emphasis being placed on new requirements for nuclear weapons, such as safety, ease of storage and long-term reliability. It also resulted in the break up of the wartime development and production organisation, with no immediate attempt being made to recreate it on a more permanent basis.2 Second, the internal dispute between Congress, the armed forces and the administration over the structure and control of the government development and production organisation for atomic weapons meant that the AEC did not come into existence until 1 January 1947. During 1946 the project marked time, with some wartime production activities continuing but with little positive direction. This was coupled with a certain ambivalence at the highest levels towards active reinvigoration of the project, given the emphasis in external policy upon international control and the hopes of transforming the national project into an international one. President Truman displayed little interest in its status until April 1947, when he was first informed of the number of weapons in the existing stockpile (no more than 13, and none of them fully assembled): he expressed shock that it was only a fraction of what he, and the general public, imagined.3


Nuclear Weapon Fissile Material Hydrogen Bomb Thermonuclear Explosion Nuclear Weapon Programme 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    The term ‘laboratory weapon’ was used to describe the type of bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and indicated its unsuitability for long-term storage or rapid military use. D. A. Rosenberg, ‘American atomic strategy and the hydrogen bomb decision’. Journal of American History, vol. 66 (1979–80) p. 66.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a full analysis of the problems of restructuring the wartime project see Investigation into the United States Atomic Energy Project. Hearings before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 81 st Congress, 1 st Session (USGPO, Washington, 1949). This includes Oppenheimer’s comment that ‘I do not believe that you could have expected a very flourishing performance between the summer of 1945 and the fall of 1947’ (Part 7, 13 June 1949, p. 311). while W. J. Williams explained that the Manhattan Project ‘was not set up as a long range job, because from the beginning it was not known which processes would prove efficient, practicable, or if any of them would definitely prove so. So for that reason much of the construction … was temporary … The Commission knew… they would be operating under peacetime conditions. They had to set up programs that would extend over a long period’ (Part 7, 22 June 1949, p. 462).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    D. E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E Lilienthal, Vol. II. The Atomic Energy Years, 1945–1950 (Harper & Row, 1964) pp. 165–6;Google Scholar
  4. R. G. Hewlett and F. Duncan, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol. II. Atomic Shield 1947–1952 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969) p. 47 andGoogle Scholar
  5. D. A. Rosenberg, ‘US nuclear stockpile, 1945–50’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May 1982), p. 26 (hereafter cited as ‘US nuclear stockpile’)Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    For a discussion of the British programme see pp. 62–89 below. The Soviet programme is examined in detail in D. Holloway, ‘Entering the nuclear arms race: the Soviet decision to build the atomic bomb, 1939–45’, Social Studies in Science, vol. 2 (Sage, 1981) pp. 159–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 66 states categorically that ‘all weapons produced from 1946 until late 1948 were Mark III “Fat Man” plutonium implosion bombs’.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Hewett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 39–40. For an explanation of the basis for the estimate of Hanford output see Chapter 2, ref. 74.1 have assumed that the core of each bomb contained up to six kilograms of plutonium.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 40.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Hewlett and Anderson, op. cit, p. 646.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 631.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    In the summer of 1944 it had been estimated that one bomb would be available in August 1945 and a further three by the end of the year. Ibid., p. 253. Figures for the US stockpile through to June 1948 have been declassified: D. A. Rosenberg, ‘US nuclear stockpile’, p. 28. One source states that eight were in store at the end of 1946. C. Pincher, Inside Story (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1978) p. 154.Google Scholar
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    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 62–3 and 141–7.Google Scholar
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    Rosenberg, op. cit., pp. 65–6.Google Scholar
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    I have used the term ‘warhead’ throughout this study to refer to the nuclear explosive part of any nuclear weapon. An alternative description is the physics package. It appeared to be standard practice with first and second generation weapons to stockpile twice as many non-nuclear assemblies as warheads.Google Scholar
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    S. F. Wells, Jr., ‘The origins of massive retaliation’, Political Science Quarterly (Spring 1981) p. 48.Google Scholar
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    Investigation into the United States Atomic Energy Project, Part 7, 13 June 1949, pp. 347–8.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 65; Rosenberg, ‘US nuclear stockpile’, p. 28; andGoogle Scholar
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    Rosenberg, ibid., pp. 67–8.Google Scholar
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    The public face of this debate is seen in the B36 v. supercarrier controversy which was analysed by P. Y. Hammond, ‘Super carriers and B36 bombers: appropriations, strategy and politics’ in H. Stein (ed.), American Civil-Military Decisions (University of Alabama Press, 1963), pp. 465–554. The debate within the military establishment appears to have been a more principled one, however, and centred around the relationship between the use of nuclear weapons against the USSR and its impact upon the actions of that country. Ibid., pp. 70–9.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    RG 218, Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 (8-15-45) Sec 9, SU JIC Policy Memo no. 2, 29 March 1948. Agreed Statement on Estimated Russian Atom Bomb Production. In this, the Joint Intelligence Committee of the JCS estimated that the earliest date for the first Soviet test explosion would be mid-1950, and that the USSR could possess a stockpile of 50 bombs by 1955. The probable date was specified as mid–1953, with a stockpile of 20 weapons being achieved by mid-1955.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    RG 218. Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 USSR (11-8-49) SI JIC 502(1), 31 January 1950. Implications of Soviet Possession of Atomic Weapons, Appendix A, p. 4 and p. 5 and Appendix B, pp. 19 and 21. A detailed study was later undertaken by the Joint Intelligence Committee to estimate the scale and nature of a Soviet attack upon the United Kingdom up to mid-1952. See RG 218, Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 092 USSR (3-27-45) Sec 55, JIC 435/52. 7 February 1951. Estimate of the Scale and Nature of a Soviet Attack on the United Kingdom between Now and mid-1952.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Memorandum by Chief of Staff USAF to JCS on Military Requirements for Atomic Weapons. RG 218, Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS. 471.6 (11-3-51) Section 1, 12 November 1951. This indicated on p. 4 that the USAF ‘ideal’ requirement was 5000 weapons by 1955–6 excluding tactical weapons, but this was being ignored and stockpile targets were being tailored to fit the estimated output of materials from existing facilities.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    An interesting reflection of this conflict is found in the Chief of Naval Operations’ response to JCS 2215–1: Joint Chiefs of Staff view on Department of Defense Interest in the Use of Nuclear Weapons. RG 218, Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 (11-3-51) Sec 1. This insisted that the sentence ‘developments now underway in the Tactical Air Command (TAC) and in Naval and Marine aviation are pointed towards full exploitation of their capabilities in this field’ should be inserted after ‘The Strategic Air Command (SAC) as now constituted and equipped, has to a large extent developed around the atomic weapon’. It also contained the bald statement that ‘the acquisition by the United States of its foreign bases has been dictated largely by atomic weapon considerations’ (p. 1). The need to plan for the development and production by January 1955 of weapons which could be used as a ‘direct contribution to the defense of the signatory nations of the North Atlantic Pact’ had been accepted in May 1949, and a requirement specified in terms of numbers and kilotonnage Military Considerations on Delivery of More Powerful Atomic Weapons. RG 218, Records of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 (8-15-45) Sec 15. JCS 1823/14, 13 January 1948.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    This question is fully discussed in Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, vol. 1, pp. 358–73.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    For a table listing annual US procurement figures for uranium concentrates and their source, see Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., Appendix 5, p. 674.Google Scholar
  32. 29.
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  33. 30.
    For the basis of this calculation see supra Chapter 2, ref. 74 and ibid., pp. 271–2.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    A. Cave-Brown (ed.), Operation: World War III (Arms and Armour Press, 1978) p. 18.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    A rather sketchy study had been conducted in January 1948 of the need for such weapons. It was based on the proposition that the same amount of fissionable material could be incorporated in ten 20-kiloton bombs as in seven 100-kiloton ones and the latter would collectively devastate 70 square miles compared with the 34 square miles threatened by the former. However, it was emphasized that requirements would be dependent on the existence of large urban targets, and relatively few of these existed in the USSR. Military Considerations on Delivery of More Powerful Atomic Weapons, Sec 3, 1948. This requirement was incorporated in a memorandum on Production Objectives for the Stockpile of Atomic Weapons sent by the Chief of Staff, US Air Force to the JCS on 27 May 1949, RG 218, Records of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 (8-15-45) Sec 15, JCS 1823/14. This contained the conclusions of the ad hoc committee set up by the JCS in October 1948 to specify the military requirements for atomic weapons through to 1956, and was the detailed basis for the JCS request to the AEC for the expansion of fissile material production.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 175–6. Eniwetok is an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific. It was chosen as a testing ground because of its remoteness, its excellent harbour and its convenient location 300 miles away from a US naval base.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Production Objectives for the Stockpile of Atomic Weapons, pp. 86, 91–2 and 94 of Annex B specifies four types of atomic weapon intended to make up the 1956 stockpile. Three were specified in terms of kilotonnage, but these figures have yet to be declassified. (Other contemporary documentation would suggest they were 100, 20 and possibly a figure in the range of 1–10 kilotons.) The fourth was the earth penetrator weapon. This had to use a gun mechanism, presumably because an implosion device was regarded as less able to withstand the forces created by impact and penetration before exploding. For a more detailed discussion of the requirements of this type of weapon, which also has a bearing on the development of missiles and artillery warheads, see Memorandum by Chief of Staff, USAF to JCS on Military Requirements for Atomic Weapons, 11 December 1951, pp. 1 and 2.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    H. P. Green and A. Rosenthal, Government of the Atom (Atherton 1963) pp. 6–10 and 236–7.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., p. 182.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    Ibid., Appendix 2, p. 669.Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    Ibid., p. 371.Google Scholar
  42. 39.
    These were now based on more detailed information than was available in March 1948, when it was estimated that the Soviet stockpile would comprise 20 to 50 bombs by mid-1955. By February 1950 it had been concluded that the USSR had at least one production reactor in operation and was building a uranium enrichment plant. This led to estimates of 120 to 200 weapons by mid-1954, with 50 bombs being available in mid-1952. Implications of Soviet Possession of Atomic Weapons, Appendix A, p.6. This document also indicates that after January 1955 it was assumed that the USSR would have the capability ‘decisively’ to disable the United States by employing its stockpile of 300 bombs in a surprise attack if effective means of delivery were available (pp. 6a–8). Consideration was also given to the employment of nuclear weapons against UK and Canadian targets in the period after January 1951. The document is remarkable for the worst-case assumptions that underpin its assessments and ‘guesstimates’ of Soviet capabilities: its guideline appeared to be ‘if it is remotely conceivable, the USSR will do it’.Google Scholar
  43. 40.
    The General Advisory Committee (GAC) was created by the 1946 Atomic Energy Act ‘to advise the Commission’ (which comprised five Commissioners) ‘on scientific and technical matters … It was to be composed of nine members, who shall be appointed from civilian life by the President’ (Section 2b) The AEC’s other advisory committee was the Military Liaison Committee. In the immediate post-war years the GAC had a very significant role in policy-making, due to the lack of experience of the commissioners and the leading part played by many of its members in the Manhattan Project.Google Scholar
  44. 41.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 383–95 andGoogle Scholar
  45. H. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb, (W. H. Freeman 1976) pp. 41–65 and Appendix, pp. 150–9.Google Scholar
  46. 42.
    Wells, op. cit., p. 49.Google Scholar
  47. 43.
    This point is alluded to in York. op. cit., p. 100. For a more detailed discussion see Pringle and Spigelman, op. cit., p. 516, note 253. It was also the view of the GAC and Penney that yields of close to one megaton could be obtained by developing fission bomb technology. Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, vol. 2, p. 474.Google Scholar
  48. 44.
    See York, ibid., pp. 62–5 for the arguments of Teller and the other scientists. Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 87 makes the point that the AEC’s Military Liaison Committee ‘placed emphasis on the problem of technological competition and the psychological importance of the H bomb, rather than its military mission’.Google Scholar
  49. 45.
    Rosenberg, ibid., pp. 81–3 emphasises the key role played by this Committee in shaping the JCS positive attitude to the proposal, despite opposition from its military planning and targeting organisations.Google Scholar
  50. 46.
    Ibid., p. 84 and Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 406–9.Google Scholar
  51. 47.
    York, op. cit., p. 69 concludes that although Fuchs’s interrogation was known to the United States government prior to the H bomb decision, it did not affect the result in any way. Rosenberg, ibid, pp.84–6 indicates that the key shift in attitude towards the H bomb by the military occurred as a consequence of a memorandum sent to the Military Liaison Committee by its army member General Loper, on 16 February, in which he hypothesised that if (thanks to Fuchs) the USSR had commenced a determined nuclear weapon development programme in 1943, it was conceivable that the USSR might have a stockpile equivalent to that of the United States and be already well advanced in production of the H bomb. This possibility led the JCS and the National Security Council to urge that the H bomb programme should proceed ‘as a matter of the highest urgency’. Contributory factors that led to the possibility of a Soviet H bomb programme being taken seriously were that Fuchs has worked on theoretical aspects of H bombs while at Los Alamos and that intelligence reports indicated that the USSR had initiated ‘a very large, heavy water production program’ (Implications of Soviet Possession of Atomic Weapons, Appendix B, p. 23). The construction of heavy water reactors, in addition to their existing graphite-moderated ones, was taken to be a sign of their interest in producing tritium for H bombs, radiological warfare material or U-233 from thorium (cf. GAC report, York, op. cit., p. 153). It appears that the worst-case assumption was made that its purpose was tritium production, for an H bomb production programme. While this may have been part of the purpose of the Soviet programme, there are also indications that U-233 production was another aim, as unlike the US programme, the USSR used U-233 in test weapons (David Holloway, ‘Research note: Soviet thermonuclear development’, International Security vol. 4 no. 3 (Winter 1979–1980) p. 195). In Implications of Soviet Possession of Atomic Weapons, Appendix A, p. 6 dated 9 February 1950, it states that ‘Prior to the disclosure of the Fuchs’ leaks the estimate of the Soviet bomb stockpile was as follows: this estimate will probably be materially revised upwards: mid-1949 1 exploded mid-1950 10–20 mid-195125–45 mid-1952 45–90 mid-1953 70–135, A year later in its Estimate of the Scale and Nature of a Soviet Attack on the United Kingdom Between Now and mid-1952, p. 5, these figures had become 50 bombs by mid-1951 and 120 by mid-1952, indicating that the previous estimates made after the Soviet explosion had been moved forward by about one year following Fuchs’s arrest.Google Scholar
  52. 48.
    Figures for the plutonium foregone as a consequence of tritium production are contained in Hearings on H.R. 2969, p 172. This states that one kilogram of tritium can be equated with 72 kilograms of plutonium in terms of the production capability of a reactor. Only part of the reactor capacity can be used to make tritium, and during the late 1970s each reactor at Savannah River was producing annually one kilogram of tritium and about 470 kilograms of plutonium, thus reducing potential plutonium output by about 13 per cent. No More Atoms for Peace op. cit., p. 2.Google Scholar
  53. 49.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., p. 415. York, op. cit., pp. 122–213, discusses the construction of a large linear accelerator to produce tritium by bombarding lithium 6 with neutrons, but this method proved uneconomic. In addition he points out (p. 27) that several types of thermonuclear fuel could be used in a hydrogen bomb, including pure deuterium, deuterium plus tritium and lithium deuteride.Google Scholar
  54. 50.
    Hewlett and Duncan, ibid., p. 430 and No More Atoms for Peace, p. 2.Google Scholar
  55. 51.
    Hewlett and Duncan, ibid., pp. 493–531.Google Scholar
  56. 52.
    Ibid., p. 496.Google Scholar
  57. 53.
    For a full description of NSC 68 and the crosscutting issues of nuclear v. conventional capabilities and strategic nuclear v. tactical nuclear ones, see S. F. Wells, ‘Sounding the tocsin: NSC 68 and the Soviet threat’, International Security, vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 1979) pp. 116–58.Google Scholar
  58. 54.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., p. 524.Google Scholar
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  60. 56.
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  61. 57.
    Ibid., p. 550.Google Scholar
  62. 58.
    The 1950 figure is based on the data in Chapter 2, footnote 74, pp. 271–2, where the output of each Hanford reactor is estimated as 55 kilograms per year: four operated throughout that year. The 1956 figure is based on the five Savannah River reactors having a capacity for producing about 4040 kilograms of plutonium (No More Atoms for Peace, pp. 2, 3) and the six smaller Hanford reactors producing about 330 kilograms.Google Scholar
  63. 59.
    Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 557–9.Google Scholar
  64. 60.
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  66. 62.
    Green and Rosenthal, op. cit., pp. 238–9.Google Scholar
  67. 63.
    I have assumed that the two larger Hanford reactors had a plutonium output capacity midway between the later ‘N’ reactors’ 866 kilograms and the earlier reactors’ 55 kilograms.Google Scholar
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    H. Morland, ‘The H-bomb secret’, The Progressive; vol. 43, no. 11 (Nov 1979) 14–23Google Scholar
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    York, op. cit., pp. 78–81 and Hewlett and Duncan, op. cit., pp. 590–2.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 26. See also Carter and Moghissi, op. cit., p. 60.Google Scholar
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    Hewlett and Duncan, op, cit., p. 548.Google Scholar
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  79. 73.
    Ibid., pp. 185–221.Google Scholar
  80. 74.
    A useful indicator for the 1952 figure is the increase in the number of United States aircraft capable of delivering an atomic bomb. The figures were 397 for the end of the 1950 fiscal year, 518 for the same date in 1951 and 639 in 1952. RG 218, Records of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 471.6 (6-15-45) Sec 19, MLC 34-Memorandum from Military Liaison Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission on Basis of Procurement for certain Items for Stockpile, 7 July 1950.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Simpson 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Simpson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of SouthamptonUK

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