The Russians Are Coming

Joe 1, the first Soviet atomic test on August 29, 1949. Kind of an unoffical start to the Cold War.

I remember when I gave a classified lecture to a group of nuclear weapons designers a number of years ago. I had gotten to this part of the story when an individual, a wise guy is what we would call him back in my childhood neighborhood of Brooklyn, interrupted my talk and asked, “What about the Russians, what were they doing?” Well, I wanted so bad to answer, “Look buddy, I’m being paid to teach you what we did, not the Russians,” but I didn’t. As if right on cue, the next day, I read a classified interview of a Rad Lab veteran, and he said the main thing that got a nuclear weapons laboratory started in California was when the Russians tested their first atomic bomb.

I was not going to be caught unprepared at another lecture, so I started doing some reading about the Russian nuclear program. Besides, now my curiosity was piqued. If I really wanted to know the inside dirt on the Russian program, I’d better go see an expert—Tom Reed. Tom is an acquaintance and a friend who has retired to the picturesque town of Healdsburg, in the wine country north of Napa Valley. (Sorry for busting your privacy Tom.) He was an Air Force officer assigned as a weapons designer at the Livermore Laboratory back in the 1960s. After leaving the Air Force, he worked on Ronald Reagan’s election campaign for governor of California, and then again for Reagan’s candidacy for President. In the Ragan Administration, he was Secretary of the Air Force.

After retiring, Tom authored several books about the Cold War, which are referenced in my history, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he somehow managed to gain access into formerly secret archives containing documents on the Soviet atomic program, and from those documents, he’s written an in-depth history of the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Tom graciously hosted my wife Rose and I at his home in Healdsburg, and he spent the better part of a day educating me. Some of the details of the Soviet test given here come from his research.

Indeed, it was the Russian atomic test that jolted Lawrence back into the national security arena following the world war. The tale of his reading about the test from a newspaper while on his way to Yosemite Park is pretty well known. I tried to imagine how Lawrence must have felt reading that news. How would I have felt knowing Stalin had his hands on an atomic bomb? I have no doubt I would have shuddered. Stalin was as scary a character as Hitler had been. 

I needed something to authoritatively back up claims I might make about Stalin’s brutality, and I came across a book, Russia’s Iron Age, written by a journalist, William Henry Chamberlin, who had visited the Ukraine in the 1930s. Chamberlin describes scenes as bad as some scenes we know from Hitler’s Holocaust. He describes walking down streets in Ukrainian towns littered with emaciated families: the fathers, the mothers, and their children. They had been thrown into the streets for opposing Stalin’s land reforms that took away their farms. Is there any doubt any one of us would feel a surge of panic knowing that madman Stalin had just gained possession of nuclear weapons? (Stalin’s regime relocated Russians to occupy the empty Ukrainian farms, and that’s become a reason for Putin’s incursion into the Ukraine to protect Russians living there.)

The following is meant to simply establish that it was a Soviet atomic test conducted in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, that was the stepping stone for Lawrence to create what would become the nation’s second nuclear weapons laboratory. It’s hard to convey to a reader the sense of panic that must have occurred among Americans at the time, but perhaps these last few paragraphs have helped. Enjoy this reading:

While political battles blazed across Washington, DC, over passage of the Atomic Energy Act, Lawrence contented himself with getting his Rad Lab involved with making scientific breakthroughs in nuclear physics. Work on the atomic program had been important, and Lawrence could look back with satisfaction over the achievements the Rad Lab had made during the war. That was all fine, but basic physics research remained Lawrence’s first love. He looked forward to applying his large cyclotrons, not to separating uranium isotopes, but to digging deeper into the unknown world of the atomic nucleus. Unfortunately, events in the Soviet Union were about to put that dream on hold.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, a group of Russian physicists led by Peter Kapitza warned Soviet leaders the country should pursue an atomic bomb program. The response was lukewarm; Stalin was uninterested because he could not see how it could make a difference in time to stop the German Army. There was one outcome to their initiative, however, they received permission to start a program in February 1943 under the leadership of Igor Kurchatov. The program made modest progress during the rest of the war while it remained a backwater of activity within the Soviet bureaucracy. However, the rapid succession of three American atomic blasts in 1945 awakened Stalin to the military implications of the atomic bomb. He set the Soviet atomic program into overdrive, expanding its budget and appointing the head of his secret state police, Lavrentiy Beria, to lead the effort. 

Igor Kurchatov, first director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon design program

The Soviets first achieved a chain reaction on Christmas Day 1946 in a graphite-moderated pile that looked like Fermi’s nuclear pile in Chicago—it was no coincidence. Spies working at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago had provided the Soviets with intimate details of Fermi’s work. Most damaging was espionage used to gain information about how America produced its special nuclear materials. That kind of information helped Soviet engineers avoid the pitfalls experienced earlier in the American program—the Soviets had a production reactor operating by 1948. Kurchatov was ready to test an atomic bomb by August of the following year.

Kurchatov personally directed all the preparations to ensure it was a successful test. He could be seen where bomb components were being assembled, or in concrete bunkers full of electronic equipment. Early mornings in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, even in summer, are cold. The fingers of the technicians grew numb as they fidgeted with nuts and bolts to tighten the case around the gadget, so it was easy to drop a part. Kurchatov was vigilant; he closely watched his men as they meticulously assembled the final parts of an atomic bomb.

 On a Monday morning, as Soviet dignitaries arrived before dawn, the atomic device was lifted atop a metal tower. Kurchatov had to be careful: Beria had warned if the bomb failed, Kurchatov and his crew would be executed. At 6 AM on August 29, 1949, a blinding flash lit up the sky, and the Russians could feel the air heat up inside their bunkers. Kurchatov and his team saw a blinding flash and then a mushroom cloud rise high into the atmosphere, and they gave a sigh of relief. The Soviet Union had just become a nuclear power.

Stalin assumed American leaders behaved the way he did; he feared a test failure would give the United States an opportunity to preemptively strike the Soviet Union to rid itself of an adversary before it became an atomic threat. To avoid that outcome, the Soviets used all the plutonium they had available to make an exact copy of America’s first atomic device, which had been tested in the Trinity event.

Four days after the Semipalatinsk test, a B29 bomber flew over the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of Alaska. It carried filters that collected particles in the air; the crew’s mission was part of a new US Air Force program to detect and monitor American and foreign nuclear tests. They landed at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base, near San Francisco Bay, and the filters were removed from under the aircraft’s wings and taken to be tested. 

The filters usually just picked up radioactive particles in the air caused by volcanoes and other natural phenomena; this time, the filters registered 85 counts per minute, above the 50 counts per minute that was normal. Following procedure, the Air Force Alaska Command sent the filters to a laboratory on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley called Tracerlab. An examination of the filters showed the telltale signs of an atomic bomb test. President Truman was advised a day or two later.

California had an Indian summer in 1949, and on Friday September 23, the temperature in Merced had reached the nineties by mid-afternoon. Merced has a road junction that leads to the Highway 140 entrance of Yosemite National Park. Entering the park through Highway 140 meant getting a spectacular view of Half Dome while approaching Yosemite Valley, so it is a popular route for vacationers. It was on this highway that Lawrence, then 48 years old, sat in his Cadillac convertible at a stoplight—he was on his way to enjoy a weekend at Yosemite. He noticed a newspaper stand and read the headline on the morning’s paper: “Reds Test Atom Bomb.” President Truman’s statement read: “We have evidence that an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R. Ever since atomic energy was first released to man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected.”

Many Americans had felt secure with the United States being a sole nuclear power; now, a Communist state had developed an atomic bomb, and that feeling of reassurance was evaporating. To make matters worse, two weeks after the Soviet test, a Communist government was proclaimed in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Mao spent the next month in Moscow, he appeared in Red Square proclaiming the absolute solidarity of the Chinese government with the Soviet Union. Three years earlier, Winston Churchill gave a lecture in Fulton, Missouri, where he described an “Iron Curtain” coming down along the breadth of Europe, separating free states in the West from states dominated by the Soviet Union in the East. With the Iron Curtain now augmented by a “Bamboo Curtain” across the breadth of China’s southern border, it seemed to the average American that Communism was well on its way to taking over the world.

Lawrence thought news of a Soviet nuclear test was not totally unexpected; nevertheless, the idea of Stalin having an atomic bomb was like a nightmare to him. He thought how Stalin helped precipitate a world war by joining Hitler in the invasion of Poland. While on assignment in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, during a period known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor, the American journalist and historian William Henry Chamberlin witnessed Soviet police evict farming families into streets as Stalin watched millions of Ukrainian men, women, and children starve to death because they had resisted his land reforms. Now that thug possessed the most powerful weapon known to mankind. Did Americans understand how dangerous the world had just become? Lawrence knew he had to do something.

He returned to Berkeley and had lunch with Luis Alvarez and Wendell Latimer, a chemistry professor, at the faculty club cafeteria; they discussed the Soviet atomic test. The topic of the Super arose, and they agreed the Soviet Union’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had to be countered with America’s own thermonuclear research. Lawrence and Alvarez were scheduled to depart on a business trip to Washington, DC, so Alvarez offered to set up appointments with government officials in order to invigorate them to fund research on the Super. But first, Alvarez suggested they visit Teller and his group at LASL to get an update on the status of the Super program.

Alvarez made calls and arranged for meetings at Los Alamos. They arrived in Albuquerque at 3 AM on a crisp day in early October and caught a shuttle flight to take them the sixty air miles north to Los Alamos. When they arrived, they were escorted to meet Teller, Gamow, and Ulam. Teller told the visitors his team was making progress on the Super, and Ulam warned the project needed a lot more tritium, which is an isotope of hydrogen. Ulam’s tip gave Lawrence an incentive to find a way to produce tritium. This was a problem, for tritium was expensive to make, and its production would compete with the production of plutonium, which was also in short supply. 

That evening, Teller joined Lawrence and Alvarez in Albuquerque, and they continued their discussions in Lawrence’s room at the Hilton Hotel. Teller had been a vociferous advocate for thermonuclear research, but Lawrence wanted Teller to take his message about the Super outside Los Alamos. (In his Memoirs, Teller relates that Lawrence demonstrated in his hotel room how to wash a shirt while on travel, a hint to Teller he needed to get his message to Washington.) The next day, Lawrence and Alvarez headed east to Washington to garner support for the Super while Teller prepared to recruit more scientists to his project.

Several days later, Lawrence and Alvarez met with Senator Brien McMahon, the author of the Atomic Energy Act and the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. McMahon was receptive to the meeting; he too, was strongly affected by news of the Soviet atomic test. In order to get a better technical understanding of its implications, he had called for a hearing of the JCAE with the AEC to assess Soviet nuclear capabilities. Before that happened, he welcomed a chance to meet with someone like Lawrence, who could speak with authority on the topic. 

Lawrence warned McMahon the Russians were capable of developing a hydrogen bomb, and they were probably pursuing that end. (They were. By June 1948, a thermonuclear group had been set up at the Soviet Academy of Sciences (FIAN) under the leadership of Igor Tamm. They had recently acquired a young physicist named Andrei Sakharov.) The meeting had its effect on McMahon, who scheduled an additional hearing with Pentagon officials to explore if the Soviet test warranted a new military requirement for the country. 

Lawrence and Alvarez next visited AEC Chairman David E. Lilienthal and found him to be cool, if not outright belligerent, to them. As Lawrence spoke about the need for a vigorous effort in thermonuclear research and the production of special nuclear materials, Lilienthal sat in his chair and looked out his office window. He later recorded the meeting in his journal and described Alvarez and Lawrence as “drooling with the prospect [of the Super] and bloodthirsty.”

The two Berkeley physicists next met with Major General Kenneth Nichols, who had supported Lawrence’s calutron operations at the Y-12 Plant during the Manhattan Project, and who succeeded General Dick Groves as the director of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. Lawrence suggested the Joint Chiefs of Staff make a thermonuclear weapon a military requirement, and Nichols was receptive; he promised to raise the issue at the Pentagon, and he did. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Hoyt Vandenberg, soon announced the Super should be developed as soon as possible.

Igor N. Golovin, I. V. Kurchatov/Golovin and H. and. in. Kurchatov, published in Leningrad, 1967, p.76, as translated by Herb York in his book The Advisors, W.H. Freeman & Co., 1976, p.33.

Thomas C. Reed, At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War, Ballantine Books, 2004,

Houston T. Hawkins, “History of the Russian Nuclear Weapon Program”, Los Alamos document LA-UR-13-28910, November 11, 2013.

Doyle L. Northrup and Donald H. Rock, “The Detection of Joe 1,” Studies in Intelligence, Volume 10, Fall 1966, from the Center for Studies in Intelligence, CIA.

 News of Joe 1 appeared the following day on the front page of the New York Times, September 24, 1949.

[vii] William Henry Chamberlin, Russia’s Iron Age, Little, Brown, & Co., 1934, pp. 367-372.

[viii] Luis W. Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist, Basic Books Inc., 1987, pp.153-169.

[ix] Lewis Strauss, Men and Decisions, Doubleday, 1962, pp. 216-218. 

David Lilienthal, Manuscript Journal (Unpublished); 1915-1949; David E. Lilienthal Papers, Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Box 5, 1947-1949; see also, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years 1945-1950, Harper & Row, 1964, p. 580.. 

2 thoughts on “The Russians Are Coming

  1. TomHill

    Was there clues at the time that Joe had fired? Like sisemic data or intel info. Certainly no satellite imagery.


    1. Tom Ramos Post author

      Tom, what happened was a bit of serendipity, and planning. Lewis Strauss was a commissioner of the AEC, and he was one of the few concerned with the aggression the Soviet Union was showing in Eastern Europe. He pushed for a program to control nuclear materials and to start an Air Force program to test for covert nuclear testing. He got in a tussle with Oppenheimer once, when at a Congressional hearing, Oppenheimer mocked him for trying to ban radioisotopes going overseas. They remained enemies after that. The flight over the Bering Sea was one of the early flghts in Strauss’ program, and as we saw, it hit pay dirt. Tom



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