Political Implications of Atomic Bomb Detonation by the USSR


Aug 16, 1949

The Problem: To determine the political implications if this Government could know with certainty when the U.S.S.R. detonates an atomic bomb.

Analysis and Conclusions:

The Department of State obviously cannot pass on whether scientific techniques or equipment can be developed to detect the explosion by the U.S.S.R. of an atomic bomb, and it cannot express judgment between competing demands for research and development funds. It is clear, however, that “only if a high degree of certainty can be placed on systems of detection, would this Government be warranted in basing policy decisions on intelligence derived from them.” Definite knowledge by this Government of the explosion of the U.S.S.R. of its first bomb is considered by the Department to be necessary for the following reasons:

  1. It would have a steadying effect on the American people and give them a sense of security if this Government could assure that the U.S.S.R. probably could not, without our knowledge, have a bomb or bombs for any time. With this knowledge, the Government would be able to combat intelligently defeatist or irrational attitudes arising from uncertainty as to whether the U.S.S.R. could use atomic bombs and would be in a position to refute with conviction false claims or rumors.
  2. It would be of the utmost importance for us to know when the U.S.S.R. has successfully tested a bomb to anticipate and counter possible changes in Soviet foreign policy which might result from that place and to know whether a shift in its foreign policy was the result of the possession of atomic bombs, We cannot know whether the U.S.S.R. would make the knowledge public if it did possess the nuclear bomb; however, we would be in a position to see the truth of what the U.S.S.R. said publicly.
  3. The Soviet possession of a bomb or bombs may require a reevaluation of U.S. policy in the United Nations in our efforts to obtain effective international control.
  4. Most of the world’s free nations are currently inclined to cooperate with the United States, given the threat of Soviet aggression. A belief that we are now the sole possessor of atomic bombs and that the U.S.S.R. has none probably increases their desire to collaborate with us and their sense of safety. This tendency could be reinforced even further by the specific knowledge that the U.S.S.R. does not possess the bomb and that we would have means of knowing if it and when it did come into possession of the bomb. However, it is realized that knowledge that the U.S.S.R. did possess the bomb also might tend to in-cline third countries toward a position of neutrality between the United States and the U.S.S.R.
  5. If, at some later time, we should learn with certainty that the U.S.S.R. did possess the atomic bomb, this knowledge would be necessary for reevaluating preventive measures to reduce U.S. vulnerability to nuclear attack. However, this is a matter of primary concern to the NME. (National Military Establishment)

Source: U.S. Dept. of State, Policy Planning Staff PPS/58, August 16, 1949, in: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1976), 514-15.