The Atomic Monopoly

International History of the Atomic Monopoly

Michael Gordin

Cooperation Partners: 

Princeton University

This project focused on three crucial dates in 1949: August 29, September 3, and September 23. On August 29, the Soviet Union detonated their test bomb—and then did nothing. The Americans had no idea that anything had happened. On September 3, the American Long-Range Detection system was activated with an elevated radiation warning. Within two weeks, the data from the detection system had been interpreted to be proof-positive that a Soviet explosion had happened. On September 23, President Harry S. Truman announced publicly that there had been an “atomic explosion” in the USSR.

The Soviets knew much more about the reciprocal American case. The code-name for the Manhattan Project among Soviet intelligence agents during World War II was ENORMOZ. First, agents in the USA needed to smuggle out pieces of information to the Soviet Union. Crucially, once that information arrived in Moscow, it needed to be interpreted. Soviet scientists and engineers needed to determine whether the information was actually reliable. Could it be outdated or even deliberate disinformation?

This project juxtaposed the American Long-Range Detection (LRD) System, which used radiation sniffers on weather planes flying routes up and down the eastern coast of the Soviet Union, and the spy system of ENORMOZ, as parallel and in many ways equivalent forms of nuclear observation. They both faced the same problems of how to obtain information about an enemy’s nuclear program, how to ensure that data was reliable, how to interpret it, and then how to persuade political leaders to act upon them.

Funding Institutions

Princeton University