What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

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Stewart M
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What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

Post by Stewart M » 2020-01-21 10:52pm

It's common knowledge that the Soviet Union stole American and British atomic research in the 40s which sped their own atomic weapons program. One article by the DOE claims this may have accelerated the Soviet bomb by one to one-and-a-half years.
"Soviet spies penetrated the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and several other locations, sending back to Russia critical information that helped speed the development of the Soviet bomb ... In the United States alone, hundreds of Americans provided secret information to the Soviet Union, and the quality of Soviet sources in Britain was even better ... Soviet espionage directed at the Manhattan Project probably hastened by at least 12-18 months the Soviet acquisition of an atomic bomb. When the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test on August 29, 1949 (left), the device they used was virtually identical in design to the one that had been tested at Trinity four years previously."
https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan- ... ionage.htm

Less well known, but perhaps as crucial, the Soviets lucked into acquiring some B-29 bombers that emergency landed in Soviet territory in 1944. These advanced aircraft were uniquely capable of delivering an atomic payload. Stalin soon had them reverse-engineered. I don't have an estimate for how much this accelerated Soviet aircraft design, but a few years seems plausible.
"Von Hardesty, a curator of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said that the capture of such a technologically advanced aircraft by the relatively primitive Soviet aviation industry could be compared to America getting its hands on an alien spacecraft. ... One Russian general called it dar Bozhii [a gift from God] when it arrived, and it completely changed the Soviets' standing in the post-war world. Stalin had no aircraft that could be used as a strategic bomber and nothing near it. He realized how vulnerable this made him, so he made copying these planes a top priority for his military. ... By 1946, Tupolev had produced the Tu-4, a fully working version of the B-29, plugging a gap in Stalin's arsenal. Mr Hardesty said: "The British and the Americans were flabbergasted when Stalin rolled this out at an air show in the West in 1947 and they hurried to find out how it had been produced."
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldn ... -B-29.html


Suppose this combination of espionage, defections, and lucky accidents had failed, and the USSR requires an extra 18 months to build their bomb and a suitable airframe. Instead of the American nuclear monopoly ending in late August, 1949, it lasts until February, 1951.

I'd love to hear speculation on what changes.


As food for thought, here are some real events that in happened in that period:
- NATO meets for the first time (Sept. '49)
- Chinese Communists proclaim the PRC and is recognized by the USSR; Republic of China "Taiwan" forms on Formosa (Sept./Oct. '49)
- Indonesia wins independence from the Netherlands (Nov. '49)
- India recognizes the PRC (Dec. '49)
- UK recognizes the PRC (Jan. '50)
- Sen. Joe McCarthy claims list of communists in the the US government (Feb. '50)
- Jordan annexes the West Bank (April '50)
- South Africa implements Apartheid ('50)
- North Korea invades South Korea, starting Korean war (June '50)
- First broadcast by Radio Free Europe (July '50)
- Western allies rearm West Germany (Sept. '50)
- China occupies Tibet and enters Korean War (Oct. '50)
- Viet Minh guerillas attack Hanoi in French Indochina (Jan. '51)

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madd0ct0r
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Re: What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

Post by madd0ct0r » 2020-01-22 06:02pm

my bid - no change.
Having a bomb is a very long way from later cold war capabilities and Russia/Europe has had a bruising war and is not going to be looking to push aggression. The one exception in that list of events is rearming West Germany. That might be a case where it is seen as more necessary since there is a risk that Russia might need to rearm heavily as no bomb, but I doubt it.
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Eternal_Freedom
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Re: What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

Post by Eternal_Freedom » 2020-01-22 06:07pm

The main thing I think it might change, depending on exactly when the USSR develops a bomb in this new timeline, is how Korea plays out. IIRC MacArthur wanted the option of using nukes against China as a way to deal with their massive infantry forces, the threat (or perceived threat) of Soviet nuclear retaliation made Truman say nope.

In this timeline? When there is no nuclear retaliation possible? I can honestly see nukes being used in combat again. This might cause even bigger problems later on though, as the USSR has a brand-new bomb and knows the Americans will use them in combat, means they may be more willing to use them as well.
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Ziggy Stardust
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Re: What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

Post by Ziggy Stardust » 2020-01-22 06:14pm

Out of curiosity, how much did the US government at the time know about the extent and progress of the Soviet nuclear program?

It seems to me that even in the 1947-1948 period prior to getting the bomb, the USSR was still pretty aggressive towards the West, even if the larger direct military confrontations don't seem to have started until 1950. That would tell me that a delay in the bomb's development wouldn't have that large of an effect on overall Soviet foreign policy of the time period, even if you can probably point to specific instances and say they would have acted differently. Maybe it only delays large-scale combat operations in Korea or Vietnam. I could also see it having an impact on which factions rise to power in many of the various former colonies just gaining independence, by emboldening anti-Communist forces and so on. But in terms of broader trends I think things remain largely the same. I think a key component of this was that the capacity for delivery was far more limited than it would become during the real peak of the Cold War; from the mid-1960s on there was a basic understanding that either the US or the USSR could essentially wipe the other one from the face of the earth in a matter of minutes, in 1949-1950 that wasn't really the case.

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Re: What are the consequences of a longer atomic monopoly?

Post by Omega18 » 2020-04-19 12:25am

Ziggy Stardust wrote:
2020-01-22 06:14pm
It seems to me that even in the 1947-1948 period prior to getting the bomb, the USSR was still pretty aggressive towards the West, even if the larger direct military confrontations don't seem to have started until 1950. That would tell me that a delay in the bomb's development wouldn't have that large of an effect on overall Soviet foreign policy of the time period, even if you can probably point to specific instances and say they would have acted differently. Maybe it only delays large-scale combat operations in Korea or Vietnam. I could also see it having an impact on which factions rise to power in many of the various former colonies just gaining independence, by emboldening anti-Communist forces and so on. But in terms of broader trends I think things remain largely the same. I think a key component of this was that the capacity for delivery was far more limited than it would become during the real peak of the Cold War; from the mid-1960s on there was a basic understanding that either the US or the USSR could essentially wipe the other one from the face of the earth in a matter of minutes, in 1949-1950 that wasn't really the case.
I would draw a practical distinction between 1948 and 1950 in terms of US nuclear capability.

As of 1948 the US had somewhere around 50 bombs depending on the exact date with it being around 300 by 1950 which a bunch more coming down the pipeline.
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2968/066004008

The 1950 US nukes also had up to 50% more yield than the Nagasaki bomb for example, with this escalating to up to 160 kiloton bomb options by 1951.

While delivery would be comparatively trickier, the US could have used night bombing to target cities among other things and the Soviet air defenses simply were not as effective during this period as they were later on which would have complicated interception. The USSR would have been in allot more trouble given the capability of the US nuclear force by 1950, especially since as noted the US could continue to pump out more bombs as any conflict continued

Basically the Soviets had good enough intel during this period to know this, so I certainly don't see Stalin agreeing to support a North Korean invasion of South Korea like he did historically in 1950. (The risk of things escalating to a WW3 which the USSR would clearly lose would just be too high.) It should be noted that things would not completely change immediately in February of 1951 either. The US is going to realistically know that at least in the really short term the USSR is only going to have a few nukes and this means the Soviet nuclear threat would not be especially convincing until the numbers could plausibly be at least a bit higher so they would presumably keep that in mind in any confrontation.

Even just a delay to the start of the Korean War could certainly have some impacts including possibly the outcome of the 1952 Presidential Election. Obviously the full butterflies are tougher to determine but at least a delay to the Korean War start seems to be a most likely one.

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