The Cold War Arms Race; Day 1

When the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, they exploded into the nuclear arms race, catching up with the United States. It was August 29, 1949.

At the time, the U.S. had already detonated an equivalent test in 1945, the Trinity bomb. There were also the two disastrous bombs detonated in Japan later the same year.

The world knew well of the United States’ destructive power. Now they would know that of Russia too. Could anyone at the time see where this would lead?

The Soviet test, codenamed “First Lightning ” was the result of many forces, the best Soviet physicists, Stalinist death threats, and a touch of good old-fashioned espionage.

First Lightning

The bomb was an RDS-1, code named First Lightning by the Soviets, but the U.S. had a code name for it too; Joe 1. The Soviets win for branding.

The Americans clearly had one thing on their mind in connection with the bomb, the lunatic with his hand on the button, Joseph Stalin. We’ll come back to how the U.S. knew so much about the Soviets nuclear program.

First, Lightning looked so much like Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki Japan, they could have been cousins. It was almost as if someone in the Soviet Union “borrowed” U.S. plans…

Designed at the Kurchatov Institute, the Soviets would test their new 22 kiloton device at the Semipalatinsk testing site, in modern day Kazakhstan.

Stalin’s Soviet Union

When the U.S. detonated the bombs in Japan, Stalin knew what he had to do. The Soviets had already begun their nuclear research back in 1943.

At the head of their program was the foremost Soviet nuclear physicist, Igor Kurchatov. He was good, but they were nowhere near making anything more than a dirty bomb.

Within a year of the attacks on Japan, the Soviets miraculously created their first nuclear reactor. Four years after that, they had the RDS-1. How did they move so fast?

They stole.

Also, Stalin may have made death threats to the physicists. The best physicists in the USSR operated under the assumption that a failure was unacceptable.

We have no proof of this, of course, just stories. The test succeeded anyway. Had First Lightning failed, some insist that Stalin would have put many of his physicists to death. The rest he would have imprisoned.

Since that would’ve put the nail in the coffin of the Soviet nuclear program, it’s doubtful but possible. Stalin was a feared dictator with plenty of blood on his hands.


As it turned out, nobody had to die or go to jail. The test was a success, and why wouldn’t it have been? They ripped off every last rivet of the U.S. test bombs.

It took months for the U.S. to learn of the First Lightning. A spy plane detected radiation while flying near Siberia.

At the time, the U.S. intelligence teams knew they were close. They’d been following the activities of the German physicist, Klaus Fuchs, who’d helped the United States develop their own program.

Suspicions about his betrayal of the United States to the Soviets turned out to be true. He’d passed almost every detail of the U.S. program to them, including a blueprint of Fat Man.

Four months after First Lightning, the U.S. arrested Fuchs for espionage. It turned out he’d been passing secrets to the Soviets since the early ’40s when he was still working for the British.

By 1950, Fuchs confessed. He went to jail for fourteen years.

After the U.S. confirmed the Soviet test, President Truman announced to the American people that the Russian had the bomb. The two countries weren’t yet producing missiles, but it was a matter of time.

The race was on.