Skip To Content
Race for the Superbomb | Article

U.S. Politicians, Officials and Administrators

bomb_p_eisenhower.jpg
President Dwight. D. Eisenhower

President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) 

The 34th President of the United States, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower served two terms in office from 1953 -1961. The former World War II general had led a distinguished military career, commanding the Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942; and acting as the Supreme Commander on D-Day, 1944, when the Allied troops occupied France. Eisenhower won a sweeping victory in the 1952 Presidential elections with the slogan "I like Ike." One of the first things that the former military leader did upon assuming office was to re-evaluate the nation's defense strategy. His "New Look" policy proposed heavy reliance on nuclear weapons. In Eisenhower's view these weapons promised national security at an affordable price. However, by the mid-1950s, once both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. began stockpiling hydrogen bombs, Eisenhower's thinking about the feasibility of fighting a nuclear war shifted dramatically. At a National Security Council meeting in 1960 Eisenhower said: "Our imagination could not encompass the situation which would result from an attack on this country involving the explosion of 2,000 megatons....War no longer has any logic whatsoever." 

George F. Kennan, (1904 - 2005) 

In February 1946, the U.S. State Department received a long telegram from Moscow that it quickly circulated to the highest officials in Washington causing quite a stir. The 8,000 word document was written by George Kennan, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Moscow, and it quickly established him as a leading expert on Soviet affairs. Years later in his memoirs, Kennan mocked his "sermon," saying he reread it with "horrified amusement." He also claimed that it sounded like "one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution." But in 1946, when he wrote it, he believed every word. 

The telegram warned Washington that, "The USSR still lives in antagonistic 'capitalist encirclement' with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence." He went on to say, "we have a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure." Kennan argued that the solution to dealing with the Soviets was to contain them. Just six months after the USSR and America had fought on the same side in World War II, the telegram contributed to the chilling of relations between the two countries and the onset of the Cold War. 

Kennan grew up in Milwaukee and in 1926 after graduating from Princeton, he entered the U.S. Foreign Service. He was posted to Moscow in 1933 where he remained until 1937. At the outset of World War II, the State Department transferred Kennan to Berlin. And when America entered the war, Kennan was interned by the Germans for a few months. In 1944 after an absence of seven years, Kennan returned to Moscow, this time in a position that made him a key advisor to the U.S. Ambassador. 

In April 1947, after returning to the States, Kennan became chairman of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. A few months later, he published a polished version of his policy of containment in an article for Foreign Affairs. In it he argued that to meet the Soviet threat the U.S. should employ "a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." 

However, Kennan believed that the Soviet Union posed a political and not a military threat. And so he argued against a build up of nuclear arms, which he believed would only serve to fuel an extremely dangerous arms race. Kennan also opposed the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the decision to send UN forces across the 38th parallel during the Korean War. And after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in August 1949, Kennan argued against a crash program in the United States to build a hydrogen bomb. 

By the time Kennan left the Policy Planning Staff in late 1949, his views on the Soviet Union diverged widely from those of the Truman Administration. The Berlin blockade seemed to belie his insistence that the Soviet threat was primarily political, and both the public and Congress were calling for a more aggressive approach towards the USSR. 

During the Eisenhower years, Kennan became an outspoken critic of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's policy towards the Soviet Union. He complained frequently that the U.S. had failed to take advantage of the liberalizing trend within the USSR following the death of the country's longtime leader Joseph Stalin. And Kennan was also a prominent critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Vietnam, he would say, "is not our business." He argued that the escalation of the war made a negotiated settlement much less likely. 

Kennan has continued to write and lecture on foreign policy and the Soviet Union into the 1990s. In 1981 he was awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize for his efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations. That same year he urged Americans to recognize the Soviets as "another great people" and asked Americans to understand that the differences between the U.S. and the USSR are the product "not of any inherent iniquity but of the relentless discipline of history, tradition and national experience." 

David E. Lilienthal (1899 - 1981)

David Lilienthal first became involved in U.S. nuclear policy immediately after the Second World War, when he was asked to help prepare a report on the international control of atomic energy. Lilienthal was a progressive lawyer, who had spent the previous dozen years running the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together with a board consisting of industry leaders and a committee headed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Lilienthal put forward a radical proposal that came to be known as the Lilienthal-Acheson Report. 

The document, published on March 28, 1946, suggested that international control of atomic energy might work "if the element of rivalry between nations were removed." This could be done, the document proposed, by assigning "the intrinsically dangerous phases of the development of atomic energy to an international organization responsible to all peoples." This authority would have a monopoly on uranium; it would license the use of "denatured" plutonium, which is difficult to convert into an explosive; and it would spread its mines and factories around the world so that the benefits they brought would be dispersed.

The report was adapted into a proposal that President Truman asked multi-millionaire financier Bernard Baruch to present to the United Nations. Against the protestations of Lilienthal and Acheson, Baruch added provisions, which the Soviet Union found objectionable. The Baruch Plan called for swift and sure punishment for those who violated the rules. The Soviet Union responded by calling for universal nuclear disarmament. In the end, the UN adopted neither proposal. 

On January 1, 1947, President Truman established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and he nominated Lilienthal to be its first chairman. Lilienthal faced a difficult confirmation process, partly because conservatives in Congress worried that the Lilienthal-Acheson report had committed Lilienthal to nuclear disarmament, but also because some in Congress accused him of being tainted with communism. After two scientists' organizations rallied to Lilienthal's defense, Truman intervened on his nominee's behalf and Lilienthal narrowly won confirmation. 

Over the next few years, Lilienthal sought to increase the stockpile of atomic bombs. At the same time he looked at ways of encouraging private industry to use nuclear fission. His administration ran into trouble in 1949, when it was revealed that the AEC had granted fellowships to Communist Party members. Accusing Lilienthal of "gross mismanagement," one senator demanded his resignation. Ultimately, the Senate ordered the AEC to require all fellowship holders to sign a loyalty oath swearing they were not Communists. 

Despite his role directing the U.S. atomic program, Lilienthal maintained an intense dislike of nuclear weapons. When he was briefed in 1948 on an atomic test series by two scientists from Los Alamos, he complained in his diary about the men's enthusiasm for their work; "that there should not be even a single 'token' expression of profound concern and regret that we are engaged in developing weapons directed against the indiscriminate destruction of defenseless men, women and children...this bothered me." 

The U.S. response to the first Soviet test of an atomic device in August 1949 bothered him even more. Reacting in his diary to proposals for greatly expanding the production of atomic bombs, Lilienthal wrote: "We keep saying, 'We have no other course.' What we should say is: 'We are not bright enough to see any other course.' " When the AEC commissioners were asked by Truman to make recommendations on whether or not to implement an accelerated program to build an H-bomb, Lilienthal voted against it. 

Lilienthal finally resigned from the AEC in February 1950 and returned to practicing law. But he remained active in Democratic politics until his death from a heart attack in 1981. 

bomb_p_truman.jpg
President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman (1884-1972) 

Harry S. Truman was active in Democratic Party politics for many years before first being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934. During the Second World War he headed the Senate war investigating committee. As President Roosevelt's Vice President he knew nothing of the development of the atomic bomb. But within months of assuming the office of President of the United States on April 12, 1945, he became the first and only American leader to authorize the use of atomic weapons against an enemy target. The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th; on August 9th a second A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Although publicly Truman always defended his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, by the end of his presidency he was voicing concerns about the impact the bombs would have on future wars. In his last State of the Union address, he said: "For now we have entered the atomic age and war has undergone a technological change which makes it a very different thing from what it used to be. War today between the Soviet empire and the free nations might dig the grave not only of our Stalinist opponents, but of our own society, our world as well as theirs...The war of the future would be one in which man could extinguish millions of lives at one blow...Such a war is not a possible policy for rational men." 

Lewis Strauss, (1896 - 1974) 

In the first dozen years of the atomic age, few men played a more pivotal role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy than the former banker Lewis Strauss. An ardent champion of the hydrogen bomb, he was also a strong believer in the importance of maintaining a large nuclear stockpile. His appointment to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946 (an agency he chaired from 1953 - 58) meant he was well placed to influence both President Truman's and President Eisenhower's decisions on nuclear issues and to oversee the atomic related activities of all federal agencies. 

The thorny, owlish-looking Lewis Strauss started out life as a travelling shoe salesman working for his father. He later became an incredibly successful investment banker. By the time he left Wall Street to join the AEC, he was earning a million dollars a year. His new government appointment required him to give up all his business interests, which he told an interviewer, made him feel "like a man who is amputating his own leg." 

Early on in his role as an AEC commissioner, Strauss argued that the U.S. needed to have a system in place to detect foreign atomic tests. As it turned out the monitoring system set up at his insistence, was established just in time to detect the first Soviet atomic test in August 1949. 

The news that the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, pitted Strauss against other members of the AEC including its chairman David Lilienthal. Lilienthal wanted to respond to the Soviet test by increasing the production of atomic bombs while at the same time stepping up the effort to create international controls for weapons of mass destruction. Strauss argued vigorously for a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb: "the time has now come for a quantum jump in our planning... We should now make an intensive effort to get ahead with the super [hydrogen bomb]." Strauss won the day. And in January 1950, President Truman publicly announced a "crash" program to build a superbomb. 

Conflict over the H-bomb also created tensions between Strauss and physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Strauss told President Eisenhower that he would only accept the position of AEC chair if Oppenheimer played no role in advising the agency. He explained that he didn't trust Oppenheimer partly because of his consistent opposition to the superbomb. Within days of being sworn into office in July 1953, Strauss had all classified AEC material removed from Oppenheimer's office. By the end of the year, Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked. 

Over the years Strauss' arrogance and his insistence that he was always right made him unpopular on Capitol Hill. In 1959, after two months of exhausting hearings, the Senate rejected his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. The ordeal was publicly humiliating for Strauss, especially after he was caught lying under oath. Afterwards the financier returned permanently to the private sector.

bomb_curtis lemay.jpg
General Curtis LeMay

General Curtis E. LeMay, (1906 - 1990) 

An icon of the U.S. Air Force; a remarkably creative tactician; and one of the Cold War's fiercest warriors; General Curtis LeMay led a colorful if extremely controversial career. From early on he argued that, "if you are going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force. Use too much and deliberately use too much... You'll save lives, not only your own, but the enemy's too." His men called him "Iron Ass" because he demanded so much of them. But because of his own physical courage and his military rigor most of them respected him immensely. 

In the last months of the Second World War, LeMay took command of the main air effort against Japan, turning around its tactics. Instead of the established U.S. policy of daylight, precision bombing, he ripped out the armaments on 325 B-29s and loaded each plane with firebomb clusters. On March 10, 1945 he ordered the bombers out at 5 - 9,000 feet over Tokyo. 

The devastation wrought that first night was catastrophic: the raid incinerated more than 16 square miles of the city, killing 100,000 people. According to the official Air Force history of the Second World War, "No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property." For months LeMay's bombers went out night after night, relentlessly keeping up their fire-bombing campaign, so that by the end of the war, flames had totally or partially consumed 63 Japanese cities, killing half a million people and leaving eight million homeless. 

Asked later about the morality of the campaign, LeMay replied: "Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time... I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.... Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier." 

LeMay was convinced that the United States had been forced into the war in 1941 because the country was weak and unprepared. He recognized that the development of new long-range bombers meant that for the first time the continental United States would be vulnerable. And he believed the way to prevent an attack was to build a incredibly powerful, well-armed and well-trained Air Force. 

After a brief stint as the commander of air forces in Europe, LeMay returned to the States in October 1948 to take charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Air Force unit responsible for atomic attack. Rebuilding SAC was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career. When he arrived to take up his command he was appalled at the state of his crews. He immediately ordered a mock bombing raid on Dayton, Ohio, and was dismayed to discover that most of the bombers missed their targets by one to two miles. 

But after years of rigorous training, LeMay turned SAC into one of the most powerful and effective military forces in the world. It was a force that was on constant alert, ready to deliver his so-called "Sunday punch"--an all-out atomic attack--at the shortest possible notice. His very first war plan drawn up in 1949, proposed delivering, "the entire stockpile of atomic bombs. In a single massive attack," which meant dropping 133 A-bombs on 70 cities within 30 days. 

LeMay's career after his tenure at SAC was less successful. In 1961 he became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and he soon found himself constantly in conflict with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor. He lost most of those battles, many of them waged in favor of new air weapons, including a bomber to replace the B-52. And when he argued strenuously early on in the Vietnam War for a more rapid and decisive involvement he was ignored. His entry into national politics was even less successful. In 1968 he ran for Vice President on George Wallace's ticket. The press spent much of the campaign mocking him and comparing him to General Jack D. Ripper from the 1964 movie "Dr. Strangelove".

General James V. Edmundson 

General James V. Edmundson entered military service in February 1937 as a Flying Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He participated in World War II from the start of U.S. involvement until the very end: he was stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and he led the formation of B-29's that flew over Tokyo Bay while the Japanese were signing the surrender papers. Edmundson also flew 32 combat missions in Korea and 42 combat missions in Vietnam. One of his last military assignments was as the Director of Operations for the Strategic Air Command. Edmundson has been honored for his military service many times. His decorations include: 3 Distinguished Service Medals, 7 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 8 Air Medals. He retired in March 1973 as a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force. 

Support Provided by: Learn More