America judged the Soviets would take considerable time if they were to develop atomic weapons, comparing the tremendous U.S. effort and capacity with the war-damaged Soviet industrial base and limited technology. Although Soviet weapons designers benefited from the American plutonium bomb design, they had to independently validate the material they were given in preparing their first bomb. The Soviet Union also had to invest substantial resources in developing the engineering and industrial infrastructure to translate a theoretical design into an actual weapon.
The matter of secrecy came up at an Interim Committee meeting in mid-May 1945. The question of when the Russians might get the bomb — considered crucial to the decision of whether to tell them of the weapon before its use — was left unresolved. At that meeting, James B. Conant, the only member of the committee proper with training as a scientist, voiced the almost unanimous opinion of those who had built the bomb that the Russians would catch up with the United States in three to five years. Groves was the sole dissenter.
The Secretary of State's Committee would be the first governmental body to look into the atomic secret outside of the Manhattan Project. Appointed to head that committee by Byrnes and Acheson, former TVA Director David Lilienthal wrote in his journal of the opportunity this task presented: "Inevitably (as I see it), the assignment would force an examination of the crucial question: What is there that is secret? If my hunch that in the real sense there are no secrets (that is, nothing that is not known or knowable) would be supportable by the facts, then real progress would be made. For then it would be clear that the basis of present policy-making is without foundation." Lilienthal was also openly skeptical of what he termed "the Army-sponsored thesis that there are secrets." He continued, "And since it is in the Army's hands (or, literally, Gen. Groves') to deny access to the facts that would prove or disprove this vital thesis, there has been no way to examine the very foundation of our policies in the international field."
The Intelligence Community's first judgment on Soviet atomic capability was made very early in the Cold War. It appeared on 31 October 1946 in one paragraph of ORE 3/1, a short, but wide-ranging estimate on the progress of a number of Soviet weapons programs. Although ORE had very little evidence on which to base its analysis, it made a fairly definitive judgment: "It is probable that the capability of the USSR to develop weapons based on atomic energy will be limited to the possible development of an atomic bomb to the stage of production at some time between 1950 and 1953." ORE revisited the question on a regular basis and refined the judgment, but the principal effect was to increase the weighting toward 1953. In other words, with analysis, ORE's projections became more precise but less accurate.
General W. Bedell Smith, U.S. Ambassador at Moscow, later Director of Central Intelligence and Under Secretary of State, told Secretary Forrestal in July 1948 that the Soviets did not, in his opinion, have the industrial competence to develop the atomic bomb in quantity for five or even ten years. General Leslie R. Groves, who supervised the Manhattan Project and who knew the enormous problems of producing an atomic bomb, reportedly advised the US Government that "the Soviets would need fifteen or twenty years to build the atomic bomb."
Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, believed that the spread of the bomb could be limited by controlling the sources of natural uranium. In May 1945, when physicist Leo Szilard [who had induced Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project] suggested that the Soviet Union might soon produce nuclear weapons, Truman's incoming Secretary of State James Byrnes observed that "General Groves tells me there is no uranium in Russia". No. Szilard replied, the Soviet Union has plenty of uranium.
At the time, no Uranium deposits were known in Russia, but they were soon found. Uranium is ubiquitous; it could even be extracted on a large scale from seawater, although no country has done that yet. Over the summer of 1948. “New evidence” came to hand suggesting that earlier estimates of the Soviet Union's atomic production potential might be too low. Citing “further discussion with geological consultants, further literature studies,” and “new information from the field,” a CIA memorandum for the president reported that “Soviet reserves of uranium were higher than previously supposed.”
Most of the CIA analysts involved came from the scientific community where hard data reigned, possibly leaving them unused to using the “softer” information from covert sources. ORE did not believe that the Soviets had derived any benefit from their penetration of the US Manhattan Project, a view sustained through at least 1950. On 29 September 1949, Willard Machle, assistant director for scientific intelligence, complained to CIA Director Hillenkoetter about “the almost total failure of conventional intelligence in estimating Soviet development of an atomic bomb.”
In the end, US experience, however valid it might be from a scientific or technological point of view, did not offer a valid timeline for Soviet nuclear development. It failed to allow for whatever benefits the Soviets derived from information made public after the war, from espionage, from the input from captured and “immigrant” German scientists, and from the incalculable advantage they had in knowing with absolute certainty that the thing could be made to work.
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