On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet test bomb, dubbed "First Lightning," exploded in the deserts of Kazakhstan. The startling event was not simply a technical experiment that confirmed the ability of the Soviet Union to build nuclear bombs during a period when the United States held a steadfast monopoly; it was also an international event that marked the beginning of an arms race that would ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation beyond the two superpowers.Following a trail of espionage, secrecy, deception, political brinksmanship, and technical innovation, Michael D. Gordin challenges conventional technology-centered nuclear histories by looking at the prominent roles that atomic intelligence and other forms of information play in the uncertainties of nuclear arms development and political decision-making. With the use of newly opened archives, Red Cloud at Dawn focuses on the extraordinary story of "First Lightning" to provide a fresh understanding of the origins of the nuclear arms race, as well as the all-too-urgent problem of proliferation.
“Gordin’s Red Cloud at Dawn is about the brief period between August 1945 and August 1949, between Hiroshima and Kazakhstan, when the United States held a nuclear monopoly. It’s about how the Soviets caught up and how America learned that that happy hour was ending a lot sooner than expected. This is a book full of great details, like the importance of German uranium to the Soviet bomb effort, and the early technologies explored by the Americans as they sought a way to detect an eventual Soviet detonation. (Would a nuclear explosion leave an effect on the exact opposite point on the globe?) But, inevitably, it’s also a book about a big question. Those years are some of the most complicated in American history. Great successes, like the Marshall Plan, combined with one monumental failure: the beginning of a catastrophically unwise arms race. Somehow, rational decision was piled upon rational decision to create something utterly irrational. Four decades later, two countries with few disputes over land had lavished trillions of dollars and rubles on world-destroying weapons. And one of the great debates for historians—as well as for those concerned with American national security—is whether anything could have been done between 1945 and 1949 to avoid all that. Gordin’s answer in this fine, thoroughly researched book is yes, and his main argument is that the United States should have been more open about sharing atomic information. If not so fixated on espionage and secrecy, maybe the two antagonists could have figured out a way to forestall the arms race.”—Nicholas Thompson, The New York Times Book Review
Michael D. Gordin is an associate professor of the history of science at Princeton University. He is the author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War.