The Cold War dominated the 20th century. Between 1947 and 1991, 44 years and nine months of intense geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States colored the political, economic and cultural development of the world.
The Cold War was “cold” because there was a lack of large-scale fighting between either country. This period of history saw the further development of propaganda campaigns, espionage, sports diplomacy, technological competitions like the Space Race, embargoes, and psychological warfare.
A major factor, some would say the defining race between the superpowers behind the Cold War was the nuclear arms race. Only the Space Race was as prestigious.
The United States came out strong with the development of Little Boy and the use of it and its successor, Fat Man, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. Seeing the power of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union began developing its own nuclear programs.
The Cold War was about to become more intense, due to the Soviet Union’s Joe-1 bomb.
Joe-1 was the code name the US gave to the device that the Soviet Union utilized in its first nuclear weapon test. In the Soviet Union, Joe-1 went by several different names, including РДС-1 (RDS-1), Izdeliye 501 (product/device 501), and Пе́рвая мо́лния (First Lightning).
Joe-1 was detonated on August 29, 1949, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakh SSR. The test surprised the United States and Britain because, according to US estimates, the Soviets wouldn’t be able to produce atomic weapons until at least 1953, with Britain estimating it would take them even longer, until 1954.
Why the West believed that the Soviet Union lacked the ability or knowledge to create nuclear weapons is rather strange. The country had a huge military complex, known for its incredibly brilliant scientists and researchers that were transforming science and medicine, as well as the impact of industrialization.
The Russian Industrial Revolution began in the late 19th century and continued into the 20th century. Stalin’s first five-year plan occurred from 1929-1933, and the country went from largely agrarian to collectivized agriculture and a rapid expansion of heavy industries such as steel production, fuel extraction, and energy generation. The Soviets, at least at this point, were ready.
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Joe-1 was built and designed at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. The plutonium for Joe-1 was produced at the Chelyabinsk-40 industrial complex (now known as the Mayak Production Association, and it is one of Russia’s largest nuclear facilities and includes a reprocessing plant).
Lavrentiy Beria, the man Stalin called “his Himmler,” was adamant that Joe-1 be designed like the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The designers of Joe-1 actually developed a more sophisticated implosion-type weapon, but that design was rejected at first because Fat Man was reliable and had more easily observable effects.
The Soviet Union was able to gather substantial intelligence on the design of Fat Man due to the espionage work of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as well as Klaus Fuchs. Their intelligence leaks gave the Soviet Union information about American nuclear weapons designs as well as radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines.
Around 2:00am on August 29, 1949, Joe-1 was wheeled out to a tower in preparation for launch at dawn. In order to study the effects of Joe-1, houses constructed with bricks and wood, a bridge, and a simulation of a metro railway were built.
50 aircraft and armored hardware were brought to the testing ground to measure the impact of the bomb. Around 1,500 animals were also brought to the test site to learn how Joe-1 would affect living creatures. As if that wasn’t enough, around 100 mortars and guns were placed between 250-1,800 meters (800 to 5,900 feet) from ground zero to further observe how destructive Joe-1 truly was.
The detonation was described by a scientist about 9 miles to the north of the blast as follows:
“On top of the tower an unbearably bright light blazed up. For a moment or so it dimmed and then with new force began to grow quickly. The white fireball engulfed the tower and the workshop and expanding rapidly, changing color as it rushed upwards. The blast wave at the base, sweeping in its bath structures, stone houses, machines, rolled like a billow from the center, mixing up stones, logs of wood, pieces of metal and dust into one chaotic mass. The fireball, rising and revolving, turned orange, red. Then dark streaks appeared. Streams of dust, fragments of brick and board were drawn in after it, as into a funnel.”
The test completely destroyed or left the artillery pieces in major factory repair up to 550 meters (1,800 feet) from ground zero. The explosion caused by Joe-1 was found to be 50% more destructive than its engineers first estimated.
Joe-1 had an explosive yield of 22 Kilotons TNT, which was similar to Fat Man and about the same size as the plutonium bomb (named Gadget) the US tested on July 16, 1945, as part of the Manhattan Project. The scientists were elated that the Joe-1 bomb test was so successful because one of the scientists later reported that if the bomb had failed, all of the scientists who worked on it would be shot. Beria loved to execute people, and the team he worked with was no different.
But Joe-1 was only a secret until shortly after it was tested. The explosion was picked up on a United States Air Force WB-29 weather reconnaissance aircraft that featured special filters that could collect radioactive debris from the atmosphere.
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The WB-29 was flown from Misawa Air Base in Japan to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska on September 3, 1949. The plane collected some radioactive debris during its flight, and the data was compared with that taken from later flights, which proved that the Soviet Union not only had the ability to develop nuclear weapons but had successfully tested a nuclear bomb.
The Cold War Gets Colder
When the WB-29 brought back radioactive debris from the test of Joe-1, the US quickly followed the trail of the nuclear fallout debris, which confirmed that the Soviet Union was, in fact, able to produce atomic weapons way before their estimated date of 1953. On September 23, 1949, President Truman publicly told the world that the US had proof that an “atomic explosion occurred in the USSR”
The Soviets were taken by surprise at Truman’s announcement since they had no idea that the WB-29 aircraft had been equipped with test-detection technology and were concerned that the US would increase their atomic weapon programs. It seems both sides were startled at the capabilities of the other.
Joe-1 caused the US to panic because the thought was that the US would quickly fall behind in developing nuclear weapons. In fact the US did exactly what the Soviet Union hoped to avoid: it ramped up its production of nuclear weapon programs.
Truman had approved a proposal made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to expand “fissile material production” to develop the hydrogen bomb (H bomb) and, on January 31, 1949, authorized a thermonuclear weapons program. The Cold War began in earnest on March 12, 1947, and the war grew colder when it became known that the Soviet Union could make nuclear weapons; the fear of Soviet nuclear strikes on America became very real.
By the time the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was signed in 1996, the United States had performed 1,032 tests of nuclear devices between 194 and 1992. The Soviet Union came in just behind the United States with a total of 715 nuclear tests that took place between 1949 with Joe-1 to 1990.
As of October 17, 2023, the Russian Duma has taken what is being described as “the first step” to revoking the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Russia said the goal is to “restore parity with the United States, which has signed but never ratified the 1996 treaty, and it will not resume testing unless Washington does.”
The United States has asked Russia through the United Nations not to revoke its ratification (which occurred in 2000). However, Russia viewed this move as a “wake-up call” to the US to finally ratify the CTBT 23 years after Russia did. We might see nuclear weapons testing begin again and potentially trigger a second Cold War. Let’s hope not, though.
Top Image: RDS-1, the bomb that gave the Soviets nuclear explosive technology, was kkown to the west as Joe-1. Source: Vesailok / Public Domain.