The Atomic Age

A problem of transcendent national importance was the development and control of atomic energy. In July 1946 Congress gave this responsibility to an Atomic Energy Commission headed by five civilians. Under the Commission's supervision American scientists developed and made available to other nations many peaceful applications of atomic knowledge for agriculture, industry, and medicine.

At the end of World War II most Americans envisioned that the wartime cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies would continue in the building of a secure and peaceful world. The United States played an active role in creating and financing several United Nations agencies dedicated to economic reconstruction and the alleviation of suffering in wartorn areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Perhaps the two best known were the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the International Monetary Fund. Large quantities of American aid went to needy peoples in Communist as well as non-Communist countries. But Russian dominance in eastern Europe and agitation by Communist parties elsewhere, along with the determination of the United States to play a worldwide role, brought about increasing international tension.

Meanwhile, recognizing that the spread of atomic weapons could endanger the very existence of mankind, the United States sought international agreement on control of the atom bomb. This dread weapon had been developed by the United States during World War II after scientists established that the Germans had been trying to create such a bomb. It was used with devastating effect in order to hasten Japan's surrender as an alternative to a massive invasion of the Japanese islands with the probability of more than a million casualties on both sides.

In June 1946, U.S. delegate to the United Nations Bernard Baruch presented a proposal to its Atomic Energy Commission calling for the outlawing of atomic weapons and the international control of all atomic materials. As the only nation in possession of the bomb at the time, the United States offered to destroy its stock of bombs and reveal all its nuclear secrets. The Baruch Plan, as it was called, had one condition: that the international agency exercising authority for inspection and enforcement not be subject to veto by any single nation.

The U.S. proposal, supported in principle by nine of the ten voting members of the Commission, was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet counterproposal, while also calling upon all nations to renounce atomic weapons, did not provide an inspection system to uncover violations or an enforcement system to punish violators. Similar differences on the questions of inspection and the veto were to stalemate later conferences on general disarmament. Meanwhile, both countries developed more destructive weapons.

In the United States, concern mounted as the Soviet Union used its troops in eastern Europe to help minority Communist parties destroy or infiltrate non-Communist groups and install pro-Soviet governments. Within three years of the war's end Communist-dominated governments were in control of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, and the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany.

Harry Truman In the spring of 1947, many Americans feared the danger of further Communist expansion. This fear was dramatized by Soviet support of Communist guerrillas in Greece and by Soviet threats against Turkey's control of the Dardanelles. President Truman appeared before Congress to declare that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Congress supported this policy, which became known as the "Truman Doctrine," with an initial authorization of $400 million for economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey. Within two years Greece restored domestic order and Turkey reaffirmed its territorial integrity.