On August 29th, 1949 an event took place in the Soviet Union, which shocked the world. The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb around four years after the U.S.A had tested its first bomb and world War II in the Pacific had ended. Ever since that day, there has been fear (at times higher than others) that the U.S.A. and USSR (or Russia) could go nuclear in a third world war. Although MAD was an important deterrent, there were too many close calls to world war III.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these fears have dissipated. However, in light of recent events (which some blame on the USA, others on Russia, and others on both sides) these fears have been reignited and expressed by senior officials from many countries. Many people think that August 1949 was the key date when fear of a third world war began, but the truth is it started earlier.
When the cold war began is a debate – some say Yalta Convention, others say the armistice of Italy or some dates from the mid-1940s to the late 1940s. However, many do not realize that there was almost a war right after the Second World War ended.
Russia and Operation Unthinkable
In 2013, Jonathan Walker wrote a book on a topic which has not received the attention of many historians of the second world war or the cold war – the book was titled “Operation Unthinkable – The Third World War.” The book is based on a real British plan to invade the Soviet Union, using British, Polish, American and German troops to invade the USSR in the Summer of 1945. The plan was quickly realized to be unrealistic for political and military reasons and soon the main proponent of the plan, Winston Churchill would lose his premiership to the Labour leader, Clement Attlee.
On a military level, Joseph Stalin had destroyed the Red Army during the purges of 1937 and 1938. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, he expected the country to collapse within a few weeks. Indeed, the early victories made it appear to many German, Russian and foreign observers that the Soviet Union was about to lose the war. Three years later to the day, Operation Bagration was launched, and the Germans suffered their most decisive defeat of the second world war. The Soviet Army had suffered serious losses in the prior three years but had matured from a bumbling mass to the most powerful army in the world. By the time the second world war ended in Europe, America was unlikely capable of invading deep into Russia (even if Japan had already been defeated).
However, there is one scenario under which hypothetically a third world war could have begun. On July 16th, 1945, Trinity was successfully tested, and the U.S.A possessed the most powerful weapon in the history of mankind. It would be over four years before the Soviets developed atomic weapons and it really would have taken more had Soviet spies not stolen American secrets. At the time, the U.S. knew that at least for the next few years they would have a monopoly on nuclear weapons.
Walker dismisses the possibility of the US launching a nuclear strike on the USSR during the post world war II era. He states in Operation Unthinkable that the Americans only had nine atomic bombs by Autumn 1946. Furthermore, they could only be delivered in modified B29s and that there was a lack of trained aircrew.
However, this argument seems weak – The U.S.A could have inflected heavy damage in Russia itself as well as other parts of the Soviet Union. The U.S.A. could have quickly modified B-29s and trained enough pilots to drop the weapons. After what American production accomplished in world war II, feats like this would be rather small to imagine. Regarding targets, despite the brutal destruction inflicted by the Germans, most of the areas destroyed were in Belarus, the Baltics, Ukraine, and not mother Russia. It would have been easy for the U.S. to start world war III and end it relatively quickly (America had 400 atomic bombs by 1949) and this is an outcome that many cold war warriors and anti-communists in eastern Europe may have celebrated.
Battleground Russia 1945?
So why didn’t Harry Truman launch Operation Unthinkable with nuclear (and not conventional forces)? It likely would have ended the Soviet threat with little chance of any real retaliation. There are many reasons why the U.S.A did not embark on such a course (which may have been favored by hot heads like General Patton). However, because Truman and others saw the danger of Stalin, it is remarkable that this scenario did not play out. I for one am happy (and not only because my grandfather was not discharged from the red army until 1946) but such a scenario would have killed millions only months after the second world war ended. However, in hindsight, I can see the chance of it happening far greater than most people seem to realize nowadays.
Whatever, the reason is that this did not happen we should be thankful and keep in mind when those discuss nuclear (or even conventional war) like it is a video game. The U.S.A and Russia may not get along but MAD aside, it is in the interests of mankind to realize how dangerous a third world war would be.