The H-Bomb and the Balance of Terror
The Korean War stimulated the West to form NATO and to rearm, but it did little to push forward the debate on nuclear strategy. Nor was the debate pushed forward by the argument on massive retaliation versus flexible response. Neither did the cogitations of strategists add very much -- except to make the point that massive retaliation lacked credibility and that flexible response would be enormously expensive. The engine that really drove the debate on nuclear strategy was technological development.
The Soviets' first atomic test was in late August 1949. American air-sampling flights picked up evidence of the explosion, and on September 23, President Truman announced the Soviet achievement to the world.
Truman's response was to authorize the development of the "Super," the hydrogen or H-bomb. He announced the decision on January 31, 1950. But between the announcement of the Soviet test and the announcement of the decision to develop the Super, the officials concerned went through a bitter, wrenching debate.
The atomic bomb, to repeat, is based on the principle of fission, in which very heavy elements like uranium or the man-made plutonium break into several lighter elements and in the process release fantastic amounts of energy. The H-bomb is based on fusion. Two hydrogen atoms are fused into one atom of helium, and in the process release even more fantastic amounts of energy.