This was perhaps the grimmest meeting over which John Kennedy had presided as President of the U.S. Around him sat the members of the National Security Council, along with other diplomatic and military leaders and an assortment of top scientists. On the coffin-shaped Cabinet table rested a thin book, bound in blue paper and red-stamped TOP SECRET. It was an intelligence estimate of the results of the more than 50 recent Russian atomic tests. It made for unhappy reading, and its seriousness was only partly reflected by a public statement put out at week's end by the Atomic Energy Commission.
At the core of the estimate was a report submitted by a committee of scientific advisers headed by Physicist Hans Bethe and based on air scoops from the fallout of Soviet test shots, on seismographic recordings and on analyses of heat, sound and light effects. Added to the Bethe report were findings compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, Pentagon intelligence units and the President's own national security advisers. The evidence was overwhelming, leading to the conclusion that the Russians have made giant strides in the field of strategic thermonuclear weaponry, that they are rapidly catching up with the U.S. in tactical atomic abilities, and that unless the U.S. starts moving fast, it may be mastered by the physical force that it first unleashed as an instrument of devastation. Items:
>The Soviet tests indicated substantial advances in the development of entire atomic weapons systemsparticularly including progress in the anti-missile missile area, in which the U.S. is lagging and cannot pick up real impetus until it resumes its own atmospheric testing. The U.S. anti-missile missile, Nike-Zeus, will not even be ready for check-out testing until mid-1962.
>The Soviet tests showed a capability for developing atomic weapons with vastly more explosive energy yield per pound of weight. In the past, the U.S. nuclear lead has rested in great part on the superior yield-weight performance of its atomic devices. With the report on Red progress, scientists came to the inescapable conclusion that the Soviets are technically capable of producing just about any warhead in the U.S. arsenal. Moreover, in view of their yield-weight success, they might well be able to package one of their monstrous, 50-plus megaton bombs in a warhead tipping a missile well within known Soviet rocket-thrust capabilities.
>There was strong evidence that the Russians have developed an improved fission triggering device that greatly reduces the amount of radioactive fallout. Part of this new "cleanliness" might be attributed to high-altitude bursts, which do not suck up dustbut there was every reason to believe that the U.S.S.R. has made great strides in sophisticating its atomic art to a point almost equal to that of the U.S.