A few months ago, the NYRB published a letter from William Burr of the National Security Archives regarding the lack of nuclear weapons on B-29s in Europe:
John Banville’s absorbing review of books about the Cambridge Five [NYR, March 7] replicates errors made in Roland Philipp’s book A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean. First, during the Berlin Crisis, President Harry Truman never made public statements about sending B-29 bombers to Western Europe. Second, the B-29s sent to Europe were not nuclear-armed or even atomic capable. Instead, as Ken Young shows in The American Bomb in Britain, the US Air Force bought from the British 1,000 tons of high explosives for the B-29s. Although it was widely believed at the time that the bombers were nuclear-armed, they were a “hollow threat.”
Citing Philipps, Mr. Banville notes that Maclean picked up enough intelligence to alert Stalin that the United States had a small stockpile of atomic weapons and not much capability to deliver them from US soil. That was accurate, but Maclean may not have known that early in the crisis Truman refused to turn the Bomb over to the military, declaring that “I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we have to…. You have got to understand that this is not a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women, children and unarmed people.” Truman’s thinking suggests that atomic war was even less likely than Maclean realized.