Title: Stalin and the Bomb
Author: David Holloway
Holloway, David (1994). Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union And Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
- Nuclear weapons–Government policy–Soviet Union–History.
- Nuclear energy–Research–Soviet Union–History.
- Science and state–Soviet Union–History.
- Soviet Union–Foreign relations.
Date Posted: January 13, 2015
Review by Priscilla Johnson McMillan
For decades now, a debate has been raging over who was more to blame for the cold war, Stalin’s Russia or the United States. Since the Vietnam War especially, revisionist historians have argued that the United States monopoly of the atomic bomb—and the unspoken threat to use it—played a larger role than Americans have realized in the breakdown of the World War II alliance and the onset of the long, untidy quasi peace.
Into this debate, and on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima and the Allied victory in World War II, has been dropped a new book, the long-awaited Stalin and the Bomb, by David Holloway, a professor of political science and co-director of the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. It is a superb history, recounting the Soviet nuclear weapons program until three years after Stalin’s death, with an eye to the part played by the atomic bomb in the outbreak of the cold war.
Using speeches and interviews given by Stalin, V. M. Molotov, Maxim Litvinov and G. M. Malenkov, and documents that have become available in Russia over the past seven years, Mr. Holloway presents a hardheaded view of the way the early postwar universe looked to the men inside the Kremlin. He asks questions about missed opportunities that have bedeviled scholars in the West, weighs the evidence scrupulously and comes up with answers that will bring little comfort to many liberals—and none at all to revisionist historians. And in a ground-breaking chapter about the hydrogen bomb, he uses interviews with Andrei Sakharov, Yuli Khariton and other former Soviet physicists to give a clearer picture of the way the Soviet H-bomb was built than anything we have yet been given about the construction of the hydrogen bomb in our own country.
Mostly, however, this is the story of Stalin’s race to end the American atomic monopoly. Abetted by his chief of secret police, Lavrenti Beria, who doubled as head of the bomb project, Stalin made liberal use of espionage from abroad, and thereby hangs an extraordinary tale. Just as Mr. Holloway’s book comes during a debate among Western historians, so, too, it appears at the height of a controversy in Moscow —a controversy fueled by Special Tasks, a book by Pavel Sudoplatov, the former security forces general —over who deserves credit for the Soviet atomic bomb, Russia’s scientists or its spies. Mr. Holloway surveys the work of Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the Soviet project, and his team of physicists, mathematicians and radiochemists, and concludes that whereas the Russians tested a version of the American plutonium bomb in 1949 with the help of espionage data from the West, without it they would have tested an atomic bomb of their own design about 1951.
The saving of those two years was no straightforward matter. Alerted by Soviet intelligence to the possibility that Hitler might be building an atomic bomb and that Britain and the United States might be doing the same, Stalin decided in 1942 to launch a small-scale atomic project. First he consulted his scientists, but he did not let them see espionage data from Britain that shed crucial light on whether a bomb could be built at all. Not until March 1943, after Russia’s victory at Stalingrad, did Stalin allow Kurchatov to see the data. For several days Kurchatov pored over them in the office of Foreign Minister Molotov. “How are the materials?” Molotov finally asked. “Wonderful,” Kurchatov answered, according to Mr. Holloway. “Just what we are lacking.” He was then permitted to see the fruits of Soviet espionage, but not to show them to anyone.
Primed by secret reports from Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, spies who were working on the Manhattan Project—but not, according to Mr. Holloway and contrary to Mr. Sudoplatov, from J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi or other leaders of the Project—Kurchatov had to suggest new research leads to his colleagues without so much as a hint that those leads had been stolen from abroad. (Later he was allowed, on occasion, to show foreign intelligence materials to other Soviet scientists, but only with special permission.) Kurchatov, not surprisingly, acquired a reputation for extraordinary intuition, and he managed to maintain his colleagues’ trust despite the deception that had been forced upon him. But he was unhappy about the low priority accorded to his operation and the disparity in quality between the Soviet effort and that of the United States.
Stalin’s paranoia cost the bomb project dearly. He had reliable espionage material from abroad and, at home, magnificent, utterly loyal nuclear physicists who had done breakthrough work even before the war—and he did not trust either. He and Beria knew nothing about science. How could they be sure Kurchatov was not deceiving them? And the same was true of the intelligence reports. Perhaps the enemy was trying to draw them into expenditures that had no future. “If this is disinformation,” Beria threatened a high-level agent who was giving him secret data, “I’ll put you all in the cellar.”
This misplaced suspicion had other costs as well. In 1941 Stalin had ignored warnings from his own intelligence, and from the intelligence services of Britain and France, that Hitler was about to attack Russia. Similarly, in 1945, he failed utterly to anticipate the role that nuclear weapons would soon play, despite warnings from Fuchs that the United States would test an atomic bomb in early July and would use it in Japan, if the test succeeded. After the bomb was dropped, Stalin was furious. The place Russia had earned as a world power by its victory in the war had been snatched away. “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world,” he is said to have told Kurchatov. “The balance has been destroyed.”
At this point one of those “what-if” questions arises. Was there, as the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr concluded in 1944 and as historians have wondered since, a chance to short-circuit the cold war by openly informing our Soviet ally about the bomb well before the end of World War II? Mr. Holloway thinks not. He cites abundant evidence that Stalin had decided on a tough postwar course long before Hiroshima or the atomic bomb entered his calculations. Even if Bohr’s advice had been followed and if President Harry S. Truman and his Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, had eschewed all thought of using the existence of the bomb as a diplomatic weapon, Stalin still would have wanted a bomb of his own. The only thing he disliked about the new weapon was that Truman, “that noisy shopkeeper,” had it and he did not.
Stalin now gave the bomb project the priority he had denied it before. “If a child doesn’t cry,” he told Kurchatov in late summer 1945, urging haste, “the mother doesn’t know what he needs. Ask for whatever you like. You won’t be refused.” Early in 1946 he summoned Kurchatov again. This time he rejected advice he had received from the famous Russian physicist Pyotr Kapitsa that the Soviet Union ought to follow its own, cheaper path to the bomb rather than copy the American design. Stalin said that “it was not worth engaging in small-scale work,” Kurchatov wrote in his notes, “but necessary to conduct the work broadly, with Russian scope. . . . It was not necessary to seek cheaper paths.”
Capable as the Soviet scientists were (and this also went for the aircraft and missile designers who were hard at work copying the American B-29 bomber and the German V-2 rocket), their ideas did not receive full support from Stalin until they had been validated in the West. And so Kurchatov and his top associate Khariton had to set aside their own design for a uranium bomb and embark on an all-out effort to reproduce the plutonium weapon the Americans had tested successfully at Alamogordo, N.M. The irony is that while all this was going on, Stalin was simultaneously engaged in an attempt to root out foreign influences in Soviet life, beginning with the arts and spreading to biology. In 1948 a campaign led by the fraudulent geneticist Trofim Lysenko destroyed Soviet biological research for decades to come. The next year, in March 1949, a conference was to take place in Moscow that would censure Soviet physicists for “kowtowing and groveling before the West.” At the last minute the conference was called off and, in the Russia of those days, only one man could have done that.
According to a story related by Mr. Holloway, Beria had asked Kurchatov shortly before the conference whether it was true that quantum mechanics and relativity theory were idealist and antimaterialist. Kurchatov reportedly replied that if relativity theory and quantum mechanics had to be rejected by Russian science, the atomic bomb would have to be rejected, too. According to another story in the book, Stalin phrased his decision to cancel this way: “Leave them [the physicists] in peace. We can always shoot them later.” He could afford a charlatan like Lysenko in biology, but physics was another matter. Stalin relied on his physicists for the bomb—and for Soviet status as a superpower. When his first atomic bomb was tested in August 1949, five months after the aborted conference, those scientists who would have been shot in the event of failure received the highest awards: Hero of Socialist Labor and so on, down the line.
In spite of Beria’s management by terror, his “issuing threats and exuding an air of menace” on visits to atomic plants, the scientists worked selflessly and with enthusiasm. Some viewed it as “a splendid task in physics,” while others were anxious to prove the value of Soviet science; still others worked because they were appalled by American use of the bomb in Japan, were aware that cracks had appeared in the wartime alliance and, in what the author calls “in some psychological sense a continuation of the war with Germany,” considered atomic weapons necessary for their country’s defense. For these reasons there was, two scientists wrote afterward, “in the first, most romantic years of our work . . . a wonderful atmosphere of good will and support.” Not only that, but the physics community managed to maintain much of its old autonomy and mutual loyalty even within the harsh system of administrative command. The Soviet atomic bomb was the result of miraculous synergistic fusion between scientists and engineers on the one hand, and the police state, with its awesome ability to mobilize resources, on the other.
Well before the atomic bomb test of 1949, Sakharov and others were secretly at work on the next megaweapon, the hydrogen bomb. Once again they worked with enthusiasm because, as Sakharov wrote, “we . . . believed that our work was absolutely necessary as a means of achieving a balance in the world.” Their American counterparts, too, had been working on hydrogen-bomb designs and, after Russia acquired the atomic bomb, President Truman ordered them to build the hydrogen bomb as rapidly as they could. Truman, however, had his dissenters. In the fall of 1949 the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee recommended against an all-out thermonuclear program for reasons that have been misunderstood to this day. One was that after seven years of research, American scientists still thought there was only slightly better than a 50-50 chance that the bomb could be built. Another was that the hydrogen weapon, as then conceived, could be made infinitely large and carry unlimited destructive power. The hydrogen bomb had nothing to do with wiping out military objectives or even whole cities. It could wipe out the human race.
At this point in his story, Mr. Holloway asks another of the “what-if” questions that have troubled Westerners. Suppose Truman had announced in 1949 that the United States would refrain from an all-out effort to build the hydrogen bomb. Could Stalin have been enticed, as Oppenheimer and others hoped, into agreement not to develop his own bomb? Once again Mr. Holloway responds with a hardheaded no, agreeing with Sakharov that Stalin would have regarded such an offer as the product of either deception or foolishness—and a misstep to be exploited.
Stalin’s death in 1953 did not at once alter the Soviet scientists’ enthusiasm. The physicist Lev Landau, who said, “That’s it. He’s gone. I’m no longer afraid of him, and I won’t work on [nuclear weapons] any more,” was very much the exception. In the summer of 1953 they carried out test “Joe-4” (named after Stalin by the Americans) of a modified hydrogen weapon based on Sakharov’s “layer cake” design, and in 1955 they tested a so-called “true” hydrogen bomb, based, as the 1952 and 1954 American devices were, on the concept of radiation implosion, and they did all of this without espionage help.
The enhanced confidence brought by their independent attainment of the hydrogen bomb gave some of the scientists, notably Sakharov, leeway for reflection. So, too, did the easing of repression of thought under Stalin’s successors, and spreading knowledge of the extent of Stalin’s crimes. And there was the sheer power of the hydrogen bomb itself. Kurchatov was badly shaken when he saw the damage. “One more test like those of 1953 and 1955,” he said to Sakharov, “and I’m going to retire.” He told another colleague, “That was such a terrible, monstrous sight! That weapon must not be allowed ever to be used!”
Kurchatov evidently briefed the new Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, who later said: “When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts about nuclear power I couldn’t sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again.” At the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev broke with Stalin’s theory that war was inevitable and announced a new theory of his own. “Either peaceful coexistence or the most destructive war in history,” he declared. “There is no third way.” In the Soviet Union as in the United States, the physicists’ awe at their handiwork spread to the political leaders. When that happened, Mr. Holloway informs us, nuclear weapons, which had hastened breakdown of the wartime alliance and heightened tension in the early years, began to serve as a restraint.
Stalin and the Bomb is a prodigious book. Mr. Holloway has plowed through the new sources available in Russia, turning up fresh insights into the cold war and, even more, into the conditions of intellectual life in Stalin’s Russia. This study is a work on the largest scale, one that advances our understanding and is likely to remain definitive for years to come.
RUSSIA’S MANHATTAN PROJECT
An atomic industry had to be established before the bomb could be built. This was a formidable task for a country that had suffered so much in the war. But Stalin wanted the bomb as soon as possible, and was prepared to disregard the cost. The building of the atomic bomb was the kind of task for which the Stalinist command economy was ideally suited. It resembled the huge construction projects of the 1930s—the steel city at Magnitogorsk, or Dneprostroi, the great dam on the Dnieper. It was a heroic undertaking for which the resources of the country could be mobilized, including the best scientists and industrial managers, as well as the slave laborers of the Gulag. The project was a curious combination of the best and the worst of Soviet society—of enthusiastic scientists and engineers produced by the expansion of education under Soviet rule, and of prisoners who lived in the inhuman conditions of the labor camps.
No good figures are available for the cost of the project, or for the number of people involved. Some indication of the project’s size, however, is given by a 1950 Central Intelligence Agency report, which estimated that between 330,000 and 460,000 people were employed in it. Most of these—255,000 to 361,000—worked in mining in the Soviet Union (80,000 to 120,000) and in Eastern Europe (175,000 to 241,000). . . . The C.I.A. estimated that about 10,000 technically qualified people—engineers, geologists, research scientists and laboratory technicians—worked in the project. Although these figures are estimates, they appear plausible, and certainly of the right order of magnitude. Many of these people, and in particular the miners and construction workers, were prisoners. From “Stalin and the Bomb.” \
IDEOLOGY MATTERED, BUT THE BOMB MATTERED MORE
It was during the early 1970s that David Holloway first considered writing about the birth of the Soviet bomb program. “I’d been interested in the history of the Manhattan Project,” he recalled in a telephone interview from his office in Palo Alto, Calif., where he is a political science professor at Stanford University. “It was a remarkable group of people building a bomb of great destructive power that raised all kinds of questions.” He thought it would be worthwhile to investigate the Soviet program in the same way historians had examined the Manhattan Project.
Mr. Holloway, 51, whose first book, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race, was published in 1983, began working in earnest on Stalin and the Bomb four or five years ago, during the collapse of Communism. His research benefited from archival material that began to emerge and from the growing willingness of the participants to speak openly. “There were all kinds of legends which turned out not to be true,” he said.
Mr. Holloway was surprised at how late in the game Stalin became serious about the bomb. “The evidence is pretty strong,” he observed, that while Stalin had started the bomb program during the war, it was only “after Hiroshima that it became a crash project.” And, Mr. Holloway continued, he was struck by the fact that some of the KGB people thought the American bomb project was “just disinformation, a kind of trap, the way that some people later portrayed Star Wars to be a kind of trap to lure them into spending money on something that wouldn’t work.”
Mr. Holloway is skeptical of several of the theories swirling around this period of history, like the view that the West might have prevented an arms race by sharing its bomb technology with Stalin: “A belief in the benefits of cooperation was really not something he displayed very much.”
Stalin was even deeply suspicious of the loyalty of the scientists working on the bomb, yet he recognized the need to support their efforts. “On the one hand, the West was the model because it was more advanced, and its technology had to be copied,” Mr. Holloway said. “On the other hand, the West was the enemy, and Western science and ideas were hostile and had to be kept out of the country. I think it was a contradiction he never managed to escape from. But essentially it was that contradiction that saved physics in the Soviet Union.”
By the end, the author “was very taken with this whole community of scientists,” which “somehow preserved some degree of intellectual freedom and autonomy even while locked up behind barbed wire in secret cities.”
Mr. Holloway was able to spend time with some of the key figures in the Soviet project, including Andrei Sakharov and the physicist Yuli Khariton. He said he even traveled with Mr. Khariton “in his private railroad carriage, which he had been given after the first Soviet atomic bomb test. A whole car. I sat there on a summer evening talking, and I was kind of pinching myself, thinking ‘this can’t be true.’“
 Sudoplatov, Pavel (1995). Special Tasks: The Memoirs of An Unwanted Witness, A Soviet Spymaster . Boston: Little, Brown
 Holloway, David (1983). The Soviet Union And The Arms Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press