Saturday, July 25, 2015
Book Review 350: Stalin and the Bomb
Except for one astonishing, unbelievable and unexplainable omission, David Holloway’s “Stalin and the Bomb” is a remarkably full account of the first nuclear arms race.
At times, it has the page-turning appeal of a howdunit — we know the reds got the bomb, but which were the turning points, which the key decisions, which the intelligence coups, which the lucky breaks?
There really never were any atomic secrets to steal. Competent physicists everywhere all drew the same conclusions immediately when fission was discovered in 1938. Russia, somewhat surprisingly, had plenty of competent physicists.
The first chapters rehearse the history, how a country where most people couldn’t sign their names managed to have a substantial physics intelligentsia; and how the bleeding, hungry early USSR found the resources to keep training physicists. Many were revolutionary soldiers before being sent to physics institutes or engineering schools. Holloway does not say so, but few would have been educated under the tsar. Whatever else it did, the revolution tapped Russia’s best resources: brains.
In 1940, Russia was in a position to start building an atomic bomb. It had sufficient industrial and intellectual resources, but no uranium.
Until 1938, the radioactive element of interest was radium. The West got its radium from pitchblende ores in Czechoslovakia and Congo; uranium was a nearly useless by-product. Russia got its radium from deep brine, with no uranium. No systematic search for uranium deposits was made until 1944.
More seriously, there was no political commitment to a bomb. Holloway concludes that Stalin and Molotov did not really believe a bomb could work. Thus he reinterprets Stalin’s famously cool response to Truman’s tip at Potsdam that the U.S. had a new bomb of “unusual destructive force.” Stalin was not just hiding his intelligence success; he thought Truman was bluffing.
When it turned out that the U.S. had a way to conclude the Japanese war, Stalin was unpleasantly surprised. He was now unable to pick up easy gains in southern Sakhalin and Hokkaido, or to have a say in the occupation of Japan. In Europe, he was now open to being outflanked diplomatically. And he was obliged to divert resources desperately needed for reconstruction to a crash bomb program.
When it came later to a decision about the “Super” or hydrogen bomb, that offered Russia a chance to catch up or even leap ahead and make up for the misjudgment of 1940. But here is where Holloway unaccountably gets it all wrong.
He judges that there was never any real chance that Stalin in his fear would have decided against an atomic arsenal, and that there was never any chance for international control. But for Stalin the issue was completely simple: The USSR was under relentless (if weak) armed attack by the United States. Few Americans knew it, possibly not even Truman, but Stalin knew.
Therefore the American proposals for international control or debates about whether to build the H-bomb were interpreted in the Kremlin, correctly, as trickery.
So much for the politics of nuclear stupidity. Most of the book is about the scientists and how they operated — and why they willingly and earnestly worked to give Stalin (more correctly, Russia) a bomb, even those who were pulled out of prison camps to do it. Americans don’t want to admit it, but Russians who remembered tsarism thought Bolshevism, even Stalinism, was better.
“Those who took part in the project believed that the Soviet Union needed its own bomb in order to defend itself, and welcomed the challenge of proving the worth of Soviet science by building a Soviet atomic bomb as quickly as possible.” They also, he thinks, maintained a certain civic independence that had been eliminated from the rest of society, with implications for the future.
The key figure was I.V Kurchatov, head of the Soviet bomb effort. Unlike the Americans, the Russians picked a scientist, not a general, to direct their bomb program. Kurchatov was a talented administrator and had a gift for getting men who did not like each other to work together.
Holloway agrees with the general opinion that spying shortened Russia’s trip to atomic weaponry by only a year or so, at most. It appears that having Kurchatov was worth at leastas much as having Klaus Fuchs.