- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (March 27, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300066643
- ISBN-13: 978-0300066647
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #999,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956
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From Publishers Weekly
Tracing the development of nuclear power in Stalinist Russia, Holloway examines such topics as the role of espionage and the relationships between scientists and politicians.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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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.
Many of the major participants are familiar to readers of Soviet history, such as Stalin, Beria, Molotov and Khrushchev. However, the important actors in this drama were the technical experts who created these engines of destruction on behalf of their masters. Many prominent scientists labored to provide the theoretical and experimental support demanded by Stalin for rapid industrialization, laying the groundwork for the tremendous infrastructure needed to duplicate the achievements of the Manhattan Project years later. Research in radioactivity eventually led to the first spontaneous fission experiment in 1940, but this did not attract attention in the West, where restrictions began for publication on nuclear physics.
Work on fission continued during the war, but the lack of uranium prevented much advancement. Holloway, in examining the directives during this period, found priorities unchanged following the Potsdam meeting, in contrast to the subsequent demand for uranium production after Hiroshima. He attributes Stalin's casual reaction to Truman's mention of a new weapon to skepticism regarding its importance. But the bomb as a colossal reality, not merely as an intelligence phantom, presented Stalin with a new strategic contention. His response was to show resolve in the face of anticipated intimidation coupled with orders to develop this technology independently. However, he only recognized the bomb as an instrument of Anglo-American policy, and refused to consider it militarily decisive in any potential conflict. When challenging US policy over Berlin, for example, Stalin carefully applied pressure while keeping his options open and took care not to escalate tensions beyond retraction.
The achievement of creating an atomic bomb, given the devastating post-war depravation of the Soviet Union can be credited primarily to Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the nuclear project from 1942 until his death in 1960. Kurchatov was a well respected figure in Soviet physics, but he also provided a methodical and systematic orchestration to a project with many difficult sundry en-gineering obstacles to overcome, not to mention the menacing oversight by Beria, head of the NKVD. Although awarded privileged status in the post-war Soviet Union, the scientists recognized their position as predicated on successful completion of this task.
The primary obstacle remained the inadequate supply of uranium metal until 1948 when the first production reactor was built. Uranium isotope separation and plutonium precipitation were tackled with indus-trial vigor. The gaseous diffusion facility, modeled on the Oak Ridge plant involved particular engineering difficulties to be solved before uranium enrichment could proceed. Yulii Khariton, director of the secret nu-clear research laboratory Arzamas-16, led the study on the physics of detonation. Implosion was needed to compress the plutonium a few microseconds in order to start the chain reaction. Their first atom bomb was exploded August 1949 at Semipalatinsk with a yield of 20 kilotons of TNT. Thus the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club.
While espionage yielded useful information at the West's expense, Holloway argues that Klaus Fuchs saved the Soviets only about a year or two by giving dimensions of the plutonium implosion design. He compares the first Soviet atom bomb explosion in 1949 with the first British demonstration in 1952 despite much closer collaboration with the Americans than anything obtained clandestinely by their Soviet counterparts. Holloway also contends that the contribution by captured Germans was comparatively minor and sped the project by only a few weeks or months--principally in the area of processing uranium.
While the bomb was being developed, Stalin initiated orders on delivery systems--bombers by Vladimir Myasishchev and rockets by Sergei Korolev. In Stalin's view, another war was inevitable within two decades, and the atomic bomb would serve as merely another policy instrument. After he died in March 1953, his successors embarked on a less confrontational rapproachement with the West.
After the Soviets demonstrated their ability to create weapons based on nuclear fission, Truman decided to pursue the hydrogen bomb, because there was no indication that Stalin would reciprocate a policy of restraint. After some false starts, a method to use X-ray compression from fission to implode the thermonuclear charge was discovered, enabling a yield limited only by the quantity of nuclear fuel. The Mike test in November 1952 verified this concept with an ungainly 60-ton refrigerated assembly. Meanwhile, the Russians embarked on fusion independently. A young physicist, Andrei Sakarov began work in 1948 and joined the Arzamas-16 facility, developing the "Layer Cake" which resembled the boosted fission weapon, before advancing on the two-stage Super. The first thermonuclear bomb was exploded in August 1953, and apparently alarmed Kurchatov, being 20 times more power-ful than the first Soviet fission bomb four years earlier. In November 1955, the first two-stage thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 1.6 megatons was exploded.
The first Soviet fusion explosion produced a profound change in the attitudes of politburo members about the same time that Americans realized that this new weapon represented a far more potent destructive force than the fission variety. In the aftermath of this revelation, a more conciliatory "peaceful coexistence" doctrine began to develop. Khrushchev's increased dialog with western leaders also facilitated long dormant communication between Soviet physicists and their colleagues beyond the Iron Curtain. Kurchatov's visit in 1956 was well received at Harwell, the British power station. From this small privileged enclave, a civilizing influence was nurtured within a totalitarian society. Eventually, Sakarov went beyond the usual misgivings of Soviet society to become a dissident and human rights advocate.
_Stalin_ concludes that the arms race between the two blocks was contingent solely on Stalin's intentions. Holloway believes that in the post-war years the bomb probably restrained the use of force but also made Stalin less cooperative to avoid seeming weak.
The book is not without flaws--some identifications to the KGB presumably belong to NKVD, the American arsenal in June 1946 lists a grossly exces-sive nine atom bombs taken from the _Bulletin of_Atomic_Scientists_ compared to _The Winning_Weapon_ by Gregg Herken which identified a single partially disassembled weapon in the inventory in January 1947, and an annoying transliteration of two Cyrillic characters as "ia" and "iu" instead of "ya" and "yu" as more conventionally employed. Otherwise, _Stalin_ is a tremendous addition to our knowledge of Russian capabilities in physics instigated by a repressive regime at the dawn of the nuclear age.
Stalin and the Bomb is extremely readable and provides some nice detail on Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet A-bomb. A little more on Sakharov and the H-bomb project would have been nice, but was not central to the thrust of the book. Significantly, this book delves into significant technical detail about the research and construction of nuclear weapons, but the author does a superb job of making the science accessable to people without PhDs in physics.