Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

October 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 7)


Stalin and The Bomb
By Dr. Matin Zuberi *


Russian physicist Yakov Frankel wrote home from the United States in 1930 that “physicists are a narrow cast, the members of which are well known to one another in all parts of the globe, but at the same time completely unknown to their closest comrades.” 1   The discovery of atomic fission splintered this international fraternity into competing groups of physicists who soon became national celebrities.

The Russian scientific community, especially the physicists, enjoyed great respect before World War II. Peter Kapitsa, who spent 14 years working with the legendary Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, was one of the world’s foremost experimental physicists. 2   Lev Landau, who studied in Germany along with Edward Teller, is considered to be one of the best theoretical physicists of this century. Arrested in April 1938 and charged with being a “German spy”, he was released a year later after Kapitsa’s intervention. 3   Igor Kurchatov built the first cyclotron in Europe in 1937. Konstantin Petrzhak and Georgi Flerov discovered spontaneous fission of uranium under the direction of Kurchatov. Petrzhak later claimed that but for the war, Russian physicists might have been the first to achieve the self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. 4

Unlike their colleagues in Germany, Britain, France and the United States who warned their governments of the possible military implications of nuclear fission and later accepted secrecy on nuclear research, Russian scientists did not alert their government and continued to publish freely on nuclear fission until the summer of 1940. Their response reflected the strategic and political status of their country. Germany, France, and Britain were already embroiled in war and the United States was indirectly assisting Britain while the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 insulated the Soviet Union from the conflict. Russian scientists could not afford to warn their leaders of the possibility of a German bomb under those circumstances. Moreover, the absence of a large number of Jewish refugee scientists, who raised the alarm in Britain and the United States, further contributed to a more relaxed response to the news of fission. 5   In 1941, Kapista had published an appeal in Izvestisa for a cooperative effort with the Soviet Union in the development of an atomic bomb. 6  

In December 1941, Kurchatov’s 28-year-old colleague, Georgi Flerov sent him a 13- page letter and a sketch of an experimental bomb using the gun method. Flerov, then serving in the air force, went to a library in February 1942, to find out from foreign journals whether there had been any response to the discovery of spontaneous fission. Not only had there been no response; British and American journals contained no reference to the work of great physicists like Fermi and others. He, therefore, surmised that war-related censorship had been imposed. Thus, secrecy itself gave the secret away. Flerov wrote several letters to Kurchatov which did not have the desired effect. 7  

Soviet intelligence sources started sending information from Britain as soon as the British government began taking interest in atomic energy matters. By September 25, 1941, they had reported the British decision to build the bomb, the estimate that it would take British scientists between two and five years to do it, as well as the British intention to produce uranium-235 through the gaseous diffusion process. The consensus among nuclear historians is that the source of this information was John Cairncross, one of the so-called “Cambridge Five” recruited by Soviet agents; other members of the gang were Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and Donald Maclean. “It’s like being a lavatory attendant”, said Maclean about espionage; “it stinks, but someone has to do it.” Cairncross, described by friends as “a very intelligent though somewhat incoherent, bore”, passed on this vital piece of information because he had been appointed in September 1940 as private secretary to Lord Hankey who had complete access to war Cabinet papers and was overseeing British intelligence efforts. Levrenti Beria, Stalin’s dreaded security chief, received reports of nuclear research with habitual cynicism; he consulted a group of physicists without showing them the intelligence reports. Their assessment was that even if an atomic bomb were technically feasible, it could only be built in the remote future. 8


Soviet Bomb Project Launched

By early 1942, however, so much information about the British, French, German, and American research to produce the bomb reached Beria that he decided to report to Stalin about calculations of the critical mass and the gaseous diffusion method of enriching uranium. Flerov also alerted Stalin about the possibility of an atomic bomb. Stalin called a group of eminent academicians and berated them for their neglect of a problem which was brought to his notice by a young officer from the front. He decided in December 1942 to launch a small-scale atomic project and sent the file on espionage to Molotov for further action. 9   This decision, taken at a time when Leningrad was under German siege and the heroic battle of Stalingrad was being fought, could not have been taken in the hope of producing the bomb for use in the war. It made sense only as a hedge against a possible German or American bomb in the post-war world. 10   But Stalin was suspicious of his scientists and did not let them see the espionage data that shed light on whether a bomb could be built at all. And as the German forces penetrated deep into Soviet territory, laboratories were deserted and scientists devoted their talents to more urgent war work.

It was only after the Russian victory at Stalingrad that Molotov obtained a list of, in his own words, “reliable physicists who could be depended on.” He summoned Kapitsa who said that “the atomic bomb was not a weapon of this war, but a matter for the future.” But Igor Kurchatov made a good impression on Molotov; on March 10, 1943, he was confirmed as scientific director of the project. Molotov remembers that he then decided to provide Kurchatov with the intelligence data and that the scientist sat in his Kremlin office for several days going through the precious material. Molotov then asked “So what do you think of this? I myself understood none of it, but I knew the material had come from good, reliable sources.” Kurchatov replied, “The materials are magnificent. They add exactly what we have been missing.” He wrote memoranda evaluating the information and posed questions for further espionage. Kurchatov was not a mere passive recipient but an active participant in an espionage programme against the allies that had excluded his bleeding country from the Manhattan Project. 11


Klaus Fuchs

An important new source of information in the summer of 1942 was Klaus Fuchs. Son of a German Protestant pastor, he had been an active member of the underground movement in Germany and escaped arrest by fleeing to Britain in 1933. Thus, unlike many eminent physicists who fled from Germany because of their Jewish background, he was a refugee because of his convictions rather than his race. A pupil of Nobel Laureate Max Born, he was a brilliant mathematical physicist of refined cultured manners. Having joined the British atomic project, he worked on the theory of gaseous diffusion and on the critical size and efficiency of an atomic bomb.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he established contact with a Soviet intelligence operative in Britain and handed over all the reports he had written, mostly on the gaseous diffusion process. He was not motivated by greed or ambition but by the stern voice of duty. Because on the Red Army came to rest all hopes of a Nazi defeat, he considered it his duty to keep the Russians informed about the secret project. The fact that the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942 explicitly provided for sharing of secret military information and technology with the Russians must have eased his conscience. Thus, although the world came to know about the new element “plutonium” only after the Nagasaki bombing, Russian scientists, thanks to Fuchs, learned about it in early 1943. Kurchatov wrote on March 22, 1943, that the bomb “would be made of ‘unearthly’ material, material which has disappeared from our planet.”

Fuchs arrived in the United States in December 1943 as a member of the British team to participate in the Manhattan Project. It has rightly been pointed out that “if the God of war had wanted to provide Igor Kurchatov with a clear channel directly to the heart of the most important and secret work then underway at Los Alamos, he could not have chosen a more providential channel than Klaus Fuchs.” When his Russian contact offered him $1,500, he held the envelope containing “as if it were an unclean thing”, and flatly declined the offer. 12  

Versatile as ever, he worked in the crucial theoretical physics division solving problems of implosion and later joined the team preparing for the Trinity test, with the task of calculating the blast effects of the explosion. While his colleagues worked on preparations for the secret test, Fuchs wrote a complete account of the construction of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Providing a detailed description of the plutonium device to be tested on July 16, 1945, and a list of its components and of the materials from which they were manufactured, he attached, a sketch of the device that was detailed enough to enable a competent engineer to prepare a blueprint for the Russian bomb. 13  

The idea of sharing the bomb with the Russians did not seem outlandish to scientists working at the Los Alamos Laboratory where the consensus seemed to be that competent Russian scientists would build their own bomb anyway and that effective post-war international control of atomic energy depended on Russian participation. Physicist Martin Deutsch noted that practically every scientist participated in these discussions. Only Fuchs declined to comment on these issues. 14

He returned to Britain in June 1946 and became head of the theoretical physics division of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Harwell where he helped the British to build their own bomb, a project that was being kept secret from the British public. Thus, Fuchs had the unique distinction of having made significant contributions to three bomb projects—the American, the British, and the Russian.


Informing the Russians

Meanwhile Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, who arrived in the United States as a member of the British team to participate in the Manhattan Project, was fascinated by the gigantic scale of the enterprise built on the theoretical foundations he himself had laid down. He had probed the forbidden territory of the atom in his younger days; now he was appalled by the terrifying prospect of the development of a weapon of unparalleled power. Endowed with an exceptionally imaginative intuition, Bohr wanted to pre-empt a future nuclear arms race even before the bomb had been fabricated and tested. He desired, “a magnanimous treatment” of the new weapon. 15  

Bohr was well aware that he was dealing with a political issue, not a scientific problem. Development of the bomb, he thought, would necessitate a new international order. Being “an exemplar of the good citizen within the republic of science”, he wanted to transpose the internationalism and rationality of science to the messy realm of international politics. 16   His thoughts soon crystallised into a precise proposition. An Anglo-American nuclear monopoly, he feared, would inevitably lead to an arms race with the Soviet Union. Personally acquainted with many Russian scientists, he felt that the margin of time before the Russians produced their own bomb would be very small. He, therefore, suggested that the Soviet Union should be told about the existence of the Manhattan Project without giving any technical details. Should the Soviet response to this limited disclosure be favourable, then, the way would be open for post-war nuclear cooperation on international control of atomic energy. Helpful support could be obtained from personal contacts of the world-wide scientific community. These contacts could lead to trust, trust to openness, and openness to security. 17   Thus, the unique danger of the bomb could be turned into a unique opportunity to promote an open and peaceful world; and he understood that profound changes in Soviet society would be necessary to bring about such an outcome. His painstakingly written memoranda for President Roosevelt were designed to prepare the ground for a major initiative by the United States. Encouraged by Roosevelt, he went to London to meet Winston Churchill.


Bohr Meets Churchill

Bohr, accompanied by scientific advisor Lord Cherwell, was reluctantly granted an audience by Churchill on May 16, 1944. He could not even broach the subject for which he had sought the audience because Churchill promptly derailed the discussion by picking a quarrel with Cherwell on the manner in which the interview was arranged. It was an unmitigated disaster. In despair, Bohr asked the prime minister whether he could write to him on urgent matters. Churchill’s crushing reply was that he would be honoured to receive a letter from Professor Bohr provided it was not about politics! He could not tolerate this unwelcome trespass by a scientist into the unfamiliar territory of strategy and politics. Bohr later complained that Churchill “scolded us like two schoolboys.” 18  

Undaunted by this setback, Bohr succeeded in getting an interview lasting over an hour with Roosevelt on August 26, 1944. The president said he was optimistic about the initiative suggested by Bohr and that he was confident that Churchill could be persuaded to share his views on the matter. He welcomed any further suggestions from the eminent scientist. 19   Shortly after this favourable interview, however, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Hyde Park and signed an aide-memoire on September 18, 1944, reaffirming the commitment to an Anglo-American nuclear monopoly with “the utmost secrecy.” A clause was specifically devoted to Bohr saying, “Enquiries should be made regarding the activities of Professor Bohr and steps taken to ensure that he is responsible for no leakage of information, particularly to the Russians.” 20   This “gratuitous meanness” about a scientist held in the highest respect by the international scientific community was totally uncalled for. 21   The day after signing the aide-memoire, Churchill asked Cherwell how Bohr had “come into this business? He is a great advocate of publicity. What is all this about? It seems to me Bohr ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.” 22  

The issue raised by Bohr was whether political leaders viewed the bomb as an instrument of state policy or as a common danger forcing them to unite in facing it. Unfortunately, they did not see the bomb as a perpetual threat to humanity as Bohr did. 23   Churchill was determined to keep the bomb an exclusively Anglo-American weapon. Explaining his opposition to any disclosures, he wrote to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on March 25, 1945, that the matter was “out of all relation to anything else that exists in the whole world.” He was against informing the Russians or even the French. “Once you tell them [the Russians] they will ask for the very latest news, and to see the plants. This will speed them up by two years at least. You may be quite sure that any power that gets hold of the secret will try to make the article and that this touches the existence of human society.” 24   Roosevelt had been informed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson in September 1943 that Soviet agents were “getting information about vital secrets and sending them to Russia.” 25   Yet he, like Churchill, was determined to keep the Russians in the dark about the bomb project; in fact, Roosevelt was “the largest single cause of the absence of any serious communication with Russia before Hiroshima.” 26  

The matter was again raised at the so-called Interim Committee appointed by Roosevelt to deal with nuclear matters. At its meeting of May 18, 1945, Bohr’s proposal was reduced to the question of whether or not Truman should tell the Russians of the existence of the bomb before it was dropped on Japanese cities. 27   On a related matter, General Groves said that it would take twenty years for the Soviet Union to produce the bomb. James Conant, one of the scientific overlords of the Manhattan Project, asserted that it was “highly unsafe to count on twenty years; four seemed more reasonable.” 28   At the Committee meeting on May 31, Oppenheimer pointed out that fundamental knowledge relating to atomic matters was so widespread that early steps should be taken to make American progress known to the world. An American offer to exchange information before the bomb was actually used would greatly strengthen the country’s moral position. For Bohr, however, the real issue was not so much of raising the moral position of the United States as of leaders negotiating a way beyond the mutual danger posed by the new weapon. Oppenheimer suggested that the Russians be told in a tentative fashion in the hope of future cooperation. He found a valuable ally in General Marshall who said that the seemingly uncooperative attitude of the Soviet Union in military matters stemmed from the necessity of maintaining security. If the Russians were informed about the bomb, he did not fear they would disclose the secret to the Japanese. “Would it be desirable”, he wondered, “to invite two prominent Russians to visit the Alamogordo test?” James Byrnes, Truman’s representative on the Committee and soon to take over as secretary of state, then put his foot down. He was afraid that if the Russians were informed, Stalin would ask to be brought into partnership. 29  

The issue of informing the Russians before a combat drop of the bomb was again discussed at the last meeting of the Committee on June 21. For the past two months, Roosevelt’s chief scientific advisors, Vannevar Bush and James Conant, had opposed any policy that unnecessarily risked prejudicing relations with the Soviet Union and were convinced that efforts should be made to enlist Soviet cooperation before dropping the bomb. The Committee unanimously recommended that the Russians should be told at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 that the United States was working on the bomb and expected to use it against Japan. The president might add that he hoped further discussions would ensure that the weapon became an aid to peace. Should the Russians press for more details, he could say that he was not yet ready to furnish them. 30


The Truman-Stalin Encounter

While the British and American leaders discussed their plans for invading Japan at their meetings with the Russians at Potsdam, they were silent about the bomb. To keep the atomic secret at the summit, however, when the impending atomic bombing of Japan would be followed by detailed American statements regarding the Manhattan Project, would be interpreted as deliberate deception of a gallant ally. Truman discussed the matter with his senior advisors as well as with Churchill. Determined to be less than candid with Stalin, he wanted to protect himself from the charge of deception. Byrnes did not want the Soviet Union to participate in the Pacific War and he was afraid that information about the bomb may impel Stalin to order a Soviet military offensive at once. It was finally decided to inform Stalin as casually and briefly as possible.

Truman’s official interpreter Charles Bohlen says that on July 24, the president told him that he would “stroll over to Stalin and nonchalantly inform him. He instructed me not to accompany him, as I ordinarily did, because he did not want to indicate that there was anything particularly momentous about the development.” 31   Towards the end of the day’s plenary session, Truman walked around the conference table and sidled up to Stalin. He “casually mentioned” that the United States had “a new weapon of unusual destructive force”. Stalin “showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped that we make ‘good use of it against the Japanese’.” Truman did not say that the weapon was an atomic bomb. 32   “That”, concluded Robert Oppenheimer dryly, “was carrying casualness rather too far.” 33   Thus, eight days after the first nuclear test and thirteen days before using the bomb against the common enemy, Truman had taken the minimum step to forestall a future Russian allegation of lack of frankness. He had, however, ignored the unanimous recommendation of the Interim Committee and maintained the secrecy of the Secret. 34  

Byrnes watched Stalin’s expression as Truman’s words were being translated, and “was surprised that he smiled blandly and said only a few words. 35   Churchill, who was a few yards away and watched “with the closest attention the momentous talk”, says that Stalin “seemed to be delighted.” As they were waiting for their cars, Churchill asked Truman, “How did it go?” “He never asked a question”, Truman answered. 36   Charles Bohlen watched Stalin’s face carefully. “So offhand was Stalin’s response”, he later wrote, “that there was some question in my mind whether the President’s message had got through.” 37  

Byrnes did not expect such a lack of interest on the part of the Soviet leader. He guessed that it would dawn on him that he had missed a great opportunity and would return the next day with a list of questions for Truman to answer. That night, Truman and his secretary talked at length about how to answer aggressive inquiries from Stalin which, of course, never came. 38  

What had been feared did not come to pass; Stalin did not suggest partnership in the production and use of the new weapon. His lack of interest in what he was being told and his smile were equally deceptive. Both leaders were dissimulating. Being fully informed about the Manhattan Project, Stalin played dumb at Potsdam. Truman did not know then that Stalin knew about the secret Manhattan Project before he did. While Stalin had been receiving reports on the subject since 1941, Truman was for the first time briefed as late as April 25, 1945. One American nuclear historian and policy maker has observed that “the ceiling would not have fallen” if Truman had offered a preview of the official account of the Manhattan Project entitled The Military Uses of Atomic Energy published within less than a month of the Truman-Stalin encounter. Byrnes himself later acknowledged that the Russians were not in the habit of “pressing their allies for a private peek at technical secrets.” 39  

According to the memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, on returning home from the conference, Stalin told Molotov of his conversation with Truman. “They’re raising the price”, said Molotov. Stalin laughed and responded, “Let them. We’ll have a talk with Kurchatov today about speeding up our work.” Recalling the fateful conversation many years later, Molotov wrote that Truman “wanted to dumbfound us. ‘Atomic bomb was not mentioned, but we guessed at once what he had in mind.” 40   There is some evidence suggesting that Soviet intelligence sources learned of the Trinity test of July 16, 1945, within a day or two of its taking place. 41  

Stalin, Molotov, and Beria had so far shown no sense of urgency about accelerating the Soviet programme. A cornucopia of espionage material had been gathered; and it had been shown to be reliable information. In a letter to Beria dated September 29, 1944, Kurchatov refers to “about 3,000 pages of text” and physicist Yakov Petrovich Terlesky reports that after the war, he found “about 10,000 pages” of intelligence reports. 42   Moreover, utterly loyal nuclear physicists who had done pioneering research even before the war were also available. Yet Stalin’s paranoia would not allow him to trust either the information collected by his agents or his scientists. Beria especially suspected the veracity of intelligence reports which seemed designed to force the Soviet Union to spend huge resources and effort in a futile endeavour. “If it’s disinformation”, he threatened his subordinates, “I’ll throw you all into the cellar.” He was incredulous that the United States could allow its greatest secret to be stolen so easily, and that perfectly positioned scientists like Klaus Fuchs could be willing accomplices in this enterprise not for cash but for ideological reasons. And if scientists in Britain, Canada, and the United States were such nuts, how could Russian scientists with their old international linkages be trusted? The discovery that German scientists did not come closer to building the bomb must have reinforced his scepticism. For the Soviet leaders, the bomb was still an abstraction. Thus, despite Fuch’s report about the impending American nuclear test and intention to drop the bomb on Japan, the role of the new weapon in the post-war era was not grasped by the Soviet leaders. 43


Shock of Hiroshima

After Hiroshima, Stalin summoned the Russian scientists. “A single demand of you, comrades, ”Stalin intoned, “provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time The equilibrium has been destroyed. Provide the bomb—it will remove a great danger for us.” 44   Stalin had now fully grasped the strategic importance of the new weapon. He told a visitor from Yugoslavia, “That is a powerful things, pow-er-ful!” 45   In a Top Secret Order issued on August 20, 1945, Stalin authorised Beria “to take measures aimed at organising foreign intelligence work to gain more complete technical and economic information about the uranium industry and about atomic bombs.” He was “empowered to supervise all intelligence work in this sphere.” 46  

Kurchatov’s colleagues were exempted from political education. Stalin had said: “Do not bother our physicists with political seminars. Let them use all their time for their professional work.” 47   Stalin summoned Kurchatov and complained that he had not demanded enough in order to accelerate the project. When Kurchatov said the country was devastated and the people were on starvation rations, Stalin responded, “If the baby doesn’t cry, the mother doesn’t know what he needs. Ask for anything you need. There will be no refusals.” 48  

According to Kurchatov’s hand-written notes from a conversation with Stalin in the presence of Molotov and Beria on January 25, 1946, “misgivings were expressed” regarding some scientists, including Kapitsa; who they worked for and whether their activities were directed “for the benefit of the Motherland or not.” Stalin declared that it was not necessary to seek a cheaper path for the bomb and that the effort should be on a “Russian scale.” He added that Russian scientists were very modest and sometimes did not notice that they lived poorly. Although the country had suffered enormously, “We can always make it possible for several thousand people to live well and several thousand better than very well, with their own dachas, so that they can relax, and with their own cars.” 49


Kapitsa Protests

Kapitsa objected to the way the project was being organised. The Soviet Union could not afford to spend the equivalent of $2 billion which the Americans had devoted in building the bomb; and the American scientific and industrial base was much stronger. He proposed a two-year research programme to find a cheaper and quicker route to the bomb. It, however, made sense to use the intelligence information and quickly break the American nuclear monopoly. 50  

Kapitsa soon developed an intense dislike to Beria and his attitude towards scientists. He took the extraordinary courageous step of complaining to Stalin directly about the attitude of Soviet leaders towards scientists. In a letter dated October 3, 1945, he referred to the days when next to the emperor stood the patriarch because the Church used to be the bearer of culture. “Sooner or later”, he wrote, “we will have to elevate scientists to ‘patriarchal’ rank” because without it the country could not grow independently. It was, therefore, high time for comrades like Beria to begin to learn to respect scientists. He expressed the desire to leave the project. Writing again on November 25, he complained that party functionaries imagined that “having learned that twice two equalled four, they had already plumbed all the profundities of mathematics and could make authoritative pronouncements.” Describing Beria as an orchestra conductor who did not understand the score, he added that he was willing to give him lessons in physics. He also insisted that a scientist should play the first violin which gave the pitch to the entire orchestra. These were bold protests and severe strictures on the behaviour of Beria who, Kapitsa knew, was the trusted henchman of Stalin. A postscript added that he would like Stalin to “share this letter with Comrade Beria.” The dictator actually complied with this unusual request; then Beria called on the scientist and presented him a richly inlaid double-barrelled rifle.

Beria, however, could not tolerate the insult and demanded that Kapitsa be arrested, but Stalin told him, “I’d remove him for you, but don’t you touch him.” Apparently Stalin respected Kapitsa’s world-wide reputation as a physicist. On May 14, 1946, however, he signed a decree removing the scientist as director of the Institute of Physical Problems which he had founded. A commission was appointed to assess his work. Five days later, Kapitsa protested to Stalin, saying that “even a criminal has a right to challenge his accusers and he has a right to be present at the trial.” Sergei Kapitsa, who is himself a distinguished physicist, remembers that his father was so close to nervous breakdown at that time, his family hardly left him alone.

It is said that on a ceremonial occasion, Kapitsa was present at the Red Square and Stalin wanted the scientist to be pointed out to him; not willing to meet him face to face, he just wished to have a look at the man who was so fearless. It was later rumoured that Kapitsa had declined to participate in the bomb project on moral grounds. Sending copies of his letters to Nikita Khrushchev on September 22, 1955, however, he asserted that there was no basis for the “accusation” that he had refused to work on the bomb because of his pacifist inclinations; the sole reason was “the insufferable relationship of Beria to science and scientists.” 51   His son published these “messages from a scientist to a tyrant” as a timely lesson in historical optimism. 52   Peter Kapitsa was placed under house arrest in 1947 and remained there until after Stalin’s death. 53   He had “an artful blend of diplomacy, honesty, and cunning” which enabled him to protest and yet to survive. 54  

With Leverenti Beria in overall charge and Kurchatov as its scientific leader, the Soviet weapons programme went into high gear. Russian scientists estimated that it would take them five years to produce the bomb. Incidentally, this was also the estimate of the American scientists, although General Groves, who relentlessly drove the Manhattan Project, thought it might take the Soviet Union 20 years because the Americans had already cornered the known supplies of uranium. Thirty thousand copies of the American official publication, Military Uses of Atomic Energy, were rushed through the press. An atomic industry with all the necessary corresponding technologies had to be created in a country devastated by the war and having suffered more than twenty million casualties. Like the American original, secret locations with research centres sprang up.

The Stalinist command economy was ideally suited to take up the task of building the bomb. In this undertaking on a “Russian scale”, the scattered resources of a devastated country were mobilised. According to a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimate, between 330,000 and 460,000 people were employed. Secret cities sprang up where slave labour facilitated the work of the highly paid scientists and engineers. Arzamas-16, one of these secret locations, was like paradise compared with half-starved Moscow. Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich complained that the atomic cities were like “health resorts.” 55


Russian Scientists

The American bomb was a challenge to Russian scientists and engineers. The bomb project was in a manner continuation of the war against Germany. The director of the project sometimes signed his letters and memoranda, “Soldier Kurchatov.” Nikolai Dollezhal, chief, designer of the first production reactor, regarded the bombing of Hiroshima as a “repulsive act of cynical antihumanism” but “the security of the country and patriotic duty demanded that we create the atomic bomb.” Kurchatov was open to the accusation that he had surrounded himself with colleagues who were either Jewish or had strong links with the West. Yuli Borisovich Khariton, a compact, ascetically slight physicist, was particularly vulnerable. He was Jewish and had spent two years at Cambridge University working closely with the discoverer of the neutron, James Chadwick. His father had been arrested, sent to a labour camp, and later shot. His mother lived in Germany in the 1920s and later migrated to Palestine. Despite enjoying privileged living conditions, Russian scientists and engineers were surrounded by Beria’s men who continued to be suspicious of them. They asked scientists handling plutonium hemispheres, silly questions like “Why do you think it is plutonium?” Even after a scientific reply, they would persist, “It’s something else, not plutonium.” The scientists also knew that Beria had carefully assembled understudies to replace them in case of failure. 56  

Meanwhile, Stalin declared that the Russian scientific intelligentsia had “an insufficiently educated feeling of Soviet patriotism” and had “an unjustified admiration for foreign culture.” The fraudulent geneticist Trofim Lysenko then mounted a vilification campaign that destroyed Russian biological research for decades. Eminent physicists were accused of “grovelling before the West” and Kapitsa of promoting “open cosmopolitanism.” A conference was scheduled for March 1949 that was designed to censure Russian physicists for “kowtowing and grovelling before the West.” Beria asked Kurchatov whether it was a fact that the relativity theory and quantum mechanics were anti-materialistic. Kurchatov replied that if they were rejected, then the bomb too would have to be rejected. The conference was called off by Stalin at the last minute. Speaking of Russian physicists, Stalin told Beria, “Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later.” Stalin could afford a charlatan like Lysenko in biology, but physics was in a different category altogether. Lev Landau rightly remarked that the survival of Russian physics was “the first example of successful nuclear deterrence!” 57


American Design Replicated

Russian technical choices were strongly influenced by the successful Manhattan Project. Stalin needed the bomb as quickly as possible. According to Yuli Khariton who was director of Arzamas-16 from 1946 to 1992 and headed weapons design and development, the burden of Russian scientists’ responsibilities was no laughing matter and they were acutely aware of the danger of possible retribution. They first confirmed through meticulous experiments and calculations the reliability of the rather detailed diagram and description of the first American bomb supplied by Klaus Fuchs and then decided to replicate if for the first Soviet explosion. Given the urgent need to conduct a successful test, “any other decision would have been unacceptable and simply frivolous.” It was, at that time, “the only logical decision.” This decision, however, was “strictly secret” and the shock of its revelation to surviving Russian scientists is understandable. All these years they had believed that the design of the first Russian nuclear device was a great achievement. They have to understand that it was prudent to replicate a proven design. But Russian scientists were simultaneously designing their own original and more effective nuclear device which was exploded in the second test in 1951. It weighed half as much as the copy of the American design but was twice as powerful. Models of both devices are now on display in the Nuclear Weapons Museum at Arzamas-16. 58


“First Lightning”: August 29, 1949

By the summer of 1949, the nuclear device was ready for the test at Semiplatinsk in Kazakhstan. Shortly before the test, the scientists were invited to Stalin’s office, one by one, to present their reports. Khariton did so in the presence of Kurchatov and Beria. This was Khariton’s first and last meeting with Stalin. Ever cautious, Stalin asked him, “Couldn’t two less powerful bombs be made from the plutonium that is available, so that one bomb could remain in reserve?” Khariton responded negatively and Stalin dropped the subject. Contrary to legend, Stalin was neither shown a plutonium sphere nor did he touch it. 59   Stalin often asked detailed technical questions when he met designers of conventional weapons but he showed no great interest in the technical aspects of the bomb. “When I was meeting with Stalin”, Kurchatov told a colleague, “I had the impression that I bored him terribly” and felt that he was “droning on like an annoying fly” and Stalin wanted him to finish quickly. 60  

The test sight was ready. Apart from scientific instruments, railway locomotives, tanks, and artillery pieces were scattered in the area. Animals were placed in open pens and in covered houses to observe the effects of initial radiation. The test called First Lightning (American physicist Arnold later dubbed it “Joe-1” after Stalin) was scheduled for August 29, 1949, at 6 a.m. Beria, even at that late stage suspicious of his scientists, brought with him two Russian observers who had witnessed the American nuclear tests at Bikini in 1946 to confirm the authenticity of the impending spectacle. 61   Kurchatov had conducted two rehearsals before Beria’s arrival to make sure that all instruments were in working order. He and his colleagues knew that their personal fates depended on the test. Vasily Emelianov, who later became chairman of the Soviet Atomic Energy Commission, was present at the test site and said that “if they had failed, they would have been shot.”

Minutes before the test, Beria said, “Nothing will come of it, Igor.” Kurchatov gave the order for the detonation. “It worked”, Kurchatov said simply. Beria rushed and hugged Kurchatov and Khariton; but his suspicious disposition overwhelmed his exultation. He telephonically asked one of the Bikini test observers, “Haven’t we slipped up? Doesn’t Kurchatov humbug us?” When he was told that it was a successful nuclear test, he ordered a telephone call to be put through to Stalin. It was two hours earlier in Moscow and Stalin’s secretary warned him that the master was still asleep. “It’s urgent, wake him up”, he demanded. Stalin, in an angry voice asked Beria, “What do you want? Why are you calling” Beria reported, “Everything went right.” “I know already”, said Stalin and hung up the phone. Beria went wild with anger and shouted, “Who told him? You are letting me down! Even here you spy on me! I’ll grind you to dust.” 62  

Early in October, Kurchatov and his colleagues reported the results of the test to Stalin who was now interested in details. Still suspicious, he asked them again and again “whether they had personally seen what they were reporting.” He later signed a secret decree announcing awards to the scientists. But the award winners were informed in personal communications; they could not have a copy of this important document. Distinguished participants in the enterprise led by Kurchatov were named “Hero of Socialist Labour” and conferred other titles. They were awarded bonuses, cars, and dachas; their children were to receive education at state expense and their wives were awarded the privilege of free and unlimited travel anywhere in the country. In deciding on which scientists were to receive a particular award, Beria is reported to have adopted a simple principle that was not without a certain malicious humour. Those who were marked to be shot in case of failure of the test were to receive the title of Hero of Socialist Labour; those who would have received maximum prison terms were to be given the Order of Lenin, and so on, down the list. 63   Stalin had a special gift for Kurchatov—an elegant double-storied mansion with marble fireplaces, wooden panelling and a sweeping central staircase. Italian craftsmen were imported in 1946 to finish the interior. 64


Spies versus Scientist

Unlike the United States, no historical record of the Soviet atomic project was kept because of the requirements of secrecy. With the opening of Soviet archives and publication of memoirs, the subject has now become an exciting area of research. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a bitter dispute erupted in the Russian Press about the relative contribution of Russian scientists and of the intelligence services to the building of the bomb. Veterans of the old intelligence apparatus boasted that their reports provided a short-cut to the bomb. The ultra-patriotic Press in Russia published a series of articles claiming that the real saviours of the country were the courageous spies rather than physicists who could not be genuine patriots because physics is a “Jewish science,” Nikolai Alexandroff even claimed that “there was no ‘Russian’ atomic bomb. There was only an American one, masterfully discovered by Soviet spies.” 65  

Publication of the memoirs of Paul Sudopalov, a notorious operative of Stalin’s secret service, sparked a bitter controversy with its assertion that several eminent physicists, including Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard knowingly conveyed secret nuclear information to Soviet intelligence agents. 66   This preposterous claim would suggest a degree of Soviet subversion of Western science and society beyond anything charged by the anti-Soviet zealots in the 1950s. Sudopalov is a shuffling 87-year-old secret service officer whose “special assignments” for Stalin included the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and who had been imprisoned from 1953 to 1968 and not “rehabilitated” until 1992. An official statement issued by the Itar-Tass news agency described the memoirs as a “mosaic of truthful events, semi-truths, and open inventions.” The insinuations of a man emerging from the sinister recesses of Stalinist terror have been contemptuously dismissed by the international scientific community. 67  

Sudopalov’s most sensational revelation was that in November 1945, Niels Bohr, answering 22 questions secretly prepared by Kurchatov and put to him by a Russian intelligence operative bearing a letter of introduction from Kapitsa, conveyed sensitive data which facilitated the Russian project. Given the towering reputation of Bohr for integrity and loyalty, it caused disbelief within the international scientific community. A few months after the publication of these memoirs, however, Beria’s memorandum to Stalin containing a report on Bohr’s replies to the questions and Kurchatov’s evaluation of them was published in Russia. 68   The document showed that Bohr, who had taken the precaution of alerting the Danish, British, and American intelligence services, had not revealed anything which was not already in the published domain. 69  

A small group of officers controlled the Kremlin’s atomic intelligence networks in Britain, Canada, and the United States. And even they were no more than conveyor belts of technical information between foreign sources and Russian scientists. The purveyors of technical data were largely unaware of the progress of the bomb project, while the consumers of intelligence knew little nothing of the sources and methods used to obtain it. Only Stalin, Beria, and Kurchatov had unlimited access to the intelligence data. Through this unspoken code of “internal non-proliferation” Stalin succeeded in controlling the flow of information at both ends. Kurchatov indicated on intelligence reports the pages which could be shown to Khariton. Lev Artsmovich was shown materials on electromagnetic isotope separation and Isaak Kikoin had access to reports on centrifuge technology.

Kurchatov used the intelligence reports first to evaluate the correctness of the data supplied and then to check the scientific results obtained by his colleagues. Legends of Kurchatov’s scientific “intuition” multiplied in the Russian nuclear establishment. When his theoretical physicists reported a freshly calculated formula, he would silently open the safe containing intelligence material to compare the results. “No, it is not right”, he would gently say. “You have to work more and come again”. 70   According to Col. Vladimir Barkovski of the intelligence services who procured many nuclear secrets, at least ten British scientists, some of them still alive, supplied information without any financial reward. Refusing cash, one of them told him, “You have the Stalingrad battle going on right now; you need money for tanks.” 71  

Without in any way denigrating the contribution of the Russian intelligence services, Russian scientists maintain that it was their competence in the nuclear field which enabled them to confirm the validity of the intelligence reports, and that the data supplied did not lessen substantially the volume of theoretical and experimental work needed for building the Russian bomb. Without their own project competently managed, all the atomic spies would have been of no avail to them. They admit that Klaus Fuchs speeded up their efforts by at least two years. General Groves asserted in 1948 that even if the United States had shipped the “complete blueprints” of the Manhattan Project to Russia in August 1945, they would not succeed in producing the bomb “in quantity” before 1955. 72   By 1953, however, Russian scientists had not only tested their indigenous design of a fission device but also succeeded in exploding a thermonuclear bomb. A comparison with the British bomb project is instructive. Nineteen British scientists, including Fuchs, worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory where the American bomb was fabricated. When Britain launched its project in 1947, British scientists could put together a working manual for duplicating the American design. This information, based on active participation in the manufacturing process, was certainly much more than Fuchs had passed on to the Soviet agents. While the British scientists produced the bomb in five years, the Russian scientists had done it in four years. It was undoubtedly a considerable achievement.



*: Member, Advisory Board of the National Security Council.  Back.

Note 1: David Holloway, “Entering the Nuclear Arms Race: The Soviet Decision to Build the Atomic Bomb”, Social Studies of Science, vol. 11, 1981, p. 188. Back.

Note 2: See J.W. Boag, P. E. Rubinin and D. Schoenberg, eds., Kapitza in Cambridge and Moscow: Life and Letters of a Russian Physicist (North-Holland, 1990) Back.

Note 3: Gennady Gorelik, “The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau”, Scientific American, vol. 277, no. 2, August 1997, pp. 72-77; American physicist Victor Weisskopf found a volume of Stalin’s autobiography in Landau’s bathroom where the toilet paper should have been. Victor Weisskopf, The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist (Basic Book, 1991), p. 194. Back.

Note 4: Peter Pringle and James Spigelman, Nuclear Barons (London: Michael Joseph, 1982), p. 60. For Russian science in general, especially the impact of Stalinist purges on it, see Zhores A. Medvedev, Soviet Science (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978). Back.

Note 5: David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 58. Back.

Note 6: J.W. Grove, In Defence of Science: Science, Technology and Politics in Modern Society, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989) see note 19, p. 190. Back.

Note 7: Holloway, n. 5, pp. 76-79. Back.

Note 8: Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 52-54: Holloway n. 5, pp. 82-83. Back.

Note 9: Rhodes, Ibid., pp. 58-61. Back.

Note 10: Holloway, n. 5, pp. 88-90. Back.

Note 11: Rhodes, n. 6, pp. 71-72; Holloway, n. 5, pp. 91-95. Back.

Note 12: Rhodes, n. 6, pp. 76-77, 117, and 154-155. Back.

Note 13: Norman Moss, Klaus Fuchs The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb (London: Grafton Books, 1987); Robert Chadwell Williams, Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987); Montgomery H. Hyde, The Atom Bomb Spies (New York: Atheneum, 1980. Back.

Note 14: Ferenc Morton Szaz, British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 91. This soft-spoken, bespectacled immigrant scientist made a complete confession of his spying activities to the British Secret Service in January 1950. His unusual trial on March 1, 1950, lasted a little over an hour. There was no jury, no witnesses, and no evidence other than his own confession. Sir Hartley Shawcross for the prosecution, was quick to point out that Britain’s relations with the Soviet Union, though leaving much to be desired, were not those of an enemy. R. W. Reid, Tongues of Conscience (London: Constable 1969), p. 239. The image of a scientist as a spy first emerged with the arrest of British experimental physicist Allan Nunn May in March 1946. He confessed to having given to a Russian agent microscopic amounts of U-233 and U-235 and accepting “some dollars (I forget how many) in a bottle of whisky” against his will. He added that after careful consideration, he concluded that development of atomic energy should not be confined to the United States and his action was designed as a contribution he could make “to the safety of mankind.” Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 141-43. Back.

Note 15: Philip Morrison, “Nationalism, Science, and Individual Responsibility”, Technology in Society, vol. 8, no. 4, 1986, p. 324. Back.

Note 16: Gerald Holton, “Niels Bohr and the Integrity of Science”, The American Scientist, May/June 1986, p. 242. Back.

Note 17: Margaret Gowing, “Niels Bohr and Nuclear Weapons” in J. de Boer, E. Dal, and O. Ulfbeck, The Lesson of Quantum Theory (Elsevier Science Publishers B. V., 1986), pp. 343-54; Arthur Steiner, “Scientists and Politicians: The Use of the Atomic Bomb Reconsidered”, Minerva, Summer 1977, pp. 251-53. Back.

Note 18: Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945 (London: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 352-356: see also Aage Bohr, “The War Years and the Prospects Raised by the Atomic Weapons” in S. Rozenthal, ed., Niels Bohr: His Life and Work as Seen by His Friends and Colleagues (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967), pp. 196-210. Back.

Note 19: Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and The Grand Alliance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), pp. 108-9. Back.

Note 20: Ibid., p. 284. Back.

Note 21: McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 125. Back.

Note 22: Sherwin, n. 19, p. 110. Back.

Note 23: Holloway, n. 5, p. 166. Back.

Note 24: Sherwin, n. 19, pp. 290-291. Back.

Note 25: Ibid., p. 103. Back.

Note 26: Bundy, n. 21, p. 124. Back.

Note 27: Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986). P. 634. Back.

Note 28: Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, vol. I, The New World, 1939/1946 (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), p. 354. Back.

Note 29: Ibid., p. 357. Back.

Note 30: Ibid., p. 369; Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 384. Back.

Note 31: Alperovitz, Ibid., p. 387. Back.

Note 32: Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1955), p. 416. This is the only first-hand account of the Truman-Stalin encounter. Back.

Note 33: Rhodes, n. 21, p. 690. Back.

Note 34: Hewlett and Anderson, n. 28. Back.

Note 35: James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly (New York: Harper Brothers, 1947), p. 263. Back.

Note 36: Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), pp. 669-70. Back.

Note 37: Alperovitz, n. 30, p. 387. Back.

Note 38: Joseph I. Lieberman, The Scorpion and the Tarantula: The Struggle for the Control of Atomic Energy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), p. 106. Back.

Note 39: Bundy, n. 21, pp. 123-124. Back.

Note 40: Holloway, n. 5, p. 117. Back.

Note 41: Ibid., p. 398. Back.

Note 42: Rhodes, n. 8, p. 121. Back.

Note 43: Ibid., pp. 275-276; Holloway, n. 5, pp. 118-120. Back.

Note 44: David Holloway, “Entering the Nuclear Arms Race: The Soviet Decision to Build the Atomic Bomb, 1939-45”, Social Studies of Science, vol. 11, 1981, p. 183. Back.

Note 45: Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962), p. 138. His expression as he made this remark was full of admiration. Back.

Note 46: “State Defence Committee Edict No. GKO-9887 ss/op. August 1945”, Cold War International History Project, Bulletin, Issues 6-7, Winter 1995-1996, p. 270. Back.

Note 47: Medvedev, n. 4, p. 47. This order of Stalin was often mentioned during the Brezhnev era to explain Andrei Sakharov’s political activities. Back.

Note 48: Rhodes, n. 8, p. 178. Back.

Note 49: “Stalin’s Secret Order: Build the Bomb ‘On a Russian Scale’”, Cold War International History Project, Bulletin, Issue 4, Fall 1994, p. 5; Holloway, n. 5, pp. 147-48. Back.

Note 50: Holloway, n. 5, pp. 139-40. Back.

Note 51: “Peter Kapitsa: The Scientist Who Talked Back to Stalin” and “Sergei Kapitsa Remembers”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1990, pp. 26-33. Back.

Note 52: Ibid., p. 31. Back.

Note 53: Arnold Kramish, Atomic Energy in the Soviet Union (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), pp. 109-110. Back.

Note 54: Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs (London: Hutchinson, 199), pp. 302. Back.

Note 55: Holloway, n. 5, p. 201. Back.

Note 56: Ibid., pp. 202-203. Back.

Note 57: Ibid., pp. 207-213. Back.

Note 58: Yuli Khariton and Yuri Smirnov, “The Khariton Version”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1993, pp. 22-23. Back.

Note 59: Ibid., p. 27-28. Back.

Note 60: Holloway, n. 5, p. 201. Back.

Note 61: Matin Zuberi, “‘Operation Crossroads’: Meeting the Bomb at Close Quarters”, Strategic Analysis, vol. XXII, no. 11, February 1999, p. 1671. Back.

Note 62: Holloway, n. 5, pp. 213-18; Rhodes, n. 8, pp. 364-68. Back.

Note 63: Khariton and Smirnov, n. 58, pp. 28-29. Back.

Note 64: Rhodes, n. 8, p. 223. Back.

Note 65: Roald Sagdeev, “Russian Scientists Save American Secrets”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1993, p. 33. Back.

Note 66: Paul and Anatolii Sudapolov, with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schechter, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994). Back.

Note 67: Thomas Powers, “Were the Atomic Scientists Spies?”, The New York Review of Books, June 9, 1994, pp. 10-17; George Kennan, “In Defence of Oppenheimer”, The New York Review of Books, June 23, 1994, p. 8, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, “Flimsy Memories”, and Sergei Leskov, “An Unreliable Witness”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, pp. 30-36; Steven Merritt Miner, “From the Labyrinth of Terror”, The Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 1994, p. 5. Back.

Note 68: “Beria’s Cover Memo to Stalin” of November 1945, “The Interrogation of Niels Bohr”, and “Kurchatov’s Evaluation”, Cold War International History Project, Bulletin, Issue 4, Fall 1994, pp. 51, 57-59, and 59 respectively. Back.

Note 69: Hans Bethe, Kurt Gottfried and Ronald Z. Sagdeev, “Did Bohr Share Nuclear Secrets?”, Scientific American, vol. 272, no. 5, May 1995, pp. 64-70. Back.

Note 70: Sagdeev, n. 65 and Sergei Leskov, “Dividing the Glory of the Fathers”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1993, pp. 32-39. Back.

Note 71: Leskov, Ibid., pp. 38-39; see also Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, “‘Mlad’ and ‘Star’”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1998, pp. 48-53. The identity of “Perseus” has yet to be established. Back.

Note 72: Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950 (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), pp. 125-126. Back.