On physics, Russia and the Bomb

January 19, 1995|By Stanley A. Blumberg | Stanley A. Blumberg,Special to The Sun

When, in January 1939, Lise Meitner and her colleague, physicist Otto Frisch, confirmed that the nucleus of the uranium atom had been split, a small group of nuclear scientists reacted with hope and alarm.

The hope was that nuclear fission could lead to a safe and economical source of energy. The alarm was focused on the potential destructive power of nuclear fission.

"Stalin and the Bomb" examines in exquisite detail the coupling between science and politics. David Holloway, the author of this revealing account of the Soviets' nuclear program, from the discovery of nuclear fission to the hydrogen bomb test in the mid-1950s, has produced an important record of this troubled period.

Mr. Holloway is a professor of political science and co-director of the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. The author of "The Soviet Union and the Arms Race," he has contributed to the New York Review of Books, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and scholarly journals.

The book deals with the development of Soviet physics in 1926 and the 1930s, before the splitting of the atom's nucleus. Victor Weisskopf, who had a high regard for Soviet physicists, reported that nuclear physics in the Soviet Union reached a high standard in the 1930s.

According to the author, 1935 was the golden age of physics in the country. Then, scientists were able to work without government interference or the threat of being shot -- until the military implications of fission became more apparent.

Mr. Holloway is uncertain as to when the Kremlin learned of the potential use of uranium fission for destructive purposes. Two Russian physicists, Vernadskii and Khlopin, he reports, "sent a letter on July 12, [1940,] to Nicolai Bulganin, Deputy Premier and Chairman of the Government's Council on the Chemical Metallurgical Industries, drawing attention to the discovery of fission, and to the huge quantities of energy it releases. This appears to have been the first attempt by Soviet scientists to alert a senior government official to the importance of nuclear fission."

This may not have been the case. In late 1982, a former high official of Mossad, Israel's external intelligence service, revealed the unpublished records of a 1935 meeting between Stalin and engineer Joseph Blumenfeld. During the course of the meeting, Blumenfeld was questioned by Stalin about uranium oxide deposits in Czechoslovakia and in the United States.

While primarily dealing with the Soviets' efforts, Mr. Holloway does not ignore the work being done in the West. The Hungarian-born, Jewish physicist Leo Szilard was one of the most forceful advocates of nuclear fission in the United States.

As work on the bomb progressed in America, Soviet intelligence went into high gear to learn America's nuclear secrets. As Mr. Holloway makes clear, the Kremlin insisted that Soviet scientists follow the lead of their American counterparts in solving the nuclear riddle. Since failure could lead to a firing squad, the Soviet physicists had every reason to conform, and on Aug. 29, 1949, the first Soviet nuclear bomb was tested.

Soviet scientists and a few Americans physicists had long concluded that the next logical step was the development of the hydrogen bomb. Espionage evidently did not play a prime role in the Soviet effort, because the Soviet design was not the same as the U.S. bomb.

Mr. Holloway writes: "The Soviet Union had the basic design concept for a workable thermonuclear bomb before the end of 1948, well before [the Soviets'] first atomic bomb test." And this was the period when J. Robert Oppenheimer was advising Washington that if we did not build the H-bomb, the Soviets would not. The Russians, he contended, were imitators.

On Nov. 1, 1952, the United States exploded a thermonuclear device in the South Pacific. It weighed about 60 tons, and there was no practical way that it could be delivered to a target.

The next year, on Aug. 12, 1953, Soviet scientists exploded what could have been a deliverable H-bomb. The author reports: ". . . the Soviet device was -- or rather could be made into -- a deliverable bomb, since it had the same dimensions as the first atomic bomb."

The United States exploded its first deliverable hydrogen bomb the next year.

For a better understanding of how MAD -- the concept of mutual assured destruction, the balance of terror -- developed, read "Stalin and the Bomb."

Mr. Blumberg is co-author of two books on Edward Teller. He lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956"

Author: David Holloway

Publisher: Yale University Press

Length, price: 464 pages, $30

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