In This Review

Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956
Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956
By David Holloway
Yale University Press, 1994, 464 pp.

The story is enthralling; its telling, unobtrusive and efficient; but most of all, the research on which it rests is enormously careful and complete. Had the Soviet Union continued to be the United States' nuclear adversary, this book would have lighted the recesses of layered myths and assumptions concerning the Soviet stake in nuclear weapons. Not that it vindicates the idea that America, who was first with the bomb, could have put it under international lock and key and avoided the nuclear arms race. Holloway's discoveries make it plain that Stalin's suspicions could not have been softened nor his quest for the weapon discouraged. But they make it no less plain that Lavrenty Beria, who played a key role in organizing the Soviet effort, and the military had no diabolical sense of how this horrifying new technology could be turned to their advantage. On the contrary, Soviet leaders were slow to recognize the significance of U.S. wartime progress toward an atomic bomb, despite the up-to-date detail their intelligence services provided. Even in 1953 and 1954, when they moved virtually at the same time as the United States from the atomic to the thermonuclear era, their thinking and plans remained inchoate, confused, and presumably malleable to the choices of the other side.

With the rivalry over, at least for the moment, a measure of its long, powerful hold is that Holloway's account is so utterly engrossing. To be able at last to glimpse the people at work behind the shroud, including a remarkable cast of nuclear scientists, the fumbling efforts of Stalin and his colleagues to turn their vast political machine to the task, and the early attempts by the Soviet military to think their way through the meaning of this new weapon makes this a hard book to put down. As for spies and the degree to which those who betrayed the United States aided the Soviets, only one seems to have been important: the British atomic scientist, Klaus Fuchs. His contribution to the Soviet atomic bomb, however, was large and direct. The hydrogen bomb the Soviets developed on their own.