Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sovietology: No Appeals to "Common Sense" Allowed

In his HNN interview decrying Hiroshima "revisionism," Robert Maddox made the following statement:
VF: The peace movement condemns the attack as triggering the nuclear arms race. Is this the right cause-effect chain? If so, isn't it impossible to support the mission?

RM: This is absurd on its face. The Soviets had their own atomic program in place long before Hiroshima and knew through espionage all about the US effort. There would have been an arms race even if the US did not use the bombs against Japan. Can anyone imagine that, if only the United States had not used the bombs, Stalin would have permitted the US to enjoy a perpetual nuclear monopoly [with] the Soviets...helpless? The idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the arms race merely provides revisionists with another beat Truman.

To answer Maddox's rhetorical question, I can imagine it. Anyone who knows anything about Stalin's USSR knows that appeals to "common sense" don't work in this mileau. I've seen what Stalin wrote about the bomb in his own private papers, and the impression I get is that Stalin did not regard nuclear weapons as an effective weapon of war. Instead, he saw the bomb as a must-have prestige item. Not only would a Soviet bomb undermine belligerent anti-Soviet elements in the west, it would also prove that Soviet science and technology were equal to America's.

Stalin was infuriated by the failure of the United States to involve him in the decision to develop and use the atomic bomb. It is true that Communist spies within the Manhattan Project kept the Soviet government apprised of American progress, but the available evidence suggests that whatever information about this reached Stalin made little impression on him. Stalin, after all, was no scientist, even if he had pretensions to the contrary. Contemporary records show that Stalin and his inner circle were shocked and disturbed by the news of Hiroshima--quite possibly because it threatened their hoped-for gains in their campaign against Japan which began August 8th. Stalin craved acknowledgment from other nations that the USSR was a fully-fledged great power, and the decision to develop and use the bomb without so much as mentioning it to the Soviets was interpreted by him as a sign of Western disrespect at best and a willful insult at worst.

The Soviet atomic project began in 1941 but received only minuscule funding and attention until late August of 1945--several weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After this it became a top priority, but it was never high enough to cannibalize other projects Stalin regarded as critical. On the military front, Stalin was determined to expand Soviet naval power to world-class standards, expending enormous resources on ship construction. Domestically, major prestige projects in Moscow alone consumed several percent of overall Soviet GDP. Regarding his own capital's low skyline as a retrograde embarrassment in comparison to modern American cities, Stalin ordered the construction of a group of bizarre ornamental skyscrapers in Moscow. The Moscow Metro and its highly ornamented stations also sucked up vast amounts of Soviet blood and treasure--even in a period when famine was widespread in the USSR. Stalin's priorities were plainly irrational--a point which should be kept in mind.

Most significantly, Stalin saw little need to develop a means to deliver the few nuclear weapons available during his twilight years. The earliest Soviet delivery system for nuclear weapons was the Tu-4A--a modified version of the Soviet clone of the B-29. As the earliest Soviet nuclear weapons were copied from the American Mk-III that was dropped on Nagasaki, these had to be modified to carry a weapon considerably larger than would easily fit in the bomb bay; however, only three of these bombers were built. More credible delivery systems only became available only around the time Stalin died. What this means is that Stalin was perfectly pleased to be "helpless"--he did not order his followers to build less skyscrapers and more bombers to carry his handful of weapons. Furthermore, the Tu-4A would have had difficulty reaching Britain from the USSR without refueling, much less the United States. It appears that no Tu-4s were built with both refueling equipment and the ability to carry nuclear weapons--meaning that the ability of the Soviet Union under Stalin to project nuclear force was essentially non-existent. Soviet delivery capabilities lagged far behind Stalin's infant nuclear arsenal, and as far as I can tell the dictator did not regard this as a problem.

What implications does this have for our understanding of Stalin's intentions? I am inclined to draw the conclusion that Stalin regarded nuclear weapons as a gimmick, at least until the end of the 1940s. Flush from Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, he placed his faith in the Soviet Union's colossal land forces rather than America's strategic aviation and nuclear arsenal. I can easily imagine Stalin being content with his armies and tanks in a world where nuclear weapons remained a murky, undemonstrated secret. After all, to a considerable extent he was content without a credible nuclear deterrent despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not because Stalin was a peacenik at heart, as he wasn't; it's because Stalin failed to understand the power of the bomb and its effects on Soviet security. He wanted the bomb because it was source of American pride, and because it convinced the Truman Administration it did not need to accommodate Soviet interests in the postwar world. If neither of these factors came into play--and if the atomic bomb had not been used, it's hard to imagine how they would have--it's hard for me to see why Stalin would have thought it necessary to build a Soviet bomb.


Ashutosh said...

Good analysis. We might also add that the Soviets frequently distrusted the intelligence that came through from espionage (If I remember correctly, Beria could be quite paranoid about the authenticity of the material).

Sovietologist said...

Although I haven't seen the original documents myself, I understand that the Soviets constructed and tested a dummy version of the Mark-III implosion mechanism (sans plutonium pit) in 1947, and analysis of this reassured them that their espionage windfall wasn't some kind of American counterintelligence plant. From what I understand, Soviet weapons design capability caught up to the US relatively rapidly (I'd have to insert a LOT of caveats into that statement, though). The first serially-produced Soviet bombs appear to have been about equivalent to the then-mainstay of the American arsenal, the Mark-VI, and the semi-thermonuclear "layer cake" device they tested in 1953 proved that Soviet weapons designers were more than capable of very original designs. Still, Soviet delivery capabilities were pretty minimal until the late 1950s, and the American stockpile grew far faster than the Soviets' throughout the decade. This contrasts strongly with the extreme paranoia of Soviet nuclear attack found in the United States in those years.