Using recently declassified Soviet documents and interviews with many of the Soviet scientists who participated in the USSR’s nuclear program, the author presents a behind-the-scenes account of Soviet nuclear policy from 1939-1956. Professional hand-wringers wonder if the arms race could have been avoided had Stalin been informed about the U.S. atomic bomb before it was dropped on Hiroshima, so that he would not take its existence as a threat to the Soviet Union. Others fantasize that the escalation of the arms race to thermonuclear levels could have been avoided if the United States did not proceed to develop the hydrogen bomb.
The author doubts if such changes in American policy would have resulted in reciprocal changes, given Stalin’s “malevolent and suspicious personality.” Stalin did not expect a major war in the short term, nor did he fear an imminent atomic attack on the Soviet Union by the U.S. In the long term, Stalin wanted nuclear (and later thermonuclear) weapons to fight an anticipated crusade against the west. In the short term, he wanted nuclear weapons to resist political pressure from the United States and its allies in shaping the post-World War II peace settlements.
As early as 1955, Soviet leaders understood that a Soviet-American nuclear war was suicidal, and realized that Western leaders knew this too. Nevertheless, Stalin’s command economy diverted resources away from rebuilding the war-torn USSR and into a “catch up and overtake” arms race with the U.S. Stalin’s decision was doomed, as this grueling war of attrition could only be won by the far more wealthy U.S., which had enough dough to build a nation-wide suburban culture and still spend circles around Stalin.
Publisher: Yale University
Paperback: 464 pages