Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

dark-sun book cvrThe first several chapters of this book by Richard Rhodes contain a detailed description of Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project. The value of what was provided to the Soviets is well documented. The U.S. only identified and convicted some of the spies. Some escaped detection and others managed to make it to the Soviet Union before they were captured.

The Prologue demonstrates the rich dialogue of the book. “The Hiroshima bomb, Little Boy, was a uranium gun. It used sixty-four kilograms of rare uranium 235, all of that dense, purple-black metal the United States had been able to accumulate up to the end of July 1945.” Luis Alvarz was an American experimental physicist who worked in the Manhattan Project and invented a device for measuring the yield of the Hiroshima burst. The devices were dropped by parachute ahead of the bomb radioed their readings to Alvarez in a backup plane. “Alvarez had seen the bright flash of the Hiroshima explosion, had watched (the) pressure gauges register on the oscilloscopes…(and) felt the two sharp slaps of direct and ground-reflected shock waves slamming the plane like flak explosions…”Alvarez searched for the city below the rising mushroom cloud. “Alvarez could not see the city because the city had been destroyed.” A second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki three days later and the Japanese surrendered a few days later with the emperor referring to the “terrible bomb.”

Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British Mission at Los Alamos, is a main character in the book. He passed details of the bomb materials and design, including a complete description of the Fat Man plutonium implosion bomb, to Harry Gold, an American industrial chemist who was a courier for Soviet intelligence. Fuchs also provided production rates for U235 and plutonium, details of chemistry and metallurgy for both fissile materials, and details of the plans for a hydrogen bomb. In short, he provided details of everything he worked on or heard about while working in Britain and on the Manhattan Project. He was eventually caught after returning to Britain. He couldn’t be tried for treason because he had spied for the Soviet Union, an ally of the United States and Britain. He served nine years, settled in East Germany after his release, and became director of nuclear research. He died in 1988. Pages 581-582 give interesting summaries for some of the other spies and main characters in the book.

Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov, a twenty-nine year old physicist was chosen to direct the Soviet program to build an atomic bomb. He was quickly nicknamed “General,” stopped shaving, and soon had the nickname “the Beard.” He was the person who reviewed the massive stacks of classified information from Great Britain and the United States and used that information to direct the researchers. I’m not certain how he could have reviewed everything alone, because plane loads of suitcases filled with documents would depart frequently from sites in the U.S. under the “lend lease” program. The outcome was that the Soviet Union was able to detonate an exact duplicate of Fat Man years many years before it had been predicted they could have that capability.

Lavrenti Beria, “Stalin’s whip,” was a sadist who gained his position with Stalin by purging the NKVD during the “Great Terror.” He inherited a slave labor force of several million people that he called “Camp dust.” This was the dangerous man that Kurchatov worked for to develop the Soviet nuclear program. Beria began taking over the government immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953 of a stroke (I’ve read he was poisoned in other accounts). Khrushchev was able to gather enough allies to form a coup against Beria. He was imprisoned, “interrogated,” and was eventually executed.

The Great Depression enabled the Communists to recruit new members in the West. The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany and the Spanish Civil War helped sweep new members into the Communist Party or into its influence. As one example, Harry Gold, the courier for Fuchs, believed that he was helping a cause that would fight anti-Semitism and fascism. He said, “In only the Soviet Union was anti-Semitism a crime against the State…” One productive Soviet cell was the “Cambridge Five” in the British government. Soviet espionage in Britain was quite efficient. Moscow received a complete copy of the MAUD report on the feasibility of an atomic bomb the day it was completed and delivered to the British government.

Not everyone was convinced the Soviets were the “great ally” of World War II. Harry Truman said in a speech in the Senate, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Truman’s suspicions about the Soviets were in stark contrast to the policies of FDR toward “Uncle Joe Stalin.”

The United States was quite slow at accepting and believing information that the Soviets had massive espionage networks despite details from Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk who defected in Canada He “…characterized the Soviet espionage system from personal experience as ‘mass production’.” He said there were thousands of agents in the United States and nine separate espionage cells active in Canada. Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, both who worked as couriers for the Soviets, would defect and report more details. They were dismissed by many as unreliable or mentally unstable. Bentley became the source of media jokes that she was a frustrated spinster who thought of herself as the “Red Spy Queen.”

The selection of Robert Oppenheimer to lead Los Alamos despite his connections with the Communist Party is fascinating. Kitty Oppenheimer’s first husband, Joe Dallet, was a Communist Party official who volunteered to fight with the Communists in the Spanish Civil War. Kitty went to Spain to meet her husband, and was met by Steve Nelson, a lieutenant colonel in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who told her Dallet had been killed. Nelson, who had received training in Moscow, would turn up in Berkley to organize Communist Party operations in the Bay area. Nelson was said to have explored the possibility of the Oppenheimer’s susceptibility to espionage and found that they were not. A French professor friend, Haakon Chevalier, acting on the behalf of George Eltenton, also failed to recruit Oppenheimer. The book concludes that Oppenheimer did hot spy for the Soviets. However, it is surprising he was cleared to run the Manhattan Project

There is a description of Stalin’s reaction to hearing about the bombing of Hiroshima. He is said to have “…had a tremendous blow up.” He knew about the bomb when Truman mentioned it to him at Potsdam, but he apparently didn’t understand the implications until the reports came in about Hiroshima. He banged his fists on the table and stamped his feet. Yakov Terletsky, the physicist who joined the special department of the NKVD to deal with atomic espionage, said he thought Stalin “had something to be angry about. After all, the dream of extending the socialist revolution throughout Europe had collapsed…” Stalin summoned Kurchatov and said, “A single demand of you comrades. Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time. You know that Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The equilibrium has been destroyed. Provide the bomb—it will remove a great danger from us.” That passage is one answer to those who wonder whether the United States should have pursued the development of an atomic arsenal.

The book is quite long and is sometimes tedious because of all the detail. However, I believe it is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the central role of nuclear weapons in the Cold War.

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