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.” Continue reading

Brotherhood of the Bomb

brotherhood of the bombThe subtitle of this book by Gregg Herken is “The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.” Another book by the author, “The Winning Weapon” (a review was posted October 1) concluded that too much was made of Soviet espionage of the Manhattan Project. “Brotherhood of the Bomb” reaches an entirely different conclusion. A footnote on page 126 states “Near the end of the war, because of Fuchs and other spies at Los Alamos, the Russians had a precise description of the component parts of Fat Man, including such engineering details as the makeup and design of the explosive lenses use to compress the plutonium core and the exact dimensions of the bomb’s polonium initiator. The device that the Soviets exploded in their first nuclear test, in August 1949, was essentially a copy of Fat Man.” “The Winning Weapon” was published in 1980 and “Brotherhood of the Bomb” in 2002. Much was learned about the extent of Soviet spying after the first book was published in 1980. For example, the Venona Project that revealed the massive extent of Soviet spying was declassified in 1995. Both books have value to someone interested in the atomic bomb and its impact on the Cold War, and the first gives a good idea of how much of the media looked at the issue of Soviet spying in 1980.

“Brotherhood of the Bomb” gives detailed insight into the scientists who became famous as the result of discovering what could be accomplished, mostly in the form of weapons, with atomic energy. Lawrence had announced in 1932 that “…heavy particles not only disintegrated readily but in the process seemed to release more energy than it took to break them apart.” He proposed a vista of cheap, reliable, and virtually limitless energy…” His “disintegration hypothesis” was greeted with skepticism verging on ridicule. Rutherford made his now famous statement that “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine.” Continue reading

The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950

I worked at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado where plutonium parts were made for nuclear weapons and have a natural curiosity about the policy decisions made by the government that led to that plant being built in the early 1950s. This book by Gregg Herken answers some of the questions. I do find it curious that the author mentions several times in the book that “too much was made” of the amount of information gained by the Soviet espionage on the Manhattan Project, code named “Enormoz.” My reading of other sources indicates the Soviets learned everything they needed to know to build and detonate an atomic bomb years before it had been predicted.

The dust cover of the book explains that American diplomats tried but “…failed to make the nation’s nuclear monopoly an advantage in negotiating with the Soviet Union. The author explains why the atomic bomb, supposedly the ‘winning weapon’ in military strategy and diplomacy, turned out to be a dud in such a confrontation as the 1948 Berlin crisis.”

Many American officials, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, believed that the bomb would make a decisive difference in postwar dealings with the Soviet Union. However, Byrnes was said to be humbled by the first meeting of the victorious powers when he observed that the Russians were going to be difficult. He said they were “stubborn, obstinate, and they don’t scare.” Diplomacy accomplished little after World War II. Churchill and later the United States accused the Soviets of raising an “iron curtain” as America began erecting what the author called an “atomic curtain shutting out the rest of the world.” Continue reading

NSC 68 and the Political Economy of the Early Cold War

polit-econ-cold-warFrequent readers of this web site will find that this is an unusual posting because it is a combination review and commentary. I took that approach because I disagree with the basic premise of the book that stated simplistically, the Soviets did not present the threat that was advocated by U.S. policy.  My disagreement with the premise of the book does not diminish its importance. There is, in my opinion, immense value in a healthy argument about whether the U.S. rearmament was the primary cause of the Cold War or whether the Soviet Union would have taken full advantage if that policy hadn’t blunted their efforts. I’m thrilled Truman was convinced that FDR’s trust of Stalin was misplaced and that containment of the Soviets was needed.

Back to a stab at a review, the book was written by Curt Cardwell, and he has some serious disagreements with the U.S. policies about the intentions of the Soviet Union before the beginning of the Cold War. Briefly, the National Security Council (NSC) issued a series of documents that gauged the intentions of the Soviet Union in the mid-1940s to early 1950s. Those who advocated that the Truman administration must take a hard line against the Soviet Union were primary authors of the policy statement titled NSC 68. The doctrine in that paper was approved by Truman and resulted in a massive rearmament program by the U.S. beginning in 1950. It was the culmination of several Top Secret documents advocating that the ultimate objective of the U.S.S.R. was world domination and that the U.S. was required to aggressively build military strength to prevent the Soviets from pursing that goal.  Cardwell strongly disagrees. He thinks the real purpose of NSC 68 was to protect free market capitalism. I disagree. I offer that the Soviets had blockaded Berlin, exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the Chinese Communists had taken control of China, North Korea had invaded the South, and the Chinese had entered the Korean War before NSC 68 was finally approved. Those events and actions indicate the Soviets were, in my opinion, interested in expanding their area of control.  Continue reading

The Girls of Atomic City

bookcvr_atomic_cityThis wonderful book by Denise Kiernan was recommended to me by a friend and has the subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” There is some irony in the fact that I’ve read this book as the Rocky Flats Plant where I worked has been very much in the news. To explain this distraction, the facilities at Oak Ridge were built to make the nuclear material for the Manhattan Project. Rocky Flats was the place in the eventual weapons complex where plutonium and a variety of other metals were made into parts for the nuclear weapons. The descriptions of the secrecy surrounding converting farming areas in Tennessee into a massive, part of the Manhattan Project certainly reminded me of the days when I worked at Rocky Flats as described in my book, “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked.” I do not know whether the issues of damage to the health of people working at Oak Ridge compare to the fire storm of controversy that seems to have once again flared up over Rocky Flats. I am probably more interested in the book than someone who is unfamiliar with Oak Ridge or Rocky Flats, but I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys good history.

The book describes the young women (called “girls” in that era) who were willing to be transported to an unnamed place to work in a job that was not described in even the simplest terms. Celia Szapka Klemsi was transported from Manhattan by train to Knoxville, Tennessee without being told her final destination. When she asked where she was going and what she would be doing she was told she was not allowed to know. She was told that asking questions was frowned upon and that “everything will be taken care of.” Her adventurous spirit must have been strong, because she agreed to travel to the unknown. The train was filled with other young women only knew their new job paid well and would help the “war effort.” The train stopped in Knoxville, given their evening meal, and put back in the cars to be driven to Oak Ridge. Continue reading

The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of KGB Archives

crown-jewelsThe Acknowledgments of this book by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev states that much of the information has not been declassified. It also states that all the photographs shown of British and Soviet agents, with the exception of the one of Kim Philby, are from the KGB archives.

The book details the Soviet espionage efforts in England beginning in the 1920s. The large numbers of well educated, upper class English citizens in sensitive government positions willing to commit espionage against Britain for the Soviet Union is remarkably similar to the situation in the United States. The Soviets obtained literally thousands of documents describing secret British foreign policy, military strength, weapons technology including development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and details of counterintelligence (to mention a few categories). The book is not a spy thriller, but instead marches through over three hundred pages of history about how England lost the “Crown Jewels” of its secrets to the Soviets. I have picked a few items from the book that were of particular interest to me and recorded them. For example, Walter Kivitsky, was a Soviet “rezidentura” in England. Kivitsky later defected and was sent to the United States. He eventually befriended Whitaker Chambers, and advised him on how to protect himself from KGB assassins. Kivitsky later was officially ruled to have committed suicide, although those who knew him were certain he had been killed.

Anthony (Tony) Blunt was one of the key British spies in the “Cambridge-Ring-of-Five” that was immensely successful at providing the “Crown Jewels” of Britain to the Soviets. There are pictures of these five spies and Edith Hart, who recruited Philby. Blunt is described as “a typical English intellectual.” He also was the person who originally recruited Michael Straight, the son of an American millionaire close to President Roosevelt. Straight gave the Soviets a copy of the entire deception plan for Overlord, the D-Day invasion, nearly two weeks before the invasion . He provided 1771 documents to the Soviets between 1941 and 1945. Burgess provided 4605, Cairncross 5832, Philby 914, and MacClean 4593. The activities of the spy network were suspended in 1946 after a GRU cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected in Canada.

Another major asset for the Soviets in England and later while on loan to the Manhattan Project in the United States was Klaus Fuchs, the German refugee. Fuchs was exposed by the Venona project and later gave a full confession of his activities and contacts.

In an interesting twist, Captain Harry Crookshank, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, selected John Caincross, one of the “Cambridge Five, “to be his personal secretary based on his performance and the fact that he was an ardent vegetarian. Virtually all classified information eventually reached Crookshank’s desk, since his department funded all war efforts. In 1941 he provided the first information on Enormoz, the Soviet code word for the development of atomic weapons by Britain, the USA and Canada. Vladimir Barkovsky, “the best informed KGB officer on the history of the Soviet bomb”, said “In the USA we obtained information on how the bomb was made and in Britain of what it was made.” Klaus Fuchs participated in revealing both aspects, since he worked in both Britain and the US before British intelligence arrested him in 1950. As an example of the information Fuchs provided the Soviets, in 1946 he “…handed over a sketch of the hydrogen bomb’s mechanism and explained that the Americans had abandoned the electromagnetic method of separating the isotopes of Uranium-235 because it had proved ineffective. However, they had achieved considerable success with the diffusion method, and the process was continuing. He revealed that Canadian factories produced about a kilo of plutonium while American sources produces about 16-18 kilos a year and about 36 kilos of U-235. The Americans had exhausted their stock after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The current programme envisaged the production of fifty bombs a year, but the uranium installations in Henford (sic) occasionally broke down, slowing the work of the chemical facilities at Los Alamos, so Fuchs estimated the American stockpile of bombs at approximately 125 units.”

Soviet counterintelligence tried to convert the exposure of Fuchs to their advantage by planning to cast doubt on key scientists working on Enormoz. The book incorrectly states, “Ironically Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy together accomplished much of what had been planned by the Soviets by dragging the most outstanding scientists before the UnAmerican Activities Committee.” (Evidently the English author did not realize this was a House Committee, and McCarthy was a Senator.)

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the Postscript, which details why Communism and espionage for the Soviet Union was attractive to young intellectuals in Britain. Soviet recruiters could choose between “150 in Oxford, 200 in Cambridge, 300 in London University…” One of the Soviet recruiters observed, “British intellectuals, especially the young among them, do not find satisfactory ideals in the decomposing capitalist society of Britain and are naturally drawn towards the USSR.” It is not explained how these “intellectuals” overlooked the tens of millions of people executed and imprisoned in Russia during the horrors of the Stalin dictatorship to be “drawn towards the USSR.”

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

The front flap of John Mueller’s book begins with, “Ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the prospect of nuclear annihilation has haunted the modern world. And since September 11, 2001 the view that nuclear terrorism is the most serious threat to security of the United State or, for that matter, of the world has been virtually universal.” The author then goes to great lengths to say the risks have been exaggerated… Chapter 5 begins with “Although nuclear weapons seem to have had at most a quite limited substantive impact on actual historical evens…they had a tremendous influence on our agonies and obsessions.” The antinuclear movement is mentioned as an example of the agonies and obsessions.

The author says in the Preface he wanted the book to be a remedy for insomnia and that the purpose is to put to rest “…excessive anxiety about nuclear weapons.”  Many others have created anxiety with warnings about al Qaeda acquiring nuclear bombs and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. There were similar warnings about China, India, and Pakistan, but no calamity has yet resulted by those nations joining the “nuclear club.”

Part 1 is about the effects of nuclear weapons. “Beyond doubt, nuclear weapons are the most effective devices ever fabricated for killing vast numbers of people…” However, Part 2 discusses why nuclear weapons have had an exaggerated role in international politics. The author repeatedly mentions the enormous financial and resource costs in development of massive arsenals in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and other countries that would have been better spent on other ventures.

Risks from radiation that would be released by a “dirty bomb” are exaggerated because “…ghoulish copy sells.”  The greatest risk would be caused by the panic by people who have been inculcated that even traces of radioactive materials are deadly. About 20 percent of the general population will develop cancer, and people in the area where a “dirty bomb” is exploded will have a barely measurable increase in risk. Chernobyl raised the risk of thyroid cancer, but the risk of other cancers was increased by less than one percentage point with no increase in birth defects. (I expect some readers will object to this statement and many others from the book.)

There is interesting information postulating that the Soviets never wanted to see World War III; the memories of the horrors and massive losses of World War II told them another world war was to be avoided. “Indeed, three central rules for Soviet leaders were ‘avoid adventures, do not yield to provocation, and know when to stop’.” They did know when to stop during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev said there was not a single person among the Communist leaders who believed that the Soviets “…could defeat the United States, or that we were seriously preparing for a nuclear war with the United States. No one, as far as I know, had this absurd notion.” The United States demonstrated its manufacturing might to the Soviets during World War II by supplying them with hundreds of thousands of military vehicles, millions of boots, and “…over one-half pound of food for every Soviet soldier for every day of the war (much of it Spam).”

Some countries that had nuclear weapons decided to not keep them. South Africa dismantled theirs after deciding they were more trouble than they were worth. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan sent the weapons in their countries back to Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Ukraine in particular wanted no part of nuclear weapons with the memories of Chernobyl. Libya terminated its nuclear weapons development program when it noticed the ease with which Iraqi military was defeated.  

I bogged down because of the redundancies in the book, but became reenergized by Chapter 10 titled “Costs of the Proliferation Fixation,” and Iraq takes center stage. Economic sanctions imposed against Iraq over many years did little to weaken Saddam Hussein. However they did result in “…hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country, most of them children under the age of five…” Madeleine Albright, the Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked on a 60 Minute show whether it was worth it to have a million children die as the result of sanctions. Albright did not dispute the number and answered, “We think the price is worth it.” She later said she regretted her answer. The comments “…went completely unremarked upon by the country’s media. Osama bin Laden did use the sanctions as a centerpiece of his diatribes against Americans. Several hundred thousand Iraqis would then die in the war that began in 2003 with the premise that an invasion was justified because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. (See the blog posting titled “Which President Lied About Weapons of Mass Destruction?” for more information.)

The policy of punishing countries wanting to build nuclear weapons continues. Sanctions are in place against North Korea where millions of people are now underfed or starving. North Korea was called “the world’s first nuclear-armed, missile-wielding beggar.”  They have been able to “…hit the Pacific Ocean several times…” with their missiles. Their policy seems to be more extortion than aggression. Sanctions are increasing against Iran where citizens are also suffering.

Part III titled “The Atomic Terrorist” analyzes whether it is likely al Qaeda or some other terrorist group will be able to acquire and use nuclear weapons. The short answer is that it is quite unlikely. Terrorist wouldn’t be able to arm and use a stolen weapon because of all the safeguards all countries build into their weapons. It is also unlikely that a country would sell weapons to terrorists, since forensics after a blast would easily trace the weapon back to its source. No country would be willing to face the certain response to such an act.

The author gave me pause to be skeptical about the views presented in the book by writing that 85 foreign policy experts were polled on whether there would be a nuclear explosion in the world in the next ten years. They “…concluded on average that there was a 29 percent likelihood…” That doesn’t sound sufficiently unlikely to make me comfortable. The author disagrees. Referring back to his goal of curing insomnia by putting fears to rest, he closes the book by saying most states do not want nuclear weapons and they are out of reach of terrorists. “Sleep well.

There are positions taken by the author which disagree with other sources. He trivializes the effect of Soviet espionage against the U.S. during World War II. I’m guessing he never read about the results of the Venona project, which identified hundreds of Soviet agents in the U.S. government and military. Soviet agents were able to steal information and material that allowed the successful recreation of the Trinity nuclear device. He also writes that North Korea had to convince Stalin about their plans to invade the south. Other books report Stalin demanded the invasion as the North Koreans insisted their forces weren’t ready. All of this reinforces the thoughts of the brilliant person who said “History is interpretive.”