The Soviet Union's First Nuclear Detonation, 60 Years Later

This month marks the 60th anniversary of Moscow's entry into the nuclear club. At first blush a historic footnote, the roots of the Soviet achievement demand far more attention because they explain why President Obama will find it so difficult to fulfill his vaunted nuclear disarmament agenda any time soon. For the Soviet Union, the development of the Bomb marked a coming of age, its ascendance to superpower stardom. For Russia, the inheritor of the Soviet atomic legacy, nuclear weapons remain a critical foundation for its claim today to be a major player on the world stage. It is unlikely to relinquish this privilege in ongoing arms control talks.

Russia had to work under the most trying circumstances to become a nuclear superpower. During the 1930s the Soviet Union was a backwater for atomic research. Its scholars followed the growing scientific European and American literature with keen fascination and concern recognizing the harbinger for nuclear weapons. The waxing and precipitous waning of publication with the onset of World War II raised flags that something was afoot in the West. Soviet spies in Britain and the United States provided not only confirmation but critical information about weapons design that would later help the Kremlin build the Bomb. Misplaced concern that Germany might not be far behind created gnawing apprehension that calamity could follow and something had to be done to resist it.

However, confronted by the June 1941 Nazi onslaught that carried Hitler's army to the gates of Moscow, lukewarm political support further compromised whatever resources the Kremlin could muster to compete. The result proved to be a stunted nuclear effort after Stalin gave the green light at the end of 1942.

All changed with the nuclear bombing of Japan. "Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed," Stalin lamented. The Russian dictator pulled out all stops to prevent Washington's feared atomic diplomacy from imposing its will on the Soviet state. The Kremlin enlisted hundreds of thousands of prison laborers to mine the uranium and build the wherewithal for the Bomb guided by ten thousand engineers.

Stalin's communization of Eastern Europe and pressure on Berlin generated sufficient "noise" to provide cover the four year effort. In the interim both Washington and Moscow feigned interest in nuclear disarmament by putting forward proposals at the United Nations with thorns assuring rejection by the other. The biding of time allowed the Kremlin to move at a pace comparable to the Manhattan project. The August 29, 1949 test was met with jubilation. Iulii Khariton, one of the scientific bomb makers, captured the moment: "[W]hen we succeeded....we felt relief, even happiness - for in possessing such a weapon we had removed the possibility of its being used against the USSR with impunity."

In Washington concern grew that the Soviet achievement could impose a nuclear Pearl Harbor on the country. And so the nuclear arms race began consuming trillions of precious dollars and rubles. Even the "eyeball to eyeball" near nuclear collision in the Cuban missile crisis could not halt the nuclear weapons acquisition juggernaut. But in time the competitors recognized the dubiousness of it all resulting in a slew of arms control treaties memorialized in a gaggle of such acronyms as LTB, CTBT, INF, SALT, START and others that restrained and reduced but never eliminated the Bomb.

The demise of the Cold War ought to have put a stake into the competition. After all, the ideological conflict had ended. A true peace had finally come to Europe. But neither country could relinquish its nuclear addiction undergirded by a never ending suspicion of the other. In December 2007 then Deputy Prime Minister Sergi Ivanov raptured over the attraction the Bomb had for the Kremlin: "Military potential, to say nothing of nuclear potential, must be at the proper level if we want...to just stay independent...The weak are not loved and not heard, they are insulted and when we have parity they will talk to us in a different way."

More recently Prime Minister Putin punctuated the nuclear commitment announcing that Russia's 2010 defense budget would increase funding for the "maintenance and development of the nuclear capability and missile and space defense forces...." And despite lip service to nuclear disarmament, President Obama, like the Cold Warriors of the past, responded with his own commitment to the Bomb: "As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal." So the competition continues. From his grave Joseph Stalin must be smiling.