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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

David Holloway’s Interview

David Holloway, author of “Stalin and the Bomb: the Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956,” is a professor of history at Stanford University. An expert on the international history of nuclear weapons, Dr. Holloway traces the development of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities and policy throughout the Cold War. He discusses the beginnings of the Soviet atomic bomb project in World War II, the rise of the Cold War, and the development of the USSR’s hydrogen bomb. He also offers remarks on the current state of nuclear weapons internationally.

Date of Interview:
May 14, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly with the Atomic Heritage Foundation and it is Monday, May 14, 2018. I’m in Palo Alto with David Holloway. My first question for him is to please say his name and spell it.

David Holloway: David Holloway, D-A-V-I-D H-O-L-L-O-W-A-Y.

Kelly: Perfect. I would like to start with your telling us a little bit about yourself, and where you were born, and when and how you came to be interested in the Soviet bomb program.

Holloway: I was born in Ireland, in Dublin. My family moved to England when I was finishing high school, so I did a couple of years. It may be of interest, given the whole issue of science, that in England, the secondary school curriculum splits at the sixth form—at least, it did then. You could choose to do arts or sciences for A level [AP course]. Math was my favorite subject, but they told me I hadn’t done enough physics or chemistry, so I would have to do arts. They said, “We are starting to teach Russian. Would you be interested?”

I said, “Well, why not?” At University at Cambridge, I did my undergraduate degree in Modern Languages and Literature. Then, I switched to political science. My initial interest was in Soviet politics, actually Soviet ideas about reform. I think the first paper I published was on Soviet cybernetics, the debate about whether it was a bourgeois pseudoscience or whether it was a genuine science.

Gradually, I became interested in arms control, East-West relations, U.S.- Soviet relations. But then I became very dissatisfied because I thought, “I am writing about the Soviet Union. What do I have? What is the basis for what I write? It’s official statements or some very opaque military literature that says nothing very specific, and information coming from the U.S. government about Soviet nuclear forces.”

I began to gather material on the early history, thinking I would start in 1945. But of course, like the drunk man looking for the lost wallet, you have to go to where the lamppost is. I started to delve back into the Soviet physics in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

I spent a year at the Wilson Center in Washington, and I wrote a paper there on the Soviet decision to build the atomic bomb. I  was just gathering material. Then, in the late ‘80s, things opened up. I was able to write to people, to interview them. I was invited out to Sarov, the Soviet Los Alamos, twice. That was the basis for the research.

I became extremely interested in the topic. Of course, it was fascinating to have the opportunity to meet some of the people who had played a key role in it: [Andrei] Sakharov, for example; Yulii Khariton, who was essentially the Soviet Oppenheimer; and Georgy Flyoriov; and some other people as well.

That’s how I became interested, and then I wrote history. Since then, a lot of material has been declassified in Russia, so there are really very extensive sources available on that early history up to the mid-‘50s. 

Kelly: These sources were available to you as you were writing Stalin and the Bomb, or they were subsequent to that?

Holloway: They came later. I remember at one point, when I was nearly finished the book, thinking, “Should I put it aside and wait?” I thought, “New material is going to come out.” I decided, “No, I can’t. I have to finish this thing.”

Actually, I think— or I may fool myself on this—very little had been published. Well, nothing in the Soviet Union about that history, and very little in Russia. My book was in some ways the first attempt to provide a comprehensive history. I think that that then helped to trigger—President [Boris] Yeltsin set up a commission on declassification of materials after my book was out. I would have liked to have had those materials. It would have made my life a lot easier. It would change some things, but it wouldn’t change the fundamental story.

Kelly: Why don’t you start by telling us the story?

Holloway: When I moved back from 1945, the key thing then was the discovery of nuclear fission and the response of the Soviet physicists to that discovery. I provide some background to that, because most of the key scientists in the Soviet project actually came from Leningrad.

One in particular, one institute which then gives rise to some other institutes, but it was an institute headed by Abram Ioffe It was called the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute [renamed Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in 1960]. [Igor] Kurchatov was there. Khariton was there. [Nikolay] Semyonov, who got involved, was there. [Yakov] Zeldovich was there. At any rate, there was a kind of spin-off institute that Semyonov headed, and Semyonov later got the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on chain reactions.

They were people working on chain reactions and, of course, extremely interested then with the discovery of nuclear fission. Because the first question was, “Could you have a nuclear fission chain reaction? What were the conditions in which such a reaction would take place, both a controlled reaction and an explosive reaction?”

There were two physicists. One was Yakov Zeldovich, a theoretical physicist. The other was Yulii Khariton. They produced a number of papers in 1939 and ’40—and actually in 1941, but not published in 1941—on the conditions under which nuclear chain reaction could take place.

One of the unpublished papers—unpublished because the war intervenes, when Germany invades in June of 1941—in one of those papers, they do a calculation of the critical mass for a bomb for an explosive chain reaction and come to the conclusion that it would be 10 kilograms. That’s extremely significant because of course, something of a breakthrough had taken place in 1940 with the Frisch-Peierls memorandum. Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, two refugee scientists working in Germany, working at the University of Birmingham in England, produced this memo saying, “If you do calculations the right way, then you can see that you don’t need tons of uranium for a bomb. But rather, you can produce a bomb with kilograms of highly enriched uranium.”

The interesting thing, in a way, is that what triggered this work by the two Soviet physicists was a paper that Peierls had published in the Cambridge Mathematical Review—I don’t remember the exact name of the journal—in 1940, about the calculation of critical mass. He, himself, in his memoir says, “I wondered whether I should publish it.”

But it’s that paper that provides the basis of the Frisch-Peierls memorandum, where they come to this conclusion that actually it’s a small amount of fissile material you need. Plutonium wasn’t in the picture at that point, really. It was the same paper that Zeldovich and Khariton used. They actually make a big point of how important this paper is for their calculation. They were very interested at the time, but of course, that work came to the end with the German invasion.

That’s one of the points. I wasn’t trying to make this point, but one of the points that comes through is that it’s important and relevant, thinking about the Manhattan Project, it’s important to understand that physicists in a number of different countries were pursuing the same lines of research. Of course, they had in mind that one possible use of nuclear fission would be a bomb.

After all, it’s 1939. The war is looming. That’s one point. In fact, during the war, four countries make a decision about the bomb. Obviously, the U.S. goes ahead and builds it, But the British also made a decision, in the late summer of 1941, that they would go ahead and make a bomb. The Soviet Union takes a decision at least to set up a project during the war. Of course, Germany makes the decision not to go ahead, essentially not to go ahead with the bomb. The history is not, as it were, “The U.S. building the bomb, and then everyone gets interested.” There was a lot of interest already before that.

The second point that I think comes out—although one line of criticism in Russia relates to this—is that the Soviet Union had a very strong physics community built up in the 1920s and ‘30s. So therefore, it’s not just a matter of getting the intelligence information from the U.S. about the U.S. project. Of course, that intelligence is very significant. But they had people who could make use of the intelligence, and could have proceeded—though I think more slowly—even if they hadn’t had the intelligence. Well, if they hadn’t had the intelligence, then they hadn’t had the challenge of Hiroshima. That project was expanding during the war. It wasn’t really a high priority project, but it was expanding. Their memoranda to Stalin from [Lavrentiy] Beria and Kurchatov in May 1945 asking for expansion of the program in the following year, but not a huge expansion. Still, essentially laboratory work.

The early physics is important for understanding both the people who take part in the project—well, several things: the people who take part in the project, the relationship between the Soviet project and the American project, and the role of espionage.

If I can just go back a little bit—the work pretty much stops in 1941, June 1941. There is a little work that goes on. The intelligence comes in. It’s very important. The Frisch-Peierls memorandum triggers the MAUD committee, which the British government sets up in 1940, which consists of six physicists to work to try to see whether the argument made in the Frisch-Peierls memorandum is correct. They reach a conclusion.

They write a report—actually, two reports—but one on the bomb in July 1941 saying, “It’s possible to do, with twenty-five pounds of highly enriched uranium. It would take”—I don’t remember exactly—“something like two to three years to do one way to get the highly enriched uranium. Obviously, you will require isotope separation,” or what we call now enrichment. They proposed a particular method for doing that. That report, that’s the basis for Churchill’s decision to say, “Yes, we will go ahead and build the bomb.”

It’s shared with the American scientists in the summer of 1941. It’s briefed to [President Franklin] Roosevelt by Vannevar Bush in October 1941. Roosevelt said, “Yes, go ahead, and explore this.”

But it also finds its way to Moscow through a Soviet agent in October 1941. Nothing is done with it, even though this is a report showing that basically a bomb is possible, and within a certain period. In terms of British and American horizons in the war, it can be done before the war is over, because nobody expects the war with Germany to be over in the next two or three years. 

It gets to Moscow, and nothing is done with it, I think for two reasons. One is, of course, the Soviet Union has a lot more to worry about than a bomb that could be built in three years’ time. It’s trying to hold back the Wehrmacht, which is driving towards Moscow at a very rapid rate. But secondly, it finds its way to Beria, who is in overall charge of the intelligence and police functions of the Soviet state. He apparently is very suspicious that this is disinformation. 

There is a Soviet agent in London who has access to the report, an Englishman. It’s one of the famous Cambridge Five spies who passes the report to a man called [Anatoly] Gorsky, who I think was the NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] resident, in charge of what would later be called the KGB [Committee for State Security], in the London embassy. He sends it to Moscow where no action is taken. Of course, the Soviet Union had more to worry about than a bomb that could be built in three years’ time; they were trying to make sure the Germans didn’t take Moscow.

But secondly, Beria was suspicious about the spy. There was some evidence that he thought the information this Cambridge Five were supplying—that was [Kim] Philby, [Guy] Burgess, [Donald] Maclean, [Anthony] Blunt, and [John] Cairncross. It was Cairncross who passed this information through the London embassy to Moscow.

For a while, Beria was suspicious. The information they were sending was too good, and he thought, “This might be a trap.” But other information came in by a different route. This is an interesting detail, in a way, that got to Stalin about some German work on the bomb. One of the scientists advised the government, this Abram Ioffe that I mentioned earlier, drafted a very detailed directive that Stalin signed on the 28th of September 1942 saying, “Set up a project to see whether a uranium bomb is possible.” That gets going very slowly; the Battle of Stalingrad is going on.

Kurchatov is put in charge of this, but recruiting people in a country at war is a very slow business. Moreover, everyone has other priorities, so it’s very difficult for him to get things going. That changes a little bit at the end of 1944 when that whole project passes into Beria’s charge, his portfolio. The leadership of the Soviet Union—five members of the State Defense Committee, they were responsible for everything going on in the Soviet Union and the economy and so on. They all had a portfolio. Initially, the bomb project was in [Vyacheslav] Molotov’s portfolio. But then, Beria, who was always reaching out to get other things to control, he took it over, and then it begins to move forward more rapidly from the end of 1944.

It’s after Hiroshima that Stalin turns it into a crash program. There was a decree that he signs which sets up a special committee on the atomic bomb, consisting of nine people—two of them scientists, Kurchatov and the other one was Pyotr Kapitsa, a physicist who had spent about twelve years at Cambridge and was well known in the West. That decree also sets up what was called the First Chief Directorate, which was something like a management body for the different plants that had to be created for the plutonium production reactors, kind of managing the equivalent of Hanford and Oak Ridge. The Soviet Union, like the U.S., pursued every path. It was, “We have to do this as quickly as possible.” 

Stalin had a meeting with Kurchatov in January 1946 where he told him, “Do it on a Russian scale. Don’t spare any expense.” If you can think about it, this is a country that had been totally devastated by the war, 26 or 27 million people killed, the whole of European Russia destroyed. And here is this insistence that building the bomb—it gets called this in internal documents, “Problem Number One.” It’s an enormous exercise of political will to say, “This is now our priority, to build a bomb as quickly as possible.”

I can give some figures on the size of the project. We have official figures now from 1951, which show over 600,000 people involved in one way or another. That’s 200,000 in Eastern Europe, mainly in East Germany, mining uranium. 100,000+ in the Soviet Union prospecting for uranium and mining. Over 200,000 involved in construction and about 100,000 in the weapons lab, enrichment plants, and plutonium production center and so on.

This is an enormous undertaking. The aspect of it that’s different from the Manhattan Project, I think—and it only came to me as I was working on it—is how important uranium supply is. Of course, the supply of uranium is important for the Manhattan Project, but it’s not a huge problem.

In August 1945, the Soviet Union didn’t know where it was going to get uranium for the project. They hadn’t prospected for uranium. They knew there were some deposits in Central Asia, but those hadn’t been developed. They knew that there was the mine in Czechoslovakia, the Jáchymov mine, but that wouldn’t produce very much. It’s only in 1946 they find that there are these very large deposits of uranium ore in the Erzgebirge, in the Soviet zone of Germany. Most of the uranium for the early project comes from Eastern Europe. That’s a huge worry to them. Whereas there was a supply available for the Manhattan Project through the uranium from the Belgian Congo that had been shipped to the U.S.

That’s an important part, and that’s why so many people were involved in mining and exploring or prospecting for uranium deposits. Of course, General [Leslie] Groves understood or believed that uranium supplies around the world were limited. He did his best to try to make sure that those stayed in Western hands. He claimed in December 1945 that the U.S. now had control of, what was it, 90 percent of the world’s uranium and thorium supplies. In fact, of course, it didn’t work out that way. Once uranium became a priority, then you could find it there in different geological conditions. Ultimately, the Soviet Union got as much as it needed for its project.

Kelly: That didn’t happen for a decade or more?

Holloway: Initially, it was kind of a panic. “Where do we look for uranium? Where do we go and try to find it?” Groves sent the Alsos Mission to find out how far Germany had got with its bomb project. There was an equivalent mission from the Soviet side in May 1945. It was really after Victory Day. They sent a group that includes Khariton, for example, to East Germany to see what could be found. But of course, most of the key scientists had moved to the West. They didn’t want to be taken; they didn’t want to go to the Soviet Union. There were a few people who remained. There is a figure of about 200 people were taken by the Soviet Union from Germany to work not directly in the project, all of them, but to work on uranium enrichment and some other aspects of the Soviet project.

The most important find is that Khariton and somebody else, another key figure on the project, a man called [Isaak] Kikoin, found a hundred tons of uranium oxide hidden in a town called Neustadt. Of course, there are many such towns in Germany with that name. Khariton shipped that back to the Soviet Union. Khariton said that according to Kurchatov, that had saved them a year in building their first reactor, an experimental reactor. That was an important find.

Also, Soviet intelligence knew that the U.S. was trying to prevent uranium falling into their hands. There was evidence from intelligence reports. They understood that the U.S. forces at the end of the war moved into Thuringia in Saxony, an area that was supposed to be in the Soviet zone of occupation. They found 1,000 tons of uranium oxide, and removed that from there. The Soviet Union knew that. They also knew that a plant, the [inaudible] plant in Charlottenburg north of Berlin, had been bombed on General Groves’ order because that had been where uranium metal for the German project had been produced.

The key figure there, a man called Nikolas Riehl who had been born in Saint Petersburg—he was German, but he had been born in Saint Petersburg, he went to the Soviet Union at the end of the war. He was a key figure in a plant they set up for producing the metallic uranium for their reactors. He is the only German to have received the highest Soviet honor, Hero of Socialist Labor, when the bomb was tested in 1949. It’s an interesting and complicated story.

Kelly: It is. I am a little surprised that there were 200,000 Germans who were collected and used on the Soviet atomic project.

Holloway: Well, they were producing. They were mining for uranium in Germany.

Kelly: I see.

Holloway: That was a very big mining operation.

Kelly: Right, because the effort under [Werner] Heisenberg wasn’t very big.

Holloway: No, right.

Kelly: There weren’t very many. We scooped up, or the Allies scooped up, most of it.

Holloway: Yes. I have seen an estimate that in the German project, there were probably 1,000 people overall including everyone involved. My calculation of where the Soviet project was in the early months of 1945 was a similar number. Or maybe less, because what Kurchatov and Beria asked for in May 1945 is another 400 people to work at Kurchatov’s lab, including just support personnel, not scientists. It’s still rather small. Then it ramps up very quickly after August 1945.

Kelly: One other question in my mind—the Frisch-Peierls memo, you describe as very influential in convincing the Soviets and giving them a clue as to how much material is necessary for criticality. But at the same time, the Germans kind of stubbed their toe on that whole issue. You want to talk about that?

Holloway: It’s one of the interesting puzzles about the early history. It’s the Frisch-Peierls memorandum—I don’t think the Soviet Union ever actually got the memorandum. They got the MAUD report, which was kind of worked out in more detail and was based on research into fast neutron reactions. The Germans never did.

It’s interesting that, of course, the MAUD report goes to the U.S., it goes to the Soviet Union. There is this kind of diffusion model of what happens, but the Germans get left out of it. That, of course, comes up in the Farm Hall transcripts, where the Germans were interned at the end of the war and then the house was bugged. They listened to the news of Hiroshima and they hear it on the BBC News at 6:00 in the evening. Heisenberg is very skeptical, “Some dilettante has convinced them that this is an atomic bomb.” But at the 9:00 news, yeah, they realize that’s what it was. Then they get into the issue of, how much would you need, how much fissile material? Heisenberg is very unclear on that point.

Thomas Powers argues that he [Heisenberg] knew all along but hid this, because he didn’t want Germany to build a bomb. Others say that’s not the case, that somehow he didn’t see it, or that he wasn’t that kind of physicist. Peierls had been his assistant. Peierls said Heisenberg was very bad at arithmetic.

Kelly: He was very bad at what?

Holloway: Arithmetic. He was a theorist, who had very little time for experimental physics. That’s what I have been told.

But there is another explanation, which is that at some level, he wasn’t eager to build the bomb. It wasn’t that he knew and said, “I am not going to let them know.” It’s just that he wasn’t really focused on doing that. There is a kind of an intermediate position, where he doesn’t make the effort to really work out what would be required.

In 1942, when Albert Speer, the Armaments Minister, asks him after a talk that Heisenberg has given, “Well, can you do it? How much money do you need? What resources would you need?” Heisenberg basically mentioned some very small sum.  Speer said, “Well, they weren’t serious. They weren’t eager to do it.” There may be some element in that. There are other explanations for the German failure to get on. It was a very divided and fragmented community, in some ways. But in any event, fortunately, they didn’t.

But the Soviet Union did understand that. The intelligence coming in is very interesting. We have the reports that Kurchatov wrote on the intelligence. He was shown the intelligence for the first time in, I think it was November 1942, maybe October 1942. One of the things he is shown is the MAUD report. The Russian translation that was given to him has now been published, along with the other documents that were given to him. We have his report on this. His report on this is a very serious report. “The bomb is much more feasible than we had thought, and this report has clearly been written by very good physicists.” He was very straightforward in his assessment.

Then when Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs, goes to Los Alamos at the end of 1944, then of course they get key intelligence about plutonium, and the design of the plutonium bomb, and in particular about the spontaneous fission problem with plutonium. That’s totally new to them, because they haven’t had any samples of plutonium to do any kind of analysis on. All they have is, “Yes, plutonium will be a fissile material,” but they didn’t know what the actual kind of nuclear constants were. So that intelligence is very important.

I think Fuchs also supplies a rather detailed description of the plutonium bomb, the bomb tested in July and then used on Nagasaki. The first Soviet bomb is a copy of that bomb. It’s probably not an exact copy because actually making something that is absolutely an exact copy is more expensive, but that’s the design they took. Khariton told me, “We were under pressure to do it quickly, to build the bomb quickly,” so that he and Kurchatov had decided that yes, the way to go was to copy the American designs, the plutonium design about which they had information.

They ran into problems both with plutonium production—they had to close down the first reactor for a year with the problems they had—and they ran into problems with uranium enrichment. They didn’t get any highly enriched uranium until 1951. But if they had had that earlier, then the first bomb would have been uranium gun-type bomb, not the plutonium implosion bomb.

What’s interesting is, of course, in the U.S. when the test took place, people thought, “Oh my goodness, they have done it very quickly.” But the initial dates that Kurchatov gave was to get them done in 1947. Then Beria had to write to Stalin saying, “No, we can’t meet those dates.” Then the dates were further delayed, until August 1949 for the plutonium bomb.

From a Soviet point of view, this is well behind schedule. From the American point of view, this was, “Oh my god they have done it very quickly.” Kurchatov was too optimistic, I think, in assessing how quickly it could be done.

Kelly: When was the project created, and when was he put in charge?

Holloway: He was put in charge in essentially late 1942, but he wasn’tStalin signs this decree on the 28th of September. I think [inaudible] is asked if he will take charge. This is the research project, and it’s about, “This lab will do this, and this person will look into that.” But there is early in 1943, maybe early February, another decree—I think coming from the State Defense Committee—saying, “Kurchatov is in charge.”

He was reluctant to do it. He thought, “Well how can we do this? Is this important for us? We can’t do anything during the war. I want to contribute to the war effort,” and so on.

Kelly: He was quite convinced that they couldn’t do this in time to be of use in the war?

Holloway: Yeah, or very doubtful that it could be done in time. “How do you assemble the materials and the people to have a big project? Why should you? Was it a good idea to do it?”

He had been involved in demagnetizing submarines to protect them against mines. So, he had been involved in war work, but then was pulled back to take charge of the project. There is a little biography of him that was published, I think already in the ‘70s, by a man called Igor Golovin, who was Kurchatov’s assistant. Golovin told me that the first pages of the book were written by Kurchatov’s brother-in-law, another physicist, a man called [Kirill] Sinelnikov, involved in the project. It’s a very intimate portrait, and that includes the doubts about this: “Is this the right thing to do? Is he the right person to do? This is a big responsibility—not only a big responsibility, it’s not clear whether it is actually the right thing to be doing anymore.”

Kelly: When you say that, do you mean strategically for the Soviets in keeping the enemy at bay like the Germans, or do you mean in the way that the Manhattan Project people asked if the right thing to do is, morally, using this?

Holloway: No, I don’t think the moral issue arises later for the Soviet scientists, interestingly. It’s a very different trajectory. They feel after Hiroshima that they are not the first to do it, and therefore in some sense the real responsibility rests with the Americans who have done it and have used the bomb.

There were some people who were not drawn into the project. Sakharov, who was asked if he would join the atomic bomb project when they were still mainly working on the fission bomb, he refused a couple of times. Then, he got strung into working on the possibility of a thermonuclear bomb. That’s what gets him involved in the project. People could say no if they didn’t want to. There were some who said, “No, I don’t want to get into that business.” But of course, to express that kind of view in public would be dangerous.

Kapitsa withdrew from the special committee. He wrote this. It’s pretty remarkable. Kapitsa wrote a letter to Stalin. He wrote a lot of letters to Stalin, about a hundred altogether, over his life. Stalin replied twice but did read the letters, apparently. He did write to Stalin in late 1945 saying, “Beria was the wrong person to put in charge of the atomic project, because Beria was like an orchestral conductor who could wave the baton all right, but who couldn’t read the score because he didn’t know any physics.”

Then at the end, in a P.S., Kapitsa writes, “Please share this with Comrade Beria. This is a not a denunciation. This is a piece of useful advice.” Of course, the denunciation was an awful institution in the Soviet Union, that people would write denouncing others and accusing them of treachery or whatever.

In fact, I have an example, an interesting example of that. Yulii Khariton was put in charge of the bomb project. Kurchatov had broader responsibilities than really anyone, and different responsibilities from people in the Manhattan Project. He was the scientific advisor for everything: uranium enrichment, plutonium production. He took his particular interest in the reactors, the plutonium production reactors.

Khariton was the person put in charge of their Los Alamos, which was set up in the spring of 1946. Khariton told me once that in the late ‘40s, he had been at a dinner or a banquet, probably celebrating somebody’s birthday or some success, at one of the nuclear plants in the Urals. He was sitting next to one of the secret police people. The people were called, officially, “Beria’s representatives.” There was one in each of the nuclear plants. They acted as a kind of deputy director, keeping an eye on it.

There had been various toasts. This man turns to Khariton and said in the Russian way, using his name in patronymic, “Yuli Borisovich, if only you knew how many letters I get about you. But don’t worry. I don’t believe any of them.” There were people denouncing him. Khariton had a lot of black marks against him: he was Jewish, he had done his Ph.D. in Cambridge, [Ernest] Rutherford was his advisor, his father had been exiled by Lenin and his mother was living in Jerusalem when he was put in charge of the bomb project.

He was an unusual person. He was invited to give the Oppenheimer lecture [at Los Alamos] before he died sometime in the early ‘90s. He couldn’t travel; his health was too bad at that point. But he wrote this essay about Oppenheimer saying, “I’ve always known a lot about Oppenheimer, and admired him. There are these peculiar parallels. We have the same first name, Julius and Yulii. We both had artistic mothers.” Oppenheimer’s mother was a painter, interested in painting. Khariton’s mother was an actress in the Moscow Arts Theater.

They had both studied in Cambridge, and they missed each other by just a few weeks in the mid-‘20s. He did mention that they were both Jewish, of course, and they were both the first heads of nuclear weapons labs. It’s a remarkable kind of parallel.

Of course, Khariton could know a lot about Oppenheimer, but Oppenheimer wouldn’t have known anything about Khariton, who was an extremely secret figure. I don’t think that was known until the 1980s, that Khariton was in charge of that whole effort. He remained the scientific director of the weapons lab until 1992.

One interesting aspect about the detailed intelligence about the bomb and also, we have a document to Beria saying—we have several agents’ reports indicating—that the [Manhattan Project’s] bomb was going to be tested in July. They give the date of the tenth of July, so it’s not the right date. “It will be a plutonium device, and the expected yield is 5 kilotons.” It appears, though it’s not certain, that that was given to Stalin as he traveled to the Potsdam meeting, just before he went to Potsdam for his meeting with [President Harry] Truman and [Prime Minister] Churchill. But we don’t have good evidence as to exactly when he understood that the test had been a success.

We don’t have any evidence about intelligence on the plan to use the bomb in Japan. The evidence is very complicated, but my belief is that he [Stalin] was preparing for the entry into the war. They moved half a million troops from Europe to the Far East. The date was set for an attack on August 10. Hiroshima was a shock and a surprise. Then he moves the date of attack forward forty-eight hours, for fear that the war would be over before the Soviet Union got into it. Because if the Soviet Union didn’t enter the war, then the concessions made at Yalta by [President Franklin] Roosevelt and Churchill to bring the Soviet Union into the war, they wouldn’t get those concessions, which were the southern half of Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and certain rights in Manchuria, especially control over railroads and ports in China.

We can’t go from assuming that they knew a great deal about the actual project to assuming that they knew everything about the plans to use the bomb. In fact, I have not seen any documents produced to show that they did know that that was planned. I know that Truman in his memoirs says that he had this funny exchange with Stalin at Potsdam where he says, “We have a bomb of unusual destructive power.” He says Stalin said, “Yes, and I hope you use it against Japan.” But Stalin’s interpreter who translated the exchange says, “Stalin didn’t say anything, he just nodded his head.”

Kelly: He didn’t say anything about it then?

Holloway: No. It’s one of these bizarre—I won’t say bizarre. It’s fairly common. You would think this brief exchange, we could know what was said, but we have different accounts of what was said.

We also have Anthony Eden, the Britain Foreign Secretary, there standing nearby and saying, “All Stalin said was, ‘Thank you.’” We have Truman saying, “No, Stalin said, ‘I hope you use it against Japan.’” And the interpreter saying, “He didn’t say anything. He didn’t say thank you. He just nodded his head.”

My guess is that he was taken by surprise, and that was a bit of a political shock then. He knew all about it, so when Truman says to him, “We have a weapon of unusual destructive force”—he has been briefed on the bomb, and he had a very good memory. He signed memoranda expanding the project. He knew about that. That’s not at issue.

We have three memoirs by people who were present at Potsdam on the Soviet side, three memoirs, [Georgy] Zhukov, Molotov, and [Andrei] Gromyko. They all record Stalin saying something like, “We will have to speed up our project, or they are going to use this to try and shape the post-war settlement.”

But there is nothing coming through. We have another memoir by the head of the operations division of the general staff who says the chief of the general staff, who had talked to Stalin, had said, “The Americans have this new, more destructive bomb.” But there was no change made for entry into the war, which you might have expected because they were concerned, “If the war is over, we don’t get what we were promised.” They were eager to get into the war. We have evidence on that. Of course, the Japanese were putting out peace feelers, which the Russians were ignoring and trying to just string the Japanese along. All of that, then whoof, Hiroshima.

The fact that the bomb works, that it is so destructive, in fact, more destructive than they anticipated. Then, of course, the impact on the Japanese city was huge. I think that’s the background to the decision taken on the 20th, exactly two weeks after Hiroshima, to set up the special committee and turn this into the highest priority of the Soviet State, to have the bomb.

Kelly: There were some scientists at the time who thought if we could share the information about the bomb—like Niels Bohr, and others who agreed with him—that the outcome would be different. So knowing what we know, what do you think of that?

Holloway: Bohr’s idea was to just to say to Stalin—in fact, that’s even the recommendation of the Interim Committee at the end—to tell Stalin, “We know you are working on the bomb,” because there was some intelligence about that, “And we have been working on it. This is going to be a major factor. How are we going to deal with it after the war?” And maybe say, “Yes, we are planning to use it in Japan.”

Stalin, I think would have wanted his own bomb. But if he had been told beforehand—if he had been told what he already knew—I think some of the poisonous legacy of the bomb for U.S.-Soviet relations might have been attenuated. Bohr had a very expansive notion that they should see it as a common threat. It would lead the basis for international cooperation. That’s very hard for me to think, that Stalin would have thought in that way. And Truman didn’t think in that way about the bomb. I think that was very unlikely.

It’s true there were a lot of difficulties that had grown out, especially over the situation in Poland. It might have been better to say to Stalin, “Yes, we are developing this. We know you are working on it, too.”

Of course, the fear was he would then say, “Well, okay, tell us what you have or what you know.”

They could have said, “No, we `won’t go that far. But we just want you to know that we are working on it.” Then he probably would have seen that not as a conciliatory move but as a threat, because that’s saying, “We have something you don’t have.” I don’t know.

When I started writing Stalin and the Bomb, I was very much of the Niels Bohr view. But I ended up not being of that view. But I still think some statement by Truman at Potsdam, to follow the advice he had actually been given by the Interim Committee, just tell Stalin, “We are working on the bomb. We know you are working on the bomb. This is a terrible new thing, and we have to think and talk about how we are going to handle this after the war. We are going to use it against Japan. We think this will help bring the war to an end quickly.” Which of course, Stalin wouldn’t particularly have liked. But nevertheless, I think that would have been a better move.

What’s really interesting—at least, I thought it was striking—is that between Hiroshima and the opening of the U. N. negotiations in June 1946, the negotiation of the [Bernard] Baruch plan and the Soviet plan, there are no discussions between Moscow and Washington about the bomb. There is nothing. Except the organization of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission in December, when [Jimmy] Byrnes goes to Moscow in December ’45 with his proposal: “Let’s set up a U. N. commission, and have negotiations about international control.” That’s it. It’s a kind of scheduling discussion, but no discussion about the substance. There is no discussion of, “What does this mean for us?” between the two countries. Absolutely nothing.

Kelly: Well, it could be a reflection of Byrnes’ attitude towards the Soviets perhaps, that he wasn’t inclined to share?

Holloway: No, he wasn’t. He was one of the people who opposed [telling Stalin about the bomb], on the Interim Committee initially. So he opposed it. But in the end, they come up with the recommendation to do it [to tell Stalin], but of course he is not in favor. He thinks he can use it as a political instrument and put political pressure on the Soviet Union. Of course, Stalin understood—his belief was, “That’s what the Americans are going to do.”

The Soviet policy had two priorities. One is, “Build a bomb as quickly as possible.” But the other was, “Deprive the U.S. of any diplomatic advantage from the bomb. We can do that by showing that we are tough, and we won’t be intimidated.”

We now have an exchange between Stalin, Molotov, Beria and [Nikita] Khrushchev where Stalin accuses Molotov of being too soft on the West, “That with allies like the U.S. and Britain, we need a tough policy, a steadfast policy, a firm policy. We won’t be intimidated. If they think we can be intimidated, they will only go on intimidating us.”

Stalin had no incentive, as it were, to show weakness. He told the British journalist Alexander Werth, a Russian journalist for the London Sunday Times, in an interview in August 1946, he says, “Atomic bombs are three to frighten people with weak nerves.” The implication is, “We don’t have weak nerves. We are not going to be frightened.”

He didn’t believe that war was imminent. So he didn’t think the U.S. would attack the Soviet Union. The U.S. was demobilizing. There was war weariness. Who wants to start a new war? He didn’t see an immediate military threat. His whole view of the post-World War II international situation was that there would be another war in maybe twenty or thirty years’ time. He seems to have thought of it very much as a parallel to the post-World War I situation, that Germany and Japan would rise again, that these were powerful nations.

In line with Leninist theory that inter-imperialist contradictions—in other words, the rivalries among the imperialist powers—would lead to a new war, in which the Soviet Union would get drawn in and needed to be prepared for. Along with investing heavily in the bomb, they invest very heavily in rocketry. They import what they find in Germany to the Soviet Union. They build on the basis of the German rocket program, heavy investment in radar and in jet propulsion.

Because after all, the Soviet war was not a science war. For the U.S. and for Britain, and to some extent for Germany, it was a war where science played an extremely important role. That wasn’t true for the Soviet Union. This was just a brutal war, a ground war, with air force involved in tactical support. At the end, he sees there are these new technologies.

“Another war is likely in another twenty or thirty-year time frame. We need to invest in this now, to be ready for a future war.” He says that in a public speech, “We have to be ready for all contingencies.” He spells it out to various people that this is his view, “There is not going to be a war now.”

He changes his view a little bit during the Korean War. Then that begins to look a bit more as though war is more imminent, what will happen may be in 1954. Beria is influenced, I think, by NSC-68 and the big American build-up during the Korean War. He then has a big build-up of East European armies, he authorizes that. But in the late ‘40s, it’s very much, “We don’t want war now, but there is very likely to be a war in twenty or thirty years’ time.”

On the other hand, showing you won’t be intimidated sometimes means raising tension and not giving way. But raising tension—as the Berlin Blockade, for example—and going to war are two different things. War is to be avoided. But sometimes you needed to take actions that showed you wouldn’t be pushed around, even though they had the damaging effect of leading to NATO, basically.

Kelly: One scene in the book, and I can’t remember where it falls chronologically, is when Kurchatov is ready to start the reactor. He knows that Beria makes it very clear the consequences if he fails. Why don’t you talk about that?

Holloway: When they start up the experimental reactor—this is December 1946—Beria is there to see this happen. They turn on the reactor and Beria says, “Is that it? What’s this? How can I be sure that this is the reactor that is going?”

There was an element of distrust. There is another story of him coming to the plant where they are producing the plutonium, reprocessing the plutonium, producing the plutonium metal. He sees a man called Anatoly Alexandrov, who is later president of the Academy of Sciences. He says, “What’s that you have there?”

 Alexandrov says, “Well, it’s plutonium.”

Beria says, “How do I know it’s plutonium? You might be fooling me. What are you doing here?”

Alexandrov says, “Well, it’s warm. Feel it. You will feel it.”

Beria says, “Well, you could have just heated it up.”

He says, “Well, stay here all night, and you will find it doesn’t cool down,” and Beria walks off.

There was a story which I think did the rounds among the Soviet scientists later, but I think it’s very revealing, which was that Beria had drawn up lists of the punishments that would be meted out to the scientists if the first test failed. “So and so would be executed. So and so, twenty years, ten years,” and so on.

When it was a success, he took the same list and crossed out “Execution,” and wrote in “Hero of Socialist Labor.” Nobody ever found such a list. I don’t think it’s true, but it illustrates how they understood their own personal fate hinged on the outcome of the test.

Another example of him not believing, not trusting the scientists, was when the U.S. conducted the [Crossroads] tests in 1946—remember, with the naval vessels, and they blew them up. They invited each of the countries involved in the U.N. negotiations to send two observers to the test. There were two Soviet observers at the test, one a physicist called [Mikhail] Meshcheryakov and another, actually a geologist called [Semyon] Aleksandrov.

I had a chance to talk to Misharikov at a conference in the ‘90s. He had been placed at the Soviet test not very far, some kilometers away from ground zero, to watch it. Shortly after the test, Beria was there in the command bunker, and drove up to ask him, “Did that look like what you saw in 1946?” Now, you don’t ask that if you trust your scientists. He wanted to know, “Was that the real thing?” 

Beria actually protected his scientists, but at some level, there was a deep distrust. If they had not succeeded, they could have suffered pretty badly. He protected the Jewish scientists there, but it wasn’t because he thought, “Oh, we shouldn’t have harsh anti-Semitic policies.” It was just that they were useful—until they proved they weren’t useful.

Kelly: There were also stories in your book about how Kurchatov took the blueprints that he received through espionage, but he kept them in his desk drawer. He didn’t share them with his subordinates.

Holloway: Yeah, he could not let on where the information came from. Some of it was shared with Khariton, who was the chief designer of the bomb. But in many cases, there was a belief among the scientists that there was some other group that had been working on the same problem. Kurchatov got a great reputation for scientific intuition; it turns out, the intuition was based often on the intelligence. 

That was then something of an issue when the history became open in the very late Soviet, early post-Soviet period. People thought they had done it themselves. They didn’t know. Of course, yes, there was talk about [Klaus] Fuchs and so on, but that was all rejected; that was “imperialist propaganda” and so on. But then when they discovered that yes, a lot of this came from intelligence, of course, they had to redo everything. They couldn’t just say, “Oh we know it from this.” That Khariton knew a lot of this but hadn’t told them, I think that was difficult. It was awkward to talk about. I mean, it was for obvious security reasons; Kurchatov wasn’t allowed to reveal or just had to be very careful in what he allowed people to see. It was totally closed.

Kurchatov gets some credit, to my mind, for opening up contact with the West in the mid-‘50s. When they had the first conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy in Geneva in August 1955, he presses for serious Soviet papers to be presented, which they are. Then he goes to Britain with Khrushchev and [Nikolai] Bulganin in April 1956 and gives two talks at Harwell, including one on their research on controlled fusion which opens up stuff that was classified in the West. It makes a big impression.

But Golovin, Kurchatov’s assistant, told me, “Kurchatov was a very complicated person with a lot of layers to his personality.” He said, “That’s what made him ideal for the kind of work he was doing. He could operate as a personality in a very open, friendly way, cracking jokes and so on, but still, he could be totally silent about the stuff he needed to be silent about. He could try to do good, in terms of protecting individuals where he could. But also, he was working very closely with Beria.” This is a difficult position to be in. Groves might have been awkward to deal with, but nothing like dealing with Beria.

Kelly: Didn’t Beria actually threaten him if the reactor didn’t work? Put a bullet in his head, or something? Maybe that’s, “You are charged with execution.”

Holloway: Yeah, I think that’s it. Sakharov’s memoirs are very important because Sakharov was a person of great integrity, and he was able to write in a period when he could write openly. Sakharov says, “Of course, they knew something about Beria, but didn’t know everything he had done.” Beria treated the scientists with respect. But of course, always at the back of people’s minds was what might happen if they failed.

Khariton tells a story that one of the physicists out at the weapons lab, a man called [Lev] Altshuler, had been very outspoken, criticizing [Trofim] Lysenko and defending genetics, against the attacks on genetics. A party group came out to investigate this. Alschuler was criticized. Then Khariton had talked to Beria, saying, “You know we need this man. Leave him here.”

Beria apparently said, “You really need him?”

Khariton said “Yes.” He was left alone.

I have seen some personnel reports on Khariton, one of which says, “He pays too much attention to people’s professional qualifications and not enough to their political orientation when he appoints them.”

So you think, “Thank goodness.” But there was that atmosphere. It was hard.

Kelly: I can’t imagine, very tough.

Holloway: They knew pretty early on about the possibility of a hydrogen bomb. That was part of the intelligence they got, that [Edward] Teller had been working on the Superbomb at Los Alamos. In ’46, some of the scientists put together a brief report on whether this would be possible. They said, “Yes, probably you could do this.”

But of course, to build a hydrogen bomb, you need a fission bomb, so that had to be the priority. You can’t build a hydrogen bomb unless you have an atomic bomb. But then in 1948, Fuchs passed information to the Soviet Union about what was called “The 1946 position.” In other words, this conference that Teller had organized at Los Alamos in April 1946, where they discussed the so-called classical Super concept. Fuchs passed information about that to the Soviet Union in 1948. That was circulated to the leadership.

The response was to set up two committees to investigate the design of a hydrogen bomb. One of these headed by Zeldovich, whom I mentioned earlier, was given the intelligence that Fuchs had provided about this design. The other was not given the intelligence. The other group included Sakharov and was headed by his teacher, Igor Tamm, who was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. I mean, he got the Nobel Prize in the ‘50s.

Sakharov came up with the idea for a hydrogen bomb a little bit like a concept that Teller came up with, the alarm clock. There is no evidence that intelligence played a role here with Sakharov. Sakharov just thought, “If you have layers of fissile material, then thermonuclear fuel, there is a way of getting very high yield.” It’s not a Superbomb. It’s not kind of infinitely expandable in terms of yield.

So they do that work. There is a conference out in the weapons lab in the summer of 1949 on the hydrogen bomb. The key physicists are brought together. They come to the conclusion that, “Yes, this probably is possible, but there is a lot of work that has to go into it.” They make a recommendation to Beria to go ahead. Beria does nothing with this; he is preoccupied with the test for the fission bomb. That’s the important thing. The hydrogen bomb is later. But nothing happens until February 1950 after Truman’s announcement that, “We are going to go ahead and build a hydrogen bomb,” which is plastered across the New York Times on the first of February, or maybe the second of February, 1950.

As soon as that is there, Beria gets in touch with Kurchatov and other people, saying, “Prepare for me draft decrees about moving ahead with the hydrogen bomb.” Those are two decrees, one about the bomb and the other about the production of and lithium-6 for such a weapon. Stalin gets those on something like the 24th of February and signs them straight away. In the accompanying letter, Beria says, “It looks as though our enemy is going to have a new and very powerful weapon. This will be very difficult to build and very expensive, but we think we need it as well because they have it. They will have it.” 

The project gets going. The first thing they test is Sakharov’s concept, which has come to be called in English “the layer cake.” It’s like a layer cake. That’s tested in August 1953. It has a yield of about 400 kilotons. But already in November 1952, the U.S. has tested a Superbomb concept with the Mike test. That has a yield of ten megatons.

There is a lot of speculation that when the Soviet Union understood how powerful that test had been, it speeded up its efforts. But we now know they didn’t know how powerful it was. They weren’t even sure that the test had been a thermonuclear test. This is one of the new documents that has come out. There is a memo to [Georgy] Malenkov when he takes over after Stalin’s death as the Prime Minister saying, “We think they had a thermonuclear test, or there was some thermonuclear element in it.” But there is nothing about the yield, so they don’t pay much attention—well, they pay some attention to that.

What seems to have triggered the Soviet hitting on their equivalent of the Teller-Ulam configuration is the American test in the Pacific the spring of 1954 where the first of them, the Bravo tests, has a yield of 50 megatons. They do pick that up,  because by that time they have set up flights of aircraft to collect samples of the radioactive debris from the tests. These don’t fly over the Pacific, but they fly over China and the Soviet Union, so that system has been set up.

They analyze that, and they can see, “Yes, this is thermonuclear.” There has been a lot of speculation about this, too, that by doing a kind of isotope analysis of the debris, they could work out something about the design. They don’t do that. But they hit upon the design, and they test their first two-stage weapon using, again, it’s Sakharov and Zeldovich come up with the equivalent to the Teller-Ulam configuration. They test that in November 1955.

There is a very interesting letter to Khrushchev and the Politburo, the party leadership, early in November about setting the date for this test. It’s signed by Kurchatov, Khariton, the chief of the general staff, and the minister in charge of the atomic industry. In it, they say, “We want to test a new principle of atomic implosion. We don’t know whether the Americans have come up with this idea. But we think that probably they have, judging by the yields, the explosive yields of the tests that they have conducted.” To my mind that indicates no, they didn’t get it from the U.S. They came up with it themselves. Of course, it’s not totally independent, because there is this competition going on.

Anyway, then they have a result of that test as a yield of 1.6 megatons. But basically, it resolved the issue for them of how to design a super bomb.

Kelly: Probably one of the most famous participants whom you just mentioned, Sakharov—tell us his story. What led him to defect?

Holloway: It’s interesting. Before the U.S. hydrogen bomb is built, in fact before [President Harry] Truman makes the decision, the scientists get involved. The General Advisory Committee, they oppose going forward with the hydrogen bomb. There were two groups, essentially. They are showing great moral concern about proceeding to a weapon that would be a genocidal weapon.

We don’t see anything of that in the Soviet Union until this 1955 test, where Sakharov, in his memoirs, says, “Going out to ground zero and seeing the birds with their eyes burnt out, writhing on the ground,” he says, “You begin to think about your responsibility at that point.”

Kurchatov had a similar reaction coming back to Moscow, saying, “This is just terrible. These things can never be used.” Actually from then on, he focuses on controlled fusion, not on weapons.

Sakharov, of course, continues working in the atomic project until 1968, but he campaigns for a moratorium on testing. He advocates the Limited Test Ban Treaty, restricting tests to underground testing.

He runs into some trouble with Khrushchev at one point, a kind of verbal battle, but he’s still working to design weapons. He helps to design the most powerful weapon ever developed. It was supposed to be 100-megaton yield bomb. It was tested at half the yield, 50 megatons in 1961. He gets involved in the debate about ballistic missile defenses. Then in 1968, he publishes. He has written an essay on peaceful coexistence and intellectual freedom, and he sends that abroad. It’s published in the New York Times in full. Then he is removed from doing secret work, but he is still at liberty.

He increasingly takes up the issue of human rights in the Soviet Union. He marries Yelena Bonner. The two of them are very strong. Then he gets the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for human rights in 1975. He continues with that activity until in 1980, he is sent into exile in Gorky for his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He is only released from there in 1986, Gorbachev releases him. Then he becomes very active in the kind of new politics of the Soviet Union and Russia, very active.

In his memoirs, he doesn’t renounce what he did early on. He said, “We did it because we believed that we needed to have a deterrent against the United States, and also that the world is safer if there isn’t just one nuclear power.”

Igor Tamm, his teacher was there. He had respect for Kurachatov. He worked closely with Khariton. But of course he went beyond any of them in his willingness to, as it were, become public with his criticisms of the Soviet Union and of human rights. He was a much-honored person, and that provided him with a kind of protection.

He was careful, also. I shouldn’t say he was careful; he was extremely courageous. His arguments were reasoned arguments, and they were usually in terms of the Soviet Union not abiding by its own laws or commitments that it made under the Helsinki agreement. In that sense, he was very reasoned in his opposition.

Kelly: It’s hard to parse this all out. Now it’s fifty years later, thinking about this Cold War race to build these huge arsenals on both sides that were obviously more than enough to obliterate the Earth, let alone specific countries.

Holloway: Yeah.

Kelly: Are you seeing how this happened?

Holloway: I think the story about the H bomb figures here. There is a very strong mimetic quality—actually in a way on both sides, but since the U.S. leads, very much on the Soviet side. “They have this, we must have this.”

In the 1950s, of course, the U.S. stockpile grows at a phenomenal rate, up to over 20,000 nuclear weapons by 1960. The Soviet Union, I think for most of this period has maybe ten percent that number. We don’t have good figures beyond about 1954, where it is about ten percent of the U.S. stockpile.

There was a study that I saw, or at least I saw a report on it done at Sarov, the Russian weapons lab. This is sometime in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Using official American figures saying that in 1953, when the U.S. had about 1,000 fission bombs, that would not have enabled the U.S. to win a war against the Soviet Union. But by 1957, when it had thermonuclear weapons—maybe about 5,000 weapons—it could have turned the Soviet Union into a radioactive desert.

There is a huge leap, not only in the kind of individual weapons that we see from the tests, but the huge leap then in the destructive capacity of the stockpile. I can’t remember the figures, but it’s astonishing. If you measure megatonnage, total megatonnage with the stockpile for the U.S. in 1953, it’s about seventy megatons. Then it’s thousands of megatons, four years later. It’s just astonishing.

The Soviet Union took the decision—many people would say it was the wrong decision, but they actually took it after the Cuban Missile Crisis—that they had to match the U.S. in terms of numbers. That leads to very big build-up during the 1960s and early ‘70s. The reason is not for military strategic reasons, “We have to destroy these targets.” It’s that, “They won’t treat us as an equal, unless we have the same number or maybe a bit more.”

Now we are back down with strategic weapons to numbers equivalent to those in the 1950s. By the mid-‘80s, there was something like 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world; 40,000 in the Soviet Union. That’s an estimate. We are now back down to about 15,000 in the world, and we now know a bit more about the stockpile, so that maybe five thousand of those or a bit more are awaiting dismantling. But still, the destruction could be horrendous. But to think back, and think, “How did we get to those numbers?” It’s very difficult to figure out.

When you think about nuclear history, my view is: the building of the bomb is exciting. It’s a race. These are technological races, and they have their excitement. “Are you going to get it done?” and so on. Even the crises we have been in, Berlin or Cuba, at least we know how they ended. We were close in Cuba.

When you think about the nuclear planning, the war planning, that’s scary because the calculations in Dan Ellsberg’s recent book makes clear, if the first Strategic Integration Operation Plan [SIOP] had been executed, the calculation was that it would kill maybe 600 million people in the Soviet Union and China and Eastern Europe. That’s not counting the numbers that would be killed in the Soviet retaliatory strike. So, you think to yourself, “We were involved in trying to make our adversaries believe that we would inflict that kind of strike. Even more troubling is, we were involved in convincing ourselves that we would do something like that.”

Kelly: That we would launch a strike?

Holloway: We would launch a strike where our calculation was it would kill 600 million people. The argument in the briefing to [President John F.] Kennedy on the SIOP was, “No, it’s a very integrated plan. You can’t start tinkering with it and saying, ‘We will do this bit or that bit.’ You have to do the whole thing.”

I think we have backed away from that, to some degree. When you think about the history, at some level, that’s the most troubling part of it. They say, “Deterrent threats have to be credible. Your adversary has to believe you would do this.” Okay, but then you have to convince yourself you would do it. That seems to be pretty scary.

If you look at U.S. national security policy, it’s there in the [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower documents. There are two main functions. One is deterrence, to deter the Soviet Union from using its military power. But the other is, if a general war should eventuate, then to prevail in that war. You have the two elements, and so to focus just on the military side—one has to look at that—Eisenhower didn’t want a nuclear war.

I think on the Soviet side, it’s very similar. In 1956, Khrushchev says, changing Leninist teaching, “War is no longer fatalistically inevitable; we can avoid the war. But if it happens, it will be the end of imperialism,” meaning, “We have to win the war if it happens.” It’s a very similar kind of view. 

When we look at what we now have on the discussions on the Soviet side, Khrushchev was clear this would be a catastrophe. I think he understood that Eisenhower understood that point and that Kennedy understood the point. I think it works vice versa as well. The political leaders understood, “This is something we must not get into,” even while preparing for that eventuality.

That makes the history rather complicated, in a way. Even in the Cuban Missile Crisis—which I think was very dangerous—in the letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev, each of them appeals to the fact that, “I know you don’t want a war. You understand what it would mean.”

Because at the summit meeting in Vienna in June 1961, they had had some discussion of that. Khrushchev says, “You know what a war would mean. I know what a war would mean. You know what a war would mean.” Kennedy is saying similar things. At some level, I think that was quite important in acting as an element of restraint.

Although during the crisis, each side gets a bit worried about what’s happening on the other side. Khrushchev worries, “Is Kennedy in control, or hard liners? Are they driving the policy in the Pentagon?”

In the U.S., there was worry in the ExCom [The Executive Committee of the National Security Council] whether, “Khrushchev is really in charge now, or have the hardliners taken over?” It’s not that hardliners would necessarily want a nuclear war, but they might be willing to push much harder and therefore run a much greater risk of one.

It’s not a simple history. People took often what they thought were the best decisions, but they led to this monstrous situation of huge stockpiles.

It’s odd, in a way. When you look at the very origins, the scientists, this was one of the great high points of European or world culture, what had happened in physics. These were wonderful people, and they end up under the consequences. They built this bomb for, I think, good motives, but ended up creating a situation which then they, of course, worry greatly about.

Kelly: I wish that we could stop with the history, but I am going to throw in one last thing about what your view is, given all you know about what’s happened in the last seven decades that we’ve had nuclear weapons. What do you think about today’s situation?

Holloway: I think it’s a very worrying situation. Of course, the numbers are much lower. I think the nonproliferation regime has actually been fairly successful.

We have two—at least two—crises, over Iran and North Korea. I worry that in Russia and in the U.S., we have political leaders who, I think, regard unpredictability as a good political tactic and may themselves actually be inherently unpredictable. I worry also about the language in which nuclear weapons are now spoken about by the political leaders. I think it’s true of [President Vladimir] Putin, who has placed enormous emphasis on Russian nuclear power, and indeed by [President Donald] Trump. “My button is bigger than your button,” and so on. But this is not healthy. These are very serious things. I wish there was more restraint in the language and the care with which we treat these.

I worry also about the situation in South Asia between Pakistan and India that I think is dangerous. They are adopting military doctrines that could be dangerous. That is embedded in a kind of deep and longstanding hostility between the two states.

On Iran, I don’t know. There, I think the immediate worry is not so much “nuclear” as, “What’s going to happen in the region as a whole.”

I do worry. I wish the understanding of the history and the destructiveness of the weapons was greater, that people really did see, “This is the danger.” That’s not so widespread now as it was say in the early ‘80s, for example, or in the ‘50s. At one level, it’s good that people shouldn’t be worried, but on the other, it’s bad because there are real dangers. There are dangers of miscalculation. There are dangers of accidents. U.S. and Russia are on what is often called hair trigger alert. If early warning systems don’t function properly, political leaders could be faced with extremely difficult decisions and might make the wrong choice.

Kelly: That was well said. You can’t be a Pollyanna about things.

Holloway: No.

Kelly: Looking at the reality, it’s pretty scary.

Holloway: Yeah.

Kelly: We didn’t touch on after Stalin’s death. Would you like to talk about what happened?

Holloway: Stalin’s death coincides, in a sense, with the appearance of the hydrogen bomb. It’s a little bit difficult to disentangle the impact of the two things. Soviet military planning under Stalin was basically about fission weapons. They were not regarded as decisive; they were seen as bigger iron bombs [unguided bombs].

But, when Khrushchev was first briefed on nuclear weapons, when he became the First Secretary of the party, which would have been September of 1953, he had a very strong reaction to that. He was shown a movie and told what would happen if nuclear weapons were used. He recalled on various occasions that when he was told this, he couldn’t sleep because this was so destructive. Then he decided that, “No, we couldn’t use the weapons,” and then he began to sleep. He told that to his son on various occasions. Everything we know about what he says internally, in internal proceedings, reflects that, that he thought these weapons were terrible.

He has a very interesting meeting with the high command in December 1959, where he is proposing a military reform, cut back in the armed forces. He talks about nuclear weapons. He says,
“These are terrible weapons. If we launched 300 against Western Europe,” he says—mainly France, West Germany, and Britain—“That would be 300 megatons of destruction. It would just devastate the place.”

He says then a very strange remark. He says, “I don’t know what you military people think, but we in the party leadership have a rule: we are not going to get into a war. We are not looking for war, because we know that even victory in war can be catastrophic. Look at our last war. So we can’t use these weapons.” 

On the other hand, he was prepared to make nuclear threats, as he did over Berlin. He believed in brinkmanship. At one point, he said, “John Foster Dulles was a very intelligent man.” He learned from Dulles, “What was great about Dulles was that Dulles knew there was a brink, and didn’t intend to go over the brink,” Khrushchev said. Khrushchev tried the same thing, brinkmanship, but also pulled back in Berlin. Of course, in Cuba, it very nearly went over the brink.

Then, after Khrushchev, the new leadership criticizes Khrushchev for taking the world to the brink of nuclear war three times over Suez, over Berlin, and over Cuba. They say, in a kind of indictment, “Yes, sometimes you have to make military threats to sober the imperialists up, but that should not be the basis of your foreign policy.” They had a more restrained attitude.

Of course, a lot of this is secret. Public statements were sometimes much more threatening. But nevertheless, there is a shift after Stalin. There is a memo written by Kurchatov and a number of other leading scientists in the atomic project to the leadership in March 1954, in which they say, “If we keep on producing fission bombs, or if we produce 50 to 100 thermonuclear weapons, a nuclear war could lead to the end of all life on earth. The fate of the Earth is hanging by a string.”

That was the message they were giving to their leaders. I think the leaders understood it, even while at the same time, the military were tasked with preparing for such a war if it should happen.

Kelly: It’s kind of a paradox, isn’t it?

Holloway: The history is very paradoxical. It’s full of paradox. The paradox of deterrence: if the aim is stop somebody attacking you through the threat or retaliation, if they attack you, does it make sense to retaliate then? Your effective deterrence has failed. You just kill people in revenge. It presents—the history and our current situation—a lot of extremely important and difficult issues.

At one level it’s easy to say, “We should get rid of the weapons,” but to do that or to make sure you have got rid of them isn’t necessarily that straightforward. Our response so far has been to treat these weapons with great respect, within the sense of understanding what the consequences of their use would be. That depends on having individual leaders who have that understanding, and societies where that’s deeply understood. “This should be off limits,” whatever the deterrent effect of the weapons may be.

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