Isaac Deutscher 1949

Atomic Bomb: Deadlock Ahead

Source: The Reporter, 22 November 1949. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The demigods in the Kremlin must have been delighted by the wishful thinking which until recently made so many Western leaders sure that Russia would not be able to produce atomic energy for years. The Russians undoubtedly tackled the problem from the start as a fairly plain economic proposition. How much – they asked in 1945 – had it cost the United States to produce the first atomic bombs? Two billion dollars – not much more than one per cent of its annual national income. The Politburo knew that Russia’s national income amounted more or less to thirty per cent of America’s. Russia would therefore, in theory, have to spend three or four per cent of its national income on atomic development. Perhaps a bit more, because Russian efficiency was lower. But, the Politburo must have concluded, an investment of about five per cent of Russia’s national income would be enough.

When the figure was put before them, the members of the Politburo could not have hesitated. Quite apart from strategic considerations, they must have thought the investment worthwhile for purely industrial reasons. Had Western statesmen made any calculations of this sort, they might have guessed how short-lived the American monopoly was to be. The United States needed less than four years for the whole project, from trial and error in the laboratory to the production of the bomb. During those years, the main resources of American industry were absorbed in the manufacture of conventional munitions. After 1945, there was no reason why Russia, which no longer had to produce planes, tanks and the like on the wartime scale, and which had benefited from such knowledge of the American experiments as its intelligence services obtained, should take more than four years to produce the bomb. It may indeed have needed less. (Reasoning from these premises, I wrote in November 1947, that Mr Molotov might not be bluffing when he intimated that Russia already had the atomic weapon.)

The men of the Politburo may be laughing now when the pundits of the West assert that Russia has no sources of uranium except for the mines in Czechoslovakia and Saxony. Quite apart from the fact that the Czech and Saxon mines are among the most productive in the world, Russia does possess uranium resources in the areas around Taboshar and Tyuya-Muyun in central Asia. There the precious ore is extracted ‘on an industrial scale’, according to the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (published before the war).

Another instance of possible wishful thinking is the conviction, now accepted as an axiom, that the United States has a long start in atomic weapons. This may or may not be true. At any rate, economic experience should make us a bit sceptical. Every textbook of economic history contains enough precedents to justify this warning. Any new technical invention brings enormous advantages to its first user – the advantages of a temporary monopoly. But those who break the monopoly often produce the new technical device or machinery more cheaply and quickly. This rule could certainly apply to atomic energy. The Russians may have worked out less cumbersome, less expensive and quicker methods of nuclear fission. It is not argued here that they have done so, but only that it would not be extraordinary if they had. A relevant analogy may perhaps be found in recent military history. In 1940 the Luftwaffe had a long start over all other air forces. About two years later it was lagging behind Allied aviation. Within another two years the Luftwaffe was again gaining a technical lead, which it never had a chance to exploit because the war was coming to an end. The balance of atomic power may be equally fluid.

All this is, of course, sheer hypothesis. Russian pronouncements on atomic energy have been deliberately enigmatic and ambiguous – except the flat claim that Russia has possessed atomic weapons since 1947. Even this may or may not be true. But the fact that Russia’s atomic progress is enveloped in a fog of uncertainty is all the more reason why we should not overlook any of the possibilities.

Assuming that Russia has been able to produce atomic energy for some time now, how is this likely to affect Soviet policy?

Probably the first conclusion arrived at by Stalin’s entourage is that some equilibrium has now been reached in the world’s balance of military power, and that consequently war is less imminent now than it might have seemed two or three years ago. The early American atomic monopoly undoubtedly gave rise to considerable alarm in the Kremlin. The years 1945-47 were regarded as the period of high danger, when American capitalism might easily have been tempted to strike at Russia.

But then the Politburo saw, no doubt with surprise and relief, that the United States was rapidly demobilising, and that it was doing so against the grain of capitalist class-interest as the Kremlin understood it. The puzzle of demobilisation was explained by the mood of the American masses. Their pacifism, the Russians thought, was the only thing that prevented the Administration from following the promptings of its own ‘war party’, as they were expressed, say, in Mr Bullitt’s The Great Globe Itself. The Kremlin did not believe that the United States could start a preventive war with its land, naval and air forces dismantled, relying solely on the atomic bomb.

But the rapidity with which the United States had built up its gigantic military machine during the war was not forgotten either. The main effort of the Russian government was therefore directed towards overcoming Russia’s lag in atomic energy. Meanwhile, the Russian economy was maintained on a semi-war footing. The presence of the Red Army in Germany, where it could threaten Western Europe with prompt occupation, was considered an indispensable safeguard against American attack. Last but not least, the American atomic monopoly impelled the Russian leaders to conduct their foreign policy in a manner that would not suggest any weakness or vacillation. Taking all sorts of risks, Stalin and Molotov resisted Western pressure firmly, and even provocatively, precisely because the forces behind that Western pressure were so exceptionally strong. There was an element of bluff in the Russians’ tactics, but the game was played with relative success.

In so far as diplomacy can ever stop bluffing, it may do so now. The balance of military power between the United States and the Soviet Union is now closer to what it was at the beginning of 1945 than to what it became after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The two countries are matched about as evenly as they were in the Yalta period, not as unevenly as they were at Potsdam and after.

The pre-atomic balance of military power led to the division of zones of influence between Russia and its Western allies. Can the Cold War now be terminated by a return of the great powers to the methods of Teheran and Yalta – by a renewal, that is, of an agreement of zones of influence? It is in some such terms that the Kremlin now reviews the position, if one is to judge from Mr Vyshinsky’s recent proposal for a pact among the great powers. It is perhaps too early for the Kremlin to assess the American reaction. Soviet policymakers probably assume that it may take some time for the Russian atomic explosion to affect American strategic thinking and the conduct of our diplomacy. They will watch for new trends. But they are probably also aware of the obstacles that have piled up in the way of a new Russo – American settlement. Under the explicit (and even more so under the tacit) agreement of Yalta, China proper was to remain outside the Russian orbit, to put it briefly. But the Chinese Revolution has, by its own momentum, which surpassed all Russian expectations, drawn that country into the Russian zone (although Mao Tse-tung may yet turn out to be a more formidable Tito). Equally important, Germany has been split between two regimes and two governments, a situation the German people are not likely to put up with for very long. The old division of spheres of influence is largely obsolete. The outlines of a new one are not in sight, even if the diplomats would consider it.

The situation is so complex and full of contradictions that it is doubtful whether Stalin has in mind any formula for a Russo – American settlement, designed to facilitate the ‘peaceful coexistence of the two systems’, to use his own favourite term. As he’s done so often before, he is likely, in the absence of a grand-strategical conception, to conduct his policy empirically, meeting contingencies and exploiting opportunities as they arise.

Empirically, the first question is the armament race. Can it be stopped, or at least curbed? From the Kremlin as well as from the White House, this looks as difficult as squaring the circle. On the one hand, Russia has an indubitable interest in slowing up arms production. Although it may be able to keep pace with the United States, it can do so only at the price of much higher sacrifices. The atomic bomb cost the United States only one per cent or so of its national income; it cost Russia four, five or six per cent. The same ratio applies to conventional armament. Russia must therefore divert a much higher proportion of its income from capital development and civilian consumption. That is why Mr Vyshinsky and Mr Malik have been urging the adoption of a ban on atomic weapons and an all-around reduction in other armaments. They are not merely trying to score points in psychological warfare; they are trying to ease the strain on the Russian economy.

On the other hand, however, the Soviet leaders see that the chances of calling off the armament race are very slender indeed. Their proposal for a ban on the production of atomic weapons has once again been met by the American counterproposal for international control over the world’s production of atomic energy and over its resources of fissionable raw materials. For reasons which Mr Vyshinsky or Mr Malik can hardly admit in public (or even in confidence), they must meet the Baruch Plan with a blunt non possumus. United Nations control over atomic energy would, in the Russian view, amount to control by the United States. The Russians have been confirmed in this view by their experiences at Lake Success, where they have seen themselves outvoted on every major issue by the American-led bloc. Hence, they insist on retaining the right of veto in any United Nations agency for atomic control. Moreover, whereas the Baruch Plan envisages the control over the production of all atomic energy, the Russians want any international agreement to apply to atomic weapons only. They are determined to have a free hand in the industrial development of atomic energy. The Tass statement in reply to President Truman’s announcement made this clear: ‘As to the control over atomic weapons, it must be said that such control will be necessary in order to check whether the ban on the output of atomic weapons is enforced.’ [Italics mine]

There are many reasons why the Russians stick to this attitude. One is that control along the Baruch lines might enable the United Nations inspectors to look into every Soviet factory – and into every Soviet forced-labour camp. Stalin is at least as anxious to conceal from the outside world the forced-labour camps as he is to keep secret the location and strength of Russian industries. Another motive is his conviction that Russia is on the verge of an epoch-making technical upheaval, in which as an industrial power it has every chance to ‘catch up with and surpass’ the United States itself, perhaps within a generation. It is elementary Marxism to assume that the United States will be prevented, by all sorts of vested interests, from making full industrial use of nuclear fission, if the latter threatens to depreciate huge capital investments in oil plants or coal mines. The Russian planned economy is, on the contrary, believed to be capable of the fullest utilisation of new sources of energy. The Tass reply to President Truman’s announcement stated that the explosion referred to by the President was one of many occurring in industrial construction, and that for such blasting work ‘the latest technical means’ are used. This was perhaps meant to intimate that atomic energy may already be used as an explosive in Russian industry. It may have been an advance advertisement of future achievement. In any case, it was characteristic of the hopes that are being encouraged in Russia. The Politburo impresses it upon the Russian people that, quite apart from strategic calculations, it is now engaged in a titanic struggle to secure for Russia an undreamt-of era of plenty. ‘Communism’, Lenin said, ‘is Soviet power plus electrification...’ Stalin may want to revise this to read, ‘Communism is the Politburo plus atomic energy.’ In this context, the Baruch Plan is seen as a capitalist attempt to wrest the atomic cornucopia from the hands of socialist society.

However mixed the reasons for Russia’s refusal to contemplate United Nations control over atomic energy, it must be assumed that the Russian government will persist in it. On the other hand, Russia hardly expects the United States to agree to the proposed ban on atomic weapons, since the means of enforcing that ban are – as they must be under the circumstances – highly inadequate. Moscow, therefore, probably reckons with the prospect of a prolonged deadlock over this issue. Its diplomatic efforts are likely to be directed not so much towards breaking the deadlock as towards prolonging it. Time, it is hoped in Moscow, is on Russia’s side.