The Strategic Context
The Second World War demonstrated to Stalin the backwardness of Soviet science and technology. After the war, he ordered the continued expansion of the research and development base, particularly in defense and heavy industries. Allocations for science increased, new research facilities opened, and salaries and perquisites for scientists were improved dramatically. All available personnel, including captured German scientists and imprisoned Soviet scientists, were employed. This effort led to some important technological successes, such as the explosion of the atomic bomb in August 1949.
Within the Soviet Union, the successful U.S. nuclear test and immediate employment in war of atomic weapons through strategic air strikes had shocked the leadership. Henry Kissinger described the impact of these events: "The end of World War II confronted the Soviet leadership with a fearful challenge. At the precise moment when Soviet armies stood in the center of a war-wrecked Europe and Lenin's prophecies of the doom of capitalism seemed on the verge of being fulfilled, a new weapon appeared, far transcending in power anything previously known. . . . Was this to be the result of twenty years of brutal repression and deprivation and of four years of cataclysmic war that at its end the capitalist enemy should emerge with a weapon which could imperil the Soviet state as never before?"
The U.S. nuclear monopoly underscored a fundamental strategic reality: America could obliterate Soviet cities but the Soviet Union had no capacity to attack the American homeland. The Soviets soon would reason that another strategic reality stemmed from the U.S. monopoly; in the near future, as a result of U.S. assistance, western nations could, with relative impunity, engage in actions against Soviet-controlled areas with the American nuclear shield to deter possible Soviet retaliation. Being vulnerable, the U.S.S.R. could not afford to challenge the West, especially the United States directly.
Such factors conditioned the long-standing Soviet disposition for defense. They also helped to put the Soviet atomic program into high gear. The U.S. Smythe Report, which provided a great volume of information on the U.S. atomic effort, was published in Moscow with an initial printing of 30,000 copies. An enforced development of the Soviet atomic bomb and the obvious priority assigned to the effort makes it clear that the Soviet leadership quickly recognized the strategic challenge in a U.S. nuclear monopoly. Unwilling to concede to the West the strategic power position thought to have been won through enormous Soviet sacrifice in the war against Germany, Stalin personally involved himself, along with other principals, in efforts to close the technological gaps that could influence the Soviet strategic position.
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