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Stalin to Kurchatov: "Ask for anything you need. Just provide the bomb"

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Stalin to Kurchatov: "Ask for anything you need. Just provide the bomb"


Alexander Gamov

75 years ago, the United States detonated nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and four years later the Soviet Union got its atomic weapons.

75 years ago, the most horrendous and destructive military action in the history of mankind took place (someone may say - a crime, and they will be right in their own way). US dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima (on the left) and Nagasaki (on the right). Photo credit: George R. Caron /

What was behind it and why did the USSR leadership believe that it was the Soviet Union that the attack had been mostly targeted to rather than Japan?

These questions were among those addressed within the Beginning of the Atomic Era project by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of Stalin-era People's Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov, and a politician, historian, as well as a State Duma deputy. He shared his working notes with us.

It was June 1945 when Truman (President of the USA, Ч Ed.) took the final decision to use a nuclear bomb against Japan as soon as it would be made. He expected to achieve several objectives at once, which included avoiding a situation where the USSR’s role in defeating Japan would be great enough to enable Moscow claim a special status in China, and Japan itself.

The intelligence service did excellent work, so Moscow knew a lot about the US nuclear project. However, the Soviet Union lagged behind America in developing nuclear weapons.

Why Truman did not haste Moscow

... The American atomic bomb was scheduled for testing in mid-July 1945; however, the test could end in failure. For such a case, Truman "retained" the agreement with Stalin on the USSR to enter the war with Japan. Though he did not haste Stalin to go ahead.

... On July 2, Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of War, visited the White House to propose Truman a draft post-atomic address to the people. They also discussed which Japanese city should be attacked first.

Potential targets had already been selected by the generals. They chose the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto as the most promising target followed by Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura.

Kyoto was favored for the very first attack because it was JapanТs spiritual center, and its destruction would be rather traumatizing for the Japanese.

But when Stimpson became aware of that, he was shocked. The Secretary of War had been to Kioto, and the city made a huge impression on him with its sophisticated majesty. So it was Stimson who saved Kioto by objecting right away:

Ч This city must not be bombed.

So Hiroshima was opted for the very first attack. Truman approved the choice.

The aircraft were not intercepted for reasons of economy

The first bomb termed “Little Boy” was delivered to the US-controlled island of Tinian (the Mariana Islands) by a cruiser. The second bomb called УFat ManФ was brought in pieces by aircraft. George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, signed the order to deliver the first nuclear bomb Уas soon as weather will permit … after about 3 August 1945Ф.

The weather became favourable only on August 6. After midnight, Colonel Tibbets at Tinian airfield was ordered to drop the Little Boy on Hiroshima Center. In case of weather deterioration, alternative targets were Kokura and Nagasaki. The B-29 bomber was accompanied by 6 reconnaissance aircraft.

At 7 am, Japanese radars identified the approaching aircraft. An air attack warning was announced in Hiroshima. But the air defense command came to conclusion that since there had been just a few aircraft, they were most likely sent for reconnaissance. So, the Japanese decided to abstain from scrambling and even using air defense artillery in view of such minor forces to save scarce fuel and ammunition.

Tibbets was able to bring his bomber over the target and at 8:15 am the Little Boy with a yield of 13 kilotons of TNT equivalent was dropped from a height of 9 kilometers to the center of Hiroshima, over men, women and children...

200,000 deaths - УImmense successФ

Everything turned into dust within a radius of 500 meters. Everything was burned out within a radius of 2 kilometers. 90% of the people inside this deadly circle died within a minute. Their skin and internal organs exploded from the heat. The radioactive mushroom cloud was 12 kilometers in height. A firestorm swept across the city. It killed those who had survived...

There is no exact data on the number of deaths in Hiroshima, although later Japan spoke of 200,000 including those who had died from radiation...

Hiroshima after the bombing. Photo credit: U.S. Navy Public Affairs Resources Website /

Truman received a coded message of the bombing as he had lunch on the ship traveling back to America from the Potsdam Conference. In his memoirs, he wrote: «I was eating lunch when Captain Graham brought me a message: УBig bomb droppedЕ First reports indicate complete success which was even more conspicuous than earlier test.Ф

I was greatly moved. I called the reporters who were on board and told them about the long development work behind this successful attack."

Attack No. 2

The second nuclear attack was conducted 2 days ahead of schedule. Because the USSR was to enter the war with Japan, and Truman did not want Moscow to claim the winnerТs role.

At 3 am on August 9, Major Sweeney flew off Tinian with the Fat Man on board. The target was Kokura. But when he was approaching it, the city became completely covered with clouds.

Truman himself wrote how Nagasaki had been bombed: УThe aircraft made its run over Kokura three times, but it did not become visible. And having been running out of fuel, it headed to Nagasaki, an alternative target. A cloud gap there gave a chance, and Nagasaki was bombed successfully.

It was our second projection of power, which sent Tokyo into a panic, and the next morning brought the first evidences that Japan was prepared to surrender.Ф

That very cloud gap in Nagasaki sky was over the stadium. Sweeney reached it and pressed the bomb release handle. The explosion took place at 11.02. Its yield was 21,000 tons of TNT, that is, it was more intense than the explosion over Hiroshima. However, there was less destruction: the affected area was not thickly settled. The death toll was estimated at 60,000 – 80,000 people.

Was the use of nuclear weapons against Japan a military expediency or rather the political one?

Until his dying day, the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the USSR Molotov was convinced that it was the Soviet Union that those bombs had been mostly aimed to rather than Japan. He believed that the United States had not been guided by the belligerence logic, but by the intention to intimidate the USSR and get concessions from it.

Meanwhile in Moscow: УThe environment seemed to be filled with panicФ

The Soviet Union lagged behind the United States in the nuclear project, because it required funds comparable to all the country's defense expenditures. The USSR simply had not had such funds available while fighting the war with Germany.

It was August of 1945, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Soviet nuclear project saw significant changes. The Kremlin felt that the United States would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against the USSR.

Igor Kurchatov and Yulii Khariton. Photo credit:

Stalin decided to facilitate Soviet atomic weapons development, which was already underway with supervision of Kurchatov.

Stalin held a series of meetings, mostly at the Kuntsevo Dacha. According to Igor Golovin, who was to become Kurchatov's first deputy, Уthe environment seemed to be filled with panic. In August, Kurchatov and the senior physicists of his team, such as Khariton, Kikoin and Artsimovich, had to face excessive top-secret meetings in the Kremlin, the Lubyanka (the headquarters of the Federal Security Service Ц Ed.) and in the Ministry of Defence. Ministers, generals, leaders of the country and the military industry tried to understand terms which they had not been bothered with previously: atomic nucleus, neutrons, critical masses, and which suddenly turned out to be so important."

In August, a personal meeting between Kurchatov and Stalin took place (it was not documented, but witnessed by Anatoly Alexandrov, an academician). The Secretary General told Kurchatov that he had not required enough to speed up the work. The physicist replied:

Ч There were enormous destructions, so many people died. The country keeps the short rations, thereТs scarcity in everything...

Stalin replied with asperity:

Ч The baby does not cry - the mother does not understand what it needs. Ask for anything you need. There will be no refusals. Just provide the bomb...

So, on August 20, 1945, Stalin signed a decree setting up the Special Committee on the Atomic Bomb under the chairmanship of Lavrentii Beriia. Thus, a new institution for managing the nuclear project was established and endowed with extraordinary powers. Orders of the Special Committee were to be executed on priority basis and paid by the State Bank "at the actual cost" without submitting estimates and calculations. It was the first post-war project that required the full mobilization of all the country's resources.

All intelligence stations were assigned to work on nuclear issues. And in September, detailed descriptions of the atomic bomb design were received. Most of the German nuclear scientists interned in the USSR were assigned to two institutes on the Black Sea coast. A special commission was sent to Central Asia to accelerate the extraction of uranium ore.

As a result, the Soviet Union received its atomic weapon in 1949. The plans for a nuclear attack on the USSR, which the United States had been developing since the fall of 1945, were postponed.

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