It was said of Josef Stalin, the ruthless dictator of the Soviet Union during World War II and part of the Cold War, that he would have made a terrific poker player, as evidenced by the fact that, when he chose to, he could make his face a complete mask. One often cited example occurred in 1945 at an Allied war conference in Potsdam, Germany, when President Truman informed Stalin that the United States had successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb. Stalin showed no emotion. Indeed, he showed little interest in the news, which surprised Truman.
Actually, thanks to his spy network in the United State, Stalin already knew of America’s work on the atomic bomb. In fact, one of his spies, a German-born scientist named Klaus Fuchs, was part of the scientific team that had been assembled at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to build it. The information Fuchs passed to the Soviets on America’s atomic program even included a blueprint of the atomic bombs that were later dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course, Stalin was anything but disinterested in developing an atomic bomb, which he rightly saw as a way to join America as a military “superpower.” He ordered his own top scientists to focus exclusively on developing a Soviet atomic bomb as quickly as possible, the result of which was the first successful explosion of a Soviet atomic bomb, this week (August 29) in 1949. Code-named “First Lightning,” its explosive power was equivalent to America’s first atomic explosion of five years earlier.
The political explosion, and fallout, was equally momentous. After a U.S. spy plane flying above Siberia confirmed the radioactive evidence of the explosion, President Truman announced to a stunned American public that the Soviets now, too, had the atomic bomb, meaning the Cold War had moved to an entirely new level of confrontation. Three months later, Klaus Fuchs was arrested for espionage and soon after that Truman secretly ordered his military scientists to begin work on a hydrogen “super bomb,” which eventually would raise the U.S. – Soviet military competition to yet another level.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Soviet scientists responsible for developing the first atomic bomb were honored for their success based on the punishment they would have received had that test on August 29 failed. In other words, those whom Stalin would have shot for failing instead received the high honor “Heroes of the Socialist Order,” while those who merely would have been thrown into the gulag only received the lesser “Order of Lenin.”
Apocryphal, maybe. Then again, anyone familiar with Stalin would think the story has the ring of truth to it.