Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation

by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, (Zenith Press, Minneapolis, 2008), 400 pp., $30. ISBN 978-0760335024.

Reviewed by Peter Lerner

Nuclear Express, by Thomas Reed, longtime Livermore employee and a former Secretary of the Air Force, and Danny Stillman, former head of intelligence for Los Alamos, was conceived as a polemic from the beginning. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with polemic; it is a venerable literary genre known, at least, from the ancient Egyptians. The narrative is on a single track. Its main premise, succinctly (also, accurately and approvingly) enunciated by a New York Times reviewer is that only the United States possesses scientific and technical talent [1]. Hence, all other nations must have acquired nuclear weapons by pilfering American nuclear "secrets," either by cajoling (England and France), or espionage (USSR and China).

Such nativism by itself does not necessarily devalue the written word. The still-classic book Military History of the Western World was penned by J. F. C. Fuller, a well-known Nazi sympathizer, and abounds in references to "brutes" and "asiatics" in connection with ethnic groups the author considers "inferior." So, I took up Nuclear Express desiring to avoid as much of the authors’ polemics as I could.

But I already stumbled on p. 4: "China stands astride this world like a young Colossus, a nation clearly supportive of nuclear proliferation… China collected its technology one graduate student at a time ... ." But China, being a great beneficiary of its own acquisition of nuclear technology, is highly unlikely to share it with others. Similar attribution of irrational but nefarious motives to the international actors disliked by the authors pursues the reader throughout this book. One does not need to wait long for an explanation to follow: "Overlying all this history is radical Islam’s desire to destroy Western ways." I am not sure what in particular is meant by "Western ways." Is Albania (a NATO member), or Singapore "Western" [2].

The book abounds in stories of discovered (mostly real) and undiscovered (mostly imaginary) Soviet spies. Not being satisfied with a tale about a mysterious highly placed Soviet spy who, in the view of the authors, was an American-born son of European immigrants who was educated abroad and recruited through his contacts in leftist organizations, the authors recycle the Ted Hall saga (p. 30). Ted Hall was a 19 year old high-school graduate posted as a soldier to Los Alamos in 1944. He left Los Alamos after the war to resume his study at the University of Chicago. Supposedly he was a major Soviet agent [3]. Then there is Perseus, a mythical code name of an undiscovered superagent and another favorite of the conspiracy buffs. And the chapter titled "The Cold War Ended, but Mysteries Linger On" has all the quality of the Roswell or Nevada Area 51 stories.

A habitual weakness of conspiracy theories is poor chronology. "Khariton was put in full charge of the Soviet thermonuclear program at Arzamas-16 (p. 35)." But he was already technical head of the Arzamas-16 facility, supervising all research including thermonuclear studies. A chapter is titled "July 1979: Saddam Hussein takes full power in Iraq," although he came to power in a 1968 coup.

The chronological mismatch is prominent in the following two storylines. First is the alleged Soviet transfer of nuclear weapons technology to the Chinese. In fact, on meeting Mao, Stalin sternly rebuffed his solicitations. Whoever Stalin was, he was not naive. Yet, Sino-Soviet relations had many facets apart from nuclear weapons and they remained strong, souring only after the 20th Party Congress and Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin (1956). Reed and Stillman pinpoint the visit of three high-ranking Soviet nuclear officials and the precise date (18 June 1958) of the "transfer" of the atomic bomb to the Chinese [4]. But then, according to their assertions, the Soviet-Chinese relations were already in deep decline.

An important feature of Reed and Stillman's thinking is their belief that nuclear technology is contained in a single "secret" which can be verbalized. In reality, even the US, not to speak of the post-WWII USSR and especially China, needed to create from scratch entire new industries to design and produce nuclear weapons. Besides defective chronology, this story is improbable because the Chinese fission bomb used highly enriched uranium, while the Soviets used plutonium.

Second is the alleged stealing by the Soviets of the principle of the H-bomb. The authors attribute their conjecture to slips of tongue by the deceased L. P. Feoktistov, who cannot vouch for himself [5]. Supplementary "proof" is that Sakharov never publicly appropriated this idea. Indeed, the first workable Soviet proposal was issued on 14 January 1954 by Ya. B. Zel’dovich, mentioning V. A. Davidenko as an author and undersigned by A. D. Sakharov. In contrast to Teller, Sakharov was ethical enough not to arrogate to himself critical ideas of his colleagues and subordinates when he submitted them to superiors.

If the Zel’dovich report served only as the conduit for the information obtained by espionage then the question arises: When could this act of espionage have taken place? Klaus Fuchs was apprehended in early 1950, before the concept of radiation compression of the secondary had fully congealed in the US [6,7]. If the report was founded on messages of an as-yet-undiscovered Soviet agent, then why did the USSR continue to waste precious resources for nearly four years after the Teller-Ulam report? The fateful meeting, which terminated exploration of a design similar to Teller’s original "Super", happened only in 1954. Moreover, the adoption of radiation compression followed, rather than preceded, this meeting [8].

Let’s be clear: The US nuclear weapons complex in the mid-50s employed more people than the automobile industry and nobody can claim that among these were no spies. However, unlike the Soviet fission bomb there is no shred of evidence that espionage was a serious factor.

This opus magnum is not without its hilarity. Reed and Stillman obviously subscribe to the conspiracy theory that Stalin was murdered by Beria using "the rat poison" [9]. But let them inquire of their doctors what the words "coumadin clinic" really mean. I would abstain from mentioning this sad episode but it is central to the authors’ worldview.

Nuclear Express is so riddled with factual errors, cherry-picked evidence, and unedited 1950s and 1980s agitprop that even the chapters about Pakistan and North Korea where I cannot form an educated opinion seem suspicious. If there is a conclusion I can derive, it is that scientific and technological progress cannot be restricted to any nation, and the quest for long-term military superiority is elusive. But this conclusion is rather trivial.

References and Notes

1.Reviewed by W. J. Broad, NY Times, Dec. 8, 2008.
2. I remind those who respond with a resounding "yes" that, according to the American press, Iran was considered thoroughly westernized in the 1970’s and Pakistan in the 1980’s.
3. Hall may have met a Soviet agent in New York once or twice, was interviewed by the FBI, but never was charged with anything (
4. E. A. Negin, N. G. Maslov and V. Yu. Gavrilov, according to Stillman and Reed.
5. L. P. Feoktistov (1928-2002), Soviet Russian nuclear weapons designer, first deputy head of Chelyabinsk-70, the Soviet counterpart to Livermore.
6. J. Carson Mark, A Short Account of Theoretical Work on Thermonuclear Weapons, 1946-1950. Los Alamos Preprint LA 5647-MS (declassified).
7. C. R. Loeber, Building the Bombs: A History of the Nuclear Weapons Complex, Sandia, Albuquerque, 2002.
8. Yu. B. Khariton, V. B. Adamskii, Yu. N. Smirnov, Physics-Uspechi, 39(2), pp. 185-190, 1996.
9. As if the death of Stalin—heavily drinking, heavily smoking man with a sedentary lifestyle, who survived smallpox in his youth and suffered a series of strokes—at 74 is of any surprise.

Peter Lerner

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.