Mankind’s Deadliest Weapon: The Hydrogen Bomb


In his essay Hydrogen Bomb, Lewis Siegelbaum states that on “August 12, 1953 the Soviet Union detonated a thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb at the Semipalatinsk test site in northern Kazakhstan. Work on the super-bomb had begun in 1946, three years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.” To clarify, the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb is that atomic bombs use fission to separate atoms in a super-critical chain reaction, whereas in hydrogen bombs, nuclear fusion is used to create a chain reaction. Siegelbaum goes on to say that the “project was organized by the First Chief Directorate under Lavrentii Beria, Minister of State Security (MGB)” and that it “was headed by Igor Kurchatov (1903-60), a physicist who had been appointed scientific director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear project in 1943.”

As the Cold War developed and the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union intensified, the nuclear arms program was given highest priority by Stalin and was continued unabated by his successors. Further and interestingly, unlike “the first Soviet atomic bomb the development of which was hastened by espionage in the United States, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was of an original design” (Siegelbaum). This provides valuable insight into the Soviet scientific community at this point, as they no longer had to rely on stealing research and development techniques from the United States but could instead rely on their own scientific ingenuity to come up with a more powerful weapon than what they had already possessed before.

Further, in The Current Digest of the Russian Press in an article titled “Government Announcement of Test of A Hydrogen Bomb in the Soviet Union,” it is revealed that one “of a variety of hydrogen bombs was exploded for experimental purposes in the Soviet Union within the past few days. Because a powerful thermonuclear reaction was created in the hydrogen bomb, the explosion was of great strength. The test showed that the power of the hydrogen bomb is many times greater than the power of the atom bomb.”This official government pronouncement was significant because it coincided with “The Thaw” that was occurring as Soviet society attempted to De-Stalinize. In Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze states that the new regime “cautiously began to dismantle the Stalinist system of repression and secrecy. Symbolically, in late 1953 it opened the Kremlin itself to visitors; during the next three years, eight million citizens would visit this inner sanctum of communist power” (412-413). With the opening of the new system and this announcement of a successful hydrogen bomb test came something for Soviet citizens to find hope and encouragement in, because as Freeze also states, “Without the contribution of the peoples of the Soviet Union, victory would not have been achieved at all” (388) referencing World War II, so as the Cold War began, there would need to be a new rallying point in which patriotism could take root.

To conclude, it is worthwhile to note where the arms race went from here. In this song entitled, “Do the Russians Want War?“, one picks up on the theme outlined by Siegelbaum when he writes that “In a speech of March 1954, Geirguu Malenkov… referred to the danger of ‘a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.'” Malenkov then reverted to the party line “that nuclear aggression by the United States would lead to the ‘collapse of the capitalist social system.'”We are left reminded that the production of nuclear weapons took us to a point where the United States and the Soviet Union could have ended the world as we know it, and the incessant arms race is one of the reasons that the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed.

hammer-keyboard-2This post earned a spot in “Comrade’s Corner” from the editorial team.


8 thoughts on “Mankind’s Deadliest Weapon: The Hydrogen Bomb

  1. I enjoyed your own analysis near the end of your post. It is rather crazy to think that the United States and the Soviet Union came so close to such destruction. The video and hyperlinks you added helped explain the severity of the situation. Overall, Great post.


  2. The development of the arms race and the success of the hydrogen bomb is fascinating. I like that you connected the topic to de-Stalinization, as repression and secrecy were ousted as a result of greater confidence in Soviet technology.


  3. Hi Max!
    I think it’s interesting that you noted that the actions that occurred with De-Stalinization and the hydrogen bomb gave the Soviet citizens encouragement especially when Malenkov referred to this new era in the world as “a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.” I just think it’s interesting that the creation of something so damaging was able to inspire Soviet citizens.


  4. Picking up on Leah’s comment, I like the way you situate this discussion of super deadly weapons into the broader narrative of de-Stalinization — which was just getting underway.


  5. The way you end your post is really striking. With the threat of total nuclear destruction looming, can you imagine how fearful people were? I wrote a little about American perception of the Soviet Union following the launch of Sputnik. It seems most Americans weren’t overly fearful until they saw the Soviet Union as more advanced than the United States.


  6. I really like this topic of the hydrogen bomb because it’s such a cool invention, but I mean not the whole deadly part about it. However, this innovative creation definitely changed the Soviet Union’s relations with other first world nations. I would just like to know your view on if you think it was a necessity to build a bomb of such force? By building a weapon of mass destruction, like how you said, could have ultimately led to the destruction of the world because of the armed race that was occurring. Do you think it was a security thing, or do you think it was just the Soviet Union flexing its muscles, showing that they could continue being a strong nation without Stalin?


    1. I think the atomic bomb was the natural progression of arms development so while the world would be better off had it never been made, we cannot undo that now. I think the Soviet Union produced these weapons out of necessity since the United States already possessed them.


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