井底之蛙

12/9/2008

Sino-Soviet Nuclear Collaboration Revisionism?

In a review of Thomas C. Reed, and Danny B. Stillman‘s new book, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, William Broad writes that

Moscow freely shared its atomic thefts with Mao Zedong, China’s leader. The book says that Klaus Fuchs, a Soviet spy in the Manhattan Project who was eventually caught and, in 1959, released from jail, did likewise. Upon gaining his freedom, the authors say, Fuchs gave the mastermind of Mao’s weapons program a detailed tutorial on the Nagasaki bomb. A half-decade later, China surprised the world with its first blast.

This doesn’t jibe with what I remember about the relationship at all. Perhaps I’m overreacting to the word “freely,” but there was considerable resistance on the Soviet side to full cooperation with the development of Chinese atomic bomb and missile technology.1 In most accounts that I’ve read, that foot-dragging was a significant element in the ultimate break between the two powers, and the Chinese had to work from the bits and pieces the Soviets gave them2 combined with knowledge gleaned by Chinese who studied in the US and France.

This doesn’t seriously call into question the basic thesis of the book, which is that nuclear weapons technology spreads by diffusion — usually with some element of theft, subversion or treason3 — and that China has been a major proliferator in the post-Mao era.4 Reed and Stillman assert that

China in 1982 made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic know-how. Its identified clients include Algeria, Pakistan and North Korea. Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

That puts China square in the middle of one of the most important and troubling trends of the last quarter-century.

  1. See, for example, Sergei Goncharenko, “Sino-Soviet Military Cooperation,”, Brothers in Arms: the Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963, ed. Odd Arne Westad, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 141-164. []
  2. See, for example, Ji Qiang, “The scientists making the atomic bombs” [PDF], pp. 130-132, which describes Soviet help in the 1950s but that aid quietly disappears from the narrative around ’59. []
  3. This isn’t a new idea; I’ve been telling my students for years that the United States is the only nation to have actually invented the atomic bomb. But their level of detail and access to new sources sounds pretty substantial. []
  4. The French are the other major nexus, having aided the Chinese and provided the Israelis with most of their technology, and Israel has gone on to share it with others, most notably South Africa. []

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress