Peace of History
Yesterday, August 12, was the 67th anniversary of the first Soviet thermonuclear detonation. The feat, occurring less than a year after the first U.S. thermonuclear detonation, was largely accomplished due to the work of nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov -- 8 years after that, Sakharov would lead the design of the largest thermonuclear detonation ever tested in human history. The man later became world-renowned as a prominent dissident of Soviet nuclear policy, and even displayed inklings of pacifist beliefs earlier in his career -- but before his full turn to activism for disarmament and human rights, he fully believed in the necessity to rapidly arm the USSR with nuclear weapons in order to “preserve the parity necessary for mutual deterrence.” The impetus for Sakharov’s turn away from his government’s nuclear policy was due largely to his deepening distrust of Premier Khrushchev and disenchantment with the Soviet system -- but it also came from a gradual reevaluation of the policy’s wisdom in the first place. It took most of the 1960s for Sakharov to develop into a full dissident. Meanwhile, movements for national liberation were sweeping the colonized world, the U.S. civil rights movement was gaining serious momentum, and the peace movement was building an international antinuclear weapons coalition. In the early 1960s, it seems that perhaps something was in the air, and Sakharov may have caught it.
Earlier in his career, Sakharov was self-contradictory and confused -- clearly in possession of a conscience, but also concerned more about the technical science and results of thermonuclear explosions than any ethical or political considerations. On the one hand, a few weeks after that first Soviet thermonuclear test in 1953, Sakharov gave a toast at a banquet with prominent military officials. From his Memoirs, he said, “May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities” -- a sentiment that provoked a lewd, blasphemous follow-up toast from a general meant to ‘squelch my pacifist sentiment, and to put me and anyone who might share these ideas in our place.’” On the other hand, 8 years later in 1961, Sakharov was instrumental in completing the largest thermonuclear test ever conducted: the 50-megaton weapon known to Americans as “Tsar Bomba.” No nuclear tests had been conducted between 1959 and the first half of 1961 by the US, UK, or USSR -- until Khrushchev suddenly ordered the resumption of testing. Sakharov himself thought that the tests were technically unnecessary, but rather politically motivated in response to a deteriorating international situation -- the US Bay of Pigs fiasco had occurred just months before, and Khrushchev was already secretly planning to build the Berlin Wall. Sakharov even gave these objections to Khrushchev, but was humiliated for it and went to work on the bomb anyway. Soon after the successful test, he even started to design a new delivery system for the bomb: a massive, nuclear-powered jet-propelled torpedo designed to obliterate ports. When he proposed the concept to Rear Admiral Fomin, however, Fomin “was shocked and disgusted by the idea of merciless mass slaughter… I was utterly abashed, and never discussed the subject with anyone else.” Clearly, Sakharov was a self-conflicted, complex person -- especially in his first couple decades as a nuclear physicist.
Coincidentally, three weeks before the Tsar Bomba test, an international American-European group of peace activists held a 2-hour silent peace vigil at the Red Square. In December of the year before, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) had commenced the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace -- a 310-day, six thousand mile walk that crossed the span of North America, the width of Europe, and finally arriving in Moscow. In every city they passed through, American or European, “free” or communist, the marchers distributed leaflets advocating unilateral disarmament, including 100,000 leaflets in Russia alone. They also gave countless public addresses engaging the public directly on the moral and existential issues of nuclear arms. The marchers even had a meeting with Nina Khrushchev, wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to impress upon her the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The effect of the march, the vigils, the public addresses, the leaflets, and the meetings is difficult to judge -- Sakharov himself does not make mention of the foreign pacifists in Moscow in his memoirs despite him being in the city at the same time, working on the final tweaks to the design of Tsar Bomba. And yet, like with many political publicity stunts in the peace movement, the San Francisco to Moscow Walk was not meant to actually convince any leaders to completely and immediately disarm. Rather, the CNVA Walk challenged commonly-accepted wisdom about nuclear policy including “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), confronted censorship and misinformation on both sides of the “Iron Curtain,” and exposed the transformative possibilities of goodwill, radical peace, and respect for human rights.
It would be too much to say that the CNVA turned Andrei Sakharov to a pacifist conviction, but it would also be imprudent to dismiss the possibility that word from a stray CNVA leaflet or overheard gossip about the pacifist Americans in the Red Square would have rippled and reached the physicist. Regardless of the direct causes, by the following year, Sakharov was writing letters to Khrushchev and other officials urging to end atmospheric tests of thermonuclear devices. His warnings were mostly ignored until October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and USSR to the brink of nuclear war. In 1963, the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, banning all but underground tests of nuclear weapons. As the decade continued, however, a new arms race in anti-ballistic missile technology began to accelerate. In July 1967, the Soviet government refused Sakharov’s request to initiate a public dialog about the dangers of the anti-ballistic missile arms race.
In May of the next year, Sakharov wrote the essay “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom” in which he argued that the new arms race would ultimately lead to global nuclear war. The essay was distributed by underground dissidents in the USSR and eventually made its way to the West, where it was first published in the United States in The New York Times. For his essay, Sakharov was banned from all military-related research. He continued research into theoretical physics, but began to be better known for his political activism than his scientific achievements. In 1970, Sakharov was one of three founding members of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR. Over the next few years, Sakharov developed contacts with Western correspondents and activists as well. The early 70s also brought professional, institutional, and governmental harassment into Sakharov’s life, further disenchanting him from his government. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, but was prevented from traveling to accept it; his wife Yelena Bonner went to accept it in his place. In 1980, Sakharov was arrested for protesting the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was thus sent to Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) where he remained until Gorbachev initiated perestroika and glasnost reforms in 1986. Returning to Moscow, Sakharov became a prominent voice of government opposition, human rights, and democracy. In 1989, he was elected to the new parliament, the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies. Although he suddenly passed away before the year was finished, Sakharov’s legacy continued to inspire within and outside of the Soviet Union -- indeed, the European Parliament still awards individuals and groups with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The person Andrei Sakharov was when he first began working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program was quite different from the person he became in the later 1960s and 1970s. At the same time as his political and moral awakening, an international peace and antinuclear movement was gaining momentum, directly challenging a global order maintained by the threat of nuclear annihilation anywhere -- and as Sakharov was inspired by his Western counterparts, so, too, were Westerners inspired by Sakharov. When the CNVA campaigned in New London and Groton, Connecticut in 1960 to protest the production of the world’s first nuclear-armed submarines, some of the workers at General Dynamics: Electric Boat told them to “tell it to the Russians” -- so they walked over 6000 miles and did just that. Perhaps some listened -- perhaps the message even reached the Soviet senior nuclear weapons designer, a certain Andrei Sakharov. Which begs the question: if the head of the Soviet nuclear weapons program could turn completely around on the issue at the height of the Cold War, why not our neighbors and friends involved in our own country’s military-industrial complex today?
Any further connective claims are outside the scope of this piece, but let us content ourselves with the message that Andrei Sakharov conveyed with his life: when persons of conviction speak up and take a stand, they will inevitably inspire others to do the same.
“Andrei D. Sakharov” https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/andrei-d-sakharov
“Anti-war activists march to Moscow for peace, 1960-1961” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/anti-war-activists-march-moscow-peace-1960-1961
“Papers of the European Organiser of the American-European Peace March from San Francisco to Moscow” https://web.archive.org/web/20110929001617/http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/peacemarch.html
Sakharov, Andrei. Memoirs. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. https://archive.org/details/memoirs00sakh
Sakharov, Andrei. “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” New York Times https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/94-read-sakharov-s-original-essay/b639f1e6e0f204e3ad9a/optimized/full.pdf#page=1
“Soviet Hydrogen Bomb Program” https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/soviet-hydrogen-bomb-program
“THE THEORY OF ‘CONVERGENCE’ AND/OR ‘FUTUROLOGY’” https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79-01194A000400140001-7.pdf