1953 was a significant year for Andrei Sakharov. First of all, it was the year of the Installation’s first hydrogen bomb test, based on Sakharov’s “Second Idea”. Also, it was the year of the death of Stalin. Upon hearing this shocking news, Sakharov wrote to his wife: “I am under the influence of a great man’s death. I am thinking of his humanity.” Those were not the words of a gullible man whose eyes had been shrouded by official propaganda; Sakharov was well aware of Stalin’s crimes at this point; however, the Russian mass ideology, as well as the government’s exploitation of the populace’s sentimentalism after Stalin’s death, was very effective, even to Sakharov. Years would pass before Andrei Sakharov could understand “the degree to which deceit, exploitation, and outright fraud were involved in those notions [referring to the notions of state, the nation, and communism taught by the state], and how much they deviated from reality.”
“Somewhere at the back of my mind the idea existed, instilled with propaganda, that suffering is inevitable during great historic upheavals…I was also affected by the general mourning and by a sense of death’s universal dominion…In the face of all that I had seen, I still believed that the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future, a prototype (though not yet a realized one) for all other countries to imitate. That shows the hypnotic power of mass ideology.”
The bomb based on Sakharov’s “Second Idea” was very successful. Its impact on Sakharov, however, is more than just the satisfaction of achieving a scientific feat. Since Sakharov was at the scene of the test, he saw how much destruction the bomb could bring. The experience made him more aware of the human and moral facets of his work.
The direct consequence of this test was a shower of honor bestowed upon Sakharov. In October 1953, Sakharov was elected a member of the Academy of Science, largely due to his efforts in the 1953 hydrogen bomb test. At the end of 1953, Andrei Sakharov received his first Hero of Socialist Labor, which came with a colossal sum of prize money and a suburban house.
In 1954, Sakharov and his colleagues came up with the “Third Idea” for a more powerful hydrogen bomb. The test of this bomb occurred in 1955. Unfortunately, it caused the 2 civilian deaths for which Sakharov felt somewhat guilty. Witnessing the even more formidable destructive power of this hydrogen bomb, Sakharov earnestly hoped that this bomb would never be used in war. In fact, in the reception after the test, Sakharov proposed the toast: “May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities.” This toast stunned everyone, and elicited from a top official a response warning Sakharov that, he, as a scientist, should not intervene in politics. This experience forever altered the thinking of Sakharov, and led him to fully realize that, the terrible weapons on which he and his colleagues spent their entire life were beyond the their control.
NONTHRESHOLD BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS
As Sakharov perceived more and more the human aspect of nuclear tests, he began to worry about the effects, especially the long-term nonthreshold effects of nuclear tests, where no threshold, or the minimum dosage below which there is no harm, existed. The radiation emitted by the radioactive material used in the bomb could cause DNA damages, which could lead to cancer or birth defects.
In 1958, Sakharov published an article in the Soviet journal Atomic Energy, titled “Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects.” It focused on the human, rather than the scientific, aspect of nuclear science, and explicitly expressed Sakharov’s opinion about the testing of nuclear weapons. After exploring the possible effect of nuclear explosions on the society, Sakharov concluded his article by calling for the world powers to halt nuclear weapon testing, in order to preserve world peace without resorting to the dangerous system of mutual deterrence (or mutually assured destruction, a system in which nations engage in a race for military strength, so that a parity is kept with each country afraid of the weapons of the others).
In 1957, the USSR announced its plan to halt nuclear testing, an act to encourage the western nations to do the same, and thus slow down the arm race. However, the US and Britain did not consent to it due to a mistrust of the USSR’s intention.
Fearing the resumption of nuclear tests, Sakharov proposed a plan to the head of the Party, Khrushchev, suggesting the deployment of nuclear weapons without the hazardous tests. However, Khrushchev rejected the proposal.
In another attempt to prevent the testing from resuming, Sakharov wrote a note to Khrushchev during a meeting.
“I am convinced that a resumption of testing at this time would only favor the USA. Prompted by the success of our Sputniks, they could use tests to improve their devices. They have underestimated us in the past, whereas our program has been based on a realistic appraisal of the situation. Don’t you think that new tests will seriously jeopardize the test ban negotiations, the cause of disarmament, and world peace?”
The American society today can hardly appreciate the courage that was required to write this note, since, in the US now, the right of free speech grants everyone the ability to say whatever they like, to whichever audience, even the president, without jeopardizing one’s life or liberty. However, in the former USSR, where hundreds of thousands of people spent their entire life toiling in the labor camps for the flimsiest political impunities, to suggest anything contrary to the decision of the state, especially to the dictatorial political leader, meant severe punishment. Sakharov, due to his eminent position in the development of nuclear weapons, had some immunity; however, he was still jeopardizing his career and life every time he spoke out.
Sakharov’s note, not surprisingly, provoked the wrath of Khrushchev. In fact, he delivered a speech dismissing Sakharov’s opinion as naďve and inappropriate for a scientist, whose sole realm was pure science, not politics. This speech humiliated Sakharov in front of all his colleagues; however, Sakharov was not a person that could be silenced.
In 1962, the Soivet government decided to test two similar bombs at the same time. Fearing the loss of more human lives than necessary, Sakharov tried to stop the duplicate test, but failed to do so. He was overwhelmed, and made a crucial decision.
“It was the ultimate defeat for me. A terrible crime was about to be committed, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I was overcome by my impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame, and humiliation. I put my face down on my desk and wept…I decided that I would devote myself to ending biologically harmful tests.”
In August 1963, the Moscow Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space, was signed by the Soviet Union and the United States. Sakharov contributed to this treaty, to his pride, for it was he who proposed a partial ban (it excluded underground testing, which was hard to monitor and thus hard to ban, especially since the USSR and the USA shared a mutual mistrust.)