• Drinking With Stalin on Christmas: An American in Moscow at the Dawn of the Cold War

    Part One of the Life and Times of James B. Conant

    Almost a year before the first atomic bomb was ready, James B. Conant and Vannevar Bush, the two scientific leaders of the secret Manhattan Project, wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson in September of 1944 expressing their grave concerns about the alarming situation that would result if no US policy was developed before the weapon was used in combat. “We cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that it will be quite impossible to hold essential knowledge of these developments secret once the war is over.” They emphasized that progress in the new field of nuclear weapons would be so rapid in some countries that “it would be extremely dangerous for this government to assume that by holding secret its present knowledge we should be secure.”

    They advocated sharing the new scientific information and reaching an international agreement on the future control of nuclear weapons. They warned if the United States was the first to unleash this indiscriminate destruction on the world, it would set a dangerous precedent and precipitate an arms race. They would never be safe again.

    Their warning was ignored. Now with North Korea moving relentlessly toward nuclear conflict, threatening to deliver its deadly weapons to targets in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific coast of the United States, the all-out nuclear war they feared may be close at hand.

    No one can say that they did not see this day coming.

    –Jennet Conant

    The following is from Jennet Conant’s Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.

    Christmas Eve, 1945. Moscow was blanketed under a thick coat of snow. There were almost no cars about. His driver eased down ruined streets that made it look like a country still at war. The winter blizzards had begun before the rebuilding had gotten under way, and now it would have to wait for the thaw. Unfinished buildings stood frozen in time. Stores looked dark and uninviting, and appeared to offer little for sale. Even so, huge numbers of people gathered outside the shops and still more filled the crowded sidewalks, all carrying parcels. Most were poorly dressed, covered heads bent against the swirling white.

    Over 27 million Soviet citizens died defeating the Nazis, nearly a third of the country’s former wealth was gone, but Russia was already on the rebound. There were children everywhere. Babies—so many babies—bundled up within an inch of their lives against the bitter cold. Despite its tired appearance, the capital was alive and teeming with humanity. James Conant was a Yankee from hardy New England stock, but he had to admit he was impressed with the Russians. They were a tough race, tested by war, insurrection and an unforgiving climate. “There is no foolishness in this nation,” he wrote in his diary. “Nothing soft.”

    As the embassy car approached the gates of the Kremlin, Conant peered up at the gloomy fortress-like complex on the Moskva River that was the seat of the Soviet government. Situated in the heart of old Moscow, bordered by the Red Square to the east, and Alexander Garden to the west, it consisted of four palaces, four cathedrals, and some twenty towers enclosed within red turreted walls. The famous citadel had been the imperial residence of the czars for centuries, its opulent interior structures torn down and rebuilt on an ever-grander scale by a succession of monarchs until the Revolution of 1917. Even the Bolsheviks had been unable to resist the urge to glorify their rule. When Vladimir Lenin finally made it his headquarters, he stripped the golden eagles of the old regime from the towers and replaced them with the gleaming red stars of the new Communist order. Now the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin called the Kremlin home, and had chosen the savior’s birthday to hold a reception in honor of his victorious allies. Since the atheist Soviet state had banned Christmas as a bourgeois tradition, however, the timing was not nearly as ironic for their host as it was for his guests.

    The dinner was held in a cavernous banquet hall. America’s secretary of state, James Francis Byrnes, and Great Britain’s foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, took their places on either side of Stalin, each flanked by a 12-man delegation. The Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, was also in attendance, along with various members of the politburo. The Russians aimed to impress: there were boats of caviar, smoked sturgeon, guinea hen, beef, and lamb and other delicacies, arrayed like a flotilla of silver down the long table, along with oceans of booze—champagne, wine, brandy, and, of course, vodka. As soon as the guests were seated, the toasts began. According to custom, each course was preceded by a toast and a tumbler of vodka, which courtesy required be responded to in kind, toast for toast, drink for drink. One after another, the official toasts were drunk—to their nations, peoples, armies, leaders, and innumerable government functionaries present that night. As each ponderous speech of welcome and good wishes had to be translated by an interpreter, even the short toasts seemed long. Conant, unused to so much alcohol, found it hard to relax. If one of the Russian officials were to drink to his health, he doubted his vodka-soaked brain would be able to formulate a suitable reply.


    The hastily improvised Moscow Foreign Ministers Conference was Byrnes’s last-ditch effort at atomic diplomacy. For months, the Soviet leaders had done everything they could to frustrate his attempts to use America’s monopoly on the bomb as leverage in the peace talks. The failure of Byrnes’s gunslinger-style tactics at the Foreign Ministers Conference in London that fall had been an embarrassment. The negotiations had been fruitless. Rather than treat the bomb with the respect and fear Byrnes expected, the Russians had ridiculed the metaphorical bulge in his jacket in social gatherings while refusing to address it seriously in formal sessions. Stalin had feigned indifference, and issued a statement saying that it was only a weapon to frighten the weak-willed. Molotov, a master at subterfuge and delay, adopted the same line, and delighted in denigrating the bomb at every turn.

    President Harry Truman was losing faith in Byrnes, who had been dubbed Roosevelt’s “assistant president” by the press, a title that did not sit well with his new boss. Even an old soldier like Henry Stimson, the outgoing secretary of war, warned that the bomb was a game changer, and it was a mistake to use it as a lever of pressure to extract internal political changes and the granting of individual liberties. Such changes took time, and the United States could not afford to delay reaching an agreement on the bomb. “If we fail to approach them now,” Stimson argued, “and merely continue to negotiate with them, having this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip, their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives will increase.”


    “Here sits a man who perhaps is carrying a bit of the atomic bomb in his waist-coat pocket, with which he could blow us all to tiny pieces–”


    Desperate to reach some sort of compromise, and in the process score a diplomatic triumph that would redeem his reputation, Byrnes decided to take a more conciliatory approach. He would journey to the Soviet capital and take his case directly to Stalin. With luck, the home turf advantage would make the Russians more amenable to the need for international action so that this unprecedented form of power did not become a postwar threat to the world.

    In Moscow, however, things did not go much better. Molotov was as obstructionist as ever. He persisted in making flip remarks about America’s atomic ace in the hole, clearly aimed at letting Byrnes know the Soviet Union would not be cowed into making political concessions. As in the Potsdam and London conferences, no member of the Soviet delegation showed any interest in discussing the bomb, or the proposed resolution for the creation of a United Nations commission to control atomic energy.The Soviets never demanded the sharing of the atomic “secret,” or objected to the need for an inspection system—something that would not be popular in the United States, let alone in Russia—to police all military and industrial plants to prevent abuses and safeguard against any nation clandestinely stockpiling weapons.

    Conant had felt it was imperative the Soviets should know about this radical new method of decisive warfare, and was surprised to find there were no technical questions, no arguments. Although his arrival in Moscow had been covered at length in the local press, not a single Soviet scientist had sought him out. Molotov, during the course of a dinner at which he was host, had suggested that perhaps the great American chemist, who was also president of a great American citadel of learning (Harvard), should address the University of Moscow on the subject of atomic energy. The following day, however, Molotov withdrew the invitation, stating that he had no authority to make such an offer and was “only trying to be pleasant.” If Byrnes had been hoping the presence of the illustrious atomic pioneer at the negotiations would spark debate about the future of the bomb, his ploy fizzled. Conant felt like he might as well have stayed home for all the good he had done. He never suspected that the reason behind the Soviet’s apparent disregard was to prevent any chance of an inadvertent leak by Russian scientists that might alert the US delegation that they were feverishly at work on an atom bomb of their own.

    Conant had lost count of how many times they had drained their glasses when Molotov, who was acting as master of ceremonies, rose slowly to his feet. Raising a freshly filled glass, a broad grin on his round, bespectacled accountant’s face, he proposed to the assembled party that they had all had enough to drink to allow them to “speak of secret matters.” Turning to Conant, he said mischievously, “Here sits a man who perhaps is carrying a bit of the atomic bomb in his waist-coat pocket, with which he could blow us all to tiny pieces—”

    Before he could finish, Stalin jumped to his feet and broke in angrily, “Comrade Molotov, this is too serious a matter to joke about.” After the sharp rebuke of his unruly foreign minister, Stalin explained that although he was no scientist himself and had absolutely no knowledge of physics, he was not prepared to make light of Conant’s work. He then addressed the issue of the bomb for the first time. He praised Conant and his fellow atomic scientists for their achievement in creating the weapon that had brought the war to a close. They had rendered “a great service,” he continued in his hoarse voice. “We must now work together to see that this great invention is used for peaceful ends.” On that solemn note, he raised his glass in honor of the quiet, silver-haired American chemist. “Here’s to Professor Conant.”


    “Stalin had publicly humiliated his longest-serving deputy at a state dinner, signaling a decisive—if rather impulsive—change in attitude.”


    Molotov, whose expression never altered, stood in grim silence. No one dared look in his direction. In the Politburo, survival depended on accurately reading and responding to the generalissimo’s moods, and anyone who earned his displeasure could expect there to be consequences. After an awkward pause, Conant stood. Holding his glass aloft, he thanked Stalin for his kind remarks, and gamely acknowledged Molotov’s “humorous remarks,” though in truth he was rather floored by his cavalier attitude. Adding that he felt sufficiently emboldened by their sentiments, and by the “molecular energy of the excellent wine,” he offered a toast of his own, addressed to his Russian counterparts at the table. “I have no atomic energy in my pocket,” he began a bit sheepishly. “But I can say that the scientists of Russia and those of the other countries represented here tonight worked together to win a common victory. I trust they may cooperate equally effectively in the tasks of peace which lie ahead.”

    After the coffee was served, and Conant rose to leave, Stalin detained him for a moment. The Soviet leader was much shorter and broader in person than Conant had imagined: not more than five foot four inches tall, he resembled “a shrewd but kindly and humble old peasant.” Speaking through an interpreter, Stalin repeated his earlier congratulations and again expressed his hope that the bomb could be used only for peaceful purposes and not for war. Then, referring to Conant’s generous toast, he said, “Those were fine words, but were they sincere?”

    Later, a few of the Americans and British gathered at Spaso House, the grand neoclassical manor that served as the US embassy, to share their impressions of the astonishing moment when history appeared to have suddenly changed course. Stalin had publicly humiliated his longest-serving deputy at a state dinner, signaling a decisive—if rather impulsive—change in attitude. While the generalissimo could be capricious, he knew what he was doing. Whether his displeasure with Molotov was genuine or staged was hard to tell. But the significance of the moment was not lost on anyone. The 66-year-old Soviet despot, the most powerful and dangerous postwar ruler, was finally ready to incorporate nuclear weapons into his worldview. “There in the banquet hall of the Kremlin, we saw Stalin abruptly change Soviet policy,” recalled Charles Bohlen, a State Department aide and subsequent ambassador to Russia. “From that moment on, the Soviets gave the atomic bomb the serious consideration it deserved.”

    “Exactly four years and one month after Hiroshima, the Soviet Union would explode an atomic bomb, and two countries would be locked in a cold war struggle.”

    It was the moment they had all “pinned their hopes” on—a sign that the Russians were prepared to cooperate. Stalin’s remarks indicated a willingness to work with the United States and Britain to control atomic energy and promote peace through international agreement. The Soviet experts in both delegations fairly hummed with excitement as they analyzed the various interpretations and implications of what had happened. Byrnes saw it as a cause for optimism. He immediately began making plans for the British-American—and now Soviet—resolution calling for the creation of an Atomic Energy Commission to be presented at the upcoming meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in January. He would even make arrangements, on his return to Washington, to make a nationwide radio broadcast reporting on the success of his trip.

    Conant was not as quick to celebrate. Even in the convivial atmosphere that prevailed by the end of the boozy evening, he had picked up on some troubling undercurrents. When they had finished dinner, they were escorted from the banquet hall to another room to watch a short film. It was purportedly about the war with Japan, but focused exclusively on the Soviet contribution to victory, even though the Red Army did not join the battle until August 9, 1945, the same day the second atomic bomb laid waste to Nagasaki. There was no hint that the United States and Britain had played any role except for a brief mention of Pearl Harbor and, in the closing minutes, a fleeting glimpse of a Japanese and Russian general signing a treaty aboard the US battleship Missouri. Almost as an afterthought, an image of General Douglas MacArthur flashed by seconds before the end of the film. Irritated, Conant dismissed it as pure propaganda.

    When the lights went up, he observed that many members of the American and British delegations were also indignant. Afterward, he could not help wondering at the Soviet’s motive in showing them such a “crass nationalistic movie.” Was it intended as an “intentional insult?” If so, what were the Russians playing at? “And no one, literally no one, is on a basis with Russian officialdom to say, ‘That was a bit thick, you know,’” he noted in his diary, adding, “This little episode shows a lot.”

    Equally disquieting was the Soviets’ refusal to grant them permission to make Stalin’s tribute to Conant and the atomic scientists public. It was a matter of protocol: what was said in the Kremlin, stayed in the Kremlin. Stalin’s recognition of America’s technical prowess could not be reported to the world. Despite all the talk of friendship between their two countries, the Iron Curtain was as tightly shut as ever. At the time, Conant was chiefly annoyed by the fact that there seemed to be no channel by which they could communicate their frustration to their hosts. Someone cynically suggested the best way to get word out would be to write down a list of their complaints and toss it in the wastebasket—it was certain that the next morning their message would be read in Molotov’s office in the Kremlin.

    Despite all the “unfavorable evidence” he accumulated during his eleven days in Moscow, Conant remained convinced that the Russians would eventually see reason. Logic dictated that continuing their wartime alliance was the best way to proceed in the interdependent postwar years. If they did not act together to stop the manufacture of atomic bombs before it became widespread, the means of atomic destruction could find its way into the hands of an unexpected and reckless enemy.

    In a speech he gave in late November, which was reprinted in the Boston Globe shortly before he departed for Moscow, Conant had predicted the Russians would soon get the bomb, giving a rough forecast of between five and fifteen years. He cautioned that the time estimate meant little, as the United States’s monopoly on this power was only temporary. There was “time, but not too much time,” to evolve a plan for the exchange of scientific knowledge and the creation of an international inspection system. Without inspection there was no way to ensure their protection. Without it no one was safe. Conant startled his audience with this ominous injunction: “There is no defense against a surprise attack with atomic bombs.”

    One thing has been as clear as daylight to me ever since I first became convinced of the reality of the atomic bomb; namely, that a secret armaments race in respect to this weapon must at all costs be avoided. If a situation were to develop where two great powers had stacks of bombs but neither was sure of the exact status of the other, the possibility of a devastating surprise attack by the one upon the other would poison all our thinking. Like two gunmen with itchy trigger fingers, it would only be a question of who fired first. Under such circumstances, the United States might be the loser.

    Conant’s estimate was slightly off. Exactly four years and one month after Hiroshima, the Soviet Union would explode an atomic bomb, and two countries would be locked in a cold war struggle.

    Years later, looking back on that extraordinary Christmas Eve in Moscow, Conant found it hard to believe that as 1945 came to a close, he could have had such faith in the future. He had hoped that the difficulties would disappear and they could proceed to work out a plan to preserve the peace instead of continually preparing for war. “My ascent into the golden clouds of irrational hope can only be explained by my honest appraisal of the worldwide catastrophic consequences of a failure to attain international control,” he later reflected. “Some scheme just had to work. And who is prepared to say my basic belief was wrong?”

    He wrote those lines in 1969. Toiling over his memoir, safely ensconced in his wood-paneled study in Hanover, New Hampshire, he observed the perilous state of the world, “with American and Soviet aircraft and missiles poised to strike on a moment’s notice.” America was more vulnerable than ever before, and Conant had lost much of his old certainty, but none of the cold, clear-eyed Yankee pragmatism. A chemist, statesman, educator and critic, he had had within his grasp all the elements to help forge the new atomic age. Supremely confident, he had acted upon his convictions to shape the kind of world he wanted to live in. He was, first and foremost, a defender of democracy. He had helped design and manufacture weapons of mass destruction in two world wars to protect liberty. He had fought for an open and fluid society, for a fairer system of higher education, for free discussion, a competitive spirit, and a courageous and responsible citizenry. He had occupied the presidency of Harvard as a bully pulpit, and had never hesitated to take daring stands on contentious issues, applying his reason, morals, and high ideals on matters of national import. As a “social inventor,” his term for the half century spent in public service, he had tried to find new formulas to keep alive the precarious American political experiment known as democracy.

    As a war scientist, however, he knew he had much to answer for. Atomic energy’s “potentialities for destruction” were so awesome as to far outweigh any possible gains that might accrue from America’s technical triumph in the summer of 1945. Writing as an old man, he acknowledged that these new weapons of aggression had added to the frightful insecurity of the world, and he did not think future generations would be inclined to thank him for it. Yet the nuclear standoff had continued for years—no mean accomplishment given the number and variety of armed conflicts—which suggested that the stakes had become too high and the risks too great. Perhaps there might still be time to moderate the vicious arms race, though that remained for history to decide. “The verdict of history,” he wrote, “has not yet been given.”

    Part II of this Lit Hub Folio appears tomorrow:
    On the deadliest weapon of war never used in combat.


    From Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, by Jennet Conant, courtesy Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2017, Jennet Conant.

    Jennet Conant
    Jennet Conant
    Jennet Conant is the author of Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Navigating a Dangerous Era and the New York Times bestsellers The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington and Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. She has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.

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