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In July of 1945, President Harry Truman met Joseph Stalin at Potsdam, Germany. "I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force," Truman wrote later. "The Russian Premier showed no special interest." But Stalin was already aware of the atomic bomb thanks to Soviet spies lodged at the heart of the American bomb project in Los Alamos. Soviet scientists were scrambling to catch up.
The new weapon was revealed to the world a few weeks later when a single atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Stalin's reaction was immediate. "Speed things up," he reportedly ordered.
As an unpredictable Cold War settled in, several U.S. scientists argued for an all-out effort to build an even more powerful weapon: a hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller, an émigré physicist, pushed for a program to build what he called "the Super"-- a hydrogen fusion bomb. "If the Russians demonstrate a Super before we possess one," said Teller, "our situation will be hopeless."
Andrei Sakharov, a brilliant young Russian physicist, had also been given the task of designing a fusion bomb for the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, Sakharov was familiar with Teller's design, but he soon decided on a different approach.
By 1952 the Super was ready for its first test. The fireball of the first H-bomb grew to a diameter of three miles and vaporized an entire island in the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok. The H-bomb's yield was ten megatons, a thousand times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Eighteen months later, Sakharov and his team exploded the first Soviet H-bomb. The nuclear arms race had begun.