An Overview of the Nuclear Age: From Cold War I to Cold War II

I was recently asked by a weekly news program to submit some notes and ideas for a thirty-minute program on the history of America’s nuclear weapons program, from 1945-2016. I got a bit carried away and ended up writing the text that follows. This text doesn’t appear in the program that was produced, but I was told that it helped shape, to some unknowable degree, the topics covered in the interview with historian Peter Kuznick. With or without my influence, the interview provided an excellent introduction to the special relationship between Japan and America. A second installment is forthcoming.

Imperial Japan, the Bomb & the Pacific Powder Keg
On May 27th, 2016, Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, the first time an American president had ever visited the city while still in office. His speech there was a sermon that de-personified the attacks and exculpated the president who authorized them. He spoke only abstractly about how “death fell from the sky” seventy-one years ago. With his mind on domestic pressure not to say anything that resembled an apology, President Obama strenuously avoided mentioning the nation and the individuals who were responsible for the decision to drop atomic weapons on civilian populations. Additionally, he made no specific proposals about moving forward in nuclear disarmament.
In American public perceptions, there is still the common belief that the bombs “ended the war” and saved a greater number of both Japanese and American lives. A new National Parks museum called The Manhattan Project National Historical Park, with three venues at Hanford, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, is hoping to tone down the triumphal, one-sided aspect of previous texts and exhibits (like the Smithsonian exhibit in 1995). They are now considering incorporating the views of Japanese victims and American victims whose health was damaged by the production and testing of nuclear bombs. [1]
Nonetheless, the triumphalist perspective persists as a stubborn meme in American culture, even though the debate among historians is essentially over. Historians such as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, with his book Racing Against the Enemy, [2] have shown that it was the Soviet entry into the war that provoked the Japanese to surrender on August 15, 1945, one week after Stalin declared war on Japan. If the surrender hadn’t come then, Japan’s circumstances were so dire that it would have come soon without the need of an American invasion. This argument was made by several high military officials in the weeks before the bombs were used, but by this time a billion 1945 dollars had been spent on the Manhattan Project, and everyone involved in making the bombs feared the political fallout of not using them. Then there was the motive to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that America possessed this new weapon and was willing to use it.
Seventy-one years later, there are now nine countries that possess nuclear weapons: USA, Russia, China, France, UK, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel, the only one of the nine that maintains a stance of ambiguity—refusing to declare whether it has nuclear weapons, even though it is known beyond doubt that they do. In total the nine countries have about 15,000 weapons, with 93% of them held by the US and Russia, with about 7,000 each. Each side has over one thousand on “hair-trigger alert” status in which they are vulnerable to accidental launch or an overly hasty decision to launch with incomplete or inaccurate information held by those who would have to make the fatal decision.
In 1946, America took control of many of the Pacific islands it had occupied during the war. Nuclear weapon tests began in July with the tests in the Marshall Islands on the Bikini Atoll, which prompted a French fashion designer to launch a swimsuit design we all know today. It was described that summer as a “weapon of mass seduction” and “une bombe anatomique,” but for Marshall Islanders there were no jokes to be made. They were relocated within the island chain to small atolls that were already occupied and crowded. In spite of the relocations, many of the still-inhabited islands were showered with fallout. US military personnel were also exposed, and some of the irradiated ships were hauled back to Guam and the US mainland for scuttling or dismantling. Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay is one of the places where this contamination remains a problem to this day. [3]
In 1949, the Soviets tested their first nuclear device in Kazakhstan, and after that the arms race and the global paranoia of mutually assured destruction accelerated into high gear. By the mid-fifties, both nations were testing hydrogen weapons which were thousands of times more powerful than the bombs used in 1945. The public knew little about what was going on, but the Castle Bravo 15-megaton H-bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, on March 1, 1954, went horribly wrong for military planners. The yield was larger than predicted, and fallout landed on several Japanese fishing boats that were outside the zone of exclusion. The ship called Lucky Dragon No. 5 arrived back in Japan with the crew suffering from radiation sickness. The captain died shortly after his return. The lid of secrecy surrounding nuclear testing was blown off because Japanese media covered the story intensely, and from there the story went global. Throughout the season tuna caught in the Pacific continued to test positive for radiation. This incident triggered the anti-nuclear movement throughout the world, leading eventually to a ban on atmospheric testing in 1963 signed by the US, UK and USSR.
Britain and France had their own arsenals, with their own testing programs in Australia, Christmas (Kirimati) Island, French Polynesia and Algeria. China and France did not sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty and tested in the atmosphere until 1974 and 1980 respectively. India and Pakistan conducted all their tests underground. In this century, only North Korea still conducts tests, while the others make do with sub-critical tests and computer simulations.
In 1950, the US had about 1,000 nuclear weapons. By 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR and the US each had thirty thousand. Fearing many of their weapons would be hit in pre-emptive strikes, or that they would miss their targets, they planned for massive redundancy and overkill with bombs that had yields big enough to render life impossible in areas the size of the Boston to Washington corridor. One positive result of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that it moved both sides to sober up. They installed a “hotline” so that leaders could communicate directly during a crisis. The process of détente, a general term for the relaxing of tensions between the two powers, lasted from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and it helped somewhat to inhibit enthusiasm on both sides for involvement in conflicts in the developing world. 
Newcomers to disarmament studies are confronted with a bewildering list of acronyms for all the bilateral and international treaties related to nuclear weapons. Since the early 1960s there has been the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and all the US-Soviet/Russia agreements: SALT I, SALT II, START I, START II, START III Framework, SORT, New START, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and others. [4]
The most significant may be the 1968 United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty, which most of, but not all of, the world’s nations have signed. [5] The key stipulation of the treaty is that because non-nuclear states have agreed not to pursue the possession of nuclear weapons, the states that do possess them are obligated to work in good faith and a timely manner to eliminate their own arsenals. The Marshall Islands (now an independent country), with the support of other Pacific island nations affected by nuclear tests, brought a case to the International Court of Justice in 2014, charging all nine nuclear armed countries with failing to act on their obligations to disarm. Even the non-signatories (India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) were targeted because the Marshall Islands case argues that they are still obliged to act under customary international law.
Presently, only Britain, India and Pakistan have addressed the charges. The other nuclear powers chose to not respond to the suit at all. [6] Herein lies a fundamental contradiction of possessing nuclear weapons. Nuclear armed nations participate in drafting international treaties on nuclear proliferation and sign them, but possessing nuclear weapons means they can choose when they do not wish to obey international law.  There is no enforcement authority that can make a nuclear-armed state do what it does not want to do, and this of course is the reason the weapons are coveted. No one has used a nuclear bomb in warfare since 1945, but the possessors know that the value of nuclear weapons is in what is called their “non-explosive uses”–their ability to deter, intimidate, and hold leverage over others.
Another clause in the Non-Proliferation Treaty guarantees signatories the right to use nuclear energy if they agree to not pursue the development of nuclear weapons. A large segment of the global civilian population finds this unacceptable, believing that because every nuclear energy program produces fissile material, nuclear energy can never be de-linked from proliferation. Nuclear energy also produces nuclear accidents and nuclear waste, so they involve the some of the same unacceptable hazards as weapons. However, the UN agency that is tasked with guarding against nuclear weapons proliferation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also the global watchdog and promoter of nuclear energy. It even has veto power over the research agenda and conclusions of the World Health Organization on matters related to the health effects of radiation.
In the early 1980s, popular anti-nuclear movements reached critical mass. In a very different sort of “Manhattan Project,” 1,000,000 anti-nuclear protesters gathered in Central Park, New York in June 1982 to demand a world free of nuclear weapons. Christian evangelical groups were a reliable source of support for Republicans, but their support of the anti-nuclear cause worried Ronald Reagan. In his 1983 “evil empire” speech to evangelicals, he warned them about going soft on their godless adversary. He had put the world on notice during his first administration that he would take a hard line against the atheistic empire that he claimed was bent on global domination. He broke off détente, calling it a “a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims,” [7] and he announced the space-based anti-ballistic missile initiative that would become known as “Star Wars,” decisions which critics said went against the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Star Wars was never completed, but it served the purpose of striking fear into the leadership of the Soviet Union that strategic parity would be eliminated by an American advantage in space-based weapons.
While he came in like a hawk, Ronald Reagan proved himself to be a leader of puzzling contradictions. He turned out to be a different kind of cold warrior than many conservatives expected, especially as his re-election campaign approached. He remained hawkish on all other issues, and despised for them by his opponents, but nuclear disarmament was one issue where he charted a unique course. He rejected traditional hardliners who planned for a winnable nuclear war and declared himself to be dead serious about the elimination of nuclear weapons. He claimed to have been deeply affected by the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, and was known to exasperate his staff by commenting repeatedly that peace would be achieved if the human race faced an alien threat. Other strong fictional influences were the 1983 films War Games and  The Day After, a television movie which graphically depicted nuclear holocaust in the American heartland to an enormous prime-time audience of 100 million. [8] These were instances in which Reagan’s confusion of Hollywood and reality may have led to something good. By the mid-80s he became worried that his hawkish policy had spooked the Soviet leadership and alienated the American public which now wanted a return to détente and a reduction in the number of warheads. In November 1983 (the same month when The Day After was broadcast), the Soviets mistook the Able Archer NATO exercise for the real thing and readied their forces for a nuclear attack. [9] As Reagan faced re-election, he realized it was time to adopt a softer stance. A few weeks earlier, Stanislav Petrov, an officer at a Soviet early warning station was informed by a new computer system that five American missiles were incoming. Under protocol, he was supposed to inform the higher command, but he decided, correctly, that it was a false alarm. [10] It is a matter of speculation as to whether the Soviets would have launched on warning instead of waiting to confirm nuclear attacks. Some nuclear strategists, such as Robert McNamara believed it was tacit policy on both sides that no one would be insane enough to launch on warning. [11] These two near misses weren't revealed until years later, so American audiences watching The Day After were unaware of the ironic relationship between fact and fiction in November 1983.

In the ABC News discussion panel that followed the broadcast of The Day After, (November 20, 1983), Robert McNamara states at the 47:40 mark of the video that both sides clearly understood the madness of launch on warning, but they maintained a position of ambiguity on their policy. He believed they wouldn't launch on warning.
Reagan was able to resist hardliner opinion because, unlike a Democrat president, there was no opposition to his right when he decided to engage with Soviet leaders in arms reduction negotiations. Yet in spite of his intentions, and the credit for ending the Cold War that Americans would give him, nothing would have changed if his Soviet counterpart had been anyone other than Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this wall,” and David Bowie’s concert at the wall the same year did essentially the same thing. However, in spite of such Western political and cultural pressures (and self-congratulation for the achievement), the momentum for reform came from within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was a sincere reformer and humanitarian, brutally honest about the failings of the Soviet system and the need for “new thinking” inside the USSR and in international relations. The Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Bloc collapsed for complex reasons, but mostly because Gorbachev made it clear he wouldn’t send in the tanks to prop up the old system. Once it was clear that the East European regimes were on their own, events followed their natural course. Gorbachev was preoccupied with internal problems, more focused on economic and political reforms that would turn the USSR into a multi-party, democratic socialist market system similar to Western European countries. [12] By the end of the decade, Reagan was saying that his “evil empire” comment of just a few years earlier was now irrelevant, as it applied to a bygone era. In 1987, the two superpowers signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Cold War’s most significant arms-reduction agreement. By the mid-90s, both nations managed to reduce their arsenals to about 7,000 weapons each, the level at which they still remain.
Many anti-nuclear activists decry the fact that arms reduction halted at this still-unacceptable level. Seldom discussed is the questionable theory that the US and Russia both halted progress at this level because they agreed that their massive arsenals would deter other nations from ever trying to gain equality and thus nuclear proliferation is actually discouraged by the existence of this absurdly large number of nuclear warheads (see the comments by General Brent Scowcroft in the video above, 39:00~). [13]
In the 1990s, as the secrecy of the Cold War era faded, the full impact of the nuclear project started to become apparent. Uranium miners, military veterans, nuclear workers, downwinders and aboriginal and minority groups near test sites—in all nations that built weapons—started to be more aware of the health impacts. Most ominously, it became clear that genetic damage had been passed onto the children and grandchildren of nuclear test veterans. [14]
Official recognition and compensation came to some groups during the Clinton administration when Hazel O’Leary, an outsider to the organization, took charge of reforming the Department of Energy. Americans might have been more aware of Clinton’s apology to victims unknowingly submitted to radiation experiments, but the news was pushed to the back pages on October 4th, 1995 by the announcement of the OJ Simpson verdict. [15]
In recent years, Gorbachev has spoken often about the West’s broken promises to not expand NATO eastward, as well as other disastrous reversals of the trust that was built long ago. This month, 30 years after the historic 1986 Reykjavik summit with Reagan, Gorbachev noted the betrayal and disappointment that came after that hopeful time. [16] He said all attempts to resolve the numerous conflicts of the previous two decades militarily (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria) through a “cult of force” have solved no real problems, and only led to the erosion of international law and the glorification of force. He added, “There has been a collapse of trust in relations between the world’s leading powers that, according to the UN Charter, bear primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.” He stated that the international community cannot make progress toward the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world until the world gets back to normal politics and international relations are demilitarized.
In contrast to the days when the West found Gorbachev to be an international figure of great stature, his recent comments were reported only in a medium that the Obama administration considers to be a “Russian propaganda tool.” As a response, Obama counters with $100 million spent on nurturing Russian dissidents who are, supposedly, going to encourage a non-existent pro-American constituency within Russia to bring the country into line. [17] They fail to take note that the only significant opposition to Putin is in the nationalistic and belligerent parties that think he is too soft on America.
Amid this stalled progress caused by the deliberate antagonizing of Russia, President Obama's pledge to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009) is a dead letter. With so many congressional districts addicted to defense spending, Obama had to exchange the elimination of some aging weapons for the nuclear weapons modernization plan that will cost $1 trillion over thirty years.
Meanwhile the world sits on a toxic legacy of nuclear waste that will plague the planet long into the “deep future.” Seventy-four years after the Manhattan Project began, there are still no proven successful nuclear waste repositories, and that goes for both military and civilian waste. After all, how could anyone guarantee perfect containment for 100,000 years, with no fires, explosions, leaks or intrusions down in the hole?
In addition, sites throughout the country, like West Lake near St. Louis, and Niagara Falls, New York, are contaminated with wastes from weapons production. The large former weapons factories in places like Hanford, Washington, Rocky Flats, Colorado and Paducah, Kentucky (a partial list) present challenges that will stretch so far into the future that they might as well be called eternal. The promised cleanups that began decades ago are not going well. And the same goes for all nuclearized states.
Staff in America’s weapons labs were actually assigned science fiction creative writing tasks to get them to consider all that could go wrong with the WIPP nuclear waste storage site in Southeast New Mexico. Their writing of a scenario known as Free State of Chihuahua amounted to federal employees envisioning a future when the federal government no longer exists, a scenario in which New Mexico has reverted to its previous Mexican and Native American cultures, and impoverished inhabitants find the WIPP site and start salvaging the “valuable” scraps within. [18]
This example shows the extent to which the defense industry is the nation’s make-work program, engaged in elaborate plans to deal with a waste legacy of monstrous proportions while at the same time adding to it. The industry may not hire many science fiction writers, but it is often touted as the last sector of the American economy that manufactures something, that provides high-paying jobs to engineers and keeps the economy of states like New Mexico viable.
So is it the demand for jobs and economic spin-offs that leave our world bristling with thousands of nuclear missiles? Is it corporate lobbying and greed and the need to expand weapons markets that has led to Cold War II with the extension of NATO to Russia’s border? Can a popular “don’t bank on the bomb” campaign succeed? Would a boycott of weapons financers work, or does the deadlock need to be broken by political leadership that has higher aspirations than jobs and profits? Are there any political leaders on the horizon who can repair the broken trust and militarized politics that Gorbachev speaks of? President Obama finished his speech in Hiroshima by saying “we can choose a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” Yes we can, or how about yes he can, for only he has the power to awaken morally to the implications of his administration’s reckless attempt to provoke and destabilize Russia, the indispensable nation in his stated ambition to lead the world toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.
[1] Joe Copeland, “At Hanford, a chance for a fuller telling of atomic history,” Crosscut, June 9, 2016.
[2] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University Press, 2006).

[3] Marisa Lagos, “Radiation levels at Treasure Island sites called no health threat,” SF Gate, August 28, 2014,

[6] Merritt Kennedy, “Tiny Marshall Islands Taking On 3 World Nuclear Powers In Court,” National Public Radio, March 3, 2016,

[7] “Ronald Reagan’s News Conference—January 29, 1981,” The American Presidency Project.

[9] Peter Beinart, “Think Again: Ronald Reagan,” Foreign Policy, June 2010.

[10] Colin Freeman, “How did one grumpy Russian halt Armageddon?” The Telegraph, May 11, 2015.

[11] ABC News Viewpoint: Discussion panel held immediately after the broadcast of The Day After, November 20, 1983. Robert McNamara states this point from the 47:40 mark of the video.

[12] Mikhail Gorbachev, Gorbachev: On My Country and the World (Columbia University Press, 1999) p. 34.

[13] ABC News Viewpoint: Discussion panel held immediately after the broadcast of The Day After, November 20, 1983. General Brent Scowcroft states this point from the 39:00 mark of the video.

[14] Chris Busby, “Chernobyl, genetic damage, and the UK nuclear bomb tests - justice at last?The Ecologist, May 6, 2016,

[15] Marlene Cimons, “Clinton Apologizes for Radiation Tests,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1995.

[17] Ricky Twisdale, “Nuland to Congress: We Spend $100 Mil a Year Trying to Destabilize Russia,” Russia Insider, June 9, 2016. 

[18] Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 197-202. Masco describes the original research document containing the Free State of Chihuahua scenario: 10,000 Years of Solitude? published by Los Alamos National Laboratories. The title chosen by the government scientists is an interesting tip of the hat toward the Latino heritage of New Mexico and to the magic realism of both novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (author of One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the American nuclear weapons project.

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