The Atomic Bomb



The atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, ushering in the nuclear age.  Join Active Minds for a look at the origins and history of atomic weapons.  We will discuss the achievements of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent nuclear arms race during the Cold War.  We will end with a discussion of current nuclear proliferation concerns.

Key Lecture Points

  • On August 6, 1945, US forces dropped a nuclear weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three day later, on August 9, the US dropped a nuclear weapon on Nagasaki.  2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of these momentous events that ushered in the nuclear age.
  • The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the culmination of a frantic effort by the US to acquire a nuclear weapon while also fighting a two-front World War against Germany and Japan.  Given that major advances in nuclear science had been achieved Germany in the lead-up to its instigation of World War II, scientists from around the world (many of them Jewish) were deeply concerned that Hitler’s Third Reich would acquire a nuclear weapon.
  • Warned by those scientists (most notably Albert Einstein) of a pending German nuclear threat, US President Franklin Roosevelt began efforts to acquire the capacity for a nuclear weapon.  Those efforts expanded after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the ensuing US war against Germany and Japan.  Under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Manhattan Project would eventually enlist the efforts of over 130,000 scientists and support staff (many of them European) in the development of the science practical creation of nuclear weapons.  Those efforts would culminate in the successful test of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, NM.
  • Although efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon were driven by fear of a German weapon, those fears would disappear after the defeat of Hitler’s regime in May 1945.  Nonetheless, the US would continue to pursue a nuclear capacity to bring a swift end to the bloody war in the Pacific.  Additionally, the US decision to deploy a weapon was motivated by the growing concern over Soviet expansion into Asia.
  • The end of WWII achieved by way of the nuclear arsenal soon gave way to a Cold War nuclear buildup, particularly after the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 1949.  The escalation of the nuclear arms race between the US and USSR (supplemented by other nations: Britain, France and China) led to an increasing concern about the future of the planet.  In an effort to reduce the nuclear threat, the US and USSR supported the passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Wile it did not eliminate nuclear weapons, the NPT did put in place systems to prevent other nations from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
  • Since the end of the Cold War, the world has struggled to deal with new nuclear proliferation threats, including the arsenals of India and Pakistan, the acquisition of an arsenal by North Korea, the threat Iran with a nuclear weapon, as well as the potential threat posed by non-state terrorist organizations.
  • In the last decade, the US has shifted from a focus on arms retirement to "modernization". This is in response to Russian "modernization" and rising Chinese capabilities.

Exploration Questions

  • What insight can be gained into today’s nuclear issues by looking at the origins and history of the atomic bomb?
  • In what ways is the nuclear threat today similar/different from those threats during WWII, and those of the Cold War era?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Nuclear weapons are necessary to deter potential enemies from an attack on the United States or our Allies?
  • Should money be spent on research and development to keep the US superiority in conventional and nuclear weapons?
  • What do you think about the President’s framework for dealing with Iranian nuclear development? Do you think sanctions should be lifted?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 896 pages. The seminal and complete story of how the bomb was developed, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the vast energy locked inside the atom to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan.
    Click here to order
  • Chubin, Shahram. Iran's Nuclear Ambitions. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006. 244 pages. Chubin, an Iranian-born security expert, details the recent history of Iran's nuclear program and diplomacy. He discusses, Iran's nuclear energy rationale, domestic politics, and decision making.
    Click here to order