Vladimir Putin has raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons in his war against Ukraine. Join Active Minds as we review the history and role of nuclear weapons in the world. We will discuss both the deterrent effects that have led to over 75 years without a nuclear weapon being used as well as how the advent of “tactical nukes” potentially changes the decision process. We will explore what Putin is potentially considering as well as how the rest of the world might respond.
Key Lecture Points
- In August 1945, the US dropped atomic weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ushering in the Nuclear Age. The 1945 bombs were the culmination of a frantic effort by the US to acquire a nuclear weapon before Germany. Given that major advances in nuclear science had been achieved by Germany in the lead-up to its instigation of World War II, scientists from around the world contributed to the American effort.
- 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. 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 in the development of nuclear weapons.
- 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 (joined 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) in 1968. While it did not eliminate nuclear weapons, the NPT did put in place systems to prevent more 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 of 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.
- In 2022, Vladimir Putin heightened the threat of nuclear weapons in the course of Russia’s protracted invasion of Ukraine, stating “we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people—this is not a bluff.”
- 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?
- 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
- United Nations Disarmament Click here
- Manhatten Project history Click here
- Congressional Research Service on strategic nukes Click here
Books for Further Reading
- Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 896 pages. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the seminal 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.
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- 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.
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