Nuclear Weapons: The Arms Race that Changed the World

In our quest for greater scientific achievements, we created a weapon so powerful that it could destroy mankind from the face of this planet. This is not a weapon that was grown in the lab, or designed to kill a few people, it was developed to demand unconditional surrender from the enemy. This weapon is known as the atomic bomb, and its unveiling ushered in a global arms race that nearly brought the world to a breaking point between the United States and the Soviet Union. Fast forward to today, a new arms race is brewing with the United States proposing to build lower grade nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes. History has shown that this lead to further conflict and could expedite the surge in a new nuclear arms race.

This story starts with the conception of the Manhattan Project. Albert Einstein wrote a letter to then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlining how the Nazi regime could build a nuclear weapon to attack Allied forces. Not only would this change the face of the war, but it would also spell disaster for the United States. As a result, President Roosevelt built the Advisory Committee on Uranium. The committee funded research by two notable scientists, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, who were studying, isotope separation, which we now know as uranium enrichment. In addition, scientist Vannevar Bush, advocated a need for scientists to play a larger role in the war effort. President Roosevelt agreed with Bush and created the National Defense Research Committee to give voice to scientists.

1-Einstein and Szilard letter to Roosevelt NNSA
Albert Einstein with Leo Szilard

In 1941, the Advisory Committee on Uranium was renamed to the Office of Scientific Research & Development (OSRD), and with the enhancement of Army resources, became a military research program following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon afterward, Roosevelt named Vannevar Bush as the director of OSRD. However, in 1942, Roosevelt moved the headquarters of this new organization to New York City, and named Colonel Leslie R. Groves as the head of OSRD. President Roosevelt, seeing the need to bring all of these efforts under one agency, and officially named these collection of groups, the Manhattan Project. Roosevelt also designated multiple sites to build laboratories centered around the atomic bomb’s study, design, and production for the war effort. One of these labs, Los Alamos National Laboratory, would become the site for Project Y, where the first atomic bombs would be tested. The director of Los Alamos, Theoretical Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, began the arduous task of putting all the knowledge, and engineering, to build the first atomic bomb.

los alamos gate

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb, code named Trinity, successfully tested a detonation at Los Alamos National Laboratory. After the trinity test, two more bombs were developed, Fat Man (a Plutonium bomb) and Little Boy (a Uranium bomb), and their creation developed a unique problem for military planners. On one account, the Nazi’s were close to defeat, both at the hands of Soviet and American forces, while on the other, Japanese forces were determined to fight to the bitter end. At the Potsdam Conference, an ultimatum was made to the Japanese, surrender and build a new government, independent of Emperor Hirohito, or face annihilation. The Japanese refused and on August 6, 1945, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Following Hiroshima, on August 9, 1945, Fat Man was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The result was utter devastation on both accounts, and on August 14, the Japanese surrendered to the United States. However, the conclusion of World War II was not the end for nuclear weapon development. At the end of the war, the Atomic Energy Commission was created to carry on the success of the Manhattan Project for further applications in development.

After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was able to achieve a successful nuclear test of their own. With the Cold War, both the United States, and the Soviet Union, were locked in a heated exchange between who could maintain control during the Atomic Age. The United States, seeking to build more powerful nuclear weapons, tested its first Hydrogen Bomb. Not only would this bomb be more powerful than the atomic bomb, both countries would build thousands of these weapons. The Soviet Union, seeking to outdo the Americans, built the largest Hydrogen bomb in existence, the Tsar Bomba, which registered a 50 megaton blast.  For those who enjoy the Richter scale, if Tsar Bomba was detonated on land, it would have registered an 8.1 on the Richter scale. The accomplishment was a tremendous morale booster for the Soviet Union but would mark the end of both sides building larger nuclear weapons.

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What does this mean for us today? Not only do major nations of the world still possess nuclear weapons, but other nations of the world seek to build their own nuclear weapons program. One notable example is North Korea, as they seek to build a nuclear weapons program of their own. Other nations, such as the United States, have discussed revamping their nuclear weapons program to build a modern nuclear arsenal. In addition, President Trump has touted the idea of building low-grade nuclear weapons to be able to deploy in the field. In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review,  the document describes these efforts would be necessary to counter the increasing threats from both China, and Russia, in an attempt to modernize their nuclear arsenals. I view this change in nuclear ambitions as a reckless attempt to have greater options with our nuclear capabilities. Not only must the world strive to reduce, and eliminate nuclear weapons, it must also make sure that other nations do the same. Simply rebuilding our nuclear weapons would only shock other nations to consider doing the same, thus accelerating a new nuclear weapons race.

What can be done to deter the actions of other nuclear states? The United States could employ the same economic leverage that brought success with curbing the Iranian Nuclear program. With the United States taking the lead, world leaders can seek to apply pressure on other nuclear members to curb their ambitions. Both Russia, and China, have much to lose from gaining access to the global markets. Economic levers could prove useful to curbing nuclear ambitions, and help to deter the use of nuclear weapons in future conflicts.

To conclude, the United States, the birthplace of the Atomic Age, is at a pivotal moment in the quest for non-nuclear proliferation. We can be the nation to take constructive steps towards nuclear weapons reductions, both with China and Russia, and with other countries like Iran and North Korea. The efforts will take a global consensus and it will need to be done in a mutually beneficial matter so that all sides, in this exchange, can benefit from these efforts. Future generations, and the planet itself, depend on our efforts here today to cripple the creation of a new nuclear arms race. With international cooperation, mutual beneficial agreements, and economic pressures, we can hope to bring a new chapter in the Atomic Age for this planet.

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