Nuclear weapons: a history

‘The explosive force of nuclear fission has changed everything except our modes of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require an entirely new pattern of thinking if humankind is to survive.’ *Albert Einstein*, 1946

The Manhattan Project
Scientific breakthroughs in the 1930s made atomic bomb production possible. Fearing the prospect of Hitler developing nuclear weapons, top physicists from around the world joined the secret ‘Manhattan Project’ to develop them first. Unprecedented funding came from the US. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Manhattan Project had not yet developed a working weapon. Many scientists lobbied for their research to be turned to peaceful purposes. But US President Harry Truman saw the advantage of possessing the bomb ahead of the Soviet Union, and ordered the first test in July, resulting in the mightiest explosion humanity had ever witnessed.

Survivor: Nagasaki bomb victim Sumiteru Taniguchi looks at a photo of himself taken in 1945. His horrific burns have required 17 operations.

Truman immediately decided to use this awesome weapon to attack Japan, with which the Allies were still at war. Officially, this was to force the stubborn Japanese leadership to capitulate. In fact, Japan was already seeking a negotiated surrender. It seems likely that the US nuked Japan to show the world that it had a unique and devastating weapon and was prepared to use it.

On 6 August 1945, a bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima. Resident Dr Shuntaro Hida was visiting a patient outside the city at the time: ‘My whole heart trembled at what I saw. There was a great fire ring floating over the city. Within a moment, a massive deep white cloud grew out of the centre and a long black cloud spread over the entire width of the city, the beginning of an enormous storm created by the blast. I decided I had to return as soon as possible. I looked at the road before me. Denuded, burnt and bloody, numberless survivors were in my path; some crawling on their knees or on all fours, some stood with difficulty or leant on another’s shoulder. No-one showed any sign that helped me to recognize him or her as a human being. The cruellest sight was the number of raw bodies that lay one upon the other. Although the road was already packed with victims, the terribly wounded, bloody and burnt kept crawling in. They had become a pile of flesh.’

After shock
‘About a week after the bombing unusual symptoms began to appear in the survivors,’ remembers Dr Shuntaro Hida. ‘When patients raised their hands to their heads while struggling with pain, their hair would fall out. Experiencing severe symptoms of fever, throat pain, bleeding and depilation, the survivors fell into a dangerous condition within an hour of the onset. Very few escaped death. Our patients were dying from a bomb which could kill them long after the blast.’ The total number of deaths in the first hours was 75,000, but many more died within a week from acute radiation poisoning. By December 1945, 140,000 were dead, and by the end of 1950, 200,000.

Three days later, the US dropped a second bomb – nicknamed ‘Fat Man’ – on Nagasaki. Around 40,000 died immediately, rising to 140,000 by the end of 1950. Truman promised to eliminate Japanese cities one by one in a ‘rain of ruin’. Japan surrendered on 15 August, on the same conditions it had asked for before the bombings.

Test victim: an abandoned baby in Semipalatansk, Russia’s nuclear test site. Over a million people in the region have been contaminated with radiation from over 500 bomb explosions.

Photo: paul lowe / panos

The H-bomb
Moscow had obtained information from spies involved with the Manhattan Project. After the War, it took the Soviets only four years to produce their first fission bomb. Truman retaliated with a crash programme to develop a weapon thousands of times more powerful again: the ‘hydrogen’ or thermonuclear bomb. Although many scientists objected, their concerns were ignored. The US tested its first fusion bomb (code-named ‘Mike’) in 1952. More than 450 times the power of the Nagasaki bomb, it obliterated Elugelab atoll in the Marshall Islands. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union exploded its first thermonuclear device in August 1953.

Jellyfish babies
The tit-for-tat nuclear escalation of the Cold War had begun. The US conducted a catastrophic H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, which yielded twice the expected destructive power, producing a fireball three miles high. A cloud of radioactive fallout contaminated 11,265 square kilometres. Marshall Islanders fell ill with radiation sickness, their homes rendered permanently uninhabitable. Over time, many suffered horrific after-effects. In 1996, Lijon Eknilang from Rongelap Atoll told the International Court of Justice how she and other Marshallese women had given birth to ‘monster babies’: ‘One woman on Likiep gave birth to a child with two heads. There is a young girl on Ailuk today with no knees, three toes on each foot and a missing arm. Her mother had not been born by 1954, but she was raised on a contaminated atoll. The most common birth defects have been “jellyfish” babies, born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing.’

MAD world
Throughout the 1950s the US and USSR competed for nuclear supremacy. By the 1960s both had developed intercontinental ballistic missiles which could be launched far away from their target, and submarine-launched missiles which could sneak up without any radar warning. This situation came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) or ‘deterrence’. Never mind who attacked first – both nations would be damaged to the point of collapse. This meant, the theory went, that war would be suicide and so no country would risk it. But far from keeping the arms race under control, MAD provoked the production of thousands of nuclear weapons by both superpowers, each striving to possess enough firepower to launch a nuclear first strike that destroyed the ability of the attacked country to respond.

The climax of diplomatic brinksmanship came in early 1962 when the US discovered that Russia was placing missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, allowing for a nuclear attack on the US mainland. The two superpowers came terrifyingly close to a nuclear war, averted by a last minute compromise.

Join the club
In the meantime, three more countries had joined the nuclear club. The British Government was determined to get its own bomb. As Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin bluntly put it: `We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs... and we've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.' Bevin got his wish in October 1952. From 1958, Anglo-American co-operation meant that Britain’s nuclear arsenal was dependent on the US for its operation. France launched a civil nuclear research programme in the 1950s, a by-product of which was weapons-grade plutonium. Under Charles de Gaulle it successfully tested a nuclear bomb in 1960. China – with help from a subsequently regretful Russia – was able to test an A-bomb in 1964, a nuclear missile in 1966, and an H-bomb in 1967. China is the only state committed to using its nuclear weapons only in retaliation to a nuclear attack.

Resist and control
As the danger grew, public opposition to the bomb snowballed. In 1950, the ‘Stockholm Peace Appeal’ secured 500 million signatures from 79 countries calling for nuclear weapons to be banned. Shock at the scale of radioactive contamination at Bikini Atoll provoked calls for a ban on nuclear testing. In 1958, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched in Britain. Anti-nuclear marches attracted tens of thousands, and dedicated activists engaged in civil disobedience, some undergoing lengthy prison sentences.

The first serious attempts by politicians to reduce tensions and control the spread of nuclear weaponry were prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis. A military hotline was installed between the US and Soviet presidents, aimed at improving communication and avoiding dangerous misunderstandings. The two superpowers signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, agreeing not to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or outer space. Testing underground continued.

To a cultural backdrop of ‘make love not war’ and ‘ban the bomb’, the late 1960s was a period of great optimism about disarmament. Several arms-control treaties were signed, culminating in 1968 with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Signed by most countries, it committed the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) – France, China, USSR, Britain, US – not to ‘assist, encourage, or induce’ a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) to acquire nuclear weapons. NNWS agreed in turn not to develop such a capability. This has largely been adhered to. Unfortunately, a commitment within the Treaty to disarm has not been complied with by the NWS. The NPT also enshrines the right of all states to develop nuclear energy, which has proved deeply problematic because the transition from civilian to military capability is relatively simple.

Star Wars and mass protests
Nuclear arsenals continued to grow in the 1970s. In 1979 British and German leaders agreed to allow the US to site 572 US Cruise and Pershing missiles on their territory, with Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands soon signing up as well. In 1981, Ronald Reagan came to power. Treaties were out, and talk of fighting a global thermonuclear war was in. He announced plans for a ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’ – known as ‘Star Wars’ – to enable the US to make a nuclear attack on the USSR and protect itself from retaliation.

Fears that the US was planning to fight a nuclear war with the USSR in Europe sparked widespread concern. The first half of the 1980s saw a million people march for nuclear disarmament in New York City. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Europe in the biggest protests since the Second World War. With New Zealand leading the way, towns, cities and countries declared themselves ‘nuclear free zones’.

The Cold War thaws
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985 it was clear to him that the USSR could no longer afford an arms race with the West. He began to roll back military spending and disarm the Russian nuclear arsenal. He initiated serious negotiations with Reagan who, just before being elected to a second term had changed his position openly to embrace disarmament. A flurry of arms control agreements followed.

As the USSR dramatically disintegrated in the late 1980s, the threat of nuclear apocalypse at last seemed to have receded. In the following decade, the US and Russia both halved their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, from a peak of 65,000 in 1986. But this was by no means the end of world – or nuclear – history.

Nuke kids on the block
By the end of the 20th century the five original nuclear weapons states no longer had a monopoly. Israel has never officially confirmed or denied its possession of the bomb, but in 1986 the existence of nuclear warheads was leaked to the press by technician Mordechai Vanunu. He then spent 18 years in prison for treason. In 1998 India ran tests and declared it had the bomb. National jubilation was quickly dampened when arch-rival Pakistan responded with successful tests, raising the spectre of a South Asian nuclear war. In January 2004 it emerged that the revered head of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Dr AQ Khan, had been secretly selling nuclear weapons capability to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Thanks in large part to Khan, North Korea announced in 2003 that it was building a bomb. Its test in October 2006 was more of a ‘fizzle’, but enough to bring North Korea into the nuclear club.