Introduction to Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War

The true significance of the role that the invention of nuclear weapons played in bringing World War II to an end remains debatable, but the fact is undeniable that these powerful new weapons drastically changed the nature and potential intensity of modern warfare, although, thankfully, no nuclear weapons have yet (as of January 2014) been employed in actual combat, since August 1945.

For the first few decades following the invention of the atomic bomb, many military and political experts, were of the opinion that a nuclear war was inevitable within the next few years. However, and to the world’s good fortune, not a single nuclear weapon has been detonated in warfare since those first two nuclear weapons were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the last days of World War II.

One could argue that the more than two thousand nuclear devices or weapons detonated by this country in subsequent tests over the past nearly seventy years have carried implicit aggressive connotations. In fact, decades of intensive research, and a multitude of tests conducted by an increasing number of nations have led to the development of a plethora of ever more powerful and sophisticated nuclear weapons. However, it is still significant that no nuclear explosion has deliberately killed anyone since the end of World War II, in the fall of 1945.

How could all those social scientists and military experts have been so wrong about the likelihood, or the inevitability, of nuclear war? And will this “grace period”, that has lasted so many decades, soon come to a disastrous end, and those dire predictions so universally feared at last become a reality? Answers to these questions are not easily available, nor, when offered. are they ever entirely convincing. However, for more than two-thirds of a century, that much-feared nuclear holocaust has yet to become our fate. Clearly, this happy avoidance is not due just to good fortune. In fact, the threat of atomic warfare now appears less likely than it ever has since the detonation of that first nuclear explosive device perched on a steel tower at Alamagordo in the New Mexico desert, on July 16, 1945.

While not really addressing the question of Who Won the Cold War?, this current account attempts to answer the question: Why and how were we able to survive the Cold War? In regard to “Who won?”; the answer has many facets, some of which are examined in chapters that follow, although not always convincingly or exhaustively.

After the first chapter, which offers a brief outline of the Cold War as it unfolded, each of the subsequent chapters deals with one or more significant nuclear weapons issues or Cold War questions. And some of that discussion may help reveal the answers as to why this so-called Cold War has so far and so long succeeded in avoiding active nuclear conflicts.

As some of its more intriguing elements are explored, a few issues are highlighted, because they involve still persistent potential dangers. Many of these problems involve new technologies outside and beyond the continued development of multiple nuclear arsenals. And they continue to threaten the world with possible greater hazard by their potential or possible employment in future nuclear warfare. Such an account does not spin a pretty nor a simple tale. However, running through this history are a multitude of explanations for our fortunate escape (until now) from that ever-lurking nuclear doomsday.

As background, the first few chapters deal with the initial development of nuclear weapons – an effort that took place during and then immediately after World War II. Chapter 2 provides a chronology of events in that conflict, and is presented in light of the invention and early evolution of nuclear weapons, together with a multitude of unique problems that had to be surmounted in the course of that wartime development of those first two atomic bombs. Those problems encompassed new concepts in science, as well as in weaponry and warfare.

Chapters 3 and 4 review the impressive national effort that went into the invention of those first two nuclear weapons. It involved a struggle that began even before the United States became an active participant in World War II. And it led to an effort fraught with frequent frustrations, but included instances of uncommon ingenuity and great good fortune.

Then, Chapter 5 contains brief biographical reviews of some of those outstanding scientists, engineers and other important contributors to The Manhattan Project. This review also includes mention of numerous acts of ingenuity that proved vital to the building and ultimate deployment of those first two atomic bombs. The effort involved an assemblage of scientific and technical expertise seldom ever witnessed, and the result was a striking achievement that changed the world of warfare forever.

Chapters 6 and 7 sketch the early growth and increasing sophistication of nuclear warfare systems, and highlight a number of problems that arose with the development and planned deployment of these new weapons-of-mass-destruction.

Chapter 8 reviews the invention and growth of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs}. As the Cold War further evolved, it became increasingly important for our nation to mount and maintain survivable defenses against a multitude of potential foreign military aggressors, some of them equipped with a diversity of nuclear armaments. As the threat posed by the USSR and associated communist countries increased, the chore of protecting and preserving our retaliatory nuclear weapons systems within secure continental bases became ever more difficult. Military installations in hard-to-defend places on distant continents became too frequently viewed as no longer safe or adequate. Hence, the need to develop ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear warheads to distant foreign targets from secure bases within the U.S. seemed ever more imperative.

Chapter 9 deals with the fact that the advent of nuclear weapons has led to an increasing awareness of the lethal consequences of the ionizing radiation that these nuclear weapons created. This greater knowledge and appreciation of radiation hazards seriously impacted the planning and operations of our Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as our civil defenders.

Chapters 10 and 11 touch on the scientific and social benefits that came about as consequences of the efforts to build and understand nuclear weapons systems, both in the free societies of The West (Chapter 10) and in the more repressive USSR (Chapter 11). Some of the more entrepreneurial nations in The West encouraged innovation, and managed to produce from their nuclear research many more beneficial non-military applications than seemingly did the USSR.

Chapter 12 deals with the multitude of occasions when nuclear weapons have come close to being employed in warfare, or being fired by mistake or accidentally. In an alarming number of cases, weapons were simply let loose or even inadvertently lost. Sometimes these events caused serious international consequences, just short of actual nuclear detonations. So it is largely to the credit of those responsible for the careful transport, storage and deployment of the increasing number of nuclear weapons that, despite these numerous accidents and crises, no unintended nuclear detonations have occurred – only planned detonations in scheduled tests.

Chapter 13 is included largely because of my personal involvement,. But it describes one non-nuclear crisis where our knowledge of “dynamic effects”, as developed in our study of nuclear weapons and explosions, proved useful elsewhere. So it is one particular example of the beneficial interactions between nuclear weapon research efforts that have also provided much-needed mutual assistance between government agencies in solving other problems – sometimes involving situations arising from emergencies totally unrelated to nuclear weapons and warfare.

Then, noted in Chapter 14 are some of the numerous incidents in which nuclear reactors and other sources of nuclear radiation have been placed at risk, or even have caused radiation contamination or were otherwise were involved in accidents.

Of course, the advent of these awesome weapons of mass destruction forced most of those involved in their creation, or in planning their actual employment, to ponder the moral issues of their anticipated use in warfare. Some thoughts of those initially involved are alluded to in Chapter 15.

The search for better scientific understanding of the consequences of nuclear explosions prompted a long series of tests and experiments. The bulk of nuclear testing by the United States as well as by other nations was devoted to developing and improving the design of nuclear weapons – by increasing their yield, reducing their dimensions, improving their safety or tailoring them for special military applications. The weapon designers and builders, understandably, concentrated on increasing the effectiveness of these weapons and explosives and their better adaptation to military tasks. Usually, however, the attention of those weaponeers lagged once they had achieved a better or bigger nuclear explosion. And the actual “effects” or destructive capabilities of their nuclear devices were usually left up to the potential users – the military planners – and were consequently considered of secondary interest to the weapon designers. And, since the weapon designers were the ones who normally controlled nuclear weapon testing operations and test priorities, their bias is reflected in the small fraction of nuclear tests that were ever devoted to weapon effects. Consequently, of the more than two thousand tests that were conducted by the U.S., less than ten percent can be identified as devoted to studying their “effects”.

However, Chapter 16 attempts to review the results of those nuclear effects tests.

Chapter 17 deals with the many efforts to ban, or limit or otherwise constrain nuclear testing, as a part of the international effort to curtail further nuclear weapon development.

In fact, Chapter 18 reviews the many international efforts to arrange treaties to ban or control all developments or acquisitions of nuclear weapons. The unrealistic (but laudable) desire to turn back the clock to a time when nuclear weapons did not exist continues to prompt the proposal of treaties designed to do just that: to provide a world free of all nuclear weapons.

It is inevitable that, over time, nuclear weapon systems have acquired ever-increasing complexity and sophistication. However, many damage-level uncertainty issues have for decades dominated the difficulties in the targeting of these strategic nuclear weapons. Chapter 19 deals with some of those ambiguities. These include such matters as exact location of some targets, the degree of target resistance to damage and operational ambiguities regarding weapon impact points as well as some weapon yield uncertainties. While such variables have influenced the design of the weapons that are now stockpiled, these same uncertainties have also led to the tendency to plan for “overkill” of targeted installations. If a prospective target is deserving of attack with a nuclear weapon, it is surely worthy of “assured destruction”. However, eventually a whole new approach to the use of these powerful weapons – these weapons of mass destruction – became imperative with the growing prospect of nuclear war.

Chapter 19 addresses some of these issues.

Chapter 20 provides an account of the effort to analyze the many mass fires ignited in cities in World War II. Since such large-scale fires played a dramatic and decisive role in the conduct and consequences of that war, an analysis of those fires is included here because of its relevance to the even greater role played by the fires nuclear weapons will cause.

Chapter 21 deals in considerable detail with fires likely to be generated by nuclear weapons, if and when they are ever used in warfare. Oddly enough, the probability of such urban holocausts as were so often created in World War II has frequently been ignored or largely dismissed in subsequent plans or analyses of possible nuclear attacks on urban areas, even though civil defenders are still much troubled by the prospect of such extensive fire damage.

In response to the advent of such powerful enemy weapons, those responsible for any U.S. military systems that had been planned to withstand an enemy nuclear first strike, began an intensive search for ways to insure the continued survival from nuclear attack of each such military installation or weapon system.

Chapter 22 explores some of the methods developed and the steps planned and eventually deployed to insure such military systems’ survival from direct nuclear counterforce actions.

As nuclear weapons of enormous damaging power became the reality, national efforts at Civil Defense were forced to encompass ever more ambitious measures to protect essential government facilities as well as the nation’s citizens.

Consequently, Chapter 23 reviews the evolution of Civil Defense measures around the world, in this nuclear age. Unfortunately, in spite of the ever-present threat of nuclear attack posed by the Cold War, the United States has not been as keenly aware of the value of civilian defense measures as have most European countries. Their witness to, and direct involvement in, and the frequent suffering in previous wars has prompted most of those nations to undertake vigorous efforts to find solutions to survival for their governments and their citizens in the event of war – and now in preparation for war involving nuclear weapons. In contrast, fallout or blast shelters have seldom been a subject of much interest to the U.S. civilian population – except, briefly at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Consequently, civil defense has continued to languish in the United States over the many decades of the Cold War. In fact, today, few city dwellers in this country know where the nearest fallout shelter is – or even if they still exist. And for now, no plans exist for new or additional shelters or safe havens, in event of an attack in a nuclear war.

Finally, Chapter 24 returns to the question as to “Who Won the Cold War?” Some of the many complex factors that contributed to The Cold War and its end are summarized in this chapter.

Chapter 25, as somewhat of a grim afterthought, attempts to consider some of the possible consequences of a world nuclear war, one which might likely involve the detonation of a host of thermonuclear weapons. No thorough or comprehensive survey of the enormous devastation such an all-consuming conflict would cause can be adequately covered in a single chapter, or even a single tome, but, nevertheless, such a gruesome prospective conflict deserves our careful attention.