Atomic Echoes

Joseph Cirincione looks back on the rise of nuclear arsenals and discusses why we may be ready to heed the original warnings of nuclear scientists.

Sixty-two years ago this week, Hiroshima vaporized in the mushroom cloud of the first atomic bomb. Three days later, a second bomb incinerated Nagasaki. But two months earlier, the scientists who built the weapons had warned President Harry Truman of what would happen after the attacks.

Unless the president put in place international controls, they reported, “a race of nuclear armaments is certain to ensue following the first revelation of our possession of nuclear weapons to the world. Within 10 years other countries may have nuclear bombs, each of which, weighing less than a ton, could destroy an urban area of more than five square miles.” A numerically superior arsenal would offer only false security, they said, as “quantitative advantage … will not make us safe from sudden attack.” Without international agreement, there would be a “flying start of an unlimited armaments race.”

Today, America has almost 10,000 nuclear weapons, more by far than all the other nuclear nations, save Russia, combined. As the scientists predicted, we are ahead, but afraid.

The scientists who initially predicted the nuclear future we are living today were members of a Manhattan Project committee of scientists led by Nobel laureate James Franck. It included Glenn Seaborg, the discoverer of plutonium; Leo Szilard, the first person to understand the nuclear chain reaction; and Eugene Rabinowich, who later cofounded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All of these men worked on the fissile materials for the explosive core of the bombs.

When Nazi Germany was defeated in June 1945, it eliminated the major reason that many of the scientists had rallied to the atomic project. They subsequently argued against bombing Japan, but lost. But their ideas on how to control the bomb took root. They championed international controls on any conversion of uranium into weapon material, strict verification mechanisms, and the elimination of all atomic weapons.

Truman took up their proposals. “The hope of civilization,” he told Congress in October 1945, “lies in international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb.” In November 1945, when the entire global arsenal consisted of two American atomic bombs, Truman joined with the leaders of Britain and Canada to propose that all atomic weapons be eliminated and that nuclear energy technology be shared under stringent international controls.

In June 1946, conservative financier Bernard Baruch presented the Truman plan to the new United Nations, calling for a new international authority that would own and control the “dangerous” elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all uranium mining, processing, conversion, and enrichment facilities. The United States would eliminate its weapons once it was assured that no other state was able to construct the bomb.

Cold War tensions killed the plan within months. Stalin saw the bomb as more than a weapon. It was symbol of industrial might, scientific accomplishment, and national prestige. The Soviet leader told his scientists: “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been broken. Build the Bomb—it will remove the great danger from us.”

The United States and the Soviet Union both sought security through atomic arsenals, not atomic treaties. In 1948, Truman ordered the first major increase in weapons production, growing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 200 weapons by late 1949. When the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb that year, Truman accelerating a program to build the hydrogen fusion bomb, hundreds of times more powerful than fission bombs. By the 1960s, both nations had thousands of these thermonuclear bombs.

Now, with nine nuclear nations holding 25,000 nuclear weapons, many are rethinking basic nuclear premises. Back in 1945, the scientists had hit upon a core truth: preventing proliferation requires a political solution; the science of nuclear technology cannot be otherwise contained.

There is now a flurry of efforts crossing party and ideological lines to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and the number of nations that have nuclear weapons. Most prominent is the appeal this January from Democrats William Perry and Sam Nunn and Republicans George Schultz and Henry Kissinger for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” These veteran cold warriors strongly supported the nuclear build-ups of the past. Now, their action plan includes many of the elements of the early Truman era: deep cuts in existing arsenals, a global ban on nuclear tests, a halt in production of new weapon materials, and international control of the entire uranium enrichment process, including the formation of an international fuel bank for nuclear reactors. Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei urges similar steps, as do projects from a dozen research institutes. And some members of Congress and presidential contenders have picked up parts of these proposals.

Our path six decades ago was circumscribed by the looming threat of Soviet power, but today’s political climate allows for considerably more freedom of movement. We may be at a new moment that will finally permit us to heed the warnings echoing from the beginning of the atomic age.

Joseph Cirincione is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and Director for Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.