On August 6, 1945, the United States carried out the first attack with nuclear weapons, against the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The weapon would fundamentally alter the face of conflict, and shape strategic thinking for subsequent generations. If strategists couldn’t always agree on what force posture the United States should adopt, there was consistently broad agreement that the spread of nuclear weapons posed a fundamental threat to United States national security.
The United States used its leadership and power to craft a global nuclear nonproliferation regime, founded on the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In that treaty, the five states that had tested nuclear weapons at the time-China, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), the United Kingdom, and the United States-agreed to share peaceful nuclear technology with non-nuclear weapons states and to gradually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
In exchange, all other countries foreswore nuclear weapons and subjected all civilian nuclear activities in their country to international safeguards. Only India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan stand outside the treaty framework. The regime helped limit the number of nuclear weapons states to, as security expert and Harvard professor Graham Allison put it, “eight and a half (counting North Korea),” instead of the nearly two dozen that President Kennedy predicted could exist by 1975. By any measure, the regime has been an enormous success.
Sixty years after Hiroshima, however, the regime is falling apart and the threat lingers on. Hostile, extreme states such as Iran and North Korea are pressing forward with their nuclear programs. A new potential threat in the form of nuclear terrorism has emerged, while the materials and tools terrorists would need to carry out an attack are vulnerable to diversion. Countering these threats requires a clear, realistic strategy backed by firm resolve.
Andy Grotto is Policy Analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.