In the atomic
age, the United States has stood as the preeminent power among all nations. It
was the first to test an atomic weapon, the only to use its awesome power in war
and from 1945 to 1990, produced approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons, more than
any other nation in the world.
In July of 1945, a team of scientists, working
on a secret government project known as the Manhattan Project, tested the country's
first atomic bomb at a site codenamed Trinity in the New Mexico desert. The test
signaled a major success for the U.S. government, which had been conducting nuclear
weapons research and development at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico since
1942. At that time, scientist Enrico Fermi, building on decades of research from
dozens of scientists, discovered for the first time that a nuclear chain reaction
could be controlled.
Having successfully tested this powerful new weapon,
the United States became the first and only country to use a nuclear bomb in combat.
On Aug. 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, on
Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 civilians. Three days later on Aug. 9, the United
States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing more than 73,000. The
bombs helped end World War II but ushered in the start of a nuclear arms race
between the United States and the Soviet Union and signaled the beginning of an
age in which all out war could mean the end of life on the planet.
America's monopoly on the bomb proved short-lived. In 1949, a U.S. bomber discovered
that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb. The discovery, announced
to the American public in September, triggered U.S. development of the first hydrogen
bomb, a thermonuclear weapon one thousand times more powerful than Little Boy.
The H-bomb was tested in 1952 in the Eniwetok Atoll near the Marshall Islands.
The explosion, which spread over three miles, left a gaping hole where an entire
island once was. The Soviets followed a year later with an explosion of their
In addition to global implications for nuclear war, the testing
of many of the United States' nuclear weapons had severe environmental and human
costs. As part of its weapons program, the country conducted a known 1,030 nuclear
tests in remote sites within the country -- the majority in Nevada and New Mexico
-- and around the world.
In one instance in 1946, the government tested
its largest atomic bomb on the Marshall Island of Bikini Atoll. Though the government
evacuated Bikini residents, people living on the surrounding islands were coated
with radioactive ash from the bomb. The resulting exposure to radiation killed
many islanders, left many sick and devastated the island's food crop.
from the bomb also fell on the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese boat fishing near the
islands. One crew member died as a result of radioactive fallout and several died
later from radiation-related diseases. The incident caused a rift between Japan
and the United States and in Tokyo in March 2004 thousands of Japanese marked
the anniversary of the Bikini Atoll incident.
U.S-Soviet Arms RaceThe U.S.-Soviet arms race spanned nearly five decades,
during which time the two countries amassed more than 85 percent of the world's
nuclear weapons. In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, the United States alone
reached an historic high with a stockpile of approximately 32,000 weapons, according
to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Although the nuclear arms race
was largely an extension of the Cold War, the threat of atomic Armageddon did
loom. In October 1962 the world would come as close as it ever would to a global
atomic war. In response to the discovery that Soviet missiles were delivered to
Cuba, President John F. Kennedy sent a private message to Soviet leader Nikita
Khrushchev saying the Soviet Union's actions risked "catastrophic consequences
to the whole world."
President Kennedy demanded that Khrushchev remove his
missiles and ordered a blockade of Soviet ships bringing additional missile supplies
to Cuban shores. In response, the Soviet leader ordered the launch of the country's
nuclear weapons if the United States invaded. Over a period of seven days the
two leaders remained in a nuclear standoff until Khrushchev balked, gave in to
Kennedy's demands and ordered Soviet ships out of Cuban waters.
Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, taught the super powers that initiating
nuclear war would be suicidal. After 1962, a direct line of communication, the
so-called "red phone", allowed Moscow and Washington to talk at once.
crisis also accelerated the dialogue between Russia and the United States over
the need to contain the world's nuclear arsenal. After signing a limited test-ban
treaty in Moscow on July 25, 1963, President Kennedy said, "Yesterday, a shaft
of light cut into the darkness. ... For the first time, an agreement has been
reached on bringing the forces of nuclear destruction under international control."
1968, the United States, along with Russia and the United Kingdom, signed the
Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a document that sought to
halt the global spread of nuclear weapons. By then five countries had declared
nuclear weapons programs -- the United States, the Soviet Union, France, China
and the U.K.
It was not
until the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 when President George
H.W. Bush declared an end to the Cold War that both Russia and the United States
agreed to halt the development of nuclear weapons and work together to stop the
spread of such weapons by other countries.
Since 1992, the United States
has tested no nuclear weapons and Russia has fought to stop the spread of its
weapons to the former Soviet republics. While these efforts have mostly been successful,
some analysts point out that the two countries are trying to put the nuclear genie
back in the bottle they themselves opened.
According to Natural Resources
Defense Council senior analyst Robert Norris, as part of a program known as "Atoms
for Peace", started in the 1950's under President Eisenhower, the United States
trained scientists from many countries in nuclear technology for what they considered
According to Norris, this program and others sowed the
seeds of the current nuclear non-proliferation challenges.
programs here where we'll teach Syria, the Iranians about nuclear technology,"
Norris said. "Let's give them a little reactor to play with and we'll give them
some uranium to go in it. This went on and there's quite a lot of stuff out there
which is a hazard to all of us."
"There's a good case where the U.S.
was accommodating to the Shah, training people, bringing them here to go to MIT.
Then they go home and the Mullahs take over and they've got a head start on things,"
Today, though both countries appear to be maintaining and
modernizing a nuclear arsenal, the United States and Russia maintain a civil relationship.
President George W. Bush has worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin on maintaining
diplomatic relations, and the U.S. government views Russia as a global ally in
the fight to end weapons proliferation.
"Russia maintains the most formidable
nuclear forces, aside from the United States, and substantial, if less impressive,
conventional capabilities," Defense Department officials wrote in the Nuclear
Posture Review, a 2002 review of U.S nuclear weapons programs. "There now are,
however, no ideological sources of conflict with Moscow, as there were during
the Cold War."