Then & Now: Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

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Convinced that the H-bomb was a genocidal device that would cause excessive destruction, Oppenheimer believed an international agency should regulate nuclear weapons. He argued that the United States could secure its defense with a stockpile of atomic arms. However, at the height of the Cold War, defense hawks and anti-Communists saw Oppenheimer’s view as unpatriotic. Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss, two advocates for the hydrogen bomb, contributed to Oppenheimer’s humiliation in hearings that stripped him of his security clearance forever. The US-Soviet arms race would escalate for years.

Today, the world is attempting to control nuclear proliferation through diplomacy and treaties. In 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibited nations from using bombs for either military or research purposes. Forty-one states with nuclear capabilities have signed the treaty, but it cannot take effect until three more nations join. India, Pakistan, and North Korea are among the countries that have refused. Although the United States has signed the treaty, it has not ratified it yet.

As new nuclear states threaten to emerge and the international community strives to prevent proliferation, uncertainty and fear grow. Will terrorists obtain nuclear materials? Will nations be able to agree to contain weapons of mass destruction, or will a coming confrontation go nuclear?

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The Cold War and the nuclear arms race dominated American foreign policy for decades. Did fears of nuclear weapons affect your life? Should the U.S. have engaged in creating the world’s most powerful bombs? What is the most theatening weapon today?