Skip to main content

In the News

Under The Spreading Mushroom Cloud

June 2024
5min read

‘Who’s next?” sang Tom Lehrer in his darkly funny Cold War ballad about nuclear proliferation. We’re still asking.

It all seemed familiar: the sobering headline, the quick survey of responses from Washington and other capitals, then the solemn editorial assessments of the meaning of it all. Last spring, India—showing what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “reckless disregard for world opinion"—conducted underground explosions of five nuclear “devices,” that euphemistic shorthand for bombs. Then Pakistan, despite entreaties and threats of U.S. sanctions, responded with five blasts of its own, claiming that India’s action left it little choice. The meaning was all too clear: India and Pakistan were opening an apparent nuclear arms race, just when the world was breathing easier after the end of the Cold War.


Did I say the story seemed familiar? It is familiar. India ran its first such test in 1974, at which time it became the sixth nation that either could produce atomic bombs or had already done so. Its entrance into that exclusive club, like those that preceded it, reagitated the question that was posed the July morning in 1945 when the first atomic blast lit up New Mexico skies, and that remains unanswered. Can this terrible power be controlled before it does irreparable damage to humanity and to the earth? That is the root problem that has haunted governments for more than half a century now. But it has shown itself in different forms and inspired different levels of concern under changing historical circumstances.

The first and most frightening moment came on September 24, 1949, when readers of The New York Times opened their papers to be told ATOM BLAST IN RUSSIA DISCLOSED . War with the Soviets over Berlin had barely been avoided the year before by the airlift; but some Americans had been reassured by the feeling that exclusive possession of the A-bomb by the United States would guarantee Soviet good behavior. Now this comforting illusion, never endorsed by scientific or government experts, had been snatched away. Although President Truman’s official statement carefully avoided the word bomb , the Times science correspondent William L. Laurence was unsparing in his explanation of what the detected surge of atmospheric radioactivity in the U.S.S.R. meant. It was, he wrote, “the end of the first period of the atomic age and the beginning of the second.” In a year the Soviets could have fifty bombs, “enough to destroy fifty of our cities.” The American monopoly of what would come to be called “nukes” was about to be replaced by the balance of terror.

Under the circumstances there were demands to re-energize the dormant efforts at United Nations control. The U.S.-sponsored Baruch Plan of 1946 had called for an international authority under UN control, which would have the exclusive right to manufacture atomic bombs.

Meantime, defenses were stepped up. The arming of NATO accelerated, and an Air Force spokesman, Gen. George C. Kenney, explained that a twenty-four-hour radar watch would be needed to prevent a “sneak attack” by Russian bombing planes. There were as yet no intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To these two lasting patterns of response—increased diplomatic and military activity—a third and temporary one was added in 1949: namely, the hunt for villains. In the face of informed assurances that any modern nation could eventually master nuclear technology, Sen. Karl Mundt of South Dakota told an audience that “laxity in safeguarding this country against Communist espionage has permitted what were once the secrets of our atomic bomb to fall into the hands of America’s only potential enemy.” The general manifestations of anti-Communist fervor of the next few years were, at least to a degree, legacies of the 1949 Soviet explosion.

If the Cold War accounted for the anxiety triggered by Russia’s first Abomb, it also explains an almost enthusiastic reaction to Great Britain’s. Forgoing secrecy, London announced in February of 1952 that the United Kingdom would set off its first test “shot” in Australia in the fall. Sen. Brien McMahon, chairman of the joint congressional committee on atomic energy, almost rejoiced in the news. It would, he said, “contribute to the keeping of the peace because it will add to the free world’s deterring power.” So, in the vocabulary of preventing atomic war, deterrence , which at least appeared achievable, was added to international control , which had proved much more difficult.

By the time the test took place, on October 3, it rated a story only on the bottom of page one of the Times , competing for space with the Yanks-Dodgers World Series, news from the front in Korea, and the electoral contest between General Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. A related item told of Prime Minister Churchill’s triumphant air as, smoking the usual cigar, he emerged from an audience with Queen Elizabeth. Britain was described as “happy” over its “atomic feat,” and Americans appeared almost as happy. Six weeks later came the news that the United States had detonated a hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok, but the frightening implications of its tremendous increase in destructiveness were muted by its presumed addition to deterrence.

The anti-Communist fervor of the early fifties was partly a legacy of the 1949 Soviet explosion.

Eight years elapsed before France entered the game on February 13, 1960, through an airborne test (of which there had by then been more than two hundred in the world) of a plutonium bomb in the Sahara. It was described as having a power “approximately” that of the twentykiloton bomb that had razed Hiroshima, a weapon that by this time seemed almost too primitive to inspire awe. Nonetheless, there was truth to the single-column subhead’s declaration, “Successful Shot Puts Paris With U.S., Soviet and Britain as Nuclear Power.” That was exactly what General de Gaulle, the President of France, wished: to prove that his country was again a major power that did not need the support of any alliance. His official announcement unveiled further developments in the emerging and sometimes perplexing philosophy of war prevention. The French Republic was now “better placed to make its actions felt for the conclusion of agreements among the atomic powers with a view toward realizing nuclear disarmament.” The argument was that having bigger and better bombs gave a nation the security and influence to consider having fewer; one had to arm to disarm.

Cold War tensions eased sufficiently to allow a huge breakthrough in mid-1963. when Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, equally concerned about the cumulative effects of radioactive fallout that descended on the righteous and the wicked alike, signed a treaty agreeing to conduct no further tests in space, the sea, or the atmosphere. But then, on October 16, 1964. China exploded—in the air—its first atomic bomb.

This time official responses reflected changes in the world picture. China was still a Communist nation, publicly hailing its bomb as a “major achievement of the Chinese people in their struggle to … oppose the United States imperialist policy of nuclear blackmail. …” But China was no longer a Soviet ally: quite the contrary in fact, and one consequence of the test was to draw Moscow and Washington closer together. Experts expressed relief that the explosion had a yield of “only” ten to twenty kilotons. It was the editorial page of the Times that drew attention to a longerrange cause of alarm. An Asian Abomb opened new doors. If “industrially underdeveloped China” could make an atomic bomb, other nations could follow “down the same dangerous road.”

Further spread of bomb-making technology had become a clear and present danger, and an international nonproliferation treaty was drawn up in 1967-68 and signed by a growing number of countries. The United States ratified it in 1970. India was not a signatory, and its 1974 underground test simply ignored the protests of the nations that already possessed nuclear arsenals. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called it a peaceful move, “nothing to get excited about.” But Zulfikar AIi Bhutto, Pakistan’s leader, decidedly disagreed. “If India builds the bomb,” he declared, “we will eat grass or leaves, we go hungry. But we will get one of our own.” After twenty-four years, that prediction is fulfilled.

Pakistan is the seventh acknowledged bomb possessor, the third Asian and the first Muslim nation to join the ranks. It is taken as a given among expert sources that Israel has some “nukes” or the capacity to produce them immediately, though the Israeli government has never acknowledged as much. South Africa was at one point thought to be in a similar position. It is a hard time for the pursuit of nonproliferation, given the ease of transferring technology, the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions, and the general uncertainties of control in a multipolar world. Perhaps some new form of peace initiative—abolition?—will be added to the list that already has included mutual assured destruction, test bans and moratoriums, arms limitation and nonproliferation, even as the weapons themselves have grown in quantity, power, and number of possessors. The fifty-three-year record shows that we devise strategies and priorities in accordance with how we see the problem through the ever-changing lens of the present moment.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.