Nuclear bombs, despite their massive power and ability to destroy entire cities, hold an almost normal position in the conscious of the contemporary world citizen. The average person in today’s world knows that numerous countries hold nuclear weapons, understands the power of nuclear weapons, and accepts that nuclear weapons are almost commonplace. However, nuclear bombs are only a very recent addition to the world, with the first nuclear weapon being tested in 1945. This paper will explore what nuclear weapons are, how nuclear bombs developed, and the history of nuclear weapons as they have existed since their introduction into the world.
In exploring the history of nuclear bombs, it is first important to understand a few basic details about how nuclear weapons work. These basic details are important because nuclear bombs did not always exist in the same advanced format as they do today. As the history of nuclear weapons will show, nuclear technology, like most other technology (war-related or otherwise), developed over time and had rudimentary beginnings. The development of nuclear bombs began with atoms, nuclei, fission, and fusion. When nuclear technology began making its emergence into the world, scientists found that they could harness energy releases from splitting nuclei, which are the centers of atoms: “a neutron is shot at the nucleus and is absorbed, causing instability and fission” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018). Further, it was also found that “the fission process also releases excess neutrons, which can trigger a chain reaction if they’re absorbed by nearby atoms” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018). Finally, the development of nuclear bombs also involves the process of fusion, which exists as the opposite of fission. In fusion, nuclei “fuse together to form heavier nuclei, releasing energy in the process” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018). Ultimately, this means that developers of nuclear bombs have the ability, through fission bombs and fusion bombs, to develop weaponized technology that releases powerful energy at an alarming rate, even though it all begins with small, subatomic particles.
The history of nuclear bombs also finds its roots in small developments. For example, in 1898, French physicists Pierre and Marie Curie discovered that uranium, a highly radioactive material, had the capacity to emit energy without external influence. In 1938, Otto Hahn, a German chemist who is considered to be the founder of nuclear chemistry, discovered fission through experiments with the Curie’s uranium (Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2018). “This discovery earned Hahn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944, and led directly to the development of the atomic bomb” (Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2018). However, these developments existed mostly in experiments, slightly unattached from nuclear bombs and their physical form. The history of nuclear bombs, as they exist in the real world and in their formidable form and function as it is understood in today’s world, begins in the West.
In 1942 the United States of America launched the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan project is the most influential period of time in the development of nuclear bombs. The reason for this is largely due to World War II, as the United States, along with contributions from the United Kingdom and Canada, were interested in developing impactful nuclear technology that could be used against foes in World War II. In July of 1945, three years after the inception of the Manhattan Project, the United States tested the first nuclear bomb in the desert of New Mexico. Less than a month later the United States would wield nuclear power in World War II in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the most famous examples of the use of nuclear bombs. This, of course, is due to the impact of the bombings, but it is also due to the fact that they are the only time in history that nuclear bombs have been used in war. On August 6 and August 9 of 1945, the United States effectively ended World War II by dropping the nuclear bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The detonations of the devices resulted in the deaths of approximately 225,000 Japanese citizens along with military personnel.
Following World War II, the world, which now possessed an understanding of the power and impact of nuclear weapons, began developing more of them. This desire for nuclear power ultimately led to the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Each country, with fear of the other’s motives, began manufacturing and stockpiling nuclear weapons. The most pertinent example that reflects the role of nuclear bombs in the Cold War occurred in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following the United States’ failed attempt to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba, an error which ultimately strengthened relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union, both the United States and the Soviet Union began storing nuclear weapons along their opponent’s border. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days and even came within perhaps a single decision that could have brought nuclear fallout to both countries.
As it is known today, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in a stalemate, but this non-action did not stop the development of nuclear bombs. Today, nine national states are known to hold nuclear bombs (United States, Russia, France, China, United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea)(Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018). However, due to the Cold War, the United States and Russia own an overwhelming majority of the world’s nuclear weapons.
- Atomic Heritage Foundation. (2018). Otto Hahn. Retrieved from https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/otto-hahn
- Union of Concerned Scientists. (2018). How Do Nuclear Weapons Work? Retrieved from https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/how-do-nuclear-weapons-work#.W5goHi2ZNPs