The Cold War – Nuclear Proliferation

U.S president George Bush and Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev at the Moscow Summit in 1991. By Peter Turnley/Getty Images.


Introduction –

Since their invention, nuclear weapons have produced perpetual fear, apprehension, and caution due to their destructive ability; yet, the production of nuclear weapons has increased significantly and spread across influential countries since the Cold War. The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union — or USSR — and the United States from 1947 to 1991, which determined the hegemonic powers  and political ideologies of the current world. During the war, both major powers developed, produced, and stationed large arsenals of the nuclear weaponry, which significantly increased the risk of nuclear warfare and planetary destruction, a problem which was invented during the Cold War and still persists today.

Cold War Political Cartoon. Author is unknown.

Personal Interest –

I am personally interested in the Cold War due to the unique nature of the war: the Cold War was the first war where one side could easily annihilate the other through nuclear weapons; yet, the Cold War lacked direct assaults due to mutually assured destruction. Thus, neither side could defeat the other in a battle without risking the alleged destruction of humanity. In addition, I chose this topic because I was interested in the potential negative effects of nuclear proliferation. Although mutually assured destruction has prevented countries from utilizing nuclear weapons so far, countries are still prone to irrational behavior and occasional accidents. Through this project, I want to discover the solutions to the present-day problem of nuclear proliferation and harbor the answers to these driving questions: how did the Cold War affect Russian society, how did the Cold War affect American society, and what were the effects of developing nuclear weaponry?


Norris Bradbury — an American physicist — standing next to a plutonium implosion bomb built during the Manhattan Project. The image was taken by a U.S Department of Energy employee in 1945.


Invention of Nuclear Weaponry –

Nuclear weapons were initially developed by the U.S before the Cold War, under the Manhattan Project; the Soviet Union subsequently launched an atomic bomb project in response to intelligence reports of U.S attempts to engender nuclear weaponry. The U.S began developing an atomic bomb in 1939 under the Manhattan Project, which “employed 130,000 workers and spent $2.2 billion — approximately $22 billion in 2016 dollars — by the end of the Cold War” (Fehner and Gosling). “After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, the U.S government increased funding for the development of an atomic bomb and initiated a full-scale program, led by the Army Corps of Engineers. In order to avoid catastrophic accidents and maintain secrecy, the production facilities were located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories in New Mexico, directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, utilized two methods: the gun method, which collided two fissionable materials — such as uranium-238 — at extremely high speeds, and the implosion method, which compressed a mass of plutonium and triggered an explosive chain reaction. In 1944, the Los Alamos facility developed two prototypes using both methods; the uranium gun prototype was nicknamed Little Boy, while the plutonium implosion prototype was nicknamed Fat Man. In the 1945 Trinity Test, the plutonium implosion bomb — consisting of 13.5 pounds of plutonium — was detonated in a southern New Mexico desert, causing nearby livestock to suffer from hair loss, skin lesions, and bleeding. Three weeks after the Trinity test, the U.S military dropped the atomic bombs on Japan” (Fehner and Gosling). Although the atomic bombs were developed before the Cold War, the U.S continued its development and production of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.




Similarly, the Soviet Union began developing atomic weapons under the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project in 1942; yet, “Soviet scientists were not able to overcome numerous difficulties without stolen intelligence on the Manhattan Project. In 1942, the USSR suspected that the U.S was developing an atomic bomb and began developing its own. Joseph Stalin — the authoritarian leader of the USSR — appointed Igor Kurchatov to direct a small-scale atomic bomb project. By 1944, Kurchatov had recruited 100 scientists for the Soviet Atomic Bomb project, one-fifth of the scientists working on the Manhattan project at the time. By 1948, Soviet physicists developed a successful chain reaction, and — in August 29, 1949 — the USSR successfully detonated an atomic uranium bomb, completing the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project in four years. However, — between the years of 1942 and 1954 — the Soviet government obtained thousands of crucial documents delineating the Manhattan Project through the KGB — which acted as an Intelligence Committee. In addition, Soviet scientists obtained the original design of the plutonium implosion bomb from a Manhattan Project scientist. Thus, the first Soviet atomic bomb, and the facilities used to produce the nuclear weapons — were the same size and proportions as the U.S weapons and facilities”(Schwartz). Through Soviet espionage, the USSR saved substantial amounts of time and resources while developing the plutonium bomb.



Nuclear Weaponry during Cold War –

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were utilized to deter an adversary from direct assaults, and provided diplomatic and military leverage for both major powers; however, both major powers risked annihilation in response to external threats. “During the 1960s, U.S president — John F. Kennedy — advocated for an immense expansion of the U.S military, including nuclear power. Thus, in 1961, the U.S stationed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, which bordered the Soviet Union. The Soviet government interpreted the missiles as a potential preemptive assault, and came to the conclusion that the U.S might be preparing for a nuclear strike. In 1962, the Soviet leader — Nikita Khrushchev — decided to covertly deploy nuclear missile in Cuba in response to the neighboring American missiles. In addition, Khrushchev’s decision to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba was motivated by U.S attempts to eliminate the Castro regime “through invasions, sabotage, paramilitary assaults, and assassination attempts” of the Cuban leaders”(Schwarz). “Oblivious to the nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Kennedy to launch an assault on Cuba. U.S bombers were almost sent to drop bombs on Cuba. Yet, President Kennedy never ordered the assault on Cuba, and luckily avoided the potential destruction of the U.S”(Neuhauser). “After discovering the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S conjectured that the Cuban missile deployment provided no military advantage. Yet, in Kennedy’s televised address, he argued that the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba significantly increased the possibility of nuclear war, and threatened the welfare of U.S citizens. Subsequently, the Kennedy administration decided to force the removal of the missiles from Cuba by engendering a blockade around Cuba. The illegal quarantine immensely increased the possibility of nuclear war, which would have been exacerbated by the potential Cuban invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis was eventually resolved by a clandestine agreement between both major powers to remove their missiles from Cuba, Turkey, and Italy”(Schwarz). Thus, the U.S risked nuclear escalation and war through a series of dubitable military decisions — such as illegally quarantining Cuba — in response to negligible acts by the USSR. “Moreover, during the crisis, a Soviet submarine prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo in response to an attack from U.S ships, which was obstructed by a high-level commander on the submarine. In 1983, Russia’s early warning system detected the launch of multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles form the U.S, which was interpreted as a nuclear assault. Although the incident could have instigated a destructive counterattack, Soviet officials realized the system had identified light reflecting from clouds as a threat”(Neuhauser).


Find the nation with the largest nuclear arsenal. Nonproliferation efforts in the U.S have caused this country to surpass the U.S in nuclear weapons. Next, add up all the nuclear weapons to find the amount of weapons globally. Although this amount might seem immense, countries have already disarmed a large amount. of weapons, and are capable of expunging the remaining weapons.


Nuclear Nonproliferation after Cold War –

Subsequently after the Cold War — both the U.S and Russia decreased the amount of nuclear weaponry through nuclear non-proliferation attempts. “The Cold War ended in 1991, when the Russian president — Mikhail Gorbachev — signed the Soviet Union out of existence. After the Cold War, Russia and the U.S successfully advanced nuclear nonproliferation agendas. “In 1972, the U.S and Russia signed the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which limited the use of anti-missile defense systems in order to maintain nuclear deterrence; in 1993, the U.S and Russian presidents signed the START 2 Treaty, which eliminated the employment of multiple nuclear warheads on ICBMs”(Ritter). “After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, nuclear weapons stationed in previously socialist states were returned to Russia in 1993. By 2005, Russia — with the aid of the U.S — had dismantled 25,000 nuclear weapons, expunged several hundred missile systems, and secured a large portion of its remaining nuclear material. Russian facilities could only dismantle 2,000 warheads per year, and would expunge its nuclear stockpile in at least ten years. In 1998, the U.S Congress spent 20 million dollars to keep 100,000 Russian nuclear scientists from selling nuclear secrets to enemies of the U.S and — under president Bill Clinton —  provided $17 billion to secure Russia’s nuclear weapons”(Hays). Thus — with substantial aid from the U.S — Russia expunged its nuclear arsenal, secured its nuclear materials, and advanced nonproliferation efforts.


Compare the destructive powers of the antiquated and modern nuclear weapons by dividing the explosive yield of the modern weapon by the yield of the outdated weapon. The resulting values will convey how many times more powerful the modern weapons are in comparison.


Modern Nuclear Proliferation –

“Yet, in 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin advocated for strengthening Russia’s nuclear capabilities in response to U.S ABMs, and developing nuclear missiles capable of avoiding American missile defense systems. In October of 2016, Russia tested a ballistic missile — known as RS-28 — carrying a nuclear hypersonic warhead known as Object 4202, which is capable of traveling fifteen times the speed of sound and evading all U.S anti-missile defense systems. Thus, the Russian weapons can potentially annihilate the U.S’s nuclear weapons facilities in 12 minutes to avoid retaliation”(Ritter). “Furthermore, the Trump administration issued a novel nuclear policy, which attempted to counter Russia’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal through the development of new technology instead of manufacturing more nuclear weaponry. President Trump’s modernization plan aims to build low-flying cruise missiles, cruise missiles fired from submarines, and low-yield warheads for missiles. According to the Nuclear Posture Review, Russia’s nuclear modernization prevents the U.S from expunging its nuclear arsenal, since U.S modernization is essential to maintaining deterrence. Yet, the nuclear modernization program will cost approximately 1.2 trillion dollars over the next 30 years”(Sanger and Broad). Thus, the intricate problem of nuclear proliferation was invented before the Cold War to obtain security, was subsequently met with nonproliferation attempts from both major world powers to obtain security, and currently continues in the perpetual goal of national security.


A Russian sailor standing on a Kuzbass nuclear submarine in Vladivostok, Russia in 2016. The photograph was taken on July 30th.


Potential Solutions –

In the present-day, nuclear proliferation substantially increases the possibility of purposeful or accidental planetary destruction. In 2017, “the total amount of nuclear weaponry globally was approximately 9,220”(Kristensen and Norris), which could easily destroy all human civilization. An explosion from a single nuclear weapon would instantly annihilate people and buildings in the vicinity, while releasing lethal radioactive energy over the region, rendering it uninhabitable. In addition, radioactive waste — a byproduct of nuclear fission — is generally lethal to humans, and requires thousands of year to become innocuous. A potential solution to nuclear proliferation would require several measures: cooperation between major world powers through a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, funding for the dismantling of nuclear missiles and warheads, and permanent, secure storage facilities for nuclear waste. Without cooperation between the major world powers, nuclear nonproliferation becomes a futile and potentially catastrophic objective, since nonproliferation in a single major power might prompt adversaries to attack the country, without a concern of nuclear retaliation. Thus, the United States, Russia, and China should effectuate a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which would engender transparent cooperation between the countries. Subsequently, the major powers should provide sufficient funding in order to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. In addition, the major world powers can utilize their diplomatic leverage to pressure smaller allied countries into nuclear nonproliferation. Thus, China might pressure North Korea into nuclear nonproliferation, while dismantling its own arsenal. Finally, the countries would separately store the nuclear byproducts deep underground in secure facilities; which would prevent the waste from leaking out and impacting its environment. Yet, the creation of secure subterranean storages would require sufficient  funding from each country. Furthermore, the alternative of launching nuclear waste into space would potentially leave a region uninhabitable if the aircraft launch failed. Thus, the U.S government should instigate nuclear nonproliferation treaties with other major powers, provide funding for nuclear disarmament, and engender secure storage facilities for lethal nuclear byproducts, in order to eliminate nuclear proliferation.




Call to Action –

Although nuclear warfare might not destroy humanity in the near future, nuclear weapons are very costly and often produced with the intention of never being utilized. If you are concerned with the dissemination of nuclear weapons, here are some actions you could take:

  • Locate the nuclear storage facilities near you. This includes nuclear waste storage facilities.
  • Call your state representative and express your concern with the nearby nuclear facility as a safety hazard.
  • Call a congressperson and express your concerns with nuclear proliferation. (Public concern over an issue tends to manifest in politicians.)
  • Tell others about the problem of nuclear proliferation in person and through social media to spread awareness.


Works Cited:

Bradbury, Norris. U.S Department of Energy, 1945.



Cold War Political Cartoon.



Fehner, Terrence R., and F. G. Gosling. “The Manhattan Project.” U.S Department of Energy, Apr. 2012. Web.






Kuzbass Nuclear Submarine in Vladivostok, Russia . 30 July 2016



Neuhauser, Alan. What to Do About America’s Nuclear Weapons Stockpile. U.S.News, 28 Sept.



Nuclear Weapons in 1945 and 2015 in Comparison. Statistica, 2015.



Ritter, Scott. The U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Race Is over, and Russia Has Won. Newsweek, 17 Apr. 2017.



Sanger, David E., and William J. Broad. To Counter Russia, U.S. Signals Nuclear Arms Are Back in a Big Way. The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2018.



Schwartz, Michael I. The Russian-A(Merican) Bomb: The Role of Espionage in the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project. History of Science, 1996.



Schwarz, Benjamin. “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis.” The Atlantic, 19 Feb. 2014. Web.



The Countries With the Biggest Nuclear Arsenals. Statistica, 2015. 



Turnley, Peter. U.S President George Bush and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Moscow Summit in 1991. Getty Images.


Share this project
  1. April 28, 2018 by Kadriye Barsamian

    successful academic research and writing

  2. April 28, 2018 by Tuba Firincioglu

    Very detailed research. Good job Kuzey!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.