How the Nuclear Arms Race Works

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The detonation of the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico was a triumph for American scientists. For about three years, the scientists and military perso­nnel involved with the Manhattan Project had worked nonstop to build a nuclear bomb, and the blinding flash of light, intense burst of heat and deafening boom let them know they had succeeded.

Any celebrations that took place after the first detonation were short-lived. The initial goal of the secret projec­t was to build a bomb before Germany could, but World War II had officially ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, two months before the Trinity test. The decision to use the bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead confused many. Although some believed the device saved lives by ending ground combat and air strikes, others felt Japan was ready to surrender anyway -- the Soviet Union was about to join the U.S. by declaring war on the Japanese. The Franck Committee, headed by Nobel laureate James Franck, had even issued a report suggesting the power of the nuclear bomb should be demonstrated to the Japanese before its use on military or civilian targets.

­The U.S. was equally conflicted about sharing atomic information with the Soviet Union. Many s­cientists, including Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer, felt it best to allow a "free interchange of information" of atomic knowledge. Enough was known in the world of physics for the Russians to build a bomb eventually, with or without help from America. Also, withholding information might upset political ties between the two countries, both of which were coming out of World War II as major superpowers. On the other hand, a growing distrust of communism had already formed within many Americans by the end of the war, so some wanted to keep nuclear secrets out of Soviet hands. An American monopoly on nuclear weapons would make Russia more manageable from a political standpoint.

It was this kind of tension that sparked a nuclear arms race, a frantic era in which several nations tested a myriad of nuclear technology and stockpiled thousands of nuclear warheads in an effort to get ahead of one another. Like the space race, whoever had the best technology had the most power, but this was a much more dangerous game -- the potential of an all-out nuclear war between nations always loomed, and the 20th century is littered with uneasy international policies and near catastrophes.

To learn about the nuclear arms race and the people and organizations involved with it, read on.