History and Future of Atomic Weapons

By Ryan Chung
Published on February 20th, 2021

“I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

If you have heard of J. Robert Oppenheimer, you will be familiar with the detonation of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, 1945. Many say this was the start of a new age - The nuclear age. It would not be a stretch to call this a momentous point in human history - it was the first time humans had the power to completely annihilate themselves with their own technology. Before World War 1 and 2, wars and battles usually had bloodshed and casualties perceivable by the naked eye. Whether it was two armies charging each other with spears and swords or two lines of belligerents standing in a line shooting each other with muskets, the blood spilt was seen. Soldiers died in front of other infantry units - cavalry officers often had to endure the sight of their cherished horses mutilated by the enemy conscript. That was how war was for a long time - if the person wasn’t cruel enough, they probably wouldn’t bring themselves to commit atrocities. That was until the invention of the airplane and the bombs carried on bombers. For the first time in history, people could press a button, and thousands below would die. The aviator wouldn’t even be able to see the suffering and carnage caused - he or she would often carry on to the second target, press another button and kill thousands of civilians. Such was the sight in Dresden, 1945, where British American bombers ran multiple air raids against the defenseless citizens of Dresden, killing more than 23,000 innocent bystanders.

What has this to do with atomic energy though, you may ask. The nuclear bomb, which is often carried by a bomber plane (such as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or by a submarine. Both allow the assailants to be blind from the massacre committed by a simple human-made weapon, albeit incurring much more casualties. Therefore, this possibility alone, the mere thought of using nuclear weapons in war apparently deterred the two superpowers of the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union, from having an all out nuclear war, although they were pretty close from doing so in such instances. For example, the Cuban Missile Crisis put the entire world on edge as the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of threatening the majority of the United States, leading to a naval blockade on Cuba as both sides threatened complete nuclear annihilation. Human destruction was narrowly avoided as both leaders maneuvered agilely and reached an agreement; nuclear missiles would be removed from Cuba, while the United States would agree not to invade Cuba again. After the ordeal, both sides agreed that the threat of nuclear war was so serious that they decided to set up a hotline between two countries - the Moscow-Washington hotline, to communicate between two countries if a crisis was to happen. A term was also coined to mark the danger of nuclear war - it would be M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). Throughout the Cold War there would be sporadic threats of nuclear war, such as the Korean War where General Douglas Macarthur suggested nuking North Korea to prevent Chinese troops from supporting their communist brethren - a suggestion so preposterous that the US president had him relieved of duty. However, none would come as close to threatening human existence itself than the Cuban missile crisis.

Coming back to today - while the Soviet Union, one of the powerhouses during the cold war, has fallen, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. It still lingers, as many other countries have obtained the technology of destruction. Countries such as China, India and Pakistan, and North Korea all contribute to the looming but mostly forgotten threat of nuclear war so many people feared in the 1950s and 60s. And of course, there are the old countries of the US and Russia, who even though have limited their nuclear arsenals in conferences such as the SALT talks of 1972, remain to have missiles enough to destroy humanity many times over. While India and Pakistan are an obvious ticking bomb jeopardizing the security and safety of both Indian and Pakistani people, North Korea is another unstable force that time and time again raves about nuking Washington and achieving final victory. The current president of the United States, president Trump does not help the situation with his constant provoking Twitter tweets insulting the leader of North Korea and calling for nuclear war as well. Furthermore, the US president is planning to annul the START treaties, an agreement signed by both leaders of the US and the USSR, to reduce and limit the types of nuclear arsenals each country possesses. It is because the current president of Russia, Vladmir Putin, is rebuilding Russia’s military forces, and modernising Russia’s nuclear arsenals. This leads to Trump realising the necessity of him building some of his own, leading to a vicious cycle.

What is going to happen in the future? While nuclear war is still considered by many to be unlikely, many countries still hold vast nuclear arsenals that might threaten our lives, with new countries possibly attempting to develop nuclear technology themselves. Trying to develop nuclear weapons without detection is going to become harder and harder, with space satellites providing high resolution images towards countries on the ground, any attempt would be instantly notified by the major countries and put their own country in intense scrutiny, as with what happened in North Korea. Meanwhile, advanced communications and information technology would allow knowledge of nuclear weapons to be transmitted across the globe more easily, and would allow developing countries, or sometimes even third world countries, to develop nuclear weapons themselves and propel itself to the world stage. The Doomsday Clock, devised by many of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, is an arbitrary gauge to measure how close mankind is to total extinction. It shows a clock, with the amount of the time to midnight - doomsday. Some use this as an argument to push for further disarmament, saying that the current time of 100 seconds to midnight is too close to call, others say that the time is too arbitrary and non-linear to be considered accurate. For example, the clock was 2 minutes until midnight in 1953, at the height of the Cold War - when the US tested her first hydrogen bomb. In comparison, the clock now seems inaccurate as compared with 1953.

“I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The threat of nuclear war may not be on your mind right now, but the threat of nuclear annihilation is still very real. Let us not forget the lessons of the past, but to use the knowledge we have today to push for a nuclear-worry-free world.

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