Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew

Larry Holzwarth - October 13, 2018

It began with the Manhattan Project, a joint military, industrial, scientific, and academic effort to determine the feasibility of an atomic bomb and the means to build one. At the same time that the Manhattan Project was going forward, in the utmost secrecy within the United States but under the watchful eyes of Stalin’s spies, the United States Navy was exploring the use of the atom as a power source for ships and submarines. Scientists and researchers in Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were looking into the atom as a weapon, but efforts everywhere were dwarfed by that underway in the United States.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The fireball from the Trinity Test, the first detonation of an atomic bomb, fifteen seconds following the explosion of the device. US Department of Energy

When the Second World War ended, only the United States had the possession of the atomic bomb, and the accumulated knowledge to build one. Bigger and more powerful atomic weapons were already in development, at the same time studies of how to miniaturize the atomic bomb were underway, in order for it to be used in naval torpedoes, heavy artillery, and possibly even as a hand-held infantry weapon, launched from a bazooka like device. Delivery of atomic weapons by various means soon took a back seat to a yet more powerful device, the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, which rendered the bomb design used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki obsolete.

Here is a list of events in the history of America’s nuclear weapons program.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Lawrence Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, standing at the point where the base of the tower had been prior to the detonation of the Trinity Test. Department of Energy

1. The atom was all the rage in the late 1940s and 1950s

Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which two bombs of an entirely different design were used, the branches of the United States military all sought the means to employ atomic weapons to support their missions. The US Army explored the use of atomic weapons in the shells for howitzers, in tanks, and in hand-operated infantry weapons similar to mortars. The Air Force demanded control of the atomic weapon inventory, and postulated that atomic bombs dropped by Air Force bombers rendered the United States Navy obsolete, and thus redundant. The Navy began studies of launching atomic weapons from submarines operated using atomic power. Accordingly, numerous new designs for warheads, which nearly all operated using the implosion of plutonium were developed.

Plutonium is created by breeder reactors, and the creation of plutonium was one of the major goals of the Manhattan Project. Both the Trinity Test bomb and the weapon dropped on Nagasaki were plutonium implosion weapons, by contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had been of a design known as a uranium gun. The creation of several different delivery systems for nuclear weapons was one reason for the extensive nuclear testing in the atmosphere during the 1950s, newly designed weapons needed to be tested for their energy release, nuclear yield, and feasibility as a usable weapons. American atomic and nuclear testing in the atmosphere occurred until the early 1960s, in the Pacific and in the Nevada desert, until the Partial Test Ban Treaty took effect during the administration of President Kennedy.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
US Navy light aircraft carrier USS Independence in flames during Operation Crossroads, a test to determine whether ships could survive atomic bombs in 1946. US Navy

2. Operation Crossroads in the Marshall Islands

Operation Crossroads was a test of nuclear weapons against ships, with the vessels gathered in a lagoon in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The ships involved were of all types, including battleships, heavy cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, and support ships. The German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which had fought alongside Bismarck during the Battle of the Denmark Straits, was present for the tests, as were captured Japanese vessels. The purpose of the tests was to establish the fact that the United States Navy was still germane in the atomic age, and the Army Air Force attempted to stack the deck against the Navy, packing as many ships as possible into the target area, and demanding that the ships involved in the test be carrying full loads of fuel and ammunition, as they would be in a combat situation. Three bombs were to be detonated, one exploding in the air and the other two submerged. They were the first atomic weapons detonated since the bomb over Nagasaki.

Numerous animals were placed on the target ships to allow for the study of the effects of radiation following the blasts. The animals included goats, pigs, rats and mice, guinea pigs, and insects which were embedded in bundles of grains. Eight B-17s were converted to remote control so that they could be flown into the radiation cloud, equipped with sensors to monitor the environment in the immediate aftermath of the blasts. The three tests were labeled Able (the air burst) and Baker and Charlie (submerged). The first test was scheduled for July 1, 1946, with the target for the bomb, which was dropped by a B-29, the venerable US battleship Nevada, the only American battleship which had gotten underway during the attack on Pearl Harbor and which later bombarded the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The first test during Operation Crossroads was an air burst of an atomic bomb dropped by a B-29, on ships anchored in a lagoon. US Navy

3. Test Able during Operation Crossroads was a disappointment for the Army Air Force

On July 1, 1946, the airplane which had flown as the photographic escort over Nagasaki dropped a plutonium bomb with a yield of 23 kilotons which exploded just over 500 feet above the anchored ships in the lagoon at Bikini Atoll. Two transport ships sank immediately, two destroyers several hours later, and a former Japanese cruiser capsized and sank the next day. Another 14 ships were classified as badly damaged, and the disappointing results (for the Army Air Force) were attributed to the poor ballistic tendencies of the bomb causing it to miss its target by over 700 yards. USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier which had fueled airplanes on its flight deck caught fire, which was extinguished by tugs. Though the USS Nevada survived the bombing, it was determined by animals on the vessel that had a crew been aboard most of them would have received a lethal dose of radiation.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reviewed the radiation information obtained from Nevada and later wrote, “a large ship, about a mile away from the explosion, would escape sinking, but the crew would be killed by the deadly burst of radiations from the bomb, and only a ghost ship would remain, floating unattended in the vast waters of the ocean”. Several of the test animals suffered temporarily from radiation sickness, but recovered. Because the burst during Able was so high in the air, material which was made radioactive and which rose into the air (the source for radioactive fallout) entered the stratosphere and was dispersed over a wide area. There was little discernible radioactive fallout from the Able test. Test Baker, the first submerged nuclear detonation, was scheduled for July 25, with the weapon suspended beneath a landing craft, 90 feet below the surface, the same distance from the bottom of the lagoon.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Test Baker detonated a 21 kiloton bomb suspended in the water beneath the ships, some of which can be seen just outside the blast. US Army Air Force

4. Test Baker during Operation Crossroads

When the weapon for test Baker was detonated, the landing craft from which it had been suspended was obliterated. USS Arkansas, a battleship and veteran of both World Wars was sunk, as was USS Saratoga, the Japanese battleship Nagato, a seven other ships. The stoutly built German cruiser Prinz Eugen again survived, though it suffered sufficient hull damage to capsize and sink five months after the test, too heavily irradiated for repair crews to board. It was towed to Kwajalein where it sank in the lagoon, and where it remains today. Baker was the first detonation of an atomic bomb in water, and the hydraulic shock produced by the blast and the relative shallowness of the water in the lagoon produced unexpected phenomena for study. The blast deepened the lagoon by digging a thirty-foot crater in its bottom.

USS Arkansas was longer than the lagoon was deep, and for a brief time stood on its bow on the bottom before falling over backward. Saratoga remained afloat for several hours and orders were issued to tow it to one of the nearby islands for beaching and later study, but the waters around the aircraft carrier were too radioactive for the vessel to be approached. USS Independence, another aircraft carrier, survived Able and Baker and was finally towed to San Francisco for radiation studies. The entire lagoon, the ships floating in it, and the islands surrounding it were heavily contaminated by radiation. Decontaminating the surviving ships could only be accomplished by sand blasting the vessels to their bare metal. Baker used only pigs and rats for animal testing and nearly all of them died from radiation contamination. After Baker, test Charlie was canceled and cleanup operations undertaken, which were largely a failure.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
US Navy sailors, without protective clothing, attempt to decontaminate the German cruiser, Prinz Eugen, following Test Baker. US Navy

5. Operation Crossroads changed the public perception of radioactive fallout

Between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb and the analysis of the results of Operation Crossroads, it was widely believed that radiation sickness was relatively painless for the victim. Officials for Operation Crossroads deliberately fed this perception, announcing that the dying test animals did not suffer, but rather, “The animal merely languishes and recovers or dies a painless death. Suffering among the animals as a whole was negligible”. During the cleanup following Operation Crossroads, the falsity of this statement was revealed, and the extent of the fallout as a result of the underwater shot was revealed to be outside the capability of the Army and Navy to clean up. Sailors at first scrubbed radioactive surfaces with soap, water, and stiff brushes, without protective clothing. The extent of the radiation was revealed in the presence of fish in the lagoon which could be seen as if they were an X-ray, glowing in the water.

It was eventually determined that the Geiger counters being used to monitor radioactivity were incapable of detecting plutonium. Shortly after that determination was made plutonium was discovered in the captain’s quarters aboard the Prinz Eugen, indicating that plutonium could be anywhere within the lagoon and the ships which had been present during the explosion. In 1948 a book by David Bradley, who had been a member of the radiation detection and cleanup crew at Bikini Atoll, was published as No Place to Hide, bringing public attention to the problems associated with atomic fallout, as well as accusing the military of hiding the results of the tests, “in the vaults of military security”. The book did much to focus public attention on the dangers of the aftermath of a nuclear attack at a time when only the United States possessed the atomic bomb, though its ability to handle nuclear fallout was quite literally thrown to the winds.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The Davy Crockett Weapon System was an early attempt to deploy nuclear weapons to the battlefield in the 1950s. US Army

6. Tactical Nuclear Weapons emerged in the 1950s

In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, forever changing the world and deepening the divisions of the Cold War. The United States, though still possessing a superiority in the number of available weapons, faced numerical inferiority in the number of troops facing the Soviets and their puppet states in Europe, which was still in the process of being rebuilt from the destruction of World War II. American military planners increased their study and plans regarding the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, to be deployed in the support of combat troops in the field. This required nuclear capability on a smaller scale, in regards to the actual size of the weapon. US scientists and technicians developed a series of smaller-scale weapons including the W54, an implosion weapon with an equivalent yield of 10 tons to 1,000 tons (1K) of TNT.

The warhead was designed to be deployed with modifications on systems such as the Davy Crocket Weapon System, a recoilless gun which launched a short-range missile from a tripod base. The weapon was designed to be used against Soviet armor in Europe and North Korean armor in Korea. The weapon could also be used against mechanized infantry, or large formations of infantry on foot. The West German military was particularly enthralled with the idea of deploying the Davy Crockett against Soviet troops and lobbied for their army to be supplied with the weapon. The weapons were operated by a team of three men, and deployed in Europe by American troops which were tasked with defending the German border, including against invasion via the Fulda Gap, an area of critical importance during the Cold War. Each weapon was capable of destroying and irradiating an area of about two city blocks.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Test shot of Atomic Annie, May 25, 1953, the only time the weapon ever fired an atomic round, witnessed by several congressmen and other dignitaries. US Army

7. The M65 atomic cannon came to be known as Atomic Annie

In 1949, a United States Army weapons research and manufacturing facility known as Picatinny Arsenal, located in New Jersey, was assigned the task of creating a nuclear shell capable of being fired from a piece of artillery. Loosely based on the German railroad guns deployed in both World Wars, the arsenal created the M65 cannon to fire the weapon, which was based on the same warhead used by the Davy Crockett. Rather than being deployed on a railway car, the cannon was driven by specially designed tractors, each capable of being steered independently. The cannon was first fired at the Nevada Test Site in May 1953, when it lobbed a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead a distance of seven miles, which successfully detonated. It is to date the only time a nuclear shell was fired from a cannon, and its success led to more than 20 enormous guns being built and deployed in Europe and the Korean Peninsula.

Other nuclear shells were later developed for artillery already in existence in the arsenal of the US Army, including the 155 mm howitzer (W48) and the 203 mm (W33). The use of nuclear artillery bombardment on the battlefield of the future was part of strategic and tactical planning for the United States Army and allied war planners during the 1950s as a means of countering the Soviet superiority in armor and in troops. At the time the United States had a decided advantage in strategic nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, and the development of tactical nuclear weapons included many others, including mines and missiles. The deployment of the W33 nuclear shell continued into the early 1990s, as did the W48, remaining a part of NATO planning long after several missile systems had been discarded. The US Navy developed a warhead to be fired from sixteen-inch battleship guns, the W23, though by 1962 the system was discontinued as the battleships became less of a part of naval planning.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Numerous accidents involving nuclear weapons, including the crash and loss of a B-47 bomber like those seen here, have resulted in loss of life but no nuclear detonations. US Air Force

8. Accidents involving nuclear weapons have been more frequent than is well known

During the development of the first atomic weapons there were accidents, both in the United States and in Germany, and probably in the Soviet Union. Two technicians were killed as a result of separate criticality accidents in Los Alamos following the atomic bombings of Japan, as further development of the weapon continued. Since deployment, there have numerous accidents involving nuclear weapons, but to date, none resulted in an accidental nuclear detonation, largely because of the design of the weapon which prevents inadvertent detonation. However, in several aviation accidents, the high explosive material which is used to trigger the implosion event has detonated. Nuclear detonation was avoided for differing reasons, including the nuclear core not being installed in the weapon (Albuquerque, 1950); the weapons were lost (Mediterranean Sea, 1956); or radioactive materials were released without detonation (Rocky Flats, 1957).

These are but a very few of the several incidents involving the loss or destruction of nuclear weapons due to accident. Nuclear weapons have been lost in the sinking of American and Soviet submarines, the loss of aircraft, and fires. There have been numerous incidents of accidental venting of irradiated water and steam in shipboard accidents, most of which were the result of nuclear power incidents, rather than accidents involving nuclear weapons. The United States quickly developed fail-safe procedures for the handling of nuclear weapons at all stages of their manufacture and maintenance, storage, and deployment while in military hands; these procedures and extensive training have been a major reason that there have been no accidental nuclear detonations over the more than decades of nuclear weapon deployment, but nonetheless, accidents which resulted in the release of radioactivity, or the complete loss of the weapon, have occurred.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The US Navy has never confirmed whether USS Scorpion, lost with all hands in 1968, was carrying nuclear weapons. US Navy

9. Thirty-two accidents which qualify as a “Broken Arrow”.

A Broken Arrow is an accident involving a nuclear weapon, including an incident involving a delivery vehicle such as an airplane, missile, ship, submarine, or other methods of launching the weapon. There have been 32 known incidents which qualify as a Broken Arrow, and possibly others which occurred during classified military operations which have yet to be released to the public (the number includes accidents which occurred to Soviet and Russian operations). There have been at least six American nuclear warheads or bombs which have been lost, and not known to have been recovered. Some of them remain irrecoverable, such as any nuclear torpedoes or submarine-launched missiles on USS Scorpion when it was lost. The US Navy did not and does not confirm the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard its ships during deployment, and does not comment on submarines operations at all.

The US Navy has funded operations to monitor the wreckage of its two lost nuclear submarines, Thresher and Scorpion, in part to ensure no radioactive leakage from their reactors, leading to speculation that the Navy wanted to determine with certainty that the nuclear weapons carried remain with the wreckage. Several Soviet submarines were lost at sea during the Cold War which carried nuclear weapons. One of them, a Golf class submarine lost about 750 miles from Oahu, was partially raised by a secret CIA operation using the purpose-built vessel Glomar Explorer. The Soviets had previously confirmed that the submarine carried three nuclear missiles and several nuclear torpedoes, and while the United States recovered the remains of Soviet sailors, which they buried with military honors in a recorded ceremony, later giving the recording to the Soviets, the Navy and CIA never confirmed whether any of the nuclear warheads were recovered.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The damaged Soviet submarine K-219, photographed by the US Navy three days before sinking in 18,000 feet of water. US Navy

10. The Soviets lost about three dozen nuclear warheads in one incident

In October 1986, a Soviet Yankee I class nuclear submarine, powered by two nuclear reactors, was ripped by an explosion in one of the vessel’s 16 missile tubes. The explosion and resulting fire forced the submarine to surface, approximately 500 miles from the island of Bermuda. The Soviet submarine was being shadowed (as were all Soviet missile submarines while at sea) by an American fast attack submarine, USS Augusta. Rumors of a collision between the two submarines, which caused the leak which resulted in the explosion and fire, were denied by the commanders of both the Soviet vessel, K-219, and the American submarine. The Soviets successfully fought the casualty to the point that the vessel was able to surface, and rejecting help from the Americans standing by, was taken under tow by another Soviet vessel.

The tow was unsuccessful and the Soviets, in violation of their orders from Moscow, abandoned the submarine, though the Captain remained aboard in a last-ditch attempt to save his ship. Moscow ordered the crew back aboard, under the command of the Political Officer, but before the orders were carried out the submarine flooded beyond the point of no return, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic in the Hatteras Abyssal Plain, settling at a depth of about 18,000 feet, more than three miles beneath the surface. It took with it to the bottom two nuclear reactors, which had been put in a safe condition, and more than three dozen nuclear weapons. Because the submarine was flooding internally in all of its compartments it was not crushed by the enormous pressure of the depths. In 1988 a Soviet hydrographic expedition examined the wreck, which was broken in two, with some missile silo hatches open, and the missiles and their nuclear warheads gone.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The first test detonation of a thermonuclear bomb, which came to be known as the H-bomb in the public mind, October 31, 1952. Department of Energy

11. The hydrogen bomb was developed by the United States in the early 1950s

After the Soviet Union demonstrated to the world that they possessed an atomic bomb the United States redoubled its efforts to develop ever more powerful weapons to counter the new Soviet threat. Both new means of delivering the weapon and more powerful weapons themselves were designed, engineered, and those with promise deployed. In 1952 the United States detonated a new type of bomb, in which a primary stage fission bomb releases radiation which bombards a secondary fusion stage, creating a fusion reaction. Later designs added a third stage. The hydrogen bomb, as it came to be called for its use of hydrogen isotopes in its fusion stage, was a far more powerful device than the plutonium implosion bomb, and allowed for smaller weapons which delivered a far greater yield.

The five major nuclear powers all developed hydrogen bombs of their own throughout the ensuing decade (the five powers were the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and the People’s Republic of China). They have since been joined by India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union several former Soviet Socialist Republics. North Korea has recently developed nuclear weapons, and several other states are suspected of either possessing or being in the process of acquiring them. Delivery devices are another matter. Throughout the 1950s the United States developed a means of delivering strategic nuclear weapons to their targets relying on three major legs of what came to be known as the nuclear triad; land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, and land-based strategic bombers.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The first submerged launch of a Polaris ballistic missile from USS George Washington changed the strategic balance during the Cold War. US Navy

12. Polaris and the undetectable nuclear missile launch platform

After several years of development, the United States Navy first deployed the Polaris Missile System aboard USS George Washington in 1960. The Polaris program demanded the design of a new type of nuclear-powered submarine, capable of carrying 16 newly designed two-stage ballistic missiles, and able to launch them towards their targets while the vessel remained submerged at sea. With the success of George Washington, the United States was capable of deploying missiles from undetected launch positions, ensuring greater odds of survival of retaliatory weapons in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Forty-one Polaris submarines were planned and built, each carrying sixteen missiles, and additional Polaris weapons systems were sold to the United Kingdom and Italy, though the Italian program was canceled in the mid-1960s. Forward bases to service the submarines were established in Scotland, Spain, and Guam.

Each Polaris submarine was assigned two crews, designated Blue and Gold, allowing the ships to spend more time at sea while avoiding crew fatigue. Later developments included a multi-warhead (3) version of the missile, giving it greater destructive power, with the three warheads designed to triangulate over a target. In the early 1970s a more accurate missile, Poseidon, which delivered multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV) replaced all but the original ten Polaris submarines, which remained deployed using the older system, and by the early 1980s the Trident One system was replacing the Poseidons. The Navy’s strategic missile program became a reliable and increasingly accurate leg of the nuclear triad, and the leg which ensured the United States possessed the ability to retaliate with devastating effect in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. Polaris and its descendants were also the chief cause of the undeclared submarine war which was conducted by the US and USSR throughout the Cold War.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Test launch of an Atlas ICBM, the same booster which with some modification carried John Glenn and subsequent Mercury astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s. US Air Force

13. Land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

The concept of the ICBM was first demonstrated by the German V-2 program during the Second World War, and many of the scientists which supported that program were appropriated by the United States following the war to work in America’s many missile programs, including for defense and space exploration. The early American ICBMs, as with their V-2 progenitor, were severely limited regarding accuracy, making them suitable for use against large area targets, such as cities or widespread industrial areas. Since it wasn’t long before the Soviets had them too, the means of eliminating the Soviet launch sites fell to what was at the time the most accurate means of delivering weapons to their targets, manned long-range strategic bombers. Later ICBMS offered improved accuracy and weapons load, making them a suitable first-strike weapon, and relegating the bombers to a mop-up role.

It was the Soviets who demonstrated a workable ICBM first, using the same design of missile which had launched Sputnik and the space race. The first flight of an armed American ICBM took place from Vandenburg Air Force Base in July 1959. America’s early ICBM launch vehicles doubled as the boosters for the fledgling space program, and missile development, though plagued with failures, moved ahead in the 1960s. Underground missile solos, mobile launchers, and other means of deception were developed to protect the ICBMs and an anti-missile defense system, the ABMS, developed in the 1960s and early 1970s. The existence of the weapons led to the negotiation of several treaties between the US and the USSR which limited their number, the defense systems which protected them, and the number of warheads they deployed. Eventually, the ICBM system became the leg of the Triad which would have delivered the main thrust of an American first strike.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The venerable B-52 Stratofortress has been in service for more than six decades, and is expected serve at least into the 2050s. US Air Force

14. Land based strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons.

Two of the three legs of the American nuclear defense Triad were under the control of the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, which was first activated in 1947 (SAC controlled the ICBMs and the manned bombers). Several US bombers, beginning with the B-29, were designated as aircraft to be used to deliver the atomic, and later the thermonuclear bomb, to targets within the Soviet Union and their allies. Among them were the B-36, B-47, and beginning in 1955, the B-52 Stratofortress, an iconic symbol of American military might both as a nuclear delivery vehicle and as a strategic bomber during the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, The Gulf War, and the War on Terror. The B-52, of which 755 were built, is expected to be continually upgraded and modernized as it has throughout its career, and remain operational within the United States Air Force through the first half of the twenty-first century.

Other bombers and fighter bombers have been designed to carry nuclear bombs as part of their mission, including the FB-111, the B-1, the B-2, and others. The purpose of the manned bomber leg of the triad evolved to become one of removing those launch sites which could not be successfully targeted by the unmanned missiles of the ICBMs and the SLBMs. As those two legs increased in both firepower and accuracy throughout the Cold War and beyond, the manned bombers became less of a first-strike weapon and more of a retaliatory weapon, intended to eliminate targets which survived the first strike and to deploy if necessary against military concentrations and targets of opportunity. All three legs of the nuclear triad remain in place, and all three continue to upgrade and modernize their weapons and their mission in response to changes regarding the perceived threats to the United States and its allies.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
The cooperation and coordination between the United States and Canada has existed for decades, extending to tracking Santa’s flight each Christmas Eve. Wikimedia

15. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, British and Canadian scientists, engineers, technicians, and military personnel were involved with the effort to develop, produce, and deploy the atomic bomb and its subsequent iterations. Since the route Soviet missiles and bombers would take during an all-out nuclear attack against the United States would in large part be over the Arctic, the early warning system required the United States to detect a Soviet incursion over Canadian air space and to respond to one in time. NORAD divided North America into three distinct regions, the Alaskan Region, under the auspices of the US Eleventh Air Force; the Canadian Region, the defense of which comes under the command of the First Canadian Air Division; and the Continental US region, under 1st Air Force. There are smaller divisions within the major commands, including Canada being divided into eastern and western regions.

NORAD was born in 1957, and the following year the Americans and Canadians agreed that command of NORAD would always be held by an American officer, with the Vice-Commander being a Canadian. The nations agreed that NORAD’s primary responsibility would be the defense of the North American continent by providing early warning and defense for the retaliatory forces of the Strategic Air Command. For the first decade of its existence, Canada and the United States worked closely together to create seamless communications. NORAD has been reorganized several times, but for six decades Canadian-American cooperation and shared responsibilities and expense have maintained a vigilant protective curtain over the North American continent. As a whimsical note, every year since its inception NORAD has continued the tradition of its predecessor by tracking and reporting the progress of Santa Claus as he makes his rounds on Christmas Eve.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Components of a Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM) a “portable” nuclear device developed by the United States. The assembled unit weighed under 400 pounds. Wikimedia

16. Atomic demolition munitions and suitcase bombs

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s, and in some cases beyond, the United States and the Soviet Union developed miniature nuclear weapons for use as mines and demolition charges. The weapons were intended to be used on the battlefield as a means of destroying advancing troop formations, forcing them to use routes which were advantageous to defending troops or changing the extant landscape in a manner which was beneficial to the defenders. The W54 warhead developed for the Davy Crockett weapons system was the basis for the design of many of these weapons, but other, even smaller nuclear weapons were adapted from it for specialized use. The Tactical Atomic Demolition Device (TADM) was a portable nuclear weapon, resembled a section of culvert pipe, and about 850 pounds. The weapon was in production from 1961 – 66, when it was withdrawn from deployment in Europe.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the knowledge that Soviet nuclear weapons were scattered throughout several of the former Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States and former Soviet military leaders created the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, to ensure that all of the miniaturized Soviet nuclear weapons were located and destroyed. Euphemistically called “suitcase” bombs, these weapons posed a special concern should they fall into the hands of groups such as Chechen rebels (to the Russians) or rogue nations and terror groups (to the west). Despite persistent rumors of the existence of such weapons, no weapon or components of size compatible with the suitcase description has ever been found, or at least such a finding has never been made public. The potential existence of such weapons is a special concern of security specialists dealing with the global war on terror.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Though conventional bombing raids created greater casualties in both Europe and Japan, the Hiroshima bombing changed the world forever. Wikimedia

17. The impact of nuclear weapons on the global scene

As of 2018, though several nations deploy nuclear weapons as part of their national security posture, only the United States has ever used them as part of an armed conflict, which remains the source of debate and rancor. Many argue that the use of the atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 was unnecessary, supported by the belief that the Japanese were ready to surrender and thus the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes. Others argue that the bomb could have been demonstrated rather than used on civilian population centers as a means of hastening the end of the war. These arguments ignore the facts of the situation in 1945, when the Japanese population had been trained in suicide bombing and fighting techniques, more than ten thousand kamikaze planes had been prepared for use against the invading Americans, and there was little demand for surrender within the Japanese population or military.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki was made necessary by the Japanese refusing to respond to demands for immediate unconditional surrender following the bombing of Hiroshima, which while a horror in itself did not result in as many Japanese deaths as had the firebombing of Tokyo using conventional bombs. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese did not offer unconditional surrender, instead of demanding that they be allowed to retain their Emperor on the throne in the postwar world, a condition which was granted by the Allies, despite having one remaining atomic bomb ready to be dropped at the time. The dropping of the two atomic bombs hastened the end of the Pacific War, along with the Soviet invasion of Japanese held territory. In doing so they saved countless thousands of lives, Americans, British, Australians, Russians, and Japanese.

Here Are 18 Facts about the United States Nuclear Weapons Program History That Run So Much Deeper Than You Knew
Godzilla – and the Atomic Ray – are just two of the creations of fiction and culture which resulted from the release of the atomic age. Wikimedia

18. The atomic bomb and culture

In the 1950s the atomic bomb changed world culture, political discourse, literature, comic books, films, television, music, and even fashion. The new two-piece women’s swimwear was given the name bikini by its designer, after the atoll which was by then too hot to occupy. Nuclear fission created nuclear fiction. Nuclear explosions and radiation became plot devices in all sorts of entertainment. Nuclear weapons were used to battle and create monsters of all types, from Godzilla to the Blob. They were deployed against invading aliens, and the creation of a doomsday machine, which would destroy the world of its own accord, appeared in several novels and films, including the black comedy Dr. Strangelove. It was an irradiated spider which was responsible for the birth of Spiderman, and atomic bombs were featured in the creation stories for a new religion, Scientology.

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation brought about literature based on espionage, sabotage, and the capture of nuclear weapons and facilities by both sides of the socio-political divide. It became a major debating point during national elections; in 1960 John Kennedy warned of the growing “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR, at a time when US nuclear weapons outnumbered those of the Soviets by a factor of more than 8 to 1. Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Soviets and the United States engaged in an arms race which centered around nuclear superiority, as well as the means to protect their respective nuclear arsenals, including submarines and anti-submarine warfare capability, missiles and tracking satellites, better and faster bombers, and massive espionage programs. The atomic weapons programs of several nations have dominated international diplomacy since 1945, and no doubt will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age”. Stephanie Cooke. 2009

“Operation Crossroads: Operation Crossroads, Nuclear Weapons Test at Bikini Atoll, 1946”. Naval History and Heritage Command.

“Crossroads at Bikini”. Thomas N. Daly, US Naval Institute Proceedings. July 1986

“No Place to Hide”. David Bradley. 1948

“Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons”. Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists Special Report No. 3. May, 2012. Online

“M65 Atomic Cannon ‘Atomic Annie'”.

“US discloses accidents involving nuclear weapons”. Richard Halloran, The New York Times. May 26, 1981

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”. Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, Annette Lawrence Drew. 1998

“Newly Exposed Documents Reveal a Hidden Chapter on the Sunken Russian Submarine K-219”. Michael Peck, The National Interest. October 29, 2016

“US nuclear weapons: The secret history”. Chuck Hansen. 1988

“Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Special Weapons Primer”. John Pike, Federation of American Scientists. October 25, 1998. Online

“Do We Still Need a Nuclear Triad?” John Barry, News Week Magazine. December 12, 2009

“Where Does NORAD’s Santa Tracker Really Come From?” Yoni Applebaum, The Atlantic. December 24, 2015

“FBI focusing on portable nuke threat”. Nicholas Horrock, United Press International. December 20, 2001

“The Political Effects of Nuclear Weapons”. Robert Jervis, International Security. Fall, 1988. Online

“How the Bomb Changed Everything”. Samira Ahmed, BBC Culture. July 2, 2015. Online