How the Cold War changed our Perspective on the Atomic Bomb

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How the Cold War changed our Perspective on the Atomic Bomb

The atomic bomb, a bomb which converts mass into power through a process of nuclear fission, is one of the largest man made threats to our own survival. The cold war was an increasingly unsettling time for humanity, as the US and Soviet Union began stockpiling mass amounts of such destructive weapons. The Cold War effectively changed how we today view atomic bomb technology as the world had to wait in fear, preparing for nuclear attack at a moment’s notice. Looking back on this period of immeasurable historical significance, it is important that we look into the origins of atomic bomb technology, the catastrophic aftermath of these weapons, and how the Cold war caused the world to stop and reconsider the pros vs. the cons of the atomic bomb.

As with almost all of the world’s greatest modern inventions, they start with humble beginnings. For the atomic bomb, the chain reaction of discovery which would eventually lead to its creation began in 1867 with Antoine Henri Becquerel and his discovery of radioactivity in uranium. Then in 1902, Marie and Pierre Currie were able to isolate a radioactive metal known as Uranium. Possibly the largest step towards the concept of energy from mass came from Albert Einstein. In 1905, Einstein published his theory of relativity which describes the possibility of large amounts of energy which could occur if mass could somehow be transformed into energy. Throughout the following decade, scientists such as Neils Bohr and Ernest Rutherford began examining and describing more accurately the composition of atoms. From this, it was envisioned that it was the nucleus of an atom which must be broken up in order to release energy. Then in 1938, scientists in Berlin were able to successfully split an atom and prove the idea of nuclear fission which Einstein had earlier theorized. On August 2, 1939 Einstein wrote a letter to US president Roosevelt, describing the high probability that it could be possible to start a chain of nuclear reactions within a large mass of Uranium whose power could be harnessed and constructed into a bomb with the power to destroy an entire boat port as well as a large part of the surrounding territory. With that information so began what was known as the “Manhattan Project”, which illustrated the goal of producing a feasible atomic bomb. As work began on the Manhattan Project, an early road block emerged with the extraction of uranium-235 required to construct the bomb. Once the difficult extraction process was completed, there was only 1% of uranium-235 gained, while the other 99% was composed of uranium-238 which was practically useless in achieving the bomb. To add insult to injury, the two types of uranium produced in the extraction process were isotopes, meaning that they were nearly identical in chemical composition. In Tennessee, a massive enrichment laboratory was constructed which used gaseous diffusion and magnetic separation to isolate the two isotopes. Next, a process involving the use of a centrifuge was used to further separate uranium-235 from uranium-238. Between 1939 and 1945, over two billion dollars was exhausted to fund the project which saw the process of the atomic bomb through from conception to completion. The world would not be prepared for what would come of the atomic bomb. In the words of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, we were not discussing “just another weapon,” rather "a new relationship of man to the universe.”

The 19th century was a turning point for humanity as weaponry and industrialization began to grow at an immeasurable rate. This raised the standard for destruction which could now be achieved in a matter of minutes, compared to what took place over years of warfare. A major contributing factor which lead to the realization of just how far modern technology had come in recent years came on August 6, 1945. At 2:45 a.m. a B-29 bomber carrying a ten foot atomic bomb, equivalent to 20, 000 tons on TNT took off from Tinian, 1500 miles south of Japan. This particular type of atomic bomb had not yet been tested, nor had any form of atomic bomb been dropped from a plane. The target city was Hiroshima, chosen due to the fact that it had been nearly unaffected by WWII. At 8:15 a.m. local time the bomb was dropped, exploding only 1,900 feet above the ground. The resulting cloud was estimated to have reached 40, 000 feet. The bomb destroyed upwards of 60,000 buildings within three miles of the explosion, two thirds of Hiroshima had been demolished. 70,000 people died, including civilians as well as military personnel, instantly, while that number was estimated to have doubled within the next five years due to radiation (poisoning). Just three days following the bombing of Hiroshima, another B-29 bomber equipped with a second atomic bomb headed for Japan. This time the target city was Nagasaki, chosen like Hiroshima, for the lack of destruction it had experienced during the war. At 11:02 a.m. the bomb was dropped over the city, exploding 1,650 feet above the ground. Although this bomb was thought to be much stronger than the one which had been dropped over Hiroshima, the mountainous terrain of Nagasaki prevented the same degree of damage. It was approximated that 70, 000 people were killed in the blast and due to radiation over the year. The atomic bombs may have served their purpose, to end the war, but for the Japanese people the devastating aftermath of destruction and radiation would not end for years to come. Those who were not in close proximity to the bomb evaded an instantaneous death, but many were plagued by the long term effects of radiation such as cancer, thickened overgrown scars, as well as babies which were born with mental defects. A great surge of terror would sweep over our world as all of mankind witnessed the ugly reality of nuclear warfare.

As one war comes to an end, another begins. In our society it seems that is all too true. After the devastating end to WWII, the world was quickly plunged into war once again, this time it would be known as the cold war. The two main players in this battle were the US and USSR. However unlike many other historical battles, neither side directly attacked the other. The only battles between the two took place through client states who (that) fought on their behalf. In this war words were the most powerful weapon for both sides. Following WWII, there was an immense amount of built up distrust between the US and USSR. On one hand there were the Soviets who had a large military force, and on the other the Americans who possessed the most powerful weapon of the time. The USSR realizing their current disadvantage quickly began working towards the construction of their own atomic bomb. By the 1950’s, both nations were equipped with nuclear technology and the ability to launch it on their enemy. By this time if either side were to release their nuclear weapons on the other, it would mean utter annihilation. The cold war had become a bigger threat to mankind than anyone could have expected. From this came the idea of mutually assured destruction, an idea popularize by President John F. Kennedy. Simply put, this meant that whoever shoots first would without a doubt be the second to die. Knowing that attacking the enemy would be an act of suicide would in theory restrain either side from initiating an attack on the other. It was clear to both sides at this point that they needed to work towards an idea of mutually assured security. Negotiations from this point on took a more positive spin, both sides agreed that it would be beneficial to cut down on the expansion of their nuclear artillery as to remove the constant threat of nuclear war. The world could now breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in almost a decade.

In today’s day and age nuclear war can no longer be looked upon as an acceptable solution to problems of war. We now possess the capabilities for destruction our forefathers never would have dreamed possible. When we have the ability to destroy an entire nation of people, it seems that we have become the biggest danger to ourselves. The threat of this becoming a reality during the cold war drastically changed how we today view the atomic bomb. When we look back on this event which has dramatically changed humanity as a whole we must examine the origins of atomic bomb technology, the devastating effects our world would experience following the use of these weapons, and how the Cold war caused the world to give the pros vs. the cons of the atomic bomb some real thought.

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