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COURSERA: The Modern World, Part Two: Global History since 1910, W5.05 The Nuclear Revolution

W5.05 The Nuclear Revolution

Hi, welcome back. Let's take a deeper look at the nuclear revolution. At the start of this revolution, what these really were were just a colossal kind of bomb, and then they became a whole lot bigger than that. As a colossal kind of bomb, only the United States had them from 1945 until 1949. So for a period, that was kind of a reassuring monopoly, and the Americans didn't feel like they needed to build up all the rest of their forces as much. The United States actually worked on some ideas for how to put atomic bombs and this technology under international control. The most interesting of these ideas was developed in 1946. They watered down some of these ideas, and by the time they really tried them out, they didn't really think the Soviets would accept them and probably half didn't want the Soviets to accept them. In some ways, from a historical point of view, the interesting thing about these ideas is that the Americans even developed them at all. It was kind of a quixotic notion but intellectually important because some of these original ideas about how to bring these incredibly hazardous technologies under international control were pretty far sighted and remain relevant today. Now what they failed to control is actually something called a fission bomb. The early atomic bombs were produced by a process of nuclear fission. Now to just help you get a sense of the scale for this, if I have a ton of TNT, 2,000 pounds of TNT, that's a chemical explosive, a ton of TNT would level the building that I'm sitting in right now. Now imagine the destructive power, not of a ton of TNT, but of a thousand tons of TNT. Even 10,000 tons of TNT. 10,000 tons of TNT, that's about the destructive force of the first atomic bombs. They were delivered in airplanes like this one: This is the state-of-the-art nuclear bomber of the late 1940s. This is the B-29. A B-29 actually crashed in the Soviet Union. They captured it nearly intact, and the Soviets very quickly built almost an exact copy of it. So, here's what those fission bombs look like. This is the Soviet test in 1949. Here's another American test. There's the flash and then the mushroom cloud. A few minutes later, the mushroom cloud dissipates as these observers are watching in a 1955 test in the Nevada Desert. And those atomic bombs, those fission bombs, had of course terrible effects. This was actually a Civil Defense pamphlet that was explaining the kinds of effects that they have. Atomic bombs have their effects in three ways. First is heat, second is blast, over pressure per square inch, and the third is radiation, including the irradiation of all the particles thrown up by the blast and then can drift with prevailing winds until the lethality of that radiation dissipates. That's called the effects of fallout. As this pamphlet explains, using a hypothetical atom bombing problem as worked out if it happened in Seattle in the summer of 1950, you see a highly deadly radius of the explosion of, oh, approximately one mile. When the Americans lose their monopoly on the atomic bomb, the instant question for them is: What does this now mean for the way we defend ourselves? One choice is: We need to develop much, much larger conventional forces because we can no longer rely on atomic bomb as our trump card. Another idea is to take up an argument that had been made by some atomic scientists for a few years which is: You need to pick up the technical possibility of building a fusion bomb. A thermonuclear bomb where you use the fission reaction to create a fusion reaction, that might use something like uranium or plutonium that then creates a fusion reaction, using for example, something like hydrogen and converting its atomic energy into explosive power. These fission-fusion bombs, or sometimes called hydrogen bombs or H-bombs, are vastly more powerful. At the beginning of 1950, the Americans make their decision to approve the development of these colossal thermonuclear bombs, then called, simply, The Super. The Soviet Union had already also recognized the theoretical possibility of these bombs, partly from their own scientific work, partly because of spies that they had originally had in the American atomic bomb program back in the 1940s. And as a result, the Soviets were already proceeding with developing their own thermonuclear weapons, though their development of them is a year or two behind the Americans by the early 1950s. There is a tendency in some of the literature to see a world in which both super powers have nuclear weapons as relatively stable because each one can threaten to destroy the other. And therefore both sides are deterred from war. In fact, it didn't feel stable at all at the end of the 1940s and during the 1950s. And even into the early 1960s, because the technical developments in these different weapons created windows of vulnerability and windows of opportunity. You have a window of vulnerability at a point where both sides have nuclear weapons but one side has much more powerful conventional forces. The famous American planning document, National Security Council document 68, NSC 68, was written in early 1950, really as an argument, a brief, in which those who wanted to spend a lot more money on defense were saying: We've got to do that because the Soviets have cancelled out our atomic advantage. But the people who were advocating that big additional defense spending didn't win their arguments, even inside the American government, until the outbreak of the Korean War and the Chinese entry into the war. The big decisions on defense spending don't start getting made until the end of 1950, and then it takes off. On the other hand, there are also choices that are being made by the Soviets and Chinese. At the point that they have some nuclear bombs, they have to decide when to make their moves in some of these ongoing conflicts, like the one in Korea. One issue for Stalin and Mao may be: Did they move too soon? Should the Soviets have waited to build up more nuclear weapons, done a better job of canceling out the American advantage, before they moved conventionally? For instance, as soon as the Americans moved to the defense of Korea, they also threw their military forces into the Taiwan Strait to defend Taiwan against the Chinese invasion, a decision they hadn't made before. They also begin helping the French in their situation in Indochina as well. Should the Soviets and the Chinese have waited a little bit and then made their move? Who knows? What then happens though is this: The Americans have this gigantic buildup. By the early 1950s, now the balance of potential advantage shifted. Now it's the Americans who have a window of opportunity. When the new American president, Dwight Eisenhower, comes into office in 1953 some of his advisors are telling him we now have the upper hand. We've developed all kinds of nuclear weapons and new kinds of ways of delivering them, jet-powered bombers like this B-47, which we have in bases encircling the Soviet Union. With all this power, we now have the upper hand. Should we do something to use it? Some of his advisers are arguing, some of them even in public, in favor of launching a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Think about the logic from their point of view. If we wait, the Soviet Union will soon develop a complete capability to destroy our country. Do we wait for them to have that ability and hope that we can deter them from using it? Or should we actually use our advantage right now, for the next two, three years, and launch a preventive war that can destroy the Soviet Union and its capabilities before they have the ability to destroy us? The Eisenhower administration looks at the options in 1953, they weigh the risks. Eisenhower decides no, we're going to adopt a strategy of containment. We're going to rely on deterrence. Containment plus deterrence. You can imagine all the judgments, including even moral judgments, that were embedded in that calculation. Eisenhower, in a way, makes a moral calculation, he cared a lot about the morality of nuclear war. His judgment was, he was going to threaten nuclear war in order to avoid any kind of general war at all. The stakes involved in these calculations then vastly change as these new thermonuclear weapons begin to come into play in the middle of the 1950s. Here's the way the American people were told about the development of this new weapon when it was tested out in the open in a little atoll in the Pacific Ocean. This is a Time Magazine cover from April 1954. And here's Life Magazine in April 1954 offering the first color pictures of the awesome fireball. How deadly was it? Remember, I talked about the explosive force of an atomic bomb, being oh, in the neighborhood of 10,000 tons of TNT? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of 1945 had a destructive force in that neighborhood of ten to 15,000 tons of TNT. Ten to 15 kilotons. A hydrogen bomb could fairly readily have a destructive force of a million tons of TNT, a megaton. In other words, one of these bombs already had a destructive force 100 times that of the atomic bomb. You'll remember I showed you a civil defense diagram that showed a really lethal radius for an atomic bomb of about one mile from the blast. In this diagram, you see a fairly lethal radius going out to about seven miles from the blast for a hydrogen bomb. Do the quick calculations and in the atomic bomb case, that's an area of high lethality of a few square miles. In the hydrogen bomb case, that's an area of extreme lethality covering about 150 square miles. And, of course, the radioactive fallout kicked up by these far larger blasts would correspondingly also be that much greater. As a result, we're now thinking of bombs that don't just damage parts of cities, but destroy entire cities. Indeed, when such detonations occurred in the thousands or tens of thousands of explosions, threats to entire hemispheres, maybe even to the population of the Earth itself. So as we arrive here in contemplations of this deadly standoff by the middle of the 1950s, let's just think back on what's happened since the last year of World War II, as people are thinking about preparing for a new world after the Second World War. I haven't tried to talk a lot about assigning blame to one side or another. I think, in some ways, you can start, as you work through these problems, of just again thinking about people solving problems. Think about the leaders, the people around them. Think about the kinds of problems they faced as the war ended: rebuilding societies, organizing new societies, what they thought their choices were, where those choices were bound to come into conflict, and then how people solved those problems. They're solving those problems in terribly tragic circumstances, in which a lot of possibilities are bound to be in play. And therefore, ordinary people, doing the best they can according to their value systems of how to solve these problems, are making truly world shaping choices that can have catastrophic consequences for the entire future of the planet. Next time, we'll talk a little bit more about the whole way the world is being reorganized in the 1950s. See you then. [BLANK_AUDIO].



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W5.05 The Nuclear Revolution

Hi, welcome back. Let's take a deeper look at the nuclear revolution. At the start of this revolution, what these really were were just a colossal kind of bomb, and then they became a whole lot bigger than that. As a colossal kind of bomb, only the United States had them from 1945 until 1949. So for a period, that was kind of a reassuring monopoly, and the Americans didn't feel like they needed to build up all the rest of their forces as much. The United States actually worked on some ideas for how to put atomic bombs and this technology under international control. The most interesting of these ideas was developed in 1946. They watered down some of these ideas, and by the time they really tried them out, they didn't really think the Soviets would accept them and probably half didn't want the Soviets to accept them. In some ways, from a historical point of view, the interesting thing about these ideas is that the Americans even developed them at all. It was kind of a quixotic notion but intellectually important because some of these original ideas about how to bring these incredibly hazardous technologies under international control were pretty far sighted and remain relevant today. Now what they failed to control is actually something called a fission bomb. The early atomic bombs were produced by a process of nuclear fission. Now to just help you get a sense of the scale for this, if I have a ton of TNT, 2,000 pounds of TNT, that's a chemical explosive, a ton of TNT would level the building that I'm sitting in right now. Now imagine the destructive power, not of a ton of TNT, but of a thousand tons of TNT. Even 10,000 tons of TNT. 10,000 tons of TNT, that's about the destructive force of the first atomic bombs. They were delivered in airplanes like this one: This is the state-of-the-art nuclear bomber of the late 1940s. This is the B-29. A B-29 actually crashed in the Soviet Union. They captured it nearly intact, and the Soviets very quickly built almost an exact copy of it. So, here's what those fission bombs look like. This is the Soviet test in 1949. Here's another American test. There's the flash and then the mushroom cloud. A few minutes later, the mushroom cloud dissipates as these observers are watching in a 1955 test in the Nevada Desert. And those atomic bombs, those fission bombs, had of course terrible effects. This was actually a Civil Defense pamphlet that was explaining the kinds of effects that they have. Atomic bombs have their effects in three ways. First is heat, second is blast, over pressure per square inch, and the third is radiation, including the irradiation of all the particles thrown up by the blast and then can drift with prevailing winds until the lethality of that radiation dissipates. That's called the effects of fallout. As this pamphlet explains, using a hypothetical atom bombing problem as worked out if it happened in Seattle in the summer of 1950, you see a highly deadly radius of the explosion of, oh, approximately one mile. When the Americans lose their monopoly on the atomic bomb, the instant question for them is: What does this now mean for the way we defend ourselves? One choice is: We need to develop much, much larger conventional forces because we can no longer rely on atomic bomb as our trump card. Another idea is to take up an argument that had been made by some atomic scientists for a few years which is: You need to pick up the technical possibility of building a fusion bomb. A thermonuclear bomb where you use the fission reaction to create a fusion reaction, that might use something like uranium or plutonium that then creates a fusion reaction, using for example, something like hydrogen and converting its atomic energy into explosive power. These fission-fusion bombs, or sometimes called hydrogen bombs or H-bombs, are vastly more powerful. At the beginning of 1950, the Americans make their decision to approve the development of these colossal thermonuclear bombs, then called, simply, The Super. The Soviet Union had already also recognized the theoretical possibility of these bombs, partly from their own scientific work, partly because of spies that they had originally had in the American atomic bomb program back in the 1940s. And as a result, the Soviets were already proceeding with developing their own thermonuclear weapons, though their development of them is a year or two behind the Americans by the early 1950s. There is a tendency in some of the literature to see a world in which both super powers have nuclear weapons as relatively stable because each one can threaten to destroy the other. And therefore both sides are deterred from war. In fact, it didn't feel stable at all at the end of the 1940s and during the 1950s. And even into the early 1960s, because the technical developments in these different weapons created windows of vulnerability and windows of opportunity. You have a window of vulnerability at a point where both sides have nuclear weapons but one side has much more powerful conventional forces. The famous American planning document, National Security Council document 68, NSC 68, was written in early 1950, really as an argument, a brief, in which those who wanted to spend a lot more money on defense were saying: We've got to do that because the Soviets have cancelled out our atomic advantage. But the people who were advocating that big additional defense spending didn't win their arguments, even inside the American government, until the outbreak of the Korean War and the Chinese entry into the war. The big decisions on defense spending don't start getting made until the end of 1950, and then it takes off. On the other hand, there are also choices that are being made by the Soviets and Chinese. At the point that they have some nuclear bombs, they have to decide when to make their moves in some of these ongoing conflicts, like the one in Korea. One issue for Stalin and Mao may be: Did they move too soon? Should the Soviets have waited to build up more nuclear weapons, done a better job of canceling out the American advantage, before they moved conventionally? For instance, as soon as the Americans moved to the defense of Korea, they also threw their military forces into the Taiwan Strait to defend Taiwan against the Chinese invasion, a decision they hadn't made before. They also begin helping the French in their situation in Indochina as well. Should the Soviets and the Chinese have waited a little bit and then made their move? Who knows? What then happens though is this: The Americans have this gigantic buildup. By the early 1950s, now the balance of potential advantage shifted. Now it's the Americans who have a window of opportunity. When the new American president, Dwight Eisenhower, comes into office in 1953 some of his advisors are telling him we now have the upper hand. We've developed all kinds of nuclear weapons and new kinds of ways of delivering them, jet-powered bombers like this B-47, which we have in bases encircling the Soviet Union. With all this power, we now have the upper hand. Should we do something to use it? Some of his advisers are arguing, some of them even in public, in favor of launching a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Think about the logic from their point of view. If we wait, the Soviet Union will soon develop a complete capability to destroy our country. Do we wait for them to have that ability and hope that we can deter them from using it? Or should we actually use our advantage right now, for the next two, three years, and launch a preventive war that can destroy the Soviet Union and its capabilities before they have the ability to destroy us? The Eisenhower administration looks at the options in 1953, they weigh the risks. Eisenhower decides no, we're going to adopt a strategy of containment. We're going to rely on deterrence. Containment plus deterrence. You can imagine all the judgments, including even moral judgments, that were embedded in that calculation. Eisenhower, in a way, makes a moral calculation, he cared a lot about the morality of nuclear war. His judgment was, he was going to threaten nuclear war in order to avoid any kind of general war at all. The stakes involved in these calculations then vastly change as these new thermonuclear weapons begin to come into play in the middle of the 1950s. Here's the way the American people were told about the development of this new weapon when it was tested out in the open in a little atoll in the Pacific Ocean. This is a Time Magazine cover from April 1954. And here's Life Magazine in April 1954 offering the first color pictures of the awesome fireball. How deadly was it? Remember, I talked about the explosive force of an atomic bomb, being oh, in the neighborhood of 10,000 tons of TNT? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of 1945 had a destructive force in that neighborhood of ten to 15,000 tons of TNT. Ten to 15 kilotons. A hydrogen bomb could fairly readily have a destructive force of a million tons of TNT, a megaton. In other words, one of these bombs already had a destructive force 100 times that of the atomic bomb. You'll remember I showed you a civil defense diagram that showed a really lethal radius for an atomic bomb of about one mile from the blast. In this diagram, you see a fairly lethal radius going out to about seven miles from the blast for a hydrogen bomb. Do the quick calculations and in the atomic bomb case, that's an area of high lethality of a few square miles. In the hydrogen bomb case, that's an area of extreme lethality covering about 150 square miles. And, of course, the radioactive fallout kicked up by these far larger blasts would correspondingly also be that much greater. As a result, we're now thinking of bombs that don't just damage parts of cities, but destroy entire cities. Indeed, when such detonations occurred in the thousands or tens of thousands of explosions, threats to entire hemispheres, maybe even to the population of the Earth itself. So as we arrive here in contemplations of this deadly standoff by the middle of the 1950s, let's just think back on what's happened since the last year of World War II, as people are thinking about preparing for a new world after the Second World War. I haven't tried to talk a lot about assigning blame to one side or another. I think, in some ways, you can start, as you work through these problems, of just again thinking about people solving problems. Think about the leaders, the people around them. Think about the kinds of problems they faced as the war ended: rebuilding societies, organizing new societies, what they thought their choices were, where those choices were bound to come into conflict, and then how people solved those problems. They're solving those problems in terribly tragic circumstances, in which a lot of possibilities are bound to be in play. And therefore, ordinary people, doing the best they can according to their value systems of how to solve these problems, are making truly world shaping choices that can have catastrophic consequences for the entire future of the planet. Next time, we'll talk a little bit more about the whole way the world is being reorganized in the 1950s. See you then. [BLANK_AUDIO].

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