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Sample Essay on History of Atomic Weapons in Warfare

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Atomic weapons constitute one the most devastating inventions known to mankind. Although they have seldom been actually used, they have surely cast a long shadow over all of the history of the twentieth century and beyond. The purpose of this sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss the history of atomic weapons in warfare. This history paper will be organized into four main parts. 

  1. The first part will consist of a brief overview of the invention of atomic weapons.
  2. The second part will consider the case of Japan in World War II, which was the only time that atomic weapons have actually been used in warfare.
  3. The third part will then discuss the issue of the testing of atomic weapons in these times.
  4. The fourth part will reflect on the possibility of a future that is free of atomic weapons.

History of atomic weapons in warfare: The creation

The invention of atomic weapon can be traced back to the era of World War II and a special experiment known as the Manhattan Project. As Nobelprize.org has written:

"In October 1939, just after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from physicist Albert Einstein and his Hungarian colleague Leo Szilard, calling to his attention the prospect of a bomb of unprecedented power that could be made tapping into the forces of nuclear fission" (paragraph 2).

This awareness brought on the fear that if Adolf Hitler actually figured out how to make this weapon and got possession of it, he would use it against his enemies and the German war effort, along with Nazi ideology, could potentially take over the world. As a result, Roosevelt believed that it was necessary for the United States to do what it takes to get the weapon first. 

The development of the atomic bomb within the United States is what came to be called the Manhattan Project. One of the more interesting facts about this project consisted of how few people even knew about it: for strategic reasons, it was never a matter of open or public debate. As ushistory.org has indicated,

"Secrecy was paramount. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese could learn of the project. Roosevelt and Churchill also agreed that Stalin would be kept in the dark. Consequently, there was no public awareness or debate," and "only a small privileged cadre of inner scientists and officials knew about the atomic bomb's development" (paragraph 6).

The Manhattan Project, of course, resulted in success: the United States did in fact get its hands on the atomic bomb; and in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Americans proceeded to use that weapon against Japan, thereby bringing World War II to a horrific and climactic close. This will be discussed further below, in the following section of this essay. 

Before proceeding, though, it may worth saying a word about the other main kind of atomic weapon. The Manhattan Project resulted in the creation of the fission bomb; the other kind of atomic weapon would be the fusion bomb. The fission bomb operates by breaking apart the nuclei of atoms, whereas the fusion bomb works by actually causing unifications of different nuclei from different atoms. For technical reasons that are not important for present purposes, this latter kind of bomb is far more powerful than the former. It was invented shortly after the fission bomb, and it was tested on the 20th of May, 1956. As Cavendish has reported:

"The first hydrogen bomb dropped from the air exploded with a force estimated as equal to a minimum of fifteen million tons of TNT and created a fireball at least four miles wide and brighter than 500 suns" (paragraph 1).

This weapon, however, has never been used in actual warfare. The only use of atomic weapons in warfare occurred with the case of Japan in World War II.

The case of Japan

Near the close of World War II, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ryan Browne of CNN has indicated that

"then President Harry S. Truman authorized the attack on Hiroshima. The U.S. B-29 bomber aircraft, the Enola Gay, dropped the nuclear bomb, codenamed 'Little Boy,' on August 6, 1945" (paragraph 6).

The official purpose of using this weapon against Japan was to compel Japan to accept the terms of unconditional surrender and avoid the costs of an actual military invasion of Japan. A more cynical interpretation, however, would be that the United States simply wanted to play with its new toy. It is difficult to explain, for example, why the United States did not drop the bomb in an uninhabited area to show Japan what the weapon was capable of, as opposed to dropping it on an actual inhabited city and killing countless civilians as a result. 

This concern becomes heightened when one considers the fact that the United States also proceeded to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. As Alex Wellerstein of the New Yorker has indicated

"It is difficult in retrospect to identify any coherent strategic motivation for this second attack, with even the people directly involved in the event not being exactly sure how Nagasaki managed to get itself into the military picture. One disconcerting observation, though, is that the bomb dropped here was technologically somewhat different from the bomb dropped in Hiroshima."

This gives rise to the suspicion that the United States perhaps dropped the second bomb (if not also the first bomb) as part of a grotesque scientific experiment, simply to see what effects would be produced by the detonation. This would be morally inexcusable, given the devastating human toll of the explosions of atomic bombs, with several tens of thousands of civilians dying immediately and countless more dying slowly as the result of exposure to the radiation from the bombs. 

In any event, there has never been another case thus far of atomic weapons being used in actual warfare. This is possibly because of a growing awareness of how apocalyptically destructive these weapons really are, after seeing what happened in Japan. Moreover, the fact that several nations now have atomic weapons has served the function of a kind of mutual deterrence.

During the Cold War, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union came quite close to the brink of atomic warfare. However, the understanding that this would have resulted in the more or less total annihilation of both nations generally served as a check on the use of atomic weapons, and the entire era passed (some would say almost miraculously) without seeing the further use of these weapons in actual warfare. This is still where the situation stands today: although there is considerable concern in the world regarding the eruption of atomic warfare, such a turn of events has not actually come to pass, and the case of Japan remains the only example of atomic weapons being used in warfare. 

Nuclear testing today

Although atomic weapons have not actually been used in warfare since World War II, nuclear testing has clearly continued, with several nations having acquired the atomic bomb over the course of the last several decades. Some of this has been legal, with the nations involved actually having been allowed to conduct atomic research, as per international treaties and conventions; but others have acquired the bomb (or worked toward that end) in a surreptitious way, leaving the rest of the world wondering what to do about the problem.

The case of Iran, for example, has been one of the prominent ones that has been in the news as of late, with complex negotiations occurring about the extent to which Iran can be permitted to conduct atomic research for civilian or energy purposes, and the extent to which the nation must be monitored to ensure that it is not working toward weaponizing the technology. 

Moreover, in the contemporary world, a serious concern pertains to atomic weapons or technology being smuggled into the hands of unauthorized parties, especially terrorists. Charlie Cooper reporting for The Independent wrote the following:

"Barack Obama has warned that the prospect of ISIS or other terrorists getting hold of a nuclear bomb is among the most serious threats faced by the world" (paragraph 1).

ISIS, of course, is a deeply deranged terrorist organization; and it is also active in a region with unstable governments and near nations that possess atomic weapons. If ISIS did get its hands on those weapons, it would almost certainly make use of them, with no regard or care for its own ongoing existence. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, while deeply at odds with each other at multiple levels, were both essentially sane and cared a great deal about avoiding the prospect of total self-annihilation. It is not at clear that ISIS would have similar scruples. ISIS just may well go ahead and make use of atomic weapons, even if the organization knows that it would destroy itself on the balance, and that is a terrifying prospect. 

Which countries currently have nuclear weapons?

  • The United States
  • Russia
  • China
  • The United Kingdom
  • France
  • Israel
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • North Korea (although not internationally recognized as a nuclear power, a nuclear test was first observed in October of 2006 in the country, and the most recent test was just in January of 2016) (Chuck)

A nuclear free future?

There are many people in the world, including leaders and other important stakeholders, who dream of a future free from the shadow of atomic weapons. In order to achieve this admirable goal, however, a great deal of international cooperation and good will would very much be needed. This is for the simple reason that by now, the situation has gotten to a point where if any individual nations decides to do away with its atomic arsenal, that nation would find itself immediately vulnerable relative to other nations that do in fact still have their arsenals. These weapons have almost never been used in actual warfare, but they have served a powerful role as mutual deterrence at the global level. In order for disarmament to work, then, this would also need to proceed in a fully mutual way. 

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has written the following about this matter:

"Nuclear weapons have no legitimate purpose; nor would their use be legal due to civilian casualties being unavoidable. They are also genocidal and utterly immoral. When confronted with any of today's real security threats, nuclear weapons are irrelevant. They cannot be used to combat climate change, poverty, hunger, overpopulation, terrorists, cyber-attacks or pandemics" (paragraph 2).

There is a strong moral case to be made for the general and global abolition of atomic weapons. Again, this is very much easier said than done, at the political level, due to the reasons discussed above. This is especially the case given that the United States and Russia own the majority of atomic weapons on the planet, and given the nature of Russia's international behavior as of late, that nation probably cannot be trusted to follow through on a nuclear disarmament treaty on good will. The current standoff of mutual deterrence is thus likely to continue for the indefinite future, unless serious changes were to happen at the geopolitical level across the globe. 

Concluding thoughts

In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the history of atomic weapons in warfare. The essay has discussed the invention of atomic weapons, their use in World War II, the state of their testing today, and the possibility of a world future free of such weapons. Hopefully reading this sample essay gives you more insight than you had before reading it, and if you were considering purchasing your own essay for sample use, Ultius offers features not found anywhere else. Essentially, atomic weapons are hugely destructive devices; indeed, they are so destructive that no one has actually dared to use them again, after seeing the carnage wrought by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Today, though, there is a serious threat of terrorist organizations getting a hold of and making use of atomic weapons, and it would thus be a very good thing if the world as a whole decides to do away with its nuclear arsenals. It remains to be seen, however, if this will ever actually happen. 

Works Cited

Browne, Ryan. "Why Did the U.S. Bomb Hiroshima?" CNN. 19 Sep. 2016. 

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. "Global Abolition." Author, 2016. Web. 19 Sep. 2016. 

Cavendish, Richard. "The First US Airdrop of a Thermonuclear Bomb Happened on May 20th, 1956." History Today 56.5 (2006). Web. 19 Sep. 2016. 

Cooper, Charlie. "ISIS Nuclear Bomb Is a Serious Threat, Warns Barack Obama." Independent. 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 19 Sep. 2016.  

Nobelprize.org. "The Development and Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons." Author, 2016. Web. 18 Sep. 2016. 

us.history.org. "The Manhattan Project." U.S. History Online Textbook. 2016. Web. 18 Sep. 2016.

Wellerstein, Alex. "Nagasaki: The Last Bomb." New Yorker. 7 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 Sep. 2016.

Chuck, Elizabeth. "Fact Sheet: Who Has Nuclear Weapons, And How Many Do They Have?" NBCNews. NBC. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

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