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Atomic fears and the arms race

Read about the impact of nuclear proliferation in the 1950s, including fears of atomic bombs and increasing militarization.


  • The US government's decision to develop a hydrogen bomb, first tested in 1952, committed the United States to an ever-escalating arms race with the Soviet Union. The arms race led many Americans to fear that nuclear war could happen at any time, and the US government urged citizens to prepare to survive an atomic bomb.
  • In 1950, the US National Security Council released NSC-68, a secret policy paper that called for quadrupling defense spending in order to meet the perceived Soviet threat. NSC-68 would define US defense strategy throughout the Cold War.
  • President Eisenhower attempted to cut defense spending by investing in a system of "massive retaliation," hoping that the prospect of "mutually-assured destruction" from a large nuclear arsenal would deter potential aggressors.

The Doomsday Clock and the H-bomb

Shortly after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, the scientists who had developed the bomb formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organization dedicated to alerting the world to the dangers of nuclear weaponry. Early contributors included J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, and Albert Einstein, who dedicated the final years of his life to promoting nuclear disarmament. In 1947, they printed their first magazine, placing on its cover what would become an iconic symbol of the nuclear age: the Doomsday Clock. The clock purported to show how close humanity was to nuclear annihilation, or "midnight." When the clock first appeared, the scientists predicted that humankind was a mere seven minutes to midnight.1
Cover of the first issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with its rendering of the 'Doomsday Clock' at seven minutes to midnight. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
But by 1953, the scientists had revised their estimate to just two minutes to midnight. Their reason for this panicked prognosis was the United States' decision to develop and test a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, a nuclear weapon one thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that had leveled Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Although scientists and some government officials argued against it, US officials ultimately reasoned that it would be imprudent for them not to develop any weapon that the Soviet Union might possess.2
The development of the H-bomb committed the United States to an arms race with the Soviet Union. Despite the specter of nuclear holocaust, both the United States and the Soviet Union vied to build ever more powerful nuclear weapons.


The development of the H-bomb was just one part of the US project to increase its military might in this period. In 1950, the newly-created National Security Council issued a report on the current state of world affairs and the steps the United States should take to confront the perceived crisis.
Their report, "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," or NSC-68, cast the tension between the United States and Soviet Union as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. "The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself," the report began. It went on to assert that the ultimate goal of the Soviet Union was "the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin."
The report concluded by recommending that the United States vastly increase its investment in national security, quadrupling its annual defense spending to $50 billion per year. Although this proposal seemed both expensive and impractical, the US entry into the Korean War just two months later put NSC-68's plans in motion.3
NSC-68 became the cornerstone of US national security policy during the Cold War, but it was a flawed document in many ways. For one thing, it assumed two "worst-case" scenarios: that the Soviet Union had both the capacity and the desire to take over the world—neither of which was necessarily true.4

Atomic fears

With both the United States and Soviet Union stockpiling nuclear weapons, fears of nuclear warfare pervaded American society and culture in the 1950s. Schools began issuing dog tags to students so that their families could identify their bodies in the event of an attack. The US government provided instructions for building and equipping bomb shelters in basements or backyards, and some cities constructed municipal shelters. Nuclear bomb drills became a routine part of disaster preparedness.5
The civil defense film Duck and Cover, first screened in 1952, sought to help schoolchildren protect themselves from injury during a nuclear attack by instructing them to find shelter and cover themselves to prevent burns. Though "ducking and covering" hardly would have helped to prevent serious injury in a real atomic bombing, these rehearsals for disaster gave American citizens an illusion of control in the face of atomic warfare.6
Duck and Cover, directed by Anthony Rizzo (Archer Productions, 1951), was a civil defense film designed to help schoolchildren react to a nuclear bomb.

Massive retaliation

One problem with the enormous military buildup prescribed by NSC-68 was its expense. Although the economic prosperity of the 1950s seemed as if it would never end, President Eisenhower hoped to cut government spending. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed a new plan for getting maximum defense capabilities at an affordable cost: massive retaliation. Instead of focusing on conventional military forces, the United States would rely on its enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons to deter its foes from aggression, on the principle that attacking the United States would result in "mutually-assured destruction."7
Unfortunately, massive retaliation was a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. The strategy presented no intermediate measures between all-out nuclear warfare and no response at all. For example, when an uprising against Soviet control broke out in Hungary in 1956, the United States feared to support it lest their intervention antagonize the Soviet Union and trigger a nuclear war.8
Moreover, to Eisenhower's chagrin, developing and maintaining the technology required to implement massive retaliation was not as cheap as promised—in fact, it was extremely expensive. In his farewell address, Eisenhower warned of the dangers posed by the growing influence of the "military-industrial complex," but was unable to slow the arms race.9

What do you think?

What were the assumptions underlying the National Security Council's recommendations in NSC-68? Were those assumptions justified?
Did civil defense films like Duck and Cover comfort or traumatize American children?
Would it have been possible to halt nuclear development, or was the creation of more and deadlier atomic bombs unavoidable?

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