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Atomic fears and the arms race

KC‑8.1.II.C.i (KC)
Unit 8: Learning Objective H
WOR (Theme)
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.start superscript, 1, end superscript
Image of the cover of the June 1947 "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," showing an abstract rendering of a clock face, with the minute hand at 11:53pm.
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.squared
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.cubed
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.start superscript, 4, end superscript

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.start superscript, 5, end superscript
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.start superscript, 6, end superscript
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."start superscript, 7, end superscript
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.start superscript, 8, end superscript
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.start superscript, 9, end superscript

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Eli Canham
    Ducking isn't gonna work very well, sure it will maybe prevent skin burn but there is no way it will protect you from radiation poisoning.
    (30 votes)
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  • old spice man green style avatar for user Zachary Carlson
    How in the world is ducking and covering going to work when your out in the open when a atomic bomb goes off??
    (7 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Jonathan Ziesmer
      People who knew how A-bombs worked realized that there was almost no escape. You could only survive if you were deep underground in a massive bunker. Most citizens didn't have access to such a bunker. In order to keep the citizenry from panicking over the inescapable effects of an A-bomb, officials lead people to a false sense of security by telling them that they could protect themselves by ducking, covering, etc. It wasn't really going to protect the people, but it would keep them calm.
      (12 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Aboywificube
    Wouldn't the Atomic Bomb disinegrate you from how hot is is
    (8 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Andrew
      It depends on how far you are from the blast. There is absolutely no way that anybody in the immediate area would survive. People farther away could get burned, but there might be a chance of survival if they were able to immediately leave the radiation zone somehow. Basically, the farther away you are, the safer you are.
      (5 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Kishore Karthick
    Did Rusians fear an atomic bomb attack like the Americans, did they too teach duck and cover to their school kids?
    (12 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Jacob  Sweeney
    What is the doomsday clock?
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Savage
    What is more powerful an H-Bomb or a A-Bomb?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf yellow style avatar for user ReviewerOfficial
    When was the last time a atomic bomb was used ,and how many have been used since the first ?
    (3 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user briancsherman
      Nuclear weapons were only used in warfare twice, August 6, 1945 Hiroshima Japan, and August 9, 1945 Nagasaki Japan.

      Nuclear weapons have been used for testing and demonstration over two thousand times, with the first being the Trinity test by the United States on July 16, 1945 and the most recent being the North Korean nuclear test on September 9, 2016 (as of today, November 19, 2016).
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 18norrey
    Would it have been possible to halt nuclear development, or was the creation of more and deadlier atomic bombs unavoidable?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Perspective 😁
      Since a power struggle was not being avoided it would have been very unlikely to stop the creation of more atomic bombs. Think about it. If the USSR were to have achieved more powerful developments than the USA, then the United States would have been scene as weak and backwards by the USSR and the world. The same for the USSR. Plus, if one had actually achieved more destructive nuclear capabilities, then the more powerful one might have blown up the weaker one because they wouldn’t have to fear equal retaliation. Also outside of the power struggle part of it, who would have the power to tell the world’s 2 most powerful nations at that time to stop? It would not have been the United Nations because both the USA and the USSR were on the Security Council, and either one could veto the measure. Nice question. Definitely something to think about.
      (5 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user iTz Carl W.
    Did the U.S. develop a weapon as powerful as Tsar Bomba??
    (4 votes)
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  • boggle blue style avatar for user x.asper
    What is the time conversion from the Doomsday clock time to regular time? I know that it didn't mean we literally only had seven minutes to annihilation.
    (2 votes)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      There is no conversion. It isn't measuring time. It is just a metaphor for how close we might possibly be to the end of our existence as a species. The larger of a threat to humanity occurs, the closer it gets to midnight. If those threats subside, it gets further away.
      (5 votes)