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 mere seven minutes to midnight.1^1
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 courtesy
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.2^2
The development of the h-bomb committed the US to an arms race with the USSR. 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 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 US and USSR 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."
NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security
April 14, 1950
A Report to the President
I. Background to the Present World Crisis
Within the past thirty-five years the world has experienced two global wars of tremendous violence. It has witnessed two revolutions--the Russian and the Chinese--of extreme scope and intensity. It has also seen the collapse of five empires--the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Italian, and Japanese--and the drastic decline of two major imperial systems, the British and the French. During the span of one generation, the international distribution of power has been fundamentally altered. For several centuries it had proved impossible for any one nation to gain such preponderant strength that a coalition of other nations could not in time face it with greater strength. The international scene was marked by recurring periods of violence and war, but a system of sovereign and independent states was maintained, over which no state was able to achieve hegemony.
Two complex sets of factors have now basically altered this historic distribution of power. First, the defeat of Germany and Japan and the decline of the British and French Empires have interacted with the development of the United States and the Soviet Union in such a way that power increasingly gravitated to these two centers. Second, the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, anti-thetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore, become endemic and is waged, on the part of the Soviet Union, by violent or non-violent methods in accordance with the dictates of expediency. With the development of increasingly terrifying weapons of mass destruction, every individual faces the ever-present possibility of annihilation should the conflict enter the phase of total war.
On the one hand, the people of the world yearn for relief from the anxiety arising from the risk of atomic war. On the other hand, any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled. It is in this context that this Republic and its citizens in the ascendancy of their strength stand in their deepest peril.
The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself. They are issues which will not await our deliberations. With conscience and resolution this Government and the people it represents must now take new and fateful decisions . . .
The report concluded by recommending that United States vastly increase its investment in national security, quadrupling its annual defense spending to $50 billion per year. Although at first 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.3^3
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.4^4

Atomic fears

With both the US and USSR stockpiling nuclear weapons, American society and culture in the 1950s was pervaded by fears of nuclear warfare. 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.5^5
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 at least gave American citizens an illusion of control in the face of atomic warfare.6^6
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 US 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."7^7
Unfortunately, massive retaliation was a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. Because it dealt in worst-case scenarios, it presented no intermediate measures between all-out nuclear warfare and no response whatsoever. For example, when an uprising against Soviet control broke out in Hungary in 1956, the United States feared to support it for fear of antagonizing the Soviet Union and triggering a nuclear war.8^8
Moreover, to Eisenhower's chagrin, developing and maintaining the technology required to implement massive retaliation was in fact 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.9^9

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?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
  1. See “Background and Mission: 1945-2015", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2015.
  2. On scientists' opposition to the development of the H-bomb and Truman's decision to proceed, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 173-175.
  3. See "NSC-68, 1950" US Department of State, Office of the Historian. Link to full-text of NSC-68 below.
  4. See Patterson, Grand Expectations, 177-178.
  5. "We Like Ike," OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. May 15, 2015.
  6. Anthony Rizzo, dir. Duck and Cover (New York: Archer Productions/US Civil Defense Branch, 1951).
  7. See David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th Edition/AP Edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 874.
  8. Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 874.
  9. "The Military-Industrial Complex," Digital History, 2014.
Text of NSC-68 courtesy the Truman Library.
Duck and Cover is courtesy of the Internet Archive. Duck and Cover was written by Raymond J. Mauer, directed by Anthony Rizzo (Archer Productions), and produced by the Civil Defense Branch of the US government in 1951.