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Effects Of Nuclear Weapons On American Foreign Policy History Essay

Info: 5291 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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To end the Second World War, American president Truman decided to drop the atom bomb on Japan; it was the hope of the president that this device would bring a quick end to the war. With such awesome power in the hands of the United States, it is undeniable that the atom bomb-and later, other nuclear weapons-would play a major role in shaping American foreign policy. Was the United States able to achieve its foreign policy goals through this newly acquired power?

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To come to a conclusion to this question, extensive research on the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and of the United States were analyzed and compared. When the atomic bomb was first created, the United States sought to use its newly gained power to limit Soviet expansion. This policy was commonly known as “containment.” Through analyses of several sources from other historians, this essay attempts to answer the aforementioned question. This essay focuses on the first eight years of the cold war (1945-1953) as this is a vital timeframe in which historians are able to see the drastic change in American foreign policy due to the bomb.

It seemed that this new policy failed and that the atom bomb was unsuccessful in carrying out American foreign policy goals. There were numerous factors that deemed the actual implementation of the bomb in conflicts inappropriate. For instance, using the bomb in any hot conflict would bring moral disgrace to America and put strain on the relationship with its allies. Generally, the plan to use the bomb as a leveraging tool had backfired as the Soviets became ever more difficult to negotiate with. Moreover, with the Soviets exploding their own atom bomb in 1949, America had lost its ability to politically maneuver as it previously had before.



Towards the end of the Second World War, the Allied powers were desperate to find a quick end to the war in the Eastern theatre. The last few battles in 1945, fought against the Japanese, such as the battle of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were particularly bloody and victory cost the lives of many American soldiers. [1] These battles showed the Western Powers that an all out invasion on Japan would be very costly indeed, and that any assistance by additional nations would be desirable.

In the Yalta conference which took place in February 1945, negotiations took place for Soviet troops to enter the war against the Japanese on the side of the Allies. At the time of the Yalta conference, Soviet participation on the Allies side of the war seemed necessary. It appeared that favorable relations with the Soviets were vital for the Allies to prevent a costly invasion of Japan. [2] In the conference, Churchill and Roosevelt made concessions to persuade Stalin to enter the war against Japan. Stalin accepted at once, as he was to be given substantial territorial concessions in return. [3] 

By the time of the Potsdam conference in July 1945, however, British and American attitude had changed towards Soviet participation against Japan. First, Roosevelt was no longer president, and Truman, who was known to be less of an appeaser when compared to Roosevelt, took his place in this conference. [4] More importantly, the Americans were successful in carrying out their top-secret Manhattan Project, in which the United States was able to perform a successful atomic bomb test on July 17, 1945. [5] This new weapon of such overpowering force, which could wipe out large populations of people with considerably less effort than a full scale invasion, would forever shape the course of American Foreign policy and the development of the Cold War.

This essay attempts to analyze how the atomic bomb had drastically changed American foreign policy through analysis of the first eight years in which the Americans had the atom bomb. This timeframe is very crucial as it demonstrates American foreign policy had changed at the earliest stages in which the Americans had acquired the bomb. This paper will take a look at how America would attempt to use the bomb to their political benefit, the implications of using a bomb with such a destructive force, and overall, whether or not the bomb helped to benefit American foreign policy.

Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Rapid advances in science, and especially physics, lead to the eventual creation of the atomic bomb. By 1942, the majority of the great powers, including Germany, Britain, Japan, USSR, and the United States had launched programs to build create bombs of “awesome destructive force.”However, only the United States was able to continue the program without negatively affecting their war effort. [6] In 1944, not certain that the bomb would work, the Americans sought out help from the Soviets in the war effort against Japan. [7] 

When the first atomic bomb test was performed on July 1945, Truman no longer saw the Soviet entry into the war as necessary. In addition, the Red Army’s entry into the war with Japan would make postwar occupation plans for Japan much more complicated, and would allow the Soviet expansion of its sphere of influence in the East. A rapid defeat of Japan would prevent all these troubles. [8] Although many historians still dispute the true reasons why the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman declared that it was for one simple and straightforward purpose. He declared in his memoirs that an invasion of Japan would cost approximately half a million lives of American soldiers alone. [9] 

However, considering the strained relationship between the Americans and the Soviets, it would not be in the least unjustifiable to think that the bomb was used to impress and intimidate the Soviets. Some historians suggest that Truman knew Japanese surrender was inevitable, and so the bomb was dropped solely to intimidate the Soviets. [10] Shortly after the consecutive bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman encouraged Soviet officials to inspect the damage left behind by the atomic bomb. Truman hoped that the bomb would be able to be used as a show of power to quench any future Soviet aggression and expansion. [11] 

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in terms of American foreign policy towards the Soviets, could be seen as a show of power and control. It was a start of a new era, nuclear diplomacy, in which the United States consistently used the bomb as a potential icon of destruction against the Soviets. The successful test of the bomb allowed Truman to have a more aggressive stance towards Stalin in the Potsdam Conference. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only fortified Truman’s hostile stand in dealing with the Soviets. This bold hostility would be presented in the forms of the Truman doctrine and the Marshall plan.

American and Soviet Views on Nuclear Monopoly

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans generally adopted two viewpoints on the bomb. Numerous American policymakers, such as James Byrnes and President Truman himself, believed that America’s nuclear monopoly would allow the Americans to win concessions against the Soviets. [12] They thought that it would allow them to adopt a policy of containment in which they endeavored to resist international communist expansion. However, the proceedings at the London Conference of 1945 proved them wrong. For the next few weeks at the conference, nothing on the diplomatic level was accomplished. If anything, the Soviets have become even harder to manage than they were ever before. [13] In fact, the following couple of years for American foreign policy saw a Soviet Union that was more reluctant to cooperate than ever before. [14] 

While most American policymakers adopted an aggressive stance against the presence of the atomic bomb, there were some, including Dean Acheson and Henry Stimson, who saw America’s monopoly as more of a threat to international peace. Although Truman described the bombing of Hiroshima as “the greatest thing in history,” Acheson described “the news of the bomb is the most frightening yet.” [15] Acheson favored the internationalization of the bomb. He thought that the monopoly would stir up Soviet distrust towards the United States. Moreover, he believed, unlike Truman, that the Soviets would quickly be able to build their own bomb. [16] As we now know, Acheson was right. With the Soviet obtainment of the atomic bomb in 1949, it became that much harder to seize international cooperation of the bomb.

A few weeks later, Byrnes realized that he could not make obtain concessions from the Soviets through the presence of the atomic bomb. He quickly sought in 1946, without Washington’s permission, the internationalization of the bomb, the proposal of the Baruch plan, and the UNAEC. [17] But already, the Soviets had decided to take a harsh stance against the Americans and rejected the proposal.

Nowadays, it is most uncommonly recognized by scholars that there was an increasing degree of cooperation from the Soviets between the years of 1945 and 1946. Indeed, there is substantial evidence that indicate that Stalin did not desire a Cold War. [18] Yet, what stirred up Soviet aggression which in turn elevated into the Cold War?

Even though Stalin did not show it publicly, it was evident that he feared the power that the Americans possessed as long as they had the nuclear monopoly. In the Yalta Conference he presented his best wishes for the bomb to be used against the Japanese to end the war, in a rather calm manner. However, soon after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he complained that “war is barbaric, but using the A-bomb is superbarbarity.” [19] Moreover, he ordered a gigantic buildup program to create a Soviet version of the atomic bomb at a high cost to his country’s war-shattered economy. [20] 

In public, Stalin hid his fears of the atomic bomb. He was able to remain so calm about the news of the bomb was because the Manhattan Project had not been secretive enough to protect its information about the weapon from Soviet intelligence. Hence, Stalin had probably known about the weapon’s existence even before Truman himself did. [21] The fact that Stalin chose to spy on his allies even during the war showed his distrust of the Americans. The building of the bomb and the fact that the Americans did not tell Stalin about the bomb themselves definitely worked to intensify this distrust.

It would therefore seem strange that Stalin, who feared the bomb so much, would reject America’s proposal for internationalized control of the bomb. The Baruch Plan of 1946 would give over the control of all fissionable material to the United Nations. In addition, it would force the United States to destroy its entire nuclear arsenal. [22] If both parties approved, and agreement would have been reached, to the advantage of the Soviets, the removal of nuclear weapon technologies from both nations. Yet, Stalin declined. Scholars maintain that he declined mainly due to two reasons. First, the Baruch Plan called for constant inspection of both territories by the United Nations. Stalin was afraid that the Americans would call a preemptive strike to destroy Soviet atomic bomb making facilities. [23] Secondly, he felt that the Baruch Plan was another way for the Americans to prolong their hold on the nuclear monopoly and when the weapons were eventually removed, the Americans still had a monopoly through the fact that they had the knowledge of making an atomic bomb.

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Thus, the American monopoly of the atomic bomb was an important catalyst to the Cold War and a root cause for its buildup. The failure to internationalize nuclear technology would force the Soviets to build their own bomb which in turn lead to a nuclear arms race when the Soviets exploded their own bomb in 1949. Historian David Holloway sums up the effect of nuclear arms quite accurately when he said “it probably made the Soviet Union more restrained in its use of force, for fear of precipitating war. It also made the Soviet Union less cooperative and less willing to compromise, for fear of seeming weak.” [24] Rather than gaining international cooperation and peace, the United States had destroyed it.

The German Question

As shown by discussions in the Yalta Conference, American leaders saw that it was necessary to maintain a peaceful co existential state with the Soviets even after the Second World War ended. Roosevelt sought to construct a European peace in cooperation with the Soviets through the division of Nazi Germany. [25] This was achieved by splitting Germany into four occupation zones each occupied by Americans, British, French, or Soviets. The Soviets controlled the East side of Germany, whereas the Western powers controlled the West side. This was to prevent the reconstruction of a strong and aggressive Germany. [26] Stalin, who was especially pessimistic about the probability of a strong Germany in the future, wanted to use Eastern Europe as a buffer zone between the USSR and Germany. [27] The German question – the disagreement between the USSR and the Western powers over the best method of handling the future of Germany, is said by multiple historians to be a key factor in the development of the Cold War. A major factor for the rising tensions of the Cold war was directly related to the inability of both the Soviets and the United States to come to an agreement at Berlin. [28] 

With the successful test of the atomic bomb, American policymakers realized that they could act to their own interest and disregard the interest of Soviet security. The advantage of the nuclear monopoly allowed the Americans to recreate a rearmed Germany that could resist Soviet expansion. [29] The initial concern with a strong Germany was that it would, in the future, promote another conflict, as it already had twice in the past. However, now that America had nuclear arms, it could adopt a policy of “double containment” in which a strong Germany could be used both to contain both Germans and the Soviets. [30] With its atomic weapons, it could deter any future German belligerence and with a strong Germany. Then, America could incorporate West German into a Western European military alliance and its nuclear arsenal to limit the Soviet sphere of influence. [31] 

The rearmament of Germany was a very audacious political move for Truman. It should be noted that the Nazis, were responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers just less than a year ago. It would be domestic political suicide to attempt to rearm a nation in which one’s own nation was recently fighting a war against. This was reflected by the fact that the decision to rearm Germany was faced by numerous objections by the American people. [32] In addition, in a foreign political scene, the rearmament of Germany was met with massive opposition from other European nations who also fought against the Nazi regime in the Second World War. [33] Third, soon after the Second World War, the American public started to demand a global demobilization of American troops. In 1945, the United States had deployed more than 12 million Americans under arms globally. By 1946, this figure was significantly reduced to a mere 3 million and then to 1.5 million by 1947. [34] If a German war machine was to ever rise again, the United States would not have a decent number of military personnel to hold down German aggression, that is, through conventional warfare.

These factors produce an overwhelming opposition against Truman’s decision to reform Germany’s army. Even with the existence of the possession of atomic bombs, it was difficult to perform such a task. It would therefore be impossible for Truman to impose such a reformation without the ownership of atomic weapons. Thus, aggressiveness of American foreign policy in Germany can be seen as an end result of the American possession of a nuclear arsenal. The antagonistic behavior present in Berlin between the Americans and the Soviets were the direct result of American possession of the atomic bomb.

1949 – Soviets build their own atom bomb

When the Soviets were able to explode their own bomb in 1949, the situation had drastically changed for the Americans. America no longer held a nuclear monopoly, and therefore could not push the Soviets around as it had attempted to for the last few years. It closed off, at least for the mean time, any means of internationalizing atom bomb technology. The Soviets, who have just obtained their own bomb, would be reluctant to let go of it. [35] 

When the news first reached Truman, he was unsure what to do as the Western scientists predicted that Soviet nuclear technology was years behind that of the United States’. Therefore, when Truman was forced to act, he was quite unsure what to do. As a result, he tried to, at the same time, increase and decrease dependency on nuclear weapons. [36] First, even though the Soviets now had atom bomb technology, Truman found it important that America always had a nuclear arsenal bigger than the nuclear arsenal of the Soviets. [37] Truman therefore called the buildup of the American nuclear arsenal. In addition, he also called for the production of a “super-bomb” which was based on nuclear fusion instead of fission. These steps would be the key catalysts that brought about the nuclear arms race.

At the same time however, Truman tried to remove the role that the atom bomb had played in American foreign policy the last few years. Now that the Soviets had the bomb, it would not be desirable to develop an aggressive policy against the Soviets with the bomb anymore because if carried out, the conflict could result in a nuclear exchange between the Soviets and the Americans. Therefore, Truman sought to de-emphasize the use of the atomic bomb against Soviet policy. In 1950, one year after the Soviets had exploded their own bomb, Truman drafted the NSC-68. It called for the buildup of conventional forces. Its purpose was to “increase as rapidly as possible… general air, ground and sea strength… so as to not [be] so heavily dependent on atomic weapons.” [38] From these contradicting stances taken by the president, one can see the disarray in foreign policy that the possession of the nuclear weapon had cast on the United States. Initially, the bomb was supposed to bring peace and stability, but it seemed to be doing the opposite.

Implications of the Bomb

To do this day, after the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no other atom bombs have ever been used on any other cities in the world. The Soviet Union’s unfaltering stance against the Americans in foreign policy even against the odds of a nuclear monopoly presents us with the idea of Stalin’s theory of atomic bomb use. The bomb in short, despite its highly destructible power, was an unusable bomb. Stalin knew this as he continued to takes risks, such as the Czech coup, the Berlin blockade, and permission for Kim Il-sung to attack South Korea. [39] 

America had been making plans for a nuclear preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. An example of such a plan would be the SAC Emergency War Plan 1-49 which featured the deployment of 133 atom bombs on 70 Soviet cities. [40] Plans like these grew in proportion to the American nuclear arsenal. Soon, plans were made to destroy “more than 100 Soviet cities and towns, plus 645 military installations… [in] less than one day.” [41] In contrast, the Soviet Union was far from being able to repel such massive nuclear attacks. Even a little more than a decade after the Soviet scientists had exploded their first atom bomb, the Soviets had only four functional missiles. [42] Despite a clear advantage for the United States, the Americans had never used another atomic bomb after Nagasaki.

One of the reasons for the inability to use such a weapon was America’s image of itself. America was a nation in which fundamentals of morality always played an extensive role in its politics. As stated by American General George A Lincoln, “It might be desirable to strike the first blow, [but] it is not politically feasible under our system to do so or to stat that we will do so.” [43] There were constant discussions of a nuclear preemptive strike on the USSR, but always in the context of the USSR breaking the peace first. [44] Another constraint on the ability of the United States to declare nuclear war was the pressure and reaction of other nations on America. For example, during the Korean War, British Prime Minister Celement Atlee rushed to America – in an attempt to persuade Truman from using atomic bombs in the war, as he feared another world war would ensue. [45] America did not start wars. It only struck back at its enemies.

The early 1950s saw an America with a much different situation at hand. In 1953, North Korea invaded South Korea, commencing the Korean War. Once again, the Americans discussed whether it would be necessary to use the atom bomb. This time, America had the moral upper hand since it was not the United States that started the war. Nevertheless, they failed again to use the bomb to their advantage, which cost the lives of 33686 American troops. [46] A new problem presented to the Americans was that the bomb was made to wipe out large cities. There was always disagreement between the Americans as to where to drop the bomb. Unlike Japan, Korea consisted of many small cities, and bombing any one of these small cities would not provide America with a major strategic advantage. [47] More importantly, by the time the Korean War had initiated, the Soviets already had their own nuclear arsenal. The United States was much more unwilling to use their own nuclear arsenal in fear that the Soviets would retaliate with theirs. [48] 

By the early 1950s, American public support for the usage of the atomic bomb rapidly decreased. In 1945, in a poll of American citizens, 70% of the population favored the use of the atomic bomb to put down any future aggression. [49] In August 1950, a poll was made on the question of the atom bomb being used in the Korean War. This time, only 28% of the Americans approved. [50] After some time, when scientists discovered the side effects of the bomb – that radioactive elements could travel thousands of miles and harm the American people, the mindset of using the bomb to seek peace was drastically undermined. [51] These domestic influences heavily restrained the president’s choices of using America’s atomic arsenal. Any American leader could be immediately defaced if the use of the atom bomb had gone wrong. It definitely made Truman more careful about using the bomb again in any post-Nagasaki conflict.

When the Soviets created their own version of the atom bomb, there was an ever increasing impression that nuclear weapons were more of psychological weapons than physical ones. The “atomic diplomacy” which had been carried out by the United States towards the Soviets the previous few years was not physical wars. Instead, it spread fear in the heart of Stalin himself as the weapon constantly alluded to the power presented at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the constant reminder of the ability to destroy so much in so little time that made the atomic bomb such a revolutionary weapon. As nuclear weapons became more plentiful and powerful, they became a moral abhorrence in global foreign policy, and therefore, less usable. However, one would need more nuclear weapons to deter the other who also possessed them. [52] This lead to increasing tensions as the Soviets and United States continued to expand their nuclear arsenal which they would never be able to use.


The emergence of nuclear weapons created a rather shaky form of American foreign policy. From one perspective, the world saw American emerge into a police state – having the ability to push other nations around with its technological superiority. Increasingly, the United States became more willing to put a harsh stance against its aggressors through its foreign policy. This is shown by its hostile attitudes towards the Soviets in numerous cases. Also, America saw a huge removal of troops from other regions of the world, as they could now keep grasp of control through the use of the atomic bomb. However, on the other hand, the world saw a confused Truman who was uncertain about what he could actually do with the nuclear weapons. The Korean War indeed showed the world the incapability of the United States to actually use the atom bomb to shape its foreign interests. Because of its high destructive power, the bomb soon became a political taboo. Using it in any conflict would be political suicide. Overall, the atomic bomb failed to allow the Americans to achieve their foreign policy goals of containment. In fact, the advent of the atomic bomb has probably encouraged Stalin to run risks, rather than deter him from doing so. The plan to use the atom bomb as leverage in foreign policy had failed. Instead, America would embark on a costly nuclear arm race and an increasingly intensive Cold War.

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