A Short History of the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

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Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for NPR looks back on the spread of nuclear technology since the first atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


In Tehran today, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's top leader, warned that Middle East oil shipments would be disrupted if the United States used military force against the country. The latest threats come just days after Western powers again tried to engage the Tehran regime in negotiations to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

As the war of words continues, NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr offers this history lesson.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

First, in 1945, there were the devastating nuclear blows at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And aside from telling the Japanese that they were finished, these bombings were meant to signal our Soviet allies that the United States was going to be boss from now on. But Stalin was out to show that anything you capitalists can do, we Communists can do. And it wasn't long before the Soviets, with an assist from spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, developed their own nuclear bombs.

Six decades since then have been devoted to trying, with little success, to limit membership in the nuclear club. In 1955, President Eisenhower flew to Geneva with a proposal to be presented to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin called Atoms for Peace, a way of bringing nuclear weapons under control. The Russians wouldn't play.

It was not long before Britain and France had nuclear weapons, President de Gaulle boasting of his force de frappe, or strike force. And one day China came up with a nuclear bomb. And then, or so it was widely believed, so did Israel. And suddenly, the balance of power in the Middle East was changed. And then, India and Pakistan and the world began to worry about whose nuclear bombs would set off a lot more nuclear bombs and make the whole world unlivable.

Then came nonproliferation, an organization called the International Atomic Energy Agency, which tried to keep countries without bombs from acquiring them, and those with bombs from sharing them. A few countries, like Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, abandoned their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. And in return, the IAEA offered help in developing peaceful nuclear programs.

The latest country to say it's giving up developing nuclear weapons is Libya, which is seeking reentry into the civilized world. That leaves North Korea and Iran, which have found that having a nuclear program gets you a lot of attention from the big powers. And most of all, it leaves you Abdul Qadeer Khan, the brilliant but irresponsible Pakistani scientist who has made a big business of selling nuclear technology to North Korea, to Iran, among others, it's believed.

What others? If we knew that, we might sleep better at night. As things stand now, we've about reached the end of the era of nonproliferation and have entered the era of a tenuous balance of terror.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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