International Security Studies

The Bomb, from the Manhattan Project to Today's Nuclear Landscape

Mar 02, 2009

From his years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Nevada Test Site to his meetings with nuclear arms experts in Moscow, former weapons designer Stephen M. Younger has witnessed firsthand the making of nuclear policy. With a deep understanding of both the technology and the politics behind nuclear weapons, he traced nuclear history from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War and into the present day at the launch of his new book, The Bomb: A New History.

Younger, a senior policy scholar at the Wilson Center, observed that President Kennedy's nightmare world of 20 or 30 states with nuclear weapons has thankfully not come to pass. That said, the old conventional wisdom that technology was the primary break on nuclear acquisition by states no longer holds. Access to fissile material is currently the major constraint. Younger also discounted the possibility that a non-state actor could fabricate a nuclear weapon; one would require the resources of a state to do so.

Younger argued that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal is not suited to the future: the yield of weapons is too high and some lack modern safety and security measures. Moreover, "all of the nuclear weapons in the nuclear arsenal are well beyond their lifetime. ... Maintaining existing nuclear weapons without testing is a major scientific challenge," Younger stated.

As the United States considers the modernization of its force and further reductions through arms control with Russia, Younger laid out basic propositions about the role of nuclear weapons that should inform this process:

  1. The role of nuclear weapons is to maintain strategic peace. Younger stated that no military officer he knows sees a need to use nuclear weapons short of an existential threat to the nation.
  2. The United States should be among the last nations to use nuclear weapons in light of U.S. conventional superiority and since nuclear use would invite nuclear retaliation.
  3. The United States should adopt a policy of purposeful ambiguity regarding the first use of nuclear weapons. Such ambiguity would complicate the decision-making of an adversary.
  4. The assurance of massive destruction is an implicit element of deterrence.
  5. Nuclear weapons are primarily instruments of state-to-state deterrence; and
  6. We should assume that we will never have enough intelligence to confidently assess the capabilities and intentions of other countries.


Three alternative nuclear visions have been advanced: the nuclear abolitionist position; a minimalist position–a world of few weapons, thereby creating a first-strike incentive for states; and a maximalist, essentially status quo world of many weapons. Younger urged study of the abolitionist position: "Rather than reject elimination, we should evaluate the challenges, the risks and the benefits."

Younger described a fourth approach–the "moderate position"–which would be a force posture based on requirements. The United States should maintain enough nuclear weapons to deter Russia, which, while no longer an adversary, retains the capabilities to destroy this country. Younger recommended a force of 500 to 1,000 weapons (a sharp reduction from current, let alone, Cold War levels) with the minimum yield necessary to achieve the military objectives and with all deployed on survivable ballistic missiles.

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies