The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project’s (NPIHP’s) first annual Nuclear Boot Camp took place from 22-31 May 2011. Organized by NPIHP Co-Directors Leopoldo Nuti and Christian Ostermann, the 9 day full-immersion course acquainted 14 students from around the world with many of the most important topics and themes in the history of nuclear arms. These included the Manhattan Project, the history of the arms race, the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, arms control, the history and impact of the peace movement and more, as well as focused case studies on Brazil and Argentina, South Asia, South Africa, China and Israel.

By organizing this Nuclear Boot Camp, NPIHP aims to catalyze the development of a new generation of nuclear history researchers. Only with a clear understanding of the past can policy-makers confront the world’s most urgent and complex nuclear weapons-related challenges.

The first annual Nuclear Boot Camp was held in the village of Allumiere, Italy, approximately 1½ hours’ drive northwest of Rome at a decommissioned Italian Air Force Base. Until the mid-1990s this base served as a vital link in ACE HIGH, a NATO communications network which stretched from Norway to Turkey. The massive dish-shaped antennae which still exist at the site provided a wonderful Cold War backdrop for the Nuclear Boot Camp.

The 14 students selected to participate in this year’s Nuclear Boot Camp participants were chosen from a pool of over 250 applicants. They came from all over the world—Argentina, Australia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United States and Europe—and brought a wide-range of topical and disciplinary backgrounds to the table. Despite their diversity they all shared a common interest in the history of nuclear weapons.

Like their students, the instructors selected to lead the inaugural Nuclear Boot Camp were truly world class. Wilson Center Senior Scholar Martin Sherwin and Stanford University Professor David Holloway were the lead instructors, while Wilson Center Senior Scholar Joseph Pilat led the group policy presentation exercise which was the boot camp’s capstone activity.

Discussions during the first half of the boot camp focused on ‘traditional’ nuclear history, including the Manhattan Project, early efforts at arms control, the US-Soviet arms race, and the history of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. On the basis of this foundation, discussions during the second half of the boot camp dealt with important national and regional case-studies from outside the traditional East vs. West paradigm: Israel, South Africa, Brazil/Argentina, China, South Asia, Sweden and others. 

With so much material to cover in such a short period of time, the boot camp schedule was rigorous by design. A full afternoon blocked off for a trip either to Rome or the beach provided a necessary intellectual pause and gave students and instructors alike the opportunity to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Likewise, dinners each evening in the village were invariably lively venues for continued informal discussions and collegial fun.

One of the Nuclear Boot Camp’s explicit goals was to build students’ capacity to communicate with policy-makers. The capstone group policy presentation gave the Nuclear Boot Camp’s history-focused participants an opportunity to bring their expertise to bear on today’s most complex issues. Led by Joseph Pilat—himself an active participant in US nuclear policy debates as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s National Security Office—three teams of students worked over the course of the entire boot camp to prepare historically-informed policy presentations for sitting heads of state and cabinet members (played by the boot camp’s leadership).

The student presentations on a revamped Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the future of US theater nuclear weapons in Europe and the role of an international nuclear fuel bank in facilitating nuclear disarmament were striking in terms of their quality and imagination. The need to build consensus among group members and to consider real-world political, economic and bureaucratic dynamics added complexity and brought important but intangible elements of the policy-making process into sharp focus for the students