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"If one tightens the screw to the limit … one might strip the thread”: Soviet Defenses of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Jonathan Hunt

Soviet documents reveal how Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin responded to Romanian criticisms of a draft Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Leonid Brezhnev photographed after speaking in April 1967 at the 7th Party Congress of the SED.
General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Leonid Brezhnev, photographed after speaking in April 1967 at the 7th Party Congress of the SED.

The Soviet Union designed the architecture of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose letter and spirit would place global nuclear affairs under the jurisdiction of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) and the United Nations (UN). It did so in cahoots with its arch-rival, the United States, and in the face of opposition from portions of the international communist movement, most notably the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Albania, and Romania.

New revelations from the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI) (Российский государственный архив новейшей истории, РГАНИ) reveal the plans, motivations, and justifications that General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin shared during two sit-down meetings with Romanian officials Nicolae Ceaușescu and Ion Gheorghe Maurer in 1967 and 1968. The duumvirate reassured their Balkan comrades that a global nuclear order would not unduly harm fellow socialist countries, only for Ceaușescu and Maurer to spurn in the end a joint communiqué by the Warsaw Pact’s Political Consultative Committee (PCC) as a draft NPT wended its way to the UN Political Committee for commendation in the spring of 1968.

There were many reasons why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the federal government of the Soviet Union wanted a nonproliferation agreement. Since Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken first unveiled a nuclear restriction proposal at the UN in September 1958, the specter of German nuclearization, whether via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or a national program, loomed over the Cold War, not only for the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, but also for the United States and European members of the NATO. For this reason, initial proposals in New York seeking to limit, if not close, the nuclear club ran afoul of clashing US-Soviet views on NATO nuclear sharing and, more pointedly, schemes to equip forces—national or multilateral—under NATO command with nuclear arms, specifically state-of-the-art Polaris missiles. 

The nuclear dimensions of the German question were nonetheless one variable among many in Moscow’s calculus. 

As the Sino-Soviet split soured relations between Moscow and Beijing, the contiguous threat posed by a nuclear-armed People’s Republic of China competed with that of Germany’s militarized division for Soviet attention. The draft treaty held out benefits from the standpoints of national security and alliance management as well as from those of Soviet standing in the international communist movement and the wider world. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had sought an agreement with US President John F. Kennedy in 1963 that would have barred transfers to third parties of control over nuclear forces, rather than atomic weaponry per se, with equivalent pledges by states without them to remain so. Eager to build on the Moscow Treaty which US, British, and Soviet representatives had signed in August with a view to inhibiting German and Chinese nuclear aspirations, Khrushchev accepted language that would have permitted a mixed-manned NATO fleet known as the Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF). His readiness cast in sharp relief the contrary pressures faced by the Kremlin from NATO and future Chinese nuclear power: the former implicated the extended Soviet deterrent in Eastern Europe; the latter border disputes reaching back a century. East German and Polish objections ultimately scuttled the agreement. Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka accused Khrushchev of having more interest in “forestalling a Chinese nuclear capability than in preventing West German ‘access’ to nuclear weapons.” Thereafter the Kremlin insisted that a mutually acceptable nonproliferation accord would have to ban multilateral nuclear forces.[1]

Three years passed before Moscow and Washington agreed a basic definition of proliferation. In the end, the pressures of the 1966 midterm elections led US President Lyndon Johnson to direct his Secretary of State Dean Rusk to accept language that would bind “each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly.” While US allies retained rights to station US nuclear weapons on their territories and to coordinate nuclear planning and strategy via NATO’s new Nuclear Planning Group, rights to transfer control over US-made atomic munitions were waived. NATO would remain a nuclear power through its association with the United States, but neither it nor its non-nuclear member states would be allowed to manufacture nuclear weapons or unleash them without US presidential authorization. This breakthrough led in January 1967 to the simultaneous tabling of a consensus draft—with an article on verification and enforcement still left blank—by the US and Soviet co-chairmen of the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) in Geneva.

A nonproliferation agreement nevertheless remained an object of controversy inside the Cold War power blocs. In NATO and the US-Japan alliance, US clients quibbled over the scope of nuclear safeguards as well as their source of authority, procedures for the treaty’s entry into force and periodic review, and Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS) arms control and disarmament obligations. 

Inside the Warsaw Pact, skepticism—bordering on outright opposition—came from two sources: the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Romania. 

Albania was a reliable proxy for Beijing, whose leaders viewed nuclear nonproliferation as an assault on their legitimacy and a formalization of US and Soviet hegemony. Ceaușescu’s Romania, for its part, cherished its relative independence within the Warsaw Pact alongside Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union. This maverick streak would manifest itself in four ways from 1967 to 1969. 

First, in January 1967, Romania became the first member of the Warsaw Pact since the Soviets in 1955 to recognize the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), welcoming West German deputy chancellor Willy Brandt to Romania that August. Second, Romania would opt not to sever relations with Israel after the Six Day War in June. Third, as Eliza Gheorghe has documented, Romania increasingly looked to US atomic cooperation in response to Moscow’s “reluctance to share its nuclear advances with Bucharest.”[2] Fourth, and relatedly, Romania would flout Moscow’s urgings to support their preferred draft of a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. There are even indications that Bucharest might have considered acquiring its own nuclear arsenal, with Gheorghe citing declassified Romanian minutes of Soviet-Romanian meetings in March 1967 to characterize Maurer as unwilling to “tie [Romania’s] hands, giving up the possibility to acquire a nuclear weapon in the future.”[3]

Never-before-seen Russian-language minutes from these sets of meetings, as well as further bilateral dialogue amid the March 1968 Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee (PCC) meeting, furnished to the Cold War International History Project by Sergey Radchenko and translated by Gary Goldberg and Angela Greenfield, demonstrate that objections to the draft NPT went beyond potential interest in a nuclear deterrent. 

The first source records a conversation between Ceaușescu, Maurer, and Paul Niculescu-Mizil and their Soviet counterparts during a state visit to Moscow in March 1967. The setting for the second set of meetings was Sofia, Bulgaria, where Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko urged Ceaușescu and Maurer on the sidelines of the PCC to co-sign a consensus declaration in favor of the draft NPT recently finalized in Geneva. 

Various topics and themes recurred throughout the conversations: whether the proposed accord was equivalent to real disarmament or real arms control; security guarantees for non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS); US “ulterior motives” amid the Vietnam War; French and PRC hostility to the treaty; the tension between “peaceful coexistence” and “national liberation movements;” the likelihood of nuclear proliferation in capitalist countries when compared to socialist ones; whether West Germany or the United States was most threatening; NATO solidarity; the financial strain of Soviet nuclear-weapon production; whether the treaty would create “a situation of inequality” in peaceful nuclear development; the Soviet nuclear umbrella; and whether Romanian had the ability and the will to embark on a military nuclear program. The last and most comprehensive objects of discussion were the tensions between the perfect and the adequate in international nuclear diplomacy against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Record of Conversations in the CPSU with N. Ceausescu and I.G. Maurer, 17-18 March 1967

RGANI, f. 80, op. 1, delo 761, ll. 71-186. Contributed by Sergey Radchenko and translated by Gary Goldberg and Angela Greenfield.

This memorandum of conversation records a wide-ranging discussion over two days of a summit, March 17 and March 18, 1967, between Nicolae Ceaușescu and Ion Gheorghe Maurer, and their Soviet counterparts, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. 

Two issues were discussed: the US-Soviet draft non-proliferation treaty tabled two months earlier in Geneva, where Romanian delegates sat alongside those of fellow Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and USSR; and the upcoming European Conference of Communist and Workers Parties. 

Nuclear matters took up the lion’s share of talks. Ceaușescu shared his reservations about the draft, most comprehensibly, how “steps for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons need[ed] to be tied more to overall steps on disarmament.” He expressed concern about the lack of safeguard provisions, which he called a “blank check” for US authorities to meddle in peaceful nuclear program overseas. And he criticized the lack of security guarantees: both negative, in the form of pledges for NWS not to direct nuclear attacks or threats at NNWS; and positive, in the form of NWS assurances to defend NNWS from atomic blackmail.

He took pains to present his reluctance toward the treaty “in the form it is worded at the present time” as principled rather than pretextual. His belief that neither Paris nor Beijing would ratify was put forward as evidence that “in these conditions the signing of this treaty would provoke great bewilderment in the ranks of the international Communist movement, the national liberation movement, and in the ranks of the anti-imperialist fighters in general.” 

Brezhnev’s responses dwelt on the probability of new national nuclear capabilities arising among capitalist US allies, namely Sweden, Israel, West Germany, Italy, Japan, and Brazil. Along similar lines, Kosygin warned that nonaligned India would be capable if it were to “tighten [its] belt…not feed the people, but…take up the production of a nuclear weapon.” Brezhnev stressed the need to restrain West Germany, presenting the accord as “mainly directed against the [Federal Republic of Germany], against the countries in the NATO bloc.” He went so far as to declare that such a treaty would be “unthinkable” without Bonn’s signature on it. Later he praised how a nuclear nonproliferation regime could contribute to “shattering the NATO bloc” as soon as 1969, when the North Atlantic Treaty began permitting states to leave voluntarily.

The crux of the fraternal disagreement related to the role that nuclear weapons played in Soviet control over Eastern Europe. This imbalance of power and prerogatives was implicated in differing assessments as to the art of the possible in the late 1960s, and more directly in remarks about Soviet nuclear assurances and allusions to Romania’s ability to build its own nuclear arsenal. 

Brezhnev maintained that the draft NPT “contains nothing that would be directed … against the socialist camp,” which would also benefit greatly from “halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world and preventing the FRG from obtaining such a weapon.” When Gromyko repeated this judgment, emphasizing the divisive effects nonproliferation talks were having on NATO, Ceaușescu pushed back, riffing on the Soviet foreign minister’s chosen metaphor in his own retort: 

A. A. GROMYKO. … if you put the pluses and advantages for the socialist countries associated with the treaty on one side of the scale, and on the other some shady sides then, of course, the pluses … somewhat outweigh [the negatives]. But direct negative consequences are literally impossible to find in my opinion, even under a microscope.

N. CEAUSESCU. A more modern microscope is necessary.

Ceaușescu’s criticisms reflected differences of opinion and of national interest. His pleas to restrain the US nuclear arsenal (and by association that of the Soviet Union) met with sympathy from Brezhnev, who lamented that 25-percent of federal outlays went to military spending, with “the lion’s share devoted to the creation of nuclear missile weapons, and to nothing else.” The Soviet speakers nonetheless defended the status quo in which the Soviet nuclear deterrent protected Eastern Europe. Left unsaid was the extent to which this atomic shield was a fig leaf for Soviet geo-ideological domination, as demonstrated by the enforcement of what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine once Warsaw Pact tanks rolled through Prague in August 1968.

Remarks about security assurances went to questions of negotiability, reconcilability, and status, not only between the two Cold War blocs but within them and with nonaligned countries and “anti-imperialist” forces as well. As Gromyko noted, February consultations with Indian officials had failed to yield a universally viable formula; the problem, he elaborated, was “that, strictly speaking, no one has given a definition of aggression;” that was to say, “no one, no international organization, has provided this definition.” This lacuna was especially fatal when it came to nuclear weapons, whose primary function had thus far been that of deterrence. Even in hypothetical cases of clear-cut coercion—for instance, if Beijing were to blackmail New Delhi into ceding territory on their contested Himalayan border—it was not aggression per se but rather threats of aggression that mattered. To retaliate against threats would nonetheless be tantamount to preventive war, which the UN Charter expressly forbade. 

Was Ceaușescu correct that an “improved” NPT would command broader adherence, even from key holdouts such as France and the PRC? 

As Gromyko noted, senior officials in Paris had shared their eagerness for a treaty that would handcuff Bonn’s nuclear ambitions, cementing its reliance on Paris. Beijing, meanwhile, for all its protests, would likely be intransigent no matter what the technicalities were. By the same token, prohibitions on the receipt of atomic arms by NNWS would partially nullify the danger posed by nuclearized Maoism. “But we should pose this question to ourselves: can we solve all the problems in this treaty right away…this would be our greatest victory, but such a solution is unrealistic – it is impossible to achieve a solution of all problems right away.” This question of negotiability would come up again and again, as the two Romanian leaders pushed for further amendments to make the prospective treaty regime more equitable even as their Soviet counterparts insisted there was little meat left on the bone.

When the conversation touched on negative assurances, the Soviet and Romanian sides hit the root of their disagreement: Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. 

In response to Ceaușescu’s earlier claim that an “obligation” by NWS not to target NNWS would win over nonaligned and anti-imperialist parties around the globe, Gromyko explained the logic behind Kosygin’s proposal of the year before to immunize from nuclear terror NNWS signatories “which [did] not have such a weapon on their own territory.”[4] While the Warsaw Pact would surely back such a pledge, its terms were unacceptable to NATO, with US nukes hosted by “West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, etc.” 

Brezhnev cut in to emphasize that Moscow’s allies had no need of negative assurances thanks to the “reliable shield of [Soviet] nuclear weapons.” “Everyone knows this,” he insisted. While verbal affirmations are part and parcel of maintaining the credibility of security guarantees, such hyperbole betrayed weaknesses: first, that such pledges always contain a quantum of unreliability and, second, that the Soviet umbrella was not a gift bestowed on Eastern Europe but rather a function of Soviet authority over them.

Brezhnev and Kosygin’s patronizing assertion that socialist countries had “no prospects” of attaining atomic weaponry triggered pushback from Ceaușescu and Maurer. After Kosygin insisted “the proposed treaty actually limits not our countries, but those countries whose nuclear weapons, if they were created, would be directed against us,” Ceaușescu countered that the challenge remained “American imperialism,” whose presence, as evidenced by the Vietnam War, “actually plays the role of international policeman and stifles the democratic forces of the world.” Just before the meeting adjourned for the day, Maurer put a finer point on what countries such as Romania were being asked to sacrifice:

It was asserted here that the socialist countries do not lose anything in signing the proposed treaty. They lose very much! In signing an international treaty they concede, in any event some of the socialist countries, their unequal position with respect to the US.  And there many such provisions in the text of the treaty where this unequal position is reflected in the very main points connected with guarantees, and also with the questions about overcoming the legacy in the area of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In any case, this shows that, in signing the treaty in its present form, part of the socialist countries might allow a situation which for them might have dangerous consequences.

When proceedings resumed the next day, the two sides circled their wagons, with the question of Romania’s military nuclear ambitions looming over proceedings. Soviet officials portrayed a nonproliferation treaty as a clear win for socialist forces. In support of their stance, Kosygin adduced as indicative of the treaty’s value opposition to it from sources such as “Goldwater, Nixon, the right in France, Britain, Italy and Japan.”

Against this line of argument, Ceaușescu claimed that the current draft evoked opposition “not only by reactionary forces of Italy and other countries of the West, but also by some progressive circles, including some European communist parties, as well as by a number of countries which have recently gained independence and would like to sign this treaty, but have a number of concerns about it.” When Brezhnev and Kosygin warned that without a treaty nuclear weapons would spread to more and more regions, Maurer shot back that “[a]t least our hands will not be tied.” His subsequent remarks were cryptic, perhaps as he desired to obfuscate whether Bucharest preferred to retain the option to manufacture nuclear arms or indeed envisaged a future arsenal all its own: 

Cde. Brezhnev, this is not how we see this issue. Maybe you know better than we do that Romania has no intention of producing nuclear weapons, and primarily because it cannot. If it could, then we could have been looking at this differently. 

Maurer’s exasperated comments drew attention to what ulterior motives Romania’s leadership might have in objecting to a nonproliferation treaty which did not meet their high standards. 

Did they indeed, as Ceaușescu insisted a few minutes later, simply have reservations with a treaty that would curb the US nuclear arsenal, military interventions, or combinations thereof? When he pushed Kosygin on the need to restrain US nuclear power from being unleashed on societies such as that in North Vietnam, the Soviet premier asked how West Germany with its stockpiles of US-controlled nuclear weapons should be treated. The Romanian’s response highlighted a real contradiction in Moscow’s line: the only route to denuclearizing West Germany lay in limiting and eventually reducing US nuclear forces deployed there. 

Sensing that Ceaușescu had a point, Kosygin implied that such a quibble was simply the first step on a slippery slope. Where should Soviet negotiators draw the line when conditioning a nonproliferation agreement: “universal disarmament, and destruction of all nuclear weapons, and liquidation of military bases on territories of third countries, and so on and so forth[?]” In the face of these rhetorical questions, Ceaușescu continued to describe the draft treaty as “one-sided,” because it did not force NWS to “undertake obligations [for arms control and disarmament] or [to] issue guarantees that they will not use nuclear weapons.” Instead, he warned, the multilateral accord would “put a wolf in charge of guarding the sheep. But American imperialism is worse than a wolf.”

While the Romanian delegation made a point of assailing “American imperialism,” their comrades heard implicit criticisms of Soviet imperialism. As Brezhnev made a last-ditch effort to secure Romanian sponsorship of a consensus Warsaw Pact statement, he took issue with how Ceaușescu and Maurer had lumped Moscow in with Washington in their remonstrances that a treaty would harden differences between “non-nuclear and nuclear countries.” “Everyone knows, including America,” he protested, “that the nuclear power of the Soviet Union protects the interests of the socialist camp.” Having hitherto defended the inherently hierarchical character of a nonproliferation agreement with reference to multiplying threats to socialist countries from nuclearizing capitalist states, most notably West Germany, now he seized on Maurer’s earlier comments to query Romania’s nuclear aspirations: 

Cde. Maurer is saying: “At least our hands won’t be tied!” I do not know how to understand this. If this should be understood as Romania intending to produce nuclear weapons, then under current conditions it is, of course, free to do so, but so is any other country, like Israel, for example. But, as you know, we are not proponents of such a development. 

The two sides mostly stood their respective ground for the remainder of the meeting. Brezhnev and Kosygin reminded their comrades of the protracted and exhaustive efforts that had already gone into resolving differences with US negotiators, with Brezhnev’s complaints that Ceaușescu and Maurer would let the perfect become the enemy of the good growing sharper. He also chided them for comparative lenience toward West Germany, unfavorably contrasting his readiness to consult with them over a nuclear nonproliferation pact to their establishment of “diplomatic relations with the FRG without having conducted consultations with anyone on this issue.” He nonetheless rebuffed Ceaușescu’s statement that “no improvements in this draft are allowed.” While the two sides had not come to an agreement—the Romanians had not assented to signing up for a commendatory PCC statement on the draft treaty and the Soviets had not acquiesced to specific amendments to it—they did leave off with the understanding that consultations would continue at lower levels.

Record of Conversation between L. I. Brezhnev and N. Ceausescu, 6-7 March 1968 

RGANI, f. 80, op. 1, d. 763, ll. 2-15. Contributed by Sergey Radchenko and translated by Angela Greenfield.

By the time Ceaușescu and Maurer sat down with Brezhnev and Kosygin one year later, the draft NPT had acquired various new articles: Article III specifying the establishment of IAEA-compatible safeguards on fissionable material; Article IV recognizing an “inalienable right … to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination;” Article V foreseeing an international service to supply peaceful nuclear explosives; Article VI requiring NWS “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament;” and Article VII protecting the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones. 

While Ceaușescu admitted that these new articles combined with a smattering of preambular clauses had improved the draft, he nonetheless continued to advocate for further revisions. Among the changes he proposed were quinquennial conferences to review progress toward disarmament, negative security guarantees for NNWS party to the treaty, and guarantees that safeguards would only be applied to “activities connected with production of nuclear weapons.” 

This late pushback was in part a function of the Soviet Union’s differing approach to allied consultation throughout the NPT negotiations; where the United States had consulted closely with its allies, in particular West Germany and the rest of NATO’s membership—who had at times taken independent positions in Geneva—before agreeing to specific provisions with the Soviet Union, the Kremlin had, by contrast, operated more or less unilaterally. Ceaușescu’s plea to advocate on behalf of further adjustments to the treaty’s treatment of nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states was attentive to the mood in Geneva, where Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, and India continued to press for revisions that would better equalize the rights and responsibilities of the nuclear unarmed and the formal nuclear club. 

At issue was whether the socialist world at whose helm Soviet officials believed themselves to stand would align with nonaligned and neutral nations desirous of the fairest treatment possible—Ceaușescu’s position—or, as Gromyko claimed, array themselves against “militarist circles in the U.S., the FRG and in other imperialist countries,” who preferred “to sabotage the treaty.” 

Notwithstanding the Vietnam War, Kosygin’s comments depicted the Johnson administration as a counterbalance to “the Nazis in Germany and the extremists in the U.S.,” where he believed the treaty was “hanging by a hair because the government is being pressured by the forces who are trying to aggravate the situation and cause a war.” Kosygin concluded on a frustrated note, perhaps having taken affront that an Eastern European communist leader would question his and Brezhnev’s commitment to broader socialist interests: “You are calling on us to [join] the struggle, you are saying that we should fight. We have fought for a long time, and we know what struggle is. We do not need to be called upon to do this. We fight not in word but in deed, we do not use broad statements. But one has to understand that if one tightens the screw to the limit and then continues trying to tighten it even further, then one might strip the thread.”

On the second day of Soviet-Romanian sit-down in Sofia, Bulgaria, Ceaușescu made it clear that he believed the current state of East-West relations ruled out U.S.-Soviet détente on the basis of nuclear nonproliferation. Whether as a poison pill to obscure his true reasons for resisting a closed nuclear club or as a stand based on principles of sovereign equality under the UN Charter, Ceaușescu asked that language be added to the PCC declaration in support of the international campaign against US military action in Southeast Asia specifying that “the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [would] not be signed until the American aggression in Vietnam ceases.” Brezhnev confirmed what the Romanian strongman already knew when he replied that such a provision would not pass muster with the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

This blog post forms part of a project on the constitutional history of the NPT funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[1] Douglas Selvage, “The Warsaw Pact and Nuclear Proliferation, 1963-1965,” Working Paper, Cold War International History Project (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, April 2001).

[2] Eliza Gheorghe, “Atomic Maverick: Romania’s Negotiations for Nuclear Technology, 1964–1970,” Cold War History 13, no. 3 (August 2013): 373–92.


[4] The exact wording has been: “States which do not possess nuclear weapons and in whose territory, territorial waters and air space there are no foreign nuclear weapons.” Mohamed Ibrahim Shaker, The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Origin and Implementation, 1959-1979 (London; New York: Oceana Publications, 1980), 474.

About the Author

Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt

Former Title VIII Research Scholar;
Visiting scholar at the University of Southampton; assistant professor of strategy at the U.S. Air War College

Jonathan Hunt is a historian of America and the world, a visiting scholar at the University of Southampton, an assistant professor of strategy at the U.S. Air War College, and the author of The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam.

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