In 1934, Hungarian born physicist Leo Szilard proposed the idea of a nuclear chain reaction and its application as a possible weapon, which he patented with the British government that year. In the months of 1939 before the start of World War Two, leading German nuclear scientists formed the Uranverein, or Uranium Club, which expand on Leo Szilard’s and other physicists’ ideas that a nuclear weapon was buildable.
Even though war was imminent, the members of the Uranium Club furthered their research not to assist in the war effort, but as a continuation of the applications of nuclear physics. As to be expected, anything remotely concerning weapons was brought to the attention of the Nazi leadership who seized on the vast destructive capabilities that such a weapon could unleash and allocated a substantial amount of money and resources to the development of such a weapon. Despite its potential, the German military abandoned the pursuit of a nuclear weapon in 1942 after it realized that such a weapon would make no appreciable difference to the war effort.
By this time, the United States, to its horror, learned that Nazi Germany wanted a weapon of unimaginable destructive power. To deter the Nazis from using such a weapon, a group of scientists petitioned the United States government to build its own nuclear weapon. Even though the US did not know that Germany had already abandoned its military nuclear program, fear of a Nazi bomb lead to the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first nuclear weapon. It was in these steps that the nuclear arms race began, albeit its infancy, and illustrated three reasons why countries pursue nuclear weapons.
The first reason illustrated is intellectual curiosity. However, building a nuclear weapon for purely intellectual reasons only really occurred in the 1930s via the scientific talents of Leo Szilard and the Uranverein. The second and third reasons remain to this day: utility as a weapon and national security fears. In fact, they formed a cornerstone of the Cold War and continue to set policy for many nations today and will continue so in the future. A fourth reason also sets national policy for countries desiring nuclear weapons, that of national pride and prestige.
Despite the best efforts of the international community to halt their proliferation, attaining nuclear weapons will remain an attractive goal for both nations and terrorist organizations well into the future. To turn a phrase, the genie has been released from its bottle and can never be returned.
However evil and misguided the Nazi leadership was, it was correct in its original estimation that a nuclear weapon could be used for advantage during war. No weapon can match the destructive capability of nuclear weapons. Even a nuclear weapon at its smallest yield can do more damage than any number of convention weapons used simultaneously. For smaller countries with proportionately small defense budgets, a nuclear weapon poses an attractive alternative to the expense needed to build and maintain large numbers of conventional weapons that would prove decisive during military engagements. Fissile material and other equipment to build a nuclear weapon are less expensive and can potentially do more damage to an attacking enemy than, say, an American carrier battle group, a squadron of Eurofighter Typhoons, or a division of Russian T-90s.
Beyond immense utility as a weapon, fears concerning national security drove the United States, the Soviet Union, and China to build their own nuclear weapons, as George Perkovich indicates in his article “Nuclear Proliferation.” As the forces of Nazi Germany swept over Europe and penetrated deep into Russia, the American government learned of the Nazi’s nuclear program. The fear that the successes of the Nazi military could be increased dramatically with a nuclear arsenal, the United States embarked on the largest national effort ever, the Manhattan Project. Its goal was to develop a nuclear weapon before the Nazis could; and either use it to stop an actual invasion of the US or to deter the Nazis from attempting such invasion.
For similar reasons, the Soviet Union embarked on its own program using former Nazi scientists to create its own nuclear weapon in the late 1940s. Soviet fears were high that the United States and its NATO allies posed a constant threat to the survival of the Soviet Union and only nuclear weapons would prevent an aggressive attack on its territory. It is in these fears that the policy of nuclear deterrence was born and continues today.
Just as the Korean War began in 1950, President Truman warned the Chinese that their intervention in Korea would prompt the United States to attack China with nuclear weapons. In fact, Truman deployed nuclear capable bombers to bases in the Pacific Ocean to back up his threat. During the 1950s, nuclear threats against China continued from President Truman in 1952, as Korean War armistice negotiations stalled, and again from General Curtis LeMay in 1954, if China invaded Korea again. It was because of these threats that China started its nuclear weapons program in 1954.
The pursuit and development of nuclear weapons occurred in Israel amid ongoing armed conflict, hence the third reason for nuclear acquisition. Since its inception in 1948, Israel has been under near constant attack by Middle Eastern forces who considered the creation of a Jewish State replacing Palestine to be an insult. Egypt was a principle aggressor against Israel. When Egyptian events escalated the Suez Canal Crisis and then the country signed an arms agreement with Czechoslovakia in 1955, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion ordered the building of nuclear weapons. He thought that aggressor nations would think twice before attacking Israel. To some degree, he was correct. Nuclear deterrence has prevented full scale wars on the order of the Six Day War.
Besides use as a powerful weapon, addressing security threats, and deterrence, nuclear weapons can be used to enhance a country’s pride and its prestige within the international community. It is this fourth reason why France, the United Kingdom, and India developed their own nuclear weapons.
Since the end of World War Two, both the United Kingdom and France were weary of living under the protective shadow of the United States’ nuclear umbrella. Both countries thought that the attainment of nuclear weapons would enhance their standing among the international community by allowing themselves to pose their own nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union.
France, however, went further. Plagued by doubts, both internal and external, as to whether they truly deserved a position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France created their nuclear arsenal to preserve their standing, as George Perkovich revealed in his article.
India pursued nuclear weapons for similar reasons that France did. India wanted to increase its stature within the eyes of the world and to increase its negotiating leverage within Asia. This included the ability to give Pakistan pause during the ongoing conflict over Kashmir.
Pakistan chose nuclear weapons to present deterrence to India’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistan wanted India to know that any attempt to seize the Kashmir region by overwhelming force, including the use of nuclear weapons, would be met by a nuclear response. So far this strategy has succeeded. Each country may continue to fight the other over Kashmir, oscillating the Line of Control back and forth, but India has been hesitant to use its nuclear weapons for fear that Pakistan would respond in kind.
The reasons countries want nuclear weapons do not end with those four. North Korea pursued nuclear weapons as a way to blackmail the rest of the world into relaxing embargoes and trade restrictions imposed by both the United States and the United Nations. Some countries view North Korea’s stance to be heroic: a small power demanding better treatment by a larger power. For these reasons and more the number of countries who possess nuclear weapons will increase within fifty years and beyond.
The only viable way to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons is to make the attainment of nuclear weapons less attractive. One way to accomplish this is by making the costs outweigh any possible benefit of nuclear weapons.
The way to make the cost of attaining nuclear weapons outweigh any possible benefit is for the international community to act unilaterally in the imposition of punishments if any NPT country violates their agreement. The international community must also be willing to vigorously enforce treaty violations with trade embargoes and aid restrictions. However, this rarely happens. The greatest danger to stopping nuclear proliferation is international apathy.
In the case of North Korea, only the US and South Korea vigorously petitions other countries to support tough enforcement of the UN Security Council’s resolutions imposed on the North Korean regime for its continued testing. To further ensure compliance and to prevent military provocation by North Korea, the US is willing to use force to back up threats. “Our military is fully ready to counter any North Korean threats and provocations based on strong South Korea-U.S. combined defense posture,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The same types of embargoes and restrictions imposed on North Korea have been placed on Iran, but with little more success. After the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran violated its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations in 2003, increased diplomatic efforts and sanctions forced Iran to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium into weapons-grade plutonium.
However, like North Korea, Iran soon resumed its nuclear research and even threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iranian government reasoned that it was being denied its right to pursue peaceful, commercial applications of nuclear power. But what they did not reveal was that these pursuits were being used as a cover to increase Iran’s amount of already enriched uranium.
To prevent such violations, the international community must collectively convince the government of Iran that sanctions will be imposed that will threaten Iran’s economic survival. If these sanctions are unilaterally backed up by military force, only then will Iran cease its nuclear programs.
The second way to make the attainment of nuclear weapons seem less attractive is to create an international environment that is free from the pressures that lead to a country to seek nuclear weapons. However, this is more of a long term goal that will likely take longer than fifty years to achieve.
Each country must feel safe enough from internal and external threats that the possession of nuclear weapons seems ludicrous. If a country feels sufficiently safe, then one of the primary reasons to acquire nuclear weapons disappears. Each country must also feel that it is being respected and is on equal stature with the rest of the world. Cooperation and mutual assistance between countries is essential. The process of globalization promises to fulfill these goals, however, globalization is still in its infancy. To make a lasting and secure impact on how countries regard each other, the goals of globalization must be achieved. Only through uniting all nations under the banner of international friendship will the attainment of nuclear weapons cease.
There are many reasons why countries choose nuclear weapons. It is these reasons why nations seek to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. This trend is likely to continue for the next fifty years until globalization can establish an environment in which all countries feel safe and equal.