Tsar Bomba nuclear test 60 years ago didn’t shake JFK

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60 years ago, on Saturday, the Soviet Union detonated the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon, with a force 3,333 times that of the bomb used on Hiroshima. As the device shattered all records, it sent shockwaves through the US defense establishment: How should the US react? Did the nation need bigger and more destructive weapons? Was it wise to do nothing? What was the best way to protect the nation from the deadly agitations of a bellicose enemy?

U.S. policymakers now face similar questions as bold rivals seek new delivery systems for their nuclear weapons. A new study, based on recently declassified documents, offers insight into how a previous president solved a comparable dilemma. The report shows that the secret debate over what to do about the unprecedented Soviet explosion has been ended by President John F. Kennedy. He chose not only to ignore the military’s calls for more lethal weapons, but to sponsor and sign an East-West treaty that excluded more superweapons.

“It has reached the top,” said Alex Wellerstein, nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, and author of the study, in an interview. “It’s clear Kennedy was on the fence. But he decided not to go in the direction of the bomb.

Andrew Cohen, author of “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History” said in an interview that Dr Wellerstein revealed “an untold story that is terrifying, sobering and enlightening” . Mr. Cohen’s book describes the President’s 1963 pivot to the diplomacy that helped make the Revolutionary Arms Treaty possible. He added that the disclosure of Kennedy’s calculated non-response to the arrogant clamor showed his “deep distaste for nuclear weapons.”

The explosive force of the Soviet device – nicknamed Tsar Bomba, or Tsar Bomb, and set off on October 30, 1961 – was 50 megatons, the equivalent of 50 million tons of conventional explosives. Last year, Russia’s nuclear energy agency Rosatom released a formerly secret 30-minute documentary video that showed the preparation and detonation of the mega-weapon. The blinding lightning and the bubbling mushroom cloud hinted at his gargantuan strength. Its radioactivity reached the stratosphere and circled the globe for years.

In his study, published Friday in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr Wellerstein shows that the Soviets were not the only nuclear power to envision such amazing explosives; the United States had long secretly prepared to take the same path.

By definition, US plans for unthinkable weapons focused on hydrogen bombs, which in the years following World War II came to life at a level roughly 1,000 times more destructive than the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan. . error tests that identified problems and allowed bomb designers to design fixes and workarounds.

Dr Wellerstein quotes Edward Teller, one of the main architects of the hydrogen bomb, announcing at a meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 that his lab was working on two models of super bombs. One would be 1,000 megatons – 20 times more powerful than the planetary vibrator the Soviets would detonate in 1961. The other would be 10,000 megatons, or 200 times more destructive.

Scientists at the secret meeting “were” shocked “by his proposal,” writes Dr Wellerstein, citing an official document. “Most of Teller’s testimony remains confidential to this day,” he adds.

Lobbying intensified as the military added its voice. In 1958, the Air Force Chief of Staff commissioned a study of weapons up to 1,000 megatons, notes Dr. Wellerstein. A once-secret Air Force story has revealed that enthusiasm for the giant weapon has cooled as the study found that “deadly radioactivity may not be contained within the confines of an enemy state.” .

By January 1961, when Kennedy took office, plans for an inferior super bomb had become more detailed. Dr Wellerstein reports that the new president has been told that a 100 megaton weapon will be six feet wide and 12 feet long, which is easy to carry and drop for a large bomber.

The detonation of Tsar Bomba in October 1961 gave new urgency to the issue. Dr Wellerstein quotes a scientist at the Sandia Weapons Lab – one of the nation’s three nuclear weapons design centers – as saying that the US military wanted super bombs “even though no known targets justify such weapons.” .

At the end of 1962, says Dr Wellerstein, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was informed that the Atomic Energy Commission was ready to build the American equivalent of a tsar bomb. The commission reported that the experimental devices would be ready for explosives testing by the end of 1963.

That year, President Kennedy came to see a way out of the looming arms race. To end deadly radiation surges from atmospheric testing and ensuing waves of cancer and other illnesses for people downwind, government nuclear experts had learned how to detonate their devices underground in Nevada. .

The rocky ground could contain relatively small shards, but not those of the super-bombs, whose vast energies and miles-wide fireballs would burn and pierce through hard rock to project radiation into the air. The Nevada site carried out tests of underground weapons until, with the end of the Cold War, the long series ended in 1991.

In June 1963, Kennedy presented his vision for a partial test ban treaty with the Soviets that would limit nuclear testing to underground sites.

“I declare now,” he said in a speech at the American University, “that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere until other states do. “. His statement, he added, “does not replace a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us get one.”

It made. A treaty with Moscow has been negotiated and ratified by the Senate. On October 7, 1963, Kennedy signed it, putting the agreement into effect. “For the first time,” he said, “we were able to come to an agreement that can limit the dangers of this age.”

Forty-six days later, a sniper bullet ended the Kennedy era. But the global rejection of atmospheric testing largely held up, sending several hundred nuclear explosions into the underworld. Russia has never broken the treaty. France and China never signed and carried out their last atmospheric tests in 1974 and 1980. India, Pakistan and North Korea carried out all their nuclear tests underground.

“It has become the norm,” Dr Wellerstein said of the underground approach, “just like small warheads.”

If the potential era of super-bombs is now forgotten and unknown, he said, it’s important to remember as an object lesson just how ridiculously dangerous the nuclear arms race had threatened to become.

“Tsar Bomba is dead,” Dr Wellerstein said in his study. “Long live Tsar Bomba.”


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