The Aftermath of the Nuclear Bomb

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

The creation of the atomic bomb was one of the most profound and influential points in human history, and not always for the right reasons. After its creation, the atomic bomb caused a lot of havoc in the world through its usage. There were many events that took place in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

Aerial shots of the mushroom clouds created by the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) in Japan during the Second World War.
The creation of nuclear energy has had far-reaching implications for humanity. The 1945 atomic bombs dropped on Japan gave the entire world an idea about the destructive power of the technology. (Image: George R. Caron/Public domain)

Out of the very many waves that were felt after the creation of the atomic bomb, the first one seemed to be that which affected the very pioneers of the technology. 

Radiation Risk From the Experiment

There was an ongoing legend, that all 49 participants that constituted Enrico Fermi’s team, which demonstrated nuclear fission for the first time in the University of Chicago, soon died of cancer, almost as if there had been a curse over the event. This was not true, though. Although six of the participants did die of cancer, they were not cancers that could have been linked to radiation exposure. 

The Road to Nuclear Energy

The road to atomic energy after this experiment was trodden with such aplomb, that the Manhattan Project actually pursued a number of simultaneous courses of action which seemed promising. The project was also taking place simultaneously at various sites: Hanford, Washington, eastern Tennessee, New Mexico, and so on. 

The work carried on at breakneck speed, and soon a test was ready. 

Learn more about the Manhattan Project.

Testing the Atomic Bomb

The first atomic bomb was tested at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, at the Alamogordo air force base. This was called the Trinity test. The atomic explosive device was installed atop a steel tower. Observers were stationed in a bunker, about five and a half miles away to note the results.

There was a lot of uncertainty around this test, with some physicists thinking that the explosion could actually ignite the atmosphere. 

When the explosion took place, there was a blinding flash, followed by a heat wave, and then a shock wave. The explosion created a mushroom cloud that went seven and a half miles into the air. This was a terrifying symbol of the new atomic age and its fearsome potential.

Lt. Gen. Groves and Oppenheimer at the Trinity test site, two months after the test was conducted.
The metal tower had been vaporized and the sand had been obliterated at the site of the Trinity test. Nuclear energy was ready to be put to use in war. (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Public domain)

At ground zero, where the explosion took place, the metal tower on which the bomb sat was vaporized, and so much heat had been produced that the desert sands turned to glass. While the government wanted to keep this success a secret, this was obviously something that was very hard to hide—the explosion had been heard in three states. 

After this experiment, the bomb was ready for use. After years of struggle, Hitler was defeated in 1945, no doubt a victory that was aided by the campaign of strategic bombing that killed more than 635,000 Germans, mostly civilians. Officials from the allied forces later discovered that while Germany had made a promising head start, it had made little progress on the atomic bomb. 

Yet, the Second World War ravaged on in the Pacific. What happened next was an event that marked the absolute nature of the war, involved civilians, blurred the lines of ethics, and took the war to critical mass. Of course, the atomic bomb had a role to play.

The Bombings in Japan

In August 1945, the United States dropped two bombs on Japan, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 Between 80,000 and 140,000 people died immediately at Hiroshima, while many more succumbed afterward. In Nagasaki, 24,000 were killed immediately. The mayhem, firestorm, and human suffering here truly made this ground zero for the realization of the destructiveness of war. Not only would countless people die or face extreme physical agony after the bombings, but even those who survived the incident would also be scarred by its memories forever. 

The usage of atomic bombs remains one of the most controversial topics in military history. At the time, the decision was taken in the context of a war in which 60 million were killed, and when the true power of the bomb was not yet known. Unlike some other points in history, the impact of this event was known immediately. People understood that something fundamental had happened.

Learn more about Japan and its place in war.

The Nuclear Aftermath

In the decades that followed, nuclear weapons were at the forefront of international politics, especially once the Cold War commenced. The American nuclear hegemony was fleeting, and by 1949, the Soviet Union had detonated its own atomic bomb, aided not only by brilliant physicists but also by atomic espionage, spies who had been infiltrated the Manhattan Project. 

The Cold War was fought with deterrence: being in the position to retaliate against the first strike. This scenario disturbingly came to be known as ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, or MAD.

In the atomic age, which we still live in, over 128,000 nuclear weapons have been built, more than 500 aboveground, and more than 1,500 underground nuclear tests have been conducted. The number of nuclear nations has constantly been on the rise. Britain joined the club in 1952, France in 1960, and China in 1964. Since then, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea were added.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Nuclear Ban

Image of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed in 1968
There were many consecutive treaties signed by international powers to curb each other’s nuclear power. Mutually Assured Destruction had become a very real possibility. (Image: Marc Baronnet/CC BY SA 4.0/Public domain)

There was a lot of anxiety regarding the spread of nuclear weapons, leading to the nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963, and then the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968. Fears then began to grow on what further proliferation could do, what, ironically, is called the democratization of weapons. 

One of the most well-known moments of the Cold War, which could easily have turned hot, was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which, fortunately, was defused. An almost unknown incident that puts the role of nuclear weapons into perspective, however, was the near breaking out of a nuclear war, accidentally, in 1983. One of the Soviets’ warning devices mistook a glare from the sun for an American missile launch. It was only the decision of a Russian officer sitting at the controls that prevented what could have turned into an all-out war. 

Even the peaceful use of nuclear energy has been controversial, and fears have been stoked by incidents such as that at Chernobyl in 1986 and at Fukushima in 2011.

The opening of the atomic age brings with it profound questions about science, technology, and progress, and their place within humankind. The ushering of this age has come with many advancements but has left many to still be found. With it, however, also comes the danger that, hitherto, has only been felt when the devastating potential of the atomic bomb was realized. 

Learn more about the dawn of the atom.

Common Questions about the Aftermath of the Nuclear Bomb

Q: How was the atomic bomb first tested?

The first nuclear bomb was tested on July 16, 1945, at the Alamogordo air force base, where the device was installed on a steel tower, and observers stationed five and a half miles away noted the results.
The explosion created a blinding flash, followed by a heat wave, and then a shock wave. It formed a seven and a half mile high mushroom cloud, a formidable symbol of the new atomic age.

Q: How did the nuclear bombings in Japan take place?

In August 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Between 80,000 and 140,000 people died immediately at Hiroshima, while many more succumbed afterward. In Nagasaki, 24,000 were killed immediately. Not only would countless people die or face extreme physical agony after the bombings, but generations to come would also suffer horrible physical and mental deformities as a result.

Q: What was the nuclear ban for?

Ever since 1945, when the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, there had been a lot of anxiety regarding the spread of nuclear weapons, which led to the nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963, and then the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968.

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