Are Nuclear Weapons A Necessary Evil? Part 1: A Brief History

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Difficulty Level: General

  1. Series Introduction
  2. The Discovery of Nuclear Fission
  3. The First Nuclear Weapons
  4. The Cold War Nuclear Arms Race
  5. The Cold War
  6. Chernobyl
  7. Nuclear Opposition
  8. Nuclear Weapons Today
  9. Conclusion
  10. References and Further Reading for the Series So Far

Series Introduction

It is no exaggeration that August 6th 1945 saw one of the most horrific days in human history. At 8:15 in Hiroshima, Japan, a crew on the plane Enola Gay dropped the first-ever nuclear weapon, called ‘the Little Boy’. They watched as a whole city, thriving and bustling one second, disintegrated in the next. Tens of thousands of civilians ceased to exist with no trace of them left behind. As the crew looked down at the remains of the city, Captain Robert Lewis (the co-pilot) cried out,

‘My God, what have we done?’

What the crew witnessed was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more civilians suffered the agony of radiation poisoning, burns and cancer from the blast. Ecosystems were desolated. To this day, it is difficult to understand how the infliction of such cruel devastation could possibly be justified.

Despite the horror of the scene, those on the plane and American politicians defended the mission. Major Thomas Ferebee (the bombardier) believed that the deployment of the bombs saved many thousands of lives by ending the Second World War. Harry Truman, the US president at the time, said that the bombs were dropped to avoid killing citizens.

However, as time passed, opposition to nuclear weapons grew. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of creating the first nuclear weapon, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb (a far more powerful version of the bombs dropped on Japan) and spent the rest of his life advocating for proper controls on nuclear weapons. In 1955, Bertrand Russell (philosopher and political activist) and Albert Einstein (scientist) wrote the Russell-Einstein Manifesto to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons.  

Despite the first nuclear weapon being dropped over 75 years ago, they have continued to terrorize the public. Today, with increasing global aggression, we are all on a knife edge of nuclear destruction. It is more important than ever to dive into the ethics of nuclear warfare.

This series aims to provide the reader with the foundations of the philosophy of nuclear warfare and look at questions such as whether it is ever ethical to use nuclear weapons or if nuclear deterrence is different to active use. It will look at normative approaches to nuclear weapons such as utilitarianism but also the unique challenges that nuclear weapons pose.

This first post will provide historical context to the debate. It starts with the discovery of nuclear fission, moves on to the Second World War and the Cold War, discusses opposition to nuclear weapons and finishes with the current global situation around nuclear weapons.

The Discovery of Nuclear Fission

German scientist Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938. It is where the nucleus of an atom is broken up to release a lot of energy. This discovery is responsible for 10% of the world’s energy production today. However, it is also the discovery that led to the deadliest weapons humanity has ever created.

The First Nuclear Weapons

America entered the Second World War after the Japanese decided to bomb Pearl Harbour and destroy an integral part of the American naval force. In 1942, American President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons due to his fear that the Germans were already planning to use nuclear fission for military purposes. Under J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, America developed two nuclear weapons.

America decided to drop both weapons in Japan in a bid to end the Second World War. The first was dropped in Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945, instantly killing 80,000 people. A few days later, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and killed 40,000 people immediately. These numbers exclude the hundreds of thousands of people who died from other injuries, such as burns, poisoning and cancer that were induced from the radiation. Japan proceeded to surrender, ending the Second World War.

The Cold War Nuclear Arms Race

The bombing of Japan at the end of the Second World War saw a dramatic change in how warfare was conducted and led to an arms race. Within a few years, the Soviet Union had gained enough intelligence from spies to develop and test their first nuclear weapon in 1949. The race had begun for global powers to develop the most destructive nuclear weaponry possible. During the arms race, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that were far more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan were developed. Other countries developed nuclear weapons such as the United Kingdom (in 1952 with Operation Hurricane) and France (in 1960).

The Cold War

The tension between the Soviet Union and America developed into the Cold War (1945-1991). The term was coined by George Orwell in 1945 for his prediction of two nuclear states in a stalemate with weapons that could decimate each other. The term expanded to describe the political and economic tension between the United States and the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union expanded over vast parts of Europe to protect itself against future threats from Western Germany and the West. However, the US believed the Soviet’s aim was to dominate Europe in the same way Germany had attempted to. After the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1949, a stalemate from the threat of total annihilation began.

The height of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when the Soviet Union tried to install nuclear weapons in Cuba. This led to a 13-day tension where America threatened to invade Cuba and formed a blockade with its navy. The world watched as both countries danced close to the edge of nuclear destruction. Finally, both countries compromised – the Soviet Union removed the nuclear weapons from Cuba and America agreed to remove its nuclear weapons from Turkey. It also culminated in the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons.


During the Cold War, the Soviet Union also experienced the greatest nuclear disaster to date. In 1986, a power plant in Chernobyl exploded due to safety workers in the plant ignoring safety protocols. The initial blast only killed 26 people, but it led to thousands of people suffering from radiation poisoning, burns and cancer. Radiation from the blast was detected a far away as Sweden. It has been hypothesized that it will take 20,000 years for the area around the plant to return to a normal level of radiation. To this day, the accident serves as an illustration of the devastating destruction nuclear technology can inflict.

Nuclear Opposition

During the Cold War, opposition to nuclear weapons arose, even from Oppenheimer himself. He was concerned with the future that had been created by the development of nuclear weapons. He believed that nuclear weapons needed controls and received a role on the board of the US Atomic Energy Commission. When approached to give permission for the testing of the hydrogen bomb in 1949, he refused. The testing of the hydrogen bomb went ahead. Oppenheimer was stripped of his job in 1952 and was blacklisted until his death in 1967. 

In 1955, Bertrand Russell set up a conference to launch the Russell-Einstein Manifesto which was a document signed by prominent scientists that denounced nuclear weapons. Russell only expected a small number of people to attend but the event captured the public’s imagination and Russell became one of the most prominent figures opposing nuclear weapons. Conferences like the one Russell developed led to a global anti-nuclear weapons movement with thousands attending protests against nuclear weapons.

In 1971, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was created to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament. 191 countries signed the treaty. 

Nuclear weapons were also opposed by religious bodies. In 1983, a group of American bishops in the Catholic church assembled to sign a document called ‘The Catholic Bishops’ Concern with Nuclear Armaments’. This expressed their complete religious opposition to the use of nuclear weapons due to the sanctity of life and that nuclear weapons would kill non-combatants.

Nuclear Weapons Today

Some individuals believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War. However, others argue that it never went away. Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022. Tensions between Russia and the West drastically soured, and the threats of nuclear warfare returned. Russia has repeatedly made threats of escalation. For example, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev threatened to use nuclear weapons if the 2023 Ukrainian spring counter-offensive was successful. So far, the threat has not been followed through on. However, the heat continues to rise.

The war has brought nuclear weapons back into public consciousness, along with other public media.  For example, 2023 has seen the release of Oppenheimer, which explores his life and the moral quandaries about science and the development of nuclear weapons. While proving to be popular in the West, the film has not been viewed within Japan due to the memory of the vast devastation that was inflicted on its people. Thus, the debate around nuclear weapons has been thrust right back into the forefront of the minds of the public.

There are currently nine countries with nuclear weapons – the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran is also suspected to have nuclear weapons but has never admitted to it. Of particular concern is the fascist dictatorship in North Korea as it continues to follow an aggressive approach to developing nuclear weapons. Attempts at global nuclear disarmament have been avoided by these countries due to these countries feeling like nuclear weapons are an essential part of their defence strategies.


Since their first use in 1945, nuclear weapons have been a devastatingly controversial part of human existence. They have caused mass destruction and irreparable damage to both humanity and the environment. Yet, many see nuclear weapons as a necessary evil. The rest of this series will examine the philosophical grounds to this claim and ask whether nuclear weapons can ever be justified.

References and Further Reading for the Series So Far

Allhoff, Fritz. 2011. “What Are Applied Ethics?” Science and Engineering Ethics 17 (1): 1–19.

“Antinuclear Movement | History, Activism & Impact | Britannica.” 2023. August 9, 2023.

“Applied Ethics.” n.d. Ethics Unwrapped. Accessed August 14, 2023.

“Are Nuclear Weapons Useful?” n.d. Accessed July 24, 2023.

“Arms Race | Examples, Consequences, & Models | Britannica.” n.d. Accessed August 28, 2023.

“Atomic Bomb: Nuclear Bomb, Hiroshima & Nagasaki.” 2022. HISTORY. November 9, 2022.

BBC News. 2020. “Nuclear Weapons: Which Countries Have Them and How Many Are There?,” January 14, 2020, sec. Newsbeat.

Bigg, Matthew Mpoke. 2023. “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Has Unfolded, Month by Month.” The New York Times, February 24, 2023, sec. World.

Churchill, Robert P. 1983. “Nuclear Arms as a Philosophical and Moral Issue.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 469: 46–57.

“Cuban Missile Crisis – Causes, Timeline & Significance.” 2023. HISTORY. April 20, 2023.

“Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare.” n.d. Accessed July 24, 2023.

Extra History, dir. 2018. Cuban Missile Crisis – The Failed Checkmate – Extra History – #1.

“‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ Was Blacklisted for Opposing H-Bomb.” 2023. HISTORY. May 16, 2023.

Fisher, Richard. 2020. “Can Nuclear War Be Morally Justified?” News. BBC Future. 2020.

Frum, David. 2015. “The Cold War Never Really Ended.” The Atlantic. June 23, 2015.

Granoff, Jonathan. 1999. “Nuclear Weapons, Ethics, Morals and Law.” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (blog). May 26, 1999.


Iskander, George. n.d. “The Manhattan Project Shows Scientists’ Moral and Ethical Responsibilities.” Scientific American. Accessed July 24, 2023.

Krol, John Cardinal. 1983. “The Catholic Bishops’ Concern with Nuclear Armaments.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 469: 38–45.

Leach, Stephen. 2022. “Philosophy and Nuclear Weapons.” March 18, 2022.

Malik, Kenan. 2020. “Don’t Let the Victors Define Morality – Hiroshima Was Always Indefensible.” The Observer, August 9, 2020, sec. Opinion.

McMahan, Jeff. 1985. “Deterrence and Deontology.” Ethics 95 (3): 517–36.

@NatGeoUK. 2019a. “The Chernobyl Disaster: What Happened, and the Long-Term Impact.” National Geographic. May 20, 2019.

———. 2019b. “The Chernobyl Disaster: What Happened, and the Long-Term Impact.” National Geographic. May 20, 2019.

“Pearl Harbor: Attack, Deaths & Facts.” 2022. HISTORY. December 6, 2022.

published, Tom Metcalfe. 2022. “What Is Mutual Assured Destruction?” Livescience.Com. March 18, 2022.

Quinlan, Michael. 2009a. “5 The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons.” In Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects, edited by Michael Quinlan, 0. Oxford University Press.

———. 2009b. Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects. 1st ed. Oxford University PressOxford.

Roman Styran, dir. 2017. Bertrand Russell – Press Conference on Nuclear Weapons – Caxton Hall, London, 9 July 1955.

“Russell-Einstein Manifesto – Nuclear Museum.” n.d. Https://Ahf.Nuclearmuseum.Org/ (blog). Accessed August 22, 2023.

Seidel, Jamie. 2023. “‘Pressure Is Mounting’: Europe Rocked by Horrifying Russian Nuclear Weapons Claim.” News.Com.Au, August 23, 2023, sec. Military.

Shephard, Ben. 2012. “Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk – Review.” The Observer, December 16, 2012, sec. Books.

Stevenson, Leslie. 1986. “Is Nuclear Deterrence Ethical?” Philosophy 61 (236): 193–214.

“The Crew of the Enola Gay on Dropping the Atomic Bomb.” 2015. Mental Floss. August 6, 2015.

“The History of Britain’s Nuclear Weapons.” n.d. Imperial War Museums. Accessed August 22, 2023.

“The Nuclear Dilemma: The Greatest Moral Problem of All Time.” n.d. Accessed July 24, 2023.

“Utilitarianism | Definition, Philosophy, Examples, Ethics, Philosophers, & Facts | Britannica.” n.d. Accessed August 16, 2023.

Van Munster, Rens. 2023. “Nuclear Weapons, Existentialism, and International Relations: Anders, Ballard, and the Human Condition in the Age of Extinction.” Review of International Studies, January, 1–19.

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