The American government faced a dilemma: what should be the US response? Does America need an even more destructive bomb? Or would it be wiser to do nothing?
The current American government faces similar dilemmas, writes The New York Times, only it is about delivery systems. Recently declassified documents describe how previous American presidents have accomplished comparable tasks. The published report describes how President Kennedy ended the secret debate following the Soviet "Tsar Bomb" test on Novaya Zemlya. He not only ignored calls from the military to begin developing even more deadly weapons, but also initiated the signing of a US-Soviet treaty on the abandonment of the new superweapon.
American historian Alex Wellenstein has published archival documents. “It is clear that Kennedy was delaying the decision. But in the end he decided not to escalate".
Andrew Cohen, author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History, said the published documents tell an unknown story that is both terrifying and edifying at the same time. Cohen himself described the history of the preparation and signing of the arms reduction treaty. He believes that Kennedy's deliberate refusal to retaliate is evidence of "the American president's deep rejection of nuclear weapons."
The power of the Soviet Tsar Bomb, which exploded on October 30, 1961, was 50 megatons, or 50 million tons of conventional explosives. Last year, Rosatom published previously secret documentaries showing the preparation and testing of a superbomb. The power of the explosion is evidenced by a flash of light and a giant "nuclear mushroom". After the explosion, streams of charged particles rushed into the stratosphere and poisoned people around the world for many years.
In an article published in Bulletin oft he Atomic Scientists, Alex Wellenstein pointed out that it was not only the USSR that developed superweapons. The Americans were also preparing to follow the same path.
American military concerns ran a hydrogen bomb program that, after World War II, reached a level of destruction 1000 times greater than the nuclear charges dropped on Japan. The development of more powerful charges required tests that would help scientists correct errors and modify products to the desired degree of readiness.
Wellenstein quotes Edward Teller, the head of the American hydrogen program, who, at a meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, said that his laboratory was working on the creation of 2 hydrogen bombs. One of them had a capacity of 1,000 megatons - 20 times more powerful than the Soviet hydrogen bomb detonated on Novaya Zemlya in 1961. The second charge was even more powerful - 10 thousand megatons, or 200 times more destructive than the "Tsar Bomb".
Teller's colleagues were shocked by these plans. Lobbying for the project intensified when the US military joined the project. In 1958, the commander of the US Navy called for the development of nuclear weapons with a capacity of up to 1,000 megatons. The enthusiasm of the military cooled slightly when experts wrote that lethal radioactivity from the use of giant hydrogen charges would spread not only to the enemy's territory, but also to affect its own country.
When President Kennedy came to the White House in January 1961, the plan for a hydrogen weapon took shape. The new president was told that the 100-megaton bomb was designed to be 0.9 meters wide and 3.65 meters long. Such a bomb could easily be placed in a conventional bomber.
The explosion of the Tsar Bomb in October 1961 spurred the plans of the Americans. According to the documents, a scientist from the Sandia military laboratory - one of three where US nuclear weapons were created - said that the US military wants superbombs, even realizing that "none of the existing targets justifies their use."
In late 1962, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara informed President Kennedy that the Atomic Energy Commission was ready to produce an American hydrogen bomb equivalent to the Soviet Tsar Bomb. At a meeting of the commission, it was announced that the first samples of the product could be tested by the end of 1963.
Just this year, Kennedy began preparing plans to withdraw from the nuclear arms race. He was prompted to do this by deadly radiation from nuclear tests in the air and a wave of cancers in people living in the test area on the leeward side. The Americans began to conduct underground tests of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert. But there was a problem here. The rocky soil of the desert absorbed well the explosions of small charges, but not super bombs. If hydrogen charges are detonated, light energy and a shock wave will break through the rocky ground, and radiation will spread through the atmosphere. But tests of small in power nuclear charges in Nevada were carried out after the end of the Cold War until 1991.
In June 1963, Kennedy announced his idea to conclude an agreement with the USSR on a partial ban on nuclear tests, leaving only underground explosions. In his speech at the American University, John F. Kennedy announced that America will refuse to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere until other countries conduct similar tests on their territory. Kennedy understood that this initiative was not a full-fledged agreement, but expressed the hope that this step would lead to a formal agreement.
The Agreement on the Abandonment of Nuclear Tests in the Atmosphere was signed on October 7, 1963 and ratified by the Senate. In 46 days, the sniper bullet ended the Kennedy era in the United States and the world.
However, the air test ban treaty remained. The Soviet Union never violated it. France and China, which did not sign the agreement, conducted atmospheric tests until 1974 and 1980, respectively. India, Pakistan and North Korea conducted all of their tests underground.
Underground testing has become the norm and the charges tested have become smaller.
Hydrogen weapons are not currently being developed either, but their history in the 1950s and 1960s shows how quickly the hydrogen threat can become real.