The Art of Atomic Diplomacy

Front page of newspaper with headline, ‘Truman Says Russia Set of Atomic Blast.’
Truman Reveals the Soviet Union Had the Tested an Atomic Bomb. Keystone / Getty Images

The term “atomic diplomacy” refers to a nation’s use of the threat of nuclear warfare to achieve its diplomatic and foreign policy goals. In the years following its first successful test of an atomic bomb in 1945, the United States federal government occasionally sought to use its nuclear monopoly as a non-military diplomatic tool.

World War II: The Birth of Nuclear Diplomacy

During World War II, the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were researching designs of an atomic bomb for use as the “ultimate weapon.” By 1945, however, only the United States developed a working bomb.

On August 6, 1945, the United States exploded an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In seconds, the blast leveled 90% of the city and killed an estimated 80,000 people. Three days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 people.

On August 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his nation’s unconditional surrender in the face of what he called “a new and most cruel bomb.” Without realizing it at the time, Hirohito had also announced the birth of nuclear diplomacy.

The First Use of Atomic Diplomacy

While U.S. officials had used the atomic bomb in order to force Japan to surrender, they also considered how the immense destructive power of nuclear weapons could be used to strengthen the nation’s advantage in postwar diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

When U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the development of the atomic bomb in 1942, he decided not to tell the Soviet Union about the project.

After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the decision of whether to maintain the secrecy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program fell to President Harry Truman.

In July 1945, President Truman, along with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in the Potsdam Conference to negotiate governmental control of already defeated Nazi Germany and other terms for the end of World War II.

Without disclosing any specific details about the weapon, President Truman mentioned the existence of an especially destructive bomb to Joseph Stalin, leader of the growing and already feared Communist Party.

By entering the war against Japan in mid-1945, the Soviet Union placed itself in a position to play an influential part in the allied control of post-war Japan. While U.S. officials favored a U.S.-led, rather than a U.S.-Soviet shared occupation, they realized there was no way to prevent it.

U.S. policymakers feared the Soviets might use its political presence in post-war Japan as a base for spreading communism throughout Asia and Europe. Without actually threatening Stalin with the atomic bomb, Truman hoped America’s exclusive control of nuclear weapons, as demonstrated by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would convince the Soviets to rethink their plans.

In his 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, historian Gar Alperovitz contends that Truman’s atomic hints at the Potsdam meeting amounted to the first us of atomic diplomacy. Alperovitz argues that since the nuclear attacks on ​Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not needed to force the Japanese to surrender, the bombings were actually intended to influence postwar diplomacy with the Soviet Union.

Other historians, however, contend that President Truman truly believed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing were needed to force the immediate unconditional surrender of Japan. The alternative, they argue would have been an actual military invasion of Japan with the potential cost of thousands of allied lives.

US Covers Western Europe with a ‘Nuclear Umbrella’

Even if U.S. officials hoped the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would spread Democracy rather than Communism throughout Eastern Europe and Asia, they were disappointed. Instead, the threat of nuclear weapons made the Soviet Union ever more intent on protecting its own borders with a buffer zone of communist-ruled countries.

However, during the first several years after the end of World War II, the United States’ control of nuclear weapons was far more successful at creating lasting alliances in Western Europe.

Even without placing large numbers of troops inside their borders, America could protect the Western Bloc nations under its “nuclear umbrella,” something the Soviet Union did not yet have.

The assurance of peace for America and her allies under the nuclear umbrella would soon be shaken, however, as the U.S. lost its monopoly over nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, and the People’s Republic of China in 1964. Looming as a threat since Hiroshima, the Cold War had started.

Cold War Atomic Diplomacy

Both the United States and the Soviet Union frequently used atomic diplomacy during the first two decades of the Cold War.

In 1948 and 1949, during the shared occupation of postwar Germany, The Soviet Union blocked the U.S. and other Western Allies from using all roads, railroads, and canals serving much of West Berlin. President Truman responded to the blockade by stationing several B-29 bombers that “could” have carried nuclear bombs if needed to U.S. airbases near Berlin. However, when the Soviets did not back down and lower the blockade, the U.S. and its Western Allies carried out the historic Berlin Airlift that flew food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies to the people of West Berlin.

Shortly after the start of the Korean War in 1950, President Truman again deployed the nuclear-ready B-29s as a signal to the Soviet Union of U.S. resolve to maintain democracy in the region. In 1953, near the end of the war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower considered, but chose not to use atomic diplomacy to gain an advantage in peace negotiations.

And then the Soviets famously turned the tables in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most visible and dangerous case of atomic diplomacy.

In response to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 and the presence of U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962. U.S President John F. Kennedy responded by ordering a total blockade to prevent additional Soviet missiles from reaching Cuba and demanding that all nuclear weapons already on the island be returned to the Soviet Union. The blockade produced several tense moments as ships believed to be carrying nuclear weapons were confronted and turned away by the U.S. Navy.

After 13 days of hair-raising atomic diplomacy, Kennedy and Khrushchev came to a peaceful agreement. The Soviets, under U.S. supervision, dismantled their nuclear weapons in Cuba and shipped them home. In return, the United States promised never again to invade Cuba without military provocation and removed its nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy.

As a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. imposed severe trade and travel restrictions against Cuba that remained in effect until eased by President Barack Obama in 2016.

The MAD World Shows the Futility of Atomic Diplomacy

By the mid-1960s, the ultimate futility of atomic diplomacy had become evident. The nuclear weapons arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had become virtually equal in both size and destructive power. In fact, the security of both nations, as well as global peacekeeping, came to depend on a dystopian principle called “mutually assured destruction” or MAD.

Since both the United States and the Soviet Union were aware that any full-scale first nuclear strike would result in the complete annihilation of both countries, the temptation to use nuclear weapons during a conflict was greatly diminished.

As public and political opinion against the use or even the threatened use of nuclear weapons grew louder and more influential, the limits of atomic diplomacy became obvious. So while it is rarely practiced today, atomic diplomacy probably prevented the MAD scenario several times since World War II.