At first glance, understanding the dynamics of how nuclear weapons spread during the Cold War, and what was done to slow this proliferation, should not be difficult. Weren’t nuclear weapons a threat to international stability, inducing widespread support for efforts to hem in this menace to world peace? The real story was not so simple. As scholars have long recognized, nuclear weapons influenced international politics in complex and often contradictory ways during the Cold War. On the one hand, atomic weapons have an enormous destructive power – the capacity to kill millions of people and destroy the fabric of civilized life. On the other, this weapon of terror, may have induced caution among the states that possessed them. Many analysts believe the prospect of mutual destruction prevented World War III, serving as a foundation for what John Lewis Gaddis famously labeled “the Long Peace.”
This dilemma was just one of many that policymakers, strategists, and outside observers wrestled with as they tried to understand the military and political purposes of such fearful weapons. These issues were never resolved during the Cold War, as analysts joined government officials in devising the most intricate, sophisticated military strategies for weapons they hoped would never be employed and believed had no meaningful battle field purpose. These fears also inspired millions around the world to join grassroots, nongovernmental efforts to prevent the bomb from ever being used.