Nuclear Weapons Controversy

3 lessons to help students learn about and debate the history of nuclear weapons policy, up to the Bush administration.

Students probably know that nuclear weapons have great destructive power, perhaps know that they produce radioactivity, but may not be aware of how lethal and long-lasting it is or of other significant effects. And while students may have some information about what U.S. nuclear weapons policy has been, they probably know little about controversial changes in that policy since President Bush began his administration. Perhaps the most notable of them became public on March 10, 2002 when an unclassified section of the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review was published (key portions remain secret).

Earlier changes in nuclear weapons policy and those announced in the NPR are clearly momentous and warrant examination, discussion, and the judgment and response of citizens. The three lessons here are intended to provide students with some specifics on the effects of nuclear weapons explosions and background on U.S. nuclear weapons policy in the past; information about changes in that policy—especially as announced in the NPR—and pros and cons about them; and opportunities for student discussion, coming to judgment and response to an issue of paramount important to Americans and to the world.



1. Distribute Student Reading l for students' responses.

2. Discuss students' responses without indicating their correctness or incorrectness.

  • Which answers are they sure of? How do they know?
  • What misinformation do students have? Why?
  • What do they not know or understand?

On each item, but perhaps especially the first, it will probably be useful to ask for details. For example, ask students who think #1 is false what the differences are. Ask students who think #2 is true what the name of the treaty is and what they know about it; or ask students who think #2 is false for the basis of their response. Such a process will help to make clear what students know, what they don't, and where they are misinformed.

3. Distribute Student Reading 2 for reading and study. When they have finished, ask them to mark their responses on Student Reading 1 a second time.

4. Review responses to Student Reading 1. Are there questions or problems with any answers? Clarify.

5. Assignment: Student Reading 3.


Student Reading 1:

A Questionnaire

Directions: Mark each of the following statements T (true), F (false) or DK (don't know).

  1. The only difference between nuclear bombs and other bombs is that nuclear bombs are far more powerful.
  2. The U.S. has signed a treaty that commits it to work for nuclear disarmament.
  3. The U.S. has pledged never to use nuclear weapons against a country that does not have nuclear weapons.
  4. The U.S. has voluntarily suspended nuclear weapons testing.
  5. Most nations in the world now have nuclear weapons.
  6. The U.S. is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons against another nation.
  7. The U.S. has signed a treaty that bans building a missile defense system.

Student Reading 2:

Information about the Questionnaire

1. Differences between nuclear bombs and other bombs. The effects of an ordinary or conventional bomb, whatever its size, are to produce a blast after it explodes and, in the immediate vicinity, to wound and kill people and to damage and destroy property.

The effects of nuclear bombs are far more extensive. On August 6, 1945 at 8:16 am, an atomic bomb was detonated about 1900 feet above the central section of Hiroshima, Japan. In that instant, tens of thousands of people were burned, blasted, and crushed to death. Other tens of thousands suffered injuries of every description or were doomed to die of radiation sickness. The center of the city was flattened, and every part of the city was damaged. Half an hour after the blast, fires set by the thermal pulse and by the collapse of the buildings began to coalesce into a firestorm that lasted for six hours. Starting about 9 am and lasting until late in the afternoon a "black rain" generated by the bomb fell on the western portions of the city, carrying radioactive fallout from the blast to the ground. For four hours at midday, a violent whirlwind, born of the strange meteorological conditions produced by the explosion, further devastated the city.

The number of people who were killed outright or who died of their injuries over the next three months is estimated to be 130,000. Over the next five years it is estimated that another 140,000 died who had suffered burns, nausea, vomiting, bloody discharges, overall weakness, hair loss and disfiguring scar tissue. And decades after the Hiroshima attack survivors suffer higher rates of cancer than those not exposed to the bombing and many of the approximately 4,000 who were fetuses and are still alive were born mentally retarded and with smaller heads.

A medium-sized nuclear bomb today has an explosive yield of one megaton (a million tons of TNT), or 80 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. A one megaton bomb would, like a conventional bomb, wound and kill people and destroy property, though much more extensively.

In addition to those effects, it would:

  • produce a fireball with temperatures exceeding 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing everything within 1.5 miles of ground zero.
  • kill unprotected human beings in an area of some six square miles with "initial nuclear radiation."
  • produce radioactive fallout—dust and debris created by the blast and thrown up into the atmosphere—which exposes people still alive to various fatal radiation illnesses.
  • release radioactive elements that remain for many thousands of years, produce cancers, leukemia and mutagenic effects and make a city and the area around it uninhabitable.
  • create a thermal pulse—a wave of blinding light and intense heat—that causes second degree burns in exposed human beings nine and one-half miles from the center of the explosion.
  • produce such strange meteorological conditions as those experienced at Hiroshima—radioactive black rain and violent winds that hurl debris at 600 mph
  • generate an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out electrical equipment over a wide area.

If many nuclear bombs were exploded around the world in a full-scale nuclear war, scientists predict that at least three additional global effects would occur:

  • worldwide fallout contaminating the whole surface of the earth.
  • general cooling of the earth's surface resulting from millions of tons of dust blocking the sun's rays (sometimes referred to as "nuclear winter").
  • partial destruction of the ozone layer that protects living beings from radiation.

2. U.S. commitment to nuclear weapons disarmament. In 1945 only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. This monopoly lasted until the Soviet Union became a nuclear power in 1949. Soon afterward so did Great Britain, France and China. The growing number of nuclear nations and the dangers associated with nuclear weapons led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, in which non-nuclear nations agreed not to receive nuclear weapons or manufacture their own and nations with nuclear weapons agreed to make serious efforts at nuclear disarmament. This agreement went into effect in 1970 and has now been signed by 187 nations, including the U.S.

In May 2000, after a month-long conference, the five original nuclear weapons powers—the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China—strengthened their pledge of 30 years ago by committing to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."

3. A U.S. pledge. Since 1978 the U.S. has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapons state that has signed the NPT. Among those states are Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. The most recent such pledge was in 1995 during the Clinton administration by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

4. U.S. policy on nuclear weapons testing. From 1951 to 1963 the U.S. conducted more than 200 above-ground tests of nuclear weapons, as did the Soviet Union. After the two nations agreed in 1963 to stop such testing, underground tests continued. Since 1992 the U.S. has voluntarily refrained from further nuclear weapons tests. But it has not agreed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty banning "all nuclear weapon test explosions" that has been signed by 164 nations and all major nations except the U.S. and China. The main reasons for a test ban are 1) it is very unlikely that new nuclear weapons can be created without a test program and 2) environmental and health concerns. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that virtually every person who has lived in the U.S. since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout from global nuclear weapons tests. This fallout, the Center's study says, could eventually be responsible for 11,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. Though President Clinton urged approval of the CTBT, a majority of the U.S. Senate rejected it in 1999 on the grounds that the U.S. might need to test nuclear weapons in the future, a decision that President Bush agrees with.

5. Nations with nuclear weapons. In addition to the five original nuclear weapons states, the U.S. , Russia, Great Britain, France and China, three other states now have nuclear weapons: Israel, India, Pakistan

6. Use of nuclear weapons against another nation. The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

7. U.S. position on missile defense. For a quarter century and until recently the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, agreed to by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, prohibited each country from developing a missile defense system to defend its national territory against a nuclear attack. The idea behind the treaty was that stability depended on each country's being equally vulnerable to attack. (If two men are fighting with spears and one of them suddenly obtains a shield, that man will have the advantage even though a shield is sometimes thought of as a "defensive weapon.")

But on December 12, 2001 President Bush declared: "Today I have given formal notice to Russia, in accordance with the (ABM) treaty, that the United States of America is withdrawing from this almost 30-year-old treaty. I have concluded that the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks.The 1972 ABM treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at a much different time, in a vastly different world. One of the signatories, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. And neither does the hostility that once led both our countries to keep thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, pointed at each other....We know that the terrorists, and some of those who support them, seek the ability to deliver death and destruction to our doorstep via missiles. And we must have the freedom and flexibility to develop effective defenses against those attacks."

New York Times columnist Bill Keller presented another view of the reasoning behind the missile defense decision: "The real logic of missile not to defend but to protect our freedom to attack." For example: "Taiwan decides to risk a climactic break with mainland China. The mainland responds with a military tantrum. America would like to defend the island democracy against the Communist giant—but we are backed down by hints that Beijing cares enough about this issue to launch nuclear missiles. American voters may or may not support a conventional war for Taiwanese independence; they're much less likely to support one that risks the obliteration of our cities. Ah, but if we have an insurance policy, a battery of anti-missile weapons sufficient (in theory) to neutralize China's two dozen nuclear missiles, we would feel freer to go to war over Taiwan.

Or would the U.S. have gone into Afghanistan so quickly if it knew the Taliban "had a single missile capable of pulverizing Washington" But if the U.S. had a missile defense system able to protect against a limited attack, the theory goes, the Taliban's single missile would not be a deterrent to a U.S. attack. "Missile defense, in other words, is not about defense. It's about offense." (12/29/01)

Student Reading 3:

U.S. Nuclear Policy, Then and Now

Read and study the following. Make note of each change in nuclear weapons policy the Bush administration has been making and the reasons given for them. Note also any questions.

Then: The basic U.S. nuclear weapons policy during the cold war years in the second half of the 20th century was deterrence. In those years deterrence boiled down to the idea that if the U.S. maintained a powerful force of nuclear weapons on land-based missiles, on submarines and on jets and the means to deliver them, any enemy nation—but especially the Soviet Union—knew it would be destroyed if it attacked and therefore would be deterred or prevented from doing so. As Alexander M. Haig Jr., Secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan, declared, deterrence "means the certainty of suicide to the aggressor, not merely to his military forces, but to his society as a whole."

U.S. nuclear policy also allowed for agreements with the Soviet Union to reduce the numbers of nuclear bombs and missiles each side had; to halt nuclear testing in the atmosphere; and to prevent the creation of missile defense systems that might lead the other side to fear it could be attacked and not be able to retaliate. It allowed also for international agreements like the Non-Proliferation Treaty in which most of the nations in the world without nuclear weapons agreed not to try to build them in exchange for a commitment from the nuclear powers to reduce and ultimately to eliminate their arsenals. The U.S. has also voluntarily refrained from testing nuclear weapons since 1992 as a response especially to environmental and health concerns.

Now: But, says the Bush administration, the cold war is over and the U.S. has friendly relations with Russia which, though it still has powerful nuclear weapons forces, is no longer viewed as an immediate threat. We live, says President Bush, "in a vastly different world" in which the U.S. needs to protect itself against "terrorist or rogue state missile attacks." This is why the Bush administration says it has abandoned the ABM treaty with Russia and pushed to create a missile defense system, might violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty and will not agree to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Pentagon has produced The Nuclear Posture Review, which discloses the development of a new nuclear strategy. A portion of that report remains secret, but its unclassified section was made public on March 10, 2002. Here are some highlights.

1. The report stresses that "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends" and that "Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities. The combination can provide the range of options needed to pose a credible deterrent to adversaries..."

2. The report emphasizes the need to develop nuclear weapons that can penetrate deeply into the earth to destroy heavily fortified bunkers that might be used to store weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons. The Pentagon report says that because of their size and earth-penetrating qualities radioactive fallout would be limited if these prospective new nuclear weapons were used.

3. The report calls for better intelligence and targeting systems needed for nuclear strikes.

4. It names North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya as nations that "have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners....All sponsor or harbor terrorists, and all have active" programs to create weapons of mass destruction and missiles. The U.S. therefore faces situations in which nuclear weapons might be used, for example because of "an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, or a North Korean attack on South Korea or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan."

5. The report names China as a potential enemy that is modernizing its nuclear forces and Russia as a plausible even if unlikely adversary.

6. It emphasizes the need to maintain the ability to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a crisis, such as a reversal of the current friendly relations with Russia.

7. It indicates that it might be necessary to resume testing to make new nuclear weapons and to ensure the reliability of existing ones.

8. It says the plan is to cut the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons to 1700-2200 but to keep many warheads in storage as a hedge against future threats.

The Pentagon also issued a statement that "The Department of Defense continues to plan for a broad range of contingencies and unforeseen threats to the United States and its allies. We do so in order to deter such attacks in the first place."



1. Have the class consider any student questions about the reading.

2. Divide the class into groups for students to share their notes on changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the reasons given for them. Each group should name a reporter to summarize the points made.

3. Following a report from a group, ask if other reporters have any additions or corrections. Discuss

4. Assignment: Student Reading 4 and a review of the earlier readings.


Student Reading 4:

Support and Opposition

Directions: Read and study the following pros and cons on U.S. nuclear policy and review the earlier student readings. Then consider carefully the following questions, decide on and make note of your answers and come to class prepared to support your points of view:

  1. Should the U.S. develop new nuclear bombs? Why or why not?
  2. Should the U.S. cut its nuclear stockpile to a minimum? Why or why not?
  3. Should the U.S., if necessary, resume testing of nuclear bombs? Why or why not?
  4. Should the U.S. continue its efforts to build a missile defense system? Why or why not?
  5. Should the U.S. ever use nuclear bombs again? Why or why not?
  6. Should the U.S. take serious steps to lead the other nuclear powers in fulfilling their pledge in 2000 of "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals? Why or why not?

Support for new nuclear policy:

"We've got all options on the table, because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies."
—President Bush, New York Times, 3/18/02

"This administration is fashioning a more diverse set of options for deterring the threat of weapons of mass destruction. That is why the administration is pursuing advanced conventional forces and improved intelligence capabilities. A combination of offensive and defensive and nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities is essential to meet the deterrence requirements of the 21st century." These requirements include the creation of a missile defense system. The Nuclear Posture Review

"We should not get all carried away with some sense that the United States is planning to use nuclear weapons in some contingency that is coming up in the near future. It is not the case. What the Pentagon has done with this study is sound, military, conceptual planning and the president will take that planning and he will give his directions on how to proceed." —Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, "Face the Nation," CBS, 3/10/02

"This is...not a plan. This preserves for the President all the options that a President would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction." —General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CNN, 3/10/02

Opposition to new nuclear policy:

"Robert Nelson of the Federation of American Scientists argues that there is no way an atomic bomb could penetrate the earth deeply enough to contain the explosion, even if its yield were one percent of that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Such a bomb would create a fireball that would blast through the earth's surface, carrying a cloud of radioactive dirt and debris, according to Nelson, who notes that five-kiloton bombs (equivalent to 5,000 tons of TNT in explosive power) had to be detonated at the Nevada Test Site at a depth of 650 feet to be fully contained—far deeper than any mini-nuke could travel." —Raffi Khatchadourian, The Nation, 4/1/02

"Did the decision-makers in Washington reflect, when they gave themselves the right to launch nuclear attacks on the Middle East and elsewhere, that they might inspire those targeted to do likewise to us? Did they forget that there is no defense against nuclear arms and no rescue for those attacked by them?....No country is omnipotent. None are invulnerable. What the United States has done to others at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and what we may yet do to others at Teheran and Tripoli—others can do to us." —Jonathan Schell, The Nation, 4/1/02

"If the Nuclear Posture Review is the best that we can do, it is a political roadmap to ultimate catastrophe....In the wake of announcing a withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), Bush administration policies such as refusing to ratify the CTBT, developing new nuclear arms, and implicitly threatening nuclear use against non-nuclear states, threaten to undermine the credibility of the United States....Nothing could be more dangerous than a world without legal constraints on developing nuclear arsenals." —Jonathan Granoff, president, Global Security Institute

"If another country were planning to develop a new nuclear weapon and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended to President Bush by a new Pentagon planning paper....Nuclear weapons are not just another part of the military arsenal. They are different, and lowering the threshold for their use is reckless folly." New York Times editorial, 3/12/02

A response from China: "Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (said), "China wants to make it very clear that China will never yield to foreign threats, including nuclear blackmail. The days when China could be bullied are gone." —New York Times , 3/17/02

A response from Russia: "A spokesman for the Russian foreign minister...called on the Bush administration to explain the report and that it remained to be seen 'to what point this information corresponds to reality. If it does, how can you reconcile it with declarations of the United States that it no longer considers Russia as an enemy?" —New York Times, 3/12/02



1. Conduct a moving opinion poll with students. It is a way to get students up and moving as they place themselves along a STRONGLY AGREE-STRONGLY DISAGREE continuum according to their opinions about specific statements. Create a corridor of space in your room from one end to the other end that is long enough and wide enough to accommodate the whole class. Make two large signs and post them on opposite sides of the room: STRONGLY AGREE; STRONGLY DISAGREE.

Explain to students: "You will be participating in a moving opinion poll. Each time you hear a statement you are to move to the place along the imaginary line that most closely reflects your opinion. If you strongly agree you will move all the way to one side of the room; if you strongly disagree you will move all the way to the opposite side of the room. You can also place yourself anywhere in the middle, especially if you have mixed feelings about the statement. After you have all placed yourselves, I will invite people to share why they are standing where they are. This is not a time to debate or grill each other. Rather, this is a way to check out what people are thinking and get a sense of the different ways people view the issue."
You may want to use all or just some of the following statements. The object of changing statements is to introduce qualifying conditions and contexts and see if students' opinions shift. You may also want to begin with statements that indicate personal preferences on matters of much less moment than nuclear weapons policy and give students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with a moving opinion poll, especially if they haven't participated in one before.

Sample statements:

  • The best TV program is "The Simpsons."
  • Getting music for free by downloading it from a computer is unfair to musicians and record companies.
  • Basketball is America's most exciting sport.

Nuclear weapons policy issues:

  • The U.S. should rely on its current stock of nuclear bombs and not build any additional ones.
  • The U.S. should develop new nuclear bombs as its leaders see a need for them.
  • The U.S. should eliminate nuclear bombs and use only conventional weapons for its defense.
  • The U.S. should cut its nuclear weapons stockpile to a minimum if other nuclear weapons countries are willing to do the same.
  • The U.S. should cut its nuclear weapons stockpile to a minimum no matter what other countries do.
  • The U.S. should maintain its current nuclear weapons stockpile and add to it as necessary.
  • The U.S. should continue voluntarily to refrain from nuclear weapons testing.
  • The U.S. should sign the CTBT.
  • The U.S. should test nuclear weapons whenever it needs to.
  • The U.S. should resume its ABM agreement with Russia.
  • The U.S. should use nuclear weapons only against an enemy who also has nuclear bombs.
  • The U.S. should never again use a nuclear bomb.
  • The U.S. should use nuclear weapons only if it is in a desperate situation.
  • The U.S. should gradually eliminate all of its nuclear weapons if other nuclear weapons countries are willing to do the same.
  • The U.S. should act immediately to eliminate all of its nuclear weapons.
  • The U.S. should take the lead in a global effort to eliminate nuclear weapons.

2. Assignment:

Write an essay of 300-500 words in which you address the following: Should the U.S. take active and serious steps to lead the other nuclear powers in fulfilling their pledge in May 2000 of "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals"? If your answer is yes, explain why. If your answer is no, explain why not. If you have mixed feelings and thoughts, explain them.

Some suggestions for further student investigation:

  • What was the Manhattan Project and why was it launched?
  • Describe the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.
  • What are the economics of nuclear weapons in the U.S.?
  • What do nuclear weapons cost the U.S. each year?
  • What has been their cost since World War II?
  • What environmental and health problems are associated with nuclear weapons production?
  • Why do U.S. leaders generally regard the nuclear weapons policy of deterrence to have been a success?
  • What is the status of nuclear weapons programs in North Korea? Iraq? Iran? Syria? Libya? China? Russia?
  • What efforts are being made by private organizations to abolish nuclear weapons?

Some suggestions for a student response to what they have learned:

  • Letters to representatives, senators, the President.
  • Organize a program for a club, a school assembly or the PTA.
  • A hall or library display.
  • A special issue or section of the school newspaper
  • Organize programs in any groups to which they belong (or perhaps for groups parents or friends belong to).
  • Get in touch with ESR Metro (212-870-3318 ext.14335) for news of student activities and possible participation.


Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth and The Gift of Time
Peter Weyden, Day One
New York Times (various issues)
Physicians for Social Responsibility
The Nation, 4/1/02
Washington Post, 2/23/02
Websites: (David Corn article, 3/11/02)

ESR Metro has available two publications on nuclear weapons issues (Nuclear Controversy: Sourcebook for an Inquiry Curriculum and Nuclear Controversy: Five Lessons and a DBQ). Further information on the missile defense issue is available on this website.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: