But in 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its own nuclear device, and the arms race was underway. The U.S. became deeply involved in the design, construction and testing of nuclear weapons. Decades of Cold War gamesmanship followed. As the United States and Soviet Union manufactured and stockpiled increasingly lethal weapons designed to obliterate entire cities, and other nations eventually followed suit, schoolchildren were drilled pointlessly to take cover under their desks in the event of nuclear attack.
In 1972, the bilateral Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union was a first attempt to curb the Mutually Assured Destruction madness of the nuclear arms race. But it wasn’t until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, that dismantling of the nuclear arsenal began in earnest and signaled the end of the Cold War. There was plenty of dismantling to do: at that point the U.S. had some 22,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal; the Soviet Union (soon to break apart) had 35,000.
Donald Trump had never held public office before running for President in 2016 and winning the electoral, but not the popular vote. Before he ever saw the inside of the Oval Office, President–elect Trump flaunted his signature bluster in suggesting that, despite the previous quarter century of gradual nuclear disarmament, reigniting a nuclear arms race would be a good idea.
“Let there be an arms race!” he told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski. “Because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all!”
Trump’s boastful temperament, his mixed messages, and his clear disinterest in listening to experts characterized the nuclear policies emanating from the White House throughout his term in office. His withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran left American allies shaking their heads, as the move enabled Iran to get back into the uranium enrichment business – and closer to having the ability to manufacture its own nuclear weapon. Elsewhere in the world, Trump rewarded North Korea with a summit meeting even as that rogue nation continued to expand its nuclear capabilities with impunity, specifically striving to develop missiles capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S.
A lot of folks might question how either of these moves could be considered beneficial to the United States’ stability and wellbeing. But American weapons manufacturers were no doubt happy: in the last year of Trump’s presidency, the United States spent $37 billion on nuclear arms – that’s three times more than the next-spendiest nuclear rival, China.
On the presidential campaign trail last year, Joe Biden was deeply critical of Trump’s nuclear arms policies. Despite candidate Biden’s pledges to reduce “excessive expenditure” on nuclear weaponry, however, President Biden’s initial budget retained many of his predecessor’s initiatives for expanding America’s nuclear arsenal, including funding the development of a nuclear cruise missile that could be launched by submarines. This was a deep disappointment to progressive politicos.
These signs at the B Reactor at the Hanford Site in Washington State underscore the dangerous work that was being undertaken there as part of the Manhattan Project.