The idea for a nuclear weapon came in Germany in 1939 at the beginning of World War Two. This is the only known rendering of the German idea for an atom bomb.
In 1942, fearful that Germany would produce a nuclear bomb to use against them, the British and Americans began their own research into nuclear weapons. The British/American venture was called The Manhattan Project and was located at a secret military laboratory called Los Alamos near Santa Fe, New Mexico. There they developed the first atom bomb.
In early August, 1945, in an effort to end World War Two, the United States dropped an atom bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days after Hiroshima, the Americans dropped an even stronger atom bomb nicknamed "Fat Man" on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
The two nuclear bombs killed tens of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children. Even though the Americans were down to their last nuclear bomb, President Harry S. Truman promised to continue destroying Japanese cities one by one unless Japan surrendered immediately. On August 15, the Japanese surrendered, thus ending World War Two
Even though the Americans and Soviets were allies during World War Two and fought together to defeat the Germans, the Americans never told the Soviets that they were developing nuclear weapons. After the war, fearful that the Americans might try to use nuclear weapons to dominate the world, the Soviets began their own nuclear weapons program. In August of 1949, the Soviets tested their first nuclear weapon. In response, American President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would begin building far more powerful nuclear weapons. Thus began to nuclear arms race and cold war. In 1952 the United States tested its first hydrogen bomb, which, scientists estimated, was nearly 500 times more powerful than the bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki. But the bomb was much too large and heavy to be dropped from an airplane, and therefore could not be used against an enemy.
In 1953 the Soviets exploded a device that was similar to the American hydrogen bomb. Unlike the American weapon, the Soviet version would fit in an airplane, and could therefore be dropped on an enemy. In 1954 in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean the United States tested a hydrogen bomb that would fit inside an airplane. The nuclear fallout from the bomb covered nearly 7,000 square miles and would eventually result in the deaths of many native Marshall Islanders. Today, more than 55 years after the Marshall Islands test, some of the islands are still uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination.
In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, told the ambassadors of the United States and other Western countries that “We will bury you.” Later Khrushchev explained that he meant that Communism would succeed over capitalism, but many world leaders assumed he’d meant that the Soviets intended to destroy the West with nuclear weapons. The United States responded to Khrushchev’s statement by warning that any attack against the West would result in massive nuclear retaliation.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s most Americans believed that the Russians were determined to destroy their country and way of life. In the early 1950s the Federal Civil Defense Administration was created to educate and reassure American citizens that they could survive a nuclear war. School administrators were called upon to institute “duck and cover” air raid drills for students. In the “duck and cover” air raid drill, students were instructed to protect themselves against a nuclear attack by crawling under their desks and shielding their faces.
By the mid 1950s, yellow and black fallout shelter signs were a common sight. These signs featured three yellow triangles in a black circle and were placed near the entrances to building basements, subway tunnels, and other below-ground structures where people could seek shelter during a nuclear attack. In October of 1957 the Russians launched the world’s first satellite, called “Sputnick,” into space. This also proved that they now had missiles strong enough to send nuclear weapons anywhere on earth. The United States and Russians knew that sending nuclear weapons via missiles was much faster and more effective than sending them via airplanes. Instead of taking hours to reach a target, a missile could deliver a nuclear bomb in minutes.
In July of 1961 Kennedy signed an Executive Order putting the Pentagon in charge of a greatly increased $300 million fallout shelter program to protect American civilians against the effects of nuclear attack. In today’s dollars the program would cost nearly $3 billion. The government provided detailed instructions for a variety of bomb shelters including double-walled above-ground backyard shelters and underground backyard shelters made of plywood and covered with several feet of dirt and gravel. The atomic attack survival literature of the 1950s and early 1960s was written primarily for a suburban, middle-class audience. Most authors assumed that cities would be atomic bomb targets and that urban dwellers would likely perish regardless of what measures they took to protect themselves. Because many people kept their bomb shelters secret from their friends and neighbors, it is impossible to know how many were actually built. Estimates range from 100,000 to more than a quarter million.
Fearing that duck and cover would not be enough to protect students against a nuclear attack, some school administrators had students lie facedown in hallways during air raid drills, or herded them into school basements.
At the height of the Cold War it was understood that both the Americans and Russians had more than enough nuclear weapons to completely annihilate each other. Castro, the leader of Cuba, believed in communism, a political ideology in which there is no private property and no class divisions among people. He shared this belief with Nikita Khrushchev and the other leaders of the Soviet Union.
One way the United States hoped to gain an advantage over Russia was to place missiles with nuclear warheads in the countries of Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev knew these missiles were aimed at Russia, and were thus a direct threat.
In August of 1962 the United States began to suspect that the Russians were shipping nuclear weapons to Cuba and building sites from which nuclear missiles could be fired at Americans.
On October 7, 1962 Cuba told the United Nations that it had nuclear weapons that it would use to defend itself if attacked
On October 14th an American spy plane flying at high altitudes over Cuba took photographs of missiles that did not fit the profile of defensive weapons. Further investigations revealed that these were Russian ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.
The top American generals urged President John F. Kennedy to attack Cuba with an all-out military invasion. Kennedy didn’t agree, but he did let the military prepare for an invasion just in case. On October 23, US Naval ships created a blockade around Cuba to prevent Russian ships from delivering more nuclear missiles.
On October 24 Khrushchev publicly condemned the blockade, calling it a “pirate action” and warned that it would lead to war. However, behind the scenes Russian and American diplomats were working on a secret agreement to remove American missiles from Turkey and Russian missiles from Cuba. On October 27 a secret agreement was reached.
On October 28 Khrushchev announced that Russia would remove its missiles from Cuba. No mention of the removal of American missiles from Turkey was made.
In 1987, nearly 25 years after the crisis, Americans finally learned about the secret agreement and the removal of the missiles from Turkey.