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Would you push the nuclear button?

There is, of course, no such thing as ‘the nuclear button’, but the phrase is often used when world leaders, politicians and military commanders admit their readiness, or reluctance, to unleash atomic warfare. The devastating power of nuclear weapons, first demonstrated at the end of the Second World War in 1945 remains a controversial subject today, and has forced governments to reconsider their approach to conflict since.

During the Cold War, the global super powers of the United States and the Soviet Union dealt with the prospect of devastating nuclear consequences by adopting a strategy of mutually assured destruction, by which attacking the enemy would lead to the total destruction of the attacker themselves. Suggesting or your enemy perceiving that you might be willing to ‘press the nuclear button’ had considerable global consequences. In this high stakes game of global politics this made the choices far more complicated than just whether or not to push the button.

Pushing the button: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On 16 July 1945, US President Harry Truman wrote in his diary ‘we have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world’, after watching the first atomic bomb detonation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Despite witnessing the incredible power of nuclear technology first-hand, in August 1945 the USA dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Truman’s orders.

The weapons killed thousands of people and the effects of radiation were long-lasting. But they did help to force a Japanese surrender, and meant that the Allies did not need to invade Japan, which saved other lives.

Being ready to retaliate

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US leaders hoped that threat of powerful nuclear attack would deter other nations from attacking the United States and its allies. The Soviet Union felt it had to defend itself against this threat and began to develop and stockpile its own nuclear capabilities. 

Nikolai Zaitzev, 1945, cropped

Nikolai Zaitsev

Nikolai Zaitsev served with the Russian Army. From 1957-1960 he advised senior officers on the capabilities of nuclear weapons, training them on how they could use them in operations. But while his job was to consider the very real ways the Soviet Union could use nuclear weapons against the United States, Zaitsev struggled to conceive that they could be used in aggression.

I never felt that these weapons would be used in real life… Only a person, who has no sense of the scale of damage that these weapons can cause to our planet could take a decision to use them. 

Nikolai Zaitsev

 Readiness to push: David Sussman

From 1957 the US Air Force deployed B-52 Stratofortress bombers armed with nuclear weapons on round-the-clock flights close to the borders of the Soviet Union. The programme enabled the US to adopt a state of permanent readiness for nuclear warfare. David Sussman served on B-52s nuclear alert missions from 1960- 1968, but it was not till after he retired from the US Air Force that he fully considered the consequences of his work.



If we had gone to war with the Russians, we would have flown over there, I would have unlocked my handle and we would have dropped our bombs and never given it a second thought. 20 years later, I can think about this stuff…it wells up a lot of emotion.

David Sussman

David Sussman’s ‘war hat’ worn while he was stationed in South East Asia in 1968 ©IWM

Sussman was an Electronic Warfare Officer, and on missions answered messages from headquarters, which could have ultimately ordered his crew to drop their nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union.

As Electronic Warfare Officers were also known as ‘Ravens’, when Sussman commissioned this “war hat” in South East Asia in 1968, he chose the inscription ‘Nevermore’ in reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’, where the titular bird utters a prophetic warning.

The highest moments of tension in the Cold War were often when the United States and Soviet Union misinterpreted the others actions. Misjudgement on either side about the intentions of the other had the potential to unleash global nuclear warfare.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the Soviet Union and the United States teetered on the brink of nuclear conflict, after US intelligence discovered Soviet missiles on Cuba. Over the course of thirteen days, tensions escalated to perilous levels until the threat of mutually assured destruction led both sides to agree to keep their fingers off the nuclear button.

U-2 Reconnaissance image of Cuba 14 October 1962 US Official
U-2 reconnaissance image of missile bases under construction in Cuba, October 1962

 Maintaining control: Sergei Khrushchev

Historian Sergei Khrushchev, the son of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, watched his father deal with this volatile situation, and explains how Khrushchev and US President John F Kennedy ultimately came to negotiate.

Sergei Khrushchev and Nikita Khruschev, 1968 Courtesy of Sergei Khrushchev

"[My Father] went through so many crisis that he told me: we understand, me and America's president – we mustn’t lose control. We can negotiate, we can do everything, but we have to prevent the first shot."


Sergei Khrushchev

Taking your finger off the button:

George H W Bush

As President of the United States George H W Bush could order the use of Nuclear weapons, but as a veteran of the Second World War he understood what the consequences of his decisions could be, particularly when committing forces to battle.

Suit worn by President George H W Bush ©IWM (UNI 16161)

Suit worn by President George H W Bush

After working on treaties to limit the number of nuclear weapons on 27 September 1991 Bush ordered the nuclear armed B-52 fleet to stand down from its state of permanent readiness. The move was one of several Presidential nuclear initiatives undertaken which saw the United States act on its own nuclear posture, while at the same time challenging the Soviet Union to do the same.


What would you do?

Shadow of the Future taking place in the American Air Museum  is IWM’s flagship Cold War learning session for GCSE History students.

Using video, game theory and roleplay, students are recruited by American scientists to explore decision-making in the context of The Cold War. In the shadow of Imperial War Museums’ historic collections, students play ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’, a real-life thought experiment employed by the global think-tank the RAND Corporation in 1950, which will allow them to uniquely examine the challenges facing both sides in an age of potential nuclear Armageddon.

Find out more