The Presidency in the Nuclear Age
On July 16, 1945, the United States successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb in the desert sands of New Mexico. Less than one month later, President Harry S. Truman ordered the dropping of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to develop the bomb during World War II, and President Truman’s decision to use it to end that war ushered in the nuclear age and reshaped the nature of the American Presidency.
Issues related to nuclear weapons have confronted every President since that time—from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, through the nuclear arms race at the height of the Cold War, to today’s threat of terrorist organizations and rogue nations obtaining nuclear weapons.
On October 12, 2009, the Kennedy Library hosted "The Presidency and the Nuclear Age," a one-day conference sponsored by the nation's 13 Presidential Libraries. Our program presented four groups of distinguished panelists, including historians and those who offered a first-hand account of significant events.
The first panel, "The Race to Build the Bomb and the Decision to Use It," highlighted foreign policy decision-making during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The next panel "The Cuban Missile Crisis and the First Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," focused on Kennedy era topics. "The Cold War and the Nuclear Arms Race" chronicled the arms race and efforts to curtail it during the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon through George H.W. Bush and the end of the Cold War. And, finally, "Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and the Presidency," examined the efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations and rogue states from the administrations of Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
Panelists included Theodore Sorensen, Special Counsel to President Kennedy, Kenneth Adelman, who accompanied President Reagan at the Icelandic summit with Gorbachev, and Nick Burns who served in the State Department under Presidents Clinton and Bush (43). Historian Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Making of the Atom Bomb, nuclear terrorism expert Graham Allison, and journalists Marvin Kalb, Tom Gjelten, and Leslie Gelb were also among the day's speakers.
President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton provided their perspectives on the issue of nuclear proliferation via video as did Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who addressed nuclear deterrence during the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
Transcripts are available for all sessions by clicking the links above.
For related teaching resources, high school educators may use the lesson plan on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
These resources can provide students and teachers with useful documents, images, maps, timelines, and essays about issues related to nuclear armaments since the development of the first atomic bomb.
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum’s online collection contains correspondence, press releases, and declassified documents categorized by topics specific to the Truman administration's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Atoms for Peace
This Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum web page provides links to documents related to President Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations.
Teaching with Documents: Photographs and Pamphlet about Nuclear Fallout
This National Archives and Records Administration web page provides teachers with documents and teaching activities regarding nuclear bombs, fallout, and fallout shelters.
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
This John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum web page provides educators with a brief history of the Limited Test Ban Treaty along with a link to the video and transcript of JFK’s July 26, 1963 Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963
This web page not only provides an excellent essay from the National Security Archive, but also includes links to a large number of primary sources.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
The Treaty between the US and USSR on the elimination of their intermediate-range and shorter range missiles (INF Treaty) was signed on December 8, 1987. This State Department web page includes information about the Treaty and the Treaty text.
President Reagan’s Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
Ronald Reagan’s December 8, 1987 speech can be found on the American Presidency Project website.
Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization
This Commission, associated with the signatories of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, provides a wealth of information on the history of nuclear testing and treaties aimed at ending nuclear proliferation.
Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the IAEA - A Chronology
From the International Atomic Energy Agency, this web page provides a chronology of key events in Nuclear Non-Proliferation from 1957 to 2014.
From the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, this website includes a timeline of nuclear treaties from 1932 to 2016.
Please visit the websites of these other Presidential Libraries for additional helpful information:
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
- Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum
- Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
- Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum
- Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
- George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
- William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
- George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum