Living with the Bomb: An International History of Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Matthew Jones SAR 3.09


This course is available on the MSc in History of International Relations, MSc in International Affairs (LSE and Peking University), MSc in International and World History (LSE & Columbia) and MSc in Theory and History of International Relations. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

This course takes as a prime focus the nuclear policies pursued by some of the major powers in the international system from the initial use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  It introduces and explores three main themes: how the advent of nuclear weapons came to influence national strategies and crisis behaviour; why the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems fuelled an arms race that became one of the defining features of the Cold War; and how major powers have attempted to curb the testing of such weapons, the numbers contained in their arsenals, and their spread, through measures of arms control and non-proliferation.  After examining the controversy over the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, including the moral and ethical questions raised by nuclear use, the course includes consideration of some of the most important events and debates in post-war nuclear history – the course is not designed or intended to be a potted history of the Cold War, but rather looks at the influence and role of nuclear weapons (and the strategic thinking that accompanied their development).  The movement to ban the testing of nuclear weapons is also covered, and attention given to the Chinese, British and French national nuclear programmes, as well as those of the Soviet Union and United States.  The last portion of the course offers close analysis of the international negotiations over arms control and non-proliferation that have featured since the late 1960s.  Throughout the course students will engage with contemporary writings and study primary source documents which will accompany each topic.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT. 2 hours of help sessions in the ST.

Students will be expected to read essential primary and secondary material for each weekly class, to deliver presentations, and to participate in seminar discussions.  Reading week will take place in week 6 of MT and LT.

Formative coursework

Students will be required to produce a 2,000 word formative essay during week 6 of the Michaelmas Term.

Indicative reading

Barton Bernstein (ed), The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues (1976).

Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (1987).

Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz (eds), Hiroshima’s Shadow (1998)

McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choice About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988).

Gerard DeGroot, The Bomb: A History of Hell on Earth (2004).

Robert Divine, Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954-60 (1978).

Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1st ed, 1981, 2nd ed 1988).

Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, 2012).

Michael J. Hogan (ed), Hiroshima in History and Memory (Cambridge, 1996).

David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (London, 1994).

John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford, 1988).

Shane J. Maddock (ed), The Nuclear Age (Boston, 2001).

Ernest R. May, John L. Gaddis, Philip H. Gordon and Jonathan Rosenberg (eds), Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945 (1999).

Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (London, 2013).

Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and the Origins of the Arms Race (original ed 1975, rev ed, 1987).

Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (1991).


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (25%, 3000 words) and essay (25%, 3000 words) in the LT.

Assessment will be through two methods:

An unseen two hour examination paper, where students will have to write two essays drawn from a list of questions covered in the weekly classes (50%).

Two summative essays, each maximum 3,000 words, and taken from a set list of questions (25% for each essay).

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2018/19: 13

Average class size 2018/19: 13

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills