The United States and nuclear weapons from the Manhattan project to the end of the Cold War

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Matthew Jones SAR 309


This course is available on the BA in History, BA in Social Anthropology, BSc in History and Politics, BSc in International Relations and History, BSc in Politics and History and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

This undergraduate level 3 course looks at the way nuclear weapons and the challenges they have posed have influenced the course of American foreign and defence policy, strategic thinking, and domestic politics, as well as wider trends in society and culture, from the instigation of the Manhattan project – the wartime US programme to develop an atomic bomb – to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.  The course will examine the political and moral dilemmas raised by the possession and possible use of nuclear weapons, the role they have played in the way the United States pursued its policies during the years of Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, and the domestic political controversies that US nuclear policies engendered.  In the latter area we will consider the rise of anti-nuclear grass roots activism in the United States, alongside the place of nuclear issues in presidential elections and Congressional politics.  We will also necessarily study some of the major events and crises of the Cold War, including the Berlin crises of 1948, 1958/9 and 1961, the Korean War, Indochina crisis of 1954 and the Cuban missile crisis.  Debates over a nuclear test ban, culminating in the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 will also be featured.  The last portion of the course features analysis of the international negotiations over arms control and non-proliferation that have featured since the late 1960s and the controversies they generated.  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 seminars in the ST.

Students will be expected to read essential primary and secondary material for each weekly two hour seminar class, to deliver presentations, and to participate in seminar discussions.

There will be a reading week in the Michaelmas and the Lent terms, and also a revision seminar class in the first week of the Summer term.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT and 1 piece of coursework in the LT.

Students will be required to complete two pieces of formative work for this course - a 1,500 word essay for submission in week 7 of the MT, and a 1,000 word primary source analysis to be submitted in the week 7 of the LT.


Indicative reading

Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985).

Bernard Brodie, ‘The Development of Nuclear Strategy,’ International Security, 2, 4, Spring 1978, 65-83.

Barton J. Bernstein and Peter Galison, ‘In Any Light: Scientists and the Decision to Build the Superbomb, 1952-1954,’ Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 19, 2, 1989, 267-347.

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

Benjamin P. Greene, Eisenhower, Science Advice and the Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1958-1963 (2007).

Gregg Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI (1992)

Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (2010).

David Alan Rosenberg, ‘The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,’ International Security, 7, 4, 1983, 3-71.

Dane Swango, ‘The United States and the Role of Nuclear Co-Operation and Assistance in the Design of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,’ International History Review, 36, 2, 2014, 210–29.

Nina Tannenwald, ‘The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Nonuse,’ International Organization, 53, 3, 1999, 433-68.

Marc Trachtenberg, ‘Strategic Thought in America, 1952-1966,’ Political Science Quarterly, 104, 2, 301-34.

J. Samuel Walker, ‘History, Collective Memory, and the Decision to Use the Bomb,’ Diplomatic History, 19, 2, 1995, 319-28.

J. Samuel Walker, ‘Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground,’ Diplomatic History, 29, 2, 2005, 311-34.

William Walker, A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons and International Order (2012).

Herbert York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb (1976).



Exam (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.

Summative assessment consists of a three hour examination paper sat in the Summer Term.  The paper includes a section which asks candidates to analyse a selection of primary sources, and a section where candidates are required to complete two essays.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2021/22: Unavailable

Average class size 2021/22: Unavailable

Capped 2021/22: No

Value: One Unit

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Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills