Home / Fear of Clandestine Nuclear Attack Goes Back to 1945

Fear of Clandestine Nuclear Attack Goes Back to 1945

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We have all heard of the terrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon being snuck into a city by a terrorist and detonated. This fear will be at the top of the agenda as President Obama hosts an international conference on preventing nuclear terrorism.

The idea of such a clandestine nuclear attack is something that has been discussed as far back as 1945. Secretary of War Henry Stimson recalled a meeting with President Harry Truman about the development of the atomic bomb, which would be tested and used that summer to end World War II.

Stimson’s meeting with Truman also looked ahead to the consequences of the atomic age, with which we now live. The meeting memorandum, printed in Stimson’s book, “On Active Service in Peace and War,” reads:
“…the future may see a time when such a weapon may be constructed in secret and used suddenly and effectively with devastating power by a willful nation or group against an unsuspecting nation or group of much greater size and material power.”

In 1953 the Net Evaluation Subcommittee set up by the Eisenhower administration studied the possible damage from a Soviet nuclear strike. As part of this assessment, they considered the “clandestine placement of portable atomic weapons” to cripple essential facilities within the U.S.


   photo of a nuclear test during the 1950's (courtesy of the National Archives)

In the committee’s 1959 report, they discuss a war scenario with the Soviets which included “the destruction of New York and Washington by clandestine weapons.”

An excerpt from the report reads that the bombs “were detonated in the Soviet embassy in Washington and the offices of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations in New York…”

Of course, the threat of these attacks was part of the overall struggle with the Soviet Union. Diplomacy and deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, could effectively prevent such an attack from ever being attempted or considered.

At a press conference in 1955, Eisenhower responded to a reporter’s question about this type of secret attack with a smaller nuclear weapon. Ike said, “I think there would be some danger of that. But, on the other hand, there is also danger to both sides because the instant one would be found, it would be practically a declaration of war against you, wouldn't it? And so there is a great risk there also.”

Today, Al Qaida would not be restrained by deterrence and diplomacy. The good news, however, is that there is no evidence they have a bomb and the group may very well be incapable of ever getting one. But here's the thing: No one really knows what they or other terrorist groups are capable of at any given moment.

Just the very prospect of terrorism is enough to make nuclear security a vital issue that all nations should share, that is why the summit on securing loose nuclear material is so important. There must also be an effort to reduce the tactical nuclear weapons around the globe that can be potentially seized by terrorists. International cooperation is key.

Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains that this coordination among nations is desperately needed. She writes, “Not all countries view the risk of terrorism the way the United States does, and not all view the risk of nuclear terrorism in quite the same way. Yet risk assessments aside, the consequences could be drastic if there were a nuclear terrorist incident. We know what to do-it's just the political will to follow through that's been missing.”

Nuclear security is a front and center issue, not only because of this week’s summit, but also last week’s announcement by the U.S. of a new policy on the use of nuclear weapons. In addition, there is the new START Treaty in which Russia and the U.S. have agreed to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. Unfinished business also includes a treaty reducing the fissile material used to make nuclear weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Managing this ultimate weapon of mass destruction has been on the minds of leaders since World War II. Here is an audio clip of President Eisenhower in 1955 having a discussion at a press conference about the use of nuclear weapons and the consequences of nuclear war.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.
  • I am 53 and The atomic bomb was part of my dreams and nightmares for years. I grew up with the dammned thing. As young teenager I learned more about the effects and then I could only hope that my family would be close to the centre of the blast when it went off. What with that and the Daleks I must of had many a sleepless night.

  • It’s probably just a matter of time before some idiot sets off a nuclear bomb in a major city – or at a US military base overseas, which might be an easier target.

    It’s unlikely to happen – not least because of the knowledge that US retaliation would be swift and massive – but unfortunately, the time may come when a group or an individual who absolutely does not care about that comes into possession of a nuke.

    Al-Qaeda, since it has no loyalty to any particular nation or region, certainly answers that description. The only possible deterrent to a group like that might be (as Ruvy often suggests) to target Mecca, Medina and a few other Islamic holy cities; but even that might cut no ice.

  • Has anyone thought about looking into their grievances?

  • Well, yes, but a lot of those grievances are rather divorced from reality.

  • Here in New York we are learning more and more about the plot to bomb our subways, which the authorities are saying would have been “like Moscow times 2.”

    All I want to say is the fear of a conventional weapon going off here is plenty scary and seems to be the thing we have to most worry about happening (for the time being).

  • Most of bin Laden’s beef is with the Saudis for letting the US bases remain after the first Gulf War – indirectly with the US.

  • All I want to say is the fear of a conventional weapon going off here is plenty scary

    Tell me about it. I’m a Londoner.

  • Dr. D, many years ago I met a friend at a pub for drinks after coming out of Victoria Station. Half an hour later, a bomb exploded in the station.

    I’ll never forget the chaos that followed, and I understand that you have been living with this kind of thing for much longer than New Yorkers have.

  • I remember that bombing. Not one of the worst, carnage-wise, but it caused chaos on the transport system. There was one fatality: the guy lived a couple of miles from me.

    The most significant effect of that one was that because the bomb had been placed in a trashcan, London Transport and local councils all over the city promptly removed them all. For the next few years, until concrete-reinforced ones were introduced, you either had to take your trash home or litter.

  • Doc, your voicing support for one of Ruvy’s bits of insanity in #2 is, well, shocking. Yikes.

  • zingzing

    i doubt doc’s “voicing support.” it’s more that that might be something aq thinks about when/if they are thinking about bombing some place. i’m sure they think about the possible consequences of what they do, although you wouldn’t know it sometimes.

    also, i was in a club in lisbon the night before it got bombed. actually, i don’t think the bomb was the worst part… i think it was the stampede. apparently, there were a lot of german army soldiers in the club the following evening, which was the reason for the bombing. what they were doing there, i dunno. why people wanted to bomb the place, i don’t know either. place was pretty spectacular, but a lot of people died. can’t remember the particulars too well. this has to be 10 years ago.

  • Just watched Slaughterhouse-Five, Dreadful.

    Even conventional bombing is living hell.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    The atomic bombs dropped on Japan only did about 3% of the total bombing damage there. The rest – including a great majority of the fatalities – was from LeMay’s firebombing strategy.

    I strongly disagree with the idea of a strike at Mecca should al-Qaeda succeed in detonating a nuke stateside…because this would only serve in uniting a billion people against America, and despite all our vast military strength we would surely lose – America would not be taken over by any particular Muslim group or country, but there would be so many terrorist attacks here within our homeland that our infrastructure would crumble. Our nation would devolve into tyranny.

    And China and Russia would watch in faux sympathy.

    It is only a matter of time before a nuke is detonated by a terrorist in America. That is why I will not live in NYC, DC, or LA, since I feel they are the most likely targets.

  • STM

    Doc, did you have a look at the Rudd propaganda videos. They’re hilarious, done in the style of the old red chinese ones, and then very funnily translated in subtitles to bad English.

    There’s a bit of Kevin 07 in there too.


  • STM

    And yes, it’s not nuclear attacks we should be worried about, although they are a risk.

    The bombings in Bali, London, Madrid and Moscow are classic examples of how easily islamic extremists – any extremists actually – can hit a soft target.

    That’s why people in the West should support anti-terror legislation such as the Patriot Act.

    The authorities must be allowed some leverage to monitor and catch these guys before they strike.

    We might crap on about our freedoms being lost, but thetruth is, terrorists use those freedoms against us.

    We need to be able to utilise every tool possible to stop them.

  • @ #14: Sorry, Stan, haven’t had a chance to look at the vids yet. Hopefully tonight: the wife’s out for the evening and won’t have the TV on. 🙂

  • @ #15:

    I get what you say, Stan, but the Patriot Act does go a bit overboard.

    It’d be interesting to compare the US Patriot Act with the various incarnations of the UK’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave the police and security services more than adequate tools to combat the IRA for many years and didn’t stomp all over the liberties enjoyed by the rest of us.