The Spread of Nuclear Weapons

Active Research and Development Program
Atomic Weapons
(Some dates are less certain than others.)

1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Late Early Late Early Late Early Late Early Late Early Late Early Late Early
Deutschland (1939-45)
USA (1941) United States (1945)
USSR (1942) Sovietskii Soyuz (1949) Rossiya
UK (1942) United Kingdom (1952)
Nihon (1942-45)
Canada [n.1] (1942) Canada [n.1](1963-84)
Schweiz (1946-69)
Sverige (1952-74)
Misr (1954-67)
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
France (1956) France (1960)
Zhong Guo (1957) Zhong Guo (1964)
Israel (1958) Israel (1967)
Bharat (1958) Bharat (1974)
Jugoslavija (to 1987)
Choson (1961) Choson (2003)
Taiwan (to 1988)
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Han'guk (1971-75)
Pakistan (1972) Pakistan (1998)
South Africa (1973) South Africa (1982-94)
Romania (to 1989)
Argentina (to 1990)
Brazil (1975-88)
Suriyah (from 1979)
Libya (to 2003)
Al Jaza'ir (to 1995)
Belarus [n.2]
Kazakhstan [n.2]
Ukraine [n.2]
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

Countries that have never seriously pursued nuclear weapons...

... that we know of.

The Bomb

Two factors have generally pushed countries into seeking nuclear weapons -- whether the country wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, and whether their sworn enemies have the Bomb. All it took was one spark to set events in motion.

Nazi Germany, heartless, ambitious, and one of the great centers of scientific innovation was the first nation to look into the possibility of annihilating enemy armies with a flick of the switch. Of course, that meant that the tight alliance of nations (the United States, Britain and Canada) trying to stop German world conquest had to look into it as well. When the Soviets discovered this secret arms race, they had to set up their own program. The Japanese took a stab at it too, but their nuclear program (like their attempt at world domination in general) was a longshot. The Americans --- the top industrial and scientific power of the world at that time -- won the race. There's no point in cursing them for it. Someone was going to be first.

Switzerland and Sweden, the neutrals of World Wars One and Two, realized that they'd never be allowed to sit out World War Three unless they too had a nuclear deterrent to warn off the superpowers. Yugoslavia, a newcomer to the non-aligned world, also looked into the possibility of a Leave-Us-Alone Bomb.

In the 1956 Suez Crisis, the French and Israelis found themselves diplomatically impotent in a nuclear power showdown, so they needed the Bomb, too.

During the Korean War, a vocal faction of Americans felt that, We have the Bomb, we might as well use it. Obviously this sort of talk convinced both the Chinese and North Koreans that the only way to stop these threats would be to get atomic bombs of their own.

China's successful test of nuclear weapons gave them an unfair advantage in their ongoing border dispute with India, until India got a Bomb of their own. But this put India's rival Pakistan at a disadvantage, until they got their Bomb.

Of course, building atomic weapons is a lot harder than it sounds, so by the late 1960s, some countries abandoned their nuclear dreams and shut down their secret programs without anything to show for it.

Meanwhile, China's Bomb convinced the breakaway regime on Taiwan that they would need to develop a stronger deterrent if they wanted to keep their independence. In fact, several countries that found themselves scorned, shunned and alone in a hostile world, such as the white regime of South Africa, the Jewish State of Israel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, had a special incentive to develop nuclear weapons.

A mini arms race sputtered along in South America as the military juntas of Brazil and Argentina decided that a successful test of a nuclear weapon would be better than fireworks in celebrating the magnificence of their rule.

The general shakeup of international relations that surrounded the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused a number of newly liberalized countries to renounce nuclear ambitions. It was hoped that atomic weapons would no longer be a necessary tool for maintaining an independent foreign policy. Any country that continued to pursue nuclear weapons was now denounced as a rogue state.

Many countries were starting to suspect that nuclear weapons were more trouble than they were worth. They are so destructive that you can't actually use them -- but not actually destructive enough to knock your opponent out of the war with one blow. They require impossibly tight security to keep them from falling into the hands of dissidents, separatists and terrorists. In the early 1990s, several countries renounced their nuclear weapons and gladly reverted to lesser power status.

But most didn't.



[N.1] Canada's status as a nuclear state depends mostly on the definition. Canada cooperated extensively with the United States in the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons, and deployed hundreds of American warheads, but did not have an independent program.

[N.2] Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine ended up in accidental possession nuclear weapons after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but they returned them to Russia almost immediately.

Well, let's see if anyone actually looks at this page:

since August 11, 2005

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Last updated August 2005

Copyright © 2005 Matthew White