Nuclear testing in the 1950s by the United States and the Soviet Union was as much about sending a message to the opposing superpower as it was to study the effects of nuclear weaponry. Many of the tests were conducted in secret, but it’s not easy hiding a multi-megaton explosion even if it takes place out in the middle of the ocean. And it was a sort of unspoken fact that each nation was keeping a close eye on the activities of the other when it came to nuclear weapons design and testing.
Recognizing the inevitability of such leaks of information allowed both the U.S. and the Soviets a way to communicate the power of their respective nuclear arsenals. This was all part of the so-called MAD doctrine. Mutually assured destruction through full scale nuclear war was what kept both countries from attempting a first strike in the first place. No one was going to pull the trigger and launch an attack if the end result was that their own country would be blown back into the Stone Age just mere hours later.
That being the case, in order to keep the peace between the superpowers, it was necessary to blow up some big bombs from time to time to remind everyone just how devastating a nuclear conflict could be. Consider it a method of preventing war by keeping the threat of it alive.
The Soviets took the nuclear propaganda war to the limit on October 30, 1961 by detonating a 57-megaton nuclear device in the Arctic. The device, nicknamed Tsar Bomba, was the pinnacle of bomb testing. At 57 megatons, it was by far the largest man-made explosion in history; more powerful than all the bombs dropped during World War II…times ten. The fireball was visible from over 600 miles away and the mushroom cloud rose 40 miles into the atmosphere.
Tsar Bomba wasn’t really a practical weapon. Sure, it was scary enough; if it were detonated over Times Square it would completely erase all of Manhattan from existence. No rubble, no dust, no bodies, just one big damn crater. But the weapon itself weighed 20 tons, and it could only be delivered by a retrofitted Soviet bomber. It had to be deployed with a parachute to allow the pilot enough time to reach safe distance before detonation. In wartime, it’s quite probable that American air defenses would have plucked such a plane out of the sky before it reached its intended target.
Thankfully, Tsar Bomba was never duplicated. Within two years, the U.S and Soviets got together and signed a treaty banning atmospheric, underwater, and space-based nuclear testing. They had begun to sense the spiraling arms race was getting out of their control, and although the Cold War and nuclear testing would continue for many more years, the Tsar Bomba test was a height that was never reached again.
To learn more about the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviets, read The Cold War, available from Lucent Books.