Russian civil nuclear tests from 1957 to 1959

Written by By Patty Huang For a nuclear power such as Russia or India, it is often easy to view nuclear testing by the West as a looming existential threat. In 1957, President Eisenhower…

Russian civil nuclear tests from 1957 to 1959

Written by By Patty Huang

For a nuclear power such as Russia or India, it is often easy to view nuclear testing by the West as a looming existential threat. In 1957, President Eisenhower decided to test nuclear bombs on two Russian rivers, as Russia (and by extension, the USSR) already had the bomb.

Oslo Treaty

Russia was against a third test at that point. It was partially due to fears that Western nations would use a civilian test to build confidence that they, too, had the bomb.

The end of the Eisenhower administration came in May 1961, and it brought President John F. Kennedy into office in January 1963. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was important for Kennedy to demonstrate the seriousness of the US nuclear capability. Nuclear detonations became political issues for the very first time in American history.

While some experts believe that test was entirely unnecessary, some countries had other views on the matter. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) supports that the 1962 Soviet test was a last resort, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took a different stance.

The agreement between the USSR and the US

Aboard the Soviet nuclear submarine SSN-72 Tsar Bomba in November 1956, a secret test of a new, larger bomb was conducted. Credit: J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

On December 1, 1963, Eisenhower signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which imposed a complete moratorium on all nuclear tests. This stopped the USSR from testing on the two rivers, and pushed Russia to work on nuclear safety in future tests.

The PTBT did not stop the Soviet Union from conducting a full nuclear detonation in November 1962. Tsar Bomba exploded, sending a huge fireball towards the north Atlantic.

Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was the name given to a US-backed invasion of the then-Czechoslovakia in September 1941, a move many saw as pre-meditated. Nearly 10,000 people were killed in the invasion, which was undertaken despite the fact that the Czechs had agreed to become a buffer state. The invasion forced the Czechs to surrender, giving the Nazis control of a large part of Eastern Europe and clearing the way for the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Some thought it should be known as “Operation Berlin Bandera” — a reference to the Czech leader, who had been a high Nazi official. Another theory suggests that the operation was due to radiation from the nuclear blasts.

Gods of Vengeance

At the height of the Cold War, after the Soviet Union successfully conducted a nuclear detonation in sub-zero temperatures, a Soviet offensive was seen as inevitable.

A large-scale nuclear weapons test was planned. Tensions intensified as the USSR saw the option as a powerful way to ensure their security, not only on the ground, but also in the air.

In 1957, the US president was not afraid to sit and listen to General Curtis LeMay, the commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC), about his terrifying plan. Under LeMay’s command, an intense radiation decontamination process was introduced to destroy any residual radioactivity from Chernobyl, as soon as it was known of its existence.

LeMay went as far as saying, “Just look at pictures of the fire which started up in 1979 at a Chernobyl site on farmland, and take away your bad dreams and your nightmares of a new Chernobyl. This will do it.”

As a result of the test, the Soviets had to rethink the staging of the nuclear weapons build-up and “absence of Soviet fire from Czechoslovakia.” Their nuclear program was put on hold until 1970.

Pushes for Cooperation

The tension from the cold war was seen as a catastrophe for the US, leading to some more militaristic ideas. If JFK was worried that USSR tests could have used as a pretext for another world war, he certainly never showed it.

JFK wanted to talk

The secrecy of the test meant that many people were left in the dark. JFK wanted to stop the nuclear tests, but his opponent Richard Nixon was the one who actually created the decision to test at that point.

Firing off letters to both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Curtis LeMay, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy argued that tests would damage trust between the nations and threaten their mutual security. The test was called off two weeks later.

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