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When the Soviets Set Off the Biggest Nuclear Bomb, J.F.K. Didn’t Flinch

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When the Soviets Set Off the Biggest Nuclear Bomb, J.F.K. Didn’t Flinch

A new study offers insights into how the United States reacted to Tsar Bomba, a planet shaker that made the deadly Hiroshima blast look tame.




The detonation of the Tsar Bomba, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the former U.S.S.R. in 1961.Credit...Rosatom, via Reuters

By William J. Broad

The New York Times

Oct. 30, 2021

Sixty years ago on Saturday, the Soviet Union detonated the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon, with a force 3,333 times that of the bomb used on Hiroshima. As the device shattered all records, it sent shock waves through the American defense establishment: How should the United States respond? Did the nation need bigger, more destructive arms? Was it wise to do nothing? What was the best way to protect the nation from the deadly stirrings of a belligerent foe?

American policymakers now face similar questions as bold rivals pursue novel delivery systems for their nuclear arms. A new study, based on recently declassified documents, offers insights into how an earlier president resolved a comparable dilemma. The report shows that the secret debate over what to do about the unprecedented Soviet blast was ended by President John F. Kennedy. He chose not only to ignore the military’s appeals for deadlier arms, but to sponsor and sign an East-West treaty that precluded more superweapons.

“It went all the way to the top,” Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and the study’s author, said in an interview. “It’s clear that Kennedy was on the fence. But he decided not to go in the bomb direction.”

Andrew Cohen, author of “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History,” said in an interview that Dr. Wellerstein reveals “an untold story that’s terrifying, sobering and illuminating.” Mr. Cohen’s book lays out the president’s 1963 pivot to diplomacy that helped make the groundbreaking arms treaty possible. He added that disclosure of Kennedy’s calculated nonresponse to the pushy clamor showed his “deep revulsion for nuclear weapons.”

[This is an excerpt from a longer article]

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