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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Bruce W Hevly
HIST 215
Seattle Campus

The History of the Atomic Bomb

History of the atomic bomb from the beginning of nuclear physics to the security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Includes a study of the scientific achievements that made the bomb possible, the decision to deploy the bomb, the moral misgivings of the scientists involved.

Class description

This course is concerned with the development and use of nuclear weapons from the beginning of the twentieth century to the first substantive arms control efforts in the early 1960s. We will pay particular attention to World War II's anglo-american Manhattan Project, including the history of the Hanford Engineering Works in eastern Washington, and to nuclear weapons projects in Nazi Germany, as well as to the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. We will discuss the relevance of this history for questions of arms control and nuclear threats in the post-Cold War world. The three main intellectual axes of the course are: the science and the symobolisms associated with nuclear technology (that is, the transformative power of the atom); the rise of air power in American military doctrines; discussions of ethics in the public sphere from the interwar period to the postwar period.

Student learning goals

Students should develop an understanding of how cultural expecations surrounding nuclear energy developed in advance of the technical capability, rather than as a product of it.

Students should appreciate the complexity of interactions among science, engineering, the military and politics, including issues of interservice rivalry, as relevant for the development and the use of nuclear weapons.

Students should be able to appreciate and critically evaluate the range of historical interpretations of the decision to use nuclear weapons to end World War II.

Students should learn to appreciate the interwoven histories of nuclear weapons and air power ideology in the twentieth century.

Students should learn to assess historically the idea that the destructive uses of nuclear weapons might be redeemed by technolocial progress.

Students should appreciate the arguments and precents surrounding arms control efforts from interwar naval limitations treaties to the test bans and ABM treaties of the 1960s.

General method of instruction

Class time is devoted mainly to lectures. Class meetings also allow for discussions of readings, focused work on writing assignments and exam preparation.

Recommended preparation

No special preparation in history or science will be assumed. This is meant to be an introductory course.

Class assignments and grading

Reading assignments in primary and secondary sources. Short weekly writing assignments drawing on lectures and reading assignments.

Two midterm examinations Final examination Writing assignments Section preparation and participation


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Bruce W Hevly
Date: 05/09/2012