Sixty-five years ago, scientists working in a secret city in northern New Mexico journeyed south to yet another secret location to test their "gadget." J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, reacted to the atomic explosion that shattered the predawn desert silence by simply saying, "It worked."
The "secret city" was Los Alamos, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab that produced the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs that were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The lab became the star of the U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons complex; its scientists designed the hydrogen bomb and multiple other warheads. To establish a healthy atmosphere of competition, a second nuclear weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was established near San Francisco. The exclamation "it worked" has probably been uttered by nuclear designers many hundreds of times since.
Under heavy public and congressional pressure, the United States ended its program of nuclear testing in September 1992, and President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty four years later, barring all nuclear explosions, military or otherwise. The Senate failed to ratify the treaty, but the United States has still honored what Clinton called the "longest-sought and hardest-fought-for arms-control treaty in history."
The U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing was a major turning point for the nuclear weapons complex. It meant that, without the ability to conduct nuclear tests, the labs would still have to be able to answer the questions: Will it work? How well will it work? What sorts of programs do we have to ensure that it will work? These questions form the nexus of the nuclear warhead "modernization" debate, which is now becoming a point of contention in the political battle over the ratification of President Barack Obama's new strategic arms treaty with Russia, known as New START. As we'll see, the treaty's opponents have created the false impression that Obama isn't doing enough to maintain America's fearsome nuclear arsenal, when in fact he's throwing billions into the effort -- even, arguably, expanding it despite his pledge to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.