Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

What role do nuclear weapons play in contemporary world politics, and what policies should the United States and the global community adopt to meet the dangers posed by these weapons? How should we study and assess the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation? What is the most successful way to slow, halt, or reverse the spread of nuclear weapons? What strategies do states employ once they’ve acquired nuclear weapons? How do nuclear weapons and nuclear strategies influence American foreign policy and international relations?

The issues of nuclear politics and policies are not new, of course: These questions have been with us since the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What can we learn from how states wrestled with the dilemmas presented by these fearsome weapons in the past? Were the dynamics of nuclear politics and policies transformed after the end of the Cold War or in the wake of the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks against the United States? Have “rogue states” and non-state actors rendered past policies, such as “deterrence” and “containment,” obsolete? This course will explore these and other fundamental questions. It is premised on the idea that purportedly novel threats actually have instructive historical precursors, and that our understanding of this past should inform contemporary debates. As such, the lectures will include discussion both of important events in nuclear history and key concepts and theories in nuclear studies.

Grading Policy

Students are expected to attend all classes, keep up with the associated readings, and actively participate in class. In order to incentivize students to keep up with the readings, there may be several reading quizzes given in random lectures. There will also be one in-class midterm and a take home final paper assignment given one week prior to the last class and which will be due on the last class day; there will be no exam in the finals period. Grades will be calculated by the following components:

Reading Quizzes 10%
Midterm 30%
Nuclear Policy Simulation Paper and Exercise 20%
Final Paper 30%
Class Participation 10%

For more detailed information, see the Assignments section.


Plagiarism will not be tolerated and will be referred to the appropriate authorities for disciplinary action if suspected. Plagiarism is defined as “a piece of writing that has been copied from another source and is presented as being your own work.” This includes ideas as well as specific paragraphs, sentences, etc. Ignorance and laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism, so be careful about citations and footnotes in any written work. The following resources may be of further assistance: Avoiding Plagiarism from MIT’s Writing and Communication Center and MIT’s rules regarding Academic Misconduct and Dishonesty.

Cirincione, Joseph. Bomb Scare: The History & Future of Nuclear Weapons. Columbia University Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780231135115. [Preview with Google Books]

Gavin, Francis J. Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. Cornell University Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780801456756.

Trachtenberg, Marc. History & Strategy. Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780691023434. [Preview with Google Books]

Additional readings can be found in the Readings section.


1 Class Overview  
2 Nuclear Weapons – Why They Matter Today  
3 The Second World War, the Manhattan Project, and the Decision to Drop the Bomb  

Second Generation Nuclear Powers

Guest Lecturer: Professor Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science, MIT

5 The Birth of the Nuclear Age – Nuclear Deterrence  
6 Nuclear Weapons and the Early Cold War  
7 Nuclear Proliferation and Nonproliferation, Part I  
8 The Origins of Overkill  
9 The Berlin Crisis and Nuclear Weapons  
10 The Cuban Missile Crisis  
11 Détente and the Origins of Nuclear Arms Control  
12 The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty  
13 Nuclear Proliferation and Nonproliferation, Part II  
14 The Nuclear Balance and Nuclear Strategy  
15 Mid-term  
16 The 1970s: Proliferation Pressures, Strategy Debates  
17 How to Study / Think about Nuclear Dynamics  

Screening: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Black and White, 95 min. 1964.

19 Nuclear Weapons and the End of the Cold War  
20 Nuclear Dynamics after the Cold War: Rogue States, Terrorism, and Great Power Politics  
21 Global Zero?  
22 Nuclear Policy Simulation

Nuclear Policy Simulation paper due

Take Home Final Paper assignment handed out


Centrifuges – Technology and History

Guest lecturer: R. Scott Kemp, Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, MIT

24 The Future of Nuclear Dynamics and Policy Final paper due