Who Has Nuclear Bombs?

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13825

After hearing so much about the Cold War, you may think only Russia and the United States have nuclear weapons. However, while these countries have the most, they are certainly not the only two.


History, People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • Why does it matter if a country has nuclear weapons?

Watch the clip below to see what a country could do even if it only built a single bomb.

Russia releases secret footage of 1961 Tsar Bomba hydrogen blast from Reuters:

  • So, which countries have the capability to make one of these?


Nuclear weapons are the height of destructive capability.

From the moment the United States detonated the first nuclear bomb, it was clear other countries needed to stockpile the weapon if they wanted to compete on the world stage.

  • So, which countries are known to have nuclear weapons?

United States

Trinity detonation, 1945

Image by United States Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Under the Manhattan Project, the United States and United Kingdom jointly began researching the nuclear bomb.

In the space of one month in 1945, the United States went from testing the first bomb to actually dropping two on the Empire of Japan at the end of World War II. Because of this, the world knew that at least one country had this new type of weapon.

Soviet Union

Stalin parade, 1953

Image by Höhne, Erich; Pohl, Erich, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The Soviet Union was already well on its way to creating a bomb of its own by the time of the first successful atomic bomb test in July 1945.

Not only was leader Joseph Stalin aware of the Manhattan Project, he had spies observing it. Russia eventually produced an atom bomb in 1949.

United Kingdom

The Manhattan Project was a success; however, the United States ousted the U.K. in 1946.

As a result, the British were forced to finish the research on their own before successfully testing their own nukes in western Australia.

nuclear test sites in Australia

Image by Jakew, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

  • If the U.S. already had nukes to protect the Western Bloc in the Cold War, why did it matter if England had its own?

During the 1800s, the United Kingdom was the world superpower. In an attempt to try and restore some level of power in the world, it was devoted to having nuclear capabilities.


France also began a nuclear program in the 1950s and successfully tested its own bomb in Algeria in 1960.

France was also hoping to restore some level of perceived strength to a world in which it was no longer a major player.



Four years later, in 1964, the Chinese produced their own nuclear bomb under the direction of dictator Mao Zedong.

As head of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong was trying to rapidly industrialize China. Creating its own atom bombs was a sure way to show the world that China was modern.

Mao Zedong, 1963

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Watch the short video below to learn more about this program and what people at the time knew about it.

The top secret mine that fuelled China's nuclear program from South China Morning Post:

Mao Zedong did not want other countries to discover Chinese nuclear efforts, fearing they would try to stop the country; so those who mined materials for the bomb were not told what they were doing for fear it would leak to the outside world.

Non-Proliferation Treaty

These five countries were the original signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commited them to trying to stop the expansion of nuclear bombs beyond their own countries.

South Africa

During the 1960s, just after the signing of this treaty, South Africa tried to create its own nuclear bomb in an attempt to maintain control in the country.

The South African government at the time was controlled by the minority white population. The thinking was that any rebellion could be crushed by a nuclear bomb test that would demonstrate the ability to destroy any town.

Only six nuclear bombs were ever made. When the government switched to a more representative democracy, all six bombs were voluntarily destroyed, making South Africa a non-nuclear power once again.

This is the only instance of a country making its own bombs and then destroying them all.

India and Pakistan

To understand why these two countries have nuclear bombs, you need to understand why they have historically hated each other so much.

india pakistan conflict

In 1947, India was partitioned along religious lines into Pakistan and India. This created animosity between Muslims and Hindus in the region and led both countries to start nuclear programs in the 1970s.

India completed its program in 1974, but it took Pakistan until 1998.

To see the Pakistani point of view on this conflict, watch India and Pakistan: Rivals in a nuclear arms race from Al Jazeera English:

North Korea

The final confirmed nuclear power is North Korea.

According to U.S. intelligence, North Korea successfully completed a nuclear test in 2006. While this was not officially declared by the country, it was clear by the 2010s that it had managed to put nuclear bombs on warheads.

Many smaller countries explore nuclear weapons not because they want to bomb anyone, but because simply having these weapons makes it impossible for another country to invade.

Many believe this is true of North Korea because, as a dictatorship, it has many enemies who may attempt an invasion...including South Korea or even the United States.

Learn more about this secret program as you watch North Korea successfully tests a ballistic missile capable of hitting the US from ABC News:

Whether North Korea developed nuclear weapons simply to show strength or with a more specific purpose, its proven nuclear capacities have made it impervious to invasion.


israel flag

Although intelligence on the subject is incredibly speculative, Israel is believed to have had nuclear bombs since the 1960s and '70s.

If you are interested in exploring how Israel may have acquired nuclear information or other details about its program, check out Nuclear Weapons: Israel from the Federation of American Scientists' WMD Around the World.

While how many nuclear bombs Israel may have is unkown, it is estimated to be in the hundreds. It is possible that, because Israel went to war so often with the surrounding countries in the Middle East, it wanted to have nuclear bombs as a bargaining chip but thought it was more strategic to keep it a secret.

Move on to the Got It? section to explore what it means to be a nuclear power, why some countries have them, and why many countries want them.

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