Coinciding with the arrival of this fearful new technology, the world was beginning to divide into two opposing ideological camps: the democratic nations led by the United States, and the communist Soviet Union and its satellites.
Soon both sides were nuclear-armed, and the world stood on the edge of the abyss. Into this equation stepped Paul Nitze, a pragmatist who believed passionately that the free world must make itself safe through a position of strength.
For over four decades, Paul Nitze helped guide the United States through the dangers of the Cold War.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently expressed the awe he felt in first meeting Nitze. "It was shocking to me then, as a three-star general, to sit at the head of a table, with all kinds of distinguished individuals and to have Paul Nitze at the table -- it was like having Moses at the table -- this man who had 50 years under his belt, when I was just trying to figure out how to be national security adviser," Powell said.
Nitze, a member of a wealthy family, first arrived as a young man in Washington in 1940 to take up government service after a successful business career as a banker. He rose quickly through various positions, to become chief policy planner at the U.S. State Department in 1950.
It was here that he made what is regarded as a lasting contribution to U.S. security policy. He took the lead role in writing a highly influential document, which called for the United States to develop a strategic framework to contain the perceived Soviet threat worldwide.
The document, known by its departmental name of NSC-68, was in fact a strategic blueprint for the Cold War. It was not just a document setting out military objectives, but it foresaw "a rapid and sustained buildup" of the political and economic strength of the free world.
Further, the document also explored the wellsprings of democratic spiritual strength. It says in part: "In relations between nations, the prime reliance of the free society is on the strength and appeal of its idea, and it feels no compulsion to bring all societies into conformity with it. For the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity".
NSC-68's impact on thinking in Washington was heightened still further by the subsequent invasion of South Korea by the communist North. It helped guide U.S. policy for decades.
In the following years, Nitze went on to be secretary of the navy and deputy secretary of defense. But he is best known for his work as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with Moscow between 1969 and 1973.
Always a tough negotiator, he eventually resigned from that delegation on the grounds that President Richard Nixon had made an unnecessary concession to the Soviets.
Later in the decade, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Nitze became a convinced opponent of the follow-up SALT-2 treaty, which he regarded as flawed because it left the possibility for Soviet rearmament.
In the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, Nitze became head of the U.S. side at the negotiations with the Soviets on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, covering medium-range weapons.
Whereas his opposition to SALT-2 had brought him criticism from those who favored arms control, his willingness to compromise on an INF deal brought denunciation from those who favored a harder line against the Soviets.
In a famous moment of the Cold War, Nitze made a personal effort to achieve an accord with the Russians. In 1982, acting on his own initiative, Nitze took what became known as the "Walk in the Woods" with his Soviet counterpart, in which he tried unsuccessfully to strike a deal on intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said he had been proud to work with Nitze on arms-control deals, noting that by 1987, the INF negotiations led to deal under which medium-range missiles were dismantled.
"[It was] the first arms-control agreement which actually eliminated nuclear weapons, eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons on both sides, SS-20 [missiles] and others on the Russian side, and the Pershing-2 and ground-launched cruise missiles on our side -- a remarkable achievement for Paul," Powell said.
Nitze retired from government service in 1989.