FC144: The Nuclear Arms Race (1945-2001)


FC144 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1026.


We have already seen how Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe after World War II and the West’s reaction to his aggression led to a vicious Cold War cycle of one side, fearful of the other, developing new weapons, which caused the other side to do the same and so on.  Of course, the single factor making the Cold War so unique and dangerous was nuclear weapons. And just as the Cold War’s roots lay back in World War II, so did the roots of the nuclear arms race.

Starting in 1942, almost immediately after its entry into World War II, the United States had worked intensively to develop an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do the same.  On July 15, 1945 the American program, known as the Manhattan Project, successfully tested the first nuclear bomb at Almogordo, New Mexico. The United States expected to keep its monopoly on the atomic bomb well into the 1950s, by which time its nuclear arsenal would be virtually impossible for anyone else to match or threaten.  However, the Stalin’s scientists, thanks partly to espionage reaching into the ranks of the Manhattan Project, successfully developed and tested their own atomic bomb in 1949.  The Americans, desperate to regain their technological edge to counterbalance Stalin’s huge conventional forces, decided to work on what was referred to as the Super bomb.  This device, also known as a hydrogen bomb, would create a fusion reaction to trigger a thermonuclear explosion as much more powerful than the atomic bomb as that bomb was compared to the conventional bombs used in World War II.  In 1952, the United States successfully developed and tested such a fearsome weapon.  However, the Russians, following the same line of research, produced their own super bomb in 1953, only a year after the Americans had done the same.

As a result, both the threat and fear of nuclear war grew throughout the 1950s as evidenced by several things.  For one thing, despite the death of Stalin in 1953 and the opportunity for better American-Soviet relations, tensions continued and even grew.  Also Soviet military technology seemed to surpass that of the Americans, especially in the realm of delivery systems. In 1957, they developed the first Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering nuclear warheads to targets in the United States when fired from Soviet territory.  The same year, the Soviets launched the first space satellite, Sputnik, raising American fears of the Russians launching nuclear attacks from outer space.  Also, the Russians started developing their first long-range bomber force, another area where the United States previously had a monopoly.  Finally, as nuclear arsenals grew and with them the threat of nuclear Armageddon, an anti-nuclear movement emerged in the West.

However, in the late 1950s the arms race combined with continuing Cold War rhetoric made the American public even more afraid of growing Soviet military power than nuclear holocaust.  As a result, President Eisenhower, under increasing criticism for being soft on communism, increased military spending, which only brought a similar reaction from the Soviet Union.  Ironically, he did this knowing (through top secret information that he could not make public) that the feared “bomber gap” actually heavily favored the United States.  Along these lines the United States embarked on an expensive space program to close the “space gap” and reoriented its school curricula to emphasize math and science in order to close the perceived “education gap”.

Finally, the U.S. tried to close the “espionage gap” by increasing spy flights over Russia to compensate for the fact that it was easier for the Soviets to infiltrate America’s open society with spies than it was for the U.S. to do the same into the much more tightly closed Soviet society. Unfortunately, in 1960 an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Gary Powers, was captured.  In addition to the diplomatic furor this raised, it also alarmed Khruschev about how much the Americans knew concerning Russia’s relative nuclear weakness. In order to cover this up, he ordered a series of massive atmospheric tests of Hydrogen bombs as a warning to the West.  The U.S. responded in kind and nuclear tensions (and fallout) continued to increase into the 1960s.


Out of this situation evolved the dominant nuclear strategy of the Cold War: mutually assured destruction (MAD).  The basic idea was that each side built up such an overwhelming amount of nuclear firepower (known as overkill) that no one would dare launch a war out of fear of massive retaliation.  The basic psychological assumption MAD was sound, because it did scare each side away from intentional aggression that might lead to an all-out thermonuclear exchange.  However, there was the danger that human or mechanical (especially computer) error could accidentally trigger World War III. Growing fears of such a scenario were reflected in several books and movies of the era, notably Fail Safe and Doctor Strangelove.  In fact, there were several incidents where some sort of mechanical error did nearly launch a nuclear war.  Fortunately, in each case disaster was averted, typically by an individual who refused to believe the launch orders were real.

MAD produced several results that together seemed to be both hurtling the human race toward certain destruction and bringing it to its senses.  For one thing, MAD demanded that each side keep a large retaliatory (second strike) force that could survive a surprise attack by the enemy and act as a deterrent to such an attack.  Therefore, both sides continued to build huge nuclear stockpiles and progressively more accurate delivery systems that gave them the combined capability of destroying the human race many times over.

However, despite the perception that nuclear weapons were more cost effective than conventional weapons, providing more “bang for the buck”, so to speak, they were also prohibitively expensive.  This was especially true for the research and development of new weapons systems, since the arms race catalyzed increasingly high-tech research that became more costly as the technology involved became more sophisticated. Eventually, the huge price tag of the arms race would drive the Soviet Union into financial oblivion and help end the Cold War.  However, that would not happen until the 1980s.  In the 1960s, it was a more immediate crisis that would help cool down the arms race: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Gradually defusing the nuclear time-bomb (1962-2001)

The realization of how close we had come to World War III over Cuba woke many people to the dangers of thermonuclear war.  As a result, both sides were much more careful to take precautions to avoid such a disaster.  The major obstacle to overcome was the deep distrust between the Soviets and Americans.  Therefore, bringing the nuclear genie under control involved starting with relatively small measures to gradually build mutual trust as a foundation for more substantial measures.  The first such step was installing the Hot Line, a direct phone line between Washington and Moscow that would speed up communications and reduce the chances of a garbled misunderstood message triggering an unintended war.  Along these lines, both sides were constantly upgrading their control systems to minimize the chances of some officer or mechanical error launching World War III without authorization from above. In 1963 came an atmospheric test ban treaty to protect the atmosphere from fallout.  In 1968 the nuclear non-proliferation treaty committed a large number of nations to not developing nuclear weapons.

In the 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union took a giant step forward with the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties, SALT I (1972) and SALT II (1979), which put caps on the number of new weapons being produced.  Although this did not stop the spiraling arms race, at least it put some limits on it and kept both sides talking.  Unfortunately, during the 1980s, the Cold War heated up again, and with it the arms race. However, by this time, high tech, especially computer technology, was making possible a whole new generation of sophisticated weapons systems, including the possibility of mounting a guided missile defense system against an incoming nuclear attack.  President Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (AKA “Star Wars” or SDI), although. Technologically unfeasible at the time, still upped the stakes (and price tag) of the arms race.  By this time, the Soviet Union’s economy was already sinking under the burden of trying to keep up with the United States’ buildup.  Therefore, its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, announced a unilateral withdrawal of some Soviet forces from Eastern Europe as a gesture to the West for more substantial talks.  These renewed disarmament negotiations produced a series of new treaties that significantly reduced nuclear stockpiles and ended the Cold War on a much happier note than it might have:

• Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminates many missiles, especially in Europe (1987)

• Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) cut number of Nuclear warheads from 23,500 à 15,400 (1991)

• START II Eliminated land based MIRV’s (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) (1993)

• Agreement to cut American & Russian nuclear forces below 2000 warheads each (2001)

The arms race between the Cold War superpowers ended much better than it might have.  That’s the good news, that human beings are capable of resolving their differences peacefully.  However, we’re not out of the woods yet as other people try to get and intend to use “weapons of mass destruction”.  Still, the final lesson of the Cold War is that there is still hope, and that, as always, is a priceless commodity.