The Effects of the Nuclear Arms Race on Cold War Politics

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  • 0:02 The Nuclear Arms Race
  • 1:01 The Beginning of the Race
  • 3:03 The 1950s and 1960s
  • 7:05 The Strategic Defense…
  • 9:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union that took place throughout the post-war era. We will learn why this arms race took place, and we will highlight key developments associated with it.

The Nuclear Arms Race

On your marks. Get set. Race! Nuclear arms race, that is. In this lesson, we will be learning about the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers. So, what exactly was the nuclear arms race? The nuclear arms race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for nuclear weapons superiority lasting throughout the Cold War.

The nuclear arms race began in earnest immediately after the United States successfully exploded two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. It is commonly held that the nuclear arms race came to an end in conjunction with the fall of communism in 1991. The 1950s and 1960s were particularly tense, and in many ways best characterize the dynamics of the nuclear arms race.

The Beginning of the Race

During World War II, the United States government set out on the top-secret task of developing the world's first atomic bomb. Codenamed the Manhattan Project, it culminated in the successful explosion of two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As we all know, the dropping of these bombs, nicknamed 'Little Boy' and 'Fat Man,' convinced Japan to surrender, thus bringing about the end of the Second World War.

This was a major achievement for the United States. Think about it: the United States ushered in the atomic age, and had a monopoly on the world's deadliest weapon. Jealous of the United States' new technology, and not wanting to be outdone, the Soviet Union was determined to develop their own atomic bomb as soon as possible.

The United States and its Western European allies tried to prevent the Soviets from gaining atomic technology. In 1946, they proposed the Baruch Plan, in which they called for the formation of an international organization to monitor and regulate atomic weapons development. The Soviets realized this was designed to stop them from gaining the bomb, and they rejected the plan. Through espionage and their own independent research, the Soviet Union developed their own atomic bomb project in the years following World War II. In August 1949, the Soviets successfully conducted their first atomic weapons test, codenamed First Lightning.

At this point in history, the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two countries to possess nuclear weapons. You can imagine what happened next; both countries scrambled to build more nuclear weapons than the other. Bada-bing, bada-boom - we have ourselves a nuclear arms race.

The 1950s and 1960s

The nuclear arms race heated up throughout the 1950s. Stunned that the Soviets had been able to develop an atomic bomb of their own so quickly, President Harry Truman decided to 'up the ante' by declaring that the United States intended to develop a more powerful hydrogen bomb. In January 1950, Truman declared:

'It is part of my responsibility as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. Accordingly, I have directed the AEC to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or Super bomb.'

Codenamed Ivy Mike, the United States exploded the world's first hydrogen bomb in November 1952. The Soviets followed with their own hydrogen bomb a few years later. In the early years of the arms race, the United States held a lead, but throughout the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet Union began to close the gap.

The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs in the late 1950s, changed the contours of Cold War military strategy. An ICBM is a long-range ballistic missile. The key word here is 'intercontinental.' That says it all. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of being launched from one continent to another. In the context of the Cold War, ICBMs were designed to carry nuclear warheads. The world's first ICBM was the Soviet R-7. The United States followed shortly after with their Atlas Missile.

Because both superpowers were capable of pushing a button and virtually obliterating one another within a matter of minutes, military theorists formulated the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. According to this view, if one country launched missiles, the other, having a few minutes' notice before impact, would retaliate by launching missiles also. Both countries, therefore, would be destroyed. Some viewed this doctrine as a deterrent to war because both countries would be less likely to launch missiles knowing that it would only result in mutual destruction.

The nuclear arms race resulted in widespread anxiety for both the American and Soviet peoples. In the United States, some families built homemade underground bomb shelters. In many schools, students practiced 'Duck and Cover' drills, in which they would crawl under their desk and cover their heads with their hands. This drill was designed to prepare students for a potential nuclear explosion. If you ask a parent or a 'baby-boomer' about this, many will tell you they grew up experiencing this drill in school as a child.

One of the most critical moments of the nuclear arms race was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. When an American spy plane discovered missile sites in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from American soil, it presented a major diplomatic confrontation between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy was advised by some military leaders to launch a strike against the missile sites, but instead he issued an order to blockade Cuba, while secretly negotiating with the Nikita Khrushchev. A deal was worked out, and the Soviets ended up removing the missiles from Cuba. Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis many Americans feared they were standing on the brink of World War III.

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