Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons
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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.
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.
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 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.
Other countries too had an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. By the mid-1960s, Great Britain, France, and China had also successfully gained nuclear weapons capabilities. Fear over nuclear weapons proliferation prompted the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate arms reductions. This, combined with political and economic factors, resulted in a détente that characterized the 1970s. The word détente is French, and it means 'an easing of tensions.'
Basically, throughout the 1970s, the two superpowers worked to reduce tensions and improve relations. The two countries held direct negotiations between 1969 to 1979. These consisted of two rounds of talks called the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT. SALT I and SALT II (as they have been called) resulted in limitations on nuclear weapons technology, and helped improve relations between the superpowers.
Throughout the Cold War both countries recognized the advantages of anti-ballistic defense technology. As you can imagine, technology capable of countering ICBMs and rendering them ineffective would be of tremendous value. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan proposed development of an anti-ballistic defense system known as Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. The basic idea is that this system would intercept ICBMs before they could hit their targets. Critics of SDI argued the technology for such a program did not exist. They heralded it as unscientific and mockingly referred to it as 'Star Wars.' Its cost and the research necessary to develop it exceeded what the government was willing to provide.
The Cold War, and with it the nuclear arms race, came to a rather abrupt end when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. While today there is some degree of tension between the United States and Russia, it is nothing like it had been throughout the Cold War. Today, nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism pose a far bigger threat than any kind of arms race.
Let's review. The nuclear arms race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons superiority. It lasted throughout the Cold War. During World War II, the United States was working on the Manhattan Project, the codename for the atomic bomb project that culminated in the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. Not wanting to be out-done, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, codenamed First Lightning, in August 1949.
As the nuclear arms race heated up throughout the 1950s, the value of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, became apparent. ICBMs are extremely long-range missiles capable of delivering a warhead from one continent to another. Because of the threat posed by ICBMs American officials developed a doctrine called mutually assured destruction, or MAD. MAD was viewed by some as a deterrent to war because, in theory, each superpower would only guarantee its own destruction by ordering a first strike. One of the most tense moments of the arms race was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The 1970s were characterized by détente, a period of reduced tension between the two superpowers. In the early 1980s, American President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. This program was intended to be a high-tech anti-ballistic defense system capable of intercepting ICBMs. The nuclear arms race ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
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Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons