What is an Arms Race? - Definition, Cold War & WW1

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

If you're old enough to have lived through the Cold War, you probably know about one of the most famous arms races in history. But there have been others. Learn about some of the arms races of the twentieth century, then test your understanding with a quiz.

A Race Unlike Any Other

War has always elicited an array of views and feelings amongst nations and individuals. Fighting between groups of people goes back centuries, and it seems whichever side has the better weapons wins. Naturally, then, militaries want to stockpile as many weapons of war as possible to compete with their enemies, who are probably doing the same. This is called an arms race, and it's occurred many times throughout history. Two famous examples include before and after World War I and during the Cold War, and both were unique and important.

Arms Race: Definition

An arms race is essentially a competition in which two or more enemy nations each try to outdo the others to produce the largest possible arsenal of weapons. There are essentially four main elements to this definition. First, there's desire and need from all sides. If one is going to do this, the other probably will too. Second, it's an accelerated process involving a focused effort from a nation. Many resources are dedicated to an arms race. Next, there are competing sides. It wouldn't make sense to stockpile weapons if no one else does. Finally, quantity is important. A nation wants to have more than their competitors of course.

Pre- and Post-World War I: In the Navy

For a good example of an arms race, go back to just before the 20th century. Back then, there were many strong, large armies around the world in places such as France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. No one could match their size and strength, and thus, few tried. Before long, France and Russia challenged Britain and its worldwide presence of colonies. The British sought control of the seas as their response to the threat. They needed a stronger navy and started working on one.

A Dreadnought, one of the new battleships built by Great Britain during the naval arms race
dreadnaught

All the while, Germany wanted to expand its place in the world, and it wanted to build up a navy as well. Britain expanded its navy further in response. Think of a see-saw going back and forth; the arms race here was no different. One nation does something to advance its arsenal; another responds in kind.

Eventually World War I ensued, in part over conflicts among imperial controlling powers and a desire to keep each other in check. All of the ships built in the preceding years battled each other in the conflict. And as you might imagine, the side with the bigger arsenal won; the British were part of the winning team.

On land, warring nations also built as many other weapons and war tools as possible, but they were not as significant as the naval race. Nonetheless, both sides put forth strong efforts to produce as much weaponry as possible to outduel their enemies. Who wants to lose a war because they ran out of bullets?

The naval arms race that commenced before WWI didn't end when the war did; some of the players just changed. At this point, countries like the U.S., Britain, and Japan engaged in another naval arms race to control Japanese aggression in the Pacific Ocean.

Cold War: Mutual Assured Destruction

This aggression was part of the reason the world plunged again into war in 1939. When the conflict ended in 1945, yet another arms race emerged. But this was not a naval race; it was related directly to how WWI ended. The U.S., having dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, was the proverbial starter's pistol in the new Cold War and corresponding atomic/nuclear arms race. The Cold War was thus named because of the fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union never actually went to war - each just threatened the other with a bigger and bigger arsenal.

Atomic bomb explosion in Japan that ended WWII
WWII atomic bomb

America's use of the atomic bomb and ability to make more caused the Soviets to develop their own bomb. The Soviets also launched Sputnik, a satellite that fueled fears by the U.S. of a space-based attack. The U.S. started its own space program in response, furthering the race.

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