During the Cold War, the superpowers engaged in a costly and deadly arms race. They built nuclear weapons that could destroy entire cities. Among these weapons were long-range nuclear missiles called ICBMs. Here visitors get a look at the first ICBM, on display in 1959 at New York’s Coney Island amusement park. On September 23, 1949, President Truman made a grim announcement. “We have evidence,” he said, “that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR.” The statement alarmed Americans. Previously, only the United States had possessed an atomic bomb. Now that the Soviets had one as well, the United States felt the need to develop weapons with even greater destructive force. Soon the two superpowers were locked in a deadly arms race, or a competition to achieve weapons superiority.
The Race to Develop Weapons of Mass Destruction
Shortly after the Soviet atomic test, American scientists began discussing plans for a new type of bomb. It would be based not on splitting atoms—the technology used in the atomic bomb—but on fusing them. Known as a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, this weapon would be far more powerful than an atomic bomb. Some scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, argued against it. In a report to the Atomic Energy Commission, they warned that the H-bomb was “not a weapon which can be used exclusively” for military purposes, since it would have a far greater effect on civilian populations than an atomic bomb would.
Underwood & Underwood/Corbis
In the late 1950s, the United States began building nuclear-powered submarines that could also launch nuclear missiles. The USS Patrick Henry, which took to sea in 1959, was the second of these submarines to be built. It carried 16 Polaris missiles and could stay submerged for more than two months at a time.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top military leaders, disagreed. “The United States,” they said, “would be in an intolerable position if a possible enemy possessed the bomb and the United States did not.” When other scientists and Truman’s advisers sided with the generals, Truman gave the green light for producing the hydrogen bomb.
In 1952, the United States tested its first H-bomb. It was smaller than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II but 500 times more powerful. A year later, the Soviet Union tested its own H-bomb. A witness at the Soviet test recalled how “the earth trembled beneath us, and our faces were struck like the lash of a whip . . . From the jolt of the shock wave it was difficult to stand on one’s feet . . . Day was replaced by night.”
By 1960, the arms race had also led to the development of nuclear missiles and submarines. First, the United States and the Soviet Union built long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, which could deliver nuclear warheads to distant continents. Next, the United States developed nuclear-powered submarines that could launch up to 16 nuclear missiles from the water. The Soviet Union soon followed with its own nuclear submarines. With these new weapons, citizens of both nations faced the frightening prospect of enemy warheads raining down on their cities from far away.
Brinkmanship: Using the Threat of War to Contain Communism
The threat of nuclear war carried with it the prospect of utter annihilation, a threat the United States tried to use to its advantage. In the 1950s, the government developed a foreign policy known as—a willingness to go to the edge, or brink, of war. Brinkmanship was based on a simple, if dangerous, idea. According to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the Soviets had to believe that the United States would use its nuclear weapons if pushed too far. In a speech, Dulles declared, “You have to take chances for peace, just as you have to take chances in war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art . . . If you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”
To its critics, brinkmanship seemed foolhardy. It implied that the Soviets only understood force and assumed that they would back down if faced with the prospect of nuclear war. But Dulles believed that the United States had to be ready to go to war to keep the peace.
The Granger Collection, New York
The Cold War arms race frightened many Americans, and people everywhere, with the prospect of nuclear destruction. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg conveyed this threat in his prize-winning cartoon of 1948, which shows American life balanced precariously on the atomic bomb.
A growing conflict in Asia soon tested this policy. In China, both communists on the mainland and Nationalists in Taiwan claimed to be the nation’s legitimate rulers. In 1954, Mao decided to assert China’s claim to Taiwan and ordered his troops to fire on the nearby islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The Nationalist government claimed these islands and feared that their loss to the communists would prompt an invasion of Taiwan.
Eisenhower saw the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu as a challenge to American influence in Asia. As a result, the United States signed a treaty with the Nationalist government promising to protect Taiwan in case of attack. Three years later, China resumed its assault. This time the United States threatened to launch a nuclear attack on China, causing China to back off. In the eyes of the United States, this result was a victory for brinkmanship.
Deterring Attack by Threatening
Mutual Assured Destruction
As the threat of nuclear war continued, Dulles developed a new strategy to reinforce brinkmanship and ensure American nuclear superiority. The strategy, called deterrence, revolved around developing a weapons arsenal so deadly that the Soviet Union would not dare to attack. Dulles also believed that warning the Soviets that any attack on the United States would be met with an even deadlier counterattack would reduce the threat of war.
The combination of deterrence and the willingness to use nuclear weapons came to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). It meant that either side would respond to a nuclear attack by launching its own missiles, with devastating results for both sides. Fear of a nuclear conflict made the United States and the Soviet Union more likely to step back from all-out war. However, while MAD may have helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot, it also kept the world in a state of heightened anxiety
Various countries possess nuclear weapons today, with the five nations shown on the graph having the most. As you can see, the U.S. and Russian stockpiles are far larger than those of other countries.
The Superpowers Step Down from MAD
Starting in the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union took steps to slow down the arms race. In 1963, they signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting aboveground testing of nuclear weapons. Later they worked to limit the weapons in their nuclear stockpiles. In 1972 and 1979, after negotiations known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the two sides signed treaties setting limits on the numbers of nuclear missiles and missile-launching sites. These treaties marked the start of nuclear disarmament, or the reduction of weapons.
During the 1980s, U.S. leaders began to look for alternatives to MAD as the only response to a nuclear attack. President Ronald Reagan called on the military to build a missile defense system that would keep enemy missiles from ever reaching the United States. Nicknamed Star Wars, his plan called for a network of land- and space-based missiles that would intercept and destroy incoming missiles while still in flight. Reagan’s plan never got off the ground, but work on a more limited missile defense system was begun under the administration of President George W. Bush.
In 1987, in Washington, D.C., the superpowers took another step away from MAD by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Under the INF Treaty, both sides agreed to reduce the total number of nuclear arms in their arsenals. By the early 1990s, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War was over. Facing economic and political problems, the new Russian state agreed to further reductions in nuclear weapons.
Defending Against Nuclear Attack in an Age of Terrorism
Although the superpower arms race is over, today more than half a dozen countries have nuclear weapons or are in the process of developing them. The administration of President George W. Bush has referred to some of these countries, such as North Korea and Iran, as “rogue states.” This term is meant to describe countries that have weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear and chemical weapons, and that sponsor terrorism. Many analysts fear that these countries might sell bombs or nuclear technology to terrorist groups. Various events since 2001, including the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Iraq war, have heightened these fears.
Many political analysts doubt that the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction can deter nuclear terrorism. Nuclear threats may come from small terrorist groups that have no fixed location and that often move from place to place. In addition, such groups would be unlikely to stage a conventional military attack, using fighter bombers or long-range missiles. As columnist George Will noted, “A nuclear weapon is much less likely to come to America on a rogue nation’s ICBM—which would have a return address—than in a shipping container, truck, suitcase, [or] backpack.” Under these circumstances, Americans may be debating how to keep the United States safe from nuclear weapons for years to come