Nuclear arms race

From Academic Kids

The nuclear arms race was a competition for supremacy in nuclear weapons between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. An additional nuclear arms race developed between India and Pakistan during the end of the 1990s.


World War II

The first nuclear weapons were created by the American Manhattan Project during the Second World War and were developed for use against the Axis powers. Scientists in the Soviet Union, then an ally of the United States, were aware of the possibility of nuclear weapons and had been doing some work in that direction. Soviet scientists first became aware the Americans were almost certainly working on atomic weapons when all related articles disappeared from physics journals.

The Soviet Union, despite being an ally, was not informed of the American experiments until the Potsdam Conference in 1945. The Americans did not trust the Soviets to keep the information from German spies, there was also deep distrust of the Soviets and their intentions, despite the wartime partnership. Even during the war many government and military figures in the USA saw the USSR as a potential enemy in the future.

The Soviets, were well aware of the programme due to a spy ring operating within the American nuclear program. The atomic spies (including Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall), as they became known, kept Stalin well informed of American developments. When U.S. Vice President Harry S. Truman informed Stalin of the weapons, he was surprised at how calmly Stalin took the news and thought that the dictator had not understood what he had told him. In fact Stalin had long been aware of the programme. The American programme had been so secret that even Truman did not know about the weapons until he became president and Stalin had thus known about the Manhattan Project before Truman himself did.

In August of 1945 Truman ordered two bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly to quickly end the war though questions have remained about additional motivations as well (see Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Early Cold War

The years immediately after the Second World War the Americans had a nuclear monopoly, on both specific knowledge and, most importantly, raw materials. Initially it was thought that uranium was relatively rare in the world, but this was discovered to be incorrect. While American leaders hoped the monopoly would be able to win concessions out of the Soviet Union, this proved ineffective. Stalin knew that he was at a disadvantage. However, he felt that the only solution was to bluff that he was certain the Americans would not use the weapons, and wouldn't care much if they did. Stalin guessed correctly that the American policy makers would not risk another massive war over the relatively removed issues like Berlin or Czechoslovakia, and additionally many felt compelled to give the Soviets concessions for their massive sacrifices in their front against Germany.

Behind the scenes the Soviet regime was working furiously to build their own atomic weapons. During the war Soviet efforts had been limited by a lack of uranium, but new supplies in Eastern Europe were taken and provided a steady supply while the Soviets developed a domestic source. Physicists were given massive funding and treated like royalty, but were also threatened with being shot if they did not make significant progress. The much feared NKVD head Lavrenty Beria was put in charge of the development process. The Soviet effort was aided in this effort by information provided by their spies in the United States, however the information was not freely given to scientists and was instead used as an additional "check" on their progress (Beria did not trust the scientists, and he did not trust the espionage). While American thinkers had predicted that the USSR would not have nuclear weapons until the mid-1950s, the first Soviet bomb was detonated on August 9, 1949, shocking the entire world. The weapon (called "Joe One" by the West) was more or less a copy of the weapon which the United States had dropped on Japan ("Fat Man").

Both governments devoted massive amounts of resources to increasing the quality and quantity of their nuclear arsenal. Both nations quickly began work on hydrogen bombs and the United States detonated the first such device on November 1, 1952. Again the Soviets surprised the Americans by exploding a deployable thermonuclear device of their own the next August, though it was not actually a "true" multi-stage hydrogen bomb (that would wait until 1954). The Soviet H-bomb was almost completely a product of domestic research, as their espionage sources in the USA had only worked on very preliminary (and incorrect) versions of the hydrogen bomb.

Delivery methods, such as the bomber fleets, were also expanded. The United States began with a considerable lead in this area, but the widespread introduction of jet powered interceptor aircraft upset this balance somewhat by reducing the effectiveness of the US's bomber fleet. In 1949 Curtis LeMay was placed in command of the Strategic Air Command and started a program to update the bomber fleet to one that was all-jet. During the early 1950s the B-47 and B-52 were introduced, giving the US the ability to convincingly penetrate the USSR.

The most important development in terms of delivery in the 1950s was the introduction of ICBM's. Missiles had long been seen as the ideal platform for nuclear weapons and in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik the Soviet Union showed the world that they had missiles that could hit anywhere in the world. The United States launched their own missiles soon after.

The period also saw attempts begun to defend against nuclear weapons. Both powers built large radar arrays to detect incoming bombers and missiles. Fighters to use against bombers and anti-ballistic missiles to use against ICBM's were also developed. Large underground bunkers were constructed to save the leadership of the superpowers, and individuals were told to build fallout shelters and taught how to react to a nuclear attack (civil defense).

Mutually Assured Destruction

All of these defensive measures were far from foolproof and by the 1950s both the US and USSR had the power to obliterate the other side. Both sides developed a "second-strike" capability, i.e. they could launch a devastating attack even after sustaining a full assault from the other side (especially by means of submarines). This policy was part of what became known officially as Mutually Assured Destruction: both sides knew that any attack upon the other would be suicide for themselves as well, and thus would (in theory) restrain from attacking one another.

Both Soviet and American thinkers hoped to use nuclear weapons to extract concessions from the other side, or from other powers such as China, but the risk of any use of these weapons were so large that both sides refrained from what John Foster Dulles referred to as brinkmanship. While some like General Douglas MacArthur argued nuclear weapons should be used during the Korean War both Truman and Eisenhower disagreed.

Both sides were also unaware of how their relative arsenals compared. The Americans tended to be lacking in confidence, earlier in the 1950s they believed in a non-existent "bomber gap" (aerial photography later discovered that the Soviets had been playing a sort of Potemkin Village game with their bombers in their military parades, flying them in large circles to make it appear they had far more than they truly did), and the 1960 American presidential election saw accusations of a wholly spurious "missile gap" between the Soviets and the Americans. The Soviet government structure tended to exaggerate the power of Soviet weapons to the leadership and Nikita Khrushchev, for instance, insisted Soviet missile guidance technology was far superior to that of the Americans when in fact it was some years behind.

An additional controversy formed in the United States during the early-1960s over whether or not it was known of their weapons would work at all if it came down to it. All of the individual components of nuclear missiles had been tested separately (warheads, navigation systems, rockets), but it had been infeasible to test them all as a whole. Critics charged that it was not really known how a warhead would function in the gravity forces and temperature differences encountered in the upper atmosphere and outer space, and Kennedy was unwilling to run a risky test of an ICBM with a live warhead. The closest thing to an actual test, Operation Frigate Bird, which involved testing a live submarine launched ballistic missile, was challenged by critics (including Curtis LeMay, who used doubt over missile accuracy to encourage the development of new bombers) on the grounds that it was a single test (and could therefore be an anomaly), was a lower-altitude SLBM (and therefore was subject to different conditions than an ICBM), and that significant modifications had been made to its warhead before testing (as that particular warhead was known to be potentially prone to predetonation). The controversy eventually faded away, but could never be truly resolved outside of actual nuclear war.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Brinksmanship was finally employed in one of the most tense periods of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tried to strike a major prestige coup and readjust the balance of power in favour of the Soviets by stationing medium range nuclear missiles on the Communist island of Cuba, close enough to the American coast that major cities were easily within their range. After learning about this plan through the use of aerial photography, the administration of John F. Kennedy decided that it would not accept missiles in Cuba and imposed quarantine on the island and made it clear it would invade if the missiles were not withdrawn. After a few tense days, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the weapons in exchange for the Americans pulling missiles out of Turkey and a promise not to invade the island.

The crisis led to improved communications between the superpowers with the introduction of the hotline. Neither side ever tried anything as risky as the causes of the crisis again.

The 1960s saw continued progress on weapons development in both states, but the Americans began to pull well ahead of the Soviets. One of the most important developments was far better intelligence gatherings by the United States. Spy satellites were taking millions of pictures per day of the USSR and American analysts now had a good idea of how many Soviet nuclear missiles there were.

The period also saw the Sino-Soviet split and increased work on the Chinese nuclear weapons program, exploding their first A-bomb in 1964 and an H-bomb in 1967.


Economic problems caused by the arms race in both powers, combined with China's new role and the ability to verify disarmament led to a number of arms control agreements beginning in the 1970s. This period known as Détente allowed both states to reduce their spending on weapons systems. SALT I and SALT II and START all limited the size of the states arsenals. Bans on nuclear testing, anti-ballistic missile systems, and weapons in space all attempted to limit the expansion of the arms race.

These treaties were only partially successful. Both states continued building massive numbers of nuclear weapons, and new technologies such as MIRVs limited the effectiveness of the treaties. Both superpowers retained the ability to destroy each other many times over.

Reagan and Star Wars

Towards the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, and continued strongly through the subsequent presidency of Ronald Reagan, the United States rejected disarmament and tried to restart the arms race through the production of new weapons and anti-weapons systems. The central part of this strategy was the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space based anti-ballistic missile system derided as "Star Wars" by its critics. At this point the Soviet economy was teetering towards collapse and was unable to match American arms spending. Numerous negotiations by Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to come to agreements on reducing nuclear stockpiles, but the most radical were rejected by Reagan as they would also prohibit his SDI program. In the end, Gorbachev's reforms improved relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, though they eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR alltogether (though such was not his intention).

Post-Cold War

With the end of the Cold War the United States, and especially Russia, cut down on nuclear weapons spending. Fewer new systems were developed and both arsenals have shrunk. But both states still maintain stocks of nuclear missiles numbering in the thousands. In the USA, stockpile stewardship programs have taken over the role of maintaining the aging arsenal.

After the Cold War ended, a large amount of resources and money which was once spent on developing nuclear weapons was then spent on repairing the environmental damage produced by the nuclear arms race, and almost all former production sites are now major cleanup sites. In the USA, the plutonium production facility at Hanford, Washington and the uranium molding facility at Rocky Flats, Colorado are among the most polluted sites.

India and Pakistan

The South-Asian states of India and Pakistan have also engaged in a nuclear arms race. India detonated what it called a "peaceful nuclear device" in 1974 ("Smiling Buddha") in response primarily to the development of a weapon by its neighbor China a decade before. In the last few decades of the 20th century, however, both Pakistan and India began to develop nuclear-capable rockets, and Pakistan had its own covert bomb program which extended over many years since the first Indian weapon was detonated. In 1998, both India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in a tit-for-tat fashion (Operation Shakti for India), with India claiming to have tested a hydrogen bomb as well (though the validity of this is disputed). Their arms race is somewhat analogous to the US/USSR race, except that both the amount of resources which each can devote to weapons and the distances to be traversed are far less.

List of milestone nuclear detonations

Date Name Yield Country Significance
Jul 16 1945 Trinity 19 kt  USA First fission weapon test
Aug 6 1945 Little Boy 13 kt  USA Bombing of Hiroshima, Japan
Aug 9 1945 Fat Man 20 kt  USA Bombing of Nagasaki, Japan
Aug 29 1949 Joe 1 22 kt Missing image

First fission weapon test
Oct 3 1952 Hurricane 25 kt  UK First fission weapon test
Nov 1 1952 Ivy Mike 10 Mt  USA First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test (not deployable)
Aug 12 1953 Joe 4 400 kt Missing image

First fusion weapon test (not "staged", but deployable)
Mar 1 1954 Castle Bravo 15 Mt  USA First deployable "staged" thermonuclear weapon; fallout accident
Nov 22 1955 RDS-37 1.6 Mt Missing image

First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test (deployable)
Nov 8 1957 Grapple X 1.8 Mt  UK First (successful) "staged" thermonuclear weapon test
Feb 13 1960 Gerboise Blue 60 kt  France First fission weapon test
Oct 31 1961 Tsar Bomba 55 Mt Missing image

Largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested
Oct 16 1964 596 22 kt Missing image

First fission weapon test
Jun 17 1967 Test No. 6 3.3 Mt Missing image

First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test
Aug 24 1968 Canopus 2.6 Mt  France First "staged" thermonuclear test
May 18 1974 Smiling Buddha 8 kt  India First fission "peaceful nuclear explosive" test
May 11 1998 Shakti I 30 kt  India First potential fusion/boosted weapon test
May 13 1998 Shakti II 12 kt  India First fission "weapon" test
May 28 1998 Chagai-I 9 kt Missing image

First fission weapon test

See also


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools