History: Cold War - Arms Race

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What caused an Arms Race?

  • The growth of international tension: the growing hostility between the superpowers after 1945.
  • Arms were necessary to safe guard both USA and USSR interests.
  • The threat of nuclear bombs increased the feeling of vulnerability as both felt they needed to stay one step ahead of the other.
  • Once the USSR devleoped its own atomic bomb in 1949, and started boasting about it, this increased the USA's concerns and made them feel as if they needed to advance themselves.
  • Each were anxious over each other's nuclear power, so the arms race became a substitute for war.
  • National and Personal Considerations: Keeping ahead in the arms race became a matter of national pride. Both saw this as a chance to raise national prestige and secure their reputation in world affairs.
  • Technological achievement became a yardstick by which relative merits of capitalism and communism could be measured, to see who was ahead of the other.
  • Khrushchev constantly boasted about nuclear arms which was a reflection of his own personal insecurities as most of his claims were unture or exaggerated.
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What caused an Arms Race?

  • American leaders were susceptible to the pressures of democracy and these often pushed presidents towards increasing arms to make themselves more popular.
  • Eisenhower was worried that there was a bomber gap between the USA and the USSR which led to an increase in American defense spending. There were continuing public fears of the prospect of Soviet superiority.
  • Kennedy's inexperience made him feel vulnerable, so he too increased spending.
  • Domestic Factors: Those groups who benefited from armaments gained considerable money, power and influence.
  • Any attempt to cut spending was strongly resisted, as Khrushchev found.
  • The military industrial complex was able to weild enormous control over American politics.
  • The Soviet Army in turn emphasised the American threat in order to secure resources.
  • Both leaders fed off the arms race and with it, they maintained power.
  • In some way nuclear threats worked as a deterence of full out war, as both sides were to afraid to attack the other in anyway because they both knew what each other was capable of.
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To what extent was it a stabilising factor?


  • The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons prevented direct US-Soviet confrontation.
  • The presence of nuclear weapons meant that the superpowers respected each other's sphere of influence and did not intervene e.g. Hungary Uprising (1956).
  • The superpowers had to co-operate to regulate the nuclear threat such as the removal of missiles from Cuba and Turkey (1962-3), Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Washington-Moscow Hotline (1963).
  • The US and Soviet leaders were aware of living in the nuclear and acting responsibly, for example, Khrushchev withdrew the offer to help in the nuclear programme with Mao.


  • Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb (1949) precipitated a spiralling arms race. Both sides competed to devlop more and more powerful and sophisticated weapons such as the hydrogen bomb (1952), ICBMs (1957) and SLBMs (1960).
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To what extent was it a stabilising factor?

  • The culture of secrecy surrounding the development of nuclear weapons led to superpower fears that the other side had military superiority: the impact of the Gaither Report (1957).
  • Nuclear weapons encourages superpower brinkmanship, which could have resulted in total devestation, for example, the US doctrine of 'massive retaliation' (1954) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).
  • The cost of nuclear weapons imposed huge financial strains on both sides. This had a devestating effect on superpower relations in two ways: Khrushchev compensated for the USSR's relative weakness by adopting an antagonistic approach to negotiations with the West and his decision to station Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba was due to the fact that basing short range missiles in Cuba was cheaper than basing long range missiles in the USSR.
  • Nuclear weapons didn't stop other forms of superpower competition for influence in the 1950s and the early 1960s. For example, Soviet economic and military aid to developing countries such as Egypt; US support for anti-communist regimes in South Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan.
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Stabilsing or De-Stabilising?

  • 1949: USSR - atomic bomb (led to the thermo nuclear race)
  • Jan 1950: US to build hydrogen bomb based on nuclear fusion (1000 more times destructive)
  • Nov 1952: US tested hydrogen bomb (Ivy-Mike - 10 megatons) on a Pacific Island)
  • 1953: Soviet Union Lithium Bomb (Joe 4). Didn't have bases near US
  • 1953: Focus on Delivery systems (aircraft) US had bases near SU
  • 1954: US H-Bomb technology perfected - 15 megatons 'Castle Bravo'
  • Nov 1955: RDS-37 USSR Hydrogen Bomb (1.6 megatons) --> balance of bombs
  • 1955: USA: B52 Stratofortress - bomber with intercontinental range and Strategic Air Command (SAC) = US main nuclear force strike - B52s on 24 hour alert
  • Soviet Union copied B52 with TU20 Bear but could not compete with SAC but now Khrushchev will focus on missiles.
  • 15th May 1957: SU tested world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
  • 4th Oct 1957: Sputnik Satellite - 1st space satellite - SU mastered rocket technology and ICBMs.
  • Nov 1957: Sputnik 2 put into orbit with dog (Laika)
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Stabilising or De-stabilising?

  • 1957: Gaither Report: Showed Soviet missile lead - predicted a missile gap --> 44 billion dollars on defence over the next 5 years
  • 7th Dec 1957: US Vanguard Rocket exploded --> US humiliation (Flopnik)
  • 1958: US Defence Education Act --> Increase of funding for science education.
  • 1958: US developed own sateliite (Explorer) and gained own ICBM - Minuteman which was superior to the Soviet Union
  • 1959: Soviet Union set up Strategic Rocket Force
  • 1960: U2 Incident = USSR had fewer bombers than thought and only 10 working ICBMs.
  • 1960: Polaris - first submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM)
  • 1961: Yuri Gagarin became first man in space in VOSTOK 1.
  • 1961: Tsar Bomba - 50 megatons but not mass produced
  • 1961: Flexible Response - 2nd strike Capability M.A.D
  • 1961: Kennedy attacked Missile Gap --> 4000 Missile warheads to SU's 220; 1054 ICBMs and 41 Nuclear subs armed with Polaris missiles. Committed to man on the moon.

By the late 1960s when the SOviet Union had achieved basic nuclear parity with the USA, the superpowers had reached the position of mutual assured destruction.

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Cuban Missile Crisis

  • In early September 1962 the USSR secretly started to install 24 SS-4 medium range ballistic missile launchers in Cuba, and 16 longer range SS-5 missile launchers.
  • They also sent 42 jet bombers, 42 jet fighters, 24 advanced SAMs, four elite army regiments, two tank battalions and over 40,000 troops.
  • His motives for this are: to defend Cuba from an expected US invasion; to bargain for the removal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy; to further humiliate Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs failure; to put pressure on the West to leave Berlin and to achieve nuclear parity with the USA by making US cities more vulnerable to attack.
  • On 14th October 1962, a US U2 spy plane photographed Soviet nuclear missile sites in Western Cuba.
  • This terrified the US because: Soviet Missiles based in Cuba could hit most of the USA's largest cities and destroy all Strategic Air Bases; a Soviet nuclear attack from Cuba would reduce the USA's warning time from 30 minutes to just 3; it broke the informal post-1945 agreement about the superpowers respective 'spheres of influence'; Kennedy needed a foreign policy success to strengthen hius position after failures at the Summits and they feared that Cuba would provide a nuclear shield behind which communism could spread across that states of America.
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Cuban Missile Crisis

  • On 16th October Kennedy assembled an Executive Committee of ExComm to discuss military and diplomatic response. and the next day the Joint Chiefs of Satff pressed for an air strike.
  • On 20th October Kennedy meets his advisers and orders that a defensive blockade of Cuba should be established immediately to stop the arrival of Soviet missiles.
  • On 22nd October Kennedy makes it public and orders the immediate withdrawl of Soviet missiles. US military forces go to Defence Condition (DEFCON) 3.
  • On 23rd October US ships are positioned 800 miles from Cuba, and Khrushchev sends Kennedy a letter which stated that it was a serious threat to the peace and security of peoples. In order to buy time Kennedy pulls back the quarantine line by 500 miles.
  • On 24th October American forces go to DEFCON 2 (one short of war) and Soviet ships sailing towards Cuba either slow down or reverse their course.
  • On 26th October the CIA reports no halt in the development of missile sites. Khrushchev proposes to remove Soviet missiles, if the US lifts the blockade and publicly pledges to never invade Cuba. The next day he also proposes trading Soviet missiles in Cuba for US missiles in Turkey. Kennedy agrees to these terms.
  • 28th October, Khrushchev agrees to these terms, even though it is unknown that he has got missiles removed from Turkey also.
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  • The crisis had brought the superpowers to the brink of direct nuclear confrontation. Both sides recognised that confidence building measures needed to reduce Cold war tensions.
  • Hot line agreement, June 1963: It had been shown the necessity for rapid communication between the superpowers and as a result it was decided to set up a 'hot line' telegraph link between the Whitehouse and the Kremlin so that the leaders could contact each other immediately and hold discussions. This was used to stop misunderstandings.
  • The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, August 1963: The sobering impact of the Cuban missile crisis led the two superpowers and Britain to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treay which banned them from conducting nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water or in space. Underground testing was still permitted.
  • The USA and the USSR made greater efforts to avoid direct confrontation in the future, and were keen to establish better relations which led to detente.
  • De-stabilising: International tensions. Suspicions mounted. Eg, November 1957 US CIA Gaither Report. 3-1 Missile Gap, $44 billion budget across next 5 years. U2 Spy Panes. Garnet: 'there was unease in the US.'
  • The cost of nuclear weapons imposed huge financial restrains - K compensated for USSR's relative weakness by adopting an antagonistic approach to negociations with the West.
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  • Despite destructive force of nuclear weapons, the arms race didn't slow down or halt. In fact, it grew more and more dangerous: H bomb, November 1952 (swiftly followed by Soviets own August 1953) Sputnik October 1957, Polaris, 1968, ICBM May 1957, Polaris July 1960.
  • Nuclear power emboldened actions of superpowers, creating increasingly unstable international situation. Eisenhower's New Look policy featured emphasis on nuclear power: Massive Retaliation (January 1954, circumstances left deliberately vague to put opponents at disadvantage) Brinkmanship (Korea, Taiwan) Despite Truman 'preposterous' and Eisenhower 'unthinkable' major figurehead in US foreign policy: Kennedy, 'limited' nuclear wars, McNamara develops policy of 'second strike.' Could have resulted in total devastation.
  • In the same sense, the USSR were emboldened by nuclear power. Stalin, empowered to give Kim Il Sung the green light for invading S. Korea once USSR had acquired A-Bomb. Unveiled the more unpredictable, bombastic features of Khruschev's personality. Eygpt 1956, Berlin ultimatum. 1959 'we will bury you' 'producing missiles like sausages.' Garnett: 'in much the same way that murderers are not dettered by the threat of life imprisonment, it was argued that aggressive states might not be dettered by the threat of nuclear retaliation. Emboldened superpowers - limitations of Nuclear Deterrence theory.
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