The Arms Race 1949-1963


The Start of the Thermonuclear Arms Race

USSR acquires the atomic bomb (1949)

  • at the start of 1949, USA had the onlt atomic bomb and nuclear monopoly
  • the CIA concluded that the USSR wouldn't develop an atomic bomb before mid-1953
  • following a Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the thermonuclear arms race began

The beginning of the thermonuclear arms race

  • January 1950 Truman announced the USA would build a hydrogen bomb, three to five times more powerful than the atomic bomb, with the decision prompted by:
    • the speed at which the USSR acquired the atomic bomb
    • the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949)
    • establishment of the PRC (October 1949)
    • assumption that the USSR would build such a weapon anyway
  • first US hydrogen bomb, 'Ivy Mike', was successfully tested in November 1952
1 of 11

Development of Advanced Delivery Systems

Delivering the bomb by plane

  • Initially both the US and USSR developed reliable aircraft to carry the thermonuclear bombs
  • 40% of US defence funds were allocated to the air force in 1953
  • the US owned the B52 Stratofortress ny 1955, the first intercontinental bomber
  • SAC (Strategic Air Command) became the US's main nuclear strike force, with bombers placed on 24-hour alert
  • USSR couldn't compete with SAC but got the TU20 Bear in 1956, copied from the B52 designs
  • The planes were relatively slow and could be shot down

Development of Rocket Technology

  • May 1957, USSR successfully tested the first ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles)
  • November 1957, USSR successfully launched Sputnik and Sputnik II containing Laika the dog
  • 1959 the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force became a new section of the USSR's military
  • April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space
2 of 11

The 'Missile Gap'

The 'missile gap' (1957-1961)

  • the USSR's success with rocket technology led to US fears of technological inferiority
  • the CIA Gaither Report (1957) reported that the USSR had a 3-to-1 missile gap over the US
  • the USSR's achievements weren't completely true, as Khrushchev attempted to divert attention to powerful displays of weaponry, but couldn't actually mass produce the weapons
  • the US possessed more nuclear weapons the the USSR and developed ICBMs which were far superior to USSR ICBMs
  • intelligence gathered by U-2 spy planes and the CIA satellite 'Discoverer' revealed the USSR had few bombers and operational missiles
  • the US deployed IRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles) in the UK, Italy and Turkey
  • 1958, Eisenhower increased funding into science education
  • July 1960, the US deployed Polaris, the world's first SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) 
  • a 'balance of terror' existed by the early 60's
3 of 11

'Balance of Terror'

Nuclear deterrence and limited war

  • Both the US and USSR's nuclear capability made nuclear deterrence a strategic reality for both sides and wanted to keep conflict to a 'limited war'
  • Limited war: A war that is fought with conventional weapons, limited in scale and restricted to a certain area or region

Massive retaliation

  • A US doctrine brought in in 1954 that involved using brinkmanship (going to the brink of nuclear war) to force an enemy to back down
  • Also designed to reduce conventional arms spendings

Flexible response

  • Kennedy and his Defence Secretary, McNamara, rejected massive retaliation and favoured a flexible response strategy, which considered the possiblity of limited nuclear war
  • McNamara developed a 'second strike' capability (based on bombers, ICBMs and submarines) that would be used to counteract a nuclear attack from the USSR
  • Hugely expensive and raised questions on how a nuclear war could be 'limited' or 'managed'
4 of 11

Mutually Assured Destruction and the effects of th

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)

  • 1963 McNamara began to emphasise nuclear deterrence and talk of the USSR's 'assured destruction' in any conflict
  • When hte USSR had reached the same nuclear capability as the US, they had reached the position of mutual assured destruction or mutual deterrence

Stabilising effects of the arms race on the Cold War

  • Deterrent effect of nuclear weapons prevented any confrontation
  • Superpowers respected each other's sphere of influence

Destabilising effects of the arms race o the Cold War

  • Each side continued to produce more and more powerful weapons, increasing threat
  • The secrecy around the development of weapons led to oppositional fears of superiority
  • Cost of nuclear weapons imposed huge financial strains on both sides
5 of 11

Causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Revolution (1959)

  • From 1933, Cuba was ruled by Batista, a ruthless military dictator who encouraged economic involvement of the US in return for US support of his brutal, corrupt and unpopular regime, and in January 1959, Batista was overthrown by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, and fled into exile

Growing US-Cuban Tension (1959-1961)

  • Castro became dependent on the USSR following deteriating relations with the US
  • Castro's meeting with vice-President Nixon in NYC (April 1959) didn;t go well, with Nixon concluding that Castro was a communist
  • Castro wanted Cuba to be independent of US influence, so distributed land to poor peasants who had been exploited by Batista and US business interests
  • US-owned oil companies in Cuba refused to refine cheaper Soviet oil, so Castro nationalised the refineries
  • February 1960, Castro signed a trade deal with USSR to nationalise US interests in Cuba
  • July 1960, US imposed an economic blockade on Cuba, but was saved by the USSR
  • Early 1961, Castro formally embraced communism
6 of 11

Causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis II

Bay of Pigs Invasion (April 1961)

  • Kennedy authorised a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba, to try and spark a popular revolt on the island to overthrow Castro
  • 1400 lightly-armed Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, but were quickly overwhelmed by the Cuban army and air force
  • in response Castro made a deal with the USSR to bring Soviet MiG jets and surface-to-air missiles, as well as military advisers

Operation Mongoose (October 1961)

  • was a CIA launched programme designed to destabilise the Cuban regime and topple Castro, and between January and July, some 60,000 acts of sabotage were made as part of the operation

Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba (1962)

  • USSR began to install 24 IRBMs, 16 LRBMs and 24 SAMs, 42 jet bombers and fighters, 4 elite army regiments, 2 tank batallions and over 40,000 troops and personnel
7 of 11

The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962)

Influences of US actions during the crisis

  • the missiles based in Cuba could hit most of the USA's large cities and destroy all SAC bases
  • a nuclear attack from Cuba would reduce the USA's warning time from 30mins to 3mins
  • the missiles on Cuba posed a significant threat to US economic interests
  • the USSR involvement in Cuba broke upon respect of the 'sphere of influence'
  • Kennedy needed foreign policy success to strengthen his position after his actions with Khrushchev at Vienna Summit, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs fiasco
  • the US was concerned that Cuba would provide a 'nuclear shield' behind which communism could spread across Central and South America
  • USSR involvement in Cuba ifringed upon the Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine (1823)

  • A policy that stated that the USA would regard any attempt by a European power to colonise the 'American Continents' as an 'unfriendly' act
8 of 11

The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) II

  • Sun 14th: US U-2 spy plane photographs Cuban nuclear missile launch sites
  • Mon 15th: US National Photographic Intelligence Centre reviews and verifies the photos
  • Tue 16th: Kennedy assembles an Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) to discuss US military and diplomatic response
  • Wed 17th: During the ExComm meeting, the Joint Chiefs of Staff press for an air strike, and another U-2 flight shows IRBMs on Cuba
  • Thu 18th: Kennedy meets the Soviet foreign minister, warns him that missiles must not be installed on Cuba, but the minister insists he is only aiding 'defensive capabilities' on Cuba
  • Fri 19th: Kennedy leaves Washingon for scheduled campaign speeches
  • Sat 20th: Kennedy cancels remaining campaign trip for 'health reasons', meets his advisers and orders a defensive blockade of Cuba should be established immediately
  • Sun 21st: General Maxwell Taylor informs Kennedy that a US airstrike could not guarantee the destruction of all Soviet missiles in Cuba
  • Mon 22nd: Kennedy addresses the US on TV, announcing the blockade and issues a demand for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet missiles. US military forces go to Defence Condition (DEFCON) 3, and the US base at Guantanamo Bay is reinforced by marines
  • Tue 23rd: US ships are positioned along the quarantine line, 800 miles from Cuba, Khrushchev sends Kennedy a letter which stated that there is a 'serious threat to the peace and security of peoples', Kennedy pulls back the quarantine line to 500 miles
9 of 11

The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) III

  • Wed 24th: US forces go to DEFCON 2 (one short of war), the highest in US history, Soviet ships sailing with unidentified cargoes to Cuba either slow down or reverse their course
  • Thu 25th: Kennedy sends Khrushchev a letter blaming the USSR for the crisis,US reconnaissance photos are shown at UN General Assembly to prove the activity in Cuba
  • Fri 26th: Kennedy concludes that quarantine alone will not remove USSR missiles from Cuba, CIA reports no halt in the development of missile sites on Cuba, Khrushchev sends another letter to Kennedy proposing to remove USSR missiles, if the US lifts the blockade and publicly pledges to never invade Cuba
  • Sat 27th: Khrushchev proposes trading USSR missiles on Cuba for US missiles in Turkey, a U-2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba, Kennedy is under pressure to take military action, but instead responds to Khrushchev's proposal by informing him that the US won't invade Cuba if he removes the missiles, and gives secret assurance that the US missiles could soon leave Turkey
  • Sun 28th: Khrushchev accepts Kennedy's terms and announces on Radio Moscow that he has agreed to remove USSR missiles from Cuba, and the crisis is over
10 of 11

Results of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Results for the leaders

  • KENNEDY: gave a much needed foreign policy, could claim to have removed the Soviet nuclear threat, reaped political rewards at US Congressional elections with Democrats getting their biggest majority in 20 years, accepted that Cuba would be under communist control for the future and secretly agreed on the removing of US missiles in Turkey
  • KHRUSHCHEV: could claim credit for obtaining the US pledge to not invade Cuba, couldn't argue that Soviet action in Cuba had removed US missiles in Turkey, had descent in popularity for choosing peace instead of brinkmanship with the Soviet military regarding the whole crisis and Khrushchev's role as a failure
  • CASTRO: furious at Khrushchev for not consulting him about the removal of Soviet missiles and the expectation of USSR to insist on the removal of the US base at Guantanamo Bay, reinforced his economic dependence on the USSR


  • 'hot-line' agreement (June 1963) - crisis showed the need for rapid communication, so a telegraph was set up between the White House and the Kremlin
  • Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (August 1963) - banned the superpowers and UK from conducting nuclear tests in the atomsphere, underwater or in space - underground allowed
11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all Cold War resources »