The Arms Race - 1949 to 1963


Development of Nuclear Weapons - Atomic Bombs

Nuclear weapons were central to the Cold War and the arms race became a subsitute for real military conflict between the Superpowers.

The US Manhatten Project, initiated during WWII, led to the creation of the first atomic bombs which were used to bomb the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Stalin was determined to follow suit and make the USSR a nuclear power. In August 1949, the USSR tested an atomic device, ending the US nuclear monopoly.

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Development of Nuclear Weapons - Hydrogen Bombs

Following the Soviet test, Truman comissioned the development of the hydrogen bomb. This second generation of nuclear weapons were based on nuclear fission and therefore known as thermo-nuclear devices. The US' Mike Tests in 1952 resulted in a megaton explosion 1000x the explosion at Hiroshima, producing a mushroom cloud which rose 41000m in 3 minutes.

Again, the USSR was determined to keep up with US technology and produced its own H-Bomb within the year. The Soviet testing took place in Kazakhstan in 1953. The USSR exploded a 400-kiloton device known as Joe4. The test of Sakharov's Third Idea in 1955 demonstrated that the USSR had developed a bomb as powerful as the US H-Bombs

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Development of Nuclear Weapons - 1950 to 1960

Thoughout the 1950s, both Superpowers regarded the development of firepower as vital to their security.

The US:

  • The number of US warheads increased from 1000 to 18000
  • The first battlefield tactical nuclea weapons were stationed in West Germany in 1953
  • Eisenhower developed the strategy of massive retaliation. He believed that a huge nuclear arsenal capable of annihilating the USSR would deter a nuclear attack.


  • In 1961, in an aggressive speech designed to pressure JFK, Khrushchev announced the successful testing of a 50-megaton bomb.
  • This device, refered to as a Tsar Bomba, was actually 58 megatons. However, it was not a practical military option. A CIA report confirmed the power of the weapon.
  • However, it was not a practical military option as it could not be loaded onto any ICBM and could only be used by aircraft in test conditions.
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Development of Nuclear Weapons - Impact

  • Nuclear weapons became central to the development of the military strategy of both superpowers.
  • The Arms Race increased tension between the Superpowers as they competed for a decisive lead.
  • A balance of terror existed between the Superpowers, detering direct military conflict which could potentially escalate into nuclear war.
  • With the exception of West Berlin, which was Western territory situated within Stalin's sphere of influence, the threat of war forced the Superpowers to respect each other's sphere of influence.
  • The vast cost of developing weapons and the delivery systems put huge strain on the economies of the Superpowers.
  • Neither the US nor the USSR was able to develop enough delivery systems powerful enough to attack each other directly. Consequently, prior to 1960, nuclear tensions focused on Central Europe, the only area in range of both Superpowers.
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Delivery Systems - Developments

During the 1950s, both Superpowers had created ever more powerful warheads. However, neither side had a convicing delivery system capable of targetting the other side directly. The search for an effective delivery system was one of the causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Superpowers developed 4 delivery systems:

  • Strategic bombers.
  • ICMBs fired from underground bases.
  • Short-range nuclear missiles stationed outside the territory of the Superpowers.
  • Ballistic missiles fired from submarines.
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Delivery Systems - The Soviets

In 1956, the USSR deployed the TU20 Bear, a long-range bomber which could reach US territory from Soviet airbases. However, the bombers were slow and could be intercepted by US fighter planes.

The problems inherent in bomber technology led to the development of ICBMs, the first Soviet ICBM test occured in 1957. Later in the year, the launch of Sputnik demonstrated to the world that Soviet missiles were powerful enough to reach space. This caused shock and panic in the US as it showed that the USSR had the potential to target the US directly. However, ICBMs were expensive to produce and thus Khrushchev attempted to find cheaper alternatives.

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Delivery Systems - The US

US ICBM technology lagged behind that of the USSR in the mid-1950s and therefore te US focused on deploying IRBMs. IRBMs had a smaller range than ICBMs but could target Soviet territory as they were stationed in Europe and the Middle East. However, by the early 1960s, the US had developed ICBMs that were superior to the Soviet equilalents and therefore had a decisive lead in the Arms Race.

Key US developments included:

  • the creatio of the long-range bomber, the B52 Stratofotress which was capable of reaching Soviet territory from US bases.
  • the launch of Explorer 1, the first US satellite in 1958.
  • the deployment of Polaris submarines, which could fire missiles from the ocean.
  • the successful test of the Minuteman ICBM which was capable of striking Soviet territory from the US.
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Cuban Missile Crisis - Causes

  • Soviet leaders were aware of US nuclear superiority as the US could attack Soviet cities using ICBMs based in the US and shorter-range missiles stationed in Western Europe and Turkey. In contrast, the USSR had only a limited number of ICBMs and no shorter-range missiles within range of the US. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 gave Khrushchev the opportunity to achieve nuclear parity. Stationing missiles on Cuba, less than 160km from the US, would allow the USSR to target the US without having to use expensive long-range ICBMs. It would also double the capacity of the USSR to hit targets in the US. Therefore, Khrushchev planned to send 40 tactical nuclear missiles and 50000 Soviet soldiers to Cuba.
  • Khrushchev was also determined to sustain Castro's Communist regime. The US had attempted to overthrow Castro twice via a CIA-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and through Operation Mongoose. Khrushchev believed that sending nuclear weapons to Cuba would deter US interference.
  • Khrushchev felt that a presence in Cuba could put pressure on the US to surrender West Berlin and withdraw its missiles from Turkey. 
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Cuban Missile Crisis - Development

In August 1962, Soviet warheads began to arrive in Cuba. They were followed in September by missiles and bombers. US spyplanes spotted Soviet activity in October. 

Kennedy responded to the Soviet build-up with a TV address in which he referd to 'unmistakable evidence of nuclear strike capacity' on Cuba. He made it clear that a full retaliatory response would follow if the Soviets didn't abandon their military presence.

Rather than ordering immediate military action, Kennedy decided to establish a naval blockade. Aware that Soviet ships were en route to Cuba, he stated that any ships crossing the line would have to submit to US inspection. Khrushchev was relieved that Kennedy did not announce immediate military action.

The first potential flashpoint occured on 24 October, Soviet ships reached the US quarantine line. At this point, the Soviet ships changed course, prompting the US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to remark, 'we are eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked'

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Cuban Missile Crisis - Resolution

On Thursday 25th October, attention focused on the UN Security Council where clashes took place between US Ambassador Stevenson and Soviet Ambassador Zorin. Stevenson appealed to the 'courtroom of world opinion', producing a photograph of developing Soviet sites. Kennedy felt that by involving the United Nations, internation opinion would turn against the USSR.

On Friday 26th October, the White House recieved a long and rambling telegram from Khrushchev which proposed a way out of the crisis that would involve a US guarantee not to invade Cuba. Before the US could decided on a response, a second message was broadcast on Radio Moscow with a very different tone. It condemned the American 'imperialists' and the US decided to ignore this second message and regard the first as an indication of a desire to resolve the Crisis peacefully.

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Cuban Missile Crisis - US Diplomacy

Throughout the Crisis, Kennedy had been trying to negotiate with Khrushchev through back channel meetings between Robert Kennedyand the new Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. The talks led to a compromise, Soviet military withdrawal from Cuba in return for US withdrawal from Turkey. The US also agreed to respect Cuban independence and the Soviets agreed there would be no public announcement about US withdrawal from Turkey. The Soviets announced their withdrawal from Cuba on 28th October.

During the Crisis, both leaders had been seeking to avoid war without losing face, Khrushchev's actions had not been designed to cause war. He had assumed that the US would only discover Soviet missiles on Cuba once they were fully operational. Equally, Kennedy's prime objective throughout was to avoid war. His actions were designed to contain the situation without provoking a military response from Khrushchev.

Kennedy knew that Khrushchev would only back down if he could do so with dignity. Consequently, Kennedy ordered that there should be no boasting, gloating or a claim of victory on the part of the US. In this sense, Kennedy was attempting to reduce Khrushchev's humiliation and minimise tension between the Superpowers.

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Consequence of Crisis - Test Ban Treaty

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was designed as a first step towards controlling nuclear arsenals. The Treaty banned the testing of nuclear weapons as a first step towards arms control. The Treaty banned:

  • tests in the atmosphere
  • tests in space
  • tests under water

Underground testing was permitted as long as no radioactive debris fell outside the country carrying out the test.

Significantly, there was no reduction in armaments. Stockpiling of warheads and future production was allowed and it was made clear that none of the agreements should prevent states taking action in defence of their own security. Nonetheless, both sides committed themselves to continued negotiations with a view to nuclear disarmament.

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Consequence of Crisis - Hot Line

Both sides agreed to the establishment of a hot line between the US President and the Soviet Leader. This was intended to improve communication and create an effective means for resolving problems.

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Consequence of Crisis - USSR Military Policy

The Crisis contributed to a change in Soviet military policy. Soviet leaders believed that Khrushchev's diplomacy had resulted in a humiliating climb-down. Specifically, they believed that Khrushchev's policies in Cuba had led to a confrontation that the USSR could not win; US nuclear superiority meant that the Soviet Union had to accept US terms. Consequently, Breznev, the new Soviet leader, changed Soviet policy which included stepping up the production of warheads and missiles with the aim of achieving nuclear parity with the US.

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Consequence of Crisis - New Stability

From 1958 to 1963, the two Superpowers came close to war on 2 occasions: Berlin and Cuba. These years of maximum nuclear daner were caused by the relative weakness of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. He argues that nuclear disparity caused instability as:

  • US generals advised aggressive policies as they assumed that in the event of war the US would be victorious.
  • Khrushchev adopted aggressive policies in order to cover up the Soviet nuclear inferiority. In this sense, Khrushchev's strident policies were a bluff, designed to make Western leades believe that the Soviet Union was in a stronger position than it really was. 

Consquently, the achievement of nuclear parity in the mid-1960s removed the causes of instability. Equally, nuclear parity led to the prospect of a war in which both superpowers were utterly annihilated. Therefore, military strategists embraced the doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Thus, the achivevement of nuclear parity ended the era of nuclear crisis and in the period of 1964 to 1979 there were no further nuclear crisis.

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Consequence of Crisis - The Two Leaders

The Crisis also changed the fortunes of the two leaders. Kennedy was praised for securing peaceful resolution of the crisis without backing down. By contrast, leading figures in the Soviet government criticised Khrushchev for leading the Soviet Union into an unwinnable confrontation and therefore, damaging its prestige and credibility. Indeed, Khrushchev's role in the Missile Crisis was a major cause of his removal from office in 1964.

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