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The Nuclear Arms Race (And Its Decline)

After World War II, the world breathed a deep sigh of relief. Yes, significant ideological differences remained, but after the carnage of the six-year war and the estimated 75 million deaths, surely anything that came next had to be better. The United Nations was formed and it seemed as if the world had finally learnt its lesson that cataclysmic wars really don’t help anybody. 

But while the next 50 years saw only a fraction of the deaths compared to the first half of the century, it was a period when humanity looked into the mirror and for the first time, saw its own total, self-inflicted destruction. 

The nuclear arms race saw the two global superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, go toe to toe in one of the most absurd and dangerous games of one-upmanship we have ever seen. The fact that the world seemed to teeter on the brink of nuclear war on several occasions to accommodate what we can only describe as the world’s greatest penis measuring competition, tells you everything you need to know. 

It was ludicrous, dangerous and eye-wateringly expensive, but makes for one of the most intriguing stories in human history. The time we nearly destroyed ourselves but backed down just in time. 

Out of the Ashes    

While there was certainly plenty of optimism after the conclusion of World War II, in reality, there were problems from day one. Completely out of character for a tyrannical dictator I know, but Joseph Stalin immediately made it clear that he had no intention of pulling his Soviet troops back from eastern Europe.  

The allies were weary and in the case of U.S President Franklin D Roosevelt, close to death. The UK’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared more focused on retaining what was left of Britain’s Empire and in any case, would be voted out of office less than three months after peace was declared in Europe. 

It’s impossible to know how things might have turned out differently, but for whatever reason, peace and relief soon turned to distrust and outright suspicion that expanded well out of the awkward set-up in now occupied Germany and eventually led to the nuclear arms race. 

The Bomb   

We had of course already entered the nuclear age by this point. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had revealed a level of warfare that far exceeded anything we had seen. Throughout thousands of years, warfare had developed relatively slowly. Sticks eventually became clubs, clubs became swords, swords eventually became guns and guns morphed into bombs. 

The fearsome power of regular ordnance dropped on cities around the world during the war had already been a huge leap forward from what was used during World War I, but it was at the same time still manageable. Cities like Dresden, Coventry, Berlin, London and Tokyo received hellish bombing campaigns, but in most cases, the people remained defiant. In Britain, we love to talk about our Blitz Spirit, but the truth is large-scale bombing campaigns almost always fail to break the resolve of those on the ground. If anything, it has a habit of solidifying the opposition. 

But the bombs that hit the Japanese cities within three days of each other were entirely different. The destruction was incomparable, the number of deaths unheard of in a single military strike. In an instant, the world changed, we now held the power of total destruction.  

On Your Marks…..

The problem with a single country having the ability to destroy its enemies in an instant is that it creates an entirely unequal global situation. I think we’ve all seen films when a supervillain gains a weapon capable of destroying the world only for the ‘good guys’ to intervene to maintain peace and order.  

With the U.S as the only country with nuclear weapons, it gave them that all-powerful bargaining tool, and one that Joseph Stalin knew they had to match if his country could compete with the U.S as a global superpower. 

The speed at which the Soviet Union built and tested its first nuclear weapon took the U.S by surprise. The Americans had reasoned it would be 5-6 years until the Soviets had a bomb, but on 29th August 1949 – just over four years since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Soviets conducted their first nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk test site in modern-day Kazakhstan, using a device code-named RDS-1 with a yield of 22 kilotons. The race was well and truly on.

The development of the first Soviet nuclear bomb had certainly been aided by several well-placed spies working in or around the Manhattan Project, most notably Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall and Oscar Seborer. Just how much and what kind of information was passed on we’ll never fully know, but it’s clear that RDS-1 and the Fat Man bomb that hit Hiroshima shared many similarities.  


As the 1950s progressed it became plainly obvious that it was only a matter of time until the two ideological juggernauts collided. The Soviets had already expanded their communist sphere of influence, with everything east of the Berlin Wall now firmly under their control – albeit through barely disguised puppet governments. 

The Americans on the other hand came with their swashbuckling capitalism and democracy came to symbolise the absolute antithesis to communism. This might have been fine if both countries had been intent on staying home, but the U.S and USSR now seemed eager to push their own brand of ideologies on various nations around the world – whether they wanted it or not.  

We’re not going to dive into the quagmire of right and wrong here but the 1950s saw the start of a powerplay that would last decades and led to many proxy battles fought well outside of both the U.S or the Soviet Union – from Angola to Vietnam, from Chile to Korea, from Ethiopia to Guatemala.   

Hydrogen Bombs

The Americans had been busy since the end of World War II and had built up a large stockpile of around 300 nuclear warheads by the start of the 1950s. But the Soviet bomb jolted them into action and President Turman ordered that their number be increased and that the production and testing of what would be the world’s first hydrogen bomb be accelerated.  

On 1st November 1952, the U.S tested the first hydrogen bomb to come out of the “Ivy Mike” project, on Enewetak, a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The power of the 10.4 megatons of TNT bomb was tremendous with a cloud 160 km (100 miles) wide and 40 km (25 miles) high billowing up from the atoll, killing all life on the surrounding islands. 

Just seven years after Hiroshima, the U.S had pushed the nuclear obliteration bar even higher, but just 8 months later the Soviets surprised the world again with the testing of a thermonuclear device, known as RDS-6, in August 1953. This wasn’t quite the three-stage hydrogen bombs that the Americans had tested, but with a yield of 400 kilotons and small enough to be dropped from an aircraft, it was still a fearsome step forward for the Soviet nuclear program. 

The U.S upped the ante yet again on 1st March 1954 with its Castle Bravo test, which remains the most powerful American nuclear test in history. What was supposed to be a rather sedate 5 megaton yield actually surprised everybody by unleashing nearly 15 Megatons over the Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. 

But once again, the USSR was right behind and detonated their first true hydrogen bomb on November 22, 1955, with a yield of 1.6 megatons.

All Change

The nuclear arms race now entered an era marked by three hugely significant changes: the first man-made vehicles in space, the introduction of Intercontinental Missiles and the detonation of the biggest nuclear weapon in history. 

When Sputnik began sending back its now distinctive beeping on 4th October 1957, it sent shocks around the world. The Soviets had successfully launched a space vehicle that could be clearly seen travelling above American skies and who knew what those devious Reds would strap on to it next. 

President Dwight D Eisenhower did his best to downplay the event, but the Americans knew they had fallen behind, and now desperately needed to make up for it. 

Up until this point, any nuclear attack would have been carried out using high-altitude strategic bombers, but the success of Sputnik now shifted the focus firmly onto ballistic missiles. Early missiles had been used by the Nazis during World War II, namely the V-2 weapon that was commonly used against Britain and Belgium in the final stages of the war. Both the Soviets and Americans had helped themselves to available German engineers and scientists after the war and both sides began working on missiles that could strike targets thousands of miles away from its launch site. 

Broadly speaking, today we have three kinds of ballistic missiles: medium range (capable of hitting targets between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometres (620 and 1,860 miles), intermediate range (with distances of 3,000–5,500 km (1,864–3,418 miles) and intercontinental missiles with a minimum range of 5,500 kilometres (3,400 mi) that can effectively hit any target on the planet.

The first intermediate-range ballistic missile used by the U.S and Britain – who by the way had joined the nuclear weapons party in 1952 – was the PGM-17A Thor, a 20 metre (65 ft) high missile capable of holding a thermonuclear warhead. Three years after the Thor missiles were first deployed, in 1962, the Soviet again levelled up, with the introduction of the 24.4 metres long R-14 Chusovaya, also capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead. The Soviets were catching up, but in some way, they had already surpassed the Americans. 

The world’s first intercontinental missile was the R-7 Semyorka which made 28 test launches between 1957 and 1961 but was never deployed operationally. Its huge cost, time-consuming setup and obvious locations, made them fairly impractical, but again, the Soviet Union had defied the odds and showed that the nuclear arms race was now neck and neck. The SM-65 Atlas was the first American intercontinental ballistic missile and was first deployed in 1959, but like its Soviet counterpart, it was far from being a reliable nuclear deterrent and soon became obsolete.   

The final dramatic act that altered the direction of the nuclear arms race came on 30th October 1961. We’ve recently done an entire video on Tsar Bomba so I won’t go into a great deal of detail here, but it was the largest nuclear explosion in history, with a force of just over 50 Megatons – that’s over 1,570 times more powerful than the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 

The test has long been seen as a way of cementing Soviet prestige and power around the world. It was an explosion of such force, it was deemed too powerful to use in any real combat situations, but it certainly announced to the world that the Soviets had a bomb of unfathomable proportions. But this proved to be the peak in terms of earth-shattering nuclear tests. 

A MAD Time     

By the 1960s, both the U.S and the Soviet Union were in control of more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world – many times over in fact – and it was here that the two warring, but not warring, sides settled into what came to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). 

Essentially this meant that both sides knew that the other would be able to launch a devastating retaliatory strike if either were to launch first. Nuclear weapons were now so spread out and also included on submarines, that it would be impossible to wipe out a nation’s stockpile in a single go – there were now simply too many. As strange as this odd mutual pact seemed to be, perhaps this was actually what the world needed. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis 

There are various tales throughout the Cold War of instances when the world seemed to come close either to nuclear war or a massive nuclear accident. As bad as what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima, it could be much, much worse. Many of these involved mechanical accidents of some kind and thankfully it was incredibly rare that the two superpowers came close to trading blows. 

The most notable exception was the Cuban Missile Crisis that gripped the world over 13 days in October 1962. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion by the U.S backed Cuban rebels aiming to overthrow the uncomfortably close communist nation of Cuba, had been a huge embarrassment for the U.S. 

To make matters worse, on 14th October 1962, a U.S spy plane travelling over Cuba photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation. Two days later, President John J Kenndy was briefed on the situation and on 22nd October he made a televised address informing the American people that Soviet ballistic missiles now lay just 144km (90 miles) off the U.S coast. 

His response was to issue an ultimatum to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles while installing a naval blockade around Cuba. With tensions and emotions quickly escalating, nobody was quite sure what would happen next. Things reached a crescendo when an American reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba, killing Major Rudolf Anderson, the pilot of the aircraft and the U.S raised its defence readiness to Defcon 2 – the highest it has ever reached.   

But thankfully, cool heads prevailed. Khrushchev eventually sent a letter stating that he would remove the missiles in exchange for an American promise not to invade Cuba. While the Americans no doubt wanted nothing more than to wipe away the Fidel Castro problem once and for all, it was an offer that was never going to be refused. The missiles were withdrawn and the world breathed a little easier. 

Calming Time

The two superpowers had perhaps come closer than they ever had to war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it proved to be a turning point and a catalyst for a period of calm that is now known as Detente – a phrase that was first used shortly before World War I to describe talks aimed at lowering tensions between France and Germany.  

One of the first acts after the Crisis was the installation of a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin. It would seem as if everybody involved could see the benefit of just being able to pick up a phone and talk reasonably with your counterpart. 

But this was just the start. The Detente period also saw the first of several major arms reduction treaties, which began with the Partial Nuclear Test ban Treaty in 1963, prohibiting all test detonations except for those conducted underground. 

SALT I was the next up in 1972, which effectively froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at existing levels while allowing for new submarine-launched ballistic missiles only after an equal number of the old intercontinental ballistic missile had been scrapped. Considering where things had been just a decade before, it was a huge step forward and came with the additional cooperative statements that, “each recognized the sovereignty of the other; agreed to the principle of noninterference; and sought to promote economic, scientific, and cultural ties of mutual benefit and enrichment”.  

SALT II, signed in 1979, went even further and for the first time in the nuclear arms race, both sides agreed to actively begin reducing nuclear warheads – that is to a paltry 2,250 weapons on both sides. It also banned most new missile programs, but everything was constructed in such a way that while there was certainly a reduction, both the USSR and the U.S retained the majority of what was most important to them.   

The End of the Nuclear Arms Race

Unfortunately for everybody who worked so hard on SALT II, just six months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and was found to still have a military brigade in Cuba. As a result, U.S President Jimmy Carter withdrew from the SALT II agreement. 

But while the new treaty had collapsed, things were never going to go back to the way things had been just two decades before. While the agreement was technically never fully ratified, both nations seemed to broadly comply with the continued thawing of relations and promise to not begin stockpiling weapons again. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was the final, desperate act of a nation that was quickly unravelling. The conflict dragged on until 1989, leaving 15,000 Soviet troops dead and anywhere between half a million and two million Afgan civilians killed. It was a shattering experience for the Soviet Union and one that showed that for all the nuclear might in the world, a tenacious band of warriors armed with little more than AK-47s and rocket launchers, could more than match them. 

As the last Soviet soldiers limped out of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was already circling the drain. The debacle at Chernobyl in 1986 had been followed by unrest in many of the Republics and it now seemed only a matter of time until the union would dissolve.  

But there was still one last treaty that helped to drive another nail into the nuclear arms race. START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed on 31st July 1991 and barred its two signatories from deploying more than 6,000 nuclear warheads while allowing for 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers. Once again, it was far from the all-encompassing nuclear ban that many had been campaigning for, but in truth that was just never going to happen. 

On Christmas Day 1991, Soviet Premier Michail Gorbachov both officially resigned his post and made it extinct in the same process. All of a sudden, the Soviet Union no longer existed. 


While what we traditionally refer to as the Nuclear Arms Race predominantly involved the United States and the Soviet Union, the thirst for nuclear weapons has now spread to a further eight nations. Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and South Africa have all got in on the act over the years.

But as of early 2019, more than 90% of the world’s 13,865 nuclear weapons were owned by Russia and the United States, which begs the question, has the nuclear arms race even really finished?

The period between the end of World War II and the de-escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 saw the two superpowers gather more weapons than they could ever possibly hope to fire. While the real peak in numbers was a little later, the early 1960s saw a dramatic shift in sentiment and there appeared to be a general consensus that nuclear madness was not the way forward. 

While it may no longer be a nuclear arms race, their number and presence around the world show that competition still bubbles below the surface. The major difference now is that the nuclear situation occupies our consciousness much less than in the past. We rarely consider the prospect of nuclear war anymore, despite obvious tensions around the world. The beauty of nuclear weapons is, nobody wants to be the one to use them first.   

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