The nuclear arms race traces its origins to World War II, when the United States learned that Germany had the capacity and the desire to build an atomic bomb. Spurred by this threat, the Americans raced the Germans to build the first nuclear weapon, although it was hardly a competitive endeavor. The Germans paid less attention to atomic weapons development than the Americans, and as America poured considerable sums into its Manhattan Project, Germany focused on what seemed to be more pragmatic weapons systems.
The race continued beyond World War II. With its first test explosion in July 1945, the United States possessed an atomic monopoly, and the Soviet Union, with which the Americans found themselves increasingly at odds, understandably feared the American nuclear threat, especially given the demonstrated ability of the United States to conduct long-range strategic bombing. Thus, the Soviets pursued their own atomic bomb with great vigor. Soviet spies who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project and a skilled scientific community allowed the Soviet Union to detonate its first nuclear weapon in September 1949.
The United States sought to retain its nuclear lead and, in an action-reaction cycle that would typify the arms race, pursued the next nuclear development—in this case, a thermonuclear (or hydrogen) bomb. America's success in developing the hydrogen bomb in 1952 was followed by Soviet success in 1955. The nuclear arms race now entered its most recognizable form wherein the superpowers pursued weapons that were smaller in size, more powerful, and increasingly accurate. In the same vein, delivery systems became faster, more accurate, and more difficult to locate.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the primary delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons was strategic bombers. More advanced aircraft were needed to carry more than one nuclear weapon, and indeed, nuclear weapons needed to be smaller so that they could be carried by a variety of aircraft. The American B-29 was matched by the Soviet TU-4, but neither proved sufficient. Developments led ultimately to the B-52 and the TU-20, both intercontinental bombers capable of delivering large payloads to multiple targets.
The next step in the nuclear arms race was missile development. Advances in rocketry led to the development of ballistic missiles in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Atlas D, was deployed on 31 October 1959. The Soviets followed suit with their own ICBM, the SS-6 Sapwood of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designation, on 20 January 1960. ICBMs were a step up from their cousins, medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), and became the most popular delivery system because of their range and relative invulner-ability to enemy air defenses. ICBMs had a maximum range of 10,000 miles and could be stationed on the other side of the world from their targets.
In the 1950s, both superpowers came to rely on nuclear weapons as the primary weapon for any major Cold War engagement. The nuclear arms race created ever-larger arsenals and increasingly effective delivery systems. As a result, both sides became vulnerable to an enemy attack. It was this vulnerability that perpetuated the arms race during the decade and beyond. Neither side was willing to give up its weapons, and the newer weapons now meant that the nation that launched a first strike might be able to avoid a retaliatory strike if its nuclear advantage were enough to allow it to destroy most of the enemy's nuclear forces in the first blow. Any large gap in nuclear arms made one nation vulnerable, and nuclear stability could only be ensured by nuclear parity. As a result, scientific advances by one nation had to be matched by the other, or else a gap would result and one side would gain advantage.
This situation was aggravated in the 1960s with the evolution of the counterforce (or no cities) doctrine. Advocates of the doctrine suggested a general agreement between the superpowers to use nuclear weapons only against military installations, sparing population centers. Adopting this policy meant accepting the reality that in order to sustain the ability to launch an effective counterstrike, a nation must deploy enough weapons to ensure that the enemy could not destroy them all in a preemptive strike. Thus, more and better weapons were needed.
The alleged existence first of a bomber gap, then a missile gap, later an antiballistic missile gap, and later still a missile throw-weight gap kept arms manufacturers in perpetual development. In the United States, the military-industrial complex also contributed to the arms race as defense industries fought for lucrative military contracts by driving forward to the next level of weaponry and delivery systems. In November 1960, the United States deployed the world's first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the George Washington, capable of launching sixteen Polaris missiles. The Soviets followed in 1968 with their own SSBN. These weapons increased the danger of the arms race and were potentially even more deadly than ICBMs, as they were capable of avoiding retaliatory strikes because of their ability to hide deep beneath the ocean.
Changes in computer technology also advanced the nuclear arms race. Advances were made on both sides in ICBMs, bombers, and submarines, but the United States maintained strategic superiority. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, however, the Soviet Union took the lead in ICBM production and in the development of antiballistic missile (ABM) technology. Soviet ABMs were designed primarily to protect major cities, such as Moscow, and were less effective against a full attack against Soviet military installations. Multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) complicated matters. MIRVs meant that each ICBM could deploy a dozen or more warheads, each programmed for a separate target. MIRVs promised to overcome any ABM system.
Arms control talks and treaties during the 1970s and arms reduction agreements during the 1980s slowed but did not stop the nuclear arms race. When the Cold War ended, so did the nuclear arms race in its original form. Because nuclear weapons remain a strategic force for some nations, a new and different nuclear arms race seems likely to develop. Brian Madison Jones
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Powaski, Ronald E. March to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1939 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.; Powaski, Ronald E. Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981–1999. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Brian Madison Jones