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READ: Arms Race, Space Race

During the Cold War, the two superpowers raced to build the most destructive arsenal in history. This competition caused several terrifying crises and launched the space race.

Arms Race, Space Race

By Bennett Sherry
During the Cold War, the two superpowers raced to build the most destructive arsenal in history. This competition caused several terrifying crises and launched the space race.
The first nuclear weapons test, at Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945. © Getty Images.
The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred...[It was a] strong, sustained awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty.
—General Thomas F. Farrell, describing the first nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, 1945

Doomsday devices

From 1945 until 1949, the United States controlled every nuclear weapon in the world. President Harry Truman remains the only world leader to use nuclear weapons in war. But the American monopoly on the atom bomb ended in 1949 as the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon. As the USSR and US shifted from World War allies to Cold War enemies, an arms race to develop the most and best nuclear weapons defined their relationship.
The nuclear arms race accelerated quickly. The bombs the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were equivalent to 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. They leveled cities and killed tens of thousands of civilians. In 1953, the Americans tested the first hydrogen bomb, with the Soviets doing the same a year later. These new bombs were measured in millions of tons of TNT, not thousands. In 1961, the Soviets tested a bomb that remains the largest ever. At 50 million tons of TNT, the Tsar Bomba was 3,333 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
Soon, the two Cold War rivals were pointing tens of thousands of intercontinental nuclear warheads at each other. For forty years, the creative and economic energies of the two most powerful countries in human history were racing to develop the most powerful form of energy ever harnessed—and turning it toward the task of war. They each created missiles capable of traveling around the world in minutes, carrying warheads that were, collectively, capable of obliterating human life on this planet.

A MAD race to Armageddon

After Germany surrendered at the end of the Second World War, the leaders of the allied nations met at the Potsdam Conference to discuss the future shape of world politics. At the conference, US President Truman—who was new to the job and a little intimidated by the larger-than-life figures of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin—wanted to look strong. He boasted to Stalin that his government had a secret powerful new weapon.1
A few months later, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided a real-world demonstration of this destructive power. Truman had failed to consult his Soviet allies before he used the bombs against Japanese civilians. As a result, Stalin assumed the Americans wanted to intimidate the USSR. He was so alarmed that he directed all available funds toward building a Soviet bomb. In 1949, after the first successful Soviet nuclear test, Stalin reflected that, “atomic weapons can hardly be used without spelling the end of the world.” Nonetheless, he believed that the weapons were the Soviet Union’s only protection against an American bomb.
The “Big Three”—Churchill, Truman, and Stalin—at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Two of these men were world-famous leaders who guided their nations through the Second World War. One had become president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died four months earlier. Public domain.
The resulting arms race shaped the course of the Cold War. The rivals focused on overproducing nuclear weapons in a strategy called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD is just as crazy as it sounds. The theory was, if two countries each possessed the ability to obliterate the other, neither would risk an attack. It prevented direct conflict between the two superpowers, but it created the possibility of total global destruction if they ever actually went to war with each other.
Did MAD work? Maybe. Unless I missed something, we didn’t live through nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War. Nuclear Weapons made total war on the scale of World War II unthinkable and unwinnable. In a 1960 speech, French president Charles de Gaulle imagined the aftermath of nuclear war: “The two sides would have neither powers, nor laws, nor cities, nor culture, nor cradles, nor tombs.” Millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America died in Cold War proxy conflicts—that is, conflicts supported by the Americans and Soviets but fought elsewhere. So the world did avoid nuclear war. Yet the MAD strategy left no room for mistakes, and in 1962 the world came very close to a big one.

Cuban Missile Crisis and non-proliferation

For 13 days in October 1962, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. In response, President Kennedy blockaded the island nation, threatening invasion. During the standoff, nuclear war was barely averted as Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, chose not to respond to provocations from the other side—sometimes against the advice of their generals. The crisis ended in compromise. Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba, and Kennedy agreed to not invade Cuba. Secretly, Kennedy also removed American missiles from Turkey, which bordered the USSR.
American spy planes took several photos like these, which showed Soviet missile installations in Cuba. © Getty Images.
The crisis was a wake-up call, to put it mildly, alerting the world to the danger and volatility of the arms race. In 1963, the American, Soviet, and British governments signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned atmospheric tests. In 1968, the nuclear powers signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This treaty sought to prevent the proliferation (spread) of nuclear weapons technology to new countries. Dozens of other countries soon followed. As of 2020, 190 countries are party to the treaty.
These agreements limited the spread of nuclear weapons, but they failed to totally contain it. Britain, Israel, France, and China developed nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. India tested its first weapon in 1974, alarming neighboring Pakistan. In 1998, Pakistan tested its own nuclear weapon. North Korea tested its first in 2006. Echoing MAD, nations like Iran and North Korea argue that they have a right to nuclear weapons capability, which deters foreign intervention.
A map and chart from Our World in Data. The map shows the location of all known nuclear explosions and the country responsible since 1945. The chart shows the number of nuclear warheads controlled by each nuclear power. Notice the decline in warheads after the end of the Cold War. By Our World in Data. Top, Bottom.
A map and chart from Our World in Data. The map shows the location of all known nuclear explosions and the country responsible since 1945. The chart shows the number of nuclear warheads controlled by each nuclear power. Notice the decline in warheads after the end of the Cold War. By Our World in Data. Top, Bottom.

A race to the stars

The arms race also helped launch the space race, as the superpowers competed for dominance in space. Sending rockets into space with satellites attached demonstrated the capability to do the same with nuclear warheads. In 1957 the Soviets shocked the world by sending the first satellite—Sputnik—into space. The United States responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and launching their own satellite in 1958. The Soviets continued to demonstrate their advantage by launching the first animal (a dog in 1957), the first man (1961), and the first woman (1963) into space.
Laika, the first dog in space, in the Sputnik 2 capsule. © Getty Images.
The Soviet dominance in the early years of the space race helped create the perception that there was a “missile gap” between the US and USSR. In truth, no gap existed; the Americans had as many as four times more missiles than the Soviets in the early 1960s. The public perception, however, was that the US was behind. In 1961, President Kennedy promised to send a man to the moon before the end of the 1960s. After Kennedy’s promise, the space race became a matter of national pride and security, and the government directed unprecedented resources at making his promise a reality. In 1969, three American astronauts landed on the moon. The Americans and Soviets both used their space programs as propaganda—evidence that their nations were pioneering new technologies that would propel them past their enemy and prove the superiority of the capitalist or communist ideology.

Racing against ourselves

The space race began as a part of the arms race, but with a pretty different tone. This race to explore the stars demonstrated the potential heights that human ingenuity could achieve, rather than the depths of depravity to which it might descend.
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft.2 Voyager carries two golden records. These records are humanity’s message-in-a-bottle to the stars, containing information compiled by a group of American scholars led by Carl Sagan. To represent our species, they chose neither political propaganda nor boasts of American nuclear might, but rather evidence of human cultural and scientific achievements. The records hold greetings in 55 languages—including Russian—alongside 27 songs from around the world—including songs from Bulgaria (a Warsaw Pact nation) and two Soviet Republics. The records are etched with the words “to the makers of music—all worlds, all times.”
In a climate of Cold War rivalry and nuclear uncertainty, space exploration offered inspiration and, possibly, the hope for a better future. We started this article with a quote from a general describing the terrifying destructive capacity of the first nuclear weapon. Let’s conclude with President Jimmy Carter’s note to extraterrestrials on the Voyager records. Carter didn’t seek alien support against the Soviet Union. He provided a message about our common humanity and aspirations:
“This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization… This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.”
The Voyager records. The records were manufactured for durability. The cover (left) provides instructions for decoding the information contained on the records. NASA. Public domain.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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