The Arms Race

For many people around the world, the threat of nuclear destruction was a very real fact. The Arms Race, a race for better weapons, between two superpowers almost led to nuclear explosions of an unprecedented level, but cool heads prevailed. How did it get to this point?

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The Arms Race


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For many people around the world, the threat of nuclear destruction was a very real fact. The Arms Race, a race for better weapons, between two superpowers almost led to nuclear explosions of an unprecedented level, but cool heads prevailed. How did it get to this point?

Causes of the Arms Race

At the end of World War II, friends quickly became foes. The United States and the Soviet Union put their ideological differences aside to defeat Nazi Germany. However, once the task was completed, there were already alarm bells for a new, more sustained, more calculated conflict.

The Atomic bomb

World War II did not end with German surrender when Soviet forces entered Berlin. Despite the defeat of their ally in Europe, the Japanese Imperial Army refused to give up. It gave the United States what they perceived as no alternative. In August 1945 the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced nuclear war. The atomic bomb hit them, a weapon secretly concocted during The Manhattan Project. The devastation that it caused in one strike eclipsed anything ever seen before. The state of play was evident, whoever possessed this technology had the ultimate trump card. To remain a superpower, Moscow had to react. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was furious as he had not been consulted about this by US President Truman.

The Iron Curtain

Whilst the Soviet Union and the United States had been Allies, it was clear during their summits with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945) that they were miles apart in their post-war vision of Europe. The Soviet Union refused to retreat to the east meaning that they had gained a large amount of European territory. This alarmed the United States and Britain and Churchill described the divide as an "Iron Curtain".

With their increased Soviet presence in Europe, the United States needed to maintain their nuclear supremacy. When the Soviet Union created their first nuclear weapon in 1949, its speed of production surprised the US and galvanised the Nuclear Arms Race.

The Arms Race Cold War

Let's go over some key terms related to the Arms Race during the Cold War.

Term Definition

The political ideology of the United States. A Capitalist ideology promotes the individual and a market economy.


The political ideology of the Soviet Union. A Communist ideology promotes collective equality for all workers and a state-controlled economy.

Domino theory

The idea coined by the United States' President Eisenhower in 1953 was that if one country fell to communism, so would those surrounding it.


An adjective describing beliefs in line with the first Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin who believed that the worker's struggle should be a worldwide revolution.

Proxy war

The use of smaller nations to fight on behalf of superpowers to further their interests. There was a huge number during the Cold War period from Vietnam to Korea to Ethiopia to Afghanistan and more.

There were several frontiers to the Cold War battle and the Arms Race was just one of them. It was certainly a big part of the FIGHT!

Fighting proxy wars by supplying weapons to other countries so that they could become capitalist or communist.

Ideological differences were the biggest cause of the Cold War. The United States' "domino theory" promoted fear about communism spreading and threatening their capitalist way of life and the Leninist worldwide socialist revolution promoted by the Soviet Union acted as a pledge to never rest until the world shared their views.

Going to space provided the perfected propaganda opportunity when it became clear that nuclear weapons would not be used.

Having allies in tactical places to ensure that no region was completely dominated by either ideology.

Total nuclear superiority and political bargaining power could be gained by winning the Arms Race.

Arms Race Timeline

Let's examine the key events that made the Arms Race such a central part of the Cold War.

Nuclear fallout

The name that was given to the dangerous radioactive material that lingers after a nuclear explosion. It causes defects and significantly increases the probability of cancer after exposure.

It was a competitive one, so take a deep breath and strap yourself in!




The world's first nuclear weapon, the atomic bomb, ushers in a new era of ammunition. Devastation hitherto unimagined is brought to Japan from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States and their unconditional surrender.


The Soviet Union responds with their first nuclear weapon test of RDS-1 in Kazakhstan. The technology is immensely similar to the "Fatman" bomb that the United States used against Japan, suggesting Soviet spying and increasing mistrust between the countries. This launch is far quicker than the United States expected.


The United States creates an H-bomb (hydrogen bomb) that is 100x stronger than the atomic bomb. Referred to as a "thermonuclear" weapon, it was tested on the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean. Britain also launched their first nuclear weapon.


Testing of another of the United States' nuclear weapons causes a nuclear fallout with radioactive particles causing harm at Castle Bravo in the Marshall Islands.


The first Soviet H-bomb (RDS-37) detonates at Semipalatinsk. There is also nuclear fallout in the surrounding areas of Kazakhstan.


A breakthrough year for the USSR! The Soviet Union tests an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) which can travel up to 5000km. They also tackle the first hurdle of the Space Race with their satellite, Sputnik I.


The United States establishes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to combat the Soviet space program and fight the "missile gap" and superior Soviet technology. During this year, 100 nuclear tests are carried out by the three nuclear powers.


The United States successfully tests their own ICBM.


France becomes a nuclear power with their first test.

The Arms and Space Race

Another technological battle that was the result of the Arms Race became known as the Space Race. The two superpowers took their conflict into space after the launch of Sputnik I in 1957. With the technology that the Soviet Union possessed from their rocket-like ICBM, there was a real fear that the United States could be targeted from the galaxy as the USSR no longer depended on planes, which could be picked up by radars, to drop bombs. The Soviet Union continued their success with the first man in space in 1961 but the United States had the crowning achievement of the Space Race when they put a man on the moon in 1969.

After cooling tensions, the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission signalled the end of the Space Race in 1975.

Mutually Assured Destruction

After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) communist Cuba, given its proximity to the United States, remained an area of concern for President Kennedy. When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spotted Soviet nuclear missile site construction on the island in 1962 it put Kennedy and his Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara on red alert. They responded with a naval quarantine around the island to cut off supply.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The notion that the United States and the Soviet Union both had enough power and diversity of a nuclear weapon portfolio that if one attacked the other, it would ensure that each would be destroyed.

A tense stand-off began on 22nd October with Kennedy demanding on national television that Soviet leader Khrushchev remove weapons, as they were within striking distance of United States cities. The tension heightened after a US plane was shot down five days later. Finally, common sense prevailed through diplomacy and the United States agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey and not to invade Cuba, with both countries understanding the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Arms Race CIA map estimating Soviet missile range during the Cuban Missile Crisis StudySmarterCIA map estimating Soviet missile range during the crisis with Cuban Missiles.

The world breathed a sigh of relief, but the proximity to a nuclear disaster that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis became a turning point in the Arms Race. In the aftermath, the two countries established a hotline to avoid future disasters.


Rather than a series of new weapons and breakthroughs, the second part of the Arms Race was characterised by treaties and agreements to de-escalate tensions. The period when the two superpowers negotiated is known as "détente", which is French for "relaxation". Let's examine some of these important meetings and their results.

Year Event

The Limited Test Ban Treaty was an important step immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It banned overground nuclear testing of nuclear weapons and was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and the UK, though some nations such as China did not sign it and testing continued underground.


The Non-Proliferation Treaty acted as a pledge for eventual nuclear disarmament between the United States, the Soviet Union and the UK.


The first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) is signed by both superpowers after President Nixon visited Moscow. It put limits on Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) sites so that each country retained its deterrent.


After much deliberation, SALT II is signed. This freezes the number of weapons and limits new testing. It takes time to sign because of the diverse types of nuclear warheads that each country possesses. It is never put into United States law after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


The Reykjavik Summit is an agreement to destroy nuclear arsenals within ten years fails because President Reagan refused to halt his defence programs during negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union later that year and ended the Arms Race. It was a renewed desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons with Reagan out of office, but with the transition of the Soviet Union to Russia, there were some doubts about its validity as many weapons were on the territory of former Soviet republics.


START II, signed by US President George H W Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin limited each country to between 3000 and 3500 nuclear weapons.

It is important to remember that although tensions were cooled, more advanced nuclear technology such as guided missiles and submarine bombers continued to be developed on a huge scale.

The Arms Race President George H W Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev sign START I in 1991 StudySmarterPresident George H W Bush and Soviet Premier Gorbachev sign START I in July 1991

The Arms Race Summary

The Arms Race was a conflict of unique qualities. It was built upon a level of trust in humanity. In a Cold War where distrust was rampant, particularly at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was the saving grace of self-preservation.

Security came from vulnerability. As long as each side was vulnerable to retaliation, neither side would launch a first strike. The weapons would be successful only if they were never used. Each side had to believe that no matter what it did to the other side, even a sneak attack, retaliation would follow."

- Alex Roland, 'Was the Nuclear Arms Race Deterministic?', 20101

The devastation caused to the Japanese cities in World War II could not be taken lightly and was not, with the second half of the Arms Race characterised by negotiations and de-escalation.

The Arms Race - Key takeaways

  • Ideological differences, fears of the Soviet Union in Europe and the use of the atomic bomb in World War II by the United States gave rise to a nuclear Arms Race between them and the Soviet Union.
  • During the 1950s both countries developed hydrogen bombs and ICBMs, capable of far greater destruction than the atomic bomb.
  • The Space Race, which was linked to Arms Race and used the same technology as the ICBM, began when the Soviet Union launched their first satellite, Sputnik I in 1957.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was the height of the Arms Race when both countries realised the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • This was followed by a period of negotiation and treaties to reduce the nuclear capability of each country. The Arms Race was over with the dissolution of the Soviet Union but the final one of these was START II in 1993.


  1. Alex Roland, 'Was the Nuclear Arms Race Deterministic?', Technology and Culture , April 2010, Vol. 51, No. 2 Technology and Culture, Vol. 51, No. 2 444-461 (April 2010).

Frequently Asked Questions about The Arms Race

The Arms Race was the technological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was fought by each superpower to achieve superior nuclear weapon capabilities.

The primary participants of the Arms Race were the United States and the Soviet Union. During this period France, China and Britain also developed nuclear weapons.

The Arms Race happened because there was an ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. When the United States used the atomic bomb, it was clear that the Soviet Union would need to develop their own nuclear weapon for parity.

It is not possible to say that anyone won the Arms Race. Both countries spent a huge amount of money on the race, their economies suffered as a result and they brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.

The nuclear capabilities of the two superpowers almost brought a direct conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the closest that the United States and the Soviet Union got to direct warfare during the Cold War.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which politician worked with President Kennedy to avoid nuclear war?

What was released in 1952 that changed the arms race?

What did the USSR create in 1957 which gave the US fear that they could reach them?


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