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The Soviet-American Arms Race

By John Swift | Published in History Review 2009 
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John Swift examines a vital element of the Cold War and assesses the motives of the Superpowers.

Nuclear weapon test, 1956The destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic weapons in August 1945 began an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. This lasted until the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty of November 1990. An entire generation grew up under the shadow of imminent catastrophe. There were widespread fears that humanity could not survive. A single reckless leader, or even a mistake or misunderstanding, could initiate the extinction of mankind. Stockpiles of fearsome weapons were built up to levels far beyond any conceivable purpose, and only seemed to add to the uncertainty and instability of the age. Did Cold War leaders act irrationally through fear and distrust? Or was there a degree of rationality and reason behind the colossal arms build-up?

A New Superweapon?

The rapid surrender of Japan in 1945 certainly suggested that the United States possessed the most decisive of weapons. Indeed there is reason to suspect that the real purpose in using them was less to force a Japanese defeat than to warn the Soviet Union to be amenable to American wishes in the construction of the postwar world. As an aid to American diplomacy, however, the possession of atomic weapons proved of little value. The Soviet leadership quickly realised their limitations. The Americans, it was clear, would use them in defence of Western Europe in the face of a Soviet invasion – a step Joseph Stalin never seems to have seriously contemplated – but no American government could justify their use in order to force political reforms on Eastern Europe. Arguably Right: The test explosion of an American nuclear bomb in the Marshall Islands. John Swift examines a vital element of the Cold War and assesses the motives of the Superpowers. Soviet leaders became even more intransigent in negotiations, determined to show they would not be intimidated. Also, it was certain that the Soviet Union would develop atomic weapons of their own, and as rapidly as possible. This, the Americans assumed, would take between eight and 15 years, given the wartime devastation the Soviet Union had suffered.

This left the Americans to ponder the problems of security in an atomicallyarmed world. A single weapon could destroy a city. Also wartime experience had shown that there had been no defence against German V2 rockets. If, therefore, a warhead could be mounted on such a rocket, it would surely provide instant victory. Additionally, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had taught that the surprise attack was the tool of aggressors. Peace-loving democracies would be terribly vulnerable. In consequence, some thought was given to international controls, under the auspices of the United Nations, to prevent any nation possessing these weapons. This was the basis of the Baruch Plan.

In 1946 American financier, and presidential adviser, Bernard Baruch proposed the dismantling of American weapons, international prohibition on the production of any more, and international co-operation in developing atomic energy for peaceful use under the strict supervision of an international body. But the Soviet Union would have to submit to that inspection regime, and the United States would not share its weapons technology. It is unclear how seriously president Harry S. Truman and his administration took these proposals. They sounded pious, and when the Soviet Union rejected them, which they did, the Americans scored considerable propaganda points – which may have been the whole point of the exercise.

Without international controls, the only defence seemed to be to threaten retaliation in kind if an atomic attack was ever made on the United States or its allies. As it proved extremely difficult to develop long-range missiles that were sufficiently reliable and accurate, initially that deterrence was provided by B36 bombers stationed in Britain and the Far East. But the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, far earlier than had been expected. The shock of this made American stockpiles of nuclear bombs seem unconvincing. Truman, therefore, authorised the development of thermonuclear weapons, or hydrogen bombs. These yielded explosions of ten megatons (equivalent to 10,000,000 tons of TNT, whereas the bomb used on Hiroshima yielded the equivalent of 12,500 tons). But by 1953, the Soviet Union had caught up again. Meanwhile the United States began building its first effective long-range missile force. These included the Atlas and Titan ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), the Jupiter and Thor IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) and the Polaris SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile). The Americans maintained a technological lead over the Soviet Union, but this did not always appear to be the case. In October 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. This shocked the American public, who were unused to the thought of being within range of Soviet weapons, which they now seemed to be.

The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made much of his nation’s technological prowess. In fact the technological lead and the strategic balance remained very much in America’s favour – but that did not prevent the American public believing in the existence of a ‘missile gap’ in favour of the Soviet Union. This in turn led John F. Kennedy, when he became president in 1961, to expand American missile forces much further. Kennedy’s presidency also saw the world stand on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuba Missile Crisis of October 1962. In its wake his Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, moved to the strategy of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). This was intended to provide a degree of stability by accepting the complete destruction of both sides in an atomic exchange. Nothing could be done to prevent a devastating nuclear attack; but the retaliation would still be launched, and both sides would suffer equally. This idea of mutual deterrence did have some advantages. If ICBMs were dispersed to hardened silos, and the SLBM fleet sufficiently undetectable, then enough would survive to retaliate. A surprise attack would benefit nobody. Also it would render it unnecessary to keep building ever more missiles, just to retain a degree of parity. It would thus surely make some form of negotiated limits on missile numbers possible.

Criticism of Mutual Deterrence

There were aspects of MAD that many found objectionable. Future president Ronald Reagan felt it was defeatist, and held that the United States should be defended, whereas proponents of MAD insisted it could only work if deterrence was mutual and both sides remained equally vulnerable. Peace campaigners had other concerns. MAD seemed to offer only a perpetual threat of war. They feared that in such circumstances, war could not be avoided permanently. Despite the best intentions of political leaders, a mistake or an accident must at some point push the world over the edge. Also there were arguments that deterrence did not keep the peace, but caused war. Deterrence required not only ability (the possession of the weapons), it also needed the perception of resolve (the other side must believe in the willingness to actually launch the missiles if necessary). This in turn required both sides to show resolve. The best way to show willingness to launch death and destruction on a world scale, was to launch it on a smaller scale. Thus many of the wars of the Cold War, it was argued, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, were caused, at least in part, by the deterrence strategy.

Peace campaigners were also among those who addressed the question of how much deterrence was needed. During the Cuba Missile Crisis, Kennedy had the option of launching air-strikes to destroy the missiles in Cuba. But when he learned that a handful of them were likely to survive, he rejected that option for fear they might be launched. A little deterrence obviously can go a long way. Yet by the mid 1970s peace research groups, such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, were variously reporting that enough atomic weaponry had been stockpiled to exterminate humanity 690 times. At the same time, work on chemical and biological warfare (CBW) was making rapid progress. Diseases such as anthrax and glanders, which could kill virtually everyone who contracted them, could easily be spread. Other biological agents could target livestock or crops to cause famine. The risks of an epidemic destroying its originators merely added to the inherent horrors of such weapons.

Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT)

That some form of agreement over missile numbers would have to be found was obvious. The greater the stockpiles of weapons, the more horrifying the potential consequences of escalating confrontations became. Even the development of small-yield, tactical, or battlefield nuclear weapons did little to suggest that even a limited nuclear engagement would be less than catastrophic. In the 1950s the United States Army undertook military exercises, such as operations Sage Brush and Carte Blanche, to see if such weapons could be used to defend West Germany from Soviet invasion. The conclusion reached was that they might – but only after West Germany had virtually ceased to exist. As early as the mid 1950s it was generally accepted that in a nuclear war the concept of a victory was ludicrous. There developed a widespread pessimism that in a post-nuclear war world, suffering destruction, chaos, nuclear fallout, famine and disease, the survivors would envy the dead.

Some steps to ease tensions had been taken. Badly shaken by their nearness to disaster during the Cuba Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev had installed a hotline (in reality a teletype line connecting the Whitehouse and the Kremlin, so that both leaders could act quickly to diffuse crises). They also agreed on a Partial Test Ban Treaty, moving test detonations of nuclear weapons underground, which did something to reduce atmospheric radioactive contamination from such tests. Furthermore they agreed not to station nuclear missiles in space or on the seabed, which neither had the technology to do anyway. Also, to prevent those countries that did not already possess nuclear weapons gaining them, in 1968 the Non Proliferation Treaty was signed. By this, nations who either lacked the technology or the desire to own them, agreed not to build nuclear weapons and to allow international inspection of their nuclear facilities – providing, that is, that the nuclear powers undertook to completely disarm at the earliest opportunity. Other nations who had (or hoped to gain) the technology, and had the will, such as North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India, either refused to sign or subsequently withdrew from it. All soon gained nuclear weapons that threatened to begin regional arms races.

But a solid agreement between the two main Cold War protagonists limiting the stockpiles of nuclear weapons proved very difficult to find. President Eisenhower, in 1955, had urged an agreement on ‘open skies’. By this, both sides would be free to over-fly each other’s military bases. This would allow the verification that both were adhering to a future arms control agreement. The Soviets promptly rejected the idea. They did not possess the aircraft to over-fly US bases, and saw it as an American attempt to legitimise spying. To the Americans, strict verification of Soviet compliance remained fundamental to any agreement. Herein lay a basic problem. Both sides were convinced of their own moral superiority. It was the other side who could not be trusted, and they reacted with astonished outrage when their own good intentions were questioned.

But simply building ever more weapons was futile, costly and dangerous. By 2000 it is thought that there had been over 30 ‘broken arrows’, or accidents involving nuclear weapons, and perhaps six warheads had been lost at sea and never recovered. Also during the 1960s a new technological development arose that threatened whatever stability MAD offered. This came from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. This defensive system was designed to intercept and destroy ICBMs in flight. Despite being in its infancy and having very limited reliability, it might tempt a reckless leader to gamble on surviving retaliation and launch a surprise attack. Deterrence would only work if it was mutual, and if both sides were sure the other could not survive a nuclear exchange. Yet ABM would require sophisticated radar systems and its missiles would have to be deployed in huge numbers to defend a nation, and it promised to be impossibly expensive. It would also result in a new surge in constructing missiles in order to have the ability to swamp the enemy ABM system. By 1967 therefore US president Lyndon Johnson and Soviet premier Alexey Kosygin were ready to open negotiations.

The American position was that both sides should agree to abandon ABM systems, so that both would remain defenceless and deterrence would continue to be mutual. This was not easy for the Soviet negotiators to accept. They felt they had a duty to defend their citizens, and that defensive weapons were moral, while offensive weapons were immoral. It took five years to negotiate the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit themselves to two ABM sites each, when there was only one, around Moscow, in existence. This was subsequently reduced to one each, and the Soviets chose to defend Moscow, while the Americans defended an ICBM site. It was further agreed there would be no new land-based ICBMs beyond agreed numbers and no new missile submarines beyond those under construction.

Superficially this might have seemed a considerable step forward, but the agreement was reached as newer technology was being deployed. With the introduction of Multiple Independentlytargeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV), a single missile could carry several warheads and attack several separate targets – up to 12 in the case of some American missiles. There was no limit on modernising or replacing existing missiles to carry MIRV (and later MARV, or Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicle, which could change target in flight.) In fact SALT I allowed for a major expansion of nuclear weapons, and the signing of SALT II in 1979, which was ultimately to lead to a limit of 2,250 delivery systems (missiles, aircraft and submarines), did little to alter this. Even then the US Congress refused to ratify the latter Treaty, arguing that the Soviet Union had gained too much advantage in the agreement. Both sides, however, indicated they would adhere to the terms, as long as the other did. Even then, the development of cruise missile technology, which produced cheap, easily transportable and concealable weapons, opened new problems for verification measures.

Excesses of the Nuclear Arms Build-Up

The question addressed by peace campaigners, of how much deterrence was needed, was addressed by government and military institutions on both sides. An American study considered how many 100 megaton thermonuclear weapons would be needed to utterly destroy the Soviet Union. It found that after 400 or so detonations there would be nothing left worth attacking. Further detonations would be ‘making the rubble bounce’, or targeting isolated shepherds. Unquestionably the Soviets performed a similar study and reached a very similar conclusion. Of course the situation was a little more complicated. Some missiles would be destroyed in a surprise attack. Others would be intercepted or simply miss their targets. Others would fail to launch or be undergoing routine servicing. A degree of redundancy was needed, say four-fold. By this logic, neither side needed to go beyond the expense and inherent risks of producing more than 1600 warheads. But by 1985 the United States could deliver nearly 20,000 and the Soviet Union well over 11,000. Why did such an irrational state of affairs come about?

From the 1970s there was a considerable amount of research studying this question, and a number of factors have been suggested that might explain this degree of overkill. One is the competition between and within the armed services of a state. Any major arms programme carries with it prestige and resources and also secures careers for the service responsible for it. With nuclear weapons obviously intended as the mainstay of American defence strategy for decades, if not generations to come, all services campaigned to win a role in their deployment. Thus the United States Navy insisted on the superiority of the SLBM to prevent the United States Air Force gaining a monopoly over missile deployment. The United States Army, for its part, clamoured for battlefield nuclear weapons so as not to be excluded. Also within the army, for example, different sections demanded either nuclear artillery shells or ground launched cruise missiles.

All services lobbied government for a larger slice of the pie. But this does not necessarily explain why the size of the pie kept growing. Governments were not obliged to concede every demand made upon them by their own military. A similar argument can be used when addressing the issue of bureaucratic politics, where a similar process of competition for the resources, prestige and careers made available by the arms race existed between government agencies and departments.

Another possible factor explaining the nuclear build-up lies within the nature of the political and social systems involved. The fears and uncertainties of a nation can be exploited. Governments, it has been suggested, used the arms race to fuel fears of a foreign threat to enhance patriotism, national unity and their own authority. The arms race could be seen as a cynical exercise in social control. Both Soviet and American observers often accused their Cold War opponents of such squalid motives. But it remains a conspiracy theory based on intuition rather than fact, and should be treated with considerable caution.

A similar degree of caution should be used when ascribing the arms race to the military-industrial complex. This assumes that the arms manufacturers have a common interest in fostering a climate of fear to increase sales to the military. They are assumed to foster moral panics of the kind that followed the launch of Sputnik, so that the public will clamour for military expansion.

In the United States most major weapons systems are produced by about eight large corporations. Between them they represent a huge investment in productive capacity and expertise. They are seen as vital and irreplaceable national assets, and cannot be allowed to go bankrupt. If in trouble, the US government will always be tempted to bail them out with hefty orders. Also, within research laboratories, the development of new weapons had become the norm, and the arms race had developed a measure of organisational momentum. They represent great investments that make it difficult to justify halting. But how does this work in the Soviet Union, where the profitability of arms manufacturers was no great issue?

Electoral politics can, perhaps, supply another explanation. The claim that the nation was in danger, and that the incumbent administration was imperilling the United States by allowing a ‘missile gap’ to develop was certainly used to great effect by Kennedy in the 1960 presidential elections. It was a simple message, easily grasped by the electorate, accompanied by a simple solution – spend more money on defence. Once in office Kennedy found there was no ‘missile gap’, but expanded America’s missile forces in part, at least, to prevent a future opponent levelling similar accusations against him. At a lower level, congressmen of constituencies where warships, for instance, are constructed will constantly stress the Soviet naval threat. The more warships built, the more local jobs, and the more votes that might be won. This is perhaps a more convincing argument. But how could it be applied to the Soviet Union? As an explanation it is at best only partial.

Also, it is simply logical to respond to the actions of a potential enemy to negate any possible advantage they might gain. Thus if deterrence was to be the strategy, then the risk posed by ABM needed to be countered by MIRV and then MARV, to swamp or outfox it. Furthermore there was always the tantalizing possibility that research might find the ultimate weapon, or the impenetrable defence. As the arms race progressed the chances of this happening became increasingly unlikely. But could a state take the risk of ignoring the possibility? When in 1983 Reagan unveiled his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), which envisaged a network of orbiting lasers, particle beams and intercepting darts to destroy ICBMs in flight, it was widely treated with derision in the United States, where the press jeeringly referred to it as ‘Star Wars’, after the science fiction film. But could the Soviet Union afford to assume it would never work and ignore it? It certainly caused Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev considerable anxiety.

Added to this was the simple fact that, in the arms race, the United States had the much stronger economy. Part of the logic of proceeding with SDI was that, eventually, the arms race would cripple the Soviet economy. This is in fact what was happening. By the 1980s the strain of keeping abreast in the arms race was causing unsustainable strains on the Soviet Union, paving the way for a complete re-alignment of East-West relations.

A final, perhaps even more attractive, point comes if the arms race is viewed as a measure of political will. The fact that it existed was not necessarily a sign that war must come, but simply proof that both sides were competing. It might even be seen as a relatively low risk form of competition. Competing by building weapons is, after all, a much better than competing by using them. But it must be said, even from such a perspective, had some error or mishandled crisis ever led these weapons to be used, the consequences for the world would have been too terrible to contemplate. Arguably by confining their competition to the sports field, or not competing at all, both sides would have served humanity far better.

Issues to Debate

  • Why did an arms race between the USA and the USSR begin after 1945?
  • How sane was the policy of MAD?
  • What factors sustained the arms race for so long?
Further reading: 
  • Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (Macmillan, 1981)
  • Colin S. Gray, The Soviet-American Arms Race (Saxon House, 1976)
  • John Newhouse, Cold Dawn: the Story of SALT (Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1989)
  • Sheldon Ungar, ‘Moral Panics, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Arms Race’, The Sociological Quarterly, XXXI (1990) 165-185.

Dr John Swift is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Cumbria, and the author of The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of the Cold War.



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