Nuclear Arms Race

Nuclear Arms Race

The United States became the first country in the world to use nuclear weapons when they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These bombs had been dropped by planes but it soon became clear that it would be far more effective to use rockets as a means of delivering the weapon to its target. Rockets were cheaper, faster and more difficult to destroy in the air. Employing German scientists who had been involved in developing the V2 Rocket during the Second World War the United States set about producing nuclear missiles.

The main problem was developing a missile that was accurate. The major failing of the V-2 rockets used against Britain at the end of the war was that they often did not hit their intended target. Although mainly aimed at London they often landed many miles away. The further the V-2 rocket had to travel, the more inaccurate it became.

As the United States perceived their main enemy to be the Soviet Union, they needed missiles that could travel long distances. Therefore, after the war, the United States concentrated on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The breakthrough came in 1952 when the United States exploded their first hydrogen bomb. H-bombs provided large explosions with smaller, lighter warheads. Weight had always been a problem and these new lighter missiles were much more accurate. By 1957 the United States had developed the Atlas missile that could travel 6,000 miles and land within a mile of its target.

The problem with the Atlas missile was that it took over an hour to prepare for firing. This would undermine its effectiveness in a nuclear war. By the end of the 1950s the United States overcame this problem by developing the Minuteman missile. This missile stored its fuel in its own engines. It was now possible to fire a missile in thirty seconds. These missiles were also fairly small (54 feet long and 10 feet in diameter) and could be stored in silos under the ground, protected from an enemy attack.

At the same time the United States developed Polaris submarines which could carry nuclear missiles. Protected by the sea, these submarines could move close to the Soviet Union and therefore increase the missiles' accuracy. This was an important development, as one Polaris submarine could carry more destructive power than all the bombs dropped during the whole of the Second World War.

The Soviet Union was extremely concerned by these developments. Although they had exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949, they were a long way behind the United States in nuclear technology. They had concentrated on producing large missiles that could travel long distances. However, these missiles were inaccurate and their size made them difficult to conceal.

With the development of the U-2 planes the Soviet missile sites became very vulnerable to attack. The plane could fly at

altitudes of above fourteen miles. Fitted with cameras, the U-2 could photograph and read a newspaper headline from a

height of 12 miles. In a matter of minutes it could take 4,000 photographs that covered an area of 125 miles wide by 3,000 miles long. It was now possible for the United States to work out the size and position of the Soviet forces.

The Soviet Union also became concerned when, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to build nuclear shelters. Pamphlets were also distributed on how to survive a nuclear war. Further panic took place in the Soviet Union when in March 1962, Kennedy told a journalist that in some circumstances the United States might start a nuclear war.

Soviet scientists advised Nikita Khrushchev that it would be several years before they could catch up with the United States. It was suggested that the Soviet Union needed to find a way to make the United States vulnerable to a nuclear attack. Khrushchev became convinced that if the United States knew they would suffer badly in a nuclear war, they would not start such a war.

In the 1950s the Soviet Union had been producing medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). The idea was to use these to support troops if a war broke out in Europe. If they were to be used against the United States, the Soviet Union needed a nuclear base in that area. However, the Soviet Union did not have an ally in the Americas. After the Cuban revolution and the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion this situation changed.

As the United States radar network faced the Soviet Union, missiles placed in Cuba could be aimed at what became known as America's 'soft underbelly.' There were serious risks involved in this strategy but Khrushchev calculated that with the creation of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (MAD), a first-strike attack from the United States would not now take place.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, told President Harry S. Truman that he was opposed to the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan.

I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of "face".

(2) Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, letter to President Harry S. Truman (11th September, 1945)

The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him. If the atomic bomb were merely another, though more devastating, military weapon to be assimilated into our pattern of international relations, it would be one thing. We would then follow the old custom of secrecy and nationalistic military superiority relying on international caution to prescribe the future use of the weapon as we did with gas. But I think the bomb instead constitutes merely a first step in a new control by man over the forces of nature too revolutionary and dangerous to fit into old concepts. My idea of an approach to the Soviets would be a direct proposal after discussion with the British that we would be prepared in effect to enter an agreement with the Russians, the general purpose of which would be to control and limit the use of the atomic bomb as an instrument of war.

(3) Henry Wallace, letter to Harry S. Truman (24th September, 1945).

You have asked for the comment, in writing, of each cabinet officer on the proposal submitted by Secretary Stimson for the free and continuous exchange of scientific information (not industrial blueprints and engineering "know-how") concerning atomic energy between all of the United Nations. I agreed with Henry Stimson.

At the present time, with the publication of the Smyth report and other published information, there are no substantial scientific secrets that would serve as obstacles to the production of atomic bombs by other nations. Of this I am assured by the most competent scientists who know the facts. We have not only already made public much of the scientific information about the atomic bomb, but above all with the authorization of the War Department we have indicated the road others must travel in order to reach the results we have obtained.

With respect to future scientific developments I am confident that both the United States and the world will gain by the free interchange of scientific information. In fact, there is danger that in attempting to maintain secrecy about these scientific developments we will, in the long run, as a prominent scientist recently put it, be indulging "in the erroneous hope of being safe behind a scientific Maginot Line."

The nature of science and the present state of knowledge in other countries are such that there is no possible way of preventing other nations from repeating what we have done or surpassing it within five or six years. If the United States, England, and Canada act the part of the dog in the manger on this matter, the other nations will come to hate and fear all Anglo-Saxons without our having gained anything thereby. The world will be divided into two camps with the non- Anglo-Saxon world eventually superior in population, resources, and scientific knowledge.

We have no reason to fear loss of our present leadership through the free interchange of scientific information. On the other hand, we have every reason to avoid a shortsighted and unsound attitude which will invoke the hostility of the rest of the world.

In my opinion, the quicker we share our scientific knowledge the greater will be the chance that we can achieve genuine and durable world cooperation. Such action would be interpreted as a generous gesture on our part and lay the foundation for sound international agreements that would assure the control and development of atomic energy for peaceful use rather than destruction.

(4) James Franck was against dropping the atom bomb on Japan. He sent his views to President Harry S. Truman on 11th June, 1945.

The military advantages and the saving of American lives achieved by the sudden use of atomic bombs against Japan may be outweighed by the ensuing loss of confidence and by a wave of horror and repulsion sweeping over the rest of the world and perhaps even dividing public opinion at home.

From this point of view, a demonstration of the new weapon might best be made, before the yes of representatives of all the United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America could say to the world, "You see what sort of a weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future if other nations join us-in this renunciation and agree to the establishment of an efficient international control.

(5) Freda Kirchwey, The Nation (18th August, 1945)

The bomb that hurried Russia into Far Eastern war a week ahead of schedule and drove Japan to surrender has accomplished the specific job for which it was created. From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000 (the cost of the bomb and the cost of nine days of war) was never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success; Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting. There is no answer to this argument. The danger is that it will encourage those in power to assume that, once accepted as valid, the argument can be applied equally well in the future. If that assumption should be permitted, the chance of saving civilization - perhaps the world itself - from destruction is a remote one.