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The Post World War II Nuclear Arms Race Term Paper

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Updated: Jul 8th, 2019


The nuclear weapon is the most powerful and destructive weapon ever invented by mankind. This weapon played a role in ending the Second World War since the Japanese forces surrendered when atomic bombs were dropped on their cities. The impact of these bombs was devastating and mass casualties were experienced at the sites of the attacks.

For the first time in history, the world was introduced to the nuclear bomb and its destructive capabilities. Following this spectacular display of the annihilating capability of the nuclear weapon, the major world powers saw nuclear armament as being integral to their military strength.

Due to the immense military power that ownership of nuclear weapons gave to a particular country, the post WWII years were followed by a global nuclear arms race. The two main countries in competition for nuclear superiority were the US and the Soviet Union. This paper will set out to discuss the nuclear arms race with a focus on what caused this phenomenon and the impacts that it had.

The Nuclear Bomb

Research into nuclear weapons was conducted by scientists from the US during the 1930s. In 1939, the US government commissioned a project that was aimed at producing the world’s first atomic bomb. This project, known as the Manhattan Project took place with the support of Canada and the US and it was able to produce two types of atomic bombs utilizing uranium and plutonium.

The first successful detonation of a nuclear device was the Trinity Test conducted on 16 July 1945 in New Mexico (Carnesale et al., 52). This test demonstrated that the nuclear bomb could be deployed in battle and the US President Harry S. Truman authorized the weapon’s use against Japan.

In the years immediately following WWII, the US was the sole world nuclear superpower. This country had a monopoly on the knowledge of nuclear weapon production and it had already successfully tested its nuclear weapons and perfected its delivery system as could be witnessed from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The US hoped to maintain its exclusivity as the only nuclear capable nation in the world.

While the US and the Soviet Union had been allies during the war, they had great differences and the two countries did not trust each other. The adversity between the US and the Soviet Union began in the late 1940s and the US took steps to protect itself from any Soviet aggression.

Carnesale et al. explain that by 1949, the US had a number of strategic bombers carrying targeting critical Soviet installations located in the UK (78).

These bombers were equipped with nuclear warheads capable of causing significant damage to the Soviet Union. To counter US nuclear superiority, the Soviet Union maintained a strong military presence in Europe and its conventional army was capable of overwhelming the whole of Europe.

Well aware of the superiority that nuclear weapons gave the US, the Soviets engaged in intensive efforts to develop their own nuclear weapons. These efforts were aided by reports from Soviet spies who had been following the progress of US scientists during the Manhattan Project.

The Soviets achieved nuclear capability in 1949 and they demonstrated their capability by detonating a test bomb on August of the same year. This bomb, named “First Lightning” closely resembled the American bomb dropped on Nagasaki. These similarities were because the bomb was built using details obtained from the infamous nuclear spies Theodore Hall and Klaus Fuchs.

This demonstration of Soviet nuclear capacity effectively started the nuclear arms race. Buzan and Herring explain that while the US was previously confident in its position as the global nuclear power, the advances by the Soviets proved that other nations were taking steps to develop nuclear weaponry (81).

The Nuclear Arms Race

Buzan and Herring define an arms race as “the most extreme manifestation of an arms dynamic between the militaries of different states” (81). For an arms race to occur there must be at least two parties engaged in a conscious rivalry with each other. In the post WWII years, the US and the Soviet Union were the main antagonists. The two powers were aware of each other’s nuclear ambitions and sought to outdo each other.

The nuclear arms race began in full force following the detonation of the atomic bomb “First Lightning” by the Soviet Union (Carnesale et al. 77). This development brought the Soviets closer to matching the nuclear strength of the US. However, the Truman administration wanted to ensure that it was the major nuclear power in the world.

Therefore, in response to the development of an Atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, the US administration approved research into the development of a hydrogen bomb in 1949 and increased funding for nuclear research and development.

In 1952, the US had successfully created the powerful hydrogen bomb and this weapon was tested on November 1952. Another hydrogen bomb of a 14.8 megaton yield was made and tested by the US in 1954 firmly reinforcing the nuclear superiority of the US in the world.

Up until the mid 1950s, the US nuclear superiority was unchallenged as the US demonstrated qualitative and quantitative superiority to its nearest rival, the Soviet Union.

This unchallenged nuclear superiority status was offset in 1955 when the Soviet Union detonated a 1.6 megaton hydrogen bomb (Holloway 131). Before this detonation, the US had been the only nuclear weapon state in possession of the immensely powerful hydrogen bombs.

Nuclear weapons started to take priority over conventional weapons from 1955. Before this period, the Soviet Union has relied on its conventional forces in Europe to counterbalance US military strength. However, the two sides started to increase their reliance on tactical nuclear weapons between 1955 and 1965.

Tactical nuclear weapons were low-yield nuclear weapons that could be employed on the battlefield in relatively close proximity to friendly forces (French 199). The US administration hoped to reduce its military spending in Europe by using nuclear weapons in the European theatre as a deterrent to Soviet aggression.

Tactical nuclear weapons presented the best means through which NATO could counter the Soviet’s superiority in conventional forces (Holloway 54). For the Soviets, tactical nuclear weapons would deter attacks from the US since deployment of these weapons would cause the destruction of Europe.

In addition to this, the Soviet Union did not have the capability to successfully attack the US due to the geographical distance between the two countries and the strong air defenses implemented by the US.

By 1965, Europe had thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, the majority of which were owned by NATO. Buzan and Herring state that NATO forces engaged in widespread use of nuclear artillery to strengthen its position in Europe (34).

A variety of delivery systems including cannons and tanks were to be used to deliver the nuclear payloads. The smallest tactical nuclear weapons could be carried and delivered through recoilless rifles placed on light armored vehicles.

By the end of the 1950s, there were a number of nuclear-capable tactical aircraft in operation all over Europe. In addition to the aircrafts, both sides introduced surface-to-surface missiles that could be used for tactical offence or defense purposes.

Arms races are characterized by a competition in terms of weapon quantity with each party trying to outnumber other others. During the nuclear arms race, the nations involved were engaged in intense competition to increase their nuclear stockpiles and produce nuclear warheads.

This was the case in the nuclear arms race with both super powers increasing their nuclear stockpiles with the aim of superseding the rival. At the peak of weapons proliferation, the USSR had 45,000 nuclear warheads while the US had about 30,000 nuclear warheads (Buzan and Herring 54). The countries also looked for the most effective ways of delivering their nuclear payloads to an enemy.

The two major rivals in the nuclear arms race tried to obtain the same or higher technological capabilities to their rival. Holloway reveals that the Soviet Union looked for means to equal US qualitative advancement in nuclear weapon development (148). Each technological advancement demonstrated by the US was shortly followed by similar achievements by the Soviets ensuring that the two states were at equal power.

For example, by 1965, the US had succeeded in successfully building and deploying an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was capable of delivering nuclear payloads to distant targets (Oelrich 81).

This was a threat to the Soviet Union since it meant that the US could launch a nuclear warhead into Soviet States from the US. To counter this, the Soviets also set out to develop the same capabilities. The Soviet Union built rockets that could carry the heavier and less effective nuclear warheads in the Soviet stockpiles halfway around the world.

An important note concerning the US-Soviet rivalry was that in addition to reacting to each other’s advancement, each superpower was also reacting to what it estimated that the other would do in the future (Buzan and Herring 95). This mutual suspicion led each nation to assume that its opponent was carrying out additional research and development in its nuclear weaponry.

Impacts of the Arms Race

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

In two and a half decades after the end of the Second World War, the nuclear arms race had become so prevalent that the international community acknowledged that action needed to be taken to prevent future spread of nuclear weapons.

To legally limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was established in 1968 and ratified in 1970 (Bluth 84). This treaty named the five nuclear capable countries of the time, which were the US, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France, as the primary owners of nuclear weapons and technology.

The nuclear capable signatories of the NPT agreed not to sell weapons to the non-nuclear capable states. In addition to this, the treaty required the nuclear weapons states to avoid providing technical aid that could help the non-nuclear capable states to manufacture nuclear weapons. This would ensure that the nuclear weapons were restricted to only a few states.

The other binding commitment of the NPT was to encourage nuclear disarmament (Bluth 88). The nuclear-weapon States were required to make positive steps towards reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles and eventually achieve complete disarmament.

The NPT recognized that nuclear technology could be used for peaceful means. This treaty therefore allowed for the transfer of nuclear technology and material among nations for use in peaceful purposes such as power generation.


The nuclear arms race was used for deterrence purposes by the two United States and the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, these two former allies emerged as the great global powers. However, the two had sharp political and ideological differences that made them bitter rivals. In the years following the Second World War, the US and its allies were pitted against the Soviet Union and its allies.

The ideological conflict between the two led to threats of war and great antagonism between the Soviets and the Americans. The arsenal of nuclear weapons maintained by both the US and the Soviet Union ensured that the two superpowers were never engaged in a direct military confrontation since both powers were aware that such an action could lead to devastating losses (Oelrich 80).

The arms race introduced the concept of “Mutual Assured Destruction”. Both the US and the Soviet Union had amassed nuclear weapons that were capable of completely destroying each other (French 56). An important strategy employed by both sides was the second strike capability.

This capability meant that either side could strike back even after it had been hit by a devastating attack from the opposite side. As such, neither side could attack the other since each was assured that it would suffer catastrophic destruction even if it carried out a preemptive attack.


The nuclear arms race led to a monumental increase in the military expenditure of the US and the Soviet Union. The US increased its military spending to finance research and development into nuclear weapons and efficient delivery systems. By the year 1986, the US had a defense budget of $367 billion, a 200% increase from the previous decade (French 163).

However, the military expenditure was low compared to the country’s GDP and Americans did not feel the negative economic impact of the nuclear weapons program. The Soviet Union was more affected by the financial strain caused by the arms race since the country had a lower GDP.

In addition to this, the arms race strained the country’s economy since significant resources were dedicated to the Soviet military research at the expense of the civilian sector. Some scholars argue that the financial burden imposed by the nuclear arms race contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the arms race (Kort 1973).

This argument holds some merit considering the fact that the Soviets dedicated between 30 and 40% of their GDP to military efforts while the US only used 8 to 10%. This difference in economic costs made it hard for the Soviet Union to keep up with the US in the arms race.

Decline in the Arms Race

Haslam reveals that by the beginning of the 1960s, it was clear that the US and the Soviet had equal nuclear power (43). While the US has begun as the global nuclear leader, the Soviet has increased its weapons number and sophistication to match that of the US.

Both sides realized that it would be important to stop or reduce the race of the arms race. In 1972, the first treaty aimed at limiting nuclear weapons was implemented. This treaty, known as the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) put temporary limits on intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles. It also imposed strict limits on defensive antiballistic missile systems.

However, this treaty did not limit efforts at modernizing the available missile systems of both nations. As such, both countries continued to modernize their offensive missiles and developed missiles capable of carrying more than one nuclear warhead.

Kort documents that these missiles known as MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) rendered the SALT agreements ineffective since each country could still deliver missiles to numerous targets in spite of the limitation on delivery vehicles (1971). A second agreement, SALT II was proposed to address the inadequacies of the first treaty.

The end of the arms race started with the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as the first secretary of the powerful Communist Part of the Soviet Union. This Soviet leader advocated for a reduction in the nuclear and conventional forces of the Soviet Union.

Bluth reports that the Soviets made a series of concessions that led to the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty, which required a large reduction in the nuclear stockpiles of the US and the Soviet Union (215). The treaty also called for an elimination of short and medium range nuclear missiles and this requirement was fulfilled in 1991 when both the US and the Soviet Union destroyed their arsenals.

The end of the cold in 1991 war marked the end of the nuclear arms race that had been in play for almost four decades. With the dissolution of the USSR, the US was the dominant military power in the world.

During the early 1990s, the US and the Soviet Union reduced their tactical nuclear weapons in Europe following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Eastern Europe (French 74). From then on, the US and Russia have engaged in a policy of continuous nuclear disarmament.


In spite of the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the US and Russia still retain a considerable number of nuclear weapons. Oelrich states that the two countries are capable of launching devastating nuclear attacks against each other (79). The primary reason for maintaining a nuclear arsenal in the post-Cold War era is deterrence.

Oelrich agrees that the nuclear weapons are able to support broad deterrence objectives therefore ensuring that neither country takes aggressive military action against its rival (81). It can be assumed that nuclear weapons will continue to fulfill this role since as opposed to leading to a war, the nuclear arms race served as a substitute for war since none of the nuclear weapon states have every used their weapons against an adversary.


This paper set out to discuss the nuclear arms race that took place between the US and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. It began by highlighting the introduction of nuclear weapons into modern warfare by the US. The paper then showed how the Soviet Union made efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities during the first 5 years following the end of WWII.

Following the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, the US took measures to increase its nuclear superiority and this created the arms race. The paper has revealed that the nuclear arms race was aimed at increasing the global power of the nuclear weapons states and serve a deterrence purpose to the other arms race participants.

The arms race came to an end following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even so, nuclear weapons continue to play a major role in the defense strategy of the US and Russia.

Works Cited

Bluth, Christopher. The Collapse of Soviet Military Power. London: Dartmouth Publishing Company Limited, 1995. Print.

Buzan, Barry, and Herring Eric. The Arms Dynamic in World Politics. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998. Print.

Carnesale, Albert, Paul Doty, Stanley Hoffman, Samuel Huntington and Scott Sagan. Living with Nuclear Weapons. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. Print.

French, David. Army, Empire, and Cold War: The British Army and Military Policy, 1945-1971. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Haslam, Jonathan. The Soviet Union and the Politics of Nuclear Weapons in Europe, 1969-1987. London: MacMillan Press, 1989.

Holloway, David. The Soviet Union and the Arms Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Kort, Michael. The Columbia Guide to the Cold War. NY: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.

Oelrich, Ivan. “The next step in arms control: Eliminate the counterforce mission.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68.1 (2012): 79–85. Print.

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