Nuclear Arms Race During the Cold War

Maggie Nick
October 23, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Nagasaki Bomb in WWII. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Cold War marked a period of rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, these two superpowers held extremely different economic and political beliefs, which further deepened the divide between the states. The Soviet Union practiced a communist form of government, with complete governmental control of property, wealth, and education. On the other hand, the United States promoted a free and capitalist form of government, characterized by democratic elections and privately held businesses or organizations. This ideological difference between the superpowers put them in direct opposition to one another. As a result, competition arose in many areas including the development of new technology and military weapons- the most important being the nuclear bomb. In order to understand the severity of the arms race during the Cold War, it is essential to examine the capabilities of the nuclear bomb, how it unraveled in the 20th century, and what implications it has for future generations.

Capabilities of the Nuclear Bomb

The nuclear bomb is one of the most powerful weapons in the world, with the ability to cause mass amounts of destruction in a short amount of time. It is often composed of the fissionable isotope uranium. [1] When a free neutron hits the nucleus of a fissile atom, the uranium splits, yielding mass amounts of energy. Efficient bombs today require concentrations of highly enriched uranium, at about 90 percent. [1] With this much energy released, the bomb has the power to kill hundreds of thousands from the initial blast and later radiation poisoning. The threat of the nuclear bomb resurfaced after its initial use in World War II (see Fig. 1) into the Cold War period when the United States and Russia participated in a nuclear arms race.

Arms Race During Cold War

During the second half of the 20th century, the two superpowers competed for superiority in the development and accumulation of nuclear weapons. Four years after the U.S. successfully dropped its first bomb, the Soviets developed theirs. With deterrence at the core of foreign policy, both sides worked to increase their arms stock. This resulted in the U.S. spending six trillion dollars on its nuclear weapons program, containing ten thousand nuclear warheads, while Russia had only half as many. [2] Although the arms race was meant to increase each state's security, it backfired in several instances. For example, in the 1950s, the Soviets issued nuclear threats against Western allies, including the British and French during the Suez crisis. [3] Tensions rose and consequentially cumulated in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which was the closest the world has ever been to nuclear war. This period marks an intense time in history when two countries were racing to stockpile the most deadly weapon in the world: the nuclear bomb.

Arms Control

The arms race of nuclear weapons has been a growing concern in both past times and today, as the number of countries with access to these deadly weapons is constantly increasing. With the build-up of weapons, it is possible that they are better designed to start wars, rather than deter them. Therefore, it is essential to take several arms control steps in order to build a safer world including [4]

  1. Making sure nuclear forces support the objective of stability

  2. Pursuing serious arms control agreements

  3. Placing greater emphasis on measures to reduce the possibilities for accidental nuclear war

  4. Reducing dependence on nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear, or conventional, attack

  5. Revitalizing the Government's arms control machinery

With these goals in mind, it is not only possible, but also necessary to create a safer world where the threat of nuclear war is eliminated.

© Maggie Nick. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. B. Lovins, L. H. Lovins and L. Ross "Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs." Foreign Affairs, 58, 5, (1980)

[2] C. F. Chyba, "Moving Toward Security," Science, 317, 5838, (2007)

[3] F. J. Gavin, "Same as It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War," Int. Security, 34, 3, (2009).

[4] W. F. Mondale, "Building a Safer World." Arms Control Today, 14, 1, (1984).