What Role Did Nuclear Weapons Play During The Cold War?

In the second of his two-part series, provoked by the death of Margaret Thatcher,  Sami Steinbock continues the look back to the Cold War. 

In my article last week, I looked at one interpretation of the history of the Cold War. But of course, there are other interpretations.

Gar Alperovitz  argues that Japan was attempting to surrender anyway and that the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped as a warning to the USSR. In this narrative, the British Cabinet in 1948 decided, as Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin phrased it, that there should be a nuclear bomb ‘with a Union Jack on it’ but that decision was so controversial it was not even properly debated in Westminster.

The mere existence of weapons therefore created a feel of uncertainty and led to an era of psychological provocation. The Sovietshiroshima-damage acquired the nuclear bomb so quickly afterwards that it fed suspicion in the West that they had, working for them, Soviet spies who had passed on this technology. In fact there were spies, even sometimes at high level, such as the British spy Kim Philby, but it was Soviet scientists who did much of the work themselves. Mearsheimer argues that great powers, or in this case superpowers, fear each other because of the fear of aggression and the offensive military capabilities of other states. As illustrated by Booth, the creation of the bomb created fear in American society fuelling the paranoid anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era after 1950. According to some,it was that provocation of the USA dropping the bomb in Japan that created the cold war and therefore the role of nuclear weapons could thereafter be that of maintaining the war.

Similarly the declaration by Mao Zedong in 1957 that China was not frightened of nuclear war was taken very seriously and was one reason behind the Soviets’ withdrawal of nuclear co-operation and ultimately the Sino-Soviet rift. This would, so the argument goes, show the genuine fears of the two superpowers of Chinese use of nuclear weaponry, even leading to the world community calling for a destruction of these weapons or, at the very least, rollback. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) that formed in the UK in 1958 attracted huge support in its demand for British unilateral disarmament in response to these fears. It even briefly, in 1960, became official Labour Party policy despite the urgings of a former Shadow Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, that it should ‘not send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber’. By 1957 the British Government’s Defence White Paper argued for an end to conscription and a much greater reliance on thermonuclear weapons as the cheaper option – being more ‘bangs for the buck’. Over the next few years British Governments became increasingly dependent on American technology, enhancing the significance of the military-industrial complex, and although dangerous at times with the existence of nuclear weapons, the position argued was that they were always there to maintain peace.


At their Vienna summit in 1961 Khrushchev threatened Kennedy with a ‘nuclear’ winter unless the West pulled out of West Berlin, but by August 1961 had instead opted for the building of the Berlin Wall, rather than risking mutually assured destruction.  Mutually assured destruction can be explained by the unwillingness for the war to go hot by either side, given the development of nuclear weapons, thereby, mostly, throughout the war maintaining peace. Deterrence theory led to the convention that nuclear weapons were the only weaponry in history which if used, would have failed their central purpose. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 revealed how incredibly dangerous the arms race had become, with nuclear weapons almost having a role in creating World War Three, yet peace was kept and Détente followed. The Cuban Missile Crisis can be argued as having been entirely political with little threat from the start of the war going hot, although throughout the crisis it did have its moments. Kennedy’s Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, admitted that the existence of short range nuclear missiles on Cuba did not substantially alter the military balance. This was an age where nuclear weaponry had advanced to a level that they could be fired across continents. In reality this threat was political, as no American President could tolerate nuclear weaponry 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Certainly though, had nuclear weapons not existed, Kennedy would have found it harder to restrain his hawks who wanted him to bomb the missile sites.

A deal was agreed with the Soviets on Cuba, but because the quid pro quo of removal of America’s Jupiter missiles in Turkey was not made public, it looked like a victory for Kennedy and a defeat for Khrushchev rather than the messy draw it really was, showing the psychological battle that the Cold War entailed. The impotence of nuclear weapons was revealed further during the Vietnam War. As President Johnson remarked, ‘the only weapon I’ve got is nuclear and I can’t use it’. Had the Americans dropped the bomb on Hanoi then they would have risked possible retaliation from the USSR. The USA would also have lost the battle for public opinion, being portrayed as a superpower annihilating a poor people trying to achieve independence. This shows the nature of nuclear weapons in the Cold War with the fear of using them throughout. Although they were a threat, for the most part there was not a threat of them being used.

Although SALT 1 and the ABM treaties were significant they merely slowed the rate of increase, but that alone was a sign D5LAUNCHthat the arms race had become too terrifying to be allowed to continue: by then, according to Kissinger, the USA had intervened to prevent border skirmishes between China and the USSR from escalating into nuclear war.

One of the reasons Détente broke down in the late 1970s was the Soviet installation of SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe. In June 1979 Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signed SALT 2, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to Carter pulling it from consideration by the Senate. The USA did though in the end keep to its terms of the treaty. It was the Chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt, who pushed for the Americans to lead a NATO response to the SS20s which ultimately led to the installation of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe in 1983. This was then followed by Soviet negotiators walking out of the arms control meeting in Geneva. It got even more terrifying when a NATO training mission (Operation Able Archer) was misinterpreted by the Soviets, leading to them going on high alert. Although at this time things seemed dangerous it was nuclear weapons, and the prohibitive cost of anti-weapon systems, that eventually forced the USSR economy to break down, leading to, firstly, treaties and then peace as shown previously and even arguably the end of the Cold War.

Reagan and Thatcher, who generally agreed about so much, disagreed upon whether nuclear weapons kept peace or rather created a more dangerous world. Reagan was an idealist who genuinely wanted SDI to remove the threat of nuclear war. In contrast, Thatcher believe that nuclear weapon technology could not be disinvented, and that if even the Great Powers got rid of theirs this would not prevent nuclear proliferation among rogue states. Britain’s possession of these weapons though, did not prevent non-nuclear Argentina invading the Falkand Islands in 1982, nor did it deter Arab states from continually attacking Israel. It is argued that much of the tension was created by the military-industrial complexes of both the USA and the USSR. The fact that nuclear war did not happen does not mean that it was impossible, although, as shown at the end of World War One, disarmament does not signal peace.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here