In the first of a two-part series, Sami Steinbock uses the look-back to the Cold War caused by this week’s death of Margaret Thatcher to ask a salient question
The American nuclear attacks of August 1945 not only brought about Japan’s surrender, but also provoked an arms race that was to be crucial in the Cold War. By 1949 the Soviets had tested their own nuclear bomb ending the American nuclear monopoly. By the 1950s the United Kingdom had atomic weapons, soon to be followed by France and China. However, the key was the nuclear stockpiles of the superpowers. It was not just the quantity of weapons that caused concern: it was also the vast increase in their destructive power as the hydrogen bomb replaced the atomic bomb, and as missiles fired across continents replaced bombs dropped by planes. These inter-continental ballistic missiles could be launched from submarines, permanent land sites or from mobile carriers. Terms such as short range, battlefield, and intermediate nuclear weapons entered the language, as did the dreaded acronym mutually assured destruction (MAD).
Despite the terrifying setting to the Cold War that nuclear weapons provided, I argue that their role in the Cold War was that of keeping peace. I will first provide evidence that this role did truly keep peace, and then weigh up the events that many historians, political scientists and theorists believe were the most dangerous events in terms of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. I will conclude by showing that although the world was ‘on the brink’ on occasion and war – specifically nuclear war – was just moments away, the fact that they remained unused and the Cold War eventually came to an end shows how they prevented escalation.
The decision to drop the bombs in 1945 was controversial. US President Harry Truman described it as ‘the greatest thing in history’ in terms of their impact, both physical and geo-political. However, Truman did not find it a difficult decision to make. Military planners had expected the war against Japan to go on for another 12 to 18 months, with enormous fatalities. The bombs could therefore have saved lives, apart from also ending World War Two by forcing a Japanese surrender.
The Americans made vague threats to use nuclear weapons on two separate occasions during the Korean War, although neither of these were considered serious: firstly, under Truman in 1950, leading British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to caution restraint, and then in 1953, as Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower grew frustrated at the failure to agree an armistice. The fact remains that although the threat remained real, America remained unwilling to use nuclear weapons and that succeeded in keeping the war from escalating. The USSR did have nuclear weapons in September 1949, yet still instructed North Korea to refrain from attacking the south. It was in January 1950 that Stalin finally told the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, that he was willing to help in the war, but it has been argued that the change in mind was not the readiness of nuclear weapons, but rather the end of the Chinese revolution. It was, therefore, arguably, nuclear weapons that prevented the Korean war from escalating, with restraint applied by all sides and causing the end of military intervention from China and the USA.
In Eastern Europe, even though Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Dulles had talked of rollback, they too were unwilling to risk nuclear war. For this reason, when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Americans did not respond, whereas if nuclear weapons were not in play they may have not acted with such restraint.
Nuclear technology in the cold war and the arms race that surrounded it was not all about weaponry. The Arms Race took a quantum leap when the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. The evidence of a Soviet lead in the potential militarisation of space terrified the Americans, with much of the 1960 Presidential Election surrounded by the topic of the ‘missile gap’ created under Eisenhower. This was a myth, and Kennedy must have known so at the time, but it was a clever ploy on the public to gain election. In 1961 he instructed NASA to have an American on the moon by the end of the decade, helped by the fact that the Americans had captured leading German rocket scientists such as Werner von Braun, and taken them to the USA.
Many saw this eventual triumph as a German scientific and space triumph. But it was achieved using nuclear technology and, although not weaponry, shows the contest as one that was based upon showing superior ideology. According to this argument, the aim of the arms race was not to create enough weapons to annihilate the other side, but rather to show that their respective ideology was superior. As long as there was this ‘peaceful’ race of stockpiling, there would be no fear of the war going hot with it purely being psychological.
It was arguably the sheer cost and danger of the nuclear arms race that helped create Détente , keeping peace between the two superpowers. Having been to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, rational statesmen on both sides pulled back and 1963 saw Kennedy give a conciliatory speech for peace, the installation of the hotline between the Kremlin and the White House, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The purpose of Détente being simply to avoid nuclear war between the superpowers, the threat of nuclear weapons once again kept peace and stopped the ‘Cold’ war from going ‘hot’. Lyndon Baines Johnson called for Détente, and the successful impromptu summit at Glassboro in 1967 would have been followed up with a proper summit in the Autumn of 1968, had it not been for the Soviet crushing of the Prague spring.
In the end it was Nixon in Moscow in 1972 who, with Brezhnev, signed the first arms control agreements – SALT 1 and the ABM Treaty. President Ronald Reagan was told by the CIA that if the Americans boosted defence spending, the Soviets would either break their economy trying to keep up, or negotiate an end to the Cold War competition. This was one factor behind Reagan’s 1981-86 1.6 trillion dollar defence build-up including the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Significantly the Reagan – Gorbochev summit in Iceland in October 1986, pulled off a historic deal to scrap nuclear weapons, although it almost floundered over Reagan’s refusal to give up on the SDI. Even so, the INF treaty was signed in December 1987. Although it led only to the destruction of about 7% of nuclear stockpiles, it still was the first treaty to actually cut weapons, and this may be why this moment is regarded as marking the real end of the Cold War. Arguably, until this point, nuclear weapons had maintained peace and created peace until finally the tensions of their existence prompted the end of the Cold War.
This, of course, is but one version of history. In the second and concluding part, I’ll examine other interpretations.
Samuel is a student at King’s College London, studying International Politics. He is pro-Israel, pro the political right, and a member of the Conservative Party. He tweets as @thebock69