A history of the nuclear arms race

For seven decades, the world has been on the edge of a nuclear precipice. The United States and the Soviet Union each had at their disposal a massive array of aircraft, submarines and land-based missile launchers that were ready to fire a barrage of nuclear weapons that could, in a single day, kill tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. On several occasions, conflict between the two superpowers brought the world to within a hair’s breadth of annihilation.

Even though nuclear Armageddon has not eventuated, the cost of diverting resources to feed the insatiable maw of nuclear weapons development, construction, maintenance and disposal has resulted in countless needless deaths as money was taken out of health, education and housing. It wasn’t just people’s material needs that were sacrificed; the entire political structure the rival nations engaged in the nuclear arms race were skewed towards authoritarianism and secrecy.

The start of the nuclear age

The dropping of the atom bomb by US Air Force plane Enola Gay on the Japanese city Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 is usually considered the beginning of the nuclear age.

But October 1944 might be better understood as the start. In that month, the leaders of the Allied powers – Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union – met in Yalta on the Crimean peninsula to decide on the spoils of World War Two, the end of which was by then in sight.

Some areas were not in dispute and did not come up for discussion. The US was to maintain its domination over Central and Latin America. The Soviet Union would control the Baltic States. Britain was, temporarily at least, to retain its empire east of Suez.

But Yalta decided the fate of most of Europe. The US and Britain were to control the west, the Soviet Union the east. Any popular movement that threatened the division of Europe – such as the Greek resistance forces in the west or the later revolt in Hungary in the east – was crushed.

Signatures on a piece of paper were one thing. The only sure safeguard for the boundaries agreed upon at Yalta was military might. The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first victims of the US’s need to demonstrate its capacity to inflict death and destruction on a grand scale. They were bombed despite the fact that the Japanese emperor was preparing to surrender.

By seizing the initiative in Japan, the US also wanted to scotch any ambitions that the USSR might have to build an empire on its eastern borders along with the new empire it was establishing on its west. The Russian army was sweeping through Japanese lines in northern China. It had to be stopped. President Truman’s war secretary Henry Stimson wrote in his diary immediately following the first successful test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico: “Let our actions speak for words. The Russians will understand them better than anything else. We have got to regain the lead and perhaps do it in a pretty rough and realistic way”.

The hundreds of thousands who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either immediately or in a horrible, slow way in the months and years afterwards, paid the price for the US’s determination to demonstrate it was top dog and to ensure Japan fell into its camp and not that of Stalin.

Nuclear weapons were from the outset an outgrowth of the competition between the great powers.

Onset of the Cold War

America’s monopoly of atomic bombs did not last long. Just four years after Hiroshima, the USSR tested its first bomb. By now the Cold War between the two superpowers was in full swing. Two great armed camps faced off against each other. For the first time in human history, the two foes possessed the kind of weaponry that could eliminate entire cities of their enemy in one airborne raid. The destructive power only increased with the testing of hydrogen bombs, first by the US in 1952 and then by the Soviet Union the following year.

Within each camp, the dominant imperialist consolidated its power. In the West, the US forced Britain to disband its empire to allow access for its big corporations to new markets. The US built dozens of military bases across Western Europe to extend its military reach within the umbrella of the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US also rolled out the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies of its war-shattered allies so they could act as a buffer against Russian power.

In the East, Russia established the Warsaw Pact to extend its occupation of the lands it conquered in 1945 and as a bulwark against US expansion. And it created the economic bloc COMECON to draw Eastern Europe into serving the needs of Russian industry.

The two blocs developed as mirror images of each other.

Even without a single missile being fired or bomb dropped, the economic waste involved in the nuclear arms race was appalling. In today’s equivalent, trillions of dollars were spent on nuclear programs. Governments both East and West diverted resources from health, education, social welfare, housing – anything of human value – into the employment of armies of scientists to develop the latest means of mass destruction. The burden was particularly severe for the Soviet bloc because its economy was much weaker than that of the US. It had to devote a much bigger share of its resources to the arms race.

The similarities between the two superpower rivals were not just economic and military, but political too. While both proclaimed their adherence to democracy, authoritarian rule was much more apparent. In the East, the Stalinist states were run by one-party governments. Any threat to these, in the form of independent unions and media, were banned and often condemned as agents of the West.

In the core of the Western bloc, there was the appearance of parliamentary democracy and freedom of assembly and the press. But in the US, the advent of the nuclear age brought a massive concentration of power in the presidency, including the right to wage war without the approval of Congress. The 1947 National Security Act established both the president’s National Security Council and the CIA, which quickly became laws unto themselves. “Loyalty oaths” and the attorney general’s list of “subversive” organisations then formed the basis of the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which drove more than 10,000 people from their jobs on the grounds that they were Russian agents. The US also intervened on numerous occasions in the postwar decades to overturn governments that were not sufficiently loyal to Washington.

On the periphery of the Western bloc, whether in Greece, Turkey, Portugal or Spain, and in the many countries in the Third World occupied by the US and the big powers of Europe, even the semblance of democracy was absent, with the US propping up friendly dictators.

Nuclear weapons and their threatened use hung over the entire imperialist rivalry between East and West, as each tested the strength of the other along the borders between their respective spheres of influence. During the Korean War, secretary of state Dulles threatened the Chinese with nuclear attack. The US developed advanced plans in 1961 to mount a nuclear attack on the USSR in the event that the latter went ahead with plans to take over West Berlin, then occupied by the US, Britain and France.

The most frightening nuclear confrontation came a year later, in October 1962, when Russia attempted to ship nuclear missiles to Cuba, just 90 kilometres from Florida. The US could not tolerate a situation in which the Soviet Union would have nuclear warheads so close to US soil. It blockaded Cuba to prevent Russian ships from reaching their destination, marshalled 100,000 troops in Florida to invade Cuba and mobilised 1,400 bombers with instructions to strike Russian targets. For 13 days, the world stood on the brink of an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe. Leading figures in the US political establishment seriously believed that the world could end. But, faced with the threat of the devastation of its cities, the Russians pulled back.

Berlin, Korea and Cuba were just three moments when the world could have seen a nuclear exchange and massive destruction of life. As far as the US government was concerned, a nuclear exchange would kill millions of its citizens, but the US ruling class, bunkered down in well-provisioned shelters, would survive, whereas the USSR would not. It was a diabolical calculation.

Leaving aside war planning, there were many other moments where malfunctions of one sort of another might have resulted in nuclear disasters, including massive radiation spills. These included nuclear missiles falling from or being jettisoned from aircraft, aircraft carrying nuclear weapons crashing into land or ocean or blowing up on military bases, nuclear submarines sinking to the ocean floor and subterranean nuclear tests releasing radioactive dust, raining fallout all around. More than a dozen US nuclear bombs have been lost in accidents and never recovered. In Australia, the British used Aboriginal people in Maralinga as guinea pigs when they were subjected to radioactive fallout.

There were also many occasions when nuclear missions were almost initiated because of false alarms of incoming missiles due to faulty computer equipment or misreadings of radar or satellite information. On one occasion, US radar operators mistook a flock of Canadian geese as a Soviet bomber attack.

The second Cold War

Despite the frequent sabre rattling between the two sides and the bloody and lengthy proxy conflicts that raged, the US and the USSR (and China) in the 1970s negotiated some limits to the military competition that had characterised the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s. The US was licking its wounds after defeat in Vietnam. Russia was happy to focus more on matters at home because its economy was beginning to sputter.

In 1980, however, a new Cold War between East and West got under way. Economic and political crises wracked both sides. The US was under siege within its own camp, as markets long dominated by US companies had come under serious threat from German and Japanese competitors. Its prestige had been badly dented by the Watergate scandal and the overthrow of political allies in Iran and Nicaragua. Russia had been compelled to send its army into Afghanistan as its client government in Kabul was losing control of the country. In Poland, the government, Russia’s ally, was being assailed by a new trade union, Solidarność.

Newly elected US president Ronald Reagan announced a massive boost to arms spending, with the aim of reasserting US imperialist power. Cruise and Pershing missiles, first-strike weapons able to destroy Russian missiles still in their silos, were to be installed in Western Europe. Other new projects included the B1 bomber, the neutron bomb, which wiped out populations but left buildings intact, the Trident nuclear submarine and the MX nuclear missile. On top of all these, Reagan announced a satellite-based nuclear defence system, known as Star Wars. The new system was designed to knock out any incoming missiles, allowing the US to strike at the USSR without fear of retaliation.

Reagan’s frenzied arms spending in his first term forced Russia to try to catch up. It introduced SS20 missiles and the new Backfire bomber. But because its economy was so much weaker, the renewed arms race created a severe crisis in the Soviet economy. The working class, long repressed under the heel of the authoritarian regime, began to stir. The ruling class under Mikhail Gorbachev tried to restructure the economy, but the system was beyond repair. The USSR collapsed in 1991. The US emerged as the undisputed master of the world.

The situation today

The world is a much more dangerous place today. There are many more nuclear-armed powers, even though the US is still by far the most dangerous. Most states with pretensions to regional or global leadership seek a nuclear capability. The proliferation of nuclear weapons means that regional conflicts have the capacity to lead to devastation.

Thousands of nuclear weapons are just minutes away from being launched. Most nuclear arms limitation treaties are not worth the paper they’re written on; even if they limit the number or development of one type, they encourage the building of others. So called “dirty weapons”, which use depleted uranium, were used by the US in Iraq with devastating effects.

Nuclear weapons are the most obscene but logical conclusion of a whole system based on economic, political and military competition. This never-ending competition carries with it the dreadful prospect of nuclear holocaust. Capitalism is an insane system that threatens us all.