The Nuclear Arms Race

One of the most frightening aspects of the Cold War was the arms race. Each side wanted to be able to withstand an attack by the other. At first, the United States, which had the atomic bomb, was the only nuclear power. By 1949, however, the Soviet Union had also developed an atomic bomb. By 1953, both sides in the Cold War had developed the far more destructive military technology—the hydrogen bomb.

The Balance of Terror

The United States and the Soviet Union spent vast sums to develop new, more deadly nuclear and conventional weapons. They invested still more to improve “delivery systems”—the bombers, missiles, and submarines to launch these terrifying weapons of mass destruction.

Critics of the arms race argued that a nuclear war would destroy both sides. Yet each superpower wanted to be able to deter the other from launching its nuclear weapons.

By the 1960s, the terrifying possibility of nuclear war led to the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which meant that if one side launched a nuclear attack, the other side would retaliate in kind, and both sides would be destroyed. Even though MAD might discourage nuclear war, the fear of such a conflict haunted the world. In the words of Winston Churchill, the balance of power had become a “balance of terror.”

Disarmament Talks

To reduce the threat of nuclear war, the two sides met at disarmament talks. Although mutual distrust slowed progress, the rival powers did reach some agreements. In 1963, they agreed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

In 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) to limit the number of nuclear weapons held by each side. In 1972 and 1979, both sides signed agreements setting these limits.

In 1991, the United States and Russia negotiated a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which has been renewed in recent years. These START agreements led to the removal of a large number of nuclear weapons.

An Era of Détente

During the 1970s, American and Soviet leaders promoted an era of détente (day TAHNT), or relaxation of tensions. Détente brought new agreements to reduce nuclear stockpiles as both sides turned to diplomacy to resolve issues. The era of détente ended in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Infographic titled nuclear arms race.
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Analyze Charts

Compare the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the SALT II Treaty of 1972, and the START Treaty of 1991. How did each of the later treaties advance beyond the treaty that came before it?


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments