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The Arms Race. The Arms Race. World War II saw the development of weapons with more destructive power than ever before The Nazi V1 and V2 rockets were the first rocket-propelled weapons The first atomic bomb to be exploded in anger was exploded by the USA over Japan in 1945

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the arms race1
The Arms Race
  • World War II saw the development of weapons with more destructive power than ever before
    • The Nazi V1 and V2 rockets were the first rocket-propelled weapons
    • The first atomic bomb to be exploded in anger was exploded by the USA over Japan in 1945
  • World War II technology showed a glimpse of the terrible destructive possibilities of weapons

The atomic bomb was first used on 6 August 1945 on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The USA said it was to end the war quickly with a minimum number of US losses. It certainly worked.

From this point onwards the fight wasn’t about armies, it was about bombs.


The Arms Race was when the USA and the USSR wanted to build more and more powerful weapons.

Just like other aspects of the Cold War, it became a contest to see who which superpower was the ‘greatest’.

Both sides were desperate to have more effective weapons than their enemy.

start of the arms race
Start of the Arms Race

1949USSR tests their first atomic bomb

1949USA tests hydrogen bomb (H-bomb)

1945 USA explodes atomic bomb (A-bomb)


Once both sides had nuclear weapons, rapid retaliation was the only defence.

One side launches a “first strike”, either from the ground or from submarines. The other side’s radar detects the missiles and so launches their own missiles in retaliation. This leaves both sides devastated.

nuclear arsenals grow
Nuclear arsenals grow

ICBM = intercontinental ballistic missile

ABM = anti-ballistic missile

MIRV = multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle


Missile bases are on 24-hour standby to fire ABMs

Attacking missile destroyed in the air

Radar gives early warning of attack

eisenhower and khrushchev
Eisenhower and Khrushchev

To begin with, nuclear weapons seemed cheaper to produce than conventional weapons. However, the Arms Race, and the need to develop more and more advanced weapons, proved very expensive. In 1957, the race extended into space with the launch of the first Soviet satellite

By 1960 Eisenhower was near the end of his presidency. Khrushchev and Eisenhower seemed likely to made a deal to limit the Arms Race. Both made public statements about their interests in ‘peaceful progress’.

the u 2 spy plane incident
The U-2 spy plane incident

In 1960, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev had hopes of an arms reduction treaty, to be discussed at the Paris Summit.

Unfortunately, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR at that time. Eisenhower refused to apologize for the plane being in Soviet airspace, and the summit collapsed.

The Arms Race was back on, with Kennedy coming to power. Kennedy wanted to appear strong and so rapidly began to build up US weapons again

the missile gap
The missile gap

The USA believed that in the late 1950s the Soviets had more ICBMs than they did. The USA was terrified about a ‘missile gap’.

It didn’t exist, but under President Kennedy (1960–62), US defence expenditure rose from $45 billion to $52 billion, and a range of new battlefield nuclear weapons were developed.

The launch of the first satellite in 1957 by the USSR was also a massive concern for the USA – they were behind in the race for space!


The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which almost led to nuclear war, encouraged an attempt to slow down the race

However, once Khrushchev had been replaced by Brezhnev in 1964, the Soviets once again increased their arms spending.

Because the USA was engaged in the Vietnam War, the Soviets were finally able to catch up with the USA by 1971.

However, it meant that a quarter of the Soviet national income was spent on defence.

the space race
The Space Race

The launching of the first satellite by the Soviets in 1957 ‘won’ the first round of what became known as the Space Race.

It was based on technology developed from captured Nazi rocket technology. Just as this technology helped develop inter-continental ballistic missiles, it could now power space travel.

Both sides took the Arms Race into space – they were desperate to beat the other’s achievements.

the end of the arms race
The end of the Arms Race

In 1980 Ronald Reagan became the new US president. He was strongly anti-communist and felt the USA had fallen behind the USSR

He doubled military expenditure and invested enormous sums of money to develop new and even more advanced weapons systems

In 1985, Gorbachev became the new leader of the USSR. He immediately realised the futility of trying to keep up with weapons development.

He wanted to improve Soviet living standards and increase political freedom. He knew that spending money on weapons development would cripple the Soviet economy.


Gorbachev wanted to end the Arms Race, and meetings between the USA and the USSR took place in Reykjavik in 1986 and Washington in 1987.

Major agreements were made that put an end to the Arms Race:

INF (1987) Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty

START (1991) Strategic Arms Limitations Talks