The development of Soviet-American conflict over the political future of Eastern Europe was a major cause of starting the Cold War. In February of 1945, Roosevelt (United States), Churchill (Great Britain), and Stalin (Soviet Union) met at Yalta Summit to discuss post-world-war issues, particularly the internal affairs of liberated European countries and the immediate future of Poland. It was this pivotal meeting between the East and the West that unofficially started the Cold War. The era between approximately 1945 and 1991 is called the Cold War because no direct military confrontation occured between the opposing nations, and the wars fought during the Cold War era were fought in proxy nations. The Cold War was not a head-on confrontation, it was rather a manifestation of the arms race between the US and USSR, the proxy wars fought by the US and other nations such as Vietnam and Korea, and the perceived threat of a nuclear war. The conclusion of the Cold War did not eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, instead it ended in a stable draw, forcing an uneasy peace among nuclear powers.
"We began to see Soviet's communist superpower as being aggressive, as trying to spread itself in a sort of global revolution, and ultimately tempting to overwhelm much freer political systems, including our own." - listen
"They also saw us as being aggressive and trying to spread our form of government... through ...contributions of large amounts of money and other things... They saw our culture as being excessive, they saw capitalism as being imperialist." - listen
Mr. Albert Paulsson, Teacher of American Studies
During the Cold War era, critics of nuclear proliferation argued that a nuclear war would result in a disaster for both of the opposing nations. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the concept of simultaneous annihilation of two opposing nuclear powers. It is divided into two stages: first strike and second strike. The first strike would be a nuclear attack from a nuclear-equipped nation to another nuclear-equipped nation. If the opposing nation is forewarned of the attack, then a second strike could be launched to the attacking nation, thus assuring both nation's destruction. However, if the opposing nation could not respond to the first strike, then nuclear war could be a viable option for the attacking nation. In the case of the US and the USSR, each nation tried to amass enough nuclear weapons to ensure that a second-strike would not be possible.
Throughout the early years of the atomic age up to the 1960's, more fission bombs were produced than needed to destroy any opposing nation. This was partly due to the delivery methods of bombs at that time. The only method to attack another nation with a nuclear weapon across the Earth was to deliver it in the cargo-bay of a long-range bomber plane. This method of delivery risked the possibility that the plane can be shot down because bomber planes are large and slow targets. Thus, the yield of each bomb was maximized because only a few were expected to reach its target. However, in the 1960's, the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) ushered in a new nuclear weapon strategy. This enabled nuclear attacks to be launched to anywhere around the world, and the timeframe of a nuclear attack was reduced from hours to minutes. Furthermore, with the development of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM), the timeframe of a nuclear attack could be reduced to mere seconds. With such quick delivery methods, the disability of any nation to completely protect itself from a nuclear attack ensured that no nation could ever be safe.
On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane photographed MRBM launch sites in construction in Cuba, which was the first act in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It lasted for 13 days and ended on October 28, 1962, when Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev announced that nuclear weapons in Cuba would be dismantled. Russians refer to the crisis as the "Carribean Crisis", while Cubans call it the "October Crisis". The US had nuclear missile silos in Turkey, which threatened the Soviet Union. The installation of missiles in Cuba was an attempt to establish a strategic balance. What the US was mainly concerned about in Cuba was that Soviets installed MRBMS in Cuba, which are Medium Range Ballistic Missiles. MRBMs have a maximum range of around 2,000 to 3,000 miles, which is enough to strike Washington D.C., New York City, Chicago, and other major US cities. On October 22, President John F. Kennedy announced the discoveries on a televised address, and declared that a naval quarantine would be imposed on Cuba to stop any shipments of nuclear weapons from the USSR. In response, the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) flew 7,000 megatons of destructive power in the sky and deliberately flew bombers toward Soviet targets. Curtis LeMay, who controlled the Strategic Air Command, urged President Kennedy to attack the USSR with everything in the US arsenal in 1962. On October 26, the USSR offered to dismantle the missiles in return for a US guarantee not to invade Cuba or support any invasion. During the peak of the crisis on October 27, the USSR demanded the withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey, and an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba. The crisis was resolved on October 28, when Khruschev ordered the dismantlement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy ended the naval quarantine on Cuba on Noverber 20, 1962. The first and only direct conflict between the two superpowers came very close to being the last.
The Cold War affected the lives of millions of people globally. It created a population aware and afraid of the prospect of nuclear war. It is not surprising that such paranoia seeped into mainstream culture.
The US civil defense program is the result of Cold War paranoia. The public was subjected to air raid sirens, duck and cover drills, and many converted their basements into fallout shelters. In 1950, the National Security Resources Board drafted a document describing the civil defense structure for the US called the "Blue Book" by professionals. Specific programs of US civil defense were often started and stopped, characterizing the caprice of the civil defense legislature.
During the 1950's, many American public schools practiced the "Duck and Cover" routine, which is a part of civil defense. It involved hiding under desks or any large objects to escape the devastating effects of a nuclear weapon. This routine created a generation shaped by the fear of nuclear war. In the mid-1960's, the US government created a public service film targeted to children about the "Duck and Cover" routine. However, the routine described in the film is obviously ineffective. Ducking and covering may provide some safety from outside the blast radius of a nuclear weapon, but it would be difficult to escape the effects of radioactive fallout. However, there is a psychological benefit to the "duck and cover" routine, and that is that people think that they can defend themselves from a nuclear attack by taking immediate cover. The reality is that people who are not in an underground shelter and are within the blast radius of a nuclear weapon will be incinerated immediately, while those who are outside of the blast radius will likely be subjected to radioactive fallout.
Ivy Mike was the first hydrogen bomb tested by the US. It was the first test in the Operation Ivy series, detonated on October 31, 1952. It was also the first proper test of the Teller-Ulam design, a multi-staged fusion bomb. Due to its large size and fuel type (liquid deuterium), it was not practical for military use. However, it did yield 10.4 megatons, creating a fireball over 3 miles wide, and a mushroom cloud as tall as 120,000 feet.
Castle Bravo was the first test in the Operation Castle series. It was the first US test of a dry fuel thermonuclear device, and it was detonated on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands). Radioactive fallout from the test poisoned a crew of a Japanese fishing boat and sparked international concern about thermonuclear testing. The bomb used lithium deuteride as its fuel for its fusion stage, unlike the liquid deuterium used in the Ivy Mike test. It was the most destructive bomb tested by the US, yielding 15 megatons.
SADMs are portable nuclear weapons which were manufactured by the US military during the Cold War era. They are tactical weapons, as opposed to strategic weapons which can destroy entire nations. Like the first nuclear weapons, the first SADMs were bulky and inefficient. However, they were portable enough to be carried by a two-man team. In 1966, the US Department of Defense created a film which demonstrated how SADMs could be stuffed into the parachutes of commandos and attached to diving gear of Navy SEALs (external link), which was declassified in 1997. By the 1980's, the US manufactured SADMs that measured about 24" x 16" x 8", and weighed 60 lbs. The most recognizable tactical nuclear weapons produced by the US are the W54 SADM and the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle capable of firing nuclear warheads, neither of which have ever been used by the military in combat.
The first nuclear weapon developed by the Soviet Union was actually a copy of the Gadget (first US nuclear bomb). Its plans were supplied by spies who worked in Los Alamos National Laboratory. Important spies include Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, Theodore Hall, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and David Greenglass. Many spies were caught by the VENONA project, which was a long-term highly classified collaboration between the US and the UK to decrypt messages sent by Soviet intelligence agencies. It was not until 1995 that documents from the VENONA project were declassified.
A plethora of Soviet nuclear weapons were conceived and constructed during the Cold War era. The exact number of nuclear weapons produced by the USSR still eludes historians today. However, only a few of them attained historical significance.
On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet nuclear test was detonated, called "RDS-1" (also "First Lightning") by the USSR, and was code-named "Joe 1" by the US. It was a replica of the American Fat Man bomb, designed from plans that the Soviets gathered from espionage.
The first Soviet test of a so-called hydrogen bomb took place on August 12, 1953, and was called "Joe 4" by the US. It was actually a boosted fission bomb rather than a multi-staged thermonuclear weapon.
RDS-37 was the codename given to the first thermonuclear weapon tested by the USSR. Unlike the RDS-4 which was actually a boosted fission bomb, the RDS-37 is regarded as the first true thermonuclear weapon developed by the USSR. It was detonated on November 22, 1955, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, and it yielded approximately 1.6 megatons. The design of the bomb is known as Sakharov's "Third Idea" in the USSR and the "Teller-Ulam" design in the US.
The Soviet Union designed, produced, and tested possibly the most devastating nuclear weapon ever during the early years of the Cold War. It was called the Tsar Bomba, literally translated as "Emperor of Bombs". The Tsar Bomba was tested in 1961 in the Arctic Sea, where it yielded a 50 megaton explosion. It was a three stage fission-fusion-fission bomb, capable of a 100 megaton yield, but tested at 50 megatons to reduce the effects of fallout. The Tsar Bomba was the peak of Cold War weaponry (The US Castle Bravo nuclear test yielded 15 megatons, significantly less that the Tsar Bomba). It will likely be the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested, because the development of strategic nuclear weapons declined throughout the later part of Cold War, and because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties it will probably never be succeeded.
See the " How It Affects You" page for more information on Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.
The Soviet Union also developed tactical nuclear weapons, which were analogous to American SADMs, and they could only be operated by SPETSNAZ personnel (Russian special forces). These weapons were controlled by the 9th directorate of the KGB rather than the Ministry of Defense, so they were never officially accounted for. According to physicist Carey Sublette of the Nuclear Weapon Archive, the Soviet tactical nuclear weapons are based on a nuclear design concept called linear implosion.
"This concept is that an elongated (football-shaped), lower-density subcritical mass of material can be compressed and deformed into a critical, higher-density spherical configuration by embedding it in a cylinder of explosives that are initiated at each end. As the detonation progresses from each end toward the middle, the fissile mass is squeezed into a supercritical shape. Any 155mm artillery shell, if shortened by omitting the nonessential conical ogive and fuse, would fit diagonally in Lebed's suitcase. The device would be capable of producing an explosive yield of ten kilotons - enough to wipe away much of New York City - if the fusion was boosted by a thin beryllium reflector with a thickness no greater than the core radius. Sublette believes that the weapons could be further refined to fit into an attaché case."
Osama's Revenge by Paul Williams