COLD WAR

COLD WAR

The Cold War was a war without battles between the Communist world and the West—or more specifically between the Soviet Union and the U.S.— characterized by the threat and fear of nuclear weapons. It began after the Soviet Union took over Eastern Europe after World War II and gained more teeth when the Soviet’s developed atomic bombs. It may also be remembered as a time when mankind realized the cost of a war was a price too big to pay.

After the common cause of World War II dissipated, it again exposed the underlying hostility between the capitalist countries and the Soviet Union. The favorable position in which the Soviet Union finished World War II rapidly made it the prime postwar threat to world peace in the eyes of Western policy makers. The so-called Cold War that emerged from that situation featured Soviet domination of all of Eastern Europe, the development of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, and dangerous conflicts and near-conflicts in several areas of the world.

World War II opened the way for the Communist domination of central and eastern Europe and the division of Germany. When the war ended Russian soldiers occupied much of the territory that would become the Eastern Bloc. The Cold War formally began in 1947 when U.S. president Harry Truman initiated the policy of containment. The goals of American policy towards the Soviet Union and the weaknesses of the Soviet Union were described in the famous 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs magazine by George F. Kennan.

The Cold War heated up in the early 1950s after the Communist took over China (1949) and McCarthyism took hold in the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy was a political opportunist who had earlier defended the Nazi SS. He came late to the anti-Communist movement and used it make headlines or himself and attack the Truman administration and make life miserable for a lot of people whose connections with Communism were tenuous at best.

Early Hints of the Cold War

As the Allies moved into Germany, Churchill was more concerned with the Russians than he was with Germans. Eisenhower wasn't interested in Berlin because by that time it had little military significance but Churchill argued that capturing the German capital was important symbolically "to counter the strength of the Soviet Union."

Bradley told Eisenhower that capturing Berlin might result in an additional 100,000 casualties which he argued was "a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective.” Later Eisenhower told the British and American Chiefs of Staff, "I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims," so if the chiefs decided "that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and thinking so as to carry out such an operation."

Rick Atkinson wrote in the Washington Post that the Soviet Union bore "the brunt of the fight in Europe for three years...giving Moscow squatter's rights to the eastern empire it would soon occupy." Russia and the Allies had already agreed to the post-war occupation zones at Yalta in February, 1945. U.S. forces captured large portions of what later became East Germany and Czechoslovakia but pulled back 200 kilometers to honor the agreement worked out between Stalin and Roosevelt at Yalta.

After the end of World War II, the Soviets changed in small but significant ways. German judges were arrested and replaced by the Russians. Russian officers who were viewed as too friendly to the West disappeared. When future CIA head Richard Helms arrived in Berlin, he later told Newsweek, it was clear "the Germans weren't the problem—the Russians were. To pretend that we were allies was silly."

Yalta and the Soviet Takeover of Eastern Europe

Relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and Britain began to sour at the end of World War II when the war turned in the Allies' favor. The postponement of the European invasion to June 1944 became a source of irritation to Stalin, whose country meanwhile bore the brunt of the struggle against Germany. Then, as Soviet armies pushed into Eastern Europe, the question of the postwar order increased the friction within the coalition.

At the Allied Conferences at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in July, 1945, Allies defined new borders and tried to establish a new European order but ended splitting the continent into East and West. At Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, Stalin imposed strict terms. The United States and Britain went along them with because of the Russian army’s success and the great sacrifices the Russians made.

At Yalta, in eight secret meeting in Livadia Palace, the Allies worked out the terms for end of the war and carved up the globe. Stalin clashed with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill over Stalin's plans to extend Soviet influence to Poland after the war. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After World War II, the Soviet Union extended its control into Eastern Europe. It took over the governments in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. Only Greece and occupied Austria remained free. The Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were made into republics. Even Finland was partly controlled by the Soviets. The Communist Party was also strong in Italy and France.

After World War II, Russia took a large portion of Poland and Poland in return was given a large portion of Germany. It was if the entire country of Poland was slid across the earth to the west. The Allies allowed the Soviet Union to annex Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in a process that took place mostly at the outset of the war.

Beginning of Cold War

Soon after World War II, the Soviet Union and its Western allies parted ways as mutual suspicions of the other's intentions and actions flourished. Eager to consolidate influence over a number of countries adjacent to the Soviet Union, Stalin pursued an aggressive policy of intervention in the domestic affairs of these states, provoking strong Western reaction. The United States worked to contain Soviet expansion in this period of international relations that came to be known as the Cold War. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Mindful of the numerous invasions of Russia and the Soviet Union from the West throughout history, Stalin sought to create a buffer zone of subservient East European countries, most of which the Red Army (known as the Soviet army after 1946) had occupied in the course of the war. Taking advantage of its military occupation of these countries, the Soviet Union actively assisted local communist parties in coming to power. *

In early 1946, Churchill made his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, where he said an "iron curtain" had fallen on Europe. Later that year the Soviets in Soviet-occupied eastern Europe began destroying factories and refusing to send food to western Europe. The U.S. responded by discontinuing shipments of goods from the west to the Soviet zone.

The Soviet Union occupied the eastern zone of Germany after World War II. Communists took over the Polish government in January 1947, and then took over Hungary by proxy in May 1947. Stalin's occupation of Poland and the redrawing of that country's borders after World war II were originally described as temporary measures.

The hopes of democracy in Eastern Europe came to an end in 1948 when the Soviet Union established puppet governments in Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. By 1948 seven East European countries--Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia--had communist governments. The Soviet Union initially maintained control behind the "Iron Curtain" through the use of troops, security police, and the Soviet diplomatic service. Inequitable trade agreements with the East European countries permitted the Soviet Union access to valued resources. In 1954, the Soviet Union issued a proclamation declaring that East Germany was a sovereign republic.

The hostility between the U.S. and the Soviet Union encouraged the U.S. to support the establishment of a strong and friendly Germany. The US was worried that a weak Germany would be tempting quarry for the Soviet Union. In the meantime, post war legislatures in Italy and France had a large number of Communists and their unions were heavily influenced by Stalin.

Containment and the Truman Doctrine

Soviet actions in Eastern Europe generated hostility among the Western states toward their former ally, but they could do nothing to halt consolidation of Soviet authority in that region short of going to war. George F. Kennan, the head of the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Staff and charge d'affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after World War II, is credited with first sounding the alarm of the threat of the Soviet Union's postwar policies and proposing the foreign policy of containment, which characterized the foreign policy of the U.S. during the Cold War period, to address Soviet expansionism and aggression.

In a famous "long telegram" in Foreign Affairs magazine signed "X” he argued that the policy of directly confronting the Soviet Union militarily was unthinkable and the best the U.S. could hope for was to "contain" Communism by keeping it from expanding into other countries. The wars in Korea and Vietnam and the proxy wars in Angola, Nicaragua and other places were fought in the name of “containing” Soviet and Communist influence in these places.

In the 1947 “X” article Kennan wrote: “It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must he be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of the Russian expansive tendencies.” He the went on to predict that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse because it “bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”

On March 12, 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman announced a new policy of the containment of Communism by providing military aid to threatened countries, starting with Greece and Turkey. This policy which became known as the Truman Doctrine, endured until the end of the Cold War in 1989. Truman explained: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure." Keenan opposed the “military containment” strategy of the Truman Doctrine. He argued that Stalin was interested in expanding wherever there was a power void but the Soviet Union would not take on the United States directly because it had been weakened so much by World War II .

Post-War Efforts to Contain the Soviets

The United States and its allies had greater success in halting Soviet expansion in areas where Soviet influence was more tenuous. British and American diplomatic support for Iran forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from the northeastern part of that country in 1946. Soviet efforts to acquire territory from Turkey and to establish a communist government in Greece were stymied when the United States extended military and economic support to those countries under the Truman Doctrine, a policy articulated by President Harry S. Truman in 1947. Later that year, the United States introduced the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of other countries of Europe. The Soviet Union forbade the countries it dominated from taking part in the program, and the Marshall Plan contributed to a reduction of Soviet influence in the participating West European nations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union became especially strained over the issue of Germany. At the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945, the Allied Powers confirmed their decision to divide Germany and the city of Berlin into zones of occupation (with the eastern sectors placed under Soviet administration) until such time as the Allies would permit Germany to establish a central government. Disagreements between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies soon arose over their respective occupation policies and the matter of reparations. In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off the West's land access to the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin in retaliation for steps taken by the United States and Britain to unite Germany. Britain and the United States thereupon sponsored an airlift that kept the beleaguered sectors provisioned until the Soviet Union lifted the blockade in May 1949.

While the Soviet Union gained a new satellite nation in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), it lost its influence in Yugoslavia. The local communists in Yugoslavia had come to power without Soviet assistance, and their leader, Josip Broz Tito, refused to subordinate the country to Stalin's control. Tito's defiance led the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform--founded in 1947 to assume some of the functions of the Comintern, which had been abolished in 1943) to expel the Yugoslav party from the international communist movement in 1948. To avert the rise of other independent leaders, Stalin purged many of the chief communists in other East European states.

In Asia the Chinese communists, headed by Mao Zedong and assisted by the Soviet Union, achieved victory over the Guomindang in 1949. Several months afterward, in 1950, China and the Soviet Union concluded a mutual defense treaty against Japan and the United States. Hard negotiations over concessions and aid between the two communist countries served as an indication that China, with its independent party and enormous population, would not become a Soviet satellite, although for a time Sino-Soviet relations appeared particularly close. Elsewhere in Asia, the Soviet Union pursued a vigorous policy of support for national liberation movements, especially in Malaya and Indochina, which were still colonies of Britain and France, respectively. Thinking that the West would not defend the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Stalin allowed or encouraged the Soviet-equipped forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to invade South Korea in 1950. But forces from the United States and other members of the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea, leading China to intervene militarily on behalf of North Korea, probably at Soviet instigation. Although the Soviet Union avoided direct participation in the conflict, the Korean War (1950-53) motivated the United States to strengthen its military capability and to conclude a peace treaty and security pact with Japan. Chinese participation in the war also strengthened China's independent position relative to the Soviet Union.

Berlin Blockade and Airlift

After World War II, Berlin was divided into West-occupied West Berlin and Soviet-occupied East Berlin. Berlin itself was situated in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. In 1948 the Soviets attempted to seal off Berlin as a means of gaining control of the entire city or at least gaining concessions. On June 23, 1948 all road, rail and canal access to West Berlin from the Allied-occupied western zones were closed. On August 3 Stalin demanded that all of Berlin be recognized as the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Stalin's pretext for blockading West Berlin was the introduction of the deutsche-mark on June 20, 1948. On July 29, Truman declared there be "no Munich of 1948" and the West would not turn it backs on West Berlin or the creation of West Germany.

To keep the Communist from isolating West Berlin, the United States and Britain began airlifting supplies into Berlin on June 26, 1948. During the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949, U.S. and British planes dropped 2,350,510 million tons of supplies (including 1,586,029 tons of coal and 536,705 tons of food) to Berlin over a 15 month period. Unlike a roadblock, which sets a barrier against traffic without resorting to violence, Stalin could not block the planes without shooting them down and risking an escalation to all-out war, which he had a good chance of losing, because the Soviet Union was still devastated by World War II.

Berlin had only two airports at the beginning of the airlift. On November 5, a third airfield built by Berliners in three months was opened. Two months later on January 10, 1949, the U.S. airlift reached its peak with 225 C-54's flying in and out in one day. The total airlift reached it peak on April 16 when 12,940 tons of supplies were delivered in 1,388 flights with planes landing at one of the three airfields at a rate of one a minute. Seventy-nine lives (including 31 Americans and 39 Britons) were lost during more than 277,000 flights. The first fatal crash, which killed three people, took place about two weeks after airlift began on July 8.

Stalin backed off and lifted the blockade of Berlin on May 12. The Berlin blockade and airlift marked the beginning of the cold war and It prompted the founding of East Germany (May 1949) and NATO (April 1949). Following the Berlin blockade, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union divided Germany into two countries, one oriented to the West, the other to the East. It also provided the catalyst for the Western countries to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective security system under which conventional armies and nuclear weapons would offset Soviet forces.

Budapest Uprising of 1956

The 13-day, 1956 Budapest Uprising was arguably the bloodiest, most decisive and symbolic event of the Cold War. Much more violent and ominous than the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Gdansk Solidarity Strike in Poland in 1980, it was the most serious threat to Soviet authority and the most brutally put down.[Source: Timothy Foote, Smithsonian magazine, November 1986]

The 1956 Budapest uprising occurred at a time when the Soviet Party was supposed to be in the process of loosening its iron grip on Eastern Europe. Stalin had died a few years before and the new Soviet Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin's brutal legacy and the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had talked about "rolling back the iron curtain."

The 1956 revolt began on October 23 with a street demonstrations that worked its way from Budapest's bridges to the neo-Gothic Parliament building. Most of the protestors were students accompanied by a few workers. Some carried Hungarian flags with the Communist star snipped out with scissors; others shouted slogans such as "Russki Go Home!," "Disband the AVO!" (the intials of the secret police), and "We Want Nagy!" (a reference to the popular liberal Communist Imre Nagy).

The crowd had grown 10,000 strong when it arrived at Kossuth Square beside the Parliament building. The protestors had no plans to provoke violence, they simply wanted to the Communist party to listen to their list of demands, which including the return of Nagy to powers, the eventual withdrawal of the Red Army, and a clamp down on the brutal tactics of the secret police.

The hard-line Stalinst party secretary Erno Gero dismissed the demands and called the demonstrators "enemies of the people." Angered by the rejection, the crowd marched to the Budapest radio station where its leaders demanded that their petition be read over the air. The station director agreed to their demand but tried to trick the demonstrators by broadcasting the demands over loudspeakers but not over the air.

When someone in the crowd with a radio discovered the trick, the crowd grew even angrier and bricks began to fly. The handful of secret police guarding the station tried to disperse the crowd with blanks and tear gas but eventually fired rounds of live ammunition into the crowd. A few Hungarian soldiers then joined the demonstrators and others gave the rebels their weapons. The demonstrators fired back and drove the secret police from the radio station.

The crowd then moved on to Stalin Square where they toppled a 24-foot statue of the Russian dictator with bricks, sledgehammers and an acetylene torch. The statue was spat upon and parts were torn off and paraded through the streets. The rebels then organized raids on the state arsenals. Anybody that wanted a weapon had access to one. There was fierce fighting in the streets of Budapest a for a while it looked as if the rebels had won.

Soviets Crush Budapest Uprising of 1956

The Budapest Revolt left the Moscow with little choice but to crush the uprising as swiftly and mercilessly as possible. If the Soviets let the Hungarian Communists bow to the demands of the rebels they ran the risk of allowing similar revolts to occur in the other Eastern Europe nations. If he didn’t act Khrushchev told Tito, the West "will say we are either stupid or soft." The Russian army sealed the borders of Hungary and sent ten divisions to key points to maintain order. Moscow strategy was to give in to the rebels demands in order to buy time to get their military machine in place. [Source: Timothy Foote, Smithsonian magazine, November 1986]

On November 1, a Russian armored division began rolling into Budapest, shooting at almost anything that moved. After three days the revolt was crushed. Rebels, students and workers were rounded up and either imprisoned or deported to Russia. The uprising was blamed on America, West Germany, capitalism, fascism, "bishops,” landowners and aristocrats. Over the months that followed some 200,000 refugees slipped across the border to Austria. Imre Nagy sought asylum in Yugoslavian but he and other leaders were eventually apprehended and executed. the former metal worker Jonas Kadar was named the Hungarian leader.

No one knows exactly how many people were killed in the uprising but it is believed to have been in the thousands. Hospitals, schools and 20,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged. The Budapest Uprising of 1956 provided the countries of Eastern Europe with an example of what they could expect from Moscow if they decided to rise up against Soviet authority. At the same time it also drew world attention to problems within the Soviet Empire and showed Moscow that the people of Eastern Europe were willing to rise up if conditions got bad enough.

Berlin Wall

In August 1961, U.S. and Soviet tanks faced one another when East Germany suddenly started to build the Berlin Wall. Some worried it might be the beginning of World War III. The wall was built to stem the flow of East Germans to the west. Between 1945 and 1961 over three million people, one in six east Germans, fled from East Germany, over half of them through West Berlin. East German leader Walter Ulbricht was the driving force behind the Berlin Wall. Khrushchev reportedly had misgivings about the idea.

The Berlin Wall—99 miles long and built almost overnight beginning on August 13, 1961— divided families and friends and even ran through people's homes. Named the "Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” by the East German government, the wall was more than a fortification that divided the city, it was an enclosure that surrounded West Berlin. It began as a brick and barbed wire fence. Some East Germans were forced at gunpoint to build it.

Affectionately known as the "death strip," much of the Berlin Wall was made up of two walls, about 50 meters part, with electric fences, "fakir beds" of upturned spikes, floodlights, guard towers and razor wire. There tank traps inside between the two walls. One of the few building that was placed with the "death strip" was the ironically named Church of Reconciliation. [Source: Pritt Vesilind, National Geographic, January 1982]

There were 900 two-story watchtowers along the border between East and West Germany and 300 of them were inside Berlin. There were also border "flesh stripping" metal fences with concrete posts with antipersonnel mines that exploded when touched along with minefields, self triggered shotguns and attack dogs. Most of the mines and boobie traps were in the eastern side, thus East Germans soldiers did much of the work to remove the walls and fences.

Border guards had orders to shoot to kill. At checkpoints they rolled mirrors under cars, checked trunks and lifted up seats, looking for potential defectors and escapees. The border guards were often relatively uneducated young men recruited from the countryside who were indoctrinated with propaganda that most of those fleeing were dangerous criminals.

Soviet Union Develops an Atom Bomb

The Soviet Union became the world’s second nuclear power after the United States when it detonated its first atomic bomb, "Joe 1," in Kazakhstan in August 1949, four years after the Hiroshima bomb exploded. The bomb was a copy of the Fat Man bomb. United States "sniffer" planes picked up fallout from the test. The design for the bomb was stolen from the U.S. by the German-born spy Klaus Fuchs.

In September 1949, U.S. President Truman reported, “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” For the Soviets the weapons evened the score and removed the nuclear advantages that the United States had over them. Around the same time, the CIA predicted that the development of a Soviet nuclear bomb was still three years away. In 1946, the Soviet Union built its first reactor but had difficulty putting it into operation.

The Russian atomic bomb program began around the same time as the Manhattan Project. In early 1940 Soviet scientists first heard rumors that the West was working on some kind of super weapon and were examining the possibility of building an atomic bomb with uranium. In September, 1941, the British spy Donald MacLean reported from London that the British were actually beginning work on an a super-powerful bomb based on atomic energy.

In March, 1942 the head of the KGB gave Stalin a letter that read: "In a number of capitalist countries...work [is] underway on the fission of the atom nucleus with a view of obtaining a new source of energy, research has been launched into the utilization of the nuclear energy of uranium of military purposes.” In February, 1943, Stalin signed a decree organizing a special committee to develop atomic energy for military weapons. The Soviets were able to develop an atomic bomb in six years.

Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who provided key details on the construction of the atomic bomb to the Soviets, was probably the most valuable Cold War spy for Moscow. A known Communist, Fuchs was hired by the British to do nuclear research in 1941. After offering his services to Moscow as a spy, he became a member of the British-American Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos, New Mexico. At Los Alamos Fuchs had access to documents that detailed the design, construction, components and detonating devices of the atomic bomb, the production of uranium and plutonium, the schedule of the Manhattan Project. Secrets were passed via an intermediary to Moscow.

After a while the information from Fuchs dried up, and not enough information had been supplied to build a bomb. The rest was supplied by Edward Hall, a 19-year-old physics students at Harvard who worked on detonation devices at Los Alamos. He had decided that the United States was going to become fascist and that if the Soviet Union had the bomb they would prevent the world from becoming fascist.

Information provided by Fuchs and other spies is believed to have sped up Stalin's bomb project by two years. Fuchs also provided outlines and drafts of the United States' plan to build a hydrogen bomb and information from nuclear tests conducted by the Americans at Eniwetok atoll. Information provided by a defecting Russian cipher clerk working at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa led to the capture of Fuchs and other famous other Russian spies. Fuchs was arrested in 1950. He spent 10 years in prison and then moved to East Germany.

Soviet Union Develops a Hydrogen Bomb

The first Soviet hydrogen bomb—a 1.6-megaton device— was detonated in November1953, only 13 months after the first U.S. test of a hydrogen bomb, code named Mike, at Enewatak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Soviet scientist were ordered to begin working on a thermo-nuclear hydrogen bomb within weeks after the successful atomic bomb tests.

The concept for a hydrogen fusion bomb—many times more powerful than an atom bomb—was first advanced in the summer of 1942 by U.S. physicist Edward Teller. In January 1950, U.S. President Harry Truman authorized Teller to tell the United States army about hydrogen bomb a couple of months after Joe 1. Teller's initial design didn't work. A Polish mathematician at Los Alamos, Stanislaw Ulam, advised him to make an effective two-stage design.

Andrei Sakharov, who later became a well-known dissident, is considered the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Motivated by the belief that nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviet Union would bring peace, along with some prodding from the KGB, Sakharov began work on the H-bomb project in 1948 and labored on nuclear projects for 20 years at the closed city of Arzamas-16. Sakharov is regarded as creator of "pulsed power," a method of creating enough energy with conventional high-explosives to start a sustained nuclear-fusion reaction.

The largest thermonuclear device ever exploded (roughly 50 megatons) was an 100-megaton H-bomb detonated at slightly more than half power by the Soviets in the Novaya Zemlya area in the Soviet Arctic on October 30, 1961. The largest United States bomb— a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb that was detonated over Bikini atoll— was exploded on March 1, 1954. Dubbed "Operation Bravo," the explosion was 1,000 times more powerful than one at Hiroshima and the power of the bomb was greater than all the explosives used in World War II. A freight train carrying the equivalent amount of TNT would span the North American continent. The device exploded by the Soviets in 1961 was more than three times more powerful than this.

Fears of Nuclear War

Sergei Khrushchev, the premier’s son, wrote, "At the time of Stalin's death in 1953, everything seemed to heading toward a real war, a nuclear war...At the beginning of the 1950s Stalin ordered an accelerated build up not only of the Soviet Union's armed forced but also those of the Warsaw pact allies as well, in order to be fully mobilized and ready for an armed class by 1954 or 1955. By March 1953, the number of Soviet armed personnel had head reached 5,394,038."

The Russians believed that the election of Eisenhower meant that war was imminent. The reasoning was otherwise why did the U.S. need a general to run the country. A popular joke told in the Soviet Union at that time went: "If an atomic bomb explodes, cover yourself with a sheet and crawl to the cemetery, but without hurrying. Why without hurrying? So as not cause panic."

In September 1961, U.S. President John Kennedy urged Americans to build fall out shelters. Schools conducted duck and cover drills.

Nuclear War Strategies

On January 12, 1955, the U.S. Secretary of State detailed a new nuclear policy: "massive retaliation." In 1957, Eisenhower gave U.S. military commanders advance permission to use nuclear weapons if they believed there was a serious threat from the Soviet Union and they could not reach him.

The United States had an advantage at this point. It had more advanced technology and air bases and missiles surrounding the Soviet Union. Until the invention of rockets, the Soviet Union didn't have weapons that could retaliate against a U.S. strike.

Stalin realized this and ordered the construction of 10,000 tactical bombers and airfields on Arctic ice for them Stalin's death prevented the plan from being carried out. He did station 100,000 men in tents above the Arctic Circle and told them to be prepared for an American invasion from Alaska.

First Strike Nuclear Strategy

In the mid 1950s the idea of a first strike attack was raised; that a surprise attack could be averted if a first strike was launched first. Some policy makers though that the United States had sufficient superiority to justify such a strategy, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the scheme.

The first strike strategy was reconsidered by a team that included Henry Kissinger at the time of the Berlin crises in the early 1960s when John Kennedy was the U.S. President. One general told Kennedy “the time of our greatest danger of a Soviet surprise attack is now and advised that “if a general atomic war is inevitable, the U.S. should strike first.”

A first strike study at that time concluded that the United States could launch 2,258 missiles and bombers with 3,423 nuclear weapons at 1,077 “military and urban-industrial targets” throughout the “Sino-Soviet Bloc,” killing 54 percent of the population of the Soviet Union and destroying 82 percent of its buildings.

A limited attack that avoided major population center s was also considered. The primary targets of such an attack in the 1960s were the 46 home bases for Soviet nuclear bombers, the bomber’s 26 staging bases, eight ICBM sites (with two “aiming points” for each site, or 16 targets in all)—for a total of 88 sites, or in military-speak, DGZs (“designated ground zeros”). The estimated deaths form such an attack would be around 1 million people. The idea of such an attack was to knockout the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities keeping deaths low enough (500,000 to 1 million) to convince the Soviet surrender was their only option and discourage an “irrational urge for revenge.”

Mutual Assured Destruction

The nuclear strategy of Russia and the United States has been based on the principles of Mutual Assured Destruction (the idea neither side would launch an attack if they knew they would be annihilated by other side of they did) and the triad system (nuclear weapons delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles, planes and submarines). The idea behind the triad is that it almost impossible to have a defense against all three weapons-delivery systems.

At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had the capability of striking every U.S. missile silo with two warheads. The Soviets had a plan to hit 100 American cities with three bombs each in the event of a nuclear war.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was regarded as a likely staging area for World War III. The Soviet Union and the United States prepared contingency plans in which submarines would punch holes through Arctic ice to fire ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at targets in their rival's territory. Things like topography, currents, temperature and salinity in the Arctic Ocean were all carefully studied because they affect acoustics, which in turn affect a submarine's ability to hide from pursuers.

In January 2000, Russia issued a new security doctrine. It allowed leaders to use all existing forces, "including nuclear weapons" to oppose an enemy attack. Military experts say that because Russia's conventional forces are so weak it has to rely in nuclear weapons to deter an attack. In October 2003, the Russian Defense Minister ruled out the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike. He did say however “Russia still regards nuclear weapons as a means of political deterrent.”

Sputnik and ICBMs

In August 1957, the Soviet Union tested the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), before the United States tested similar missiles. . The same technology was used to send Sputnik aloft a month later, raising fears that the Soviet Union could attack the United States from space. Around the same time, Khrushchev claimed that the Soviet Union was churning out rockets like sausages" and told the United States "we'll bury you" and that American grandchildren will under Communism.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. This was followed by the first man in space and other technological advance that were ahead of those in West and greatly worried the United States.

Sputnik (meaning "fellow traveler") was an 184-pound satellite launched from Bairkonur, Russia. Measuring less than two feet in diameter, the spherical satellite was delivered into orbit by 32 rocket boosters. News of the feat startled the world and lead to a space race with the United States. Sputnik maintained an elliptical orbit (apogee 588 miles above the earth's surface; perigee 142 miles). It stayed aloft for three months before burning up re-entering the atmosphere. The first United States effort to launch a satellite-carrying rocket, the Vanguard, resulted in an explosion and failure shown live on American television on December 6. 1957.

Sputnik raised fears that the Soviet Union coudl attack the United States from space. Describing what Washington was like upon hearing the news of Sputnik, Hugh Sidey wrote in Time: “Washington changed in those next few hours. The U.S., which had assumed scientific pre-eminence, had been beaten in the opening lap of the space race...Those at the center of the power game knew their lives had changed...The 184-lb intruder had not only humiliated the U.S. but racheted up the cold war. The Soviet Union rockets obviously were bigger and better than ours... Worry seeped through the nation always uncomfortable with second place.”

U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, a United States Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance jet piloted by CIA agent Francis Gary Powers was brought down near Sverdlovssk, Russia. After confessing to violating Soviet air space Powers in a trial in August 1960, Powers was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison.

In the mid-1990s, Soviet pilot Igor Mentyukov told Trud newspaper he was flying a new unarmed Sukhoi Su-9 fighter when Powers plane was spotted and was ordered to ram the "spy in the sky." Mentyukov said, "Powers' plane got into the slip stream of my Su-9, The airstreams whipped past 180 meters a second, plus the turning factor. It started to flip him over, his wings broke off...It all happened by chance." For three decades insisted the Soviets said the U-2 was hit by a guided missile. The only missile that in fact were fired hit a MiG-19 and killed a Russian pilot in a mix-up over codes.

According to russianspaceweb.com: “The US intelligence suspected the existence of a missile test site near Aral Sea around 1957. It became one of the major search targets of the U-2 spy planes flying over Russia. The U-2 brought first aerial photos of the test range in the summer of 1957. Using German military maps of the Soviet Union, CIA was able to correlate the area with the town of Tyuratam [the site of the Baikonaur space center and missile testing area]. A 1939 map showed a rail line branching out from Tyuratam junction and leading 28 kilometers in the steppe. More photos of Tyuratam facility, including a well known shot of R-7 launch pad, have been made in 1959. [Source: russianspaceweb.com <=>]

“According to the NIIP-5 veteran, the Soviet intelligence knew about upcoming F.H. Powers' overflight in May 1960. In April 1960, an antiaircraft defense brigade was rushed from Leningrad to Tyuratam. The brigade's missiles arrived at the cargo terminal of Site 2 and were deployed at the facility No. 38 and near R-7's assembly building and were ordered to be in battle readiness by April 30. <=>

“As F.H. Powers took off from the base in Pakistan on May 1, 1960, the NIIP-5 test range was put on high alert. According to a Russian source, (51 p. 161) Tyuratam air-defense crews activated their guidance radar too early, allowing the approaching U-2 pilot to detect the danger and bypass Tyuratam; the Western source, however, claims that cloud cover prevented Powers from flying over the site. (34) In any case, the plane was shot down later over Urals.” <=>

Impact of the U-2 Spy Plane Incident

According to russianspaceweb.com: “After the U-2 fiasco, the US switched to the space-based reconnaissance. Also, electronic tracking stations set up along the borders with the Soviet Union, notably Tacksman 2 in northeastern Iran, would allow to monitor the launches until they disappear over Eastern Russia. Tacksman 2 was closed down in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The Soviets could do little to camouflage their activities in Tyuratam; nevertheless the center remained a top-secret site for decades. Today, hundreds of photos of the USSR, including those of its launch facilities made by the CIA's Corona spacecraft in the course of the Cold War have been declassified.” [Source: russianspaceweb.com <=>]

The U-2 spy plan incident caused a chill in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and led to a series of angry exchanges that in turn led to the cancellation of a summit in Paris between Eisenhower and Khrushchev The Communists used the incident as illustration of American aggression. The U-2 incident allowed Khrushchev to publically scold Eisenhower for being a deceitful liar. The historian Philip Taubman wrote: “It was a shocking new standard of deceit at the time and left many Americans wondering whether the could trust their leaders.”

It has been argued that the U-2 plane helped save the world from World War III by giving the United States at accurate look at the military capabilities of the Soviet Union. American commanders said the planes were too fast and flew too high to be caught. After he incident the U-2 flights were discontinued as the United States came to rely on satellites instead and strategists question the advantage of manned nuclear bombers over intercontinental missiles.

Powers carried a needle filled with cyanide but did not use it. He was exchanged in February, 1962 for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Released by the CIA, Powers got a job as a traffic-monitoring helicopter pilot in Los Angeles. He died in a helicopter accident in 1977.

Cuban Missile Crisis

In October and November 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union edged close to nuclear war over the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba. The Soviet Union initially had no real interest in Cuba. It had closed its embassy there in 1952 and was taken completely by surprise by Fidel Castro’s victory, which brought communism to Cuba. The Soviets decided to put nuclear-equipped medium-range missiles in Cuba to protect Cuba from was perceived as an inevitable attack from the United States.

In the 1990s, it was revealed that Moscow had secretly deployed 100 nuclear warheads in Cuba during the missile crisis. They were placed on Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) that the CIA knew about. There were also tactical nuclear weapons they didn't known about. This made the standoff more potentially dangerous than was previously thought.

During one of the most critical moments of the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. U.N. representative Adalai Stevenson asked his Soviet counterpart at an emergency session of the Security Council: "Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles at sites in Cuba? Yes or no—don't wait for the translation—yes or no?...I am prepared to wait for my answer until hells freezes over."

On the Soviet side the entire crisis was a poorly conceived miscalculation. The general who had the authority to launch the nuclear missiles, Issa Pliyev, had few achievements on his resume other than putting down a worker rebellion in the southern city of Novocherkassk and was said to be more knowledgeable “about horses than missiles. The Cubans were the most belligerent ones. In a letter to Moscow, Castro urged the Soviets to make a first strike against the Americans in part because he believed the Soviet Union had nuclear superiority over the United States and they could destroy the United States and weather an attack against them.

The crisis ended when Moscow promised to dismantle the bases in Cuba in exchange for Kennedy's promise not invade Cuba again and not place missiles in Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk reportedly said, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." Castro went into a fury and Khrushchev responded that "either [the Cubans] cooperate or we will recall our personnel." He accused Khrushchev of betrayal and called him a “son of a bitch,” “bastard,” “ Maricon” (homosexual)” and an “asshole” with “ No conjones (balls)”

In 1963, Cold War tensions eased with the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union and the installment of a Washington-Moscow "hotline."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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