Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968

Section 4 The Cold War Deepens

The division of Europe into East and West helped trigger a race between the United States and the Soviet Union to build more powerful and destructive weapons. The arms race in turn intensified the suspicions the superpowers felt toward each other, and more than once pushed the world to the brink of war.

What made the Cold War different from other eras of great power competition was the existence of nuclear weapons. These new weapons were enormously more destructive than any previous weapons, and they threatened the world with mass devastation.


Albert Einstein's theory of relativity had brought about a complete revolution in the way scientists thought about matter and energy. Between 1910 and 1939 scientists across Europe performed experiments to discover the mysteries of the atom. Eventually these scientists became interested in a process known as fission-the splitting of the nucleus of an atom in order to release great amounts of energy.


In 1942 the United States formally organized a program, known as the Manhattan Project, to develop an atomic bomb. The military gathered many top nuclear scientists at the remote site of Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, to work on the project. The military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, described the first atomic blast, which took place on July 16, 1945:

"For a brief period there was a lightning effect within a radius of twenty miles equal to sev­eral suns at midday; a huge ball of fire was formed which lasted for several seconds. This ball mushroomed and rose to a height of over 10,000 feet before it dimmed ....

All seemed to feel that they had been pre­sent at the birth of a new age."


On August 6 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later another on Nagasaki to end the war with Japan.


For four years the United States possessed a monopoly over atomic weapons. During that time Soviet scientists worked frantically on a Soviet atomic bomb – aided by spies who had actually worked on the Manhattan Project and had access to U.S. and British atomic secrets. In 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device.

The successful Soviet atomic test contributed to growing American fears of communism. U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy and others began a cam­paign to uncover suspected Communists. Without any real evidence, McCarthy accused many people of communist activities, ruining their careers and destroying their reputations. Nevertheless, a special Congressional investigative organization, known as the House Un-American Activities Com­mittee, or HUAC, did in fact uncover several Soviet spies.

Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb only further convinced American leaders of the need to press ahead and create even more powerful weapons, which in turn fueled Soviet determination to keep pace. With neither side trusting the other, and each convinced that the other represented the antithesis of its own way of life, a new arms race was underway.

While the earlier bombs had produced their energy from fission, another process-fusion-promised to yield bombs immensely more destructive. Fusion bombs (also called thermonuclear bombs) derived their energy from combining hydrogen atoms in the same kind of reaction that fuels the sun.

The first U.S. hydrogen blast took place in November 1952. The first Soviet detonation of a hydrogen bomb followed in August 1953. During the 1950s both superpowers also began developing long-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could strike enemy targets from either the United States or the Soviet Union.


Antinuclear Efforts

The nuclear arms race provoked protests by many people who feared that the new weapons would produce a war far more destructive than even World War II. During the early years of the nuclear era, the protests were essentially confined to the United States and Western Europe. A 1946 U.S. proposal would have made atomic energy an international venture after a transition period, but Stalin rejected the plan.

During the 1950s many antinu­clear protests focused on the problem of fallout-radioactive dust and other particles from nuclear blasts that are potentially harmful to living things. By the late 1950s scientists could detect radioactive material almost everywhere-in livestock, in crops, in drinking water, in the bones of children. Medical scientists predicted sharp increases in rates of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. People everywhere demanded that the superpowers cease testing.

At the end of the 1950s, the superpowers began making plans for talks on nuclear arms control. In 1959 Khrushchev visited the United States, and together he and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower planned a summit that would be held the following year in Paris. In May 1960, however, Khrushchev announced that an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower refused to apolo­gize for the incident, maintaining that keeping tabs on developments in the Soviet Union was vital to U.S. security. Outraged, Khrushchev refused to meet with Eisenhower. 


The arms race produced enormously power­ful weapons, as well as fears and protests about the dangers these weapons posed.


To the Brink

The arms race elevated the level of tension between the superpowers. Both countries hoped to gain political advantage by raising the possibility of military action-action that might result in the use of nuclear weapons. This practice became known as brinkmanship-the act of moving to the brink of nuclear war without going over.


The Berlin Wall. One of the most dangerous acts of brinkmanship involved Berlin. In November 1958 Khrushchev demanded negotiations on the future of Berlin. He threatened to conclude a separate peace treaty with East Germany-implying that Western access to Berlin might be cut off. The United States, Britain, and France denounced Khrushchev's threats, but they did agree to meet. The discus­sions, however, led nowhere. Complicating the Berlin situation was the matter of refugees. Every month, thousands of mostly young East Germans were fleeing their country for the West, often using West Berlin as an exit. Worried by the mass migration, in August 1961 the Soviets and East Germans erected a wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. Almost overnight, a wall of concrete and barbed wire, reinforced by guard towers and land mines, went up through the middle of the city.


The Cuban missile crisis. Even more nerve­wracking than the Berlin affair was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The crisis began during the summer of 1962, when the Soviet Union secretly began constructing launch sites for intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles from U.S. shores. By the time U.S. spy planes discovered the sites in October, they were nearly operational.

On October 22 U.S. President John F. Kennedy publicly demanded that Khrushchev withdraw the missiles from Cuba. He announced an American blockade of the island to prevent additional missiles or parts from arriving. He also warned Khrushchev to halt construction:


"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

For five days the world held its breath, wondering whether Khrushchev would yield to Kennedy's demand. Finally Khrushchev did, agreeing to pull the Soviet missiles out of Cuba in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and a confidential promise by Kennedy to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey.

The threat of nuclear war meant that international disagreements could grow into dangerous crises.

New directions. Although the Cuban missile crisis did not lead to war, it shook some nations' confidence in the leadership of the superpowers. Within a few years, for example, Charles de Gaulle announced that France was withdrawing its military obligations to NATO. France remained part of the Western alliance, but the French pursued an independent foreign policy. Most importantly, the Cuban missile crisis finally led to efforts by the superpowers to control the arms race. In August 1963 the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This treaty forbade nuclear testing in the atmosphere, the oceans, and outer space. The nuclear powers, however, contin­ued to test underground. A broader arms control treaty-the Non-Proliferation Treaty-followed five years later. The treaty committed the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and eventually more than 100 other countries to refrain from acquiring or spreading nuclear weapons.

Even though the Cuban missile crisis helped slow the nuclear arms race, it did not stop the Cold War. Since the communist victory in China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States had been concerned with the spread of communism in Asia. In 1954 President Eisenhower warned of the consequences of one nation falling to communism by likening countries to dominoes: "You have a row of dominoes, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly." This idea came to be known as the "domino theory." During the 1950s and early 1960s, efforts to halt communist expansion led the United States to send military advisors to South Vietnam. By 1965 U.S. involvement had escalated into a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. (See Chapter 27.)


The Cuban missile crisis caused great fear of a nuclear confrontation, but also led to negotiations to limit nuclear arms and testing.



IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following: fission

J. Robert Oppenheimer





John F. Kennedy

domino theory

1. Main Idea Why were many people frightened of the arms race, and what did some people do in response to these fears?

2.     Main Idea Why was the Cuban missile crisis impor­tant in East-West relations?

3.     Technology How did new weapons technology affect international stability?

4.     Hypothesizing Why do you think both superpowers agreed to control the further development and testing of nuclear weapons?