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How has the cold war arms race influenced 20th-century world affairs?

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The cold war arms race

The Cold War arms race stands out as the single most significant factor that shaped twentieth-century world affairs. The state of hostilities between the U.S. and the Union of Soviets Socialist Republics (USSR) transformed the spate and scope of weapons acquisition during and after WW II. Though it lasted from 1949 to 1981, the ripple effects have remained in the world to date. There was no direct military confrontation, but both powers respectively mobilized allies’ support as they jostled to expand their spheres of influence worldwide. Most of their activities were a direct spillover from and reactions to events occasioned by the war.

World war 11

As W.W. ll raged in various theatres across the globe, an ambivalence air became real among the allies. Just as the erstwhile antagonists fortuitously became united in their resolve to bring the Axis Powers to defeat, mutual suspicion, suppressed to achieve a desired goal, was high. As the allies scored one victory after another on various fronts, it became clear that conflicting interests would lead to disagreements at the end of the war. There was, therefore, a need to meet at the conference level to resolve issues arising from the war. Towards this end, the allied powers convened the first conference in Yalta, Ukraine, in February 1945.

From Yalta to Potsdam

In a sense, the Yalta conference, which held from February 4 -11, marked the start of the processes which ended WW II and heralded the Cold War. Stalin represented the Soviet Union, the United States of America, and Britain, represented by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. All three leaders reached an agreement on several issues geared towards the reorganization of post-war Europe.

First was the tacit understanding that Germany would be carved up into four zones and occupied by the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Second, Roosevelt firmly posited that the allies should create a new body known as the United Nations Organization to replace the defunct League of Nations. The proposed United Nations would have a Security Council with established veto power for the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Third, Churchill insisted that democratic governments replace Communist regimes in Eastern European countries occupied by the Soviet Union. There was also a proposal that the Soviet Union join the U.S. in the war against Japan.

Though not specified, it implied that Japan would be carved up among the powers at the cessation of hostilities. That Mongolia should no longer be part of China. Lastly, the Soviets insisted on exacting twenty million dollars ($20,000,000) as war reparations from German territory under its occupation. The powers agreed to hold another conference in July at Potsdam, Germany.

In the meantime, several critical issues surfaced in the period between the Yalta conference and the one proposed for Potsdam. First, the Soviet sweep and occupation of countries across Eastern Europe gave vent to communist influence over the entire region. President Roosevelt of the U.S. died. Harry S Truman, a staunch anti-communist, the United States of America’s new president. Also, in the interregnum, the U.S. had secretly tested the Atomic Bomb. Churchill lost in the British elections held in June, and Clement Atlee became the new Prime Minister of Britain.

The Potsdam Conference

The conference at Potsdam lasted from July 15 to August 2, 1945. Stalin represented the Soviet Union. Remarkably, President Truman represented the U.S., and Prime Minister Clement Atlee represented Britain. Significantly, Germany had surrendered to the allies on May 5 1945. Germany’s defeat meant unconditional surrender. There was much tension between the allied leaders meeting each other for the first time. However, they reached common ground in several areas during the conference. But there were also areas of disagreement.

The Powers resolved that they each take reparation from its occupied territory. The Powers demarcated the German-Polish border. Germany would be demilitarized and re- educated. Also, the Powers eradicated Nazism from all spheres of German life. Austria, too was to be split into four zones and shared among the four victorious powers. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was charged with the responsibility to conduct elections in its occupied territories. But the Powers failed to reach an agreement in some areas.

Stalin desired that Germany be crippled permanently and prevented from waging another war. Truman and Atlee disagreed. They believed that crippling Germany would aggravate an already desperate situation that could give rise to new German nationalism. Stalin wanted a share of territory in West Germany as well as in Japan after its surrender. Truman rejected both proposals and went further to demand that the Soviets stop the spread of Communism in eastern Europe. Stalin insisted on maintaining Soviet stranglehold over occupied territories for strategic reasons, insisting that they would serve as a bulwark against future invasion from the west.

The US cold war strategy of containment

The U.S. devised a Cold War strategy of containment consisting of a series of measures adopted to stop the spread of Communism in Europe and particularly elsewhere around the globe. Events at the Potsdam summit exposed the extent of disagreements between the western allies and the Soviet Union. President Truman departed Potsdam with a determination to redress whatever the ravages war had created in Europe at variance with his internationalist principles. But first, the war had to be brought to an end as quickly as possible.

Truman rebuffed Stalin’s overture of joining the war against Japan because the Soviet leader requested a portion of Japanese territory. As in Europe, the allies would only settle for unconditional surrender. Japanese brutality in the war had cost the U.S. enormous and intolerable casualties. One week after the Potsdam conference, Truman ordered the use of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and later, Nagasaki. Japan surrendered the following week unconditionally.

Reconstruction in war-torn Europe

With the war over, Truman’s next step was the reconstruction in war-torn Europe. He demobilized the U.S. wartime military forces to reduce defence spending. In a well-calculated and coordinated effort, he focused on solutions to problems of security and reconstruction. However, Stalin took advantage of Truman’s lack of interest in the military build-up to forcefully plant Communist regimes in occupied eastern and central European countries. He maintained a robust military-industrial complex to sustain his policy of forceful implementation of Communism in Europe. The Soviet leader paid little or no attention to Russia’s reconstruction of the extensive war damage suffered by Russia and the countries she occupied in Europe.

The U.S. adopted the strategy of containment to check the further spread of Communism in Europe and elsewhere. The U.S. enacted steps to achieve its objectives: The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Korean War and the heavy build-up in conventional and nuclear arms. His successor, Eisenhower, accepted a stalemate in the Korean war and cut defence spending by so doing. He went further to open dialogue with Moscow to check the escalating arms race.

Truman’s cold war doctrine

Truman’s Cold War Doctrine was the acclaimed open declaration of the Cold War by historians. It was an open avowal of U.S. stance against Communism. In his address to Congress on March 12, 1947, President Truman declared that the U.S. would give military assistance and economic aid to Greece to fight against Communism. Besides, he made clear U.S. intentions to give military and economic support to any country whose political stability came under threat from was threatened by Communism. The Marshall Plan, on the other hand, was the boisterous effort of the U.S. government in its donation of 17 billion dollars for the reconstruction of war damage in western Europe.

Berlin airlift

The period of multinational occupation of post World War ll Germany, the Soviet Union obstructed the Western Allies’ railway, road and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. Berlin was located inside Soviet-occupied Germany but shared among the four victorious allies: US, Britain and France in the west and USSR in the east. The blockade was one of the first major crisis of the Cold War. In 1948 as the west moved to introduce economic reforms that align with western ideology in their city sector, the Soviets protested. The allies went ahead. The Soviets followed with the blockade. West Berliners were stranded, left without food and other essential daily requirements. The only alternative left to the allies was to airlift all requirements to West Berlin. The allied successfully carried out the airlift from 1948 to 1949 when the Soviets called off the blockade.

Communism in China

A new communist regime was established in China, prompting the old China Republic led by the Kuomintang Party to relocate to Taiwan. Two Governments emerged in Korea: one in the North and the other in the South. Both claimed to govern the country. China and the Soviet Union aided the North and established Communism as the state ideology. Ultimately, existing tensions led to war between the two, and the U.S. supported the South. The battle raged unabated until Stalin died in 1953. President Eisenhower sued for an armistice, and both parties signed a treaty that has remained so to date. The term armistice means “a temporary suspension of hostilities by agreement”. That accounts for the volatile situation in the Korean peninsular as we have it today.

In 1955 Nikita Khrushchev created the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of Eastern block nations in reaction to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization set up by the U.S. in 1948. The rivalry intensified between the two powers. They stepped up renewed efforts to spread their spheres of influence in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia.

Soviet bomb triggers Cold war nuclear arms race

On August 29, 1949, the Soviets successfully tested the Atomic Bomb code-named Joe and terminated the American nuclear monopoly. News of the Soviet Bomb sent jitters across Europe and America. The stage seemed set for a long – drawn arms race. President Truman demanded that the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) undertake an intensive re-evaluation of America’s Cold War strategy.

The 1950 report from the NSC called for a massive increase in military spending and dramatic acceleration to develop the next stage of nuclear weapons. On September 24, 1951, the Soviets tested another bomb code-named Joe II.

The United States responded with its first Hydrogen Bomb test in the Pacific Ocean on November 2 1952. By the following year, 1953, the Soviet Union also exploded its first Hydrogen Bomb. The U.S. again detonated its most giant Hydrogen Bomb named Taso Brago on March 4, 1954. It had a capacity of 14.8 megatons or 14.8 million tons of TNT.

With the heightened pace of tests and proven abilities certified by both powers, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed Nuclear Test Ban’s first s in 1958. By this treaty, both forces suspended nuclear arms testing. A follow – up Trilateral Test Ban Treaty was signed by Britain, the U.S. and USSR in 1963 after Britain tested the Hydrogen bomb. However, by this time, the emphasis had shifted to the development of ballistic missiles.

Cold war rocket technology

Perhaps the most significant catalyst from the hydrogen bomb tests was rocket technology. With an intensified ballistic missile programme, Khrushchev solidified Soviet gains in rocket and missile technology. The launch of the Sputnik-1 meant that the Soviets had the edge over the U.S. in that area. It became a defining factor in the ensuing cold war arms race. The Kennedy – Johnson administration escalated the programme of nuclear arms build-up. In the meantime, the Apollo Space programme of the U.S. also gained momentum. The rivalry between the two blocs triggered the space race in earnest. After Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in 1961, the U.S. began to feel vulnerable. Kennedy again called for a re-evaluation of U.S. defence strategy. The panel he instituted prompted the development of a second strike capability of submarine-launched missiles first by the U.S. and later the USSR, thus ensuring Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). In conclusion, the Soviets launched the first satellite and man into space. The U.S. followed with a landing on the moon.

Cold War Arms Race: Cuban missile crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is also known as the October Crisis of 1962. This was a key event that amplified the cold war arms race. It lasted from October 16 to November 20, 1962. The roots of the crisis, which peaked with the thirteen days of extreme tension and potentially put the world at the brink of a nuclear war, is traceable to earlier events in the Caribbean island nation.

In1959, Cuba openly announced it had adopted Communism as a state ideology, bringing it under the Soviet sphere of influence. The existing bi – polarity tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time made Cuba’s declaration resonate with a sacrilege committed in the backwaters of Washington DC. The Kennedy administration mobilized Cuban exiles in the U.S. to undertake an ill-fated invasion of Cuba. It became known as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The Soviet Union, already irked by U.S. deployment of missiles in Italy and Turkey to checkmate the spread of Communism in Europe, matched this move with a shipment and installation of ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. U.S. warships blocked an additional load of missiles to Cuba by the Soviet Union in what the government in Washington dubbed “quarantine”.

Both countries’ leaders were for thirteen days embroiled in a political and military standoff from October 16-28. In the end, diplomacy prevailed over military confrontation, saving the world from what would have been a monumental nuclear catastrophe. Perhaps the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s horrors saved the world from a repeat of the horrific ordeal.

Post-1969 era

Nixon and Ford moved to scale back American military commitments by withdrawing from Vietnam in 1973. The administration pursued the policy of “detente” with the USSR. At the same time, Carter went further to renounce Cold War attitudes and expenditures: a step aimed at deescalating the cold war arms race.

Brezhnev seized the initiative and embarked on policies to extend Soviet influence and power to new levels enabling the USSR to equal or surpass the U.S. in nuclear arms production.

U. S.   VS    U.S.S.R.: A numerical comparison of 1976 and 1981

U. S.U.S.S.R.
STRATEGIC NUCLEAR WARHEADS6,8422,943
7,1926,302
STRATEGIC NUCLEAR LAUNCHERS1,7102,375
1,6282,384
SUBMARINES115329
121370
LARGE WARSHIPS210257
223268
TANKS9,18142,000
11,50048,000
ARTILLERY4,95513,900
5,14019,300
COMBAT AIRCRAFT3,6654,740
3,9884,885
MANPOWER IN MILLIONS2.134.88
2.094.84
Source: John M. Collins, Congressional Research Service


After 1980, under Ronald Reagan, the U.S. adopted a new strategy. Reagan declared in 1981 that Communism was in the throes of imminent collapse and that it marked a “sad bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are now being written”. His words meant nothing to the world at the time, but the truth soon came to light.

The Soviet economy was going through extreme distress. Reagan seized the opportunity to renew the arms race while waging economic warfare against the Soviet Union when the war in Afghanistan had already strained the economy to breaking point. It was clear from the calculations of shrewd strategists that the Soviet economy no longer possessed the elasticity required to survive a protracted arms race. Gorbachev had to resolve outstanding disputes abroad and tolerate more Human Rights at home. The policy of “glasnost” spelt doom for the Soviet Union.

End of the cold war

There is growing controversy among historians over when the cold war era ended. Two events, however, lend credence to confirm the demise. First was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, the second was the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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My interest and love for blogging in the area of political and economic developments were cultivated during my days at Government College Ughelli. We had a set of very committed and dedicated teachers from the UK, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There were two American Peace Corps members along with a handful of Africans. In April 1970 we watched a documentary on John F Kennedy. That documentary inspired me greatly. The following day I visited the College library for more information. I went through a large stack of The Readers Digest. I also stumbled across another international journal, The English Listener. Upon graduation from college and while at the University of Ibadan, l read American Time Newsweek magazines regularly. My bias was for International Relations. This background has proved an invaluable asset to me in my years of teaching and contributing articles to media organizations as a freelance writer and encouraged me to set up a blog: https://gblobalinquest.com

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