A Brief History
February 9, 1959 opened a new and scary chapter in the atomic age when the U.S.S.R. fielded the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) armed with a nuclear warhead, the R-7 Semyorka.
Digging deeper, we find the United States (and allies) and the U.S.S.R. (and its allies) engaged in a scary Cold War from the end of World War II until 1991 when the U.S.S.R. finally disintegrated.
The reason for the scariness can be summed up in one word: Nukes! The prospect of total nuclear war was sobering, since mutual nuclear destruction could actually have ended modern civilization as we knew it and perhaps have killed billions of people. Even those who would not have died as a direct result of the nuclear blasts might later have starved in the “nuclear winter” caused by millions of tons of ash in the air blocking the sun. Survivors would have been left with a world where much of the prime real estate would be irradiated for hundreds or thousands of years.
Prior to the advent of the ICBM, one way nuclear warheads could be delivered was by artillery guns, good only for local battlefield use and a danger to the troops that shot them! Nuclear warheads could also be delivered by bomber aircraft such as the American B-52 Stratofortress or the Soviet Tu-20 Bear (later called the Tu-95). Although these aircraft could, with aerial refueling, conceivably hit any target on the earth, prior history showed that bombers did not always get through. Anti-aircraft missiles had been invented, jet fighter airplanes were on the ready to shoot bombers down, and intricate radar systems were employed to give hours of warning to either side should the other side decide to attack.
Suddenly, the situation changed! With a surprise ICBM attack, either side would only have 20 minutes or so warning time before impact, and there was no known way to stop the incoming missiles. The world became a much more dangerous place as the United States quickly fielded its own ICBMs and then took things a step further by successfully deploying submarine-launched missiles and loaded multiple nuclear warheads on their land and sea missiles. Not surprisingly, the Soviets quickly matched that capability, and Mutually Assured Destruction (known appropriately as MAD) became the theory that would supposedly protect everyone by making nuclear war un-winnable.
Thousands of warheads were fielded by both sides until the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, many countries now have nuclear weapons and several more are intent on obtaining nukes or making their own. One cannot help but wonder how many houses, farms, water purification plants and schools could have been built with the time and resources the world has put into nuclear weapons systems!
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For more information, please see…
Burns, Richard Dean and Joseph M. Siracusa. A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy, and Politics: A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race [2 volumes]: Weapons, Strategy, and Politics (Praeger Security International). Praeger, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a diagram by Nasa / Peter Gorin / Emmanuel Dissais showing the evolution of Soviet space launch vehicles in the early years, is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGov, NASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)
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