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On February 1946, a message arrived in Washington from Moscow, sent by diplomat George F. Kennan. This “Long Telegram”, as it is known, explained in 8,000 words how the soviets longed for a war against the United States of America (USA) and advised the American government to provide an answer to the communist threat. This way began the so-called Cold War, a conflict that lasted for almost 50 years during which the world assisted helpless while the two great superpowers, the USSR and the USA, danced around each other while never yet touching. However, there was a third guest to such a precariously tense ball: the nuclear weaponry. During the Cold War, both superpowers devoted their resources to the construction of a nuclear arsenal that could overpower that of their enemy, with the result that by the end of the 20th century they could destroy the Earth several times. Were nuclear weapons necessary to prevent the enemy from attacking? Were they conscious of what they were creating, or did they just build the weapons without any planification, not caring how they were going to be used?
After the defeat of Germany and Italy, which marked the conclusion of World War II, the Japanese government refused to surrender and continued to wage war against the Allies. American president Harry S. Truman was faced with a dilemma: continue to fight the Japanese army and condemn thousands of American soldiers to die; or throw the recently discovered atomic bomb to force their surrender. Truman chose the second option and released two atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1946), which were called “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, respectively. These bombs devastated everything in a radius of 2 kilometres, causing such an explosion that it was necessary to create a new unit to measure it: the kiloton (1,000 tons of TNT). Facing such destructive power, the Japanese had no choice but surrender to the USA.
When the Cold War started, it was clear that the USA had a great advantage. The outbreak of war would have meant the total annihilation of the USSR, due to the nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had proved that the USA had no problem on launching their atomic bombs in order to rapidly put an end to a conflict. And if they decided to use those weapons, what could the USSR do to stop them or to protect themselves? It was necessary to create a nuclear arsenal of their own as soon as possible, in order to settle the balance. This was finally achieved in 1949 when the Rosenbergs (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) allegedly provided the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets from the United States. This certainly balanced the situation, at the same time that it contributed to creating a climate of hysteria all throughout the USA.
This event turned an already tense situation into a mad one. Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, as it was called; which meant that each of the superpowers had the means to completely destroy the other. In fact, in the climax of the nuclear arms race, both countries could have destroyed the Earth several times over. This created an unstable equilibrium, the balance of terror, where neither of the superpowers could attack the other out of fear of its arsenal. At the same time, each superpower tried to upgrade its weapons, in an attempt to overpower its enemy. But these weapons were not built to be used, they were built to dissuade the enemy to attack. However, with such an arsenal, a single mistake would have meant the complete annihilation of the world as we know it. A clear example of this took place in October 1962, as it will be explained later.
But first, what are nuclear weapons? In a conventional explosion, energy is released, and the atoms vibrate. In a nuclear explosion, the subatomic particles vibrate too, and the amount of energy released is many times higher. During the Cold War, two different types of nuclear bombs were used: atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs. The atomic bomb used elements like Uranium or Plutonium in order to produce nuclear fission: the nucleus of the atom split and released energy. The power of these bombs is measured in kilotons (1,000 tons of TNT). Both “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were atomic bombs. Later in the arms race, hydrogen bombs were created. These bombs consisted of two parts: first, they released energy through nuclear fission, and then this energy was used to produce the fusion of hydrogen atoms since nuclear fusion releases a much larger amount of energy than nuclear fission. It is so much larger that hydrogen bombs were not measured in kilotons anymore, their power was measured in megatons (1,000,000 tons of TNT). Furthermore, apart from the destructive power of nuclear bombs, it should be noted that these weapons use radioactive elements which fill the area of detonation with harmful radiation. Apart from the bomb, a vector to transport it was needed. The first vectors used were bombers (like the “Enola Gay”, used to throw the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Later, different kinds of missiles were built, which meant that the superpowers could reach any part of the world with their bombs.
As it has been previously stated, any mistake could have led to a nuclear war between the two superpowers, a war where the rest of the world would have been caught in the crossfire. And there were plenty of opportunities for this to happen. For instance, during the Cold War, China was divided into two: the communist party, the People´s Republic of China, led by Mao Tse Tung; and the capitalist part, which was limited to the island of Taiwan, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan had a treaty with the USA, who was forced to protect it in times of war. Mao was an allied of the USSR, which meant that the Soviets had to support Mao whenever war broke out. However, after Stalin’s death, Mao refused to follow the orders of his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, whom he thought to be weak. Seeking a confrontation with Khrushchev, Mao decided in 1958 to bomb the islands of Matsu and Quemoy, which belonged to Taiwan. Both superpowers were at the brink of war until Mao decided to suddenly stop the bombings.
About three years later, in 1961, another crisis was about to trigger a nuclear war. This time, the minefield was Germany. After World War II, Germany had been divided into two blocks, the capitalist and the communist block. Furthermore, the capital city, Berlin, had been divided into two as well. As Berlin was in the middle of the communist territory this meant that there was a piece of isolated capitalist land surrounded by the communist block. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named president of the USA, Khrushchev demanded a solution for the German situation. The USA was torn between those who were in favour of giving Berlin to the communists and those in favour of holding on to it. The tension between the two superpowers escalated until the Soviets took things into their own hands and the night from the 12th to the 13th of August they built a wall to separate both sides of Berlin. This way another catastrophe was prevented.
However, the most disastrous event took place on the 14th of October 1962, the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis. The communists reached the conclusion that the only way to balance the situation with the USA would be to place nuclear bases in Cuba, just like the nuclear bases the USA had in Turkey which were threatening the USSR. And so, the Soviets sent nuclear missiles to Cuba in the uttermost secret (it is still not known how they managed to get the missiles in Cuba without the USA noticing). Several days later, on the 22nd of October, a U-2 plane flying over Cuba detected military facilities with an unknown purpose. This information was sent to Washington, were it was determined that they were missile launching facilities. The American government panicked until another U-2 plane confirmed that the facilities only had the vectors, and the nuclear charge has not yet arrived. President Kennedy took the problem to the United Nations (UN) and demanded that the communists withdraw their nuclear weapons from Cuba. For some days it seemed that war was going to break out at any moment. However, in the end, the USA and the USSR reached an agreement: the USSR would remove the nuclear weapons from Cuba, and in exchange, the USA would not attack the Cuban government and it would remove its nuclear bases from Turkey.
As it has been explained, during the Cold War there were many opportunities when it could have heated up but instead, the balance tilted towards peace and dialogue. But if things had turned out differently, the world would be nowadays a desolate radioactive waste. Were the USA and the USSR conscious of this while they invested their money in nuclear weapons? And what about the scientists that worked on these projects? As the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer said in one of his songs (called “Wernher von Braun”): “once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department”.
That single phrase sums up the attitude towards the nuclear bomb of the period. When these weapons were built, the only thing that was cared about was that it should reach its destination and explode. Whatever happened once it exploded was of no concern to the people who worked on it, it was a matter for the army and for the president. And so, more and more powerful nuclear weapons were built every day. As a matter of fact, by the 1960s the USA had approximately 27,000 nuclear bombs, while the USSR had about 7,000 bombs. However, this data changed very soon when the USSR dramatically increased its production of nuclear weapons, up to the point where it was necessary to sign a treaty regulating the creation of nuclear weapons: the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks).
It would seem that both superpowers had finally realised what they were dealing with and had agreed to stop the mass production of nuclear weapons. Not quite. The treaty said “limitation”, not “stoppage” or “reduction”, which meant that the USA and the USSR could continue producing their weapons, only not at the same rate as before. Furthermore, the treaty only applied to the so-called strategic arms, which only included SLBM (Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile) and ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). Other types of missiles (short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range…) could be produced without any type of restriction. This treaty was signed in 1972, ten years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently, that crisis, where the world was at the brink of a nuclear disaster, taught nothing to both superpowers.
However, yet another matter was agreed in the SALT, much more preoccupying. One of the things that the USA and USSR debated was the Anti-ballistic Missiles (ABM). These missiles were used to prevent nuclear attacks: if a bomb flew towards the USA or the USSR, the ABMs launched another missile, which collided with the bomb and detonated it before it reached its destination. Both the USA and the USSR agreed on having just two ABM stations each. One of the stations would protect the capitals (Washington and Moscow), while the other could be placed freely. The sensible thing would have been to use that ABM station to protect the largest number of cities possible. However, both superpowers decided to protect their nuclear arsenal. Again, whatever happened when nuclear bombs started dropping from the sky was of no interest. The most important thing was to continue creating bombs and protecting them so that the enemy could not obtain any advantage.
It is clear that nuclear weapons are a double-edged sword. Surely, they contributed to maintaining peace after World War II for about 60 years. Had it not been for nuclear arms, the USA and the USSR would have probably engaged in a fight that would have watered the fields with blood. In a certain way, this was only prevented by the ever-present threat of the atomic bomb. But at the same time, they contributed to creating a climate of hysteria and paranoia: citizens from both superpowers lived in constant fear of a nuclear attack. Very representative is the documentary “Duck and cover”, produced by the Federal Civil Defence Administration of the United States, where the citizens are warned that a soviet attack may come at any moment and they must be ready to protect themselves from the nuclear blast. It is terrifying to think that global security depended on the decisions of two men who hated each other. In traditional warfare, it is the army that decides what weapons to use. However, in order to use nuclear weapons, the president had to expressly order so himself. To put it simply: the president of the USA or the USSR pointed, and the nuclear weapons were launched to wherever his finger indicated, no questions asked. Because, as it has already been said, for the people in charge of firing these weapons, where they landed was not their department.
To sum everything up: during the Cold War, both the USA and the USSR had a huge nuclear arsenal. They could have fired this arsenal at any given point (and there were many opportunities for this to happen, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis), causing a global catastrophe. Nevertheless, neither superpower cared for the danger that nuclear weapons represented: they made agreements on the number of nuclear arms they could produce and when the tension between Washington and Moscow somewhat decreased, they even agreed on a protocol to follow if nuclear war should ever break out; which makes one wonder if they took that matter seriously. How can you talk and make agreements for a certain situation when thousands would die and cities would be destroyed should that situation ever come true?
Nuclear weapons were a dangerous thing to play with. Nevertheless, during the Cold War, both superpowers used them as a means to dissuade and discourage their enemy. It is obvious that they achieved their objectives, but at what price? These weapons are too dangerous and too terrible to be used lightly. They should not have been built in the first place, and definitely, they should not have been mass-produced during the Cold War. The nuclear war did not break out just by chance but had the balance tilted towards one side instead of the other, the result would have been much worse. And all because someone decided to build weapons without having a clear idea of how these weapons could be used or the destruction they could provoke. There is an image that represents this situation: it shows Kennedy and Khrushchev arm wrestling in a table where there are two switches, each of them connected to a nuclear bomb. Losing means activating the switch and detonating the bomb. The only reason we are alive today is because that competition finished with a draw.
Because of that, it is unacceptable that global peace depended on nuclear weapons. First, because they could have been fired by mistake, leading to a global conflict. Second, because peace cannot be based on fear: there will come a time when the situation is no longer be sustainable and war will be inevitable. Taking all of this into account, it is a miracle that the Cold War ended as it did, when there were high chances of a conflict. The thing is that, ironically, nuclear weapons were both the problem and the solution: an object for war maintained the peace for almost 50 years. Large amounts of money were spent on building arms for protection, but these arms were not fired at any time. The very thing that produced mass hysteria and paranoia among the citizens contributed to making them feel safe and secure. From this, we can conclude that, even though nuclear weapons are too dangerous and they should not have been created, the problem during the Cold War was not so much the weapons, but the people behind them: the people who chose to spend public money creating new and more powerful ways of annihilating their enemy; the people who agreed on how to use their nuclear weapons instead of agreeing not to use them; the people who limited their production of arms instead of reducing its numbers. In summary, the people who made the rockets fly and turned a blind eye when they landed.
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