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The Impact of Nuclear Power in the Cold War

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The concept of what it means to be secure and stable is highly contested and has entailed many different interpretations throughout history. The Cold War lasted for almost fifty years and raised important questions of security and stability. The United States (U.S.) and the former Soviet Union (USSR) — along with their alliances the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact — were pitted against each other in an ideological conflict. The Cold War affected other nations across the globe, in the form of security breaches and proxy wars (Fink, 2014). After World War Two, there was a notable advancement in nuclear technology, as the U.S. and Soviet Union increased their stockpiles dramatically (Fink, 2014). Nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapons on the planet and the role of nuclear weapons during the Cold War is a contested issue. Some believe that the sheer power of the nuclear weapons guaranteed mutually assured destruction thus preventing another full out global conflict. Others argue that they simply further intensified an already delicate situation. While discussing nuclear weapons and their impact on global conflict it is important to consider two theories: the stability-instability paradox and nuclear deterrence theory. Each of these theories relate to issues of stability and security during the Cold War. This essay will argue that nuclear weapons did not maintain a sense of stability during the Cold War, as their incredible capacity, impact on global ideology and strong influence during proxy wars and the Cuban Missile Crisis allotted a sense of fear and tension throughout the world.

The stability-instability paradox is an international relations theory regarding the use and affect of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It argues that when two countries possess nuclear weapons it decreases the chance of direct war between the two powers, but the possibility of minor conflicts or proxy wars increases (Krepon, 2005). This exact circumstance occurred during the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons pointed at each other yet never actually fired a shot (Krepon, 2005). They did however participate in many proxy wars in places such as Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East (Krepon, 2005) These did not directly involve the two main countries yet echoed ideologies and anti-communist beliefs.

Nuclear deterrence theory (or Nuclear Peace theory) was an approach the United States took during most of the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence suggests that nuclear weapons will deter the enemy through the possibility of mutually assured destruction (Lebow and Stein, 1995). In other words, this argued for nuclear peace and that this kind of threat would be enough to prevent global conflict. The U.S. believed that they could raise the threat of their nuclear weapons to intimate the Soviet Union and not cause any harm (Lebow and Stein, 1995). Nonetheless, this was difficult in cases such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. was threatening Cuba and the spread of communism, but the Soviet Union was aiding Cuban leader Fidel Castro (Munton and Welch, 2016). The U.S. felt like they were no other options than to fight back with the same capabilities but still this event never transpired farther than intimidation and instability. Both sides were unsure of whether the other would attack.

These two theories developed because the international community needed a way of understanding what was happening during the U.S.-Soviet arms race. The purpose of these nuclear weapons was to propose a sense of stability among nations, as they now had colossally powerful weapons behind them. It is seen that while these are potent weapons, they are extremely terrifying and posses the capability to eradicate entire cities in seconds. The sheer capacity of nuclear weapons was what kept the fear alive, and by extension, kept the world from a third World War. This was proved through the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following World War Two. In 1945, an American B-29 Bomber, the Enola Gay dropped two hydrogen bombs on each island after Japan refused to surrender during the Potsdam Conference (Dyck, 2008). According to the Atomic Archive, there were an estimated 200 000 total casualties and 105 000 deaths all together (Atomic Archive, 2015). Among those, almost 70 000 were killed instantly and those within a 1000ft radius of the bombs had a mortality rate of 93.0% (Atomic Archive, 2015). Asides from instant casualties, long term effects such as radiation from the bombs are still affecting survivors today (Dyck, 2008). This event proved the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons would have on a country even before the Cold War had begun. Yet, while the threat of mutually assured destruction still lingered in the air, this reflects the deterrence theory, as both countries knew of the capabilities of the weapons and would soon use them to their advantage to intimidate the other side through nuclear testing.

The capacity of these weapons was also seen in the various testing done during the Cold War. Many of the tests done by the United States were done over the Pacific Ocean off the Marshal Islands through atmospheric testing (Fink, 2014). These tests proved to be unstable as those living in surrounding areas were beginning to be affected by nuclear radioactive fallout. Once the nuclear bombs were denoted, the fallout would spread far and wide (Fink, 2014). Many people living in the islands were overcome by radiation sicknesses and increased cancer rates (Fink, 2014). In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was also testing its fair share of nuclear weapons. In the year 1962, they conducted 78 nuclear weapon tests (Fink, 2014). These nuclear tests did not promote stability, as they intensified tensions and locked the U.S. and the USSR in an arms race. Nuclear weapons and instability go hand in hand, and this is not just because of tests. As well, the mere placement of nuclear weapons can generate instability as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is an excellent example of the instability the political sphere has when dealing with nuclear weapons (Munton and Welch, 2012). This event involved the American president John F. Kennedy and his Department of National Security, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban socialist reformer Fidel Castro (Munton and Welch, 2012). It played out only between the Whitehouse and the Kremlin with little input from other foreign policy bureaucracies. America had placed ballistic weapons in Turkey and Italy, and the Soviet Union responded by building connections with Cuba eventually placing their own nuclear weapons there.

The Cold War had severe implications for Cuba and Latin America in general (Munton and Welch, 2012). The United States devoted so much of its time and resources towards rebuilding Western Europe that it severely affected its relations with Latin America. The history of U.S. Cuban relations was a starting point for the Cuban Missile Crisis itself. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked closely with Washington D.C. to hinder Fidel Castro and his socialist tendencies. Castro was never considered a Communist but his relations with Khrushchev and the USSR looked suspicious to the eyes of the U.S. This created hostility between Castro and the U.S. and, “is precisely what provided the Soviet Union with the opportunity to try to protect a nascent socialist state in the Western Hemisphere and to take advantage of Cuba’s geographical position to shore up its nuclear inferiority” (Munton and Welch, 2012). This situation added a sense of instability between the U.S. and the Soviet Union regarding nuclear weapons as the USSR was directly outside of the United States’ door. During this time as well, the U.S. had just failed its Bay of Piggs invasion against Castro. This unsteady relationship with Cuba also defied the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed the U.S. to trade with any European Colony (Munton and Welch, 2012). Thus, when Castro and Khrushchev agreed to place nuclear weapons on the shores of Cuba, instability rose. Kennedy and his advisors investigated the situations immediately, and the missile preparations were confirmed when an Air Force plane took clear photographs of medium range and intermediate range ballistic missile facilities (Munton and Welch, 2012). The United States created a military blockade against the Soviet Union and demanded the weapons be brought back to the Soviet Union (Munton and Welch, 2012). After a long, tense period the USSR finally agreed that they would publicly dismantle their weapons and return them to the Soviet Union in exchange for U.S. declaration to never invade Cuba again (Munton and Welch, 2012).

The Cuban Missile Crisis relates to the stability-instability paradox. It had the world at the edge of its seat for thirteen days and was the closest the U.S. and Soviet Union ever came to a direct conflict. Rather than creating stability by a lack of direct conflict, it instead raised fear both in and out of the Oval Office. Citizens in America and Cuba both were affected by this event as they were unsure as to whether there would be all out nuclear war, destroying their homes (Munton and Welch, 2012). Both leaders acted irrationally out of anger and lack of understanding towards the opposing ideology. The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis proved that the Cold War’s arms race was not stable.

Throughout the Cold War, many proxy wars developed due to the stability-instability paradox and U.S.-Soviet Tensions. These proxy wars were seen in countries like Vietnam and Korea, and in the Middle East with various invasions. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were never directly involved but often sided with those who echoed their ideology. Nuclear weapons were a popular and effective resource and those involved in proxy wars felt confident if their allies had them. In the Vietnam War (1954-1975), North Vietnam received boundless aid and weapons from Moscow including aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles and radar systems. (Simha, 2015). They also donated up to two million dollars every day to the military through food, supplies, medication and spare parts. This was given because the USSR knew that South Vietnam was being backed by the United States. By the middle of the war, North Vietnam relied solely on Soviet artillery and machines severely outnumbering their counterparts in the south (Simha, 2015). Vietnam was one of the most unstable and deadly proxy wars of the Cold War era and goes to show how nuclear weapons and ideology can become such a revision for how wars are fought. The Soviet Union also aided North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953) by offering air support and airplanes to the Korean military (Sandler, 1999). This was another new type of battle as it was fought mostly in jets. The U.S. involvement in the Korean War closely followed the Soviet Unions, because of the Truman Doctrine on containment, it sounded like the spread of Soviet communism (Sandler, 1999). Nuclear weapons and bombs were apparent during the Korean War when four B-29 jets were stationed near Seoul. The U.S. were decisive on whether to initiate any nuclear involvement (Sandler, 1999). Both the Korean and Vietnam wars prove how both the U.S. and Soviet Union’s nuclear tendencies got involved in these proxy wars. Secondly, in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan thus starting one of the longest wars in the Middle East although the USSR’s involvement ended in 1989. The Soviet Union arrived, wanting to shore up the pro Soviet regime in Kabul and nearly 100 000 Soviet soldiers took over all cities, highways and transportations (Taylor, 2014). Support for the rebels by NATO came pouring in shortly and with it millions of civilian casualties to try and contain Soviet expansion. (Taylor, 2014). This opened up many nuclear programs in the Middle East, as the Soviet Union introduced this new type of weapons of mass destruction to the elites there (Fink, 2014).

The effects of nuclear weapons and the Cold War did not just cause instability in large scale conflicts but also changed the dynamic of how the public thought. The biggest reason for instability in the Cold War was ideology. Each side had a different belief that contradicted the other and due to a lack of understanding or knowledge it made each side fearful of the other. Thus the need for nuclear weapons pointed at them became a necessity for the protection. The United States was greatly concerned about the spread of communism from the Soviet Union, and the USSR was concerned of capitalistic intervention from their enemies. Ideological conflicts like this even continued into the 21st Century with Islam and Western countries. Nuclear weapons did not help the fear of the other side, as they always had to have more power than the other, therefore stockpiles skyrocketed during the Cold War despite either side really only needing a couple to do the required damage. By the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had almost 10 000 nuclear warheads each among thousands of other ballistic weapons (Fink, 2014). As one sides numbers rose, so did the others. This fear of the expansion of communism became a collective opinion among the West, and anti-communist propaganda of “the Red Menace” was powerful in schools, the workplace and media outlets (Fink, 2014). It also affected how the proxy wars were fought as mentioned early. Images depicting nuclear destruction by the Soviet Union surfaced all over North America and Europe showing the disastrous effects of a communist nation. TV news channels would broadcast safety procedures to be done in the event of a Soviet attack, and showed how to properly dismiss those who were following Communist doctrine (Fink, 2014). In case of nuclear war, the United States had bomb proof bunkers in which their elites and governmental higher class could hide in. In these cases, the U.S. believed that giving the public images of nuclear capability would add a sense of stability yet it only induced greater fear of the other side.

Stability is defined in relation to the Cold War as “the probability that the system retains all of its essential characteristics: that no single nation becomes dominant; that most of its members continue to survive; and that large-scale war does not occur.” (Gaddis, 1998). The aftermath of the Cold War and the arms race left many wondering what it means to have stability and safety. Through most of the Cold War the Soviet Union prided itself on hiding its capabilities from the U.S. but that was only until the arms race began and they had to prove their strengths against the enemy (Gaddis, 1989). The atomic bomb however was not meant to have any clear winners or losers, as the end result would be destruction. This may have kept the powers at bay, yet traumatized the public with the potential apocalyptic landscape that could be left over. Today, there are many left over problems from the Cold War, and the capacity of nuclear weapons. Now many of the most powerful countries have hundreds if not, thousands of nuclear weapons that are just one call away from being detonated. There are several nuclear containment sites left over from Soviet missile tests and construction in modern Russia. Towns and cities near and in Russia remain contaminated by radioactive particles lingering in the air, notably uranium and plutonium. The United States have continued their imperialistic ways through constructing military bases across the world and promoting their western view of capitalism to be the ideal. Currently the U.S. has over 1000 military bases in 63 countries (Lutz, 2009) just in case extremists spread their ideology like Soviet Union did. Counties across the globe carry nuclear weapons in their arsenals and have further advanced weapons of mass destruction through chemical and biological warfare. The Cold War Arms race was an incredibly dangerous part of the Cold War while it was meant to be incentive to deter away from nuclear war, it created instability. This was shown through there incredible capacity, strong impact on proxy wars and global ideology and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Nuclear weapons are highly dangerous and became a matter of psychological warfare among the U.S. and Soviet Union.

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