The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union probably began as soon as the Soviets heard about the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.
In 1949, the Soviets—who had been working frantically to catch up with the Americans' nuclear technologies—detonated their first atomic bomb, and throughout the 1950s the two nations raced to build ever-growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
By the 1960s, however, both sides began to question whether continuing to build their nuclear arsenals was really beneficial. Each country had enough weapons to destroy the other multiple times over—the U.S. possessed around 30,000 nuclear warheads while the Soviets had about 5,000. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had developed the policy of "massive retaliation," whereby nuclear weapons' real power was to deter attacks. Dulles reasoned that no nation would want to risk "massive retaliation" with nuclear weapons by attacking American interests abroad.
President Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of State Robert McNamara built upon Dulles' ideas of deterrence to develop the policy of "Mutual Assured Destruction." If both Americans and Soviets adopted a policy of massive retaliation, and if both maintained a large enough nuclear arsenal to ensure each other's complete annihilation in the event of nuclear war, then the consequences of nuclear war would be so high that neither would ever launch a nuclear attack.
So, the Mutual Assured Destruction inherent in nuclear war would forever deter either side from ever starting one. Huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, paradoxically, were the only thing that could be depended upon to save the world from destruction by huge arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Many critics seized upon Mutual Assured Destruction's unfortunate acronym—MAD—to decry the policy a form of institutionalized madness, perpetuating a worldwide "balance of terror" that would forever threaten to end human civilization via nuclear holocaust.
While the critics had a point—on several occasions since 1945 nuclear weapons have come terrifyingly close to being used, either by accident or miscalculation—anti-nuclear activists have never been able to develop a credible strategy for stuffing the nuclear genie back into the bottle.
Mad as it may have been, MAD did succeed in its most basic objective: the Soviet Union and United States never destroyed each other in nuclear war.
Well, they haven't yet, anyway.
Surprisingly, perhaps, MAD led to the first successful nuclear arms control agreements. Once both sides possessed enough warheads to destroy each other completely, there was no need to continue racing to build ever-larger nuclear arsenals. After all, what was the point of being able to destroy the entire world many times over? After growing quickly throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the American nuclear stockpile actually shrank slowly from a peak of 31,323 warheads in 1966 to 23,387 by 1980.
Which was somewhat of a relief. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 demonstrated with horrifying clarity the dangers of nuclear proliferation a.k.a. the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more countries. American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able to stave off disaster through negotiation, but at the height of the crisis, Cuban leader Fidel Castro actually pushed hard to launch a nuclear strike against the United States.
If the weapons had been under Castro's operational control, rather than Khrushchev's, we might all be dead. Er, uh, not even thought of in the first place.
In 1963, in the immediate wake of the Missile Crisis, the leaders of the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain joined together to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which they hoped would slow new development of nuclear weapons technology by banning test explosions in the atmosphere.
More than 105 other nations signed on, though Cuba, China, and France all refused to join. While all three of those nations were allied with nuclear powers—the U.S. in the case of France and the USSR in the case of Cuba and China—all three felt that only by controlling their own nuclear arsenals could they maintain their independence in world affairs.
France obtained the bomb in 1960, and China followed quickly after. While Chairman Mao had once dismissed the atom bomb as nothing more than a "paper tiger"—a weapon that looked fearsome but was worthless in battle—by the 1960s China desperately hoped to join the ranks of the nuclear powers. In 1964, Chinese scientists successfully detonated their first bomb.
The proliferation of nuclear technology to France and China only intensified American, British, and Soviet efforts to prevent even more countries from obtaining the bomb. In 1968, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, agreeing not to distribute nuclear weapons to other nations and to limit the development of nuclear delivery systems.
The treaty opened each country's nuclear facilities to inspections by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. The Nixon administration met with the Soviets in Helsinki, Finland, in 1969 to begin discussing further limits on nuclear weapons. These talks led to the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), which froze the number of nuclear missiles (ICBMs) on both sides at current levels for five years.
These agreements limiting nuclear weapons contributed greatly to détente—the relaxation of Cold War tensions—during this period. Next up, Nixon's successor as president, Gerald Ford, met with Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, in Siberia at Vladivostok to discuss more arms control. Ford laid the groundwork for SALT II, a second treaty which would be signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna a few years later.
The United States had maintained a strong presence in Cuba ever since it helped Cuba gain its independence in the Spanish-American War of 1898. American businesses began to invest heavily in Cuba and well, expected a government friendly to their interests.
But during the 1930s, the Cuban government took a nationalistic turn and promoted greater Cuban control of the economy. In response to this threat against American interests, officials in Washington helped to establish the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who took a permissive attitude toward continued American dominance of the Cuban economy, from natural resources to nightlife.
With Batista in power, wealthy Americans and even American mobsters came to see Cuba as their personal playground. But even as Batista's regime won support from Americans, his harsh policies and uncompromising dictatorship turned many of the Cuban people against him.
Guerrillas, first in the mountains and then in the towns, began attacking government buildings and the army as early as 1953. Led by the charismatic young Fidel Castro, these guerrillas eventually succeeded in leading a revolution that toppled Batista's government in 1959.
Castro became, for most Cubans, a national hero, cementing his role as the new leader of Cuba. He began to institute land reform, nationalizing millions of acres owned by American companies and seizing control of the country's businesses and natural resources from foreign investors. In response, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, leading Cuba to ally itself with the Soviet Union.
Castro was both a leftist and an ardent Cuban nationalist, and it would've been very difficult for the United States to maintain good relations with his regime under any circumstances.
That said, we have to note that Castro didn't seize power in Cuba in the name of the Communist Party.
Say what? Yep. He didn't fully embrace communism until he'd been ruling Cuba for more than two years, and even then, his alliance with the Soviet Empire came about only in the wake of American sanctions against his regime.
So, did those sanctions—imposed largely to protect the interests of large American corporations whose interests were threatened by Castro's nationalistic economic policies—push Castro into the Soviet orbit?
Critics of American foreign policy have long asserted that the U.S. government's unbending support for American corporations' narrow interests in Cuba amounted to a kind of economic imperialism that practically drove Castro into alliance with the Soviets, undermining broader American Cold War strategic interests.
While Cuba was economically important to a handful of powerful American companies, the Middle East provided a vital resource—oil—that was critical to the entire American economy.
U.S. policy in the Middle East had the difficult task of balancing America's interest in that oil with America's traditional support for Israel, which usually had hostile relations with the neighboring nations that controlled the oil.
In 1960, a number of those Middle Eastern nations joined together to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The Middle Eastern states of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, plus the South American nation of Venezuela, sought to use the organization to coordinate petroleum production and pricing.
These nations watched closely during the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, both of which pitted a U.S.-backed Israel against Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria.
In the 1967 conflict, Israel launched a preemptive strike against its Arab neighbors, storming to victory and seizing expansive new territories in the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula.
Six years later, Egypt and Syria struck back with a surprise attack launched on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Arab armies pushed into Israel, recapturing much of the ground lost in 1967. The Americans, assuming incorrectly that the Soviets were behind the Arab attack, responded to Israel's pleas for aid with a massive airlift of supplies that helped to turn the tide of the war.
OPEC responded to America's intervention on Israel's behalf by placing an embargo on oil sales to the United States and raising oil prices around the world. The embargo would continue through 1974, quadrupling the price of oil in the United States. For the first time since World War II, Americans endured gasoline rationing.
In some areas, people whose cars carried license plates ending in odd numbers purchased gas on odd days of the month, while those with license plates ending in even numbers purchased gas on even days of the month. And to keep it fair, everyone could purchase gas on the 31st.
The oil crisis made clear to American policymakers the costs of supporting Israel in a hostile Middle East, and brought the attention of the American public away from the Nixon administration's successes with the Soviet Union and China and toward the problems of policy in the Third World.
The thorny interrelationship of America's strategic and economic interests in the Middle East would continue to bedevil American policymakers into the 21st century.
In 1959, the corrupt but pro-American dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista collapsed, unable to survive the uprising of a ragtag army of guerillas led by a charismatic young leftist named Fidel Castro.
Castro's overthrow of the unpopular Batista appalled some Cubans—especially members of the upper classes who had prospered under the Batista regime—but enthralled many more. Despite his many flaws, Castro became a beloved hero to a solid majority of the island nation's impoverished masses.
Castro's relationship with the United States was always going to be difficult. Though Castro's revolution was not sponsored by the Soviet Union and Castro himself was not even initially allied with the Cuban Communist Party, the young revolutionary's left-leaning Cuban nationalism caused alarm in Washington. American corporations had dominated the Cuban economy since the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. Castro's insistence upon land reform—in 1960, he seized millions of acres owned by American companies and redistributed them to Cuban peasants—led to the United States imposing economic sanctions against Cuba.
Castro, always eager to pick a fight with his neighbors to the north, retaliated by nationalizing Cuba's oil refineries and other American-owned businesses. The next round of tit-for-tat saw the Kennedy administration sever diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, an affront that led Castro to seek a formal alliance with America's archenemy, the Soviet Union.
Castro's alliance with Soviet Russia was simply unacceptable to American leaders. Previously, the Soviets had been able to expand the scope of their communist sphere of influence in places in Eastern Europe and Asia, but never in "America's own backyard," the Western Hemisphere. Cuba lay just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Castro's rise to power represented a major Cold War setback for the United States.
The Americans' solution was to attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The CIA began training a band of anti-Castro Cuban exiles to lead an invasion against the island. The plan was for the exiles to land secretly at a place called the Bay of Pigs, then advance inland to rally a popular uprising to oust Castro's government.
The invasion's planners, Americans and Cuban exiles alike, wrongly assumed that the Cuban populace would back their efforts to depose Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion, launched in April 1961, proved to be a fiasco. The American-backed invaders, overpowered by Castro's army, never got off the beach. Their frantic pleas for support from the U.S. Air Force were ignored, as President Kennedy refused to commit American forces to a direct attack against Cuba.
Kennedy, who had been in office for only three months, publicly accepted full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle, which seemed to betray his idealistic principles even as it made him appear weak and impotent. The humiliation of the Bay of Pigs loomed large two months later, when the young president encountered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for the first time at the Vienna Summit.
Khrushchev—an intimidating figure who once accentuated a speech at the United Nations by banging his shoe on a tabletop, and on another occasion stunned Western diplomats by shouting, "We will bury you!"—took Kennedy for a lightweight and sought to bully him into acceding to Soviet demands. A startled Kennedy managed to stand firm on U.S. policy at Vienna, but he was very unsettled by how weak the Bay of Pigs had made him look, and he became obsessed with plotting Castro's overthrow.
The CIA began scheming to assassinate the Cuban leader. In fact, the most memorable of the CIA's many failed attempts to take Castro's life involved an exploding cigar.
More menacingly, the Pentagon conducted several military exercises in the Caribbean, practicing for the armed overthrow of a hypothetical foreign leader unsubtly named Ortsac. Yep, that's Castro spelled backwards.
These maneuvers led Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin covertly placing nuclear missiles on Cuba to defend the government of his new ally. As the Americans had recently deployed their own missiles in Turkey—which is as close to Russia as Cuba is to the United States—Khrushchev wrongly assumed that the Cuban missiles would not be seen as a threatening provocation in the United States.
Because really, Soviets already possessed plenty of missiles that could hit the American mainland, so the placement of the weapons in Cuba didn't fundamentally alter the strategic balance.
But President Kennedy didn't see things that way. On October 14th, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane snapped aerial reconnaissance photos that revealed Soviet workers building missile bases on Cuba. In Washington, the top echelon of the American government went into crisis mode. President Kennedy canceled all scheduled public appearances, falsely claiming to have caught a bad cold.
In fact, he'd convened a special committee of top advisers and called the ExComm, whose members spent long hours in tense debate over how the U.S. should respond. Military leaders urged Kennedy to launch air strikes immediately to destroy the missile installations before they became operational, or to order a fell-fledged American invasion of Cuba to get rid of Castro once and for all.
But Kennedy feared that such an escalation would lead to full-blown nuclear war. With later peeks at post-Cold War Soviet archives show that Kennedy was probably on the money.
So, instead of attacking Cuba, Kennedy determined to negotiate with the Soviets to ensure the missiles' removal. But he intended to negotiate from a position of strength, and to do that, he needed to raise the stakes.
In a dramatic and somber televised address on October 22nd, 1962, Kennedy informed the American people for the first time of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and demanded their immediate removal. He also announced the imposition of a "quarantine" around Cuba to block further shipments of nuclear-related cargoes to the island.
The "quarantine" was actually a total American naval blockade, but since a blockade is officially an act of war under international law, Kennedy chose to call it a "quarantine" instead. He also declared that any launch of missiles from Cuba would be seen as a direct attack on the United States by the Soviet Union, and that he'd respond by nuking Russia.
The threat of full-fledged nuclear war had never been more imminent.
Two days later, Soviet ships carrying more missiles to add to those already installed in Cuba continued to steam toward the island. They approached the blockade line, showing no signs that they planned to stop. The U.S. Navy discovered they were accompanied by armed submarine escort.
With no idea of intentions, all of those explosives were way too close for comfort.
As the crew of the USS Essex began preparing to intercept the Soviet freighters, the missile-bearing ships suddenly came to a halt, then slowly turned around and began sailing away. "We're eyeball to eyeball," said American Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "and I think the other fellow just blinked."
"Eyeball to eyeball" might have been hyperbole, but what a soundbite, right?
But while the Soviets may have blinked, the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn't over. The blockade may have prevented more missiles from reaching Cuba, but Kennedy still insisted that the missiles already on the island had to go. Khrushchev could not simply capitulate without undermining his own reputation and the prestige of the Soviet Union. Leaders in Washington and Moscow engaged in frantic, confused negotiations to try to resolve the standoff. Of course, the tension began to take a toll.
On October, 26th, 1962, Khrushchev sent an incoherent, rambling message to Kennedy, at one point writing, "Mr. President, Mr. Kennedy, you and I are like two men pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle; the harder we pull, the tighter the knot until it would have to be cut with a sword. Now, why we don't both let up the pressure and maybe we can untie the knot?" (Source)
Khrushchev offered to withdraw his missiles if Kennedy would vow publicly not to invade Cuba. While the Kennedy administration was contemplating this offer, a new message arrived from Moscow proposing an entirely different deal: The Soviet Union would remove their missiles from Cuba only if the U.S. removed its own Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
The unexplained, contradictory offers spooked the ExComm, making Kennedy's advisers wonder whether Khrushchev was even still in charge in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the crisis escalated once again as a Cuban surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 spy plane that was continuing reconnaissance over the island. Ameican policy in the case of a downed U-2 called for immediate destruction of the anti-aircraft site, but Kennedy pushed his generals to accept restraint. Castro, fearing imminent American attack, urged Khrushchev to strike against the U.S. Khrushchev, too held back, waiting for Kennedy's response.
Kennedy's team was befuddled by the two different offers from Khrushchev and was uncertain how to respond. Robert F. Kennedy—the president's brother and Attorney General—suggested that the Americans write back, accepting the terms of Khrushchev's first offer while simply not mentioning the second letter.
Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy met secretly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, promising that the U.S. would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, but only on the condition that the Soviets never made the quid pro quo public. Kennedy didn't want to appear to have given in to Soviet pressure or to have sold out his European allies. After 13 long days of almost unbearable tension, the secret Kennedy-Dobrynin agreement brought the Cuban Missile Crisis to a peaceful conclusion.
The secrecy that surrounded the negotiations that ended the crisis allowed Kennedy to convey to the public the impression that he had prevailed through steely resolve in the face of Soviet pressure. Most Americans viewed the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a triumph for John F. Kennedy, adding to the president's substantial mystique. The fact that disaster had actually been averted through negotiation and compromise wouldn't become clear until much later.
In the meantime, many Americans took their misconceptions of what had happened in the Missile Crisis as proof that they could prevail in Cold War confrontations by refusing to give an inch to their communist foes.
It was a dubious lesson that wouldn't serve them well in Vietnam.
The mutual terror caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced Kennedy and Khrushchev that they needed to improve communication between the two nations to ensure that such a dangerous misunderstanding never happened again. They set up the famous hotline between their offices to allow for direct contact in times of crisis, and they signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty to slow the arms race.
Kennedy became convinced of the need to pursue a more nuanced policy toward the Soviet Union and to accept a certain level of Soviet domination of Eastern European affairs. However, Khrushchev suffered politically at home and among his allies for the humiliation of his apparent capitulation in Cuba. Other Soviet leaders and Soviet allies were embarrassed by the turn of events, and in 1964, Khrushchev was forced into retirement, replaced as Soviet leader by hardliner Leonid Brezhnev.
By the late 1960s, cracks began to appear in the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. Eastern European communists, who'd been forced into the Soviet orbit following World War II, sought to bring greater freedoms to their communist societies.
In 1968, the new leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, sought to enact a series of reforms to transform Czech Communism into "socialism with a human face," with greater freedom of expression than Soviet-dominated Czech regimes had previously allowed. Crowds of Czechs gathered in Prague to discuss the crimes of the past regimes and to learn about the new reforms.
Two other relatively liberal and independent communist leaders, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, visited Dubcek to show their support. Students in Poland and Yugoslavia demonstrated in sympathy with the reformers' cause. The flowering of support for new freedom and openness in Czech society came to be known as the "Prague Spring." The Czech people soon began to push for even greater reforms than Dubcek had proposed, and the nation became divided as Dubcek urged caution and moderation while other leaders pushed for even more drastic change.
In Moscow, Soviet leaders began to worry that the spirit of reform in Czechoslovakia would spiral out of control, possibly carrying the country out of the Soviet orbit entirely. They feared that the mass enthusiasm for freedom unleashed by Prague Spring might spread throughout Eastern Europe, threatening the Soviet strong—or, let's go with strangle-hold—on that region.
In the end, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sent in the Red Army to crush the Czechs' growing spirit of independence. Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Prague. Czech leaders were flown to Moscow and forced to renounce their own reforms. Censorship returned to Czechoslovakia.
The Prague Spring of 1968 represented a brief moment of hope for Czechoslovakia and for the subjects of other communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. But that hope died with the Soviet invasion.
The American public was stunned by the invasion, which provided shocking images for display on the front pages of their newspapers and on their television screens. Nightly news broadcasts sympathized with the Czech reformers and vividly portrayed the brutality of the Soviet response with film smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. American scholars compared the Soviets' behavior to that of Adolf Hitler.
Even as the Soviets sought to reimpose their control over Eastern Europe with an iron fist, they encountered new problems in Asia, where longtime ally Mao Zedong sought to make China, not Russia, the world's foremost communist power.
By 1972, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger saw an opportunity to divide China from Russia, allowing them to pursue a new, multipolar Cold War strategy.
Communist China was eager to take its rightful place in world affairs, and Chairman Mao was irked by what he perceived as the Soviets' attitude of condescension toward his country. Mao had predicted the "East Wind rising over West Wind," so China, the East Wind, would surpass the Soviet Union, the West Wind, as the world's leading communist nation.
Meanwhile, the United States—reeling from defeat in Vietnam—sought to appear strong in foreign policy, giving the impression that the Vietnamese debacle did not mean a broader disaster for the U.S. in the Cold War. If all went well, Nixon and Kissinger could exploit the Sino-Soviet split by playing China off the Soviet Union.
And Nixon's approach to China marked a dramatic reversal of American policy toward the world's most populous nation. Since 1949, the official American position regarding Red China had been that it just didn't exist.
Quick history lesson: In 1949, the Chinese Civil War ended with Mao's communists taking control of the entire mainland, while Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalists fled to the island province of Taiwan. Then, both the communists in Beijing and the nationalists in Taipei claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China. Both mainland and Taiwan. The United States continued to recognize Chiang's Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China, allowing the nationalists to hold China's powerful permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council until 1972.
Alright, back to Nixon and China.
In a strange twist, China opened up the possibility of rapprochement by inviting the American ping-pong team—then playing in Japan—to visit the country in the spring of 1971. The team's nine players, along with some of their spouses and a few officials and journalists, were the first Americans given official sanction to enter China since the communists gained control of the mainland more than 20 years before.
Tim Boggan, one of the American officials for the ping-pong team, later recalled the odd juxtaposition of being greeted with smiles from the Chinese team and diplomats while seeing Chinese propaganda posters that portrayed caricatures of a pygmy Nixon alongside slogans such as "Down with the U.S. imperialists and all their running dogs!"
Surely, ping-pong has never before or since served such a vital diplomatic function.
So, the United States responded to "ping-pong diplomacy" by sending Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971 to lay the groundwork for Nixon to travel there later. Kissinger kept his own mission a secret so that Nixon could surprise the world by announcing the first-ever presidential visit to communist China.
Nixon's journey in February 1972 drew attention away from the war in Vietnam and toward a positive relationship with China. The United States recognized communist China's existence and reversed its longstanding resistance to admitting the country to the United Nations. After Mao's death in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping finalized a formal agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two nations, and China soon took over Taiwan's seat on the Security Council.
While any other American leader would have been sharply criticized for considering diplomacy with China, Nixon's lifelong reputation as a ferocious Cold Warrior was so strong that people found it difficult to charge him with going "soft on communism."
Having built his political career on targeting suspected communists in the government, Nixon's anticommunist credentials were unassailable and certainly beyond those of any preceding president. It's ironic, then, that the most hardline American president of the Cold War era was the only one who could open the United States to friendship with communist China.
"Only Nixon could go to China" has since become a sort of American political cliché.
John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in 1960 by claiming that the Eisenhower administration had allowed the Soviet Union to open up a "missile gap" on the United States.
At a 1960 speech in Florida, Kennedy stoked fears of Cold War inferiority. "We are moving into a period," he said, "when the Soviet Union will be outproducing us two or three to one in the field of missiles—a period relatively vulnerable and when our retaliatory force will be in danger of destruction through a Soviet surprise attack—the period of the missile gap."
Realtalk, though: The U.S. was bamboozled. The Soviets had only built a handful of missiles.
By the time Kennedy took office in 1961, CIA surveillance revealed that there was indeed a missile gap. But it favored the United States. The Soviets had only 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Americans' 57.