How Cold War Tensions Intensified – paranoia and the nuclear arms race

Intense mistrust existed between Russia and its Western Allies at the end of WW2.

Both sides rapidly developed an existential, paranoid fear that the other was actively seeking to invade or destroy them. After the Russian Revolution there was a profound ideological difference between the Western democracies (in their varying forms) and the centrally-controlled, totalitarian states of the Soviet Union – could Capitalism and Communism learn to coexist?

The stakes for the entire world could not have been higher.

This essentially Northern Hemisphere ‘Cold War’ sparked a rapid growth in military technology, and especially nuclear weapons, which threatened the existence of every living being on the planet if it turned ‘hot’.

On land, the Cold War frontline spanned 7,000 km from East Germany in the north, to Bulgaria in the south.

NATO members (1) in ‘the West’ were responsible for the security of around 667 million people (2), of which 414 million were facing the forces of the Warsaw Pact in Europe.

‘The East’ was represented by The Soviet Union (officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR) and its Warsaw Pact partners (3). The USSR alone was a formidable world power with a combined population of circa 293 million people 2. The Warsaw Pact countries added a further 116 million people (3), bringing the total population up to about 406 million (Albania’s 3 million people withdrew from the Pact in 1968). The USSR also occupied the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but most countries considered their occupation to be illegal.

The populations of these opposing ideologies were evenly matched.

Any victory in a future war would be determined by technology and an overwhelming force of arms, rather than just total manpower alone.

Immediate post-WW2 Tensions between Western democracies and Soviet communism
Throughout the Cold War, memories of historical invasions and conflicts combined with the reality that both ‘sides’ had emerged from WW2 as serious global powers.

The West felt a serious threat to their otherwise perceived dominance of the capitalist system from the communists’ stated goal of achieving world revolution.

Western politicians and military leaders remembered the overthrow of Tsarist Russia during the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik’s World War I betrayal of the West by switching sides to support Germany via the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (4), and their own subsequent failure to support the opposing ‘White’ forces in Russia (5). They had seen Stalin elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, witnessed his subsequent ruthless consolidation of power and his initial siding with Nazi Germany via their August 1939 non-aggression pact (6).

When Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ attack on Russia in June 1941 forced the West into becoming Stalin’s reluctant ally, Churchill, an outspoken critic of communism, famously said that he “… would work with the devil if it would help defeat Hitler” (7).

By the end of the war Russia controlled extensive territory across Europe and cooperation between the former Allies quickly waned. Stalin was controlling the USSR with an iron fist. Paranoia reigned about further Soviet ‘expansion’ – what was now to stop Stalin’s armies from sweeping across the rest of Western Europe?

The East felt Western armed forces pushing on their borders and the threat of an invasion that could occur at any time, while America remained out of reach of all but intercontinental weapons.

“Soviet Flag Flying on Cupola – Museum of the Great Patriotic War – Minsk – Belarus” – by Adam Jones
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Stalin remembered the many Western attempts to invade Russia (8). Despite the Allies fighting with Russia against Nazi Germany after the start of Operation Barbarossa, how could he not have remembered the clear contempt for his country in Churchill’s 22nd June 1941 speech: “… the Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism… No-one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it” (9).

How could Stalin forget the extreme destruction and suffering that Nazi Germany had inflicted on Russia? Or America’s decision to withhold details about the atomic bomb, and then be unaware that it was being used to keep Russia subdued after the war?

Vast tracts of land separated East and West. Both sides rapidly lost clarity of understanding about the other’s intentions as the “iron curtain” settled across the Cold War frontline (10).

Nuclear weapons on the frontline of the Cold War
At the start of the Cold War, America was determined to maintain its superiority in nuclear forces and use the power they conferred in order to support its interests all around the globe. Its 1946 Atomic Energy Act (the ‘McMahon Act’) documented in law how the US would now control the nuclear technologies it had developed during the War with its Western Allies. Significantly, “… all information concerning the design, development and manufacture of nuclear weapons was [classified as] ‘restricted data’… regardless of how it was derived or obtained.” (11)

This restriction meant that its Allies were now prohibited “…  from receiving any information, despite the fact that the British and Canadian governments, before contributing technology and manpower to the Manhattan Project, had made agreements with the United States about the post-war sharing of nuclear technology.”

Having seen America’s willingness to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin saw them test a further 5 weapons up to 1948. Without parity in nuclear arms, Russia would always be held subservient to US interests – why test weapons unless you intend to use them, either in anger or as a threat?

In the face of America’s refusal to share its nuclear secrets, and despite being crippled with debt and destruction from WW2, Britain was developing its own atomic bomb in order to remain a ‘great power’ and retain some influence over the US. Why wouldn’t the US share those secrets with its closest wartime ally… unless it planned to use nuclear weapons to dominate the globe?

Then the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949. The US had enjoyed just a few years of nuclear superiority, but now that advantage was being lost.

The development, testing, deployment and demonstrated readiness of Nuclear Forces became the dominant indicator of each side’s capability to defend its interests.

In response to the Soviet Union’s first 3 tests between 1949-1951, America tested 16 devices in 1951 and a further 10 in 1952. The Soviets managed 5 tests in 1953 and America responded with 11.

A test “shot” on one side was followed by a test “shot” by the other.
The nuclear arms race was fully on.

Seismographs around the world would report each side’s continued ability to produce, and therefore attack with, increasingly destructive nuclear weapons. As each ‘shot’ proclaimed their willingness to manufacture and use these weapons, at extraordinary costs to their own economies, so each hoped that the threat of total annihilation would deter their enemy from using them… or so the popular narrative goes.

By 1954 both sides were testing hydrogen fusion bombs, each with horrifying yields equivalent to millions of tonnes of TNT.

Confronted with both the US and Russia now possessing fusion bombs, in 1954 Churchill determined that Britain must also develop a similar weapon with a minimum yield of one megaton. In his last speech to Parliament in 1955, Churchill said:

“… there is widespread belief throughout the free world that, but for American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status [of the Soviet Union] and the Iron Curtain would have reached the Atlantic and the Channel…

It is the Communist dictatorship and the declared ambition of the Communist Party and their proselytising activities that we are bound to resist…

Our moral and military support of the United States and our possession of nuclear weapons of the highest quality and on an appreciable scale, together with their means of delivery, will greatly reinforce the deterrent power of the free world, and will strengthen our influence within the free world.” (12)

So the nuclear arms race came to be about both the defence of territory and ideology, as well as the projection of power by ‘Great States’…

… and all fought across the clouding, confusing fog of secrecy that shrouded the Iron Curtain.

The Arms Race, MAD and Paranoia
Ever since 7th December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (13) has been a raw wound for the United States. The defence of their nation had been found to be lacking, both militarily and in the field of intelligence. The US became gripped by both the fear of another sneak attack on their soil, and a paranoid drive to protect itself from all quarters. But once the Soviets had nuclear weapons, how could they protect themselves from all possible attacks?

The obvious answer is that total defence is impossible – a bomber or missile might always get through to its target.

“Nuclear Explosion, Chicago” by tofoli.douglas
Public Domain
It quickly became clear that neither side could rely on their bombers reaching their ‘targets’ – these were often cities, labelled with the calming, neutral title of being ‘strategic targets’.

To maintain the strategic nuclear deterrent, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs – up to 300 miles range) were first complemented by medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs – up to 600 miles) and then inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs – up to 3,300 miles).

Military forces did not neglect to think about how nuclear weapons could be used on the battlefield, creating so-called ‘tactical weapons’, which also had the power to devastate city-sized targets… there’s not much tactical about that.

In this technological weapons ‘arms race’ there didn’t seem to be a single type of vehicle that wasn’t adapted to carry nuclear warheads – from artillery shells and short range rockets, freefall bombs strapped to a great variety of aircraft, to cruise missiles (air, ground and sea-launched, of course) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Who could not be paranoid about that many weapons being aimed at them?

In the early Cold War the United States response to this unmanageable risk of attack was to establish the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – MAD.

This meant ‘exactly what it said on the tin’… if the US was attacked with nuclear weapons it would itself launch enough weapons to completely destroy its enemy.

There is a recording of a smiling Robert McNamara (US Secretary of Defence) trying to assure the world that the MAD doctrine was not insane and was actually “the foundation of deterrence” (14). He spoke about this doctrine in a 1967 speech, saying “… that is what deterrence of nuclear aggression means. It means the certainty of suicide to the aggressor, not merely to his military forces, but to his society as a whole.” (15)

However, any massive attack and subsequent retaliation could not only affect the nations using the weapons. It was the height of egotistical arrogance for these political-military leaders to threaten the survival of every living creature on the surface of the Earth through the nuclear winter that would follow if those weapons were used (16).

… and what did US war plans look like in the 1960s?

In his book ‘The Doomsday Machine’ (17), former RAND consultant  Daniel Allsberg gives a very frank insight into the beyond Top Secret 1960s war plan that the US Joint Chiefs had developed, and which was unknown to even the Secretary of Defense or the President. Called the ‘Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan’ (JSCP, pronounced “J-SCAP”), it formed the basis of all US war planning – what Ellsberg saw was truly chilling.

The JSCP recorded that in the event of General War with the Soviet Union “… Annex C will be executed”.

In summary this called for ‘…unleashing the full fury of the SAC war plan against both the Soviet bloc and China.’

The Pacific Theatre Command’s ‘General Emergency Operations Plan’ (GEOP), derived from the JSCP, made it clear that in the event of war with the Soviet Union, the US was planning to attack both the Soviets AND ‘… every major city in China’, regardless of whether China was involved in the fighting.

The decision to plan to attack the Soviets with “…an all-out nuclear first strike rather than allow the Soviets to do so” had been taken by Eisenhower, who believed that limited war between the US and Soviet Union was not possible.

There was no provision in the plans to attack only Soviet targets.

Ellsberg recounts a meeting with Vice Admirals Kivette and Ekstrom on board the USS Saint Paul (CA-73), flagship of the Seventh Fleet. He asked them about “… [a possible] decision by the president to go to war against the Soviet Union alone, not against China.” Admiral Ekstrom replied that “… You have to assume some modicum of rationality in higher authority, that they would not do something so insane as to go to war against one Communist power while letting the other one off scot-free.”

Such was the US Cold War paranoia that, in the event of war with Soviet Union, it planned to both make a first-strike on the Soviets with everything that it had, AND destroy all of the major population centres (cities) in China.
No other plans had been made and no other actions would have been possible.

In 1961 the US Joint Chiefs’ calculation was that “… the total death toll … from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts.”

No human system works in a vacuum and, in order to maintain the nuclear balance, the Soviets were also developing their retaliatory force.

We don’t know how the Soviets were targeting their weapons, especially their city-destroying ICBMs. However, UK Government planning in 1972 estimated that a Soviet first-strike would see around “150 land based ballistic missiles impacting on the United Kingdom.” London and other large or medium cities would be hit by three 1-5 megaton airbursts, small cities and military installations by three 1 megaton weapons (18). The UK is a relatively small island and survivability in the face of an attack like that would be unlikely, civil defense an impossibility.

By 1991 the Soviet Union had tested 981 devices with a total yield near 297 megatons of TNT, America had detonated 1123 devices for about 196 megatons of TNT (19).  Between them they had exploded approximately an equivalent of 29,000 Hiroshima-Nagasaki type bombs – how many tests do you need to make in order to know that these weapons are immensely destructive?

Despite the best attempts of both East and West to use propaganda to keep their general populations supportive of their nuclear deterrents, the scale of possible reprisals, the impossibility of civil defence and the likelihood of a nuclear winter ‘omnicide’ eventually seeped into public consciousness.

In episode 15 of the ‘Cold War Conversations’ podcast (20), Ian Sanders interviewed ‘Sabine’, who grew up in East Germany during the Cold War – at one point she recounts that in school they were told that “… the American’s are gonna nuke us.” She shared how she “… grew up with an absolutely chronic fear of the bomb, like every thunderstorm when I saw a flash of lightning outside I thought ‘Oh God, that’s it now, that’s it now.. absolutely terrified of it…”

In the West there was a cumulative effect from films like ‘Fail-Safe’, ‘By Dawn’s Early Light’ and ‘Dr Strangelove’ which merged into the narratives of ‘Threads’, ‘The Day After’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’ that allowed the truth of nuclear warfare to become generally known. The work of peace campaigners like CND kept nuclear weapons in the media, pouring a small amount grit into the smooth running military machine.

The early ultra-hawkish stance of the Reagan administration undermined arms limitations processes. However, this was eventually softened by the close-call of 1983’s ‘Able Archer’ exercise, when Reagan realised he had come too close to undermining Soviet confidence in the balance of nuclear deterrence. In that moment paranoia gave way to existential fear on both sides, and for a while the risks of nuclear war seemed to be reducing.

Now, nearly thirty years after the Soviet Union collapsed following the fall of the Berlin Wall, a New Cold War seems to be developing between the West, China and a resurgent Russia.

We can only guess at the Twenty-First Century war plans that States are now making in order to keep us all ‘safe’ – let’s hope that they are less paranoid than their old Cold War plans.


1 – “NATO Member States” – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg,  Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, United States of America, Greece, Turkey, West Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany) and Spain –

2 – Population estimates from CIA World Factbooks for 1990, 1991 and 1992 –

3 – “Soviet Union” – consisted of (modern day) Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan –

“Warsaw Pact” -consisted of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany (German Democratic Republic), Hungary, Poland and Romania –

4 – “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” –

5- “Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War” –

6 – “German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact” –

7 – “Cold War” – Chap 1 “Comrades” – Isaacs & Downing – Bantam Press 1998

8 – See my other article on the World War II context for the Cold War that followed

9 – “Churchill (Questions and Analysis in History)” – Samantha Heywood – Routledge 2003

10 – “Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech” –

11 – “Atomic Energy Act of 1946” –

12 – “Churchill’s last speech to Parliament” – 1st March 1955 – Hansard, 5th Series, Volume 537, cc 1893 –

13 – “Attack on Pearl Harbor” –

14 – “Cold War” TV series – Ep 12 – ‘MAD’ – a joint production between the Turner Broadcasting System and the BBC

15 – “Mutual Deterrence” Speech by Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara – San Francisco, September 18, 1967 –

16 – “A Path Where No Man Thought” – Carl Sagan and Richard Turco – Random Century Ltd (1991)

17 – “The Doomsday Machine” – Ellsberg, Daniel. – Bloomsbury Publishing (2017)

18 – See for example.

19 – “List of United States’ nuclear weapons tests” –

“List of nuclear weapons tests of the Soviet Union” –

20 – “Sabine – An East German Childhood” – Cold War Conversations podcast –

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