Timeline of the Arms Race (A-Levels Cold War)

Written by Aaron

Here’s a timeline of the arms race, broken down by ‘section’ with explanations on how to milk each section when arguing. This will come in especially handy when revising for the Cambridge A-Level History syllabus.

Part 1: Sheer power of nuclear weaponry

1952 – USA gets hydrogen bomb
1953 – USSR gets lithium bomb
1954 – USA gets lithium bomb
1961 – USSR detonates Tsar Bomba – 50 megatons

Key takeaway: Use these facts to show how the sheer scale of possible destruction had increased in the decade.

Part 2: Deployment technologies

1955 – USA gets B52 Stratofortress (intercontinental bomber)
1956 – USSR gets  TU20 Bear (intercontinental bomber)
1957 – USSR gets SS-6 Sapwood ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile)
1960 – USA develops Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missile
1960/61 – deployment of Jupiter IRBMs in Italy and Turkey respectively, by USA.

Key takeaway: Not only did the sheer scale of possible destruction increase, but both superpowers were increasingly able to deploy these technologies. However, this also means they are better able to retaliate (See: MAD), making things paradoxically safer.

Intercontinental bombers allow nuclear weaponry to be deployed by airplanes, but this takes time and requires bombers to constantly be in the air to be effective.

ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, allow a country to launch missiles at other continents from their own country. No need for air bombers.

IRBMs, or intermediate range ballistic missiles, are like baby ICBMs. They have less range, but deploying them in Turkey/Italy means they could’ve targetted the USSR easily and quickly.

Part 3: Quantity of nukes

1950 – USA 299 nukes, USSR 5 nukes.
1960 – USA 18,000 nukes, USSR 1,600 nukes.

Milking these facts:

  • Use to show progression of arms race in detail (you look smarter)
  • Use to show how despite treaties/summits, tension still existed in arms race buildup
  • Use to show whether world became safer/more dangerous
  • Use in advanced arguments to analyse actions of USA/USSR (e.g. how USSR’s actions were influenced in the Cuban Missile Crisis by USA’s state of nuclear technology etc.)

For more on the Cambridge A-Level History syllabus, read these guides on the arms race:

Arms Race Treaties

Creating Complex Arguments on the Arms Race