The Arms Race, 1945-1962

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Key terms you will need to familiarise yourself with:

  • The Arms Race
  • Deterrence
  • Hydrogen bomb
  • The Space Race
  • The Missile Gap
  • U2 Spy Planes
  • ICBMs (Atlas and Minuteman)
  • SLBMs (Polaris)
  • First Strike
  • Second Strike
  • MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction)

Key developments

1945 – July 16th: Trinity Test
1945 – August 6th and 9th – Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
1949 – USSR tests its first missile
1951 – US Strategic Air Command adopts policy of constant readiness
1952 – November: America tests its first Hydrogen Bomb
1953 – August: the Soviet Union tests its first Hydrogen Bomb
1954 – March: US develops and H-bomb that can be dropped from bomber;
1954 – September: USSR develops H-bomb capable of being dropped from bomber;
1956 – July: US develops U2 Spy plane
1957 – May: USSR develops 1st ICBM
1957 – October: USSR launches Sputnik
1958 – January: USA puts Satellite into orbit
1959 – USA develops Atlas and Minuteman ICBMs; USA also develops Polaris that can be fired from Sub. US public fear USSR has more weapons than USA. Eisenhower knows this is false but doesn’t tell the public.
1961 – April: Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes 1st man in space
1961 – October: USSR detonates largest bomb ever seen.
1962 – October: Cuban missile crisis
1962 – August 5th: USA and USSR sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow, agreeing not to test any more new nuclear weapons.


  • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72,
  • Walsh, pp. 343-346
  • More videos about the arms race can be found here


  • Create a mind map or some other graphical presentation of the key terms of the arms race (listed above) explaining the significance of each
  • Create your own timeline of the key events in the arms race between 1945 and 1961

A simulation of the devastation that would be wrought were a nuclear device be dropped, can be found on NUKEMAP 


The above are also available on Clickview

It is worth remembering that the most destructive bombing during WWII did not take place at Nagasaki or Hiroshima, but against Tokyo using conventional weaponry.  Operation Meetinghouse, which was conducted on the night of 9–10 March 1945, is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.  Some modern post-war analysts have called the raid a war crime due to the targeting of civilian infrastructure and the ensuing mass loss of civilian life.

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