The Arms Race and the U2 incident

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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 – February 10th: Gary Powers released by Soviets in exchange for Geordie lad, Rudolf Abel; the former is treated as a traitor, the latter as a hero in their home countries.

1962 – October: Cuban missile crisis
1963 – August 5th: USA and USSR sign the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow  by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom that banned all tests of nuclear weapons except those conducted underground.


  • 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.


The U2 incident

From wikipedia:

On 1 May 1960, a United States U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviet Air Defence Force while performing photographic aerial reconnaissance deep inside Soviet territory. The single-seat aircraft, flown by pilot Francis Gary Powers, was hit by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile and crashed near Sverdlovsk (present-day Yekaterinburg). Powers parachuted safely and was captured.

Initially, the US authorities acknowledged the incident as the loss of a civilian weather research aircraft operated by NASA, but were forced to admit the mission’s true purpose when a few days later the Soviet government produced the captured pilot and parts of the U-2’s surveillance equipment, including photographs of Soviet military bases taken during the mission.

The incident occurred during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev, around two weeks before the scheduled opening of an east–west summit in Paris. Khrushchev and Eisenhower had met face-to-face at Camp David in Maryland in September 1959, and the seeming thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations had led people around the world to hope for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing Cold War. The U2 incident caused great embarrassment to the United States, and shattered the amiable “Spirit of Camp David” that had prevailed for eight months, prompting the cancellation of the planned Paris summit.[2]

Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years of imprisonment plus seven years of hard labour, but was released two years later in February 1962 in a prisoner exchange for Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel.


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