The Cold War and the Almost Nuclear War | Teen Ink

The Cold War and the Almost Nuclear War

July 13, 2009
By Michael Barnett BRONZE, Lebanon, Connecticut
Michael Barnett BRONZE, Lebanon, Connecticut
3 articles 2 photos 5 comments

In today’s day and age it is not uncommon to hear arrogant scoffs at current wars; children and adults’ alike saying the surefire and fast way to win is to “nuke ‘em,” or to “turn it into a glass parking lot,” without thinking of the past or the consequences of such an action. Most do not consider where the world was in the Cold War; they don’t realize what happened and what nearly happened. The Cold War nearly escalated to nuclear war and the destruction of the human race because of events such as the Korean War, the U.S. - Soviet chill, developments in weapon technology, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that presented themselves in a time of uncertainty.
The first conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States came on June 25, 1950 when North Korea attacked South Korea with the support of the Soviet Union which was under the impression that the U. S. would not interfere. However by June 30th the U. S. had gained military support from the United Nations Security Council and had landed troops. On August 5th ten B-29 bombers carrying “unarmed atomic bombs” (The Korean War) were sent to Guam where they would remain on standby, ready to take off for attack if needed. Only nine of the ten bombers made the trip because one of them crashed while taking off. At the peak of the nuclear tension during the Korean War President Truman informed the public in a press conference that “he had been actively considering using atomic bombs in Korea since the beginning of the war.”(The Korean War)
After 1956 the alliance that had once existed between the Soviet Union and the United States rapidly fell apart; the two nations became competing superpowers. This was known as De-Stalinization and the U. S.-Soviet chill. What really set the United States on edge was when the Soviet Union put Sputnik, the first satellite, into space in 1957. This didn’t just mean that the Soviets could get into space but it also meant that they were becoming capable of making a nuclear strike via inter continental ballistic missiles which the U. S. could not defend against. It also eliminated one of the only advantages the U. S. had over the vast numbers of the Soviet military. The Soviet Union demonstrated its new found boldness in 1958 by relinquishing East Germany which had come under its control at the end of World War Two from its possession and called for the U. S. and its allies to pull their military forces out of West Berlin. The U. S. replied that it would not and would “Preserve its transit rights to Berlin if need be by military force.” (Frankel, Pg. 72) This was an open display of possible war between the two super powers. The United States had been using the high altitude U-2 spy plane to take aerial photographs and spy on soviet military activity, particularly missile sites but on May 1, 1960 one was shot down and the Soviets discovered the clandestine spying by the U. S. and that the skies over the Soviet Union that comprised the Soviet airspace were being trespassed on. The Soviet leader Khrushchev asked for a formal apology from the U. S. and for a pledge that no more spy flights would be taken into Soviet airspace, he was refused both of these. This lack of appeasing action further heightened the hostile Soviet mindset towards the United States. (Frankel, Pg. 71-73)
Would the use of nuclear weapons matter? What would be the big deal with a few nuclear weapons, they were used against Japan? These were not the same as the Nagasaki and Hiroshima weapons; they had much higher blast yields. What was worse was the technology being developed by both sides, though what the Soviets had seemed far ahead of what the Americans had developed. Not only could nuclear weapons now be delivered in missiles both from lands as intercontinental ballistic missiles and from submarines as submarine launched ballistic missiles but a technological development gave birth to multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs). MRVed missiles were ballistic missiles that were loaded with 3 nuclear warheads instead of just one. This kind of missile gained funding instead of The U. S. developing its own missile defense system after the Soviets developed a defense system called Galosh. The reasoning was that because there would be three war heads heading towards the same target it would be much harder for all of them to be taken out and one or more would get through. By 1964 technology had further evolved with a “post boost control system,” (Frankel, Pg. 201) that allowed the warheads to have their own target. These multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) were the new standard in Nuclear weapons. With 1,668 missiles and a total of 7,932 warheads on the U. S. side alone, nuclear war was certainly not science fiction. (Frankel, Pg. 201)
To add to the tension that was rising between the Soviet Union and the United States there was also internal tension. The U. S. was gripped by the fear of communist “Infiltration.” (Frankel, Pg. 198) These fears were brought on by the soviets and one man, Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin, who chose to exploit these fears for personal political gain. McCarthy would accuse officials, and later members of the U. S. military, of being connected with the communist party. They would then under go interrogation and a trial. Even though they were found innocent the event would leave a stain on the reputation of his victims. His actions created an atmosphere of hysteria similar to that of the Salem witch trials that made the American public further dislike the communists and the Soviet Union. (Frankel, Pg. 198)
Perhaps the closest the Cold War came to nuclear war was in October 1962. The Soviet Union had been shipping weapons, including surface to air missiles to Cuba under the guise that they were for defensive purposes of Cuba only. President Kennedy said in response that if the Soviets turned Cuba into an “offensive military base, then the United States will do whatever must be done to protect its own security,” (Frankel, Pg. 147). A U-2 spy plane confirmed on the 14th of October that the Soviet Union not only had defensive surface to air missile trapezoids, but had them around launch sites for ICBMs that were being constructed. With the advice of the Executive Committee of National Security Council President Kennedy decided on a course of action. On October 21, 1962 Kennedy told the public of the Weapons in Cuba and said that “any missile fired from Cuba at a target in the Western hemisphere would be construed as an attack by the Soviet Union against the United states and would require a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” (Frankel, Pg. 146-149) He also ordered a naval blockade to prevent further weapons from reaching Cuba and demanded that the Soviets “remove the missiles.” (Frankel, Pg. 146-149) In that moment the world became within a hairs breadth of a full scale nuclear war. (Frankel, Pg. 146-149)
The first part of a nuclear war would be the actual detonation of nuclear weapons. This is known as the actual blast; the strength of the blast depends upon the blast yield of the weapon. The blast inflicts damage through the blast or actual fireball itself, thermal radiation that can ignite objects through several forms of radiation and nuclear radiation. An attacking country has four ways in which to detonate a nuclear weapon. (Pike, Pg. 1)
The first way that most likely would have been used most in a nuclear war is the air burst. In an airburst the weapon is detonated between the point where the actual fireball does not reach the ground (this varies depending on the blast yield) and 30 km. This kind of detonation would be most effective against people because it allows for better distribution of thermal radiation that would cause burns and eye damage over, “many square kilometers.” (Pike, Pg. 2) In this kind of detonation the thermal radiation would be the most dangerous as most of the nuclear material from the blast would be distributed far away by winds unless in the immediate area there is rain to bring it down to earth and only the shockwave from the fireball’s expansion would have an effect. ( Pike, Pg. 2)
The surface burst is what most think of when nuclear weapons are mentioned. The surface burst is a peculiar give and take scenario. Because the nuclear weapon is detonated so that the fireball reaches the surface of the earth (at just about ground level) it damages a much smaller area. Though a smaller area is damaged the damage is more severe. The local area would be subjected to a powerful shockwave, intense thermal radiation and the fallout of nuclear material would be extremely dangerous. Because the blast would be closer to the ground, less of the nuclear material would be held aloft by the wind and essentially diluted across the globe. Instead, it would fall to earth over a large area and cause health problems such as radiation poisoning and cancer. (Pike, Pg. 3)
A subsurface burst might have been used in a harbor or in a subway system. A subsurface burst is when the weapon is detonated under ground or water. The effects of such a detonation depend on the depth of the weapon. If it is deep enough to contain the blast a crater would be formed on the surface of the land and there would a shock wave that would travel through the ground or water which could cause pressure related damages. If the blast breaks through the surface the nuclear radiation would be considerably more dangerous than that of a surface burst as while the earth or water would reduce the thermal radiation and blast damage it would also cause the nuclear material to remain in the general area. In addition, the fallout would be more concentrated as it would be launched a shorter distance into the atmosphere. (Pike, Pg. 3)
Fallout is a major factor in what kind of burst would be used. An air burst would be used primarily against cities with people as the target in mind. It would be used to scatter radioactive material over a large area which would cause not only death for those that got an amount capable of killing them but also cause numerous other problems such as cancer for those in the future that did not receive a deadly amount of radiation. The surface burst and the subsurface burst would be used to destroy structurally sound and reinforced structures as well as to cause local fallout. (Fetter, Pg. 2)
The fourth burst type is the high altitude burst where the nuclear weapon is detonated above 30 km. (Pike, Pg. 3) this is done not to create blast damage but rather to take advantage of a phenomenon known an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP does not cause damage by blowing anything up or setting it on fire, but rather by using a country’s dependence on electricity against it. An EMP would knock out electricity, interfere with communications, damage satellites and cause irreparable damage to electronics. What is worse about an EMP is that the damage would not be localized as a single nuclear weapon could have the potential to produce an EMP that would affect the entire continental United States. This would cause chaos, and cause fatalities in numerous ways due to the failure of electricity in multiple locations such as in hospitals. (Fetter, Pg. 2)
A nuclear war would have another consequence other than just the destruction from the initial blasts from nuclear weapons. This other consequence is known as nuclear winter. Not only would the detonation of nuclear weapons near the surface of the Earth result in massive quantities of debris being vaporized and sucked up into the atmosphere, but it would “ignite urban firestorms,”(Wolpert, Pg. 1). These are massive fires that would reduce entire cities to ashes and in the process put an enormous quantity of soot into the atmosphere. A study done at the University of Colorado indicates that all this soot would remain suspended high in the Earth’s atmosphere, “for up to a decade.” The result of the presence of this soot would be a global cooling of, “several degrees,” which would devastate global agriculture and lead to a mass starvation. All this would be on top of the millions, if not billions, of fatalities from the initial detonations. (Wolpert, Pg. 1-2)
The combination of these various effects multiplied by the use of thousands of nuclear weapons across the globe would have caused unparalleled destruction. Cities would have been wiped off the map; countries would have been brought to their knees, and the human race and civilization would have been sent back to the dark ages. The few survivors would have inherited a planet torn by war and contaminated by nuclear material. Luckily this possible Armageddon was avoided.

During the first conflict between the nuclear Soviet Union and U. S. the actual use of nuclear weapons was avoided for two reasons. The Prime Minister of Britain traveled to the capitol and met with President Truman where he “expressed his concern” (The Korean War), he recognized the ramifications of using nuclear weapons and thought they should not be used lightly. To alleviate the concerns of his fellow leader Truman stated that the U. S. would not use nuclear weapons in the Korean War unless a “major military disaster” (The Korean War) was imminent. The second factor was the kind of military China employed. Because China’s military was composed of massive armies of peasants there was no guarantee that atomic bombs could be effectively used if those that were killed were simply replaced by their vast numbers of comrades. If they had been used and were proved ineffective, nuclear weapons would have become less of a deterrent in future conflicts. The war carried on with both sides gaining and losing ground so that when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 the border between North and South Korea had not changed from its location when the war began. (The Korean War)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s tactful imposition of a naval blockade did the trick. On October 27th Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union improved. The Soviet Union offered to withdraw its ICBMs from Cuba if the United States withdrew its ICBMs from Turkey. The President countered that the United States would not take over Cuba if the Soviets withdrew its missiles with this completed, the nations could then negotiate further disarmaments. October 28th 1962 the Soviet Union agreed to the negotiations and tensions began to loosen. (Frankel, Pg. 149)

Mikhail Gorbachev, elected in March 1985, was the final president of the Soviet Union and helped bring about the end of the Cold War. He started reform programs in the Soviet Union that increased personal freedom and in doing this he freed those who had kept silent for so long to speak out against Soviet rule. (, Mikhail Gorbachev) During his rule he realized that the Soviet Union could not financially afford to stay in its’ arms race against the United States and so chose the direction of finding a peaceful solution to end it. After several meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987. This eliminated “a whole class of ballistic missiles stationed in Europe,” (Schulzinger) and as celebration both leaders were greeted with hero’s welcomes when they arrived for visits at Moscow and Washington D. C. (Schulzinger)

During his rule the Berlin Wall, the divider of United States controlled West Germany and Soviet controlled East Germany was torn down allowing the citizens of Germany to travel freely back and forth symbolizing the new found hospitality between each half’s controlling country. (, Fall of the Berlin Wall) December 1991 was the official ending of the Cold War as the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist and fifteen separate countries were formed. World power shifted in the favor of the United States and for the time being the threat of nuclear war has disappeared. (, Fall of the Soviet Union)

In conclusion, the Cold War almost escalated to a nuclear war through a series of events that served to vault tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union to new levels. If it had escalated to nuclear war the human race would have been decimated by the use of nuclear weapons, effectively sent back to dark ages. This tragedy was avoided by a few key decisions made by several U. S. and Soviet presidents such as the forming of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev and events such as the peaceful ending to the Cuban Missile Crisis. For now humanity has avoided self annihilation, but for how long will it continue to do so? Nuclear weapons are still out there both in the hands of allies such as Israel and countries that maintain not so good relations with the United States such as North Korea and possibly Iran. Only now the weapons are more powerful if not necessarily more numerous. If humanity does not learn from the mistakes of the Cold War it may just find itself facing self extinction. As Albert Einstein, one of the inventers of nuclear weapons, once said, "I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones." (Albert Einstien)

Works Cited

l. Author not listed, "The Korean War ." PBS date not listed 1-2. 8 Mar 2009 .

2. Fetter, Steve. "THE EFFECTS OF." Unknown 2. 27 Jan 2009.

3. Frankel Benjamin. The Cold War 1945-1991 volume: 3. 1st. United States of America: Gale Research Inc., 1992.

4. Multiple Unknown Authors, "The Cold War." The Cold War Museum. 1997-2008. the Cold War Museum. 17 Dec 2008 .

5. Pike, John. "Nuclear Weapon Effects." Federation of American Scientists 21 Oct 1998 1-3. 27 Jan 2009 .

6. Schulzinger, Robert D.. "The End of the Cold War, 1961-1991."the Organization of American Historians 1994 9. 28 Feb 2009 .

7. UCLA Newsroom 11 Dec 2006 1-2. 27 Jan 2009
. Wolpert, Stuart. "Regional Nuclear War Could Devastate Large Cities and Threaten Global Population through Climate Change, New Studies Indicate."

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This article has 1 comment.

Jonwar9 said...
on Jan. 28 2016 at 2:53 pm
Wow, the time it must have taken to make this. IF Donald Trump becomes president then real nuclear warfare might happen. I would seriously move to Boston because Fallout 4 would then become real. Hope i'm that main character or someone who escaped that vault about 10 yrs earlier.