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U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control 1949 - 2019

  • The KIPS
  • June, 2020
  • 166

The nuclear arms race was one of the most alarming features of the Cold War superpower competition between the United States and Soviet Union.

Both sides rapidly expanded their nuclear stockpiles, but after two decades, each embarked on efforts to cut down its arsenal. Disarmament efforts picked up speed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but maintaining momentum and confidence in arms control between the United States and Russia has proved challenging.


August 29, 1949

First Soviet Nuclear Test

Four years after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, the Soviet Union explodes its first nuclear weapon at a test range in Kazakhstan. That the Soviet Union obtained “the bomb” is not surprising, but the timing of the test is. Most U.S. intelligence assessments at the time had concluded Moscow was at least three years away from obtaining the technology.


The Next Generation of Bombs

Concern spreads that U.S. nuclear superiority is being challenged by Moscow, speeding the race to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons, known as thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bombs. On November 1, 1952, the United States tests the first of these weapons at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the so-called Mike test. The resulting explosion yields a blast equivalent to ten million tons of TNT-roughly seven hundred times the force of the atomic bomb that decimated Hiroshima. Moscow tests its first thermonuclear device in November 1955.

1957 - 1958

Sputnik Launch and Test Ban Talks

In October 1957, two months after testing the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to be sent into space. The advances in technology, which were theoretically capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, startle the U.S. national security establishment, bolster Soviet prestige internationally, and feed paranoia in the U.S. political debate. Sputnik marks the start of the space race, and the successive Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space projects that culminated with the U.S. moon landing in 1969. But this era of space exploration also launches a new period of apprehension over fallout from nuclear testing. In 1958, Moscow calls for a U.S.-British-Soviet test moratorium; talks on a more lasting test ban begin in October of that year.


IAEA Established

In his 1953 Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower calls for the creation of an international atomic energy agency under the auspices of the United Nations. Governments would contribute fissile material to the agency, which would “devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind,” Eisenhower says. Four years later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is established in Vienna as a forum for international cooperation on civilian nuclear research. The IAEA’s statute outlines a three-pillar mission: nuclear verification and security, safety, and technology transfer. The first IAEA safeguards system is established in 1961.


October 1962

Cuban Missile Crisis

In October 1962, tensions spike when U.S. reconnaissance flights reveal Soviet missile bases taking shape in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy promises a “full retaliatory response” against the Soviet Union for a missile attack launched from Cuba on any country in the Western Hemisphere, and imposes a naval blockade on the island. After heated debates between high-level U.S. and Soviet officials, Moscow withdraws its missiles from Cuba. In exchange, Washington publicly promises that the United States will not invade Cuba and secretly agrees to phase out its Jupiter missiles near the Soviet border in Turkey.


August 1963

Limited Test Ban Treaty

In August 1963, the United States joins the Soviet Union and United Kingdom in agreeing to ban nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, or under water, and places significant restrictions on detonating nuclear devices underground. The Limited Test Ban Treaty reflects concerns about the dangers of nuclear fallout. A high-speed “hotline” connecting the leaders of the Soviet and U.S. governments is established to mitigate the risk of accidental warfare.


Nonproliferation Treaty Signed

Cold War brinkmanship and the development of nuclear weapons by a growing number of states lead to calls for an international framework to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote disarmament. Disc...

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