Mythbusting History; how did the science of the Nuclear bomb keep the Cold War cold?

Artwork: Millie Wang

The effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left a devastating impact on the world, whilst cementing the US as a major strategic power. The lessons learnt from the power and force of nuclear weaponry significantly influenced the introduction of the nuclear strategy of deterrence. The taboo associated with using these weapons of mass destruction was discussed by many historical figures of the time. The anti-nuclear war notion held by these figures led to other avenues to relieve the Cold War tension between the West and the Soviet Union.  The science behind the development of the atomic bomb, however, led to other uses for nuclear energy within Western military strategy, including the use of submarines in naval espionage that aided to keep the Cold War cold.

The use of the atomic bomb in late WW2 left Japan devastated from its effects, whilst elevating the US to a much stronger position as a world power, with an emerging influence stretching from Europe to Asia. As illustrated through a number of nuclear weapons created by the US between 1945 and 1962; over 3,000 missiles with nuclear capabilities, whilst the USSR only procured approximately 1,500 missiles with nuclear power. This disparity between the two world powers of the time suggests rising tensions and the West’s domestic concerns over Soviet military actions. The United States’ policy of deterrence in military strategy demonstrates the levels of precaution taken with these weapons in the 1950s by Western nations. The Truman administration’s attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki left an impact on the political mindset regarding the application of nuclear weapons. This is exemplified in Truman’s press conference in 1950 where he described the bomb as a weapon “of mass destruction” with significant impacts on non-combatants in the war – “innocent men, women, and children who have nothing to do with the military aggression”. This illustrates the anxiety surrounding weapons of mass destruction and highlights the growing taboo of the use, rather than the development of, nuclear weapons by the US and other Western nations. Historians have argued that the rationality of States in this period was a major factor for the non-use of nuclear arms. This rationality, the taboo against using these weapons, the fear of mutual destruction held by both West and East, also led to the removal of the potential for ‘total’ war seen in the earlier part of the 20th century with WW1 and WW2. The gap between US and Soviet expansion of nuclear weapons was another issue raised by historians to counter aggressive American growth of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, Western and Soviet military strategy turned to espionage and early technological warfare and redirected nuclear technology use to other military means, including powering the engines of submarines.  

Espionage and the emerging use of strategic intelligence from the 1940s to 1960s was another military policy that was used by Western nations. Human, signals, and technological espionage was widely used by both the USSR and the US. The US harnessed technological espionage for mobile collection operations that had the ability to collect intelligence across Soviet borders. Between 1947 and 1960 as many as 13 US intelligence flights were shot down over Soviet territory. These flights, however, heavily impacted Soviet intelligence groups, such as the NKVD, and subsequent retaliation of Soviet intelligence forces created an ‘intelligence war’. This retaliation resulted in a pursuit for more innovative and less invasive intelligence systems to be developed after 1960. Despite the ‘intelligence war’s’ need for a high level of secrecy, some aspects became surprisingly public. For example, the 1945 defection of the code clerk Igor Gouzenko, from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa publicly revealed the scale of Soviet espionage on, then supposed, allies in Northern America. This led to regular public trials of these ‘atomic spies’ in both the West and the USSR and spurned an East-West ‘war of words’. The intelligence war of the ‘First Cold War’ was the main impetus for modern intelligence agencies, with many of the organisations founded in the 1940-1950s still operating today. The use of these technological and signals-based intelligence operations therefore became a key component of the arguments for non-use or use of atomic weapons throughout the Cold War.

Submarines were one of the main espionage instruments in use during the Cold War, both before and after the 1970’s. US nuclear submarines were developed in 1951, and the British joined them in 1960. These submarines allowed Western maritime strategy to expand, with nuclear reactors needing no fuel, and they had the ability to remain below periscope level for longer periods of time. This contrasted with previous submarine technologies that were primarily diesel electric, which would routinely have to come to periscope level to take on air every 36 hours. The emergence of the new engineering techniques of nuclear submarines suggests that nuclear development – and weaponry – had a major impact on the strategies of the US, British, and even the Soviet Union.  Submarines could not only be a tool for gaining maritime communication intelligence but also provided a mode of transport for weapons (both nuclear and otherwise) during the ‘First Cold War’. Although Western nations – particularly the British and the US – were preoccupied with the perceived threat of nuclear warfare through the air-powered atomic bomb, the development of submarines allowed blue water navies to engage a more balanced fleet of surface and underwater warfare. The enhancement of intelligence technology particularly submarines clearly derived from the fear of nuclear war, with the growth of espionage a major outcome of the development of nuclear technology on the conduct of the Cold War.

The policy of deterrence of nuclear weapons in the US suggested that States had an underlying rationality and credibility which would prevent them turning to nuclear war. Intelligence and espionage were major military strategies during the Cold War, as the ‘intelligence war’ provided an opportunity for Western nations to enhance military equipment and weaponry, most notably submarines of the US and the Royal Navy.