Nuclear History: The Cold War
Mounting tension in an increasingly nuclear world
Soviet Union’s first nuclear test
The USSR detonates RDS-1, “First Lightning,” at a test site in northeast Kazakhstan. The United States and United Kingdom are taken by surprise—Soviet nuclear science was further advanced than either nation knew.
The United Kingdom’s first nuclear test
The U.S. tests the first hydrogen bomb
The United States detonated “Ivy Mike,” the world’s first hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs, are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Duck and Cover
Eisenhower delivers the Atoms for Peace speech
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the United Nations General Assembly, calling for a future where atomic energy is used for peaceful purposes, not war. These ideas are the seeds for the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nonproliferation Treaty.
The Castle Bravo Test
At 6:45am, a flash and a fireball four and a half miles wide lit up the pre-dawn sky. It was hotter than the surface of the sun.
The Soviet Union launches Sputnik
The satellite was the first object launched into orbit around the Earth. It began the space race between the United States and Soviet Union—a less deadly proxy competition for the arms race.
France’s First Nuclear Test
The first French nuclear explosion, codenamed “Gerboise Bleue,” took place in the Algerian Sahara. It brought the total number of nuclear-armed nations to four.
The U.S.S.R. detonates ‘Tsar Bomba’
The most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested was detonated over a remote island in the Russian Arctic. Andrei Sakharov, one of the Russian scientists behind the bomb, would later become a dissident and a nonproliferation activist.
Cold War treaties
The U.S., Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty which bans nuclear tests in outer space, the atmosphere, or underwater.
The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, promote peaceful nuclear energy, and move towards complete disarmament.
The United States and the U.S.S.R. sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited both nations to just two sites with defenses against strategic ballistic missiles, an ICBM base and the national capitol. In 1974 a follow-on protocol changed the agreement so that only one site was allowed.
The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) interim agreement limits the number of anti-ballistic missile sites and land- and sea-launched nuclear missiles in the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
The United States and the U.S.S.R. sign the SALT II Treaty. It was meant to replace SALT I with a more comprehensive treaty—but was never implemented.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty commits the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to eliminating nuclear and conventional missiles with a range of 500 km to 5,500 km.
China, Israel, and India become nuclear states
Three more countries became nuclear powers in the decade between 1964 and 1974.
As nuclear stockpiles were reaching an all-time peak, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union met in Iceland to discuss reducing them. The meeting was a turning point, paving the way for real reductions in both countries’ arsenals.
The Cold War ends
Dissent and anti-Communist demonstrations across Eastern Europe culminate in the destruction of the Berlin Wall—and an end to the decades-long Cold War.