What followed was, if not inevitable, nevertheless entirely predictable. The ‘arms race’, as it came to be known, meant that every new weapon tested by one side was interpreted by the other as a challenge to be met. Thus, the Soviet test was followed, on 1 March 1954, by an American test of a deliverable hydrogen bomb, on Bikini. Fallout from this shot, codenamed Bravo, was greater than the Americans had expected, and a cloud of radioactivity settled over the Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru— in unfortunate translation, ‘Lucky Dragon’. All twenty-three members of the crew developed radiation sickness, and one, Aikichi Kuboyama, later died. Lewis Strauss, now chair of the AEC, issued a series of denials, implausibilities, and prevarications concerning the conduct of the test, but there was no denying that the ever-more powerful weapons being tested were bound to produce radioactivity that did not respect international boundaries or innocent bystanders. Back to Semipalatinsk went Soviet physicists and engineers, goaded now by the new supreme leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and inspired, as before, by Sakharov. This time they would drop an H-bomb from a plane, the way it would be delivered in the event of war. When the drop came, on 22 November 1955, with flash and flame and unearthly roar, Yakov Zeldovich threw his arms around Sakharov and yelled, ‘It worked! It worked! Everything worked!’ Except that a baby was killed in a nearby bomb shelter, a soldier died when his trench collapsed, half a dozen people were badly injured when a hospital roof fell in, and, at a meat-packing plant in Semipalatinsk, shards of broken window glass were blown into the ground beef. The tit-for-tatting continued. The radioactive clouds, tainted soil, and toxic ground water all grew worse.
Bigger bombs were one way to go, especially so long as they could be delivered by aircraft. The history of nuclear weapons is closely connected to the development of air power and theories of strategic bombing. By the mid-1950s, though, much thought was given instead to other means of delivering nuclear weapons. It was never true, as Stanley Baldwin had predicted, that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Military science had increasingly caught up with air power; bomber delivery of explosives was relatively slow and vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire or attack from faster fighter planes. Some of the writers who had first imagined the atomic bomb—Harold Nicolson, for example—had speculated that the weapon would be carried by rockets, far more likely to get through than airplanes. The Germans experimented in the 1930s with rockets that they thought might carry poison gas. They developed instead a liquid fuel rocket called the V-2 equipped with a ton-weight explosive, which they launched at big cities (London, Antwerp) and which killed many thousands during the war. These were Hitler’s alternative to nuclear weapons. After the war, nations with nuclear bombs of course envisioned attaching them to rocket bodies and firing them at enemies, at great distance and speed. The induction of German scientists into the American and Soviet scientific communities moved such plans ahead. In August 1957 the Soviets fired a missile that, they boasted, had flown across Siberia. It was the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Less than two months later came the launch of Sputnik, an unmanned satellite that orbited the earth, emitting a pinging or beeping sound as it transited the heavens. Sputnik suggested that Soviet rocket science had moved decisively ahead of American, for its boosters were evidently comparable to those needed for the launch of an ICBM.54
The American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was not especially worried about Sputnik, recognizing that it offered no military threat, but the American media bred panic, and Senator Henry Jackson called for a ‘National Week of Shame and Danger’. The first US attempt to launch a satellite that December ended abruptly when its rocket carrier blew up on the launch pad. But the Americans soon made up the technological deficit. A year after the Soviet ICBM test, the United States tested its first long-range missile, the Atlas, a much-enhanced version of the German V-2. It carried a megaton payload, flew up to 6,000 miles, and was reasonably accurate as these things went, falling within 5 miles of its intended target. Steady improvement modernized the American arsenal: heavier Titans (I and II) by the early 1960s, a clutch of intermediate-range (1,500 miles) missiles, sent to Britain, Italy, and Turkey in 1960, and an ICBM called the Minuteman, driven by stable solid fuel and the backbone of the country’s missile deterrent from its deployment in 1962—the Minuteman was said to be accurate within a tenth of a mile. These weapons were land based and launched from fixed positions.55
Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, the Americans began developing another innovation in delivering nuclear warheads. As bombers could not always get through, and land-based missiles were potentially vulnerable to strikes by their counterparts in the Soviet Union, military planners thought it desirable to put a third set of weapons in motion, and to permit their concealment from an enemy’s prying eyes. These were missiles launched from submarines, or SLBMs. (Robert Oppenheimer had named the Trinity test for John Donne’s ‘three-person’d God’; the Cold War American nuclear posture would be termed the ‘triad’.) Polaris missiles, as they were called, were first deployed in 1960 on the George Washington, a nuclear-powered submarine. Second and third iterations of the Polaris improved range and accuracy, and version three could be topped with three warheads, which clustered around a target and thus increased the likelihood of its destruction. Late in the decade, the United States produced a missile that carried up to ten warheads, each of which could be programmed to strike a different target—these were multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIR Vs. What would have taken ten bombers to deliver a decade earlier could now be launched at an adversary with greater speed and accuracy than most air strategists had dreamed of.56
Despite such innovations, by 1960 there was in the United States ominous talk of a ‘missile gap’ favoring the Soviet Union. Yet, by every objective measure, the American nuclear arsenal, its weapons and delivery systems, far outstripped that of its rival. Khrushchev bluffed about Soviet capabilities, bragging about his missiles and crowing that Soviet satellites were growing lonely in space while they waited for their American friends to join them. But no boasting could conceal that the Soviet economy was far less productive than the American throughout the 1950s. The index of American striking power was in 1955 some forty times greater than that of the Soviet Union. The United States had B-47 Stratojet bombers and B-52s, all able to refuel in mid air and thus reach the Soviet Union with their nuclear payloads. Soviet bombers were far more limited. Nor were Soviet air defenses much good; Curtis LeMay believed that the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) could destroy the entire Soviet military apparatus ‘without losing a man to their defenses’. US bases in Europe and Asia offered proximity to the Soviet homeland that the Soviets could not match.
And, despite their early gains in missile technology, the Russians quickly fell behind there too: by the end of 1962 the Soviets had roughly two dozen ICBMs on station, while the Americans had 284. As yet the Soviets had no SLBMs.57
It was Khrushchev who recognized that nuclear superiority was not essential for his nation to be taken seriously as a great power. It was enough to have some nuclear weapons, tested for all to see, or at least bragged about, and to threaten occasionally to use them. When, in October 1956, Israel invaded Egypt and was quickly supported at Suez by Britain and France, Khrushchev (through a subordinate) asked British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, ‘What situation would Britain find itself in if she were attacked by stronger states possessing all kinds of modern destructive weapons?’ Khrushchev credited this blunt warning for the British decision to back down. It was Khrushchev’s revelation, according to his biographer William Taubman, that the menace of Soviet missiles, small in number though they might be, would be enhanced if they were protected against an American first strike by their placement in underground silos. British and American fears that Khrushchev might be crazy or a ‘megalomaniac’ gave the Russian leader room to maneuver on the issue of East Germany (and Berlin), though when in 1961 the new US president, John F. Kennedy, did some blustering of his own, Khrushchev knew better than to launch his missiles—at whom?—and instead instructed that the old German capital be divided by a wall.58