Arms Race and Disarmament

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ARMS RACE AND DISARMAMENT. The term "arms race" generally refers to peacetime competitions between states for military superiority. Efforts to control or limit such competitions by mutual agreement are variously referred to as "arms control," "arms limitation," "arms reduction," or "disarmament." Though many of these expressions date to the nineteenth century, it was not until the twentieth century that they entered common usage. Examples of "arms races" are found throughout much of American history, but the largest and most important remains the one between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, especially as it involved nuclear weapons.

The most common explanation for the origins of arms races has to do with what political scientists call the "security dilemma." According to this theory, one state takes steps to increase its security, such as strengthening its military, which makes potential rivals feel less secure, causing them to take similar measures that in turn increase insecurity in the first (and other) states. The result is a spiraling arms race in which each side can view its actions as defensive in nature. Critics of such "action-reaction" models reject the idea that arms races are essentially "misunderstandings" and assert instead that arms races are often caused by attempts to gain military superiority for coercive purposes or are even caused for domestic political reasons. Historical debates over the nature and desirability of arms control similarly vary. Supporters of disarmament usually assert that arms races cause wars. Critics of this view contend that the fundamental problem is usually not the arms race itself but the political disagreements that underlie international tension. In this view an arms race is only a symptom, not the disease, thus arms control only becomes possible when it is no longer necessary. Needless to say the theory behind arms races and disarmament is a matter of intense debate.


Throughout most of its early history, the United States retained only a small peacetime military establishment. The Atlantic Ocean would shield North America from large European armies, and the militia was thought sufficient for initial protection from any British (Canadian) threats from the north, Indian threats from the west, or Spanish threats from the south. Further the ideology of the timid early Republic saw the very existence of a large professional army in peacetime as a threat to democracy. These factors combined to keep peacetime military spending low, and arms races remained rare and disarmament for the most part irrelevant. An extreme illustration of the effects of all this was the brief moment in June 1784 when the entire U.S. Army consisted of only eighty men and a handful of officers.

A series of incidents in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, however, gradually led to the establishment of what today would be called a rudimentary "military-industrial complex." In the 1790s part-time soldiers proved embarrassingly likely to run in a series of encounters with large Indian forces, and in 1814 the rapid collapse of a militia force outside Washington, D.C., allowed British troops to burn the nation's capital. Waiting until war was imminent to create military forces proved even less tenable when it came to navies, given the long lead time associated with shipbuilding. In the 1790s the Federalists authorized the creation of a substantial force of naval frigates, and though President Thomas Jefferson at first disdained the naval force that resulted, this did not prevent him from using it against Barbary pirates in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Jefferson also tacitly recognized the need for at least a small core of professional officers with his creation in 1802 of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The War of 1812 made clear that the one potentially significant exception to American geographic protection from the "great powers" was the existence of British Canada. American invasions of Canada during the war failed, but the potential for more remained. In the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 the United States and Britain agreed to severely limit the establishment of any future naval forces on the Great Lakes. The first major incidence of successful arms control in American history, this agreement remains among the most important, as it eventually led to a sturdy Canadian-American peace and what was at the beginning of the twenty-first century the longest undefended border in the world.

With the gradual disappearance of the British threat to the north and the increasing disparity between the population of the United States and that of the American Indians, American geographic isolation seemed as strong as ever by the mid-nineteenth century. Scattered Indian wars and even a major war with Mexico (1846–1848) occurred, but in each case the rapid mobilization of armies of volunteers, built around a small core of professional soldiers, proved sufficient. The slow growth of the peacetime military establishment proceeded, most notably with the continued expansion of the federal armories at Spring-field, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and the creation in 1845 of the U.S. Naval Academy. The largest example of this nineteenth-century pattern in American history was of course the Civil War. Though some informal preparations took place in both the North and the South in the 1850s, not until the commencement of hostilities did either side begin its rapid military expansion. Demobilization swiftly followed the end of the war, and by the 1870s the American army was once again a small peacetime force, scattered for the most part among various western outposts.

American Imperialism and the World Wars, 1890–1945

By the 1890s, however, the United States developed a growing thirst for land and influence beyond the confines of North America. Advocates of expansion, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, no longer feared the "great powers"—they wanted the United States to become one. The rapid pace of change in naval technology over the previous few decades had leveled the playing field by rendering old fleets of wooden sailing vessels obsolete, and spurred by the writings of "navalists" like Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States joined wholeheartedly in the international competition for the best new "steel and steam" warships. The fate of navies who fell behind in this arms race was dramatically illustrated in Manila Bay during the brief 1898 Spanish-American War, when a fleet of newer American warships obliterated an older Spanish fleet. The American squadron was outnumbered seven to six, and the two forces exchanged fire for over two hours. Yet when the smoke cleared, not a single American sailor was dead as the result of enemy fire. Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, and not coincidentally by the end of the decade American naval spending had more than doubled from even 1899 levels. By the 1914 outbreak of World War I, the United States possessed the third most powerful navy in the world.

Until the Cold War the classic example of an arms race remained the intense Anglo-German naval competition that preceded World War I. This and other prewar arms races were widely blamed for the disaster that was the "Great War," and the years that followed saw a worldwide explosion of interest in arms control and even complete disarmament. Before the war even ended President Woodrow Wilson listed among his famous Fourteen Points for a "just and stable peace" the demand that "national armaments …be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety." At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922 the United States, Britain, and Japan agreed to restrictions on building naval bases in the Pacific and limited the tonnage of their capital ships along the ratio of 5:5:3. The United States was signatory to numerous other interwar arms control measures, including a 1925 protocol to the Geneva Convention that outlawed the use of chemical and biological weapons and even the ambitious 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which at least in theory outlawed war altogether. Of course wars have occurred since 1928, and some have involved the use of chemical and biological weapons. Even successful arms control sometimes just provided an inadvertent spur to technological development, such as the diversion of funds from the battleships restricted at the 1921–1922 Washington Naval Conference to newer vessels unrestricted by treaty, such as submarines and aircraft carriers. By the mid-1930s the failure of interwar disarmament had become apparent. Japan chose not to renew its naval treaties, and Nazi Germany openly announced its intention to rearm in violation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile in the United States congressional hearings chaired by Senator Gerald Nye in 1934 succeeded in convincing many Americans of the unlikely notion that the United States had essentially been tricked into entering World War I by domestic weapons manufacturers, the so-called "merchants of death." As European armies frantically prepared for war, the U.S. Congress passed in the mid-and late 1930s a series of neutrality acts in an attempt to en-sure that, when the next war came, this time the United States would remain aloof from any "foreign entanglements."

Of course given the armaments of the twentieth century, even the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were insufficient buffers against the aggression of Nazi Germany and Japan's military dictatorship. As the populace wrestled with pacifism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt quietly prepared the nation for war. Following the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, the United States created its first ever peacetime military draft and in general embarked on a massive expansion of its land, sea, and air forces. In 1939 the defense budget accounted for approximately 1 percent of the U.S. gross national product; by 1943 that percentage had grown to over 35 percent. In the Atlantic Charter, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the British prime minister Winston Churchill on 9 August 1941, both leaders paid lip service to "lighten[ing] … the crushing burden of armaments," but this was for appearances only. Both men were determined to achieve and maintain peace this time through military force, not any "scrap of paper." World War II also sowed the seeds for the largest arms competition in history, the Cold War nuclear arms race. The United States and Britain ignored the advice of scientists such as Niels Bohr and chose not to inform their wartime ally, the Soviet Union, of the crash Anglo-American Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Numerous Soviet spies kept the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin well informed throughout the war, however, and this only increased his already substantial paranoia about Western postwar intentions. Thus even before World War II was over, preparations for a possible world war III had already begun.

The Cold War: "Massive Retaliation," 1945–1962

Pressures for worldwide postwar disarmament were immediate and intense. World War II was even more destructive than World War I, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made it plain to all that the next time around entire nations might be annihilated. Peace groups of private citizens came to the natural conclusion that the only solution was the complete prevention of all war and that this was only possible through the creation of one world government. But for a variety of reasons this was of course an impossibility in 1945. World leaders did create the United Nations (UN), but the possession of veto power in the Security Council by both the United States and the Soviet Union meant that any dispute between the two would lead only to stalemate in the UN. Any successful international agreement to control atomic energy would require an enormous amount of mutual trust, and by 1947 trust was a scarce commodity in Soviet-American relations. Though for propaganda purposes both sides kept up the appearance of serious disarmament negotiations, neither thought it was a realistic possibility during these earliest and most intense days of the Cold War.

In 1945 the United States had yet again conducted a massive demobilization of its wartime armed forces. By default military planners were therefore forced to rely on the American monopoly on nuclear weapons for the deterrence of future war. Should deterrence fail and a war with the Soviet Union ensue, the plan was simple: strike at Soviet industry and morale by dropping the entire American stockpile of atomic bombs on Soviet cities. To this end the United States concentrated its military resources into the U.S. Air Force's new Strategic Air Command and proceeded to encircle the Soviet Union with bases from which to launch its medium-and long-range bombers. In August 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, which thanks to Soviet espionage was a near copy of the first American plutonium bomb. This came several years before expected by the United States and only redoubled determination within the United States to continue expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Emphasis on the atomic air offensive that would take place at the outset of war increased, except now the highest priority was to preempt Soviet nuclear capabilities by striking so hard that no reply was possible, something that came to be called a "successful first strike." In addition to the Soviet nuclear test, the world in 1949 and 1950 experienced the twin shocks of Communist victory in the Chinese civil war and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. Later that year President Harry S. Truman reluctantly approved a massive increase in military spending, and within one year the defense budget of the richest nation in the world had tripled.

Developments in the nuclear arms race came at a dizzying rate throughout the rest of the decade. In 1950 Truman approved the construction of a hydrogen bomb, a weapon of potentially unlimited power. When the United States tested the first of this new category of "thermo-nuclear" weapons in November 1952, the resulting explosion was over eight hundred times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. By November 1955 the Soviet Union had perfected the design of its own "super-bomb." American defense spending was reined in to some degree beginning in 1953 by the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, as it attempted to get more "bang for the buck" by relying yet again more on nuclear than on conventional forces. This policy, which came to be known as "massive retaliation," came under increasing domestic criticism by the late 1950s, however. The unexpected Soviet test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in August 1957 provoked fears of a "missile gap" and threatened to reduce the potential warning time of an enemy attack from hours to minutes, raising the specter of a "nuclear Pearl Harbor." By 1961 it had become apparent, however, that despite this the United States did in fact retain its substantial lead in the nuclear arms race, including in the number and quality of intermediate-and long-range missiles. In his 1961 farewell address Eisenhower cautioned the nation about the increasing influence of what he called the military-industrial complex. Few were in the mood to heed this warning, however, until the world came perilously close to nuclear war during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cold War: "Mutual Assured Destruction," 1962–1990

Political leaders around the world were deeply shaken by what McGeorge Bundy has called the "nuclear danger" they glimpsed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for the first time since the 1920s meaningful arms control seemed again a realistic possibility. A "hot line" was established to enable virtual immediate communication between the White House and the Kremlin, and in 1963 the superpowers agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning all aboveground nuclear tests. By the mid-1960s defense intellectuals argued that the point of diminishing returns had been reached and that additional American nuclear weapons would only marginally increase the destruction that would be visited upon the Soviet Union in a general war. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced that the American goal of "assured destruction" had been reached, and from the 1960s through the end of the Cold War the number of American ICBMs

and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) remained remarkably constant (at approximately 1,000 and 650, respectively). The expansion of Soviet nuclear capabilities continued at a rapid rate, however, and by the early 1970s it had become apparent that literally tens of millions of Americans would likely die in any general nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The assured destruction was now mutual, leading to the apt acronym MAD.

By the 1970s both sides were looking for economic relief from over two decades of continuous arms race, and given the rough parity that finally existed, neither side thought it had much of a lead left to protect. In the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement, each superpower agreed to limits on its future ICBM production. The associated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty also severely restricted the deployment of and even future research on defenses against missile attack. Arms control was now a virtual Cold War obsession, with the world's attention focused on each dramatic new "summit" between Soviet and American leaders. In 1979 the two sides agreed in the SALT II agreement on a more comprehensive series of restrictions, including for the first time limits on the ability of either side to deploy multiple warheads (MIRVs) on individual missiles. In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify SALT II, and that year President Jimmy Carter announced a dramatic increase in American military spending.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency amid promises that the United States would "catch up" to the Soviet Union in the arms race. He publicly labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire," and following a series of crises in 1983, the Cold War reached its most dangerous period since 1962. Nuclear freeze or "ban the bomb" movements around the world reached unprecedented levels of popularity, and fears of nuclear war soared. In 1983 Reagan called for the creation of a massive new antimissile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Just as the arms race seemed to be reaching a fever pitch, however, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union and embarked on a program to restructure the Soviet economy in what turned out to be a futile attempt to stave off economic collapse. In the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 the two sides agreed for the first time to actually reduce, as versus simply limit, nuclear armaments. Work proceeded on the more comprehensive Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), but before they could be completed, to the surprise of just about everyone, in November 1989 the sudden end of the Cold War was announced to the world by East and West Germans dancing together on the Berlin Wall.

The Post–Cold War World, 1990–

Meaningful arms control now appeared to be finally becoming possible just as it was no longer necessary. In the 1990s Russia and the United States agreed to massive cuts in their respective nuclear arsenals through the START and START II agreements. Even though the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the latter, unilateral and voluntary cuts by both sides threatened to make future arms control irrelevant. Attention increasingly turned to the prevention of the proliferation of "weapons of mass destruction," that is, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to states beyond those that already possessed them, continuing a process begun by the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty promised to make the worldwide ban on nuclear tests complete, but in 1999 the Senate, concerned that verification might prove impossible, refused to ratify it. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, arms races and state-to-state arms control seemed suddenly less relevant in a world where individuals, not governments, might be the greatest threats of all.


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Burns, Richard Dean, ed. Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament. 3 vols. New York: Scribner, 1993.

Dingman, Roger. Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914–1922. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Evangelista, Matthew. Innovation and the Arms Race: How the United States and the Soviet Union Develop New Military Technologies. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Political science case study focusing on tactical nuclear weapons.

Federation of American Scientists. "Weapons of Mass Destruction." Available Detailed, heavily illustrated information on arms control and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American–Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. First published in 1985.

Glynn, Patrick. Closing Pandora's Box: Arms Races, Arms Control, and the History of the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Conservative perspective on arms control.

McDougall, Walter A. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Millett, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. Rev. and expanded. New York: Free Press, 1994. Military policy in peace as well as war. First published in 1984.

New house, John. War and Peace in the Nuclear Age. New York: Knopf, 1989. Politics of arms control.

Rosen, Stephen Peter. Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Twentieth-century case studies.

Wittner, Lawrence S. The Struggle against the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993–.


See alsoArmy, U.S. ; Cold War ; Hydrogen Bomb ; Navy, U.S. ; Nuclear Weapons ; andvol. 9:Eisenhower's Farewell Address .

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