The Cold War was a decades long struggle (roughly 1945-1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Countless proxy-wars were fought in an effort to spread or contain communism and capitalism, costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. But what caused the Cold War?
Historians offer various explanations. One is that relations between world leaders simply soured during disagreements after World War II. Another explanation is that the radically different experiences between the Soviet Union and the United States made it nearly impossible for those leaders to come to an agreement. But what explains how relations could remain so soured for decades? Those original leaders, after all, died shortly after World War II ended.
Our answer (perhaps an obvious one): nuclear weapons. No other weapons in history was so powerful, so devastating, and so destructive. In a flash, one's world could end as they knew it. Weapons instilled a deep fear into the public. A chilling fear so deep that it lasted for generations.
During the Second World War, the United States began a top-secret mission called the Manhattan Project. This project employed some of the world’s greatest physicists, including Albert Einstein, with the goal of developing an atomic bomb. The project was ultimately successful.
On July 16, 1945, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, federal officials detonated the first atomic bomb. From there, nuclear weapons only became more powerful.
The first nuclear weapons were plutonium or uranium-based, but the next American development came in 1950 when the US tested the first Hydrogen bomb near the Marshall Islands. This 10.4 megaton bomb was 450 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This test was then followed by the worlds first thermonuclear weapon, the Castle Bravo project, which produced 15 megatons of TNT. This created unexpected amounts of radiation leading to higher rates of birth defects and cancer in the residents of the Marshall Islands.
Soviets also developed nuclear weapons, conducting their first successful test in 1949. One bomb though, stood above all others. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated “Tsar Bomba,” a 50 megaton weapon. In a flash, the bomb created a fireball five miles wide that could be seen from 630 miles away. Within 60 miles, you would have suffered third degree burns. Sensors registered that the bomb’s shockwave orbited the Earth not once, not twice… but three times. Russia recently released top secret footage of the Tsar Bomba.
Historians offer multiple explanations for what caused the Cold War. But when one examines the sheer might of atomic weapons, its no wonder that the public feared the worst. Atomic bombs fueled the decades-long Cold War.
Garrett is an intern at the FHA and an undergraduate History major attending Saginaw Valley State University.
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