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In an attempt to end the war in the Pacific without a costly invasion of Japan, the US dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 respectively. A uranium gun-type atomic bomb named Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. When Emperor Hirohito did not heed President Truman’s call for surrender, the US dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb named Fat Man on Nagasaki.
The two atomic bombings, together with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan, finally convinced Emperor Hirohito to surrender to the Allies, effectively ending World War II. Use of the atomic weapons demonstrated America’s technological superiority, but also increased existing tensions with the Soviet Union, setting the stage for the Cold War.
After WWII, control of Germany was divided between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Berlin was located in the Eastern Soviet sector, but since it was the country’s capital city, its control was also divided between the Western powers and the USSR. In June of 1948, the USSR attempted to gain control of the entire city by cutting off all surface traffic to West Berlin.
The United States responded with a daily airlift of food and supplies into the besieged city. The airlift lasted until September of 1949. In all, the western allied powers would deliver 2.3 million tons of supplies and fuel to West Berlin during the airlift.
The Soviet Union had begun research on its own atomic bomb program in 1943. Aided by information and plans stolen from the Manhattan Project by Soviet spies, the USSR was able to develop its own nuclear weapon within only a few years after the end of World War II.
In August of 1949, it conducted a successful test of a 20-kiloton bomb years ahead of American predictions, effectively creating the nuclear arms race between the two super-powers.
On November 1, 1952 at 7:15am local time (October 31, 1915 hours GMT), the United States tested its first thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) on the island of Elugelab in the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. Code named Ivy Mike, the device was detonated remotely from a distance of about 30 miles.
The resulting fireball was 3 miles wide and reached a height of 120,000 feet. The mushroom cloud that followed the fireball was 100 miles wide. The yield of the explosion was a little over 10 megatons, more than 700 times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Elugelab was vaporized and the crater left behind was more than a mile wide and more than 160 feet deep.
Japan began ruling Korea in 1910, but ceded control of Korea when it surrendered at the end of WWII. The United States and the USSR agreed to split Korea into two occupation zones. The zone north of the 38th parallel was occupied by the USSR and it helped the Koreans living there form a communist government. The US occupied the south and it oversaw elections that resulted in a democratic government.
When the two major powers withdrew, friction between the north and south finally erupted into war in 1950 when North Koreans invaded the south. The south was unprepared for the aggression and was immediately overrun. Eventually, the US stepped in to help the South Korean military, essentially creating a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States. No final peace treaty was ever signed to end the Korean War. Instead, the two sides signed an armistice in 1953 that ceased hostilities and formed the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no-man’s land between the two countries which constituted the new border.
The US and the USSR each wanted to achieve technological superiority over the other. Included in that struggle was the race to become the first country to build a rocket capable of launching an object into space. Not only would this be an immense technological achievement, but a rocket that was powerful enough to carry a payload into space could also carry a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the other country.
In October of 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Average Americans could turn on their AM radios and hear Sputnik transmit its beeping signal. Sputnik caught Americans off guard and embarrassed the nation. For the US military, this was proof that the USSR had the missile technology to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. The USSR put Sputnik 2 in orbit before the US was able to put its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit in January of 1958. Both countries then began a race to the moon.
Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, was considered an important sphere of influence by both US and Soviet leaders. When nationalist forces created North Vietnam in 1956, the USSR and China recognized and backed the new communist country while the US became committed to stopping the spread of communism in the region and backed South Vietnam.
As in Korea, the US and the USSR avoided direct warfare by backing the opposing governments and forces. The war was immensely unpopular in the US, which finally withdrew the last of its forces and aide to South Vietnam in 1975. North Vietnam ultimately prevailed in the war and Vietnam was unified into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.
Known as Big Ivan to the Soviets and as Tsar Bomba in the US, RDS-220 was the largest nuclear weapon ever built. Designed as a 100 megaton hydrogen bomb, its yield was reduced by 50% when it was tested. The device was air-dropped from an altitude just above 34,000 feet over the Mityushikha Bay test site on Novaya Zemlya Island on October 30, 1961.
It detonated at 13,000 feet and its fireball still reached the earth. The blast pressure was measured at 300 psi and the flash of light was visible more than 600 miles away. The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 210,000 feet.
By 1961, massive numbers of East Berliners were fleeing through the open border to West Berlin. Late on August 12, in an effort to stem the tide of defectors, Soviet Premier Khrushchev gave the East German government permission to stop the flow of emigrants by closing its border for good.
Construction of the Berlin Wall on the border between East and West Berlin began on August 13. The first construction of a barbed wire and concrete block fence was created in just two weeks. The wall was more than 26 miles long and eventually the barbed wire fence was replaced with a 13-foot wall.
On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was briefed by the CIA that an American U-2 spy plane had taken photographs of Soviet nuclear missile launch sites under construction in Cuba. He formed a group of advisors that would later become the Executive Committee (Ex Comm) to develop the US response.
Over the next 13 days the Cuban Missile Crisis would unfold, bringing the US and the former Soviet Union the closest we have ever been to nuclear war.
The largest land-based missile ever deployed by the US, the Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was 103 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. The Titan II could launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds and it carried the W-53 warhead with a yield of 9 megatons (9,000,000 tons of TNT).
With a range of more than 5,500 miles, the Titan II was an important component of the US strategic triad. Fifty-four Titan II ICBMs were deployed in groups of eighteen around three Air Force Bases, with the first units coming on alert in early 1963. All fifty-four missiles were on alert by December of that year. Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona hosted the 390th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) which was comprised of the 570th and 571st Strategic Missile Squadrons (SMS). Little Rock AFB, Arkansas hosted the 308th SMW which was comprised of the 373rd SMS and 374th SMS. And McConnell AFB, Kansas hosted the 381st SMW which was comprised of the 532nd SMS and 533rd SMS.
The Cuban Missile Crisis prompted the US and USSR to set up a direct line of communication between the two countries to enable rapid and direct communication between them in crisis situations which might impact the security of either country (such as the accidental launch of nuclear weapons).
Commonly referred to as the “Red Phone,” the communication link was actually a tele-typewriter that transmitted written messages—not voice. The “Hot Line” reduced the time it took for the US and USSR to communicate directly with each other and reduced the possibility for misunderstandings. It was first used extensively in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War. The US used the Hot Line to explain US fleet movements in the Mediterranean.
The 1980’s – 1990’s
In early November of 1983 the world may have come closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. NATO was conducting what it considered a routine exercise named Able Archer, a simulation designed to train and test the procedures for shifting from conventional to nuclear war.
However, the Soviet Union interpreted the exercise as a prelude to a first strike by the United States. Much remains classified about what came to be known as the War Scare of 1983. But the National Security Archive has amassed and published a large collection of documents that are available online. Included in this library is a 100-page report by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from February of 1990 entitled The Soviet “War Scare.” Declassified in 2012, the moderately redacted report concludes that the intelligence community did not “attach sufficient weight to the possibility that the war scare was real”, and as a result “the President was given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the United States.” The Board further concluded that the US had “inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
On May 5, 1987, the last active Titan II ICBM came off alert at Launch Complex 373-8, Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. While missile crews would continue to pull custodial alerts at the complex as deactivation progressed, this day marked the end of the operational life of the largest land based missile in the US arsenal.
Designed to function for just 10 years, 54 Titan II ICBMs stood alert in their underground silos for almost 24 years, ever vigilant, ever ready, maintaining peace through deterrence.
In June of 1987, US President Ronald Reagan stood at the infamous Brandenburg Gate, part of the Berlin Wall, and challenged the Soviet General Secretary: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
A little less than 18 months later, millions of Germans celebrated as thousands of their compatriots tore down the Berlin Wall—one of the most iconic symbols and enduring images of the Cold War.
Riding the wave of unrest symbolized by the opening of the Berlin Wall, leaders of every Eastern European nation except Bulgaria were overthrown by popular uprisings by the end of 1989. The Soviet Union was in turmoil and there were several attempts to overthrow General Secretary Gorbachev.
Finally, on December 8, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, formed the Commonwealth of Independent states. After 45 years, the Cold War, the longest war in US history, was over.
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