Strange as it may seem, nuclear weapons were both the good and the bad of the Cold War. The principal causes of the Cold War were fundamental differences in political structure and economic policy between the USA and the USSR. Each feared that the other sought to increase its global influence, and attempted to prevent this perceived shift in the “balance of power.” Rather than agree to disagree, both communism and democracy were being pushed upon the newly formed/liberated nations after World War II. Each developed a fear of the other, and soon overblown suspicions led to a firm division of the world into two separate camps.
One of the base causes of the tensions in the Cold War was the American’s initial monopoly on nuclear weapons. They had developed them in total secrecy in the middle of the desert under an innocuous-sounding code name during the Second World War. Although secrecy was an absolute necessity when working with material as potentially destructive as that of the Manhattan Project, Stalin felt that Roosevelt could have shared more of his findings with his Allies. The British were in on the project from the beginning, as it had initially been theirs until the research was transferred to the US for fear of a German invasion of the British Isles. However, Russia was kept at arm’s length, as their working relationship had not been enough to develop any sort of real cooperation. It turned out that the Russians got most of the information anyway, through the aid of some sympathetic Manhattan project scientists like Klaus Fuchs.
At the end of the war with Germany, Stalin feared that the Americans would use their nuclear monopoly to advance capitalism in Europe. Since capitalism was communism’s greatest enemy, Stalin bullied Roosevelt and Churchill into allowing him to retain his influence over the countries Russia had liberated until the formal peace treaty could be negotiated. As it turned out, a formal treaty was never signed due to the fundamental differences in policy between West and East, thus Stalin was able to set up communist puppet governments in most of Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, the United States submitted a proposal to the newly formed United Nations which would outlaw nuclear weapons and allow the US to retain its arsenal until a permanent inspecting body had been set up. Stalin, having not fallen off the turnip truck the day before, promptly exercised Russia’s veto power to quash the plan. Shortly afterward, Russia demonstrated its success with the nuclear arms program by detonating its first atomic bomb. The West was taken by surprise, having not expected this development until some years in the future. The United States’ strong reaction led Stalin to believe a preemptive strike was imminent, and ordered production increased. American President Truman countered with a crash program in fusion weapons, and thus the vicious cycle had begun.
Once mass numbers of nuclear arms became a reality, it was no longer advisable for the East and West to face off against each other like that did during the various disputes over Berlin. Although by the 1960s the world seemed perched on the cusp of total destruction due to the mass numbers of ICBMs built up by the superpowers in the blink of an eye, the reality was that the more impossibly destructive the weapons were, the further away the possibility of a real war became. Neither superpower was naïve enough to believe that the other could be disarmed completely in a first strike, they realized that no matter how thorough their offensive weapons were in disposing of other offensive weapons, there would still be enough left to turn the striking country into a radioactive wasteland and plunge the world into nuclear winter. Therefore neither the US nor the USSR would dare launch a first strike, or indeed an attack of any kind, for although the superpowers later advocated a “flexible response” doctrine, even a war with conventional weapons raised the possibility of the conflict escalating into full-scale nuclear war. Thus the superpowers were forced to take out their anger with each other on various assorted rebels and revolutionaries in other parts of the world.
All the major wars between 1945 and 1990 were veiled USA/USSR conflicts. North Korea vs. South Korea was really China vs. the USA (China having recently become a communist country), Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s - Ho Chi Minh’s forces were originally supported by the USSR, however not to the point of fighting the war on their behalf as the Americans did for South Vietnam, the USSR’s battles with various anti-communist movements within Warsaw Pact countries, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the superpowers finally met head on. Cuba itself had very little to do with the severity of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro was not even a communist until the US withdrew its support from his government and he was forced to look to the USSR for trade, since the Cuban economy was export based. The USSR, in addition to buying their crops, supplied them with IRBM missiles which also had nothing to do with Cuba. With American missiles stationed in Turkey under similar circumstances, Khrushchev was anxious to repay the favor. However, he underestimated the lengths to which the Americans felt they could go under the Monroe Doctrine, and wisely backed down from Kennedy’s quarantine. He did not, however, remove the Cuban IRBMs until a secret agreement had been made with Kennedy regarding the Turkish missiles.
Through all of the tension and near misses, not once did a “hot war” break out between the two superpowers. The reason for this of course is that they both realized that any actual military conflict between their two nations would result in the real “war to end all wars” since there would be very little left of the earth as we know it after a full scale nuclear exchange. Had nuclear weapons not existed at this time, the Cold War would still have occurred, because it derived itself from fundamental political differences. In fact, it is very possible that nuclear weapons actually saved the world from having to endure a World War 3, since if they had not existed the superpowers would have no reservations about attacking each other over political and economic influence especially in Europe. Therefore it can be said that although nuclear weapons caused decades of tension and fear, it was the price that had to be paid for averting another World War.