Modern World History

The Cold war and the Age of Nuclear Deterrents

In Moscow Stalin had not been told about the new weapon the Americans and British had been developing. When he finally understood what it could do he was determined that Russia should have its own bomb, even if it meant stealing the secret of its technology from his erstwhile allies. In the meantime he maintained the largest conventional army the world had ever seen, ruthlessly suppressing any movement towards independence within the 'liberated' countries of Eastern Europe.

There remained however the problem of Berlin. Although the capital city of Nazi Germany lay deep within the zone allocated to Russian occupation after the Second World War, it was divided between the four allies equally, with the British, American and French sectors quickly becoming an island of freedom behind the 'iron curtain'. In 1948 Stalin tried to starve the West Berliners into submission but the city was fed by the famous Berlin airlift. For many years it remained one of the likeliest flashpoints for the start of World War Three.

By 1950 Russia had its own atomic bomb and for more than forty years modernity threatened to destroy the planet. Knowing the terrible dangers of an all-out conflict the rival superpowers - the USA and the Soviet Union - sought to undermine each other's influence around the world whilst doing nothing to provoke 'Armageddon'. The resulting 'cold war' came very close to a shooting war several times, most notably during the Cuba missile crisis of 1962, after which a 'hot' line was installed between the Kremlin and Washington DC so that the leaders could at least talk to one another during times of heightened tension.

As long as 'mutually assured destruction' was the certain outcome of any use of nuclear weapons, there was a balance of terror which could be seen as keeping the peace. With the advent of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 however, there was serious talk of the United States developing the ability to shoot down incoming missiles in space ('Star Wars'). Russia's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, knew that the Soviet Union could not match this initiative. After years of central direction with a huge percentage of her economic output going into defence, Russia was cracking up, her industry far less productive than that of the West and her satellites in Eastern Europe increasingly restive. Gorbachev's remedy for these ills was a mixture of 'peristrioka' (reconstruction) and 'glasnost' (transparency). The former meant giving a free hand to a younger generation of managers and scientists who alone could get the Soviet economy moving; the latter meant giving greater freedom to people to express their views and removing the dead hand of bureaucracy from every aspect of Russian life.