An arms race occurs when two or more countries increase the size and quality of military resources to gain military and political superiority over one another. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is perhaps the largest and most expensive arms race in history; however, others have occurred, often with dire consequences. Whether an arms race increases or decreases the risk of war remains debatable: some analysts agree with Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary at the start of World War I, who stated "The moral is obvious; it is that great armaments lead inevitably to war."
Dreadnought Arms Race
With the Industrial Revolution came new weaponry, including vastly improved warships. In the late nineteenth century, France and Russia built powerful armies and challenged the spread of British colonialism. In response, Great Britain shored up its Royal Navy to control the seas.
Britain managed to work out its arms race with France and Russia with two separate treaties. But Germany had also drastically increased its military budget and might, building a large navy to contest Britain’s naval dominance in hopes of becoming a world power.
In turn, Britain further expanded the Royal Navy and built more advanced and powerful battlecruisers, including the 1906 HMS Dreadnought, a technically advanced type of warship that set the standard for naval architecture.
Not to be outdone, Germany produced its own fleet of dreadnought-class warships, and the standoff continued with both sides fearing a naval attack from the other and building bigger and better ships.
Germany couldn’t keep up, however, and Britain won the so-called Anglo-German Arms Race. The conflict didn’t cause World War I, but it did help to increase distrust and tensions between Germany, Britain and other European powers.
Arms Control Efforts Fail
After World War I, many countries showed an interest in arms control. President Woodrow Wilson led the way by making it a key point in his famous 1918 Fourteen Points speech, wherein he laid out his vision for postwar peace.
At the Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922), the United States, Britain and Japan signed a treaty to restrict arms, but in the mid-1930s Japan chose not to renew the agreement. Moreover, Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles and began to rearm.
This started a new arms race in Europe between Germany, France and Britain—and in the Pacific between Japan and the United States—which continued into World War II.
Nuclear Arms Race
Though the United States and the Soviet Union were tentative allies during World War II, their alliance soured after Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945.
The United States cast a wary eye over the Soviet Union’s quest for world dominance as they expanded their power and influence over Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union resented the United States’ geopolitical interference and America’s own arms buildup.
Further fueling the flame of distrust, the United States didn’t tell the Soviet Union they planned to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, although the United States informed them they had created such a bomb.
To help discourage Soviet communist expansion, the United States built more atomic weaponry. But in 1949, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb, and the Cold War nuclear arms race was on.
The United States responded in 1952 by testing the highly destructive hydrogen “superbomb,” and the Soviet Union followed suit in 1953. Four years later, both countries tested their first intercontinental ballistic missiles and the arms race rose to a terrifying new level.
Cold War Arms Race Heads to Space
The Soviet’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957, stunned and concerned the United States and the rest of the world, as it took the Cold War arms race soon became the Space Race.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to tone down the rhetoric over the success of the launch, while he streamed federal funds into the U.S. space program to prevent being left behind.
After a series of mishaps and failures, the United States successfully launched its first satellite into space on January 31, 1958, and the Space Race continued as both countries researched new technology to create more powerful weapons and surveillance technologies.
Throughout the 1950s, the United States became convinced that the Soviet Union had better missile capability that, if launched, could not be defended against. This theory, known as the Missile Gap, was eventually disproved by the CIA but not before causing grave concern to U.S. officials.
Many politicians used the Missile Gap as a talking point in the 1960 presidential election. Yet, in fact, U.S. missile power was superior to that of the Soviet Union at the time. Over the next three decades, however, both countries grew their arsenals to well over 10,000 warheads.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cold War arms race came to a tipping point in 1962 after the John F. Kennedy administration’s failed attempt to overthrow Cuba’s premier Fidel Castro, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev implemented a secret agreement to place Soviet warheads in Cuba to deter future coup attempts.
After U.S. intelligence observed missile bases under construction in Cuba, they enforced a blockade on the country and demanded the Soviet Union demolish the bases and remove any nuclear weapons. The tense Cuban Missile Crisis standoff ensued and came to a head as Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged letters and made demands.
The crisis ended peacefully; however, both sides and the American public had fearfully braced for nuclear war and began to question the need for weapons that guaranteed “mutually assured destruction.”
Arms Races Continue
The Cold War ended in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. But years earlier, in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) to limit the scope and reach of all types of missiles.
Other treaties such as the START 1 treaty in 1991 and the New START treaty in 2011 aimed to further reduce both nations’ ballistic weapons capabilities.
The United States withdrew from the INF treaty in 2019, however, believing that Russia was non-compliant. Though the Cold War between the United States and Russia is over, many argue the arms race is not.
Other countries have beefed up their military might and are in a modern-day arms race or poised to enter one, including India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea, and Iran and China.
Herman, Steve. US Leaves INF Treaty, Says Russia ‘Solely Responsible.’ VOA.
Hundley, Tom. Pakistan and India: The Real Nuclear Challenge. Pulitzer Center.
Sputnik, 1957. U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.