Soviet Union Tests Atomic Bomb

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb.  This surprised the United States, who thought the Russians were years away from getting a bomb.

The fact that the Soviet Union could now make weapons led to the arms race, one of the lasting characteristics of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to outdo each other in the creation of nuclear weapons.  And, as a result, both countries developed the capabilities to destroy the world many times over.  The fear of nuclear war would now be the cornerstone of life during the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union exploded their first nuclear weapon in 1949, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a massive build-up of nuclear weaponry that would last for over 4 decades. During this deadly competition, both the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to outdo each other first in the number of nuclear weapons in each arsenal and then in the destructive capabilities of the warheads. At first, the only way to deliver a nuclear payload was through the use of bombers.  Then, in the 1950s, the first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were developed.  This technology allowed for the delivery of a nuclear warhead thousands of miles via a missile.

The first atomic bombs were measured in kilotons.  Then, with the development of the hydrogen bomb in 1952, bombs became much more powerful and were now measured in "Megatons."  A 1 megaton bomb is the equivalent of 1 million tons of TNT.

Operation Castle, a successful Hydrogen Bomb test
in 1954. The yield of this bomb was 11 megatons
(Public Domain)
The destructive force that the USSR and the United States created during the Cold War was astounding.  The chart below, first published in 1984, gives a frightening idea as to just how much power the nuclear arsenals of the United States were.  Each dot on the chart is equal to all of the firepower in World War II.  By the 1980s, the world had produced enough nuclear bombs to equal 6,000 World War IIs.