A common impression about the cold war is that it was based on parity of fear between NATO and the Warsaw pact, and that the fear of mutual annihilation, later codified into a policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) created a Nash equilibrium between the parties involved, and that the cold war ended because the Soviet Union collapsed. I already explained why the last part is obviously false – because the cold war ended before the Soviet Union collapsed – but some misapprehensions still remain and I intend to deal with them shortly.
The first misapprehension is that, since the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949, the balance of fear between the parties essentially started at this point. However, one needs to be mindful of the historical context, as well as the facts of geography. Take a look at the world map:
Then take a look at the device commonly used to deliver nuclear weapons during that time:
Take a short pause here.
There was no balance of fear. America had military bases in Europe and could have its propeller airplanes take off from Ramstein in Germany, Aviano in Italy, from UK, Turkey or whichever European NATO country, reach Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow in a very short time and nuke them into stone age. On the other hand, the Russians could nuke Europe in the same amount of time, but they couldn’t possibly reach America, and could be brought down during their long flight in so many ways, it was ridiculous. Furthermore, since their European bases are only short way to Russia, the Americans could make the jet-propelled bombers which didn’t need to conserve fuel and could reach Russia faster, while the Russians were extremely limited by fuel economy due to the intercontinental range they needed to overcome, and were so slow and vulnerable they were essentially useless. This puts the American “duck and cover” propaganda in perspective: duck and cover from what? The Russians were completely unable to reach them. It was simply technically infeasible.
Things changed somewhat in 1957 when the Soviets developed the first intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile and used it to perform the first Sputnik orbital flight, demonstrating to America that it can be reached. However, the danger was slight, since those rockets were not very robust, they required as much preparations as the current Soyuz launches, if not more, and not many could have been launched either simultaneously or in close succession. Essentially, the Soviets could nuke one American city, to which America could respond by nuking the entire Soviet Union before it could hope to prepare the second rocket for launch. It was such a weak weapon, that in 1962 the Soviets attempted a dangerous maneuver of placing the short-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, so that they could have a closer place to launch, with the kind of missiles they actually could produce in quantities that would pose a real threat to America. However, since America threatened to immediately nuke them unless they abandoned the attempt, they withdrew. Again, there was no balance of fear, there was no balance of danger. Only the Soviets were in real danger then, there was no threat of mutual annihilation. As Wikipedia states: “In fact, the United States led the Soviets by a wide margin that would only increase. In 1961, the Soviets had only four intercontinental ballistic missiles(ICBMs). By October 1962, they may have had a few dozen, although some intelligence estimates were as high as 75.
The United States, on the other hand, had 170 ICBMs and was quickly building more. It also had eight George Washington- and Ethan Allen-class ballistic missile submarines with the capability to launch 16 Polaris missiles each, with a range of 1,400 miles (2,300 km).”
Later, things changed. The Soviets developed strategic nuclear submarines of their own, but they were so noisy they could be heard across the Atlantic and therefore very vulnerable. The real game changer was the R-36 Voevoda rocket in the early 1970s, NATO designation SS-18 Satan. It is a robust, mass-produced, reliable, heavy-payload, accurate ICBM capable of delivering either a 20MT single warhead, or a MIRV configuration of some 10 smaller warheads with 550–750 kt each. This is the point where USSR became capable of truly wiping America from the face of the Earth in 30 minutes, and it proceeded to introduce the Topol-M mobile launchers which cannot be destroyed with a preemptive launch, and they introduced a silent generation of super-submarines, NATO designation Typhoon. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union finally achieved nuclear parity with the United States, and the “mutually assured destruction” finally became a realistic option, and America actually produced stock movies which had to work with the possibility where they would lose most of their nuclear arsenal due to Soviet first strike, and would have to surrender. At first, this was a ruse to get more money for the military budget, but later on, as shit got real, and as the response times were reduced significantly due to technological progress, they said “OK, enough of that, let’s be friends now”, and then it was like this:
Essentially, the “mutually assured destruction” was a reality for only five or so years during the entire cold war, and that very same America which kept trumpeting it around while it wasn’t real, became scared enough of it once it did in fact become real, that it ended the whole damn thing as soon as it became practical to do so while not only saving face but also pretending to have won.