The United States became the first country in the world to use nuclear weapons when they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These bombs had been dropped by planes but it soon became clear that it would be far more effective to use rockets as a means of delivering the weapon to its target. Rockets were cheaper, faster and more difficult to destroy in the air. Employing German scientists who had been involved in developing the V2 Rocket during the Second World War the United States set about producing nuclear missiles.
The main problem was developing a missile that was accurate. The major failing of the V-2 rockets used against Britain at the end of the war was that they often did not hit their intended target. Although mainly aimed at London they often landed many miles away. The further the V-2 rocket had to travel, the more inaccurate it became.
As the United States perceived their main enemy to be the Soviet Union, they needed missiles that could travel long distances. Therefore, after the war, the United States concentrated on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The breakthrough came in 1952 when the United States exploded their first hydrogen bomb. H-bombs provided large explosions with smaller, lighter warheads. Weight had always been a problem and these new lighter missiles were much more accurate. By 1957 the United States had developed the Atlas missile that could travel 6,000 miles and land within a mile of its target.
The problem with the Atlas missile was that it took over an hour to prepare for firing. This would undermine its effectiveness in a nuclear war. By the end of the 1950s the United States overcame this problem by developing the Minuteman missile. This missile stored its fuel in its own engines. It was now possible to fire a missile in thirty seconds. These missiles were also fairly small (54 feet long and 10 feet in diameter) and could be stored in silos under the ground, protected from an enemy attack.
At the same time the United States developed Polaris submarines which could carry nuclear missiles. Protected by the sea, these submarines could move close to the Soviet Union and therefore increase the missiles' accuracy. This was an important development, as one Polaris submarine could carry more destructive power than all the bombs dropped during the whole of the Second World War.
The Soviet Union was extremely concerned by these developments. Although they had exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949, they were a long way behind the United States in nuclear technology. They had concentrated on producing large missiles that could travel long distances. However, these missiles were inaccurate and their size made them difficult to conceal.
With the development of the U-2 planes the Soviet missile sites became very vulnerable to attack. The plane could fly at
altitudes of above fourteen miles. Fitted with cameras, the U-2 could photograph and read a newspaper headline from a
height of 12 miles. In a matter of minutes it could take 4,000 photographs that covered an area of 125 miles wide by 3,000 miles long. It was now possible for the United States to work out the size and position of the Soviet forces.
The Soviet Union also became concerned when, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to build nuclear shelters. Pamphlets were also distributed on how to survive a nuclear war. Further panic took place in the Soviet Union when in March 1962, Kennedy told a journalist that in some circumstances the United States might start a nuclear war.
Soviet scientists advised Nikita Khrushchev that it would be several years before they could catch up with the United States. It was suggested that the Soviet Union needed to find a way to make the United States vulnerable to a nuclear attack. Khrushchev became convinced that if the United States knew they would suffer badly in a nuclear war, they would not start such a war.
In the 1950s the Soviet Union had been producing medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). The idea was to use these to support troops if a war broke out in Europe. If they were to be used against the United States, the Soviet Union needed a nuclear base in that area. However, the Soviet Union did not have an ally in the Americas. After the Cuban revolution and the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion this situation changed.
As the United States radar network faced the Soviet Union, missiles placed in Cuba could be aimed at what became known as America's 'soft underbelly.' There were serious risks involved in this strategy but Khrushchev calculated that with the creation of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (MAD), a first-strike attack from the United States would not now take place.