Ending The Arms Race With A START

Presidents Bush and Gorbachev shake hands in front of American and Soviet Flags
Presidents Bush and Gorbachev shake hands at the end of a press conference about the peace summit in Moscow, 31 July 1991.

© Corbis / Peter Turnley

Origins of the Arms Race

In August 1945, the United States accepted the surrender of Japan after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. With the development of jet aircraft, both superpowers gained a greater ability to deliver nuclear weapons into the interior of the opposing country. The official nuclear policy of the United States became one of “massive retaliation”, which called for massive attack against the Soviet Union if they were to invade Europe, regardless of whether it was a conventional or a nuclear attack.

By the early 1950s American foreign policymakers knew that the Cold War was here to stay. Communism seemed on the move, most dramatically with the North Korean invasion of June 1950 that began the Korean War. Western policymakers believed countries at risk from Communist aggression might fall if their neighbors succumbed, like so many dominoes: if one country was lost to the Communists, so too would be the next, and the next.

Evolving means to deliver nuclear weapons led the United States to develop a strategy of three complementary means of delivering nuclear weapons to target, what became known as the “Triad.” The nuclear triad consists of landlaunched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile armed submarines and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Having a three-branched nuclear capability eliminated the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack; this, in turn, ensured the credible threat of a devastating retaliatory strike against the aggressor, increasing a nation’s nuclear deterrence.

Mutual Assured Destruction

By the 1950s both the United States and Soviet Union had enough nuclear power to obliterate the other side. Both sides developed a capability to launch a devastating attack even after sustaining a first strike from the other side. This policy became known as Mutual Assured Destruction: both sides knew that any attack upon the other would be devastating to themselves, thus in theory restraining them from attacking the other.

Both Soviet and American experts hoped to use nuclear weapons for extracting concessions from the other, or from other powers such as China, but the risk connected with using these weapons was so grave that they refrained from brinkmanship. While some, like General Douglas MacArthur, argued nuclear weapons should be used during the Korean War, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower opposed the idea.

Both sides were unaware of the details of the capacity of the enemy’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Americans suffered from a lack of confidence, and in the 1950s they believed in a non-existing bomber gap. Aerial photography later revealed that the Soviets had been playing a game with their bombers in their military parades, flying them in large circles, making it appear they had far more
than they truly did. The 1960 American presidential election saw accusations of a fictitious missile gap between the Soviets and the Americans.

Détente and Disarmament

Having spent incalculable resources constructing their respective nuclear arsenals, world leaders subsequently spent much of their time and energy in efforts aimed at reducing the risks of nuclear war.

Disarmament was one such effort. Presidents Nixon and Ford participated in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks which led to the SALT I and SALT II Treaties in the 1970s. The SALT I Treaty also put limits on numbers of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. The subsequent SALT II Treaty placed additional limits on nuclear arsenals and slowed, but did not end, the arms race. A slowing of the arms race and a reduction in nuclear armaments had to wait until the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War.

As the political and economic structure of the Soviet Union crumbled during the late 1980s, the lengthy Cold War period came to an end. The Solidarity movement in Poland, a reform eff ort which began in Poland’s dockyards and spread into a national call for political and economic change, highlighted the new spirit of innovation sweeping through Eastern Europe. By the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall fell, Germany had been reunified, and a number of former Eastern Bloc nations had democratically elected governments. The Cold War formally ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which President Ronald Reagan had once called the “evil empire.” The massive nuclear buildup that resulted from the arms race diverted trillions of dollars that might have been spent on domestic programs, but a hot war had been averted.

START Treaty

On 31 July 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START Treaty), which limited the number of ICBMs and nuclear warheads either country could possess. Weapons in excess of the agreed upon number would be disarmed and silos destroyed.

Congress ratified the START Treaty in October 1992. A month after the signing of this treaty, political dissenters attempted a coup against Soviet leader Gorbachev and the fast unraveling Soviet Union finally collapsed. The signing of the START Treaty concluded disarmament talks that had begun almost a decade earlier in the early 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 complicated implementation of the START Treaty. Former Soviet republics, all possessed Soviet nuclear weapons and agreed to comply with the treaty.


In the United States, the START agreement coincided with growing Air Force disenchantment with the escalating costs associated with the older Minuteman II system. The Pentagon decided to deactivate the entire Minuteman II force to comply with provisions of the arms-reduction treaty. On September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced on national television a dramatic “plan for peace,” designed to reduce the tensions of the nuclear age. As one component of his plan, he called for “the withdrawal from alert within seventy- two hours, of all 450 Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

After the stand down ordered by President Bush, the Air Force began the deactivation of Minuteman II ICBM sites, including the 150 Minuteman silos and fifteen control centers at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. Additional Minuteman installations in Missouri and eastern North Dakota were also dismantled.

A complex process governed the deactivation and dismantlement of the silos. Each Air Force base removed missiles and other sensitive equipment and then they turned the sites over to the Army Corps of Engineers to begin the demolition. Destruction of the silos could be accomplished either by implosion or by excavation. The silo site then had to remain open for ninety days to allow Soviet satellites time to verify that the removal complied with treaty provisions. After the ninety-day period, crews covered the silo with a concrete cap and graded the top of the silo opening with gravel.

The START Legacy

The START treaty negotiated the largest and most complex arms control treaty in history, and its final implementation in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence. With the full implementation of the treaty, the Delta Flight sites in South Dakota are the only surviving intact example of the original Minuteman configuration, designed
to implement the Cold War policy of massive retaliation and is also the only intact formerly operational Minuteman II site open to the public.

Clearly the international legacy of the Cold War remains. The first two generations of Minuteman missiles, however, do not. Having negotiated an end to the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders recognized a need to remember this crucial moment in global history. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one such piece of the past and place of memory, preserved as a public space. These sites facilitate a public dialogue on the Cold War, nuclear weapons proliferation and disarmament, the role and dedication of Air Force personnel, and the nation’s political and military future.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Last updated: October 20, 2020