In the opening struggles for control of Europe, the United States used economic aid to support the democracies of Western Europe and stymie the territorial advances of the Soviet Union.
Following World War II, much of Europe lay in ruin, its economies in shambles. Through the European Recovery Act of 1948, better known as the Marshall Plan, the United States poured more than $12 billion in food, raw material, capital equipment, and economic investment into Western Europe. War-weary Europeans welcomed the aid. But wary Soviet leaders saw it as a ploy for the United States to improve its own post-war economyand to establish a permanent presence within sight of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union clashed over Berlin. Deep within the Soviet occupation zone of a divided postwar Germany, Berlin was a divided city. Allies occupied the west and Soviets the east. When the Allies announced plans to create a separate, democratic West Germany in 1948, the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, intent on reuniting the city as the capital of East Germany. In a countermove, President Harry Truman ordered an airlift to ferry supplies to the beleaguered city. The Soviets backed down, lifting the blockade in May 1949, shortly after the United States and its European allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for their mutual defense. The airlift ended in September.
In 1949, the cold war became a nuclear arms race when the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb. United States military and intelligence services knew that the Soviets were developing an atomic bomb but assumed it was years in the future. They were shocked when air-monitoring stations in Alaska detected positive radioactive evidence of a recent explosiona Soviet atomic test that occurred on August 29, 1949. The American public was stunned. In an understatement, a secret report prepared by the Pentagon noted: The United States has lost its capability of making an effective atomic attack upon the war-making potential of the USSR without danger of retaliation in kind.
A secret study prepared for the president warned that if the Soviets were to develop an H-bomb before the Americans, the risks of greatly increased Soviet pressure against all the free world, or an attack against the U.S., will be greatly increased. The United States exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1952. The Soviets followed in 1953.
In the late 1950s, Soviet and American scientists and engineers raced to develop long-range ballistic missiles with payloads that could not be intercepted.
Cold war planners on both sides recognized the strategic importance of rocket-launched nuclear warheads that could reach a distant continent. Engineers and technicians worked on propulsion and guidance systems for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
In 1957, the Soviets tested the first successful ICBM, then used it to launch a small satellite, Sputnik, into Earth orbit. The United States sent a satellite of its own aloft a few months later, using a smaller, mid-range missile as a launch vehicle. The first U.S. ICBM was deployed in 1959. As the two rivals raced to outmatch each other, their nuclear arsenals grew.
In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba. He demanded that the weapons be withdrawn and indicated his willingness to risk nuclear war if they were not. U.S. ships blockaded Cuba. B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons flew in holding patterns just beyond Soviet airspace, ready to attack.
The crisis abated only when the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles and the United States quietly removed similar medium-range missiles from Turkey. In the aftermath of the faceoff, the superpowers continued to develop nuclear weapons, but also sought ways to avoid a nuclear exchange.