Andrew Pregnall: The Cold War and the Space Race

For this Tuesday’s class, I was responsible for presenting the class with a brief, three minute or less, history of the Cold War to put the space race into context. Before class, I thought it was important to contextualize the space rate within the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. At the end of World War II, the United States dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some historians argue that this constituted the start of the Cold War. Just a few years later, in 1949-1950, the USSR tested their own, more powerful, nuclear weapons, and that time period essentially set off the arms race to see who could build the most weapons and the most powerful weapons.

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The infographic I used to summarize the Cold War in class. Source:

At this point, it is appropriate to address the fundamental reason why the US and the USSR felt they needed to have nuclear armaments. To state it succinctly, the US felt the USSR’s promotion of communism led to a dangerous world. As a result, they took many steps to prevent the spread of communism in the world, and kept nuclear weapons in case full-fledged war with the USSR broke out. In a similar vein, the USSR felt the US was a dangerous to their country and the ideas it promoted around the world, so they kept nuclear weapons in case war broke out. Both countries having weapons led to the phenomenon or philosophy of “mutually assured destruction.”

In the period from 1947 to 1957, the US and USSR also engaged in a few proxy wars, including the Greek Civil War and the Korean War, in which they backed their respective ideologies by supporting a particular side in the war. These wars were known as ‘proxy wars’ because the US and the USSR were not ‘directly’ involved in the conflict; however, these wars certainly ratcheted up the tensions between the two countries. Then, in 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into space.

Now, in high school, I was taught the standard narrative that many people in the United States feared the launch of Sputnik because it was unexpected and many believed it could be used as a nuclear weapon delivery device, or at the very minimum it demonstrated that the USSR had the capability to deliver a long range nuclear device to the states. As we discussed in class, however, not all US scientists and government officials shared this sentiment about Sputnik, for its launch was planned and publicized in advance and represented a great leap forward in the technical capabilities of humanity. Although I had never learned this alternative story of the launching of Sputnik I, it does not surprise me. U.S. history in high school tends to, in my opinion, present a very simplified narrative of history that does more to paint our country in a good light than it does to truly teach students about the past and how to think critically about it. Ultimately, I found this alternative narrative very interesting because I had simply never heard about it before and because it demonstrates how where you are born colors what history you learn and how you learn about it.

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