Nuclear Weapons Saved Millions of Lives
Was the Cold War destined to stay cold? Or did nuclear weapons save us from the largest global conflict of all time?
The Cold War is usually defined by the pervasive and unrelenting fear of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Millions of lives were in the balance. Thousands of nuclear warheads could be deployed at a moment's notice, and millions of people would be vaporized in the ensuing detonations. However, as you may have noticed, that didn't happen. We're still here, and so are American and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
The beginning of the Cold War was arguably before the end of the Second World War. It became clear among the Allies that their long term interests were inherently at odds without a common enemy. By the time the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, relations between the capitalist West and the communist East were already strained. Whether or not the nuclear bombs were meant to deter a Russian offensive on Japanese territory, their detonations had that effect and secured the United States' victory over Japan. The Americans were able to oversee the remaking of the Japanese government and economy and transform the former enemy into a capitalist democratic ally. Peace has reigned in Japan ever since.
On the Western Front, Western and Soviet forces divided former Nazi-occupied territory into their own spheres of influence. The Red Army stood down Western forces in Berlin and across Europe. War was on the horizon once again. But it didn't come. Why not? The answer is unequivocally nuclear weapons. While seemingly inevitable, the new phenomenon of nuclear war was too scary a prospect to risk an armed conflict. The collective fear of mutual assured destruction motivated leaders to keep the Cold War "cold." Self-preservation was the primary motivator behind both the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their operational inactivity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The European and Pacific Theatres of the Second World War were horrifically violent scenes, and the total war dead in the global conflict by 1945 was the highest number of any conflict in human history. World War 2's total war became a relic of the past once nuclear weapons ensured that total war would lead to the end of humanity. The most destructive weapon of all time has, rather counterintuitively, given us a long period of relative peace, however pervasive the fear of war.