Why the Cold War Race for Nuclear Weapons Is Still a Threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and his invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that Russia, the U.S. and many other countries have thousands of nuclear missiles, even as safeguards once in place have fallen away.

The Cold War may be over, but an arms race continues, even as safeguards once in place have fallen away. Some experts worry that nuclear weapons may pose a greater threat to humanity than ever before.

Previous versions
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For teachers
  • Producer: Harvey Burrell
  • Sr. Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Editor: Cullen Golden

For Educators


This six-minute video provides students with an engaging overview of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War, and how it permeated American culture. Today, the Cold War is over but an arms race continues, even as safeguards once in place have fallen away. Some experts worry that nuclear weapons may pose a greater threat to humanity than ever before. In this lesson students will investigate the history of the arms buildup and learn about what level of threat nuclear weapons currently pose.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.

Background reading

In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union ignited over the threat of nuclear attack. By the early 1950s , the U.S. had even launched publicity campaigns with “duck and cover” training films and cartoons that instructed citizens what to do in the event of nuclear war.

Meanwhile, both countries began building up massive nuclear arsenals as insurance against annihilation. Concern was fed by popular novels like “Seven Days in May,” and films like “Dr. Strangelove,” which, along with “Ban the Bomb” marches, became part of the cultural landscape in the 1960s.

While tensions seemed always to escalate, leaders of both countries were well-aware that an accidental blunder – rather than an intentional assault – could spell global doom for all. That belief in a shared fate caused both sides to put safeguards in place and brought them to the negotiating table.

By the late 1980s, major arms reduction agreements had been negotiated by President Reagan, while the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 seemed to greatly diminish the threat of nuclear war.

But over the last few years, the nuclear weapons situation has become more complicated. The major superpowers – the U.S., Russia, and China – still face off with nuclear arsenals. But they are not alone. North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel reportedly have nuclear capability, and other countries including Iran seem eager to join them.

At the same time, some of the chief lessons of the Cold War – the necessity of safeguards and the value of negotiation – seem to be missing.

Lesson Plan 1: The Cold War and the Nuclear Weapons Threat

Students will learn about the Cold War-era nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and its connection to the threat of nuclear conflict today.


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze charts/graphs/images about nuclear weapons.
  • Explain how nuclear proliferation was part of the Cold War.
  • Analyze the risk that nuclear weapons pose for the world today.
Essential questions
  • Has the ending of the Cold War reduced the threat of nuclear destruction?
  • Why did the USSR and US build and deploy so many nuclear weapons?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.15.6-8.Evaluate the relative influence of various causes of events and developments in the past.