Development of U.S. and Soviet Military Complexes

Story by: ChanWoo Kook

Visuals by: Noah Weinberg

Date: 1/05/21

While the Cold War was chiefly a propaganda war between the Soviets and the United States who competed to seize the hearts and minds of the Third World, their political egos did not allow them to resist themselves from engaging in multiple hot proxy wars. Consequently, the Cold War, quickly making its way to the center of the world’s attention, was in many ways responsible for the technological shift in 20th century military culture.

While there are missing data points for Soviet military spendings from 1953 to 1968, this graph is still useful as it contains data points from the Korean War (1950-1953) and its consecutive proxy war, the Vietnam War (which USSR joined in 1968). It was difficult to find estimated USSR military spendings given limited resources and nondisclosure information pages.

In many cases, technological developments are driven by competition, and the Cold War was no exception. This journey of industrial competition between USSR and the US, however, embarks in WWII. At the pinnacle of the war, both superpowers undertook to undergo war mobilization – with Soviet producing 78,000 tanks and 98,000 artillery pieces, and the U.S. six ships a day and 96,000 planes per year. The USSR and the U.S. were together the competing arsenal and the backbone of the Allies’ military, leading them to clench the victory against the Axis powers. But it also became the kindling for the Cold War.

Following the two nation’s failure to coexist with each other’s political doctrine was a lengthy global division, as Winston Churchill puts it, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The reason for their steadfastness against each other seems to be that both had far exceeded the threshold of attaining technological autonomy that neither wanted to concede to the other’s political ideology, or could be forced to concede by the other for that matter.

While reasonable efforts to mediate direct clashes were made by the USSR and the U.S., neither refrained themselves from entering proxy wars in the face of international efforts to retrieve peace and unity after WWII. With proxy wars came extensive technological advancements and sizable investments in their respective militaries. For example, in the Korean War (1950-53), the United States, in backing South Korea efforts to resist the North’s communism, provided the Eighth Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, and the First Marine Division. Walker brought in medium tanks, rocket launchers, artillery pieces, anti aircraft guns, and most importantly, close-air-support aircraft. The Soviets’ reluctance to provide substantial military assistance to the North in fear of having direct contact with the rebuilt American forces helped the U.S. successfully enforce its containment policy in the Southern part of the Korean peninsula.

When Soviets made a tangible appearance in North Vietnam, increasingly in the late 1960s, the stakes rose through the roof. With the Rosenbergs’ alleged collusion with the USSR, the U.S.'s biggest rival had obtained instruction on engineering nuclear weapons and successfully tested its first nuclear device by 1949. Among other weapons, the USSR used surface-to-air missiles against South Vietnamese and its allies, which China was not technologically capable of making. While the USSR deployed a mere number of 3,000 troops, they made large contributions through weaponries and modern vehicles, shooting down U.S. planes and aircrafts in the battlefield. The Soviets’ advanced industrial productions eventually forced American occupation out of South Vietnam in 1973, and the number of Soviet satellite states had risen by one.

Hover over or Select a country from the key to view individual makeup.

Threat of a nuclear war had become imminent during the 13 days of a highly combustible environment between the U.S. and USSR, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


Nuclear Weapons Graph: Our World in Data

Military Spending Graph: The Soviet Union: Military Spending

Sources for Story:

World War II in America: Spending, deficits, multipliers, and sacrifice
The Rosenberg Trial
Vietnam War