Roots of the U.S.-Soviet Space Race
Whether states join costly technological competitions with other countries depends considerably on their perception of the technology’s importance to their national security. In turn, these calculations are influenced by who else is involved in the race, what military advantages the technology might bestow, and finally, its expected expense relative to other budgetary demands. Despite staggering costs, for example, Britain accepted the necessity of an arms race in massive, Dreadnaught-type battleships before World War I because of its unwillingness to surrender naval dominance to Germany.1 British officials saw naval superiority as essential to the maintenance of their empire and therefore critical to national security.
But in regard to missile technology in the 1930s, Britain did not compete. It failed to perceive the immediacy of the threat and did not want to spend precious defense funds on an unproven technology. The United States fell into the same camp, at least initially. It had two large oceans protecting it from harm and decided that missiles—still in their infancy and far from achieving intercontinental range—did not pose serious near-term risks to its security. For both, given the presence of multiple powers in the pre-1945 international system, threats seemed more distributed and less acute, while alliances presented viable options for opposing possible aggressors. Conditions of economic depression also affected the breadth of threats states felt they could afford to deal with.
The exceptions to this rule were competing states located in close proximity to their military rivals. This condition held for Germany, France, and the Soviet Union, in particular. But excessively conservative thinking within the
1 See Holger H. Herwig, “The Battlefleet Revolution, 1885–1914,” in MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).