From the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War dominated international affairs. It was a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the Cold War was sometimes fought on the battlefield, it involved everything from political rhetoric to sports. Overshadowing all was the threat of nuclear war.

The United States adopted a policy of deterrence. It threatened any would-be attacker with nuclear annihilation. To make the threat credible, the United States developed what came to be called the "Strategic Triad" of nuclear forces—long-range bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines. Each force independently could inflict catastrophic damage and devastating casualties on an enemy.

As the least vulnerable leg of the Triad, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines played a major Cold War role. This exhibition reviews the early history of submarines and their radical transformation after World War II. It shows how submarines are built, how they work, and what they do. It also tells the story of submariners and their families, Americans on the front lines of the Cold War.

This exhibit is no longer on view at the National Museum of American History.

During the 1950s, the U.S. Navy developed two major types of nuclear-powered submarine, fast attacks and boomers. The smaller model is a typical fast attack submarine. The real fast attack is a fish-shaped cylinder 360 feet long—exactly the same length as a football field with end zones included—and roughly 33 feet in diameter. Although they have a variety of missions, the main purpose of fast attacks is to locate and track enemy submarines. Both fast attacks and boomers have streamlined superstructures called sails; they hold a pair of horizontal diving planes and enclose the radar masts, radio antennas, and periscopes. The larger model is a typical boomer, or fleet ballistic missile submarine. In life it is 560 feet long—about the same length as this museum—with an oval cross-section, 42 feet from deck to keel and 35.5 feet abeam. Ready to launch their nuclear missiles against the enemy's homeland, boomers deter attack on the United States and its allies.