Photo: United States Department of Energy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

10 Details Of How Cold War Experts Thought A Nuclear War Would Actually Unfold

The world changed forever on the morning of August 6, 1945, when an American B-29 (the Enola Gay) dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; a second such device destroyed Nagasaki three days later. In the long run, the devastation felt by the Japanese cities prevented an entire country from being destroyed by an invasion. Thousands perished, but millions survived.

Seven years later, a device approximately 700-1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb was successfully tested by the US. The then-USSR debuted the even more powerful Tsar Bomba in 1961. To use such a weapon was unimaginable, but some people really did think the unthinkable. As Cold War tensions escalated, American and Soviet researchers made grim calculations over what a nuclear war would truly entail. 

How could a nuclear war actually start? How would it unfold? What would victory look like - if such a thing was even possible? And what would the post-war world look like? The verdicts of studies carried out at the time will be revealed in this explainer of the terrifying details of nuclear war. 

Photo: United States Department of Energy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • It Could All Start From A Simple Mistake
    Photo: Cecil Stoughton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    It Could All Start From A Simple Mistake

    At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy spoke of his fear of disastrous moments that could escalate the crisis into a full-blown conflict. In essence, it would only take an error from some low- or mid-level officer to cause the chain of events that would lead to World War III:

    There's always one son-of-a-b*tch who doesn't get the word.

    As a veteran of World War II, Kennedy was only too aware of the plethora of mishaps that always occur in the military. The pages of military history are littered with blunders, but since the advent of nuclear weapons, the stakes have never been higher. 

    Historically, multiple potential "son-of-a-b*tch moments" have only narrowly been avoided. At the Cuban Crisis itself, only the cool head of Vasili Arkhipov prevented disaster. There was also the North American Aerospace Defense Command incident in 1979 when the NORAD computer support system reported hundreds of nuclear weapons had been launched from the USSR. It turned out that an officer used the wrong computer for a war game simulation and confused the system. Three years later, Soviet submarine commander Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was fortunately sensible enough to stay his hand and not launch a retaliatory strike ordered by a computer error. 

    Other near-misses have also occurred, but the main point is that humanity needs to be fortunate every single time there's a potential "S.O.B. moment" - and only needs to be unfortunate once. 

  • The Nukes To Be Used Haven't Actually Been Tested In Decades
    Photo: Federal Government of the United States / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Nukes To Be Used Haven't Actually Been Tested In Decades

    Since 1945, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests have taken place, causing considerable environmental damage and taking a heavy toll on local populations. In the 1950s, the US explored the possibility of finding a peaceful use for nuclear weapons, this was before the long-term implications of radiation were properly understood. Such outlandish plans as using nukes to blast a new canal through Central America were explored. The Sedan Crater (picture) made in 1962, has essentially become a tourist attraction.

    The United Nations put a test-ban treaty in place in the 1990s, and both the US and Russia were among the signatories. Neither nation has exploded a nuclear device in more than 30 years. The USSR was still clinging to existence at the time of Russia's last live test, while the US last actively tested a nuclear weapon in 1992.

    Although the US has invested huge sums into maintaining and studying its nuclear stockpile annually, the overall reliability of the weapons hasn't been practically assessed in decades. In all probability, it's hard to say how effective a coordinated nuclear strike would be and how many warheads would fail to reach their target or detonate. 

  • Tactical Nuclear Weapons Would Be Used In The Initial Exchanges
    Photo: US Government DOD and/or DOE / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Tactical Nuclear Weapons Would Be Used In The Initial Exchanges

    With the ability to vaporize a city in a matter of moments, nuclear weapons are typically thought of as strategic weapons, but some experiments have involved deploying smaller-scale nukes in tactical situations. The M-28 Davy Crocket Launcher (pictured) was one unused venture into the world of tactical nukes. A substantial stockpile of smaller, tactical nuclear bombs was held by both NATO and the USSR at the height of the Cold War, along with detailed plans for their deployment in the case of a major conflict breaking out. 

    Ultimately, a tactical nuclear weapon has never been used in anger, but it’s possible that if a nuclear war ever did break out, the first stage of escalation would be on a tactical rather than strategic level. Smaller-scale nuclear weapons would be most useful in the relatively tight and densely populated contours of Europe, where more precision would be necessary. 

  • Trying To Mitigate The Damage Ahead Of Time Would Be Extremely Dangerous
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Trying To Mitigate The Damage Ahead Of Time Would Be Extremely Dangerous

    At the height of the Cold War, with the stakes so ludicrously high, the margin for error was wafer-thin. One of the biggest problems with deterrence as a strategy is that it must have the appearance of credibility. The other side has to believe the threat of a nuclear strike is real. How can you convince the other side you're serious about using nuclear weapons without actually using them?

    Another problem is that any defensive measures taken can be viewed as offensive by the other side. If there was a credible threat of a nuclear attack, one way to lower the casualties would be to evacuate urban centers. The trouble with this would be how the other side might interpret that move as a precursor to an attack. If either the Soviet Union or the US observed a mass evacuation of cities, that would lead to the belief that the other side was gearing up to launch the first strike.

    That’s all without trying to imagine how a mass evacuation would pan out - chaos would be a certainty and would require a substantial military presence, which in turn would make a sudden nuclear strike even more tempting. Try to imagine what simultaneously evacuating just New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago might look like in the 1960s, or even today. And that’s just the initial rush; there’s also the question of where the displaced millions would go at first and where they would stay. Both the Soviet Union and the US at least had large landmasses to disperse the population; European countries wouldn’t really have that option. 

    So, in a cruel twist of fate, trying to mitigate the damage might make it more likely. One 1960 study by Herman Kahn calculated that if the USSR evacuated its cities beforehand, “only” 10 million lives would be exposed to an American attack. In such a scenario Kahn wondered if it might actually be worth absorbing the retaliation and loss of 5-10 million citizens if a sufficiently devasting first strike could be inflicted. 

  • There Might Be Situations Where Striking First Is Desirable
    Photo: Dr. Strangelove / Columbia Pictures

    There Might Be Situations Where Striking First Is Desirable

    It is perhaps the most unthinkable act of all - starting a nuclear war. In a research article written in 1959, The Delicate Balance Of Terror, Albert Wohlstetter posited there may truly be circumstances in which a first strike was both feasible - and maybe even desirable - if there was enough appetite to absorb the retaliation. Historically, there may have been a few windows of opportunity if the morality of the question is put to one side.

    In the dying days of World War II, Germans held a widespread belief that the struggle would continue against the Soviet Union after it was defeated and absorbed into the Allied army. While some plans were in place for an instant third world war, these were never seriously contemplated. While the US held a monopoly on atomic weapons, there was at least theoretically an opportunity to use them without fear of retaliation. But with a small stockpile of atomic weapons and a potential enemy with an unmatched ability to absorb losses, and with an already dispersed industry, the A-bomb wouldn't actually have been the silver bullet in a potential conflict with the Soviet Union.

    The nuclear monopoly was broken in 1949, which kicked off a series of technological escalations; the hydrogen bomb was hundreds of times more powerful than the device dropped on Hiroshima. Such a devastating piece of technology had no useful purpose other than as a guarantor of peace. In Cold War calculations, the only thing more dangerous than developing the hydrogen bomb was not developing it. Falling behind was too risky to contemplate. 

    As unthinkable as a first strike would be to any rational person, theoretically, if there was a way to neutralize the opposing side's nuclear capability or at least minimize the retaliation, it was always a possibility. Just because there's no current way to stop a nuclear weapon doesn't mean there won't ever be. In the 1980s, the US explored the possibility of developing a missile defense system, nicknamed the Star Wars program by critics, but scrapped the hugely expensive futuristic project in 1993.

  • Retaliation Is A Certainty, No Matter How Devastating The First Strike Is
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Retaliation Is A Certainty, No Matter How Devastating The First Strike Is

    Second-strike capability is a cornerstone of the strategy of any nuclear power, major or minor. It is the notion that no matter how devastating the first hit, enough of the nuclear arsenal will remain to inflict a retaliatory strike of at least comparable impact. The missiles themselves would not only need to survive, but the network to actually use them would need to be intact as well. The problem with active deterrence is that you ultimately have to take that first devasting strike and hope to be in a position to return the favor with interest. You have to trust that the promised retaliation will stop anyone from attacking first.

    Among the high-ranking officers in NATO, there was little doubt nuclear weapons would be used if the USSR were to attack. British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, a key commander in World War II, left no room for doubt in his opinion:

    With us, it is no longer: “They may possibly be used." It is very definitely: they will be used if we are attacked.

    Similarly, the national security council report outlined American policy on using nuclear weapons in 1953: “In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider the use of nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions.”

    In the 1950s and '60s, this meant that nuclear powers needed to disperse their respective arsenals so that they couldn't be taken out in one fell swoop. Later, there was some work in creating mobile missile silos on American railways that could move away from danger. Some working devices were built, but the plan was ultimately shelved with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. 

    The advent of nuclear submarines has all but ensured that it's highly improbable any single power will be able to completely neutralize another's nuclear-strike capability in a single attack. As with any piece of military hardware, accidents can and will happen. In 2009, a British and French submarine somehow collided. The trouble with being virtually undetectable is, of course, the fact you are virtually undetectable. The French vessel Le Triomphant wasn't aware of the British Vanguard; fortunately, the damage to both subs was only superficial.