Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.
Chapter 2: CONSEQUENCES OF NUCLEAR WAR
Oh, cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past.
Oh, might it die or rest at last
Types of Nuclear Bombs
Throughout the ages, two curious reversals of opinion took place concerning the transformation of one chemical element into another. Ancient and medieval alchemists believed they could strike it rich by finding a stone or a substance capable of transforming cheap metals into gold. But because they had failed and because their successors adopted the new atomic theory (which "proved" that such transformations were unrealizable), the alchemists' belief in the philosopher's stone came into disrepute.
But the physical impossibility of one age often becomes the everyday occurrence of another, and twentieth century atomic scientists have learned to transform some distinct chemical elements into others. Thus, the alchemists' dream came true, but with two unexpected twists. First, the end product of modern nuclear transformations is not only gold, but an astonishing variety of substances. Second, these transformations do not derive their primary social or economic significance from their end products, but from the enormous amounts of energy they produce.
There are two basic types of nuclear weapons. In an A-bomb (atomic or fission bomb), atoms of heavy elements (uranium-235 or plutonium-239) break up (fission) into lighter elements and release energy. In an H-bomb (hydrogen, fusion, or thermonuclear bomb), two isotopes of the lightest element (hydrogen) are fused into a heavier element (usually helium, the next lightest) and produce an enormous explosion.
There is a curious hierarchical relationship among the explosive components of nuclear bombs. Because fission is set in motion by conventional explosives, every A-bomb contains both fissionable materials and conventional explosives. In turn, the best available evidence to date suggests that fusion of hydrogen isotopes can be set off only at enormous temperatures (hence the name "thermonuclear bomb"). Though it might be possible in the future to produce the required temperatures through laser beams or other processes, at present they can be produced only through the explosion of a fission bomb. An H-bomb explosion, then, is a three-layered process that takes place almost at once-a conventional explosion which sets off a fission explosion, which then sets off a fusion explosion.
Several variations of these two bombs exist. In the neutron bomb the initial radiation component (see below) of the explosion is enhanced and the blast and heat components are reduced. In a more important variant, the H-bomb's core is surrounded by a shell of uranium-238. This adds, at little additional cost, considerable explosive power. The result in this case is a four-layered series of explosions: conventional, fission of uranium-235 (or of plutonium-239), fusion of two hydrogen isotopes, and fission of uranium-238.2a,3a
For any given weight of explosives, the yield of nuclear bombs is roughly 3.5 million times greater than the yield of conventional explosives. In the 1980s, the average American nuclear warhead weighed about 100 kg and had an equivalent yield of some 350,000,000 kg (or 350,000 metric tons) of TNT.2b Such enormous amounts of energy can be more conveniently expressed in thousands of metric tons of TNT (kilotons, abbreviated as kt), or in millions of tons (megatons, or Mt). For example, the average American warhead's yield was 350 kt, or 0.35 Mt. Nuclear and conventional explosions also differ in their physical effects. Conventional bombs destroy by producing a blast. At their center, they can only reach a maximum temperature of some 5000°C and they emit no ionizing radiation.4 Incendiary bombs destroy and kill by starting fires and by burning people alive, not through blast and ionizing radiation. While nuclear bombs produce far more destructive blasts per unit of weight than conventional bombs, they also produce devastatingly high temperatures (similar to those at the center of the sun) and radiation levels.
Effects of a Single Nuclear Explosion
The physical characteristics and effects of a single nuclear explosion are determined by many variables, including the type of bomb used, its yield, the height at which detonation occurs, weather conditions, and the type of target. Any brief description is therefore abstract and simplified. Moreover, because humankind's experience with nuclear explosions over cities has been limited, only a rough sketch of the effects of a single nuclear explosion can be drawn here.
For a person standing outdoors some distance from ground zero, the first indication that a nuclear explosion has occurred is a blinding flash of intense ultraviolet radiation.3b The duration of this flash depends, among other things, on the explosion's yield; in a 1 Mt detonation, this flash lasts about one-tenth of a second.4 This flash can dazzle observers miles away (especially if they happen to look in the direction of ground zero) and temporarily blind them.5a
Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)
Although this pulse is similar in character to the waves which transmit radio and television signals, it is millions of times stronger and it is of a very short duration-less than one-thousandth of a second. Wherever this pulse occurs, it can be absorbed by power lines, antennae, long wires, and other collectors, and carried to the electrical and electronic devices to which these collectors are attached. EMP can therefore lead to temporary interference in communication and power systems, and it can disable electric power supplies, telephones, telegraphs, radars, radios, computers, and other electronic devices. In the event of an all-out war, EMP could incapacitate or severely cripple a nation's military and civilian power and communication systems, thereby complicating retaliation and recovery in the affected area.
EMP's direct effects on people are negligible: only the few people who happen to hold a pipe, long wire, or similar collector at the moment of explosion could die of severe shock.4
The EMP of surface or low-altitude explosions (the types of explosions that could be used to destroy missile silos and level cities) affects a comparatively small area. But a few strategically placed explosions some twenty miles above the earth could blanket an entire continent and, because EMP travels with the speed of light, they could do so in an instant. Both the USA and the USSR have had many spare bombs, so it is almost certain that each would have tried to achieve this blanket effect in the event of an all-out war.
In addition to EMP, a nuclear explosion can alter atmospheric conditions and disrupt transmission of radio and radar signals.4
Some 35 percent of the bomb's energy is given off as heat (thermal radiation). At the moment of explosion, the bomb itself becomes as hot as the sun. Within a fraction of a second, a fireball-a luminous spherical mass of air and bomb's residues-is formed. The diameter of a 1 Mt bomb's fireball at its most luminous stage is about 1.5 miles. The diameter of a bomb one-fortieth that yield (12.5 kt, the yield of the Hiroshima bomb) is a quarter of a mile. A fireball can be seen from a great distance. A 1 Mt high-altitude explosion can be seen from as far away as 700 miles.4 Its fireball rises fast, like a hot air balloon, grows in size, and cools off. In just one minute after the explosion, it assumes the familiar shape of a mushroom cloud,3c some 4.5 miles above the point at which the explosion has taken place.
The fireball's effects depend on distance, the bomb's yield, and weather conditions. Everything within the fireball, or close by, evaporates or melts. On a clear day, a direct exposure to the brief heat pulse given off by the fireball of a 1 Mt explosion can cause severe (third degree) burns as far as 5 miles away from ground zero. For a 12.5 kt explosion, the corresponding distance is some 1.3 miles.
The heat pulse given off by the fireball starts fires over a large area. Fires may also start as an indirect result of the blast. These fires increase the number of casualties. Under certain conditions- a clear, dry summer day, for example-these small fires might coalesce into larger fires, rage hours after the explosion, and burn or asphyxiate everything in their path, including human beings still alive in their homes or in underground shelters.
Some 50 percent of the bomb's energy is taken up by the blast. The blast wave travels more slowly than thermal or ionizing radiations, so a person standing in the open one mile from the site of a 12.5 kt explosion will have seen the fireball, been burned, and been exposed to initial ionizing radiation when, some two seconds after the explosion, the blast wave reaches him and he hears the explosion.
The blast lasts a few seconds. As is the case with all nuclear bombs' effects, its severity and physical characteristics depend on the bomb's yield. Its chief direct effect is overpressure, which is experienced by human beings in its path as a sudden, shattering blow immediately followed by hurricane-like winds.6a
As every scuba diver knows, people can withstand overpressure fairly well. The direct effects on the human body of the overpressure created by nuclear explosions are comparatively mild, including, on occasion, damaged lungs and ruptured eardrums.4 Winds, on the other hand, can kill or injure human beings by sweeping them off their feet, tossing them about, or hurling them into solid objects. The wind of a 1 Mt air burst would kill most people in the open at a distance of 3.3 miles or less from ground zero.7
The combined impact of overpressure and strong winds of a 1 Mt bomb would demolish most buildings within a range of 2.5 miles from ground zero and break most windows within a range of 13 miles.7 The collapsed buildings, uprooted trees, overturned cars, and flying objects would take a heavy toll in human lives. Some of the flying and overturned objects in this upheaval (such as ovens or wood stoves) may start fires.
Most human beings at a distance of one mile or less from ground zero of an explosion as small as the Hiroshima bomb will die from the effects of the blast alone: crushed in collapsed buildings, knocked out by flying objects, hurled by the winds, or incinerated.6a
Some 15 percent of the bomb's energy is taken up by ionizing radiation. From the psychological point of view, and from the point of view of humankind's long-term future, radiation is perhaps the most frightening direct effect of nuclear explosions. We can sense blast, heat, and fire, but we can't detect ionizing radiation (except at very high intensities when it produces a tingling sensation4) without the aid of special instruments; we can be irradiated to death without knowing it. Unlike fire and blast, ionizing radiation not only damages our health, but, through its potential impact on fetuses and on reproductive cells, it may damage the health of our descendants. Though the heat and the blast wreak incredible havoc, their direct effects are gone within seconds, or, in the case of the fires they cause, within hours or days. In contrast, poisonous radioactivity may linger for years.
X-rays are the most familiar type of ionizing radiation. Owing to their ability to penetrate the human body, they are widely used as a diagnostic tool. But even when used in minuscule doses (as in dental examinations), X-rays can cause slight problems by damaging, or ionizing, the chemical constituents of our bodies.
Two overlapping schemes are used to classify the ionizing radiations produced by nuclear bombs. The first, which will not be taken up here, is based on their ability to penetrate matter. The second scheme is based on their order of appearance.
Initial radiation is released within the first minute of an explosion. It accounts for about 5 percent of the bomb's energy. The initial radiation of a 12.5 kt explosion will knock unconscious people standing in the open at a distance of less than half a mile from ground zero. These people will die from radiation sickness within two days (even if they somehow managed to escape the heat and blast). People standing in the open three-quarters of a mile away will die within one month.6b
Given these three powerful effects-blast, heat, initial radiation-the chances of survival are slim for anyone within a one mile radius of a small nuclear explosion. With larger explosions, or with multiple detonations in one area, the lethal range is greater. Those who manage to survive all three must still deal with radioactive fallout (also called residual radiation). Fallout takes some 10 percent of the bomb's energy. Fallout is emitted by fission products such as radioactive iodine, weapon residues such as plutonium and radioactive hydrogen, and substances in the vicinity of the explosion which became radioactive as a result of exposure to the bomb's initial radiation.
Radioactive fallout is usually classified into two components, early and delayed. Early fallout reaches the ground within 24 hours of the explosion. Delayed fallout reaches the ground after 24 hours. Early fallout is also called local fallout because it tends to remain in the vicinity of the explosion site. Delayed fallout is also called global fallout because it can take months or years to come down to earth, during which time it can be carried to all corners of the globe.
Although both global and local fallout are generated by every nuclear explosion, their relative proportions depend on several conditions. For example, because rain washes down some radioactive particles, there would be more local fallout and less global fallout when an explosion is followed by a hard rain.
Another condition which needs to be mentioned is the height of the explosion. In a surface burst-an explosion occurring at or near the ground-earth and other materials are vaporized by the fireball and carried upwards with it. As the fireball expands and cools, some of these substances coalesce with some fission products into highly radioactive particles ranging in size from fine dust (resembling talcum powder) to marbles.4 The marble-sized particles come down shortly after the explosion. The dust may come down within hours, after it has been carried by the winds as far as a few hundred miles. In contrast, if an explosion occurs at a high enough altitude so that the fireball does not touch the ground-an air burst-the radioactive particles in the rising mushroom cloud are much smaller and lighter, they tend to remain airborne for much longer periods, and they may be carried thousands of miles from ground zero before they settle.
Hundreds of unstable radioactive isotopes are released in a nuclear explosion. Their half-lives (the time it takes for half their radioactivity to decay) range from fractions of a second to thousands of years, but the overall radioactivity given off by this fiendish mixture decays rapidly. Roughly, during the first six months after the explosion, for every sevenfold increase in time, the radiation dose received is decreased by a factor of 10. Thus, after 7 hours, it is 1/10 of the dose given off by the same radioactive mixture of fallout particles at one hour; after 49 hours (approximately 2 days), 1/100; after 343 hours (14 days), 1/1,000, and after 2,401 hours (100 days), 1/10,000.
Local fallout poses more serious problems than global fallout because it is concentrated in a much smaller area and because it settles quickly, before much of its radioactivity has decayed. However, global fallout has its fair share of adverse effects too. Some radioactive substances released by a bomb, e.g., strontium-90 or plutonium, remain radioactive for many years, taking their toll on the global environment. For a single bomb, the global effect is negligible. But the effect was significant during the 1950s and early 1960s, when hundreds of nuclear bombs were exploded in the atmosphere. It may be deadly if thousands are exploded in an all-out war.
Because surface bursts cause considerable local fallout and because the radioactive particles in this fallout can be carried by winds many miles from ground zero before they come down to earth, surface bursts can cause many deaths among people who have not been directly exposed to the blast, heat, and fires. For example, if a 1 Mt bomb explodes at or near the surface in Detroit, and if the winds on that particular day blow steadily towards Cleveland, the local fallout in Cleveland, some 90 miles from ground zero, will be strong enough to kill any Clevelander who spends much time outdoors during the two weeks following the explosion. Staying indoors during that period, but not in a fallout shelter, might still cause severe radiation sickness.5b Assuming northwesterly winds on the day of explosion, it might take six years for radiation in Cleveland to decay to safe levels.
The medical effects of ionizing radiation depend on the dose. A strong dose (over 5,000 rads) of radiation, such as the initial radiation given off near ground zero, can knock people unconscious on the spot and kill them within a day or two. In contrast, the health of people receiving a weak dose (less than 100 rads) will be little affected in the near term (although years later they will be a bit more likely to suffer cancer, vision impairment, and other long-term effects of radiation).
Intermediate doses (100-500 rads) cause radiation sickness. The severity of this sickness and the chances of surviving it depend, among other things, on the total radiation dose accumulated (the higher the dose, the more severe the symptoms and the lower the probability of survival), and on the age of the victim (the very young and very old are especially vulnerable).
Within this intermediate range of exposure, a victim may develop a variety of symptoms, including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, apathy, fever, and headache. When the accumulated dose is on the low side of this intermediate range (100-200 rads), only a few mild symptoms are felt. They disappear within days and recovery is apparently complete. As the accumulated dose rises, more symptoms appear in more severe form. Because there is no effective cure for radiation sickness, a rough prognosis can already be made in the first two days: if you suffer from a severe case of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea during this time, you are unlikely to survive.
After the first two days, the victim may begin to feel better, though still experiencing fatigue and lack of appetite. This apparent recovery is often deceptive, for the number of blood cells during this two-week period often falls to dangerously low levels. This results in resurgence of some of the old symptoms. New symptoms often appear as well, including internal and external bleeding, increased susceptibility to infections, and temporary hair loss (mostly from the scalp). Depending on many variables, but especially on the radiation dose, the victim may die at this stage or gradually get better.
Recovery of people exposed to radiation in this intermediate range is often incomplete. For years after the exposure, their chances of experiencing infections, cancers, cataracts, and reduced body vigor are higher than they were before the exposure. The incidence of stillbirths, deaths during the first year of life, mental retardation, malformations, and cancer among human beings exposed to intermediate radiation during their embryonic stage of development will be higher. There might also be an increased number of genetic defects among the survivors' descendants.8
At the close of World War II, two fission bombs were dropped over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosion in Hiroshima has been studied in greater detail, in part because it occurred three days earlier and caused greater destruction. The following narrative will be largely confined to Hiroshima.
There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding some effects of the Hiroshima bomb. For example, estimates of the number of dead vary by a factor of three and there is a genuine scientific controversy about the bomb's long-term genetic consequences. These doubts can be ascribed to the complexity of the subject, to its emotional impact on all its would-be dispassionate students, and to the wartime presence in Hiroshima of thousands of forced laborers from other parts of Japan and from occupied Korea9 and the consequent difficulty of estimating the number of people who died as a result of the explosion. Disregard for individual suffering on the part of the totalitarian Japanese government of those days, and the years-long censorship imposed by the American occupation forces on research into anything connected with the explosion and its aftermath, further complicate efforts to ascertain the bomb's effects.10a But despite the uncertainties, the picture presented below is accurate enough to tie our earlier abstract descriptions of the bomb's separate effects into a meaningful whole.
On the clear morning of August 6, 1945, the Hiroshima bomb exploded about one-third of a mile above city center. Its approximate yield was 12.5 kt. Some 350,000 people were in Hiroshima at that time.11a Perhaps as many as 70,000 were instantly killed from the immediate effects of blast, heat, and initial radiation. Shortly after, many more were killed by fires. In the following months, many survivors died from radiation sickness, burns, indirect blast injuries, or from a combination of all three and of the general adverse conditions prevailing in Hiroshima at the time (including inadequate medical care, shelter, and food supplies). By year's end, five months after the explosion, some 140,000 people, or two-fifths of all city residents, were dead.
Almost all buildings within a radius of 1.3 miles from ground zero were reduced to rubble by the blast. Much of this rubble was then reduced to ashes by the huge firestorm which raged for half a day after the explosion.11b More than two-thirds of all buildings in the city were destroyed.
Survivors' recollections of victims and landscapes right after the explosion bring these dry statistics to life:
There were shadowy forms of people . . . some . . . looked like walking ghosts . . . some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes . . . one thing was common to everyone I saw-complete silence.12a
Hiroshima was no longer a city, but a burnt-over prairie. To the east and to the west everything was flattened. . . . How small Hiroshima was with its houses gone.12b
The . . . people . . . all had skin blackened by burns. . . . They had no hair . . . and at a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back . . . their skin . . . hung down. . . . Many . . . died along the road . . . like walking ghosts.13a
I climbed Hijiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima had disappeared. . . . looking down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima-was so shocking that I simply can't express what I felt.13b
Even for those who had apparently recovered, this ordeal was not over by the end of 1945. Some survivors suffered ruptured eardrums and disfiguring scars. All survivors were at greater lifelong risks of cancer and vision impairment. Individuals exposed at the prenatal stage of development were likelier to suffer mental retardation and other problems. When these and other late effects are taken into consideration, the total death toll may be about 200,000, or over one-half of all Hiroshima residents on the day the bomb went off6c (a lower estimate puts this figure at about one-third of city residents4).
Many survivors report reduced vitality and greater vulnerability to external stress, disease, and infection.13 Although these claims describe borderline conditions which cannot be easily quantified and studied and which may be psychological in origin (and thus unrelated to radiation and other physical effects of the bomb), to the survivors these debilitating conditions seem real enough.
The experience entailed emotional and social costs. Many survivors lost family members and close friends. Some felt guilt because they lived while their loved ones perished. These feelings were often exacerbated by an inability to help sufferers, or by failure to act courageously under trying circumstances. They lived under overhanging clouds for years: Will cancer or cataract strike? Should they go ahead and have children despite the perceived genetic risks?
Forty-six years after the event, a social stigma is still attached to the bomb's survivors. Because of potential health problems, survivors suffer job discrimination. Job discrimination, social stigma, and possible genetic effects lead to reduced marriageability. These adversities created feelings of alienation, bitterness, and inadequacy:
When . . . we interviewed the Hiroshima survivors, we found that they had no desire to speak of their experiences: those experiences, even after the lapse of twenty-six years, were still too terrible to talk about. Yet terrible as they were, we heard the victims express, time and again, the same thought: "Our agony that August day was nothing compared to the agony we have suffered in the long quarter of a century that has passed since then. If you tell our story, all we ask is that you tell the truth."9
Yet grim as these experiences were, they offer only a partial picture of a future nuclear war between two nuclear-weapon states. As an air burst, the Hiroshima bomb generated little local fallout. So, unlike the prospective victims of an all-out nuclear war, the people of Hiroshima were spared the devastating impact of lingering high levels of radioactivity. The explosion in Nagasaki-the only other nuclear bombing during the war-was an air burst too, so no fallout from other surface bursts drifted to Hiroshima. In contrast, in an all-out nuclear war, many areas, regardless of whether they are hit directly, will have to contend with such radioactive imports. And by today's standards, the Hiroshima bomb- with only one-thirtieth the destructive power of humanity's average warhead14-is comparable to a mere battlefield weapon.
We must also keep in mind the enormous number of nuclear bombs which might be used in an all-out war. Beyond a certain point, their overall impact-especially on such complex entities as the biosphere, world economy, and human societies-may be qualitatively different from a mere sum of the constituent parts (see below). Also, many bombs are more destructive than one bomb. So a town the size of Hiroshima then, or of Madison, Wisconsin today, would be hit by more than just one bomb. How many then? The following story throws some light on this question.
In 1960, President Eisenhower sent a few people to the appropriate headquarters to inquire about America's war plans. One of his messengers picked a Hiroshima-sized Soviet town. Unlike Hiroshima, nothing about this town made it stand out as an attractive military target. Yet the plans allotted it one bomb with 320 times, and three bombs each with 80 times, the explosive yield of the Hiroshima bomb.2c
Hiroshima survivors were also comparatively fortunate in the amount and quality of help they received. True, Japan's rulers did not rush to their aid,10b but help did eventually come. After an all-out war, it will be too dangerous to walk about. There will be too few people able to help and too many needing help, so most victims will receive no help at all.
Effects of a Large Nuclear Explosion
A 1979 U.S. government study examined the consequences of a 1 Mt (yield of 80 Hiroshima bombs) surface burst in downtown Detroit.5 This is not an unusually large bomb; in an all-out Soviet-American war, Detroiters would have been extremely fortunate to get only four. Such an explosion will create a crater 1,000 feet in diameter and 200 feet deep. This crater will be surrounded by a rim of highly radioactive soil which will have been thrown out of it by the blast. Up to 1.7 miles from ground zero, no significant structure will remain. Everyone within this area-70,000 in 1979-would have died in a flash. There will be less devastation, fewer deaths, and fewer injuries as the distance from ground zero increases. Still, miles away the damage will be considerable. The survivors in Greater Detroit and areas dozens of miles away will be faced with a serious fallout problem which, in some places, will linger for years.5b
Of some 4.3 million Greater Detroit residents in 1979, some 250,000 would have died, an additional 500,000 injured shortly after the explosion, and the final casualty toll would have been much higher.5 Owing to the bomb's size, and owing especially to severe local fallout, the long-term physical and emotional effects on the survivors were likely to be more grave than they were in Hiroshima.
With a 1 Mt air burst no crater will be formed, there will be little local fallout, and some strong buildings and structures will remain standing. However, many more immediate casualties are expected (in 1979, 470,000 dead, 630,000 injured). With one of the largest bombs in the Soviet arsenal (25 Mt), a single air burst could destroy almost all houses in Detroit, kill or injure approximately three-fourths of all the people, and destroy most heavy industrial buildings and machinery.
Gigantic bombs have never been exploded over a city, so it is hard to predict their actual impact. One can get some idea, however, from a 1954 atmospheric test explosion conducted on an uninhabited, remote, Pacific island. The bomb exploded 7 feet above ground. The plan called for a 7 Mt yield, but, unexpectedly, the actual yield exceeded 15 Mt.15 The explosion took place just before dawn and was seen by a man in a Japanese fishing vessel some 75 miles away, who, like all his shipmates, was unaware of what was going on. To him the white-yellow fireball looked like the rising sun, and he rushed downstairs to tell his mates that the "sun was rising in the west." A few hours later, fallout, in the form of white ash, started falling on the fishermen's vessel, hair, and clothes. All suffered radiation sickness. Some recovered, most partly recovered, and one or two died later as a result.15a
The fallout traveled to an inhabited island 120 miles away. Its 82 inhabitants were unaware of the danger and took no protective measures when the lethal clouds arrived (there wasn't much they could do, except to bath frequently and stay near the shoreline where the waves would have washed the radioactivity off). They were evacuated and treated two days after the explosion, but by then every islander had been sufficiently exposed to become ill. Starting nine years later, many islanders developed thyroid cancers, other thyroid abnormalities, and other cancers. Although official sources overlook this point, we may hazard a guess that the lives of these 82 human beings were tragically affected by these events.
It turns out, however, that these islanders were lucky to have survived at all. Had they been in one of their fishing spots at the northern tip of the island during those two days, they would have received lethal doses of radiation and died within two weeks.15a
Following this larger-than-expected Bikini Atoll test, nine American operators were trapped in an underground bunker. Though this bunker was located twenty miles from ground zero, protected with three-inch thick concrete walls and roof, and buried under ten feet of sand, it kept rolling back and forth when the ground shock arrived, as if it were resting on a "bowl of jelly."15 This was followed by a radioactive hailstorm. Fortunately, these operators were evacuated early and quickly enough to escape exposure to high levels of radioactivity.
The total contaminated area was more than 350 miles long and 60 miles wide. An area of 7,000 square miles-almost the size of New Jersey-was contaminated to such an extent that, had a similar explosion taken place on land, lethal doses would have been received by all people staying in the open within this area. All people remaining indoors, but not in fallout shelters, would have fallen seriously ill.4 In 1979, twenty-five years after the explosion, some islands in this atoll were still too radioactive to be visited.3d
The final word on the effects of large nuclear weapons belongs to an observer of this notorious test explosion:
I do not propose to chant a tale of horrors. I can only tell what it was like for me in 1954 in a concrete bunker twenty miles from ground zero. Draw your own twenty-mile radius. I can only tell you what happened to the Japanese fisherman seventy-five miles away and the . . . natives 125 miles away. Draw your own 125-mile radius."15b
Effects of a Limited Nuclear War
Limited nuclear wars have been a subject of speculation throughout the Cold War.15 In such wars the theater of operations, or the targets, are limited. One example involves a nuclear war which leads to destruction of the entire European continent west of the Soviet border but which leaves Soviet and American territories intact; another example entails a war in which military installations are destroyed and cities are spared.
The effects of limited wars need not be described here. Limited wars always carry the grave risk of escalation, so a description of a full-scale war should suffice to convince sane people that a limited nuclear war has not been a viable strategic option. Besides, a limited war occupies an intermediate position between a single explosion and a full-scale war; its consequences can be assessed by extrapolating upwards the effects of a single explosion, given above, or by extrapolating downwards the effects of a full-scale war, given below.
Consequences of Nuclear War
Novel and complex events like nuclear wars are notoriously unpredictable, suggesting that contemporary scientific research can only portray a highly uncertain picture of a post-nuclear world. This incertitude is strikingly confirmed by the historical record. Thus, scientists in this century have repeatedly underestimated the health hazards of ionizing radiation. They became aware of serious electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects around 1960, of nuclear risks to the ozone layer in the early 1970s, and of the potential for nuclear winter in the early 1980s (see below). Thus, the picture portrayed here is either too grave, or, more likely, not grave enough.
A depiction of war between two or more nuclear-weapon states can be conveniently divided into two parts. First, knowing what one bomb can do, we can make reasonable assumptions about the number of bombs that will be used in war and about their yields and likely targets. The rest is an exercise in extrapolation. If, for example, one average explosion over one typical city kills 100,000 people and contaminates 50 square miles, then 100 explosions over 100 cities would kill 10 million and contaminate some 5000 square miles.
The second part is more conjectural. It deals with economic, environmental, and other broad, interdependent consequences of an all-out nuclear war.
The direct effects of nuclear war can be presented as a series of projections of increasing severity.3,5,6,11,16
I. If only two well-armed countries (e.g., Cold War America and Russia) are involved in the gloomy encounter, and if each detonates less than 10 percent of its total nuclear arsenal over the other's largest cities, the mildest imaginable outcome is 35 million dead and 10 million seriously injured in each country, with one-half the total industrial capacity of each side destroyed.
Within 40 years of the war's end, local and global fallout may cause 1 million thyroid cancers, 300,000 other cancers, 1.5 million thyroid abnormalities, 100,000 miscarriages, and, perhaps, 300,000 genetic defects.
We have noted earlier the higher incidence of severe disfigurement, vision impairment, increased susceptibility to disease, chronic malaise, and other lifelong emotional and social problems among Hiroshima survivors. Even in the most optimistic projection of an all-out war, some 150 large cities are hit, leaving thousands of times as many immediate survivors and personal tragedies as in Hiroshima.
Even the most optimistic war projection must assume the use of surface bursts. Although surface bursts cause less immediate urban destruction than air bursts, they can best serve the presumably important strategic objectives of destroying well-protected military installations (like land-based missiles in the American Midwest) and of contaminating an opponent's homeland. In the event of a Russian/American war, the use of surface bursts would, in turn, result in contamination of an area of some 25,000 square miles (the size of West Virginia) in either country. Much of this contamination will cover lands where cities once stood. The survivors could be faced, therefore, with the unpleasant choice of living among the ruins of contaminated cities, building new cities, or waiting years, decades, or centuries for the old cities to become safe again.
II. A likelier projection still confines the war to two major nuclear-weapon states, but assumes more bombs and more targets. This projection entails the death of about 100 million people in either country, the virtual destruction of the industrial and military capacity of both, long-term radioactive contamination of 50,000 square miles, and, during the first 40 years, 5 million thyroid cancers, 13 million other cancers, 7 million thyroid abnormalities, 10 million spontaneous abortions and, possibly, several million genetic defects. In this projection, practically all surviving Russians and Americans would have suffered like Hiroshima survivors.
III. A less likely outcome can be obtained by doubling the figures in projection II. In this case, because about 90 percent of all Americans and 80 percent of all Soviets (the Soviet Union was more rural) die within one month of the fatal encounter, far fewer survivors and personal tragedies are expected.
IV. This projection assumes that half of all nuclear bombs in existence during the 1980s would have been used to destroy cities in the USA, Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, Canada, North and South Korea, Australia, South Africa, Cuba, China, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. In this extended projection, at least 1 billion people die within one month of war's end. Within 100 years, some 9 million people contract cancer, 24 million people are rendered sterile, and, possibly, 11 million children are born with genetic defects. The number of personal tragedies, and the number of square miles that are contaminated for years, are proportionately greater than in the preceding projections.
On each of the projections above we need to superimpose the possible destruction of civilian nuclear power plants and installations. Such destruction will accomplish several strategic objectives. Since conventional and nuclear electricity-producing plants are vital to industrial economies, their targeting will reduce an adversary's chances of economic recovery. Owing to the close linkage between the civilian and military nuclear industries, bombing of civilian facilities would weaken an adversary's chances of regaining war-related nuclear capabilities. Such bombing would further reduce a nation's chances of recovery by contaminating and rendering uninhabitable huge tracts of land for decades. It follows that many nuclear power plants and installations are likely to be vaporized by surface bursts during an all-out war.
We can begin to take in the horrors of such wholesale destruction by recalling that a peacetime accident in a single nuclear power plant could be catastrophic.17a An accident in a single reprocessing facility, a breeder reactor, or a near-ground radioactive disposal site could have even more ominous implications. Thus, one accident involving a radioactive waste disposal site in the Ural Mountains reportedly caused the death of thousands18 and required evacuation of an area of some 600 square miles.19,20 The names of 32 towns and villages in this region have disappeared from Russian maps.19 The region is deserted and sealed off-to inhabitants, most visitors, and a river.21
Radioactive materials produced in nuclear power plants decay more slowly than the by-products of nuclear bombs,3 so the devastation of nuclear power plants would considerably increase the area which would remain unsafe for human habitation after the war. For breeder reactors, reprocessing facilities, and near-ground radioactive waste-disposal sites, the picture is even grimmer: certain portions of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the eastern half of the continental U.S., the states of Washington and California, and considerable portions of Western Europe, could be contaminated for decades. Even centuries later, it might be advisable to check radioactivity levels before buying land in these regions.
The wartime vaporization of most nuclear power facilities will increase (by about one-third) average global fallout and its long-term effects. Moreover, because radioactive materials from this source are longer-lived than materials produced by nuclear bombs, their relative contribution to the global fallout will increase over time. For instance, ten years after the war, total radioactivity in global fallout would be three times higher with such vaporization than without it.
Some people find it hard to believe that something as unpleasant as this could indeed take place, but war and politics obey their own logic. A junior Soviet officer who defected to the West tells us that, due to shortage of uranium and plutonium in the Soviet Union, "not all Soviet rockets have warheads . . . so that . . . use is being made of radioactive material which is . . . waste produced by nuclear power stations."22 By the 1980s, at the latest, both sides had enough accurate warheads, so they may have adopted the more efficient course of spreading radioactive dust by targeting nuclear power installations. Needless to say, if rumors regarding the intentional destruction of Iraqi nuclear power facilities during the Persian Gulf War turn out to be true, they support the view that nuclear power plants will be targeted in an all-out war. It also goes without saying that in the future, nuclear states may be far less cautious than the USA and the USSR have been.
In sum, if this comes to pass, large areas of the northern hemisphere will be contaminated for years and global fallout will pose greater risks for longer periods of time. As a result of both, there will be greater loss of lives, property, and land than previously believed. Unquestionably then, and regardless of whatever else one might think about them, nuclear power plants and installations constitute a grave risk to a nation's security.
On each of the projections above we also need to superimpose the specter of "salting." Radioactive substances differ from each other in longevity and in the kind of radiation they emit. Cobalt-60, a radio-isotope of ordinary cobalt, continues to emit high levels of deadly penetrating radiation. After five years, more than half its radioactivity is still present. Cobalt-"salted" bombs will cause more deaths and suffering than ordinary bombs, and they will contaminate larger areas for longer periods of time.
The open literature does not indicate whether the bombs of any nuclear-weapons state contained cobalt or similar materials. It should not be supposed, however, that a nation would refrain from "salting" simply because some of the cobalt-60 produced by its own bombs would harm its land and people. Consider, as just one example, atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. According to a United Nations' estimate, they may be responsible, among other things, for 150,000 premature deaths.6d In this case, despite the known risks to everyone (including residents and politicians of the testing countries themselves), testing continued for years and was stopped only because the Western public, not Western politicians, had enough (see Chapter 7). Historical occurrences such as this suggest that rationality and good will are not always present in international relations. Therefore, "salted" bombs might have been used in an all-out nuclear war.
I. Genetic Risks. We have noted earlier that nuclear war may cause harmful mutations and other genetic defects, thereby causing millions of individual tragedies for centuries after the war. In this section I would like to draw attention to the implications of these defects to the human gene pool as a whole.
Two modern developments (which have nothing to do with nuclear war) need to be mentioned in this context. First, owing to medical advances, genetically unfit individuals are more likely to survive and reproduce now than in former ages. Second, the modern environment contains many mutation-causing substances. Both developments may gradually raise the incidence of deleterious genes in the human gene pool and thereby bring about a gradual decline in its quality. Some geneticists go as far as to prophesy a genetic twilight, in which the quality of the human gene pool erodes to the point where everyone is "an invalid, with his own special familial twists."23
Now, if it turns out that nuclear war increases the number of genetic defects, war might reduce the quality of the human gene pool to some unknown extent. Moreover, if the specter of genetic twilight is real (many geneticists believe that it is not), nuclear war might hasten its coming.
II. Environmental Consequences. In view of the complexity and interdependence of ecological systems, efforts to forecast the effects of nuclear war on particular ecosystems and on the biosphere as a whole are plagued by uncertainties and controversies. For instance, some by-product of nuclear war-of which we are now totally ignorant-might destroy or seriously damage the biosphere's capacity to support human life. Bearing these doubts and unforeseen consequences in mind, we must turn now to the mixture of facts, inferences, and guesswork which make up this subject.
There will be fewer people and less industrial and commercial activity long after the war, hence some serious environmental threats will be ameliorated. By killing billions and destroying industrial infrastructures, nuclear war might, for instance, halt or slow down the suspected trend of global warming. On balance, however, the war's overall environmental impact will almost certainly be on the negative side.
Radioactive fallout will contaminate soils and waters. We shall probably learn to adjust to these new conditions, perhaps by shunning certain regions or by carrying radioactivity meters everywhere we go the way our ancestors carried spears. Still, this will lower the quality of human life.
Nuclear explosions might create immense quantities of dust and smoke. The dust and smoke might blanket, darken, and cool the entire planet. Although the extent of the damage is unclear,24 it would be far more severe during the growing season-late spring and summer in the northern latitudes. One Cassandran and controversial prediction sounds a bit like the eerie twilight described in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. This "nuclear winter" projection forecasts freezing summertime temperatures,25 temporary climatic changes (e.g., violent storms, dramatic reductions in rainfall), lower efficiencies of plant photosynthesis, disruption of ecosystems and farms, loss of many species, and the death of millions of people from starvation and cold. However, even these pessimists expect a return to normal climatic conditions within a few years.26a,27
To appreciate the next environmental effect of nuclear war, we must say a few words about the ozone layer. Ozone is a naturally occurring substance made up of oxygen atoms. Unlike an ordinary oxygen molecule (which is comprised of two atoms and is fairly stable) an ozone molecule is comprised of three atoms and it breaks down more readily.
Most atmospheric ozone is found some 12 to 30 miles above the earth's surface (in the stratosphere). Stratospheric concentrations of ozone are minuscule, occupying less than one-fifth of one-millionth the volume of all other gases in the stratosphere. If all this ozone could be gathered somehow at sea level to form a single undiluted shield around the earth, this shield would be as wide as the typical cover of a hardcover book (one-eighth of an inch).28 However, minuscule as its concentrations are, the ozone layer occupies a respectable place in nature's scheme of things.
Some chemicals which are produced routinely by modern industrial society may react with stratospheric ozone, break it down, and lower its levels. Such depletion may have two adverse consequences. First, stratospheric ozone selectively absorbs sunlight in certain portions of the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums, so its depletion will cause more of this radiation to reach the earth and change global temperature and rainfall patterns. Second, by absorbing more than 99 percent of the sun's ultraviolet radiation, stratospheric ozone shields life on earth from its harmful effects (some scientists feel that terrestrial life could not evolve before this protective shield took its place). Ozone depletion might allow more ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth's surface, thereby disrupting natural ecosystems, lowering agricultural productivity, suppressing the human immune system, and raising the incidence of skin cancer and cataracts.28 Since 1985, extensive temporary reductions of the ozone layer have been observed in polar regions, but their causes (man-made or natural) and implications remain uncertain.29 From 1981 to 1991, the ozone shield over the Northern Hemisphere has been depleted by 5 percent, thereby allowing a 10 percent increase in ultraviolet radiation on the ground.
The connection between nuclear war and the ozone layer is simple: the heat created by nuclear explosions produces huge quantities of nitrogen oxides in the surrounding air.25 In addition, the launch of solid-fuel missiles may release huge quantities of chlorine and nitrogen compounds.30 These, in turn, are precisely among the chemicals that could cause significant depletion of the ozone layer and lead to the two adverse consequences described above.
In the first days and weeks after the war, smoke and dust will prevent the increased ultraviolet radiation from reaching the earth's surface. But ozone levels will reach their nadir in 6 to 24 months, long after most of the smoke and dust have settled back to earth.25,26b Ozone levels will probably be restored to above 90 percent of former levels within five years after the war.26b Hence, "nuclear winter" and ozone depletions are not expected to appreciably offset each other.
Under the altered conditions created by a nuclear war, as many as 50 percent of the earth's species might become extinct,26c some pest populations might temporarily increase,26d and most natural communities might undergo radical transformations.
III. Economic Consequences. To see the complexity of modern industrial economies, ask yourself how self-sufficient you are, in comparison, say, to a native North American of some 500 years ago. Most likely you depend on a highly complex web for sheer physical survival, let alone travel, leisure, education, and similar luxuries. Your food, water, heating fuel, and other necessities often come from outside sources, and their continuous arrival depends on an intricate, finely tuned network. In the event of total war, this network would be blown to smithereens in minutes.
The pool of workers and skilled professionals will be reduced by death and illness to a fraction of its pre-war levels. Oil refineries, power plants, factories, food production facilities, and other industrial and commercial facilities will be destroyed. Fallout will render immediate reconstruction impossible, for the survivors in the combatant countries will have to spend the first weeks or months indoors, underground, or in shelters.
Without enough fuel to run tractors, fertilizers and pesticides to grow crops, and people to work the fields; without adequate means of shipping raw materials to farms and factories and of shipping food and industrial products to consumers; and without money or some other accepted standard of exchange; national economies may be in shambles.
Some areas may be highly contaminated. Many regions may be frozen solid during the first growing season after the war. The survivors may be physically ill or sick at heart. They may not possess the necessary strength and courage, like Job, to start all over again. Why, they may wonder, should they work like slaves to rebuild a modern society that might end again in death?
The present complex system of international trade will almost certainly vanish. International aid, including grain and food exports, might cease. Millions of people in countries which depend on food imports or specialized exports will suffer a great deal.
It is impossible to predict the long-term consequences of all this. Perhaps a modern economic system similar to our own could be re-created in 20 to 50 years, bringing much of the anguish and chaos to an end. Perhaps recovery would never take place, the world sinking instead to something like the decentralized economies of the Dark Ages.
IV. International Consequences. The combatant countries might never recover their international standings. They could terrorize the world for a while with whatever remained of their nuclear arsenals, but with social and economic collapse these arsenals might fall into disrepair. In the long run, moreover, a nation's international position depends on factors such as human resources, economic performance, moral fiber, and education, all of which could be irreversibly weakened after an all-out war. So one hundred years after the war, people in what was Russia may speak Chinese or Urdu. If descendants of the people who used to live there a century earlier are around, their social status may resemble that of Japanese bomb survivors. The same forecast might apply to North Americans, Japanese, or Germans, and their neighbors.
It is also possible that nation-states everywhere will collapse or, alternatively, that they will survive and that eventually major partners to the nuclear exchange will regain their international standing.
V. Human Health. When we look at our health from a historical perspective, one fact clearly stands out from all the rest: Westerners today are healthier than ever before. In 1900, tuberculosis alone accounted for some 11 percent of all American deaths. Now tuberculosis has practically disappeared from the American scene.31 Other infectious, communicable, and debilitating diseases, including gastroenteritis, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, typhoid, smallpox, plague, malaria, pellagra, and scurvy, have been reduced or eliminated.
Statistics fail to convey the impact of these advances on our world outlook, society, history, or quality of life. But statistics do give us some idea of how much better our health is here and now than it was at any time in the past or than it is in many less developed countries now. In the United States, a baby born in 1987 was expected to live on average 75 years, some 28 years longer than an American baby born in 190032 or an African baby born in 1975.17b On average, Westerners today are freer from a host of debilitating diseases and their chances of realizing their biological potential are higher.
These remarkable differences between us and our ancestors, and between us and many of our less fortunate contemporaries in poor nations, are not for the most part attributable to better cures. They spring from advances in our understanding of the causes of diseases and, consequently, in our ability to combat them effectively by preventing their occurrence. Prevention strategies include such things as sanitation, widespread immunization, nutritional supplements, chlorination of drinking water, and drying or spraying swamps as part of the fight against malaria. In contrast, in past centuries people were more susceptible to disease because of poor nutrition, poor education, and inadequate shelter. No complex infrastructure for controlling epidemics existed. Owing to poor sanitation, typhoid, cholera, plague, and many other epidemics spread unabated. In the absence of antibiotics, deaths from diseases like pneumonia and syphilis were commonplace.
It follows that modern advances in health are ascribable to new knowledge and to the development of a complex infrastructure of prevention and health-care delivery. After a nuclear war the knowledge may remain. But much of the infrastructure will be destroyed, precisely at the point when it is most sorely needed by the irradiated, starved, and emotionally and physically stressed survivors. At least for a few years, survivors of warring nations might revert to the good old days of their forebears, or to the good contemporary days of their less fortunate brothers and sisters in the Third World. Epidemics of all sorts might break out. Many people who depend for survival on medical help (like diabetics and regular users of dialysis machines) will be dead in a short time.
We do not know whether it would take years, decades, or centuries to rebuild the health system, nor even whether anything like it will ever be put together again. We do, however, know that for the first few years after the war the health of most survivors will be adversely affected. VI. Human Populations. The direct effects of war on human populations have already been discussed. Here I shall only superimpose the war's indirect effects on projection IV above, a projection which entailed one billion deaths in targeted countries as a result of near-term effects of nuclear bombs: blast, heat, initial radiation, and local fallout (the effects of the other three projections would be correspondingly lighter). The death toll will continue to climb for years after the war, as a consequence of widespread famine in targeted nations, famine in numerous non-targeted Third World countries whose people partly depend for survival on food or food-related imports from targeted nations, general deterioration of the health care and disease prevention system, lingering radioactivity, paucity of shelters, temporary but severe climatic changes, and the likelihood that some grief-stricken survivors will prefer death to a prolonged struggle for sheer physical survival. Several years after the war, the world's population may go down by another billion people.
The longer-term impact of total war on human populations depends in part on whether social conditions resembling our own are re-established. If not, human populations could keep declining for decades. But even if such conditions are re-created, further reductions seem likely during the first few decades because young children, infants, and fetuses are more vulnerable to the stresses of a post-nuclear world (radiation, starvation, death of parents, etc.), and so proportionately more individuals in these age brackets will die. In addition, many people may refrain for years after from having children, so the death rate is likely to be higher than the birth rate. (I have confined the discussion here to dry statistics not because they are the most interesting, but because books like this one cannot possibly convey the countless individual tragedies these numbers imply.)
It must be admitted that all this will be a nasty Malthusian solution to overpopulation and rapid population growth. Consequently, for at least half a century after the war, overpopulation and rapid population growth will no longer make appreciable contributions to
such ills as environmental deterioration, species extinction, nationalism, and over-organization.
VII. Social Consequences. Like other cataclysmic events, nuclear war might bring about radical social alterations. It is impossible to foretell what directions these changes will take. Behavioral norms might change and human life might be held in greater or lesser esteem. Pride in our humanity, in our rationality, in our superiority over the beasts, might decline. Scientists and politicians might be lynched. Books might be burned. Laws decreeing all free inquiries punishable by death might be enacted. Machines might be outlawed or confined to museums. On the other hand, war might come to an end and enlightened humanitarianism might surge at last.
Organized social systems might be broken down and replaced by anarchies, tribal groups, or small decentralized communities. Some of these communities might be open, like ancient Athens, and some closed, like Sparta. Perhaps the most ironic possibility is the emergence of totalitarianism from the ashes of the once-free world. This might happen, for instance, if the military or police are given broad powers to handle the crisis, and if they retain and expand those powers. At any rate, freedom in this new world might have few defenders. Would anyone think democracy worth defending if it contributed to such carnage? Alternatively, authoritarian political systems might become freer.
VIII. Extinction? Extinction of humankind is often mentioned in this context. However, based on what we know now of the effects of nuclear war, extinction is highly improbable: under any likely set of assumptions, it seems that some of our kind will be able to pull through the hardships and survive. But because extinction cannot be completely ruled out, and because it is the worst imaginable outcome of nuclear war (actually I find it hard to imagine at all-no people walking this earth-forever), it should be rendered even more improbable by reducing the risk of nuclear war.
Reality of Nuclear Peril
At one tense moment of the Cold War, one analyst assured his readers that "because of the costs of nuclear war and the increasing possibility of satisfying almost any reasonable interest by nonviolent means, nuclear wars will not be fought."33 It would presumably follow from this position that the Cold War has been just a game- costly and ridiculous to be sure, but not deadly. Hence one did not need to worry about the arms race, demonstrate or engage in acts of civil disobedience against it, or lose a job or an election for opposing it.
Other analysts disagreed. No one, they said, "can estimate with any confidence the likelihood of a nuclear war. Given the historical record and the possible finality of nuclear disaster, it is simply reckless arrogance to assume that there is 'no' danger and to act accordingly."34a
This more pessimistic view strikes me as more nearly correct. I believe that, even now, we can be overtaken by nuclear war and that we ought to do everything we can to eliminate this specter. I find it hard to believe that anyone is willing to commit himself to the proposition that anything whatever will not happen simply because it defies reason. The record is crystal clear: in history, anything goes. I shall bypass therefore a detailed refutation of this kind but unrealistic optimism. Instead, I shall describe a few actual circumstances that could still lead to war. Taken together, these episodes establish the reality of the nuclear threat.
Nuclear war could be started deliberately. For instance, Chinese officials may decide to do away with both Russia and the United States by firing submarine missiles at Russian cities from American territorial waters. Terrorists may one day be able to carry out a similarly deceptive exercise with a couple of suitcase bombs. Nuclear proliferation raises the chances that nuclear weapons will eventually fall into irresponsible hands. What might happen when a Saddam Hussein acquires a bomb? Would he not be tempted to use it in the event of imminent removal from power? Even worse, one can well imagine a collapse of the international economic system and the rise of rabid militarism in one or another major industrial power.
But it is not only dictators, terrorists, and fanatics who might deliberately launch a nuclear war. No human being is wholly predictable, and everyone-including heads of nuclear-weapon states-can acquire a couple of unwholesome obsessions. Moreover, humankind's fate depends on much more than the sanity of a few politicians. For example, at any given moment throughout the 1980s, there were some 20 American missile submarines cruising quietly 200 feet under the surface of the world's oceans, each carrying enough bombs to obliterate, at the very least, 16 to 24 metropolitan areas.34b So, while at sea, each submarine was a small superpower. Had the captain and a few other officers in one submarine become deranged and decided to fire, we should have all been getting ready to say our last prayers.35,36 These officers, and their thousands of American and foreign counterparts at sea, on land, and in the air, were screened carefully. So it is unlikely that anything like this would have happened. Still, someday, someplace, somebody might have had strange ideas and might have been in a position to carry them through.
Nuclear-weapon states can also be drawn into war through miscalculation and against their will. By all accounts, we came fairly close to total war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. "The smell of burning flesh was in the air," Khrushchev remarked after the crisis was over. President Kennedy probably shared Khrushchev's anxiety. The odds that the Soviets would go all the way, he felt, were "between one out of three and even."37
In 1962, the USA had a considerable nuclear edge over the USSR. War might have caused complete devastation of the Soviet Union and only a partial devastation of the United States. President Kennedy and his advisors were not perhaps fully aware of this disparity, but the Soviets were.38 By the 1980s, the Soviets could conceivably obliterate the United States after a massive attack against their nuclear installations (Chapter 6). So they were less likely to "blink," "flinch," or "crawl" (the actual words of some top Kennedy advisors and of at least one highly respected American historian). As one retired politician put it, "if we go eyeball-to-eyeball again, God help us."39 As already mentioned, of even greater concern is the distinct possibility that future nuclear adversaries might have a more care-free attitude about nuclear weapons than either the Americans or Russians.
Robert Kennedy, who was intimately involved with American decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, observed that "if we had had to make a decision in twenty-four hours . . . the course that we ultimately would have taken would have been quite different and filled with far greater risks."40a To this we need only add that, in the next round, war cabinets might be forced to make a decision in less than 24 minutes.
Robert Kennedy's ghostwriter also noted the importance of free and open debate for reaching the right decision. "Opinion, even fact itself, can best be judged by conflict, by debate."40b There are excellent reasons for believing that this simple truth is rarely understood by run of the mill heads of states. To show this, we need go no farther than President Kennedy himself. According to one Western analyst, "the optimistic assumptions that underlay the [abortive Bay of Pigs] invasion were not seriously challenged by any of the President's advisers, partly because . . . all the members of the advisory group surrounding the President valued their membership to such a degree that they felt it better to suppress doubts and conform to the dominant optimism rather than raise objections."41
"One member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Robert Kennedy wrote after the crisis, "argued that we could use nuclear weapons . . . I thought . . . of the many times that I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know."40c And I think now: What if a person with this kind of mentality is at the helm of a nuclear ship of state the next time around?
During the crisis, the militaries of both nations were on hair-trigger alert: any kind of false alarm or unexpected event could have precipitated an accidental war. Yet, those thirteen days had their fair share of such incidents.42
One incident involved the shooting down of an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba during the crisis, prompting the U.S. to consider a bomber attack on Cuban missile sites. The order to shoot the plane down was either given by a Soviet commander on the spot, or, most likely, by Castro himself,34c in violation of strict instructions from Moscow not to shoot at American aircraft.43a
At another tense moment of the crisis, a CIA-trained and directed team which had been dispatched earlier from the U.S. blew up a Cuban industrial facility and reportedly killed 400 workers.
According to the Cuban government, this terrorist act was guided by "photographs taken by spying" American planes.44
Another incident involved an American reconnaissance plane flying over Soviet territory. This produced, in the same day, a remarkable letter from Khrushchev to J. F. Kennedy, of which the following excerpt is telling enough: "What is this, a provocation? . . . Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step; and all the more so since . . . you are maintaining a continuous nuclear bomber patrol?"40d,45
During the crisis, the U.S. Navy forced five or six Soviet submarines to the surface in or near the quarantine zone, in at least one case through the use of a depth-charge attack. "According to an American admiral, one Soviet sub was crippled, could not submerge, and was forced to steam home on the surface. What if a Soviet sub had been sunk? Or what if a captain of a Soviet submarine, to protect the lives of his crew, had retur ned fire in self-defense, sinking a major American vessel and causing injuries and deaths?"34d
During the crisis, the Soviets captured a highly placed spy. Before being captured, this man chose to give the signal for an imminent Soviet attack; "he evidently decided to play Samson and bring the temple down on everyone else as well." Fortunately, this signal was suppressed by the courageous mid-level intelligence officers who received it. Had it not been, the "risk and danger to both sides could have been extreme, and catastrophe cannot be excluded."34e
Some powerful people appear capable of being moved by ordinary human emotions like compassion, loving-kindness, and a concern for humanity's future. Khrushchev, despite some serious misdeeds, belonged to this group. This is clear from the quotation above, his overall record (he was a forerunner of Gorbachev), his political autobiography, and the following, rather typical, retrospection about the Cuban Missile Crisis:
When I asked the military advisers if they could assure me that holding fast would not result in the death of five hundred million human beings,they looked at me as though I was out of my mind or, what was worse, a traitor . . . So I said to myself: To hell with these maniacs. If I can get the United States to assure me that it will not attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, I will remove the missiles.43b
We can only wonder about the outcome of a nuclear crisis in which both protagonists are practitioners of mainstream confrontational politics (e.g., George Bush and Saddam Hussein).
Moreover, it so happens that Kennedy's Cuban gambit is merely the best known-but by no means the only-incident in which nuclear weapons were used as instruments of coercion (see Chapter 8). Nuclear diplomacy has been employed by the world's powers on more than nineteen occasions, often in pursuit of comparatively trivial objectives. If anything like the Cold War returns, the chances of something like the Cuban Missile Crisis overtaking humanity again are far greater than most history books would have us believe.34
Like so many other complex evolutionary processes, nuclear arms races may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction. For example, in a future race, there is a remote chance that one day one side might develop the technical means of knocking out the other's nuclear forces in a surprise attack. This might prompt the other to adopt a "launch-on-warning" strategy of firing its missiles when a disarming first strike is presumed to have taken place. The decision to fire might be made on the basis of data received from machines (radars, satellites, computers, etc.) and interpreted by people. Both machines and people are capable of accidentally plunging the world into a nuclear nightmare.
Finally, World War III could start through sheer accident. A specialist on the subject recently concluded that "the risk associated with . . . [nuclear weapons] accidents is potentially very great."46a Rather than racking my brain for hypothetical examples, I shall describe a few actual near-accidents. In drawing your conclusions from these episodes, please remember that this is a partial list-a few memorable episodes taken from hundreds; we still lack information about accidents in countries such as the USSR, China, France, or Israel.46 Recall also that the only two major nuclear accidents on record took place in the Soviet Union, not in the United States.19,20 To many people, this has been one of the most disconsoling thoughts on this subject-that humankind's future depended on the ability of far-from-perfect political systems to avoid accidents and to learn from their mistakes. Remember also that our next nuclear opponent may be far less cautious and rational than the Soviets.
In one incident, an American bomber carrying a high-yield H-bomb crashed over North Carolina. All but one of the bomb's five safety devices were triggered by the fall. Had the fifth gone off too, the bomb might have exploded. Such an unexpected explosion could conceivably be taken for a surprise Soviet attack requiring nuclear "retaliation."47a
In a 1961 incident, American bombers were on their way to obliterate the Soviet Union but were recalled two hours later when it turned out that a moon echo had been mistakenly interpreted as a Soviet attack.47b
In 1980, an American missile was reportedly almost launched because its maintenance crew neglected to disconnect a vital wire. One of the two officers in charge claimed that by pulling a plug at the last minute he and his fellow officer "saved the world"48 (the Air Force denies this story).
In 1959, According to Khrushchev, a Soviet missile had overshot its test target and headed toward Alaska. Fortunately, it carried no warheads and ended up at the bottom of the sea.49
Reagan's harsh rhetoric may have made the first half of the eighties the most explosive in the postwar decades. From 1981 to 1983, in particular, the Soviets believed that the United States was planning to attack them. Because the U.S. was unaware of these Soviet forebodings, it might have taken inadvertent actions which would have dangerously aggravated the situation. In this and similar cases of false perceptions, according to a former American official, "no timely or adequate efforts were made to dispel the tensions before events were allowed to run their course. We were all lucky."50
Taken together, all these circumstances prove beyond doubt that nuclear war could happen.51 This in turn raises the question: If contemporary nuclear arsenals are not dismantled, or if the Soviet Union's place as our chief antagonist is taken up by Russia or some other nation, what is the probability that nuclear war will happen?
Because they depend on intuition, reasonable estimates can differ by a large margin. If we arbitrarily assume that in every given year there is only a 1 in 1000 chance of nuclear war, then the probability that war will erupt in the next 15 years is about 1 percent, in the next 30 years, 3 percent, and in the next 100 years, 10 percent. If the chance is 1 in 100, the respective long-term probabilities are 14 percent, 26 percent, and 73 percent. If the chance is 2 in 100, they are 26 percent, 45 percent, and 87 percent. My own intuition is that, even now, the chances in any given year of an all-out nuclear war are something like 1 in 100, and that the probability of nuclear war in the next 15 years is greater than 14 percent. But regardless of one's intuitive estimates, it is clear that, given the enormous stakes, such chances should not be taken lightly. Better still, they should not be taken at all.
After a long journey we come up with three melancholy conclusions. Even the mildest imaginable outcome of nuclear war will be an unparalleled calamity to countless individuals, to civilization, and to the human species. Nuclear war could have broken out in the past; luckily, it did not. And, despite the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union, if nuclear proliferation is not brought to an end, or if the nuclear arsenals of current nuclear-weapon states are not drastically reduced or eliminated, nuclear war could very well happen. Bertrand Russell's famous lines still capture humanity's predicament:
I cannot believe that this is to be the end. . . . There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? I appeal as a human being to human beings: remember your humanity, and forget the rest.52
Nuclear bombs wreak far greater damage than conventional explosives. They owe their greater destructive power to immediate blast, heat, and radiation, and to the lingering effects of radioactive fallout. The combined effects of the Hiroshima bomb killed over half of city residents, turned the lives of many survivors into a lifelong nightmare, and leveled the entire city. Owing to its greater yield, the effects of a typical contemporary bomb are expected to be greater. Although the aftermath of an all-out nuclear war among major nuclear powers cannot be described with certainty, it would surely be the greatest catastrophe in recorded history. In any combatant country, it may kill half the people, afflict many survivors with a variety of radiation-induced diseases, destroy industrial and military capabilities, and contaminate vast tracts of land. Such a war might also lower the quality of the human genetic pool, damage the biosphere, cause a breakdown of national and international economic systems, destroy the health care and prevention system, and move surviving societies in unpredictable directions. Although extinction of the human species is unlikely, it cannot altogether be ruled out. History, psychology, and common sense strongly suggest that nuclear war is more probable than most of us would like to believe. This, and the cataclysmic quality of nuclear war, imply that humanity can scarcely afford another half a century in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.