Despite the dystopian fantasies about nuclear terror and destruction that hit popular culture in the Cold War era and those “duck and cover” drills kids like me experienced in school in the 1950s, the American people were generally sheltered from a full sense of the toll of a nuclear cataclysm. Consider, for instance, the U.S. military’s secret 1960 Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, for loosing the American arsenal against Russia and China at the height of the Cold War. Three thousand two hundred nuclear weapons were to be “delivered” to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities, most of which would, if all went according to plan, essentially cease to exist. Estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and another 40 million injured (figures that undoubtedly underplayed the effects of both mass fires and radiation). Such a strike would, theoretically at least, only have been launched in retaliation for a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, yet the figures don’t even include U.S. casualties.
And mind you, those estimates were offered almost a quarter of a century before we learned even worse news. Thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter, a “war” of that sort would have been likely to threaten human survival on this planet. Today, we know that even a far more localized and modest version — say, a South Asian nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan — could throw enough particulates into the stratosphere to block sunlight for significant periods and cause mass global starvation, threatening the deaths, it’s estimated, of perhaps a billion people across the planet.
In his new book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, a man deeply involved in nuclear planning of the Cold War era (before he became the famed leaker of the Pentagon Papers), describes the situation:
“What none of us knew at that time — not the Joint Chiefs, not the president or his science advisors, not anyone else for the next two decades, until 1983 — were the phenomena of nuclear winter and nuclear famine, which meant that a large nuclear war of the kind we prepared for then or later would kill nearly every human on earth (along with most other large species).”
As you read TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon’s analysis of the first Nuclear Posture Review of the Trump era, think about the Pentagon’s urge to create ever more “useable” nuclear weapons and ever more advanced delivery systems for them. Then try to take in just what a path of folly we remain headed down — especially with a president once reportedly eager for “a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal” and proud beyond belief of the size of his “nuclear button.”
This is indeed the road to hell and it’s paved with the worst intentions imaginable.