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Cold War estimates of deaths in nuclear conflict

Bulletin, By William Burr | January 4, 2023

Apprehension about Russia’s war against Ukraine has produced speculation about the possibility of limited Russian nuclear strikes against targets in that country. Especially worrisome is the danger of a local conflict escalating quickly into a major nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States and other NATO countries. However unlikely that prospect, a large-scale nuclear war involving countries with strategic nuclear forces could cause huge numbers of fatalities and injuries in addition to the losses produced by climactic impacts. A recent study in the journal Nature projects a catastrophic 5 billion deaths.

Once nuclear weapons became a significant element in US military force structures and planning, beginning in the late 1940s, government agencies began estimating nuclear war fatalities. Over the years, fatality estimates—usually classified top secret—were embedded in nuclear war plans, strategic force requirements, strategic balance assessments, and arms control decisions. The estimates, which often left out important effects of nuclear detonations, sometimes conveyed the shifting “balance of strength” between the two superpowers. The magnitude of these numbers sometimes shocked US officials, who eventually sought options intended to make nuclear war less catastrophic.

While a considerable number of important estimates from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have been declassified, government agencies have refused to declassify other fatality numbers, and estimates from the 1980s and beyond remain unavailable. With the war in Ukraine once again raising the prospect of a nuclear war, accurate estimates of such a war’s human impacts are more important than ever. But it is not even clear whether the US government continues to make such estimates.

Cold War calculations. Casualty estimates were part of the war planning effort from the beginning, a recognizable element of ascertaining the impact of nuclear strikes on a given country or set of targets. Estimates made during the late 1940s projected millions of deaths from atomic bombings. By the mid-1950s, with thermonuclear weapons becoming available, deaths in scores of millions became certain. These hydrogen bombs were “area weapons” that could destroy large cities and their surroundings, or large areas around military targets.

With thermonuclear weapons becoming integral to the US arsenal, government officials drew a frightening picture of their effects. In 1959, David Z. Beckler, executive director of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Science Advisory Committee, declared that the radioactive fallout from an all-out US-Soviet nuclear war would cause “enormous” numbers of casualties, but they “would represent only a small portion of the total casualties from all causes (blast, thermal radiation, fire, and local fallout).”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. A “political-psychological” burden. While all the estimates were conjectural, some admittedly were underestimates. The authors of a 1969 study prepared for strategic arms control talks estimated scores of millions of fatalities on both sides but acknowledged that they “underestimat[ed] the resulting fatalities.” They based their appraisals on fatalities caused by explosive blast damage and did not include impacts such as radiation and mass fires, which were certain to cause many more deaths…….

The prospect that decisions to use nuclear weapons would cause tremendous death and ruin troubled US officials. As Deputy Secretary of State Elliot Richardson put it years later, there was a “political-psychological” issue: “the imbalance between [the] ability to inflict fatalities and [the] reluctance to accept or cause large numbers of deaths.” Well before then, US presidents and their advisers had become strongly averse to nuclear weapons use, with the “nuclear taboo” stigmatizing these weapons because of the terrible and disproportionate dangers that their combat use would cause.

Huge casualty estimates and the enormous scale of nuclear strikes influenced President Richard Nixon to seek alternatives to apocalyptic attacks, eventually leading to a 1974 directive calling for options to control escalation and limit the scope and intensity of destructiveness. During the following years, the Defense Department tried to break down the operational plan into smaller attack options (Major, Regional, and Selective) to give the president and command authorities less destructive and possibly more credible options. But into the 1980s the options developed by the planning staff continued to require large numbers of nuclear weapons, despite attempts by presidents to scale back the plans.

Presidents Carter and Reagan successively levied explicit requirements for reduced “collateral damage”—civilian casualties—in their targeting policy directives (Presidential Directive 59 and National Security Decision Directive 13, respectively). While target planners prepared still-classified studies on collateral damage, their impact is unknown. It was not until the late 1980s, when the Cold War was winding down, that the White House and Pentagon officials induced target planners to produce attack options that could reduce deaths and destruction. What planners actually did—for example, whether they adjusted target planning to reduce “collateral” damage to civilians—is highly secret. In any event, it’s unclear whether any estimates of casualties were produced………….

Secrets and risks. The horrifying scale of fatalities estimated during the 1950s through the 1970s were classified for years, only becoming available through archival releases during the 1990s and later. With rare exceptions, nuclear casualty estimates from the 1980s or later years are unavailable. Indeed, in some instances, the Defense Department has refused to declassify estimates in reports from the 1960s and 1970s.

………………………………… The dangers of superpower war and nuclear confrontation declined when the Cold War ended, and both the United States and the former Soviet Union/Russia made significant cuts in their strategic forces. In recent years, with tensions increasing and the future of Ukraine and Taiwan in dispute, risks have risen again…………………

The war against Ukraine presents a newer danger. It can only be hoped that the leaders of nuclear weapon states avoid steps that would make Cold War nuclear casualty estimates more than historical curiosities.

January 4, 2023 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, weapons and war

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