What Would Happen in an All-Out Nuclear War?

tags: nuclear war

Mr. Stone is an HNN intern.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945, dropped another on Nagasaki.  Since then, neither the United States nor any other nation has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. The threat of nuclear war, however, has been omnipresent, and many scholars, government officials, and civilians discussed and thought about scenarios for a possible nuclear war during the Cold War.

The U.S. Congress's Office of Technology (OTA) published The Effects of War in 1979, which predicted the horrendous effects of a nuclear strike between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists, but the threat of a “limited” nuclear war breaking out somewhere in the world remains, for example if India and Pakistan should ever come to blows.  A limited nuclear war refers to the minimal use of nuclear weapons by one or more parties to attack mainly military facilities.  On the other hand, a full-scale nuclear war refers to an all-out nuclear attack designed to completely destroy the target county.  Unlike in limited nuclear war, the belligerents would not be able to maintain the conflict, as their militaries would be annihilated, their industries devastated, and their populations almost completely wiped out.  This is especially true if the belligerents have large stockpiles of nuclear weapons (like the U.S. and the Soviet Union).

OTA hypothesized four nuclear war scenarios in 1979.  Three of the four contemplated limited nuclear exchanges.  The fourth considered a full-scale nuclear war.  The first case involved the effects of a single weapon destroying Detroit in the United States and Leningrad in the Soviet Union.  The weapon in this scenario had a yield of 1 megaton (or roughly 65 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast), but further conjectures hypothesized the effects of a 25 megaton (roughly 1,600 times more powerful than Hiroshima) explosion upon Detroit as well as the effects from a 9 megaton weapon detonated over Leningrad were also considered.  The results of this thankfully hypothetical exercise were bleak: "the casualties from such attacks could range from 2,500,000 dead and 420,000 injured to 2,500,000 dead and 1,100,000 injured."  Because this case dealt with a nuclear strike against only one city in the target country (a semi-realistic scenario, should a missile be launched accidentally), the rest of the United States or Soviet Union would be able to bring aid to Detroit or Leningrad. Still, with the extent of the devastation, medical facilities could only provide inadequate service. 

In the second case, the effects of a small attack on industrial facilities were examined using ten strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDV): three Poseidon missiles, each carrying seven warheads, and three Minutemen missiles with three warheads apiece.  OTA predicted that the SNDVs would be used to retaliate against the Soviet’s SS-18 missiles, each carrying ten warheads.  As a result, "the calculations showed that the Soviet attack would destroy 64 percent of U.S. oil refining capacity, while the U.S. attack would destroy 73 percent of Soviet refining capacity."  In addition, OTA found that their calculations showed about 5 million American deaths and about 1 million Soviet deaths.

The United States and the Soviet Union differed in casualties in this scenario because of a variety of circumstances.  The Soviets' oil refineries were more concentrated than the United States and tended to be away from residential areas.  This enabled a small attack to inflict greater damage to the Soviet refineries than the American facilities.  However, the greater number of warheads on the SS-18 allowed the Soviets to inflict more damage the areas surrounding U.S. refineries.As for the economic consequences of this attack, both countries would suffer a sharp decline in productivity with the eradication of some areas. Some Soviet workers could have ended up working in fields to replace tractors. On the other hand, for the United States, an automobile ban could’ve occurred, meaning either the end of the suburbs or suburbanites quickly getting used to long walks to bus stops. The agricultural effects for the Soviet Union probably would have resulted in a sharp decline of production, since production is low during peacetime. However, OTA noted that "the Soviet Union is well adapted to allocating scarce resources to high-priority areas and for keeping everybody employed even if efficient employment is unavailable".  The market economy of the United States, while having in place an efficient agricultural production system, would not know what economic resources to allocate in response to an attack.

The fourth case considered by the OTA was a full-scale nuclear exchange, the nightmare scenario.  Immediate deaths in the United States could range from 70 million to 160 million (35 to 80 percent of the population) with Soviet deaths approximately 20 to 40 percent lower.  Many more would die from injuries. OTA predicted that cancer-related deaths and psychological trauma would lead to an increase in deaths unprecedented in the other cases.

 Arthur M. Katz, author of the 1982 book LifeAfter Nuclear War, and Sima R. Osdoby, a political science graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, jointly produced an article on the effects of a limited nuclear war involving the United States.  Their studies found that many farmers would end up dead, injured or permanently disabled.  In addition, the food-producing areas would become contaminated through higher soil radiation levels. The reality is, that with huge areas contaminated with radioactivity, tens of millions—perhaps even hundreds of millions—of people would evacuate their homes.  This would make regional hoarding likely and social disorganization widespread, as the distribution system would be ineffective for months.  Prices also would rise dramatically, and major government intervention and controls would be the likely results.  The decline in food from fallout also indicates international consequences.  In a limited nuclear war, the reduction of American food exports (remember, this is a time when even the Soviets imported American grain) would result in a severe imbalance of import/export trade.  "The United States produces 50 percent of the wheat and 70 percent of the corn used for grain, and 80 percent of the soybeans traded in the world," according to the report.  As a result of damaged food from radiation spreading and a weak distribution system, exports would become extremely limited, crippling an already devastated U.S. economy.

The environmental effects from a nuclear war would probably be the direst consequence, aside from immediate fatalities.  Some modern perspective may be enlightening.  The 2020 Vision Campaign predicted that if India and Pakistan were to fight a nuclear war, fires ignited by the nuclear blasts could create large amounts of light-absorbing smoke.  Furthermore, depending upon the total number of bombs dropped, the resulting flames could create 5 million tons of carbonaceous smoke particles.  This smoke could blacken the sky.  Winds would transport the carbonaceous smoke across the atmosphere while the smoke induces circulations in response to solar heating.  As a result, these radiative interactions would stabilize the smoke arsenal in the upper and middle atmosphere for a decade.  On land, changes in surface temperatures, precipitation rates and the growing seasons would cause agricultural yield to plummet, inevitably leading to famines.  This scenario is for a limited nuclear exchange.  In a full-scale nuclear war, humanity could become extinct.  Perhaps this is the reason why world leaders have kept their proverbial finger off the button. 

So far.

HNN Special: The Bomb

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Nat Bates - 8/16/2010

Carl Sagan was one of the first to warn about nuclear winter. He warned us about the destruction of war. War was one of the methods used to enslave our hunter-gatherer ancestors to "siv'lization" (Professor Huck Finn, chief historian, last seen heading out to the territories). If we want to progress beyond that state of "siv'lization," we have to end war so that we also end tyranny.

Sadly, the Neo-conservatives will try to have their day again. If so, I believe we will end up like Red China, with no labor rights or environmental laws.

james joseph butler - 8/10/2010

Or shopping carts cuz we gotta keep on keepin on. On The Beach is one of my favorites because it takes us to the cliff without the apocalypse.

John Connally - 8/9/2010

At least those of us who survive such scenarios can tool around in cool Mad Max-style vehicles!