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The Intentional Fatalism of the Anti-Nuclear Movement

Says Glenn Reynolds :

This is old news, though. Even back in the 1960s there were Civil Defense debates on whether to give warning in case of an attack, based on studies that showed more people would be sheltered by where they happened to be than would benefit from a warning, since many people would immediately either try to flee, or to return to their homes, winding up in more exposed positions when the bomb went off. And although heavily mocked by antinuclear activists in the 1980s, the duck-and-cover advice from the 1950s was pretty good, considering, and would have saved many lives if it had been followed in the event of a nuclear attack.

I hadn’t thought of this before, but I wonder if this “fatalism” he refers to wasn’t intentional. If surviving a nuclear war is actually fairly straightforward, why cultivate such a deep sense of futility about even trying? Why cut funding for Civil Defense, why ridicule “duck and cover”, and why make demoralizing movies like Testament or The Day After?

Well, if you own a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, whose effects (while horrible) could be mitigated to some useful degree by simple sheltering methods if those methods were widely known and ready-to-implement, wouldn’t you want to head-fake the enemy into not protecting themselves by convincing them of the uselessness of even minimal preparedness?

Once again, it would seem that the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s may have been dupes.

4 comments to The Intentional Fatalism of the Anti-Nuclear Movement

  • mike shupp

    Uhh… your victory parade cries out for a little rain.

    In the late 1950’s, an “all out” nuclear war would probably have seen up to 100 early Soviet ICBM’s falling on American cities, mostly each carrying one 3-5 megaton bomb. That’s enough to hit each
    state capital once, with maybe two or three each for major cities like LA and San Francisco and NY.
    For folks outside those cities, or maybe in the suburbs of those cities, the experience would have been survivable, or at least not immediately fatal. A mere 30-50 million people would have been killed. This ignores the damage done by follow on bomber attacks, of course. This is the sort of setting envisioned when schools were teaching Duck & Cover.

    In the late 1960’s, both the US and the USSR had several thousand launch systems (ICBMs and submarines) and these typically carried 3-5 independently targetted missiles with warheads of about 1.5 megatons.
    An all out attack would have seen the US hit by 6-8000 bombs — about one for each good sized county in the country. There were also backup weapons, to extend the conflict over several days, and smaller weapons for battlefield use; ballpark estimates were that both sides had around 20 thousand nuclear weapons, ranging from 100 kiloton “tactical” weapons to 20 megaton city busters. There were discussions about just how nuclear wars should be fought, of course, and most theoreticians argued against the practicality of such a “nuclear spasm” attack.. but of course one never knew. That’s the environment in which the anti-nuclear war movements of the 1960s arose. It wasn’t one in which Duck & Cover or even plentiful backyard shelters looked sufficient.

  • I never said survival would have been a picnic. My point was that the sense of futility promoted by the anti-nuclear movement regarding survivability is exactly what an enemy government would want to promote, if such an attitude would cause others to forgo even a limited-utility preparedness.

  • Brad

    Mike your estimates of Soviet nuclear firepower are seriously off for the early years.

    The Soviets did not have a force of 100 ICBM that could hit the U.S. in the late 1950\’s. In fact the very first operational Soviet ICBM was not deployed until February 1959.

    In fact, even by 1962 the Soviet ICBM force was so weak the Soviets resorted to basing intermediate range missiles in Cuba.

    The Soviet bomber force wasn\’t much better. Their best aircraft, the Tu-95 only began production in 1956 and were never made in very large numbers. And from the beginning of the Cold War until the first SALT agreement American air defenses were numerous and modern.

    It was only with the Nixon era policies of \"detente\" and arms limitations treaties that the U.S. deliberately gave up on pure defense, and relied solely on deterring Soviet attack with the threat of nuclear retaliation. From that time forward American air defenses were allowed to atrophy, as their primary role became early warning of enemy attack as a means to signal the counter attack.

    That\’s why on 9-11 the lower 48 states of the United States were defended by about a dozen fighter planes on ground alert!

  • mike shupp

    Brad — Good points; they increase the strength of my argument.