“So many decades later, it’s hard to remember the kind of nuclear thinking top American officials engaged in during the Cold War.
In secret National Security Council documents of the early 1950s, for instance, the country’s top strategists descended willingly into the charnel house of futuristic history, imagining life on this planet as an eternal potential holocaust. They wrote in those documents of the possibility that 100 atomic bombs, landing on targets in the United States, might kill or injure 22 million Americans and of a “blow” that might result in the “complete destruction” of the Soviet Union.
And they weren’t just whistling Dixie. After all, in 1960, the top military brass found themselves arguing about the country’s first Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war. In it, a scenario was laid out for delivering more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world. Targets included at least 130 cities, which, if all went well, would cease to exist. Classified estimates of possible casualties from such an attack ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured. That’s what “the complete destruction” of the Soviet Union and Communist China meant then and, until Dr. Strangelove hit the screens in 1964, those figures were simply part of the sort of “rational” war planning that led to perfectly serious debate about launching a “preemptive strike” — what, if another country were considering it, would have been a “war of aggression” — to eradicate that enemy. To give credit where it’s due, Army and Navy officials did worry “about the lethal impact of downwind fallout, with the Army explicitly concerned about limiting exposure of ‘friendly forces and people’ to radioactive fallout. By contrast, the Air Force saw no need for additional constraints [on surface nuclear blasts].”
It’s this world that we “celebrate,” having now reached the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). Today, we know that delivering so many nuclear weapons (or, in fact, many less) would have done a lot more than wipe out the “Communist world.” It would have plunged the planet into nuclear winter and undoubtedly eradicated humanity as definitively as the dinosaurs were wiped out by that asteroid 65 million years ago.
Apocalypse was — and remains — us. After all, despite the recent nuclear agreement that will stop a country without nuclear weapons from building them, this planet is still loaded with a world-ending arsenal that is constantly being expanded, updated, and modernized. Call us lucky, but don’t call us particularly thoughtful. Today, Christian Appy, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, considers the way in which — except in rare moments when antinuclear movements gained brief strength here — Americans managed to ignore how this country’s leaders ushered us into the nuclear age by annihilating not one but two cities and killing hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians. Tom”