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  #1  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:09 PM
grude grude is offline
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Was the Cold War nuclear threat for real?

And by "real" I mean was there a real and actual threat of the Soviet Union launching a basically little provoked nuclear attack against the USA, or the USA doing the same? It seems well insane, and totally out of proportion to the actual friction and squabbles between the two countries.

Was it saber rattling that got a bit out of hand? A proxy for actual war via er "missile sizing"?

Mutually assured destruction was of course in play from day one, each knew that if they pushed the button they were basically condemning their own nation to untold suffering as well. I'm not asking whether there was conflict between the two countries, but whether the threat of nuclear attack was real.

To me this basically seems like having a neighbor who you have small quarrels with occasionally, so you get a machine gun to go kill his entire family. Knowing he has a lot of violent relatives who if you do this will come rape and kill your entire family. What would anyone have to gain?
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  #2  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:20 PM
The Second Stone The Second Stone is offline
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You might want to look into the Cuban Missile Crisis or from 1983, Operation Able Archer, both of which nearly started nuclear war. I seem to recall another early 80s incident where a Soviet officer refused to launch when the protocols required it, possibly a computer glitch. We've come close to extinction of civilization at least 3 times.
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  #3  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:22 PM
Tom Tildrum Tom Tildrum is offline
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Nuclear arms were developed in the shadow of World Wars I and II, which were not small quarrels. The goal was to deter another ruinously vast conventional war with the threat of an even more ruinously vast nuclear war. To that end, nuclear armament has arguably been very successful.
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Old 06-15-2013, 12:23 PM
Colibri Colibri is offline
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It was certainly a very real mindset at the time.

After the atrocities committed by Stalin and Mao, there was the view in the US that Commies were capable of virtually anything, including sacrificing a large part of their own populations in order to advance their ideals (or their own hegemony). The mass famines prompted by government policies, human wave attacks by the Chinese in the Korean war, all contributed to the idea that the Reds would stop at nothing.

On the other side, the US had already demonstrated its willingness to annihilate entire cities with nukes in the interest of victory over their enemies. Stalin and Mao were paranoid, it's true, but in their own minds they had good cause to fear an attack by the West.

The real threat was probably not so much a carefully calculated first strike, but a minor incident that would escalate rapidly, or an accidental intrusion that would provoke a counterattack. These kinds of scenarios were depicted in Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove.

Last edited by Colibri; 06-15-2013 at 12:24 PM..
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  #5  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:24 PM
Der Trihs Der Trihs is online now
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Originally Posted by grude View Post
And by "real" I mean was there a real and actual threat of the Soviet Union launching a basically little provoked nuclear attack against the USA, or the USA doing the same? It seems well insane, and totally out of proportion to the actual friction and squabbles between the two countries.
Certainly. Both sides genuinely feared the other - a simple mistake could have done it. If the wrong person have become President or Premier they could have done it.

I recall after the collapse of the USSR the Russians admitting that they'd seriously considered a nuclear first strike upon the election of Ronald Reagan, because they thought there was a good chance that with his religious beliefs that he'd launch one at them. Not all that unreasonable a fear given his association with pro-nuclear war Jerry Falwell and Reagan's apocalyptic musings about Russian and Chine being "Gog" and "Magog".

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Originally Posted by grude View Post
To me this basically seems like having a neighbor who you have small quarrels with occasionally, so you get a machine gun to go kill his entire family. Knowing he has a lot of violent relatives who if you do this will come rape and kill your entire family. What would anyone have to gain?
The destruction of the unbelievers, the protection of the One True Way.
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  #6  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:26 PM
Der Trihs Der Trihs is online now
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Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
You might want to look into the Cuban Missile Crisis or from 1983, Operation Able Archer, both of which nearly started nuclear war. I seem to recall another early 80s incident where a Soviet officer refused to launch when the protocols required it, possibly a computer glitch.
Stanislav Petrov.

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Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станисла́в Евгра́фович Петро́в; born c. 1939) is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. On September 26, 1983, he was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported a missile being launched from the United States. Petrov judged that the report was a false alarm. This decision is credited with having prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies, which could have resulted in large-scale nuclear war. Investigation later confirmed that the satellite warning system had malfunctioned.
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  #7  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:38 PM
grude grude is offline
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Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
You might want to look into the Cuban Missile Crisis
If I'm not mistaken the crisis wasn't the start of the nuclear annihilation threats, just another escalation though.

Was total war between the USA and Soviet Union considered inevitable basically? That is about the only scenario where some of the CW posturing makes sense.
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  #8  
Old 06-15-2013, 12:54 PM
The Second Stone The Second Stone is offline
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Originally Posted by grude View Post
If I'm not mistaken the crisis wasn't the start of the nuclear annihilation threats, just another escalation though.

Was total war between the USA and Soviet Union considered inevitable basically? That is about the only scenario where some of the CW posturing makes sense.
The whole point of the policy of "containment" set forth by George Kennan in his Mr. X article was that the Soviets would not push expansion if confronted by firm opposition at every single instance. He was correct. However, many in the US hierarchy did not understand the doctrine of "containment" or even seem to know about it, viewing all the confrontations as an inevitable escalation to war rather than acts of containment.
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  #9  
Old 06-15-2013, 01:43 PM
Der Trihs Der Trihs is online now
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Originally Posted by grude View Post
Was total war between the USA and Soviet Union considered inevitable basically?
By many people, yes. With a lot of historical backing; arms races between hostile powers normally end in a war. We're just lucky that neither side went over the edge and kicked off nuclear armageddon.
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  #10  
Old 06-15-2013, 04:35 PM
Mdcastle Mdcastle is offline
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I think the situation is both you and you're neighbor know that it would be the end of you both if one of you started firing your machine guns so you don't plan to no matter how much you hate your neighbor, but in the middle of the night another neighbor kid sets off a couple of M-80s, and one of you open fire thinking you're under attack.
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  #11  
Old 06-15-2013, 05:02 PM
Tom Tildrum Tom Tildrum is offline
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Originally Posted by grude View Post
Was total war between the USA and Soviet Union considered inevitable basically? That is about the only scenario where some of the CW posturing makes sense.
No, it was considered completely impossible, because it would be so destructive. That's why all the posturing and the small proxy wars, because both sides knew that in the end there was no real risk that they could escalate into a full-on confrontation.

(Certainly, as others have pointed out, there were a couple of occasions where the two sides came especially close).
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  #12  
Old 06-15-2013, 07:34 PM
slowlearner slowlearner is offline
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In some accounts of the Cuban crisis it was not until after it was over that Kennedy asked the Generals what would have happened if he had launched a first strike. It's said he was upset to learn he would have murdered 20-30 million innocents. Never underestimate the stupidity of politicians (especially those who are alleged to be liberal constitutional scholars). As Gen. Bull Turgidson said, more or less, nuclear war is too complicated to be left to the politicians.
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  #13  
Old 06-15-2013, 09:21 PM
Ravenman Ravenman is offline
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Originally Posted by Der Trihs View Post
By many people, yes.
Well, maybe many people, but not most people. Even Krushchev, no shrinking flower himself, created the doctrine of peaceful coexistence, where socialist and capitalist countries were not inevitably going to go to war. Instead, socialism would win out through societal change (I'm avoiding the word "revolution" here) rather than by armies.

Mao rejected that, of course, and actively wanted conflict with the West to further revolutionary zeal across the Third World.

It is also worth noting that the period from the mid-to-late 1960s through the election of Reagan was a relatively positive time in US-Soviet relations. Setting aside that whole Vietnam thing, the progress made in arms control treaties during that time was very significant. Then In 1979 things got quite a bit more tense, to the point that some historians call the era that began with the Afghanistan invasion and the election of Reagan to be "the Second Cold War."
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  #14  
Old 06-15-2013, 10:58 PM
Bryan Ekers Bryan Ekers is online now
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I could buy that the threat hadn't been real if, after the collapse of the USSR, we learned that they'd only had a handful of nukes and were elaborately bluffing about holding thousands.

But it turns out they were holding thousands, so..... phew.
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  #15  
Old 06-15-2013, 11:56 PM
Dallas Jones Dallas Jones is offline
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Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
You might want to look into the Cuban Missile Crisis or from 1983, Operation Able Archer, both of which nearly started nuclear war. I seem to recall another early 80s incident where a Soviet officer refused to launch when the protocols required it, possibly a computer glitch. We've come close to extinction of civilization at least 3 times.
A very good documentary on Operation Able Archer is "1983: The Brink of Apocalypse." This is a YouTube link so it is broken into 8 parts. I highly recommend viewing this documentary. You may be able to find it in it's entirety somewhere else. It illustrates how the lack of communication between the USSR and the US almost led to nuclear war. The Soviets had a predictive set of indicators that if most were fulfilled would tell them that a first strike by the US was pending. The war game exercise by NATO forces, code named Able Archer, met most of the conditions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kTnXqfT1Mk

After this event, Ronald Reagan was truly surprised that the Soviets thought he was going to attack and took a more conciliatory approach to them.

Here is Cecil's column on the event:

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/...on-able-archer

It was a truly scary event, that the general public was not aware of and led to dialog and eventual reductions in hostilities. The trigger was not very far from being pulled.
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  #16  
Old 06-16-2013, 08:34 PM
Voyager Voyager is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by slowlearner View Post
In some accounts of the Cuban crisis it was not until after it was over that Kennedy asked the Generals what would have happened if he had launched a first strike. It's said he was upset to learn he would have murdered 20-30 million innocents. Never underestimate the stupidity of politicians (especially those who are alleged to be liberal constitutional scholars). As Gen. Bull Turgidson said, more or less, nuclear war is too complicated to be left to the politicians.
This is a bit hard to believe. I was 12 at the time, and though had no idea of how many would die (and 20 million seems low) everyone knew that it would not be a good thing. IIRC during the crisis there was some call, from LeMay, I believe, for a first strike, and Kennedy vetoed that idea really quickly.

The fear was what would have happened if Nixon were president and was feeling paranoid. I personally think he would have been okay, but some might have been more susceptible to pleading by hawkish advisers than others.
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  #17  
Old 06-16-2013, 11:37 PM
MaxTheVool MaxTheVool is offline
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I guess another way to phrase this is that presumably each side had some sort of protocol before launching a nuclear first strike... some number of steps that have to happen before a strike an be launched. Are the details of those protocols now publicly known, and if so, is it known when either of them proceeded the furthest?
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  #18  
Old 06-17-2013, 08:17 AM
Really Not All That Bright Really Not All That Bright is offline
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Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
The whole point of the policy of "containment" set forth by George Kennan in his Mr. X article was that the Soviets would not push expansion if confronted by firm opposition at every single instance. He was correct.
He was? I'm pretty sure I remember the Soviets continuing expansion efforts after Korea. Vietnam and Afghanistan spring to mind.
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  #19  
Old 06-17-2013, 09:03 AM
madsircool madsircool is offline
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Originally Posted by Der Trihs View Post

I recall after the collapse of the USSR the Russians admitting that they'd seriously considered a nuclear first strike upon the election of Ronald Reagan, because they thought there was a good chance that with his religious beliefs that he'd launch one at them. Not all that unreasonable a fear given his association with pro-nuclear war Jerry Falwell and Reagan's apocalyptic musings about Russian and Chine being "Gog" and "Magog".

The destruction of the unbelievers, the protection of the One True Way.
What paranoid drivel. Where is any evidence of these incredible claims?
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  #20  
Old 06-17-2013, 09:14 AM
Sicks Ate Sicks Ate is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dallas Jones View Post
Here is Cecil's column on the event:

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/...on-able-archer
From that column:

Quote:
In March, Reagan denounced the USSR as an "evil empire" and shortly afterward announced the "Star Wars" missile-defense initiative. This was supposed to make the U.S. invulnerable to Russian nukes, the mere thought of which freaked the Soviets.
Doesn't that announcement by Reagan seem like an invitation to kill us all NOW? "Hey, we're gonna build this thing that makes it impossible for you to nuke us within a few years. Better launch them MIRV-tipped bitches now!"
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  #21  
Old 06-17-2013, 09:18 AM
Latro Latro is offline
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Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
The whole point of the policy of "containment" set forth by George Kennan in his Mr. X article was that the Soviets would not push expansion if confronted by firm opposition at every single instance. He was correct. However, many in the US hierarchy did not understand the doctrine of "containment" or even seem to know about it, viewing all the confrontations as an inevitable escalation to war rather than acts of containment.
Although the Cuban Missile Crisis was touted as "America standing firm against Soviet expansion", it was actually the other way around.

The crisis started because of the threat of the U.S. invading Cuba plus the fact that the US had just placed nuclear missiles in northern Turkey.

The Russian convoys to Cuba were not halted because of the "firm stand" by Kennedy but by Kennedy's agreement to remove the missiles in Turkey and a promise not to invade Cuba.
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  #22  
Old 06-17-2013, 09:28 AM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
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MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is one of the factors that saved us from global catastrophe. Those in power on both side realized that it was a lose-lose situation, and their power would be lost by starting a nuclear war. The most dangerous times were early on before the build up of weapons when either side could have believed a pre-emptive strike would be successful. By the time the nuclear arsenals hit the worldwide destruction level it was unlikely that they would be used other than to counter a conventional invasion. Kennedy brought us close to the brink with the Bay of Pigs, and when China began to build a nuclear arsenal they appeared at times to be close to engagement with the Soviets, something largely not seen by the west who operated on the simplistic mindset that the China and the USSR were staunch allies.
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Old 06-17-2013, 09:36 AM
Really Not All That Bright Really Not All That Bright is offline
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Originally Posted by madsircool View Post
What paranoid drivel. Where is any evidence of these incredible claims?
It's documented here. Ironically, Reagan hated nukes and saw it as his divine mission to prevent Armageddon (unlike the aforementioned Falwell.)
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Old 06-17-2013, 09:58 AM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
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Originally Posted by Really Not All That Bright View Post
It's documented here. Ironically, Reagan hated nukes and saw it as his divine mission to prevent Armageddon (unlike the aforementioned Falwell.)
Reagan looked like a monkey playing with a wrist watch when it came to nuclear arms, at least as far as his publicly stated policies. They sometimes sounded like he wanted to upset the balance of power. However, I think the Soviets were easily convinced that he was playing internal US political games, something they understood well, and actually the results of negotiations was to maintain parity.
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  #25  
Old 06-17-2013, 10:59 AM
Sailboat Sailboat is offline
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Some of the leaders involved certainly contemplated nuclear strikes.

Meet General Curtis LeMay.

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During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history".[35] Unknown to the US, the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch—the only time such authority was delegated by higher command.[36] They had twenty nuclear warheads for medium-range R-12 Dvina (NATO Code SS-4 Sandal) ballistic missiles capable of reaching US cities (including Washington) and nine tactical nuclear missiles. If Soviet officers had launched them, many millions of US citizens could have been killed.[citation needed] The ensuing SAC retaliatory thermonuclear strike would have killed roughly one hundred million Soviet citizens. Kennedy refused LeMay's requests, however, and the naval blockade was successful.[36]
Since the president checked LeMay's impulse, is the danger "not real" or "real?"

Last edited by Sailboat; 06-17-2013 at 11:00 AM..
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  #26  
Old 06-17-2013, 12:14 PM
CapnPitt CapnPitt is offline
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Not the Soviets and not MAD, but you could certainly look to the Formosa Straits crises in the 1950's. Sec'y of State John Foster Dulles believed in "brinksmanship," but the Joint Chiefs had approved the use of nuclear weapons against Communist China. Eisenhower overruled them.

So yes, very real.
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  #27  
Old 06-17-2013, 01:26 PM
bump bump is offline
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Originally Posted by Colibri View Post
It was certainly a very real mindset at the time.

After the atrocities committed by Stalin and Mao, there was the view in the US that Commies were capable of virtually anything, including sacrificing a large part of their own populations in order to advance their ideals (or their own hegemony). The mass famines prompted by government policies, human wave attacks by the Chinese in the Korean war, all contributed to the idea that the Reds would stop at nothing.
Don't forget that the Soviet/Chinese MO was to actively ferment Communist revolutions anywhere they could, and their propaganda was very belligerent toward the West and capitalism just for existing, rather than for anything in particular that the West planned to do to the communist world.

In other words, they seemed very much like a threat, because they did unthinkable things internally, their propaganda was threatening to the West, and they actively supported people trying to overthrow nations friendly to the West.
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  #28  
Old 06-17-2013, 01:36 PM
Really Not All That Bright Really Not All That Bright is offline
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We did that too, you know.
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  #29  
Old 06-17-2013, 01:43 PM
Odesio Odesio is offline
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Originally Posted by Really Not All That Bright View Post
He was? I'm pretty sure I remember the Soviets continuing expansion efforts after Korea. Vietnam and Afghanistan spring to mind.
From what I can recall of Kennan's writings is that he said the Soviet Union would always back down when faced with the prospect of actually going to war with the United States. They'll bluster and threaten but they don't actually have it in them to pull the trigger.
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  #30  
Old 06-17-2013, 02:30 PM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
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Originally Posted by Odesio View Post
From what I can recall of Kennan's writings is that he said the Soviet Union would always back down when faced with the prospect of actually going to war with the United States. They'll bluster and threaten but they don't actually have it in them to pull the trigger.
We were the same way. That's why we ended up fighting proxy wars.
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