Did you believe the USA/USSR would nuke each other? (A Cold War poll)

For those of you who are old enough to remember the Cold War, did you actually think it was a real possibility that the U.S. and Soviet Union would end up in a nuclear war? If so, who did you think would start it, and why?
(I never could believe that it would happen. Maybe I was an idealist, or maybe it’s just that I went to day camp at the JCC with a bunch of fresh-off-the-boat Soviet kids, and I couldn’t fathom that the Soviets were fundamentally any different than we were. And if I didn’t want to die, why would they?)

So go ahead, reminisce away.

P.S. This poll is mostly brought to you by a friend of mine, a middle school teacher now on maternity leave, who blew my mind over dinner a couple of months ago by talking about how she had to explain to her students what the USSR and the East Bloc were, and all the ramifications thereof. Of course if I think about it, I know her students weren’t born yet when the East Bloc collapsed, but the details haven’t really had much reason to cross my mind.

I was in middle school when Reagan was elected into office and I believed for the entire eight years of his administration that he was capable of starting WWIII. Why? Because I thought he was crazy.

I was sure it would happen eventually, that it was just a matter of time. My brothers told me once (maybe around the time of The Day After) that we’d see the flashes in the East first (no idea where they got that). I’d lay in bed at night in the summer and see heat lightning flash through the sky. Not knowing which way was east, I was sure that was it.

I don’t think I ever thought in terms of someone starting it - or beyond us being bombed, and I don’t know that I really saw the Soviet Union as the bad guys in that (or ever thought about them much at all, for that matter).
Born in 1973, so the Reagan years are what I remember, no earlier.

I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Missle Crisis… so yes, I really believed a nuclear war was possible, but would probably happen unintentionally. Some sensor somewhere would make one side or the other believe that missles had been launched, even though they hadn’t. Or a computer glitch happens, but there’s not enough time to verify it, so one side starts launching for real and a few hours later the earth is engulfed. I didn’t think either the US or the USSR was stupid enough to start WWIII intentionally.

Only at the tail end but I was sure nuclear holocaust was inevitable.

Ditto. I remember the era of If You Love this Planet only too well.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis my father drove through Arkansas. When he got home he told he’d seen Titan missiles on their launch pads and trains carrying missiles, tanks and other equipment (not even under tarps, just right out in the open on flat cars.) I never saw him that scared before or after.

When the 1967 Arab-Israeli War started my classmates and i were convinced it would escalate into a U.S./U.S.S.R. conflict that would probably end up with the Warsaw Pact invading West Germany and a subsequent nuclear exchange. Fortunately, that war was over in 6 days.

After the 1968 Czechoslovakian invasion, I decided nuclear war would only start over some computer glitch or human error.

I was born in 73. Like Lsura, I didn’t really think in terms of who would start it, although I thought of nuclear war as a very real possibility. I suppose if I were pressed, I’d say I expected the Soviets to start it. I got far enough along in my thinking to decide that I didn’t want to survive a nuclear war. How I, as a kid, was going to go about ensuring that I died in the blast was less clear to me, but I didn’t want to wind up in Damnation Alley. Of that I was sure.

I didn’t think it was inevitable, but I believed it was possible. Figured that at any sign of weakness from the US the Soviet Union would pounce, but thought it more likely that miscommunication, an accident, or deliberate sabotage by a 3rd party would start things off.

I never did think the US would be the aggressor, in a first-strike nuclear attack kind of way (if we were to start something, we’d start out conventional and keep it that way as long as possible)

No, I never thought there was any chance of a nuclear exchange.

And it’s amusing to watch liberals who are STILL terrified of Ronald Reagan, 20 years after he left office.

It was certainly a possibility. It still is. For all our worry about Al qaeda and Iran, the only country that poses an existential threat to the US is Russia.

Abandon your idealism, it could and would happen given the right set of events. Any launch from the other side had to initiate full global nuclear war and it would start hitting targets in the U.S. within 30 minutes and all of it would be done within a couple of hours. MAD (Mutually assured destruction) is still the only defense known against total nuclear war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is still widely thought to be the closest we came to nuclear war but is wasn’t. In 1983, Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in charge of a nuclear bunker in the Soviet Union when the systems went wild indicating a nuclear strike from ICBM’s coming in from the U.S. He didn’t believe it at first but the data showed more and more nuclear missiles coming. He refused to do his job and instigate total nuclear war and later had to step down from his job for it.

You may think that would be the ordinary safeguard but he was simply filling in that day. Procedures indicated that he had to indiciate full nuclear war and he didn’t but many in his position would have. Once nuclear war is started it has to be carried to its final conclusion based on the MAD doctrine.

There is absolutely no reason to hold the views that you hold other than pure luck in the past MAD still exists in full force even though the Soviets aren’t the threat they once were.


Stanislav Petrov is also know as the man that saved the world.

I thought that was quite possible. I had no problems imagining him launching the nukes, and singing hymns as he waited for God to scoop him up in the Rapture before the Russian’s retaliation hit.

I also thought that a desperate USSR might lash out as it collapsed. We were quite lucky that it was Gorbachev who presided over it’s collapse.

He was a senile lunatic with a nuclear arsenal. Of course he was frightening. The Russians admitted some years ago that his mere election was nearly enough to provoke a nuclear first strike from them.

Same here. And I worked at an Air Force base in the '80s before moving to a company that did analysis on ICBMs.

Able Archer 83

I was born in '64. As a kid, I heard about Vietnam, which scared me, but it appeared people don’t nuke each other. They prefer to kill and maim each other in gruesome ways. A little older, I learned about our nuking of Japan, but that happened before I was born and at that age, it was ancient history and nothing to worry about. Still older, I learned the US & the USSR could nuke each other so like, the earth was destroyed 100 times over. That seemed a little too ridiculous. Who would do that? Older still, in the Army during the cold war, I figured no way. Barring an incredible accident, nuclear war is just the stupidest thing ever, and even the evil commies aren’t anywhere near that stupid.

I’m worried about radical Islam now though. They are that stupid.

FOAF story. My best friend’s stepbrother said that he was in the Army in the '70s in Europe. IIRC (this was related to me back in the early-to-mid-'90s) he was in a short-range nuclear missile unit. He said that one night a couple of guys dropped acid on duty and erected their missile so that they could watch the lights.

I’m old enough to remember the “duck-and-cover” drills in school. And the following year we had drills in which we marched, single-file, out into the hall, opened our locker doors 90 degrees, and stood facing the open locker, each of us separated by a locker door. This was supposed to protect us in the case of a nuclear attack.

To answer your question, the fear was very real that nuclear annihilation was inevitable.

Actually, I’m more afraid now.

0% right? That makes no sense whatsoever.

I would have guessed that terrorists flying large planes into buildings to bring them down was impossible a few years ago but it happened. The U.S. has plenty of operational nukes (probably thousands) in planes and bunkers right this second.There are command centers with lots of people working there right now. Cheyenne Mountain is running something like a mission control with teams testing nuclear door and security as well. IT guys are keeping the big screens up showing hot spots. They will launch as soon as they get presidential approval and that can come in as little as 10 minutes. The presidential family will be moving down into the secure White House bunker as this happens.

I think you have no idea how complex all this stuff is. The POTUS gets briefed daily with the current launch codes. There is a military officer with him every single second with the current launch plans. The nuclear football has to be, always and I mean always, has to be, available quickly. Nuclear subs are not there for show. They hide deep within the sea and hardly anyone can know where the are even to the point of keeping noise down among the crew itself.

The U.S. did not build this stuff for fun. There are hundreds of locations this second that can launch a nuclear attack on many countries and have them hit their target less that 1/2 hour from now. There are literally thousands of people right now doing their jobs waiting for their launch order.

MAD dictates that once the U.S. gets hit by an ICBM, the country that it originated from has to be completley destroyed.

I was in 1st grade, I believe, when he was elected. I completely believed during the entire Reagan administration that nuclear annihilation was a real possibility. A likely possibility? Nah, but possible. I was more afraid of the Soviet Union having an itchy trigger finger at the time than the US.

It’s even worse than that. A successful deterrent capability has to preclude the reasonable possibility of a disabing first strike. Under that assumption, one cannot simply wait until a nuclear strike is confirmed; one must be prepared to strike upon a credible threat, lest one no longer be able to strike at all. This led to the American policy of “Launch On Warning”, in effect, strike before one’s own weapons are destroyed and (hopefully) be able to pre-empt further strikes by destroying the opponent’s capability to launch successive waves of attack. Of course, when this attitude is taken by both sides (as it was) it means that there is no practical purpose in holding back on the attack, at least not insofar as one may believe that the scale of conflict may escalate, which paradoxically escalates the scale of the conflict in an expanding series.

A number of efforts were made to provide some protection against a disarming sneak attack, including anti-ballistic missile systems (ultimately the US Safeguard system and the Soviet A-35), submarine-based launchers (Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident for US/UK, French M45, and a number of Soviet designs), various mobile and protected ICBM launch schemes including the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison (never a viable system but politically necessary to justify deployment to Congress) and a variety of Soviet road- and rail-mobile designs.

Unfortunately, rather than promoting some degree of stability in assurance that at least a significant portion of one’s arsenal will survive attack, all of these approaches just led to further proliferation and arms races to see who would build the more capable weapon/protection. MIRV-capable systems like the R-36M (NATO reporting name SS-18 ‘Satan’) and the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, capable of carrying a multitude of independently targeted warheads, just exacerbated the situation; a single unstopped booster could wreck havoc on ten or more major targets, including (with the much increased accuracy of digital guidance computers and laser ring-gyro inertial navigation systems) weapon emplacements. And that very proliferation and precision made the possibility of a nuclear exchange–even if limited and by accident–all that more catastrophic. In the early 'Sixties, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the damage would have been serious but limited–Cuba-based Soviet missiles would have pasted military bases and major cities in the South, American bombers would have burned Moscow and Leningrad, and Cuba would have been a smoking ruin–but by the late 'Seventies, even a “minor” exchange would have devastated both nations and their close allies to the point of reducing them to preIndustrial status. And then we had Reagan (on the American side) and a succession of barely animated, terminally ill General Secretaries (on the Soviet side), none of whom seemed to either comprehend or care about the consequences of an attack.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Petrov Incident, and Able Archer '83 have already been mentioned. What hasn’t been mentioned are the at least half-a-dozen other known events that brought us close enough to considering the possibility of a nuclear exchange that the President called his Cabinet to discuss the matter (and presumably the same on the other side), nor a number of technical glitches that could, if not countered by calm professionalism and rationality of the agencies in charge, could have led to a mistaken report of attack and resultant retaliation. As former Secrectary of Defense Robert McNamara has said and written repeatedly, “The combination of human fallibillity and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.”

It could have happened, all too easily. It is true that no rational actor would launch such an attack, because the harms vastly outweigh the benefits, and that the men who lead nations–despite occasional personality hiccups and jokes like “We begin bombing in ten minutes,” are, if not exactlly icons of rationality, at least not suicidal. However, the speed and overarching threat that a modern nuclear arsenal holds can overwhelm any attempt at rationality, resulting in the invokation of automatic rules and plans which assume the absurd, i.e. that if one is going down, it is best to take everyone else with you. The people of the Soviet Union, and of the United States and Britian, and France, and China, and India, and Israel, and (hopefully) Pakistan and Iran, would not vote for a mutual suicide pact. But in such a scenario, they would have no representation whatsoever. The rules of the game take over, and the rules say “Launch On Warning”.

A few corrections to the above. First of all, the scenario of terrorists hijacking planes and attacking major icons is hardlly foreign to intelligence services and those responsible for planning defense, and in fact, many warnings had been offered (and ignored) by the current and previous Administration. My personal surprise was that the possibility was such a big surprise, and that it took them so long to do it.

Pursuant to treaty obligations, the United States has been reducing the size of its Active Stockpile. All Peacekeeper and C4 Trident I missiles have been decommissioned, Minuteman III and D5 Trident II missiles have had their payload reduced to single RVs, and many late Cold War era systems like the BGM-109G 'Glick ‘Em’, the AGM-129 ACM, the SUBROC, and MGM-31 Pershing II have all been decommissioned, and the AGM-86 ACLM and nuclear-armed variants of the BGM-109 ‘Tomahawk’ have been reduced in deployment. Similar reductions have occurred in Russian, British, and French arsenals following the end of the Cold War. While there are still over a thousand warheads in active service (and a few thousand more in Reserve or Enduring stockpile), the number of weapons ready to be launched on a moment’s notice is much reduced. The same is true for Russian, British, and French arsenals. This is not to say that an attack or mistake could not happen with terrible consequences, but the likelyhood of a catastrophic conflageration is substantially less than it was twenty-odd years ago.

The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (recently renamed to Cheyenne Mountain Directorate) is now on “warm standby” but is no longer actively manned. NORAD central operations are now done from an ordinary building on Peterson AFB. Watch centers and a variety of ground- and satellite-based early warning systems are still maintained, but no longer at the hair-edged tension that existed during the apex points of the Cold War.

If a nuclear attack is imminent, the President, Vice President, and lead members of Congress will be evacuated by air (if possible) or ground from Washington DC, onto a National Emergency Airborne Command Post (now renamed), and from thence to one of a number of unlisted underground facilities. This has been the case since the late 'Sixites when it was apparent that no safety of the National Command Authorithy could be assured from a fixed, known position.