I posted this question last night but it seems to have gotten lost in whatever problems the forum was experiencing.
I have an interest in Cold War history and the arms race is an integral part of this. I repeatedly come across statements such that a nuclear war between the superpowers and affiliates would ‘destroy the planet’ (whatever that means), kill all life rendering the earth a glowing radioactive cinder (even deep-sea lifeforms? or simply render the human race extinct.
Whats the current thinking on the likely outcomes of a global thermonuclear war on a scale possible at the height of the Cold War?
Personally I doubt it would have rendered humanity extinct though it could possibly have caused the collapse of human civilisation.
I think it depends on how exactly the nuclear war is conducted. If the US and Russia just let loose with their entire arsenal, but not necessarily at every worldwide population center, then nuclear winter may ensue, but there will still be intact social structures left to deal with it. There’ll probably be widespread panic and chaos, and many of the unbombed societies will still fall, but I reckon that some pockets of sanity will remain and eventually regrow to cover most of the habitable world (which will have been massively reduced, anyway).
Brazil has a sturdy industrial base, large urban centers and a good energy supply. Was anybody targeting it (or South America generally) at any point? Even if they lost half their population due to radiation poisoning (unlikely) their infrastructure would still be intact and life would go on.
Even if 98% of humanity was wiped out and every nation in the world collapsed, we’d recover, eventually. Humankind is good at surviving virtually in every environment. In a few centuries - a thousand years, max - we’d probably regain our population level and technology.
I mean, its not as if there aren’t roughly 7 million science fiction books on the subject.
RAND Corporation nuclear strategist and Dr. Strangelove archetype Herman Kahn investigated and discussed this question at great length in a series of lectures which were later edited and published in On Thermonuclear War and Thinking About The Unthinkable (later Thinking About The Unthinkable In The 1980’s). Kahn concluded that, while the damage to the nations directly unbolned in an exchange or those adjacent to them might be severe, the time to recover to the existing industrial base would be within lifetimes, and depending on the level of preprestion and decentralization, perhaps as little as two decades after a wide exchange. (Heh, my Blackberry originaly tried to spell that as “wife exchange”.)
While I think his estimates are somewhat rosy regarding recovery times, and his thinking is rooted in the 'Fifties and early 'Sixties, his basic premise–that once you have survived an exchange and its immediate aftereffects, life tends to return to normal, albeit with a somewhat higher rate of death from chronic illness–is sound. Kahn explicitly rejected (as did the Soviets) the essential premise of Assured Destruction on this basis. At any rate, even if both parties in an exchange use dirty weapons, the area of effect is necessarily regional, not global, and the lack of strategic targets in the Southern Hemisphere would leave South America and Oceania largely untouched. It is doubtful that you could manage to kill all of humanity even if that was your specific goal and definitely not all life.
Thr Nuclear Winter hypothesis in its extreme (I.e. global, decade-long permanent winter) is an exaggerated and unsubstantiated interpretation of the TTAPS Report; the reality is less catastrophic and more mundane, unsuprising in comparison to the amount of gas and suspended particulates produced by active volcanos.
A wide-scale nuclear exchange would turn the United States into a marginal industrial power if not an outright Third World nation, and I personally doubt that it could or would be allowed to recover, at least within living memory. Isn’t that enough reason to avoid an exchange at all costs?
And can I say what a massive pain in the ass it is to post from a Blackberry? I should have brought a cheap laptop with me.
According to the former KGB NYC Station head (and exemplary double agent, defector, and now American citizen) Sergei Tretyakov (“Comrade J”), the theory of a globally exterminating nuclear winter was entirely a fabrication of the KGB – and was one of that agency’s greatest propaganda triumphs of all time. Tretyakov explains how it was perpetrated, how the story was accepted by certain (mainly peace, anti-nuke, and environmental) organizations and its subsequent spread through the media (with Carl Sagan being the most outspoken publicizer of the Soviets’ “scientific findings”), and acknowleges his own bewilderment at how easily it was done.
None of which dispells the undesirability of nuclear war on any scale, but even a large-scale nuclear war wouldn’t automatically spell the death knell for *Homo sapiens * by dint of a “nuclear winter”.
BTW, the book is a great read and is all the more timely, given the need for the West to better understand Vladimir Putin’s mindset, the resurgence of the KGB under its new organizational guises, and Russia’s current irredentist belligerency.
I haven’t heard of this book before, but it seems to have events wrong, unless Tretyakov was a much more skilled propagandist than any other.
Carl Sagan didn’t publicize Soviet scientific findings – he publicized the calculations that he did in collaboration with Turco, Toon, Ackerman, and Pollack, the “TTAPS” paper that appeared in Science in 1983, based on their own climate modelling work. I’m not even aware of any suggestion that it was inspired by any Soviet work.
The paper has been criticized through the years, but a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research supported the TTAPS results.
The world’s already had a nuclear war. World War II. It was in the papers. So obviously a nuclear war does not necessarily end all life.
But the evidence is pretty strong that there are enough nuclear weapons in existence that they could be used to end all life all this planet by a combination of direct hits, fallout, social collapse, and nuclear winter.
So “nuclear war” isn’t a clearly defined enough term to answer the question.
Nuclear weapons are greatly overrated. Get a copy of one of the old government manuals on the effects of nuclear weapons. Sure, you can kill millions of people, and effectively destroy a country’s economy, with a large-scale attack on population centers and strategic targets. There will still be a huge number of survivors and high radiation levels from fallout are a short-term problem. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be a major disaster, just that it wouldn’t come remotely close to “wiping out the human race” or destroying civilization.
Thanks for the answers everyone, ironically I had a conversation with a colleague last night and it turns out he served on a British ballistic missile submarine back in the 80’s.
For what its worth he was convinced that if someone had pushed the button it would have been The End.
I do recall reading that the UK had the highest proportion of nuclear targets per population density in the world and one memorable map I’ve seen listed likely targets in the age of the cruise missile controversy. ‘Overlapping fireballs’ springs to mind…
An image springs to mind from The War Games somewhat akin to that. It didn’t seem to take much to decimate the country.
As an aside I laughed when I saw the early pages of a 2000AD story on an invasion of the UK by what were supposed to be Soviet forces, very kindly they smeared Belfast in an attack, despite our limited usefulness to anyone’s country
Not only would it depend on what areas were targeted with what nukes, but you have to figure that if all-out no-holds-barred win-at-all-costs war was declared, in all probability biological weapons would also be deployed. Between the two, I’m not sure what would happen.