Historical story

Pentagon investigated nuclear war's impact

Previously highly classified documents show that between 1957 and 1963, the US military investigated in the utmost secrecy and with the utmost seriousness the consequences of a nuclear war with both the Soviet Union and China. Until 1962, despite the enormous mutual destruction, the US would emerge as the 'winner'. Then that strategic advantage disappeared.

Early in the morning on July 20, 1961, as Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were running high as a result of the Berlin crisis, President Kennedy was presented with a report. The report came from a small, top-secret group operating under the name of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee (NESC). The working group, commissioned by the White House, has been investigating the consequences of a worldwide nuclear war since 1957.

The report presented to Kennedy contained very shocking figures. In the scenario where a nuclear war would start with a surprise attack by Russian nuclear submarines on US air bases, 71 million Americans would die "instantly". The deadly fallout, radioactive dust that settles after a nuclear explosion, would cover large, densely populated areas of the country. The inevitable US nuclear counterattack would kill 69 million Soviet citizens and possibly 79 million Chinese within a month. “And we call ourselves a human race,” Kennedy sighed to his Secretary of State Dean Rusk, putting the report aside.

The NESC and their annual analyzes were top secret for years. Recently, summaries of the very comprehensive reports have been (partially) released to the public. They provide a glimpse into how seriously the Americans took the possibility of a devastating nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold. Incidentally, the NESC did not only examine scenarios in which it was the Soviet Union that dealt the first blow. Scenarios in which the US was the first to launch its nuclear missiles 'preventively' were also analysed. So the US did take into account that they could strike first.

Vietnam War

The scenarios for a possible nuclear war were often based on real-life circumstances. In the 1962 report, the NESC assumed a nuclear war would break out in 1965, as a result of a "local conflict in Southeast Asia" (the Vietnam War that broke out in 1957), in which communists from North Vietnam with Moscow's help and Beijing would overrun all of South Vietnam.

The US Air Force would carry out attacks and be attacked by Chinese and Russian MiGs. Missile system launchers would be placed on high alert. Moscow would confuse this with preparation for an attack and would preemptively opt for the surprise nuclear attack. With millions of deaths as a result.

The NESC's analyzes were initiated by Kennedy's predecessor; President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces against Nazi Germany during World War II, was always convinced that a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union would lead to nuclear war. That had to be won by the US at any cost. The Russians may have made the same analyses, and as long as the US emerged as the strongest, they would probably not dare to face a nuclear confrontation.

Advantage disappeared

In the first reports in the late 1950s, the US emerged as the 'winner'. The mutual destruction would be immense, but in terms of the astonishingly sober NESC figures, the US would emerge strongest from a nuclear conflict:The US warheads could cause more human and material damage to the Russians than the other way around. This remained so until 1962, the year in which the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the two superpowers close to open confrontation.

In the NESC analysis of 1963, the American advantage had disappeared. “Both the US and the Soviet Union cannot survive a nuclear conflict without significant damage,” it was concluded at the time. This was mainly due to the rapid increase in the number of long-range missiles (ICBMs) in the Soviet Union that could deliver nuclear warheads to the US. The destruction on the US side would be as great as that on the Russian side, even if the US were to launch its nuclear weapons first. Thus, in the event of a nuclear conflict, the US would no longer have an advantage, and it did not appear that it would ever again. The deterrent effect that the first post-war presidents used against the Soviet Union was no longer useful.

The 1963 report was also the last. Why the NESC discontinued it is not exactly clear. The reports, all equally filled with horrific figures of death and destruction, may prompt Kennedy to instruct the NESC to focus more on diplomatic crisis management and stem the arms race with Moscow. Such reports still appeared in 1964 and 1965. After 1963, a nuclear war for Washington became something that had to be prevented at all times.