Now, I'm not saying that that is an inaccurate depiction of a nuclear war (though most of these books get a lot of the details wrong, especially about how radiation works), but it's not necessarily accurate, either. If you dig through the old strategic literature of the Cold War, you can find a remarkable panorama of ideas about how to fight, survive, and even win a nuclear conflict.
I've compiled a list of some of the more interesting beliefs about what a nuclear war would look like. These have all been seriously proposed at various times, by well-informed, intelligent people. That doesn't mean I personally believe they're plausible, but these concepts were put forth by strategists who devoted far more of their lives to thinking about this problem than either you or I have. They might be right and they're certainly interesting.
The Nuclear Blitz
This one is already fairly well-known within the alternate history community, although it's still obscure in the wider culture. This was the US Strategic Air Command's war plan through the 1950s: an overwhelming nuclear attack on all aspects of Soviet society, to both destroy both their economy and their ability to retaliate.
For most of the 1950s, the Soviets had very few aircraft able to carry atomic bombs across intercontinental distances. A US surprise attack would have a good chance of wiping out most or all of these aircraft. This is part of why Curtis LeMay and other American generals were so bellicose during the Cuban Missile Crisis – they believed a war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, and wanted to fight it while the US could still win it. A nuclear blitz, if it worked, would be a genuine victory for the United States. The US would likely not get off completely scot-free, especially later in the 1950s, but probably only a few cities and military bases would be lost – “only” a few million American citizens killed. It would be a genuine, if costly, American victory.
The world afterwards would resemble the world after World War II, only on a far greater, more terrible scale, and without the Soviet Union as a threat to unify the Western nations. It's difficult to imagine NATO occupying more than a token patch of the Soviet Union and China. At the same time, they could not allow any government to emerge there that might pose a future threat to the West, and with the nuclear taboo permanently broken, I expect that Strategic Air Command would be kept busy after the war “policing” the shattered remains of the Communist bloc. While the US would win the war, it's hard to see how they could win the peace.
Disarming First Strike
Herman Kahn, the disarming first strike is a concept found in the works of many nuclear strategists.
After the mid-1960s, the Soviet nuclear arsenal was big enough that an American disarming strike would be unlikely to succeed – but that's not quite the same thing as impossible. Supposedly, in the late 1970s the US discovered a critical vulnerability in the Soviet strategic communications network, which would allow the US to disable their communications long enough to execute a first strike. The possibility was studied in the 1980s by a small group under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under the code name CANOPY WING. A copy of the study found its way to the Soviets via East Germany, and the flaw was fixed. I said this “supposedly” happened because our only source of information on CANOPY WING is documents from East German intelligence, leaked after the fall of the Berlin Wall via memoirs of East German intelligence officers trying to justify their careers, so it's possible the story is a hoax – but it does seem to be taken seriously by historians.
Skipping over the problems with any attempt to keep a nuclear war “limited”, let's assume that Russia or the US launches a successful disarming first strike against the other. What does the world look like afterwards? While fallout would kill many people – the usual estimates are in the millions – the number of dead would be comparable to World War II in the Soviet Union. After a few years the radiation would die down enough that the contaminated farmland could be used again. So the world would have gotten away with relatively little damage, compared to what could have happened.
Perhaps that would inspire a great revulsion against nuclear weapons and a determination to rid the world of the menace – but I doubt it. The losing side in the nuclear war would have suffered enormous casualties and lost tremendous power and prestige – but in a limited nuclear war, “surrender” would mean giving up on the issue at hand and making concessions. The loser would still have too many weapons left for the winner to demand unconditional capitulation. Instead they would have to be left alone to nurse their wounded pride, and dream of revenge. The Cold War would resume the day after World War III ended, and with it the arms race – but, this time, one party would no longer be content with detente or peaceful coexistence. A disarming first strike would most likely set up a World War IV a few decades down the road, just as World War I set up World War II.
Protracted Nuclear War
Fire Lance, and is part of the background of John Varley's Gaea trilogy.
I have a hard time believing that any prohibition on hitting cities would last. Actually, I think it offers one of the few visions of Armageddon that is worse than a thirty-minute mutual suicide: a nuclear war that does not end. Nuclear strategy is premised on the rationality of the decision-makers, but after years of apocalypse, would the goal still be negotiating a favorable peace – or would it be to finally destroy whatever is left of the enemy? There might never be a formal end to the war, an official ceasefire – instead it would slowly stutter to a halt as the stockpiles are exhausted, the shattered survivors never knowing if that was really the last weapon or if tomorrow destruction will visit them once again.
The tit-for-tat war is a different version of a lengthy nuclear war. In the protracted nuclear war, the goal is to destroy the enemy's weapons. In the tit-for-tat war, the goal is to destroy their resolve, by the careful, precise destruction of cities, one at a time.
Conceivably, the war might be relatively bloodless. There's no reason to not give fair warning before the strike, to give the enemy time to evacuate: killing people would only harden his determination. So issue an ultimatum, allow a week to clear the city, then nuke it. Repeat until someone concedes.
It's hard to imagine anyone being happy with the conclusion of a tit-for-tat war. The losers would have lost both cities and the war. The winners might have won the war, but I doubt they would view Berlin, or whatever else was at stake, as worth the loss of New York, Los Angeles and Dallas – or Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk. Both governments would probably end up overthrown, either by the military or the populace.
Catalytic Nuclear War
Sum of All Fears and Peter George's Commander-1. Kenneth Sewell, in Red Star Rogue, claimed this actually almost happened with the Soviet submarine K-129, with rogue KGB operatives trying to trigger a US-China nuclear exchange, though that book could charitably be described as implausible.
This is trickier to pull off than novels sometimes make it seem. You can't just nuke Moscow and Washington and assume they'll launch on each other, but aside from that, a state that is both powerful enough and antagonistic enough to try to do something like this is probably going to be hit in the exchange as well and even if they aren't, congratulations: you get to rule over a bombed-out, glowing ruin of a world. Have fun with that.
You're in a nuclear war. As a good nuclear strategist, your goal is to minimize the number of nuclear strikes on your country. Whatever weapons your enemy has already launched cannot be recalled. There's nothing that can be done about them now; your concern is how to keep his remaining weapons on the ground. The best way to do that is to surrender.
This is about the only way I can imagine something like the classic “USSR occupies the US” situation happening – an American president deciding to surrender rather than fight a nuclear war. Any such occupation would be little more than a token in practical terms, given the size of the US, and I doubt it would end any better for the occupier than it does in the many books on the subject.
I actually have quite a few more than this – Mutually Really Assured Destruction, Defensive Advantage, the Nuclear Coup – but I think this is long enough. The permutations of nuclear strategy are virtually endless, especially if you expand your vision to encompass conflicts between state and non-state actors, or between elements of a single state.
What I'm hoping you'll take away from this isn't that a tit-for-tat war or a preemptive surrender is likely. They aren't. In particular, most of these concepts rely heavily on the twin assumptions that political leaders will continue to be rational and able to effectively command their military forces even in the midst of a nuclear holocaust, which, bluntly, they probably wouldn't.
My point, rather, is that we don't know what would happen in a nuclear war. The fact that so many very intelligent people could propose such wildly different visions for how a nuclear war would unfold is evidence for that. I don't really know that presidents and premiers wouldn't think with ice-cold logic even as their people are cut down by the millions. No one in the history of the world has ever been in that position, so we can't truly know how they would respond.
Nevertheless, that is one of the least of the uncertainties. We don't know how reliable or accurate the missiles really are. We don't know how military officers controlling nuclear weapons would react if they were cut off from higher orders. We don't know how the civilian population would react. We don't know what the real targeting plans are. We don't know how bad nuclear winter would be. We don't know how bad the EMP effects would be. We don't know how bad the damage to the ozone layer would be. We don't know if there would be enough industrial base left to piece together a working economy afterwards.
There are so many things we don't know about this vitally important subject, so many things we can't know. All we can really say for sure is that a nuclear war would be the greatest disaster in the history of the human race, a step into an abyss whose true depth we cannot now fathom. Some would argue that it doesn't really matter as long as it doesn't happen, and, well, they have a point, but as long as these weapons continue to exist – and they show no signs of evaporating – there will remain a risk that they will be used. If we are to think rationally about nuclear weapons and nuclear war, we need to realize the gaps in our knowledge.
Also, on a lighter note, these ideas are interesting in and of themselves, and I hope they'll spark some entertaining thoughts among the readers. A tit-for-tat war or a preemptive surrender is possible even if it's unlikely, and they're fertile material for fiction.
Finally, if you want to see my personal hunch for what a nuclear war would look like, read "Protect & Survive". Not only is it magnificently well-written, but it is as realistic as any story of an event that never happened can be, which is all we can really ask for.
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Mark J. Appleton blogs on atompunk history at Atomic Skies.