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Stranger than Strangelove: How the U.S. Planned for Nuclear War in the 1950s via The Conversation

Those who have written about the nuclear Cold War remain grateful to Stanley Kubrick for giving us the satirical 1964 film Dr Strangelove which captures the madness that swept the world for 40 years. The name Strangelove may be overused but the United States has now released a secret file that really does justify the sobriquet: “Stranger than Strangelove”. Almost anodyne in title, Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 is a truly shocking document, revealing the scale of the holocaust that would have been unleashed in a nuclear war.

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According to Burr, as far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history. It is still partly redacted. SAC specified the numbers and types of nuclear weapons required to destroy each Designated Ground Zero (DGZ). The nuclear weapons information is completely excised from the report making it impossible to know how many weapons SAC believed were necessary to destroy the various targets. Nevertheless, the SAC weapons stockpile was increasingly rapidly at the time, from more than 2,400 in 1955 to more than 12,000 in 1959. It was to reach 22,229 in 1961.

Even after this length of time, the SAC study provokes a frisson. According to its authors, their target priorities and nuclear bombing tactics would expose nearby civilians and “friendly forces and people” to high levels of radioactive fallout.

What’s more, the study’s authors developed a plan for the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad (now St Petersburg), East Berlin, and Warsaw.

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Systematic destruction

It is worth remembering at this stage of the Cold War that the attacks would have been carried out by human beings in long-range jet bombers rather than missiles. Every SAC crew was given a nuclear target in the Soviet Union in case of war.

In the 1990s, I interviewed many SAC pilots about dropping nuclear weapons on cities. They dealt with this remarkably pragmatically, as military people do. They viewed it as a patriotic duty or as a job of work, retrospectively providing a successful deterrent. My questions stirred little reflexivity or rumination. I recall one pilot I interviewed, Colonel Sam Myers revealing for the first time his target: “OK, my target for my crew was Gorky. And, this involved airborne alert missions. And we did have full weaponry aboard.”

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