Cold War

The Cold War stretched from the end of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union. Forty-five years of wondering whether the world would end for billions of people. We had a number of crises where we came to the brink of nuclear war. It was an interesting time.

There was the Berlin Blockade of 1948-9 where the Soviets tried to starve the Western sectors of the city of Berlin into submission. Stalin wanted a crushed and subordinate Germany in perpetuity while the West was busy trying to turn old enemies into new friends and rebuild Europe. Only a massive US airlift kept the city free and the threat of war kept the Soviets from trying to stop us. The Soviets didn’t have a deliverable nuclear weapon quite yet and we did.

Stalin’s intransigence backfired and led to the reunification of West Germany and the signing of the NATO Treaty. Not what Joe Stalin wanted.

We had the Korean War, the first of many undeclared wars the US has fought. General MacArthur wanted badly to use nukes on China. He deliberately attacked points along the Yalu River which provoked China’s entrance into the war. He’d hoped it would cause a greater conflagration with the Soviet Union. His belief was that war was inevitable and we should have it then when nuclear weapons were still few, relatively low in yield, and difficult to deliver and the US had an advantage. No nukes were fired and he was relieved of his command.

Up until this time, military thinking on both sides was to treat nuclear weapons as just larger bombs on the battlefield. It wasn’t until the more powerful hydrogen bomb came online in the 50s that nukes were viewed as something special. The fallout of an ordinary atomic bomb was considered minor enough that we touched off hundreds of them in the Nevada test site. People flocked to Las Vegas and local communities to watch the tests. Radioactive Strontium and Cesium made its way into the food supply.

As terrible as the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, many cities had suffered as much or more damage and casualties from conventional weapons. The firebombings of Tokyo probably killed 5 times more people than Fat Man and Little Boy combined. Far more people died in the Rape of Nanking. The bombings of Hamburg and Dresden created nuclear levels of destruction as did the German attacks on Coventry and Belgrade.

"On Thermonuclear War" by Herman Kahn.
From its publication in 1960, this is literally the instruction book on fighting a nuclear war.

In the US military, there was a sense that war was inevitable (Stalin did nothing to make it seem otherwise) and it would be better to get it over with now while we still had an advantage and casualties could be kept in the millions. Millions may sound like a lot but probably 40 million people died in WWII. The kiloton yields of the A-bomb made them still seem practical.

The explosive power of a nuclear bomb is measured in the equivalent amount of TNT it would take to make the same bang. Atomic bombs typically range from a few tons in yield to the mid 20 kilotons. (A kiloton is a thousand tons.) That’s in the range of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. To get beyond that you use a small atomic bomb to trigger a fusion reaction for something much bigger.

Along came the hydrogen bomb with yields of hundreds of kilotons to many megatons, (millions of tons of TNT) long-range bombers, long-range missiles, and nuclear submarines. Casualty estimates climbed to several tens of millions right here in America (in addition to the obliteration of Europe) and similar losses in the Warsaw Pact. A new strategy was needed and the one we came up with was called mutually assured destruction. (MAD for short.) Both sides had the ability to destroy the other as a functioning society and we would depend on that to deter war.

MAD has worked, though at times it seemed it would fail.

In 1956 we had the Suez Crisis. England and France invaded Egypt to depose the Egyptian dictator Nasser and take back the Suez Canal which he had nationalized. Israel attacked to lift the Egyptian blockade of their port on Aqaba. The Soviet Union threatened them with war if they did not withdraw. The US refused to back the invasion and they withdrew. But…

At the same time, a series of misinterpreted moves and erroneous reports led the US to think a Soviet invasion of western Europe might just be underway and requiring an American nuclear response. President Eisenhower stayed cool and a hot war was averted.

Incidentally, Pres. Charles De Gaul of France was so peeved by our failure to support France in the Suez and by our later refusal to use nuclear bombs to save his forces at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam that he decided to make France the fourth nuclear-armed state after Britain with the
Force de frappe.

In 1960 we had just installed a ballistic missile warning radar in Thule, Greenland. Suddenly it showed a massive Soviet strike coming in. We went to full alert and the generals debated whether we should launch on warning or ride the attack out. Since Nikita Khrushchev was at the UN at the time, Eisenhower, decided to ride it out. It turns out the radar was picking up reflections off the moon as it rose over Norway.

Interesting 3 part summary of the Cuban missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This is the first one I was old enough to remember. Precipitated by President Kennedy’s ill-conceived, badly executed, and quickly aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro invited Soviet nuclear missiles into Cuba. Kennedy addressing the nation and presenting the possibility of nuclear war. Stockpiling food and water and improvising fallout shelters. Multiple mix-ups and provocations that could have gone nuclear. Khrushchev and Kennedy kept their wits about them despite pressure from advisors and military commanders to strike first. Kennedy’s advisors’ belief was that war was inevitable and we should have it now while we have a big advantage in weapons.

In the end we pulled our missiles from Turkey in exchange for getting the nukes out of Cuba.

Under Kennedy, the defense budget swelled to over 50% of the total federal budget. Today it is about 16%.

Improvised basement shelter. Used food, water, dirt, books, and anything else heavy to maximize shielding.

The 60s-70s also saw the widespread inventory and stocking of fallout shelters across the country. I remember vividly when a lady from the National Fallout Shelter Survey came to our rural house. Every home and structure in the US was to be surveyed and evaluated for its fallout protection factor (PF). Single-family residences would be given an estimate of their protection factor and instructions given for improving that number and plans for stand-alone fallout shelters if that was desired.

Plans for stand-alone underground shelters would all stand up to a fair amount of blast pressure but the great emphasis was placed on fallout protection. The theory was that it was simply too expensive for the government to provide protection against direct weapons effects close to major targets. But if you happened to be a few miles from ground zero, fallout would be your big worry.

There were plans for crisis relocation of city populations. It proved to be impractical without many days of advance warning.


If you looked at radios from the 50s and 60s, they all had dials marked with a triangle at two AM frequencies. In order to prevent Soviet bombers from using radio stations to home in on targets, all radio stations would switch to those frequencies and take quick turns transmitting. The location transmitting at any given time would change so frequently that no one station could be used to home in on. The system was called CONELRAD.

fallout shelter

With improvements to navigation, nobody had to use radio direction finding to find a target. That system was no longer needed and changed in 1963 to the Emergency Broadcast System. That was in turn replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert System.

Larger commercial and public structures were assigned protection factors and those higher than 40 would be stocked and marked with the familiar fallout shelter sign which would usually also feature a capacity.

Our basement had an unmodified PF of 20, which was pretty good. With only a little effort it could be improved to 40 or even 100. Two weeks’ supply of food and water was considered the minimum. We took it seriously.

Now, if COVID-19 quarantine was driving you crazy, imagine two weeks or more of hanging out just in your basement or a mid-level floor in a tall building, perhaps with a frightened family.. Or worse, a little buried shelter too low to fully stand up in and with only 12 square feet per occupant. That is what some areas might have to do to survive the fallout from a nuclear attack.

family shelter

Nuclear testing… The US tested over 500 nuclear bombs above ground. Most of them were in Nevada. When they were announced they drew in flocks of tourists. The big tests (up to 15 megatons) were used to vaporize islands in the Pacific. One of them, Castle Bravo, produced 3 times the expected yield. Since it was exploded on the ground, the unexpectedly high levels of fallout produced irradiated parts of the Marshall Islands which had to be evacuated and the Japanese fishing vessel, the not-so-lucky Lucky Dragon 5.

Everybody knows about the Nevada and Pacific test sites and the Trinity test in New Mexico but few people realize we tested them in the south Atlantic. Other underground locations were in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado (Project Plowshare). And Mississippi (Vela Uniform). And Alaska (Cannikin).

The Soviets did the same thing, only bigger. The Tsar Bomba detonated on the island of Severny Island had a yield of 50 megatons and obliterated a village 55 miles away. It was actually a very clean bomb with little long term radioactivity released. By packing it with U-238 instead of lead the yield would have doubled and it would have been very dirty indeed.

China joined the nuclear club in 1964. There is a propaganda film of Chinese cavalry charging the nuclear test site shortly after detonation. The horses are wearing gas masks. One can only wonder what was going thru the commanders’ minds.

Israel probably joined it soon after the 1967 war. Spool forward a bit to the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Israel appears to be losing. Thirteen missiles and 8 jets fighters with nuclear bombs are armed and ready to go. The IDF miraculously turned the tide of battle, so the nukes never flew. The US discovered the capability only because of an SR-71 flyover.

South Africa got the bomb at the same time as Israel. It is believed they cooperated and that the fissionable material came from France. A US satellite picked up what looked like a test in the Indian Ocean. South Africa disarmed decades later after the end to apartheid and acceptance into polite society. It is the only nuclear-armed state ever to do so.

As time went on, India joined the club. China had invaded and taken Tibet. Then during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while the US attention was elsewhere it invaded India and took a large piece of Kashmir Province. India saw that there wasn’t much it could do to stop China at the time and launched its own nuclear program.

The most recent additions to the nuclear club are Pakistan and then North Korea. The bar to entry has gotten pretty low and nuclear bombs are 75 year old technology.

Now it starts to get scary. The early 1980s was the peak of nuclear strength for both the US and the USSR. Probably 40-50 thousand nuclear bombs on each side ranging from the man-portable Davy Crocket, a bit bigger than a football and with a yield of a few tons of TNT and launched from an oversized bazooka to 20+ megaton bombs that could be dropped from a B-52 bomber or launched atop a Soviet SS-18 missile.

Some Generals still thought of nuclear bombs as just another battlefield weapon.

There were millions of Warsaw Pact (USSR plus its eastern European puppet states) soldiers in eastern Europe. There were hundreds of thousands of Americans in western Europe plus the rest of NATO forces. Millions more Chinese looking at S.Korea, Japan, The Philippines, India, and mostly Taiwan. The West wasn’t willing to spend the money and draft the bodies to match them. The plan was to use tactical nuclear weapons to deter an attack. We would fight the Commies to the last dead German (or Korean) and hope nobody started bombing any nuclear state’s homeland.

The Soviets had thousands of deliverable warheads, mostly on 1380+ ICBMs, (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) on high alert. They believed in going big. A few of them were city crackers of 25 MT yield. Others were MIRVed with 3 to 10 warheads of megaton range yield. All were based in hardened silos requiring a near hit by another nuclear bomb to take out. The Soviets had a few bombers and some ballistic missile subs to add to the mix.

Aging B-52 bomber. Still, the plane is in use even today

America had fewer ICBMs and our warheads were much smaller. Only 170 kilotons for the most part and MIRVed 3 to a missile. Missile boats with larger numbers of even smaller warheads. There were a few Titan II missiles with 9 megaton yields and some aging bombers with multi-megaton gravity bombs. In terms of “throw weight” we were badly outclassed. What we had instead was accuracy. When you can drop a smaller bomb within a couple hundred yards of a silo you can take it out. A big bomb that misses by a mile does nothing but raise (radioactive) dust.

Our small but extremely reliable and accurate weapons looked (to the Russians) like they were designed to do one thing: Take out the Soviet silos in a first strike and prevent a Soviet return strike. Nobody believed their big 1950s era turboprop bombers had a chance to get thru to a target and their subs spent 90% of their time in dry-dock. They did not believe they could ride out an attack and still cause “unacceptable” damage to the US.

Titan missile test launch from silo.

It was paranoid nonsense of course. We believed in MAD. President after President had stated that if you invade close allies and we cannot stop you conventionally, only then will we go nuclear. The assumption was that the thought of going nuclear would, therefore, stop any large scale aggression. Capitalists would not willingly kill the goose that laid the golden egg – and themselves as well.

A “no first use” doctrine would simply mean we surrendered Europe. As mentioned before, the West was not about to put so much cash and so many bodies into military preparations as to defeat the Russian bear. When we went to voluntary military service after Vietnam, the active-duty army quickly shrank to 790,000 and is down to about 450,000 today.

But paranoid nonsense pretty much defined the Soviet leadership which was still reliving the tragedy of the German invasion of WWII. And WWI. And Napoleon. Along came the “Star Wars” antimissile program and Reagan’s new emphasis on civil defense and their worst fears looked like they were coming true. They also knew their own country was slowly crumbling from within. Feeling obligated to spend to keep up with the Americans was destroying them.

So along comes our next close call. In 1979, NORAD had a little glitch. Somehow a training program got plugged in as a real nuclear attack. A first strike exactly as we had expected one would look like showed up on their screens. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was notified that President Carter had 3-7 minutes to order a retaliatory strike before impact. Once again, we decided to wait it out. There were no nuclear detonations. This event inspired the movie “War Games.”

But wait… The Soviets have eyes on us as well. They would almost certainly have picked up all the chatter this would have generated. They have satellites and they have spies. Our response to the computer glitch would not have gone unnoticed. I wonder what they were thinking?

Next up we have September 1983. It is a week after the Soviets shot down a South Korean civilian 747 airliner without warning that strayed into their territory. A colonel on duty at the Soviet equivalent of NORAD saw what appeared to be a launch from a US missile silo. Then another and then another. The colonel decided this could not be a real attack and disobeyed his orders to relay any such information to his superiors immediately. Instead, he waited until he could confirm it was a mistake. And then he had to convince them of what he knew. Paranoia ran deep in the Soviet High command.

Remember I said that the Soviet Union was crumbling? That applied to its military as well. Their early warning satellites were few and glitchy. And this was just a glitch. It had picked up sunshine reflecting off lakes as the heat of rocket plumes. There were too few of them to make a logical attack pattern.

Finally, we come to the scariest incident of them all, Able Archer. We came very close to nuclear war, perhaps closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of dozens to hundreds of nuclear bombs flying it would be tens of thousands each. All because of a diplomatic SNAFU.

Able Archer 1983 was an exercise intended to simulate a Soviet invasion of western Europe from first contact, to allied forces in complete retreat, to launching nuclear strikes to stop the Red Army advance.

The Soviet leadership, led by Leonid Brezhnev, had an intense dislike for Reagan. They thought of him as a warmonger, looking to destroy them. Reagan was introducing the Pershing II missile (and lots of cruise missiles) and based it in Europe, close enough to take out Moscow in 15 minutes. Ultimately the whole point of the exercise was to give us leverage to negotiate the Soviets into pulling their much larger and more numerous SS-20s out of Eastern Europe. (Hmm… Didn’t something like that happen 20 years earlier?) They were also very much afraid that the “Star Wars” initiative might actually work.

One fine day Soviet intelligence wakes up to a lot of chatter. They took it as a sign that we were about to launch a nuclear attack. Actually, it was Britain complaining to the US that we hadn’t notified them of our invasion of Grenada, a British Commonwealth member. Marxists who had just taken over locked up a bunch of tourists from the US so we used it as an excuse to kick the Marxists out. To the Soviets, it seemed obviously a practice run for a much bigger attack.

Some days later, after notifying the Soviets, NATO launched Able Archer 1983. Able Archer was an annual wargame. No reason to freak out, right?.

Every year we went thru similar motions but this year the Soviets were even more paranoid than usual. Massive amounts of radio traffic were intercepted. Most of it was encrypted but it was so intense it had to be something serious. Armies were on the move. Navies put to sea. Air forces on high alert. Missiles being readied.

The Soviets never saw it coming because it wasn’t. They were expecting it so much they tweaked the information in their heads until it seemed like an attack. There was an active program (Project RYAN) to find hints of a western surprise attack and if you look for something hard enough you usually find it whether it is there or not. (Wearing “war-goggles,” you might say.) So the entire Soviet military went on high alert. Real armies started to move. Real bombers scrambled. Real missiles were readied for launch. Real nuclear subs went to attack positions.

Soviet spies on the ground in Europe reported nothing unusual. It was assumed by Soviet high command that either the agents were compromised or the preparations were too clandestine to be seen. They did not trust their own early warning systems to alert them in the event of an attack.

When we go to a war game, the movement of a division of soldiers is often represented by a few trucks and a radio or maybe a platoon of tanks with street treads to call in when they got to their assigned location. Sending tens of thousands of troops and thousands of tanks would be very expensive and really mess up the local economy and tie up all the infrastructure. Squadrons of jets launching to fight off the attackers are really a few individual aircraft taking off from different fields and flying to an intercept point and then returning. Missiles never leave their storage sites. Crews just go thru the verbal checklist. A few ships put out to sea but most never leave port.

A Soviet spy who could see there was nothing going on became worried that what he was saying wasn’t getting through to high command. Or it was being ignored. He contacted an agent in MI-5 and let him know what was going on back home. Thankfully the information was confirmed and relayed thru backchannels and NATO didn’t go on alert because of all the Soviet activity. Able Archer ended, the Soviets cooled off, and we avoided the end of civilization.

Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did…During my first years in Washington, I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike…Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us. – Ronald Reagan

Reagan was so shocked at how easily miscalculation could have led to war that it led to negotiations for the INF Treaty which was signed in 1988 by him and the next Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviets were able to shut down a lot of old systems that were prone to failure and no longer needed to play catch-up. Neither side would be basing strategic nuclear weapons on the other’s doorstep.

Interestingly, Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader not to have grown up in WWII. That may have made it more possible for him to sign such treaties. Reagan and his VP George Bush were the last of the American WWII generation to become president.

Boris Yeltsin takes command of Russia

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was serious concern about who controlled the keys to launch nuclear weapons. Gorbachev held these of course but the coup leaders wanted them. They were good enough to not to torture him or threaten his wife and didn’t get them. One nuclear submarine put to sea and refused to obey orders to ready for launch. Instead they drank the ship’s supply of vodka and stayed drunk thru the entire affair.

There was a very real chance of civil war and we don’t want to see that in a nuclear armed state. The Army and the Navy endorsed the coup. The Air Force opposed it, as did Boris Yeltsin and probably 200 million Soviet citizens. The coup failed but the USSR was now so weak it could no longer hold together. The rest is history.

But wait… there’s more!

We aren’t done with the threat of nuclear war yet. To the best of our knowledge, no major nuclear power is at a high level of readiness. The US alert level is at DEFCON 5, as relaxed as it gets. We abandoned the launch-on-warning policy back in 1979 and have riding out the attack as official policy.

That doesn’t mean we couldn’t spool up quickly should a crisis happen. Other countries could spool up their alert level but such things take time and would be impossible to conceal.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">These are obviously only the near misses we know about. There are probably others we do not and will never know. Revealing them would show weaknesses in a country's defenses that they might not want us to know.These are obviously only the near misses we know about. There are probably others we do not and will never know. Revealing them would show weaknesses in a country’s defenses that they might not want us to know.


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