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Cold War-Era Casualty Estimates Already Showed Nuclear War To Be Unwinnable

July 15, 2022 (EIRNS)—The U.S. National Security Archive released a new briefing book yesterday as part of its nuclear documentation project. This one focused on attempts, during the Cold War, to estimate what civilian casualties would result from a nuclear war. “Apprehensions over escalation risks involved with the current Ukraine war have brought the issue of potential casualties, even from possible limited Russian nuclear strikes, back to the forefront of public attention, even though averting a superpower conflict is a high White House priority,” writes National Security Archive researcher William Burr.

There were several efforts to estimate casualties from the Truman to the Carter administrations. “Examples include the landmark Harman Report from 1949 which was the first to spell out (massive) casualty projections while also predicting that resorting to nuclear weapons would not force the Kremlin to capitulate,” Burr writes. “A 1964 report to JFK approximated 134 million American and 140 million Soviet deaths from a theoretical superpower nuclear exchange. Carter administration reports on the famous PRM-10 (assessing U.S. national strategies and capabilities) candidly admitted that a nuclear war could never have a ‘winner.’ ”

“Exemplifying the catastrophic scale of the casualties was a 1967 interagency report that reported on the comparative vulnerabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union,” Burr notes.

“According to the estimate, in 1964, the Soviets could kill 48 million Americans in a preemptive attack; by 1968, with greater numbers of ICBMs in place, they would be able to kill 91 million. By contrast, the trend in Soviet fatalities was constant during the decade because the U.S. already had large strategic forces in 1964. In a U.S. retaliatory attack on Soviet cities in 1964, some 77 million would be killed. Under the same circumstances, 81 million would be killed in 1967.”

Burr reports that casualty estimates from the 1980s on, however, are still classified. “Indeed, in some instances, the Defense Department has refused to declassify estimates in reports from the 1960s and 1970s,” he says. “While NGOs have produced approximations, the degree to which official estimating continued into the post-Cold War period is unclear.”

Burr includes a discussion on how the effects of a nuclear detonation, from blast effects, to fires, to radiation and fallout were taken into account in making the estimates. According to a report published in the late 1960s, blast damage “tends to underestimate the resulting fatalities” because more deaths and injuries “would be expected to result from other effects such as direct nuclear and thermal radiation, fire storms, fallout, epidemics and starvation.”

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