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Briefing the President but Keeping the Public in the Dark

Washington prepared some grim early estimates of the death and destruction that would come from a nuclear war with Russia, but kept the details secret for more than 50 years.

History's first atomic artillery shell fired, a 15-kiloton atomic test fired from a 280-mm cannon at the Frenchman's Flat, Nevada, May 25, 1953. Hundreds of high ranking Armed Forces officers and members of Congress were present. (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration / CC)

Washington prepared some grim early estimates of the death and destruction that would come from a nuclear war with Russia, but kept the details secret for more than 50 years.

Twelve million Americans would be killed outright and 60 million would be dead within a year. The federal government, with the exception of the vice president and perhaps one cabinet member, would be wiped out. Citizens would be dependent on bartering for up to a year. Widespread fires would destroy 169,000 square miles of land, a larger area than the state of California. A lethal blanket of radiation would cover up to half the nation for weeks.

There would be 41 million immediate deaths in the Soviet Union and more than 100 million people dead after one month. The Gross National Product in the USSR would be reduced by 75 percent, the government would be almost completely destroyed, there would be severe transportation problems, and medical supplies would be scarce.

This was the official, predicted outcome of a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union in the late 1950s, at a time when the U.S. military already had more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and was busily expanding its arsenal at the pace of nearly 20 new bombs a day. The grim estimate, although briefed to President Eisenhower in 1958, was kept secret by the government for more than half a century.

It was posted online in late July by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit historical research group affiliated with George Washington University, along with other previously classified documents about nuclear weapons briefings and communications involving top security officials. The Archive first requested release of some of the documents in 1993 and had to submit at least five appeals, according to William Burr, a senior analyst there who directs its nuclear history documentation project.

Official estimates of how much death and destruction would result from a major nuclear conflict were prepared annually for the president from 1957 through 1963 by a group called the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, a panel attached to the White House National Security Council and composed mainly of top military and CIA officials. But the panel’s existence, as well as its product, was long kept secret.

Notes on the 1961 briefing, one of the documents published online by the Archive, stated that “The President directed that no member in attendance at the meeting disclose even the subject of the meeting.” According to the president’s daily schedule for July 20, 1961, the briefing date, 44 people attended. There were, however, leaks about the meeting in the press, according to Burr. So the next year, according to a memorandum to the chairman of the subcommittee, only 11 people attended the briefing.

“They just wanted to keep it highly, highly secret, highly classified because they were really afraid of information about this getting out to the public,” Burr said.

A majority of the group’s reports expressed optimism that the United States would essentially “win” a nuclear war with the Soviets because fewer U.S. citizens would die and there would be less damage to its infrastructure.

The 1958 report by the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, for example, predicted more than 50 million Americans would die, nearly a third of the population, while more than 100 million Soviet Union citizens would die, more than half of the population. It nonetheless tried to look on the bright side, suggesting that “the balance of strength would be on the side of the United States” after the nuclear war, and that “the survival of the United States as a nation appears highly probable.”

“The idea is who dies a little bit less than the other guy,” said Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, the author of “Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” and a former instructor at Harvard and Georgetown universities. “It’s about comparative destruction, where ‘Okay, we lose this many people but don’t worry, they lose a lot more’ right? You should have seen the other guy. Which is such a weird way to think about the value of war in general. We might lose a third of our population but he’ll lose half of his. Great, we win.”

“This is the kind of analysis that was used at the time to justify a massive, massive, massive arsenal, this feeling of always being behind, or feeling like things could always be better for the U.S. if they had more than the Soviets,” Wellerstein added.

In some respects, the reports overestimated the impact of a nuclear exchange based on an exaggerated notion of the size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal then. The 1958 subcommittee report predicted a 1961 attack would include the detonation of 234 warheads carried to American soil on Russian ballistic missiles, yet experts now say the USSR had only 10 such missiles in 1961.

In any event, the panel’s final report in 1963, a year before it was disbanded, did not reaffirm its earlier optimism, or predict a relative victory for the United States. It said, “Neither the U.S. nor the USSR can emerge from a full nuclear exchange without suffering very severe damage and high casualties. This holds true whether the attack is initiated by the U.S. or the USSR.”

This analysis was a “more realistic assessment of the consequences of war at that time,” according to Martin Sherwin, a history professor at George Mason University who focuses on cold war politics and nuclear history.

The secretive subcommittee was disbanded in 1964, after Lyndon Johnson became president, when the process of estimating the consequences of a major nuclear exchange was removed from the White House and placed directly under Pentagon control.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote in a Dec. 1964 memo to other senior officials that while the subcommittee’s annual reports were useful in 1958, “its contribution today is marginal when compared to the battery of specific studies which have become major functions of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and DOD during the intervening years.”

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