Policy Analysis No. 9

The Social and Economic Effects Of Nuclear War

By Arthur Katz and Sima R. Osdoby
April 21, 1982

Executive Summary

Nuclear war evokes images of mass destruction and mutilation — images so overwhelming that they normally represent the end, not the beginning, of a dialogue. Yet, the time seems ripe — indeed, some would say critical — to expand the nature and scope of the domestic dialogue about nuclear war. Based on its perception of a strategic nuclear imbalance, the administration has made a commitment to long-term expansion of U.S. strategic nuclear capabilities, including plans for a modified B-1 bomber, a version of the MX missile, and expansion of Trident submarine production. At the same time, growing public awareness and concern about nuclear proliferation and prospects for a nuclear war are manifested in the current wave of grassroots and congressional action calling for a nuclear weapons freeze and challenging federal crisis relocation plans. Unfortunately, saying that nuclear war is bad and is to be avoided is not enough.

There are significant difficulties in establishing and maintaining a dialogue about nuclear war that would enable policy-makers as well as citizens to analyze realistically the implications of our current and proposed policies, and seek to implement necessary changes. Those images of holocaust and unspeakable damage often close off debate. They are reinforced by the basic strategy of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. — deterrence, or mutually assured destruction (MAD). The object of this strategy, pursued since the 1960s, is as it states, irrevocable destruction. MAD promises that even after a surprise attack (or first strike) both adversaries would retain weapons sufficient to inflict totally unacceptable damage on the other. Therefore, an adversary would be deterred from initiating a nuclear war because of the certainty of devastating retaliation. On the other hand, technological advances producing sophisticated weapons capable of increased accuracy and targeting flexibility have created a set of confusing and expanding hypothetical versions of “controllable” or “limited” nuclear war. We therefore have to determine the credibility of scenarios that claim to be capable of producing attacks with surgically precise accuracy, permitting nations to engage in a new type of subtle, benign nuclear exchange — more an apparent extension of conventional warfare than a massive holocaust. In other words, “limited” nuclear war, at least in strategic planning terms, has crept into our vocabularies and has become “thinkable,” i.e., potentially survivable. As unobtrusively, a companion strategy of “crisis relocation” — massive evacuation of urban areas in advance of a threatened attack to reduce casualties — also has become a focus of interest because of its proposed ability to support successful “war fighting.”

The range of scenarios — from the horrifying to the arcane — has not created a common ground for public discussion. This debate needs to be reconstructed in a manner that is comprehensible to the nation. Unfortunately, the type of information normally presented is for only limited use to the public, or even to policy-makers.

The issues are generally presented in terms of comparative nuclear strength — rarely in terms of overall purpose, and especially, intended consequences. Thus, the discussion invariably focuses on relative numbers — warheads and gross destructive power (megatonnage) — and sometimes comparative technology, weapon accuracy, and survivability. While these gross measures of strength are legitimate and important aspects of the strategic debate, strategic decisions are essentially political decisions. As such, they should reflect not only their proposed effects on an adversary’s perception of national strength, but also a realistic understanding of whether these strategies will produce effects that are acceptable to the nation and its leaders.

The thesis of this paper is that the effects of nuclear war on a complex, technical/industrial society are not evaluated adequately in the development of strategic policies. If the full range of economic, social, and political effects, as well as casualty projections, of fighting various types of proposed nuclear war were to be examined realistically, our strategic goals and weapons requirements would change, in some cases significantly. To put it bluntly, the true damage of nuclear war to society has been greatly understated. This leads to certain basic questions:

— How many weapons must survive a first strike to retain capacity sufficient to deliver a crippling counterattack to an adversary?

— Are weapons requirements for effective deterrence seriously overstated or misperceived?

— Are “limited” nuclear war and its companion strategy, crisis relocation, thought to be viable nuclear strategies when they are not?

To try to answer these questions, we will look at what might happen to the United States or any other complex technological/industrial society after each of two hypothetical attacks — a “limited” or “counterforce” nuclear attack aimed at military targets and an “economic” or “countervalue” attack aimed at urban areas. The civil defense strategy of crisis relocation is also analyzed. While casualties and physical destruction will be the starting point, we will concentrate on the impact on the economic and political structures and social support mechanisms of the attacked society. While the study focuses on the U.S., there is ample reason to believe the U.S.S.R. or any other industrialized nation would suffer similar, if not worse, consequences from a nuclear attack.

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Arthur M. Katz is the author of Life After Nuclear War (1982, Ballinger and Co.), upon which this article is based. He also has served as consultant to the Joint Congressional Committee on Defense Production, for which he wrote Economic and Social Consequences of Nuclear Attacks on the United States (1974, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee). Sima R. Osdoby is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science, The Johns Hopkins University.