Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 3, 2011

The “good old days”…when a bad day meant millions dead…

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2011

I don’t mean to conjure the macabre with that headline, just to simply point out that there was a time in this nation’s history that preparing for the worst meant “nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Ruskies” that would result in millions of deaths. I think it is absolutely a good thing that a few hundred is now considered a tragedy and a few thousand actually hard to fathom for some authorities. Unfortunately I also think that those same officials have been so focused on the everyday risks that planning for the worst days, and the associated benefits of such efforts, is a lost art.

What inspired me to such dark thoughts is the recent revelation of an official U.S. Air Force movie, “The Power of Decision,” that seems to have been filmed as a training exercise to show how to calmly react to the potential end of civilization as we know it. So calmly in fact, as a colleague pointed out, smoking a cigarette while ordering a retaliatory nuclear strike on the Soviet Union is just natural.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University guesses at its purpose:

It was probably used for internal training purposes so that officers and airmen could prepare for the worst active-duty situation that they could encounter.  Perhaps the relatively unruffled style of the film’s performers was to help serve as a model for SAC officers if they ever had to follow orders that could produce a nuclear holocaust.

While hard for those of us who were born well into the nuclear age to grasp, a concept of impending nuclear destruction was not hard to grok for earlier generations:

“The Power of Decision” may be the first (and perhaps the only) U.S. government film depicting the Cold War nightmare of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict.  The U.S. Air Force produced it during 1956-1957 at the request of the Strategic Air Command.  Unseen for years and made public for the first time by the National Security Archive, the film depicts the U.S. Air Force’s implementation of war plan “Quick Strike” in response to a Soviet surprise attack against the United States and European and East Asian allies.  By the end of the film, after the Air Force launches a massive bomber-missile “double-punch,” millions of Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Japanese are dead.

Even though the U.S. “wins,” it does not seem to be much of a victory:

The United States suffered terrible losses: 60 million casualties including 20 million wounded. The industrial areas of several cities were destroyed, including New York, Detroit and Chicago. Other cities such as St. Louis, Denver and Seattle suffered severe damage and high casualties.

With the end of the Cold War, the will for domestic consideration of truly catastrophic contingencies seems to have been lost.  The worst scenarios involving nuclear weapons, biological weapons, category 5 hurricanes, and worst-case earthquakes are not normally considered by those responsible for emergency planning.  Thankfully, in my opinion, the federal government is again actively advocating for local and state authorities to plan for what FEMA leadership refers to as the “maximum of maximums.”

Both the trailer and full (one hour) movie can be watched on the website of the National Security Archive.  For both, go to: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb336/index.htm

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 3, 2011 @ 2:51 am

Note that a recent US Naval Academy graduate was discharged as CO from the military for announcing that he could not launch nuclear missiles at any enemy. Not sure who asked him, when or how, but as a former nuclear missile launch control officer I was NEVER asked the question directly “would I launch missiles if ordered”!
Execution of the SIOP and its resultant nuclear winter was not a recognized phenomenon until the early 80’s!

Comment by John

March 3, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

When I was a volunteer at the state’s EOC (it was called Civil Defense at the time), I served as the State RADEF Officer.

Being in the Mid-Atlantic, we would participate in trans- and post-attack exercises. The fallout predictions were none too pleasant to contemplate.

But we had some shelters and some (working) radiation measurement equipment and, most importantly, some people who knew how to use the information.

Today, billions of $$ later, we can’t say that.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 3, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

John! The RADEF program was terminated by FEMA Director James Lee Witt over the objections of the NSC staff. Dosimeters need periodic calibration.

Comment by John

March 3, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

I know that quite well. As little as the cal labs cost to run, it was a good value for the $ (although they would probably need a refresh of the source sets by now).

After spending a couple of billion on “domestic detection”, we have nothing left to protect the population from the consquences!


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 3, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

John! Entirely agree.

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