Author’s Note: Hello admissions committees! I realized that this page has no actual identifying information on it, so I’m leaving this note to assure you that the website does in fact belong to AJ (Albion James) Fitzgerald.
In November of 1975, H.C. Dudley, a professor of radiation physics at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, published an article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled ‘The Ultimate Catastrophe.’  Dudley, though perhaps on the wrong side of governmental secrecy regarding nuclear weapons thought, was challenging core assumptions that pervaded decades of simulation, modelling, and war gaming of nuclear conflict.
From a weapons standpoint, the US military initially saw Fat Man and Little Boy as big bombs—the biggest ever, a way to fit one thousand planes worth of boom into a single B-29. Officials were at first reluctant to admit to lethal contingencies. In a letter to General Groves dated August 25, 1945, one US Lt. Col said of reports that people were “doomed to die of radioactivity burns”: “I think it’s good propaganda. The thing is these people got good and burned—good thermal burns.”[2-a] The discovery of radioactive tuna sourced from Japan in 1954 was hidden from Japanese diplomats. [2-b] Simulated damage in early explosion scenarios were sometimes limited to blast effects, ignoring the possibility of fallout, firestorms, etc. These refusals of admission culminated in the design of war plans that some thinkers would go on to call ‘overkill.’ [2-d]
Dudley’s article suggested that the end of the world would not come in the manner imagined in the NESC’s formerly annual report: thousands of nuclear warheads raining down from every direction and every angle in the sky. Instead, Dudley’s apocalypse could be the consequence of a single bomb. In only a few pages he outlined scenarios of immediate, total destruction: igniting nitrogen in the atmosphere, runaway hydrogen fusion in the oceans, self-sustaining fireballs melting their way to the center of the Earth. These postulations seemed grounded in a sort of plausible but ultimately (and admittedly) unfounded physical logic. He points to an off-record origin at the Manhattan project—worries whispered between scientists, Fermi’s famous bet at the Trinity test—but no actual published research, because such research, if it did exist, would be classified.
The divergence of Dudley’s proposed apocalypses are significant because they are final, immediate, and unsurvivable. They leave no room for retaliation (there would be no one to retaliate against), or recovery, or adaptation to a new world riddled with fallout-induced cancers and hereditary mutations. There is no post-apocalypse in these scenarios. This absence, and the probabilistic way the scenarios are introduced, pre-empt both narrative and speculative modelling. Any bomb might be the bomb, even a well-controlled nuclear test. There would be no story of humanity deciding to destroy itself, and there would certainly be no story of what comes next.
Dudley’s challenge was heard quickly, and his imagination made material within US nuclear policy and research. On December 23 of the same year, Roger Batzel, then director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, sent a letter to the Deputy Director of Military Application at the U.S. Energy R&D Administration.  The letter responded to a request to address Dudley’s published scenarios. Batzel’s letter was definitive in its retort, and its tone impatient, even annoyed. If all the hydrogen in the oceans was deuterium, even with thermonuclear weapons several times more powerful than thought possible, even at temperatures impossible to attain on Earth, Batzel insisted it would take more than one bomb to blow up the planet.
SIOP, NESC Reports and War Gaming
The Net Evaluation Sub-Committee was formed during the Eisenhower administration to provide yearly reports on the projected outcome of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. [2-e] These reports measured the survivability of various Soviet attack scenarios in terms of both population loss and damage to crucial infrastructure: military and government command, housing, transportation systems, petroleum refining capacity, food stores, industrial and agricultural capacity, and ‘military posture.’
A summary of the 1957 report describes the particulars of a surprise Soviet attack in fine detail: multi-megaton devices are smuggled into the Soviet Embassy in DC and the Soviet United Nations Delegation offices in New York City. [2-f] Those initial detonations are followed by submarine-launched missiles and a large fleet of Soviet bombers as the US scrambles to prepare a counterattack.
The results of this attack are devastating to both nations. Nearly 100 million casualties (85 million fatalities) in the United States, or 54% of the projected population in 1960. The President, all legal successors, and most of Congress are killed. (14) With communication and transport systems largely destroyed, it would become difficult to distribute remaining food stores to the surviving population. The efficacy of a US counterstrike is determined to be largely dependent on the scope of its early-warning and air defense systems. Soviet fatalities are estimated at 81 million, though their infrastructure seems to fare somewhat better. (23)
Despite these horrifying numbers, some theorists of nuclear war remained optimistic. Herman Kahn, described by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi as “a systems analyst at the Rand Corporation” insisted throughout decades of published work that “the survivors would not envy the dead.” [5, p. 10] [4-a, 4-c] Ghamari-Tabrizi described Kahn as a “buoyant man,” one who was “especially good at imagining survival against unbearable odds, and at telling stories that detailed the life or death of the nation.” [5, p. 10]
In the manner of a trained physicist, Kahn created simplified analogues to the US-Soviet conflict in order to study an array of unpredictable contingencies. In a 1957 Rand manuscript, simply titled Game Theory, he presents a series of deterrence games that feature two neighbors who each have a button connected to a pile of TNT in the other’s house, and a bomb-proof shelter in the basement. [4-c] In Kahn’s words, the shelter is a crucial introduction to the deterrence game because “the existence of the cellar makes the delivery of an ultimatum credible.” [4-c, p. 62] There can be no pre-empting an attack in the case of such an ultimatum, because your opponent is likely already bunkered in their cellar. In an earlier version of the game, where neither player owns a cellar, the issuance of such an ultimatum is effective suicide. Your opponent would respond by pressing the button immediately. In this way the likelihood of nuclear exchange between two self-interested parties is directly related to how firmly the aggressor believes in his own ability to survive. It has less to do with the reality of the cellar’s effectiveness—that cannot be known with certainty until it’s been tested.
War gaming like Kahn’s and the annual NESC reports would become crucial in the formulation and subsequent revision of the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP), an instrument of US nuclear policy that outlined clear procedures for retaliation and targeting in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack. SIOP would outlive multiple presidential administrations, becoming a sort of self-sustaining entity of foreign policy seemingly immune to the disruptions of elected officials. The scale of targeting was at first massive, leading later Presidents to seek alternative plans that provided more options that were more finely tuned to nuanced scenarios. In 1973 Kissinger said in a memo to Nixon of newly proposed alternate plan: “It provides an unprecedented opportunity to gain a measure of control over a vital area of national security policy, which for too long, has been unresponsive to Presidential direction.” [2-g, p.4]
False Alarm? When Simulation Meets Reality
During the night of November 9, 1979, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by an urgent phone call. The Soviets had launched an all-out surprise attack. Over 2,000 nuclear weapons were headed toward the US. Brzezinski had only a few minutes to decide a course of retaliation. [2-h]
Brzezinski decided to wait for confirmation. He did not wake his wife as he waited. For him during those seven minutes, the nightmare scenario written and rewritten by decades of cold war was material. He expected the world to end within an hour. [2-h]
But the doomsday scenario Brzezinski thought was real must have been instantly recognizable. Despite the insistence of thinkers like Kahn that war gaming was not predictive but instead an exploration of contingencies, the Soviet’s all-out attack was the one that had played out year after year in NESC reports and SIOP revisions.
The resemblance turned out to be more than uncanny. The false alarm was the fault of a test program that had been mistakenly loaded into a live NORAD warning computer. The scenario was familiar precisely because it was fiction, and the credibility lent by such familiarity perhaps nearly started a war. There is an old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case the strange messiness of a real attack may actually have been harder to believe.
Planes, including the US airborne command center (though without the President on board), were launched in response to the NORAD false alarm. But ultimately the hoax was realized, and the bombers stood down. [2-h] The event was a horrifying conflation of simulation, procedure and real life. It blurred the lines between those things, turned the hypotheticals of the NESC reports into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Other false alarms were to follow, and the American military’s jumpiness (understandably) provoked icy reprisals from Soviet diplomats. [2-h] And adviser to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance once said in 1979: “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence. There is a complacency about handling them that disturbs me.” [2-n] Documents regarding these incidents are often heavily redacted, perhaps due to the possibly embarrassing nature of the contents. One four-page document that was declassified had all but the first sentence redacted: “During the last two weeks we have had three false missile warning incidents.” [2-l]
The thing about retaliation (in contrast to defense systems) is: once bombs are actually in the air, what is the point? The simulation of retaliation serves a purpose: planning and established procedure as deterrence, a way to enforce nuclear stalemate. But once the war heads are en route, that function is lost. It became only an exercise in revenge, one which needs to be decided upon or not by somebody, a person with emotions and a set of personal tendencies. In the face of imminent attack, the response crafted by decades of SIOP planning, devoid of its deterrent function, had arguably become impotent.
Nuclear Winter & Fictions of the Underground
Eight years to the day after Roger Batzel’s letter regarding ‘The Ultimate Catastrophe,’ Carl Sagan attached his name to a paper published in Science titled ‘Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.’  The lead author was R.P. Turco, an atmospheric scientist who worked at R&D Associates. The blandly named defense contractor was founded by Albert Latter, a nuclear physicist and Rand defector, in 1971. 
The first paragraph of Turco and Sagan’s paper declared:
Most of the world’s population could probably survive the initial nuclear exchange and would inherit the postwar environment. Accordingly, the longer-term and global-scale aftereffects of nuclear war might prove to be as important as the immediate consequences of the war. (1283)
The paper goes on to outline eighteen nuclear war scenarios, ranging from a a base case 5,000 MT exchange that looks like a scenario pulled straight from the NESC reports, to a 25,000 MT super war set in a very dark future.
Consequences of the base case nuclear exchange include widespread fallout and other toxic materials, damage to the ozone layer, interruption of photosynthesis due to smoke blocking out the sun [phrasing], and subfreezing global temperatures. They emphasize that such effects might be achieved with much smaller exchanges, in terms of total energy yield in megatons:
Unexpectedly, less than 1 percent of the existing strategic arsenals, if targeted on cities, could produce optical (and climatic) disturbances much larger than those previously associated with a massive nuclear exchange of ~ 10,000 MT. (1286)
But there was a reason for titling the paper ‘nuclear winter.’ The authors reassure that none of the scenarios they studied led to permanent consequences such as a nuclear ice age. (1290) The simulations describe something akin to a single season (albeit a long one). In most modelled scenarios ambient surface temperatures return nearly to their pre-war averages within a year’s time, thanks to the incredible heat reservoir that is the Earth’s oceans, and the eventual dispersal of smoke from the upper troposphere and stratosphere.
The timescale and geographic scope introduced by Turco’s paper is crucial. Explosion is an instantaneous death. Radiation poisoning can take days or weeks to kill you. Genetic defects caused by nuclear fallout might not show up until two generations hence. But Turco’s nuclear winter, like any other winter, is finite and comes with the promise of spring, a sort of reset button. It can be prepared for and survived in a way that hearkens back to narratives of exploration in the ‘new world,’ of expanding the American frontier.
This hope for rebirth is perhaps reminiscent of Herman Kahn’s insistence upon the ability of survivors to rebuild. In Thinking about the Unthinkable, Kahn says: “In order to argue that society would reorganize itself after an attack, one must have faith in the ability of people to improvise, to meet emergencies with some intelligence and energy. Faith of this kind is not unreasonable.” (4-b, 98)
This faith in survival, not unlike the faith of Kahn’s stick figures in their bomb cellars, creates a sort of tightrope between the luxury of carefulness and the tragedy of over-defensiveness. In Thinking about the Unthinkable, Kahn says first, “If a strategic weapons system can accept the enemy’s attack and still hit back effectively, the decision maker has time to evaluate and decide—time to be careful.” (41) But soon after that, speaking of the uneasy tension that arises from overly defensive posturing: “This type of situation might also set in motion a disastrous “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in much the same way that hostility often breeds hostility.” 42
Kahn died shortly before the publication of Turco’s nuclear winter paper. An editor notes in his last book, Thinking about the Unthinkable in the 1980s:
If the nuclear-winter theory turns out to be correct, it would have implications for some of the scenarios discussed in this book but would not appear to be significant for many of the limited or controlled war scenarios discussed here. We cannot suggest how Mr. Kahn would have modified the relevant parts of his analysis to accommodate this new threat, except to say that he surely would have taken any new factors into account. (30)
But it seems to me the addition of a new, global wrinkle to the survivors’ previously local post-war world very well may have altered the modelling of Kahn’s deterrence games. The Soviet Union and United States shared the northern hemisphere, and so in some way the notion of nuclear reduces the conflict to Kahn’s very first deterrence game, one in which two players sit with a bomb in between them, each with his hand on a button. Of this game Kahn remarks: “Now, what is the trick in playing a game like this. Well, the obvious thing is not to get into this game.” [4-d, p. 56] The nuclear winter scenario may be survivable in a strict sense, but the expansion of the catastrophe from local to global scales changes the notion of survivability as it relates to the self, an important distinction in the game of nuclear deterrence.
Fred Kaplan, in a book chapter titled ‘Shelter Mania,’ described the circumstances by which personal fall-out shelters became fashionable in the 1960s.  In September 1961, an article titled ‘You Could Be Among the 97% to Survive if You Follow the Advice in These Pages’ appeared in Life magazine, preceded by a letter from the president urging the public to heed its contents. (309-310) Fallout shelters became fashionable with both the public and the Pentagon, which at one point wanted to distributed a pamphlet to every home in America that “White House staffers caustically referred to as ‘Fallout is Good for You.’” (310-11) The pamphlet promoted a “vision of everyone coming out of his shelter and returning to previous circumstances,” with one section titled ‘Shelter Living Will Be As Healthy as You Make It.’ (311) According to Kaplan:
Several White House critics were also disturbed by the class bias that pervaded the pamphlet… Illustrations showed office buildings and suburban homes with large basements and gardens—but no tenements or apartment buildings in cities, no workers in factories. One drawing portrayed a family evacuating themselves out to sea in a cabin cruiser. (311)
The severity of the class divide was not only reinforced in imagery of the present’s construction of shelter, but also in the popular imagination of a post-war future:
The New York Times described incidents of people in the suburbs constructing shelters clandestinely so that neighbors won’t try to invade the shelter in the vent of a nuclear attack. Civil-defense coordinators in Nevada and in Riverside County, CA, warned their citizens to arm themselves to repel H-bomb refugees from nearby Los Angeles. The Reverend L.C. McHugh, a columnist for the Catholic magazine America, assured readers that it was ethically permissible to shoot your neighbors if they tried to break into your fallout shelter. (312)
Herman Kahn once proposed that the country’s urban population should evacuate “two or three times a decade to bolster national resolve,” but this class-divided, underground post-war future perhaps aligns more closely to H.G. Wells imagination (The Time Machine). (314) Rather than rallying around a common cause of reconstruction, these survivors are arming to finish each other off.
The shelter fad alarmed some White House officials. According to Kaplan, “adviser Arthur Schlesinger wrote to Kennedy… the program was generating ‘a false sense of security’… that will ‘encourage these people to become reckless in their foreign policy demands and to condemn negotiation and accommodation as appeasement.’” (312)
Here again the danger in popularized narratives or survival becomes painfully apparent. The fictions found in the propagandizing of fall-out shelters, like the projection of a sort of spring that follows nuclear winter, become not unlike the belief held by the man standing atop a skyscraper that he can fly.
What to make of all this
The appeal of the post-nuclear environment as a setting for narrative, wherever it is found, seems hinged on an incredible optimism. There is a sort of enthusiasm that underwrites narrative explorations of nuclear catastrophe that I find both chilling and surprisingly sensible. For Herman Kahn this manifests in a restrained but celebratory rhetoric that praises the spirit of the surviving subject: “It would not surprise me if the overwhelming majority of the survivors devoted themselves with a somewhat fanatic intensity to the task of rebuilding what was destroyed.” [4-a, 90]
In The World Set Free, H.G. Wells’ brand of optimism is distilled into the imagination of a utopian world government with the power and scale to enforce world peace. Dreams of a global, science-entrenched peace-keeping organization would later pop up in a US War Department memorandum. The following excerpt is from a memo addressed to the Secretary of War, dated September 30, 1944:
In order to meet the unique situation created by the development of this new art we would propose that free interchange of all scientific information on this subject be established under the auspices of an international office deriving its power from whatever association of nations is developed at the close of the present war. We would propose further that as soon as practical the technical staff of this office be given free access in all countries not only to the scientific laboratories where such work is contained, but to the military establishments as well. We realize there will be great resistance to this measure, but believe the hazards to the future of the world are sufficiently great to warrant this attempt. If accurate information were available as to the development of these atomic bombs in each country, public opinion would have true information about the status of the armament situation. Under these conditions there is reason to hope that the weapons would never be employed and indeed that the existence of these weapons might decrease the chance of another major war.” [2-i, pp. 2-3]
In any case, these optimistic narratives seem founded upon a notion of forest fire politics/economics, a notion that the catastrophic destruction of an existing world order has the potential to reveal something that previously lurked beneath the surface, some kernel of truth about humanity that had been overwritten by centuries of societal inertia. The destruction of what came before, no matter how tragic, opens possibility for a radically diverged future, one that could be so much worse, or better. It is that special optimism, the insistence that survivors would not envy the dead, which zooms in on the latter.
Of course, this optimism relies on a kind of faith that the human condition is infallibly resilient, and that catastrophe is somehow reversible. A better future, any future, cannot be built if no one emerges from the shelters underground, or if human reproductive capacity is decimated by radiation-induced mutation.
But I believe the faith in survivability that enables the chilling enthusiasm that underwrites simulations of nuclear catastrophe goes further than that. More than the survival of humanity, the preservation of a human genetic code, there is a certain faith placed in the survival of the self. It is a delusion of invincibility entertained by the living, the already-survived. It is the delusion held by Herman Kahn’s hypothetical stick figures, who ultimately must trust that their bombs are big enough and cellars strong enough to play the game. It is perhaps this delusion that is the most dangerous, the one that transforms simulations and fictions of survival into self-fulfilling prophecies of destruction.
Very soon after stumbling into the Nuclear Security Archive’s website, I realized that I had bitten off much more than could be chewed in only a few weeks. I hope to return to the project in the coming months, though I’m not yet sure what form it will take.
My original outline for this paper included an additional section investigating nuclear terrorism scenarios as presented in US military exercises. Simulations of this brand of nuclear catastrophe have survived through the current day as fears of all-out nuclear war subsided with the end of the Cold War. One exercise titled “Mighty Derringer” featured terrorists based in a fictional border country of the United States named Montrev that has some suspicious similarities to real-life Mexico. The military response was a failure in the exercise: a nuclear device wound up being detonated in the heart of Indianapolis. [2-j]
Also during my time with the archive I stumbled upon several films produced by the Air Force regarding nuclear catastrophe. [2-k] Some fiction, some a speculative mode of: nuclear war—what’s next?
Late in my research I came across the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal of nuclear thought founded by members of the Manhattan project. I specifically sought it out to find a copy of the H.C. Dudley article mentioned in the introduction, but I believe the back logs of that publication might yield a treasure trove of relevant material.
Turco’s nuclear winter paper came much later than most of the declassified material I worked with from the archive. I was only really able to address it in isolation, but going forward I would like to more thoroughly examine the ripples directly caused by its publication.
Finally, in focusing so heavily on ‘nonfictions’ of the post war period, this paper did a great disservice to the kind of speculation done by literature. Going forward I would like the chance to more widely examine the interplay between narratives in both US internal documents and published fiction. I am especially interested in stories that challenge strictly optimistic ideas of survivability, and how such fictions are able to construct narrative within such a limiting frame. And then everybody died is a singular, convergent ending. Frankly, it’s not a very good one, either.
One text that immediately jumps to mind is a Ray Bradbury story titled There Will Come Soft Rains.  It details the struggles of a fully automated house in the wake of a nuclear disaster. The occupants were killed instantly while playing in the back yard—we get to see their outlines cast in the soot that covers the outside wall—but the house does not cease any of its domestic tasks. It makes breakfast, cleans the dishes, and even reads poetry for its missing owners.
The only living creature that appears in the story is the family dog, which promptly dies on the kitchen floor. Its body is swept away by an army of robot cleaning-mice, and tossed into the furnace downstairs.
But even in the face of such startling absence, the story’s narrative is constructed via analogy to a human subject. The struggle between house and the fire that ultimately destroys it is described in heavily personified language. The house performs not only a fear of death, but a visceral struggle to continue living.
Meanwhile, Herman Kahn’s penchant for analogy often leads to moments of absurdity nestled within the texts of his analysis. In On Thermonuclear War he points out that a destruction of the major US urban centers would destroy about half the nation’s wealth, and a third of its population. But “a country like the United States can about double its GNP every fifteen to twenty years,” and therefore recovery would likely not be a century-long project (76) He anticipates a response: “This statement strikes most people as being very naïve. After all, they point out, a young boy may double his size in ten years but if you cut him in half he does not make up for the loss…” (77) He was in particular opposition to this perception of the nation as a living organism, with its various industries serving as vital organs. “The analogy seems to be completely wrong as far as long-term recuperation is concerned. The most important difference is that the economy is even more flexible than a salamander…” (77)
I am interested in investigating these analogies between living and unliving to better understand how they factor into narratives of survivability or destruction, and what that in turn means for the implementation of war policy.
SOURCES AND RELATED INFORMATION
 ‘The Ultimate Catastrophe’ by H.C. Dudley. Published in the November 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
 The Nuclear Security Archive hosted by George Washington University is an incredibly well-managed resource. This research would have taken months longer were it not for their carefully curated ‘briefing books,’ and document summaries. I have provided direct links to primary documents hosted by the archive when possible. The document names below are reproduced exactly from the archive’s briefing books for easy google searching. Page numbers refer to listed page when available, PDF page when not.
[a] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation Between General Groves and Lt. Col. Rea, Oak Ridge Hospital, 9:00 a.m., August 28, 1945, Top Secret
[b] State Department Memorandum of Conversation, “Radioactive Tuna,” 6 July 1954, Confidential
[d] Letter from Captain John H. Morse, Special Assistant to the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, to Lewis Strauss, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, 14 February 1957, Secret
[e] This briefing book contains links to several NESC reports.
[f] “Summary and Conclusions,” 1957 Report of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, National Security Council, 15 November 1957, Top Secret, Excised Copy
[g] Memorandum to Dr. Kissinger from Philip Odeen, NSC Staff, “Secretary Laird’s Memo to the President Dated December 26, 1972 Proposing Changes in US Strategic Policy,” 5 January 1973, Top Secret, excerpts. This file contains the original memo to Kissinger as well as his subsequent forward to the president.
[h] “The 3 A.M. Phone Call” Here I cited the summary provided at the top of the briefing book.
[i] Memorandum from Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant, Office of Scientific Research and Development, to Secretary of War, September 30, 1944, Top Secret\
[j] Briefing book on the Mighty Derringer exercise.
[k] Separate pages for both nonfiction and fiction films.
[l] Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to President Carter, “False Missile Alert,” 7 June 1980, Top Secret, excised copy
[n] Marshal Shulman memo to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, 16 November 1979, Top Secret
 LLL Comments on the Ultimate Catastrophe
 Herman Kahn authored texts
[a] On Thermonuclear War, 1960
[b] Thinking about the Unthinkable, 1962
[c] Thinking about the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 1984
[d] Game Theory, 1957
 The Worlds of Herman Kahn, 2005
 ‘Albert L. Latter, 76, Physicist and Expert on Nuclear Arms’ by Eric Pace
Published in The New York Times, 1997.
 There Will Come Soft Rains, 1950
 The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983
 ‘Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions
R.P. Turco, O.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, J.B. Pollack, Carl Sagan
Published in the 23 December 1983 issue of Science. Volume 222, Number 4630.