On July 16th 1945, The United States successfully detonated the world’s first nuclear weapon, ushering in the Atomic age. A mere four years later, the Soviet Union acquired a bomb of its own, firing the starting pistol on a nuclear arms race that would dominate geopolitics for the next four decades.
With two hostile superpowers rapidly stockpiling the weapons, it didn’t take long for predictions of a likely – even inevitable – civilisation-destroying nuclear exchange to come to the fore. Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury predicted as much as early as 1950 in The Martian Chronicles, and the post-nuclear wasteland quickly became a sub-genre. But the fear wasn’t limited to literature: in response to the bomb a group of distinguished scientists established the ‘Doomsday Clock’, which warned of the high likelihood of a global cataclysm.
Of course, the fact that you’re reading this blog is happy proof that nuclear Armageddon never came to be. The Cold War never went hot, and the threat receded with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And not everyone believed the prospect of nuclear war to be likely. The Cold War arms race was motivated in part by the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. The idea being that the ‘unwinnable’ nature of a nuclear war between evenly-armed powers makes the chance of such a conflict – and even war in general – highly unlikely. Some proponents of the concept go so far as to advocate widespread nuclear proliferation to ensure world peace. Others question the relevance of the concept to today’s world, given the rise of stateless terror organisations and the suicide bomber.
It all raises the question: just what was the chance of a nuclear catastrophe between 1949-91? Those that said it was highly likely weren’t necessarily wrong just because it didn’t happen. It’s not impossible to flip ten heads in a row, just unlikely.
And there certainly appear to have been close calls. The political ones are relatively well-known: at one point during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet submarines were on the very edge of firing nuclear torpedoes. But the whole system relied on fallible technology, and there were multiple instances of technical errors on both sides where computers erroneously indicated enemy attacks, such as The 1983 Incident. In both cases full-scale war was only avoided thanks to the caution and quick-thinking of a single Soviet officer.
So was humanity actually relatively safe during the period, or were we incredibly lucky? Or did we effectively flip a coin? The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
What do you think? Can you put a precise number on the risk we took? These are precisely the sort of big, geopolitical questions we forecast at almanis – so get involved in the comments section and register to take part.