Nuclear insanity

In the early 1980s, when the mass movement against nuclear war was at its height, a satirical poster offered light relief. Ostensibly from the US Office of Civil Defense, it listed instructions in case of nuclear attack. After five preliminary and sensible-sounding instructions, number 6 stated “Immediately upon seeing the brilliant flash of nuclear explosion, bend over and place your head firmly between your legs.” Finally, number 7: “Then kiss your ass goodbye.”

            The poster’s black humour drew on the assumption that no one would survive a nuclear strike, indeed that no one might survive a global nuclear war. That was my view too, until I started investigating more deeply, and concluded that nuclear war would not necessarily be the end, certainly not in Australia. But it would still mean catastrophic levels of death and destruction.

            By the end of the 1980s, the worldwide anti-nuclear movement had collapsed, in part due to exhaustion and loss of media interest, and in part due to the end of the Cold War and the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. But there were still thousands of nuclear weapons, held by quite a few governments. The threat hadn’t gone away, but most people had simply lost interest.

            A new book by Annie Jacobsen, titled Nuclear War: A Scenario, is an attempt to reignite concern. It is engaging, in a morbid sort of way. More on the book shortly, but first a bit about my involvement with the issues decades ago.

Nuclear war: the end?

In the early 1980s, I was working as a research assistant in applied mathematics at the Australian National University, and active in the peace movement. Also working at ANU was Des Ball, in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Des was a sort of insider dissident. He had access to military intelligence, and used it to write exposés about US bases in Australia and their role in nuclear war-fighting.

            Des challenged my assumption that nuclear war was the end, leading me on a journey towards a different conclusion. Nuclear war would be an unprecedented disaster, but most likely a significant proportion of the world’s population would survive. I wrote about my change in viewpoint in Truth Tactics.

            Des and I talked about writing a book about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia. Des would write about targeting and I would calculate the likely death toll from blast, heat and fallout. Recently I was going through my old files and discovered folders with newspaper clippings about Australia as a nuclear target, booklets about civil defence (how to increase your odds of surviving an attack), and computer programs. To calculate the likely path of fallout from nuclear strikes, I needed figures for wind speeds and directions. I contacted the Bureau of Meteorology and obtained magnetic tapes with this data, and wrote a program to extract it.

            The prime targets in Australia were the US intelligence bases at Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape, and maybe some other installations. Canberra, where I then lived, is the national capital and a possible target. Back then, one of the main demands of the Australian peace movement was to get rid of the US bases, because they were a key part of the apparatus for fighting a nuclear war. Des’s writing gave substance to the movement’s concerns. (For up-to-date information about US bases in Australia, see publications by Richard Tanter and others at the Nautilus Institute.)

Pine Gap, in central Australia

            By writing about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia, Des and I hoped to raise people’s concerns. Well, our project never went very far, I think because it was becoming bigger than I anticipated, and I had other projects. But I did develop a keen interest in the effects of nuclear war. My 1982 article “The global health effects of nuclear war” was widely read. Around that time, new research showed that smoke and dust from nuclear strikes and firestorms, lofted into the upper atmosphere, would block sunlight, leading to cold and darkness, possibly for years. This effect, called nuclear winter, could cause mass starvation. Nuclear war wasn’t going to be a fun time. We knew that already. It was with this background that I read Annie Jacobsen’s book.

A scenario

Nuclear War: A Scenario is an attempt to raise the alarm. And it does so, quite effectively, though with some problems.

Jacobsen’s scenario starts with the firing of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from North Korea.

North Korean ICBM

US satellites immediately pick up the heat signature from the missile launch and the information is sent to secure stations. Before long, it is apparent the missile is aimed at the US, at Washington DC: it’s a nuclear attack, though a rather unlikely one, with no obvious motivation. Still, it is an excellent choice for a fictional scenario.

            Jacobsen tells what happens next second by second, and then minute by minute, taking us into decision-making forums in the US and, to a lesser extent, Russia and elsewhere. In developing the scenario, Jacobsen interviewed dozens of nuclear experts, military commanders, civilian leaders and others, with the result that the sequence of events comes across as all too realistic in its technical and human detail.

Submarine-launched ballistic missile

        But even before the ICBM arrives, another target is hit. A North Korean submarine has snuck close to the California coast and launches a missile whose payload, a nuclear weapon, hits the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, causing a nuclear meltdown, releasing vast quantities of radioactivity into the environment, far more than produced by the nuclear weapon. A farmer, at a distance, uploads a video of the explosion, and panic ensues across the country.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant

            In telling the story of this imagined nuclear war, Jacobsen pauses along the way to provide “history lessons” and technical information, covering for example the development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, control systems, decision-making processes, radiation sickness, and the effects of explosions.

            The graphic horror of nuclear war comes after the one-megaton nuclear weapon in North Korea’s ICBM hits Washington DC. Jacobsen lists what is destroyed, for example the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial, and the human effects, with bodies liquefied, skin flayed and people fried alive. For example, for those not immediately incinerated, “The X-ray light of the nuclear flash burns skin off people’s bodies, leaving their extremities a shredded horror of bloody tendons and exposed bone. Wind rips the skin off people’s faces and tears away limbs. Survivors die of shock, heart attack, blood loss.” (p. 165).

            Most of the book covers the first 72 minutes. The US military launches a massive strike against North Korea, killing millions. Because US ICBMs, to reach North Korea, must travel over Russia, Russian leaders think they are under attack, and fear their missiles will be destroyed before they can be launched. To prevent being “decapitated,” they launch them in an all-out attack against the US, which returns fire.

            Meanwhile, the North Korean attack isn’t over. A nuclear bomb, contained in a satellite, explodes high over North America, generating a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that shorts out circuits over most of the continent, and electricity supplies all close down as a result. Only military communications, designed to survive EMP,  remain uninterrupted.

A few quibbles

Jacobsen’s scenario vividly shows the possibility of a nuclear attack that triggers an escalation into global nuclear war, and the horrific consequences of such a war. In giving technical and human detail — for example, the US president being whisked away from Washington DC, and heated arguments about who is in command of nuclear forces — the scenario comes across as completely credible in its specifics, as exactly what might happen.

            The scenario is mostly from the US point of view. Nearly all the experts and officials who Jacobsen interviewed are from the US (and nearly all male), so it’s not surprising that the scenario mainly gives a US point of view with the US being the target of an unprovoked attack. Yet, historically, US leaders have repeatedly considered using nuclear weapons, for example against China in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s. Furthermore, the US has been the trailblazer in developing nuclear weapons, with the Soviet Union playing catch-up and others following suit. The scenario, in contrast, paints the US primarily as the victim rather than an instigator or provocateur.

            In Jacobsen’s scenario, technological systems work remarkably well. The initial North Korean ICBM unerringly hits Washington DC with devastating consequences. The reality is that no one knows how well these weapons systems will operate in wartime because they have never been tested in battle conditions. Some missiles may fizzle or explode on launch.

Many are likely to miss their targets, exploding in the countryside with relatively few casualties. It’s also possible that some individuals involved in a nuclear crisis may decide not to escalate, but Jacobsen has all the soldiers involved following orders, from the top commanders to those tasked with firing missiles from land, sea and air.

The end?

In the scenario, the focus is on the US, Russia and Europe, all of which are pulverised as they expend their entire nuclear arsenals in the fear of having them destroyed before they can be used. Jacobsen repeatedly states or implies that this means “the end.”

  • “the end of civilization as we know it” (p. xii)
  • “… this is how it ends. With Armageddon. With civilization being destroyed.” (p. 238)
  • “Only time will tell if we humans will survive.” (p. 289) 


Jacobsen writes, “The fundamental idea behind this book is to demonstrate, in appalling detail, just how horrifying nuclear war would be.” (p. 298). In this, she undoubtedly succeeds. However, highlighting the horrors of nuclear war has never been shown to be an effective way to induce governments to give up their arsenals.

            If a nuclear winter lasts years and causes most of those who survive nuclear attacks to die of starvation, then things will be grim indeed.

            In a few sentences, Jacobsen summarises what happens in the rest of the world. “In this scenario, in all but a small region of the Southern Hemisphere (including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and parts of Paraguay), widespread famine grips the Earth.” (p. 288). She cites a study that concludes that five billion or more people might die in a nuclear-winter-induced famine. Horrific indeed, but this still leaves two or three billion alive, and they wouldn’t all be in the South Pacific and South America. Maybe India and sub-Saharan Africa?

            It so happens that this year, a study was published about post-nuclear-war survival in New Zealand. The author, Wren Green, was the leader of a team that, back in the 1980s, did an earlier study of the effects of nuclear war on New Zealand. The country isn’t likely to be attacked. It is buffered from nuclear winter effects by being in the southern hemisphere and surrounded by ocean. It has an agricultural surplus. Even so, life would be very difficult due to the major loss of imports, especially transport fuels, medicines, vehicles and electronics (including computers and phones). But a functioning society could potentially re-emerge and continue. Does New Zealand count as the survival of civilisation?

If societies were better prepared for major shocks, like economic collapse and pandemics, their capacity to recover from nuclear war would be greater.

Can you find New Zealand?

            Another quibble: Jacobsen assumes that after a nuclear attack, there will be “mayhem”: panic, chaos, a breakdown of social order.

  • “Democracy will be replaced by anarchy. Moral constructs will disappear. Murder, mayhem, and madness will prevail.” (p. 105)
  • “There is mayhem, everywhere.” (p. 171)
  • “Widespread chaos, violence, and anarchy have begun.” (p. 219)

Views about social breakdown may reflect fictional portrayals, such as the Mad Max movies and the dystopian novel and film “The Road”. However, since the 1950s, studies of actual disasters, including aerial bombing, have shown the contrary: most people behave rationally; they don’t panic, and many do what they can to help others.

Final remarks

Despite these limitations, there is much to learn from Jacobsen’s scenario. One important point is that governments have made extensive preparations for the survival of political and military leadership, but not the population: in the US, “there is no federal agency to help citizens survive a nuclear war per se.” (p. 100). In my slim collection of Australian material on civil defence, nothing is more recent than 1985.

Annie Jacobsen

            Jacobsen points to the shortcomings of the theory of deterrence, the idea that having nuclear weapons ready to use will deter attacks. She repeatedly highlights a problem: when deterrence fails, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down: the theory doesn’t work.

            Every figure Jacobsen interviewed said nuclear war would be horrific. The weird thing is that many of these figures were heavily involved in developing and maintaining nuclear arsenals. Is preparing for mass annihilation sane?

            Jacobsen doesn’t report interviewing any peace activists or peace researchers. She even says, in the scenario, that people realise “that no one did anything substantial to prevent nuclear World War III.” (p. 268). This is wrong. For decades, millions of citizens have campaigned against nuclear weapons and nuclear war. They are our best hope to prevent the sort of scenario that Jacobsen has so vividly portrayed.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Wren Green for valuable comments.

Postscript, 22 June 2024

As a courtesy, I tried to let Annie Jacobsen know about this commentary on her book. On her website, the only apparent way to make contact was through her comments page. I prepared this short comment:

Having studied the effects of nuclear war since the early 1980s, I was fascinated to read Nuclear War: A Scenario. It comes across as convincing in its details, but there are also some limitations as discussed in my blog post “Nuclear insanity” (

However, when I tried to post this comment, a message popped up:

This was the first time my IP address had been flagged this way. After more investigation, eventually I noticed that there had been no comments since 9 May, and guessed that no more comments were being accepted. It would have been nicer to receive a message saying comments were closed. And even nicer to be able to make contact.