Examining the Contradictions Between the American Public’s Perception of Nuclear War and the Real Possibility of Its Occurrence

If a Trident D-5 nuclear warhead is detonated in a city today, a two-kilometer-wide fireball will instantly evaporate everything in its midst, followed by a shockwave that will flatten nearly everything in a one-mile radius and break windows and cause other type of damage up to ten kilometers away. The resulting air vacuum left in the shockwave’s wake would have the potential to start countless secondary fires all throughout the blast radius, spreading far beyond the initial zone. In the intervening hours, people within the affected area would suffer lethal radiation doses and third-degree burns. 

The devastating impact of nuclear weapons has been known to the American public and the world at large ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But how do people in the US actually feel about US nuclear policies? Has public opinion shifted since the end of the Cold War? Do Americans feel safe in a nuclear armed world? And perhaps the most pertinent question of all: is the general public even aware of the very real possibility of nuclear war, and how close we have come to nuclear armageddon in the past? 

American sentiment regarding nuclear weapons has actually been remarkably clear and consistent ever since the end of the Second World War; according to a report published by the Steering Committee for the Symposium on the Medical Implications of Nuclear War, at the height of the nuclear arms race in 1986, American’s beliefs “differ(ed) surprisingly little across age, gender, race, education, income, and political ideology.” Americans reacted with a mix of fear and general horror when asked to imagine a nuclear war or a post nuclear world. According to several surveys conducted in 1983, American people thought that there would be “nobody left…all the beautiful things would be gone. It would destroy…everyone in the world.” One respondent is quoted as saying “I hope I die with everyone else.” 

So, if Americans’ emotions are accurate to the gravity of a potential nuclear war, why do they take so little political action to change America’s nuclear policy? More recent surveys suggest that American people generally approve of the US nuclear stockpile, with a clear majority feeling that nuclear weapons help to keep the country safe. A plurality of respondents feel that they are familiar with the effects of nuclear weapons, and a third say that they are familiar with current US nuclear policy. Modern day Americans approve of the current US nuclear policy by a five to one ratio. 

So, what explains the contradiction between what Americans feel about nuclear war, and what Americans think about the US’s stockpile of nuclear weapons? According to the most recent data, Americans generally regard nuclear war as a “hypothetical possibility”, and a majority of Americans believe that nuclear weapons are “very effective” at preventing conflict between the US and other nations. Essentially, Americans feel that a nuclear war would be a horrible outcome for all involved, but don’t regard the possibility of it occurring as very likely. Furthermore, they believe that the more nuclear weapons we have, the less likely a nuclear war is to start.

However, what most Americans don’t realize is the extensive record of brushes with nuclear armageddon that the world has managed to avoid, more through circumstance and luck than any sort of well formulated system for avoiding nuclear conflict. Between 1979 and 1980, there were several false alarm incidents at NORAD, the combined American Canadian headquarters for nuclear defense. Initially, top officials believed they were receiving a warning about an incoming Soviet strike, until it was discovered that it was in fact a computer error. It turned out to be the result of a single faulty computer chip. 

In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was a dramatic incident on a Soviet submarine. Submarine B-59 surfaced to recharge its batteries in international waters, where they were harassed by American anti-submarine naval forces. US forces were attempting to halt the submarine and force the Russians to identify themselves. The captain, believing that a war with the United States had already kicked off, gave an emergency order to dive and use the submarine’s nuclear torpedo against American forces, an act which, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, may well have started a nuclear apocalypse. What stopped this from occurring? The captain couldn’t get down the stairs to the command bridge fast enough, and the second in command, Vasily Arkhipov, managed to calm him down and relay that the Americans were communicating with them, not attacking. 

Other things that have been temporarily mistaken for nuclear attacks and have almost resulted in the launch of nuclear weapons due to faulty equipment or human error include a scientific research rocket, a bear, and a flock of geese. In the words of Soviet general Vladimir Belous, the global situation remains such that “A fateful accident could plunge the world into the chaos of a thermonuclear catastrophe, contrary to political leaders’ wishes.”

As the historical record shows, the system of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, appears to work as a deterrent for avoiding intentional nuclear war, but there have been dozens of times we came too close to unintentional nuclear war in the United States alone. Surely, the fate of the human race should not be left to chance, again and again? In the past, humanity got lucky, but we only need to be unlucky one time for human civilization to collapse and for the entire planet to be plunged into nuclear winter. All it takes is one more faulty computer part or a panicked moment of human error, and all the beautiful things will be gone.