In order to understand the future, we often must study the past. The Cold War was an era of heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviets, leading to many nuclear near misses and narrowly-averted disasters. During this time period, both world superpowers were scoping each other out, looking for weaknesses and strategic targets to eliminate if it came down to mutually assured destruction. While we may never find out the Soviets' exact plans for attacking the USA, we did recently get a rare glimpse into the U.S. Government's plan of attack if SHTF.

This month, the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a list of the above locations, all of which were being targeted for annihilation by the U.S. Military if nuclear war broke out. The 1959 Strategic Air Command (SAC) analysis of now-declassified nuclear targets includes more than 1,100 airfields in the Soviet bloc (blue icons on the map above), prioritized in order of significance.

However, this U.S. Government study wasn't just focused on sparsely-populated military targets. It also included a list of over 1,200 major urban-industrial areas identified for “systematic destruction” (red icons on the map above). The targets included cities throughout the USSR, China, and East Germany—major population centers such as Moscow, Leningrad, Beijing, East Berlin, and Warsaw.

General Curtis LeMay, Commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command in 1959. (Photo source: U.S. National Archives,...

The SAC's study recommended the use of at least one 60-megaton bomb, both as a deterrent and because it would produce “significant results” against the Soviets. To put 60 megatons into perspective, that's approximately 4,200 times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed much of Hiroshima, Japan (and killed 66,000). The most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested was Russia's Tsar Bomba, gauged at 50 megatons, and its seismic shock circled the globe three times.

Imagining the result of a 60-megaton bomb detonated in the center of Moscow or Beijing is reminiscent of Robert Oppenheimer's thoughts after witnessing the Trinity explosion: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

nuclear near misses

Despite the eventual demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it's now clear just how close we came to global destruction. All the plans were in place—both sides were just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.

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