Existential Lessons of the Cold War

23 December 2014


nuclear explosion

The Cold War forced us to think in global terms. In other words, it forced us to think in planetary terms. The planet was divided into two armed camps, with one camp led by the US presiding over NATO and the other camp led by the USSR presiding over the Warsaw Pact. Every action taken, or every action forborne, was weighed and judged against its planetary consequences, and this became most evident when faced with the ultimate Cold War nightmare, a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers that came to known as MAD for mutually assured destruction. It is at least arguable that the idea of anthropogenic existential risk emerged from the Cold War MAD scenarios.

The visionary thinking of the Cold War period has been tainted by its association with what was then openly called “the unthinkable” — a massive thermonuclear exchange — but the true visionaries are not the ones who narrated a utopian fantasy that we would all have liked to believe, but rather the visionaries are the ones who unflinchingly explored the implications of what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact.” Anthropogenic extinction became technologically possible with the advent of the nuclear era, and because it was made possible, it became a pressing need to discuss it honestly. In this sense, the great visionaries of the recent past have been men like Guilio Douhet and Herman Kahn

Douhet’s work predates the nuclear age, but Douhet was a great visionary of air power, and the extent to which Douhet understood that air power would change warfare is remarkable:

“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy’s territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.”

Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari, Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998, pp. 9-10

There have been many predictions for future warfare that have not been borne out in practice, but with hindsight we can see that Douhet was right about almost everything he predicted, and, more importantly, he was right for the right reasons. He saw, he understood, he drew the correct implications, and he laid out his vision in admirable clarity.

The Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR was a consequence of the implications of air power already glimpsed by Douhet (in 1921), and raised to a higher order of magnitude by advanced technology weapons systems. When Douhet wrote this work, there were as yet no jet engines, no ballistic missiles, and no nuclear weapons, but Douhet’s vision was so comprehensive and accurate that these major technological innovations did not alter the basic framework that he predicted. Citizens did become combatants, and the citizens of each side were held hostage by the other. This is the essence of the MAD scenario.

The increasing efficacy of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems did not substantially change Douhet’s framework, but by raising the stakes of destructiveness, nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and missiles did change the scope of warfare from mere localized destruction to a potential planetary catastrophe. Many scientists began to discuss the potential consequences for life and civilization of the use of nuclear weapons, and many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later felt misgivings for their role in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle.

These concerns were not confined to western scientists. In an internal report to USSR leadership, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov wrote bluntly about the possibility of human extinction in the event of nuclear war:

“Calculations show that if, in the case of war, weapons that already exist are used, levels of radioactive emissions and concentration of radioactive substances, which are biologically harmful to human life and vegetation, will be created on a significant portion of the earth’s surface. The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on the whole globe will be impossible. The explosion of around one hundred hydrogen bombs could lead to this result.”

“There is no hope that organisms, and the human organism in particular, will adjust themselves to higher levels of radioactivity on earth. This adjustment can take place only through a prolonged process of evolution. So we cannot but admit that mankind faces the enormous threat of an end to all life on earth.”

Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War” 1954

Kurchtov’s formulations are striking in their unaffected naturalism and the bluntness of the message that he sought to communicate. Even as Kurchatov wrote of the end of the world he avoided histrionics. His account of human extinction is what Colin McGinn might call “flatly natural.” The result of a dispassionately scientific account of the end of the world is perhaps the more powerful for avoiding emotional and rhetorical excess.

The space age began three years after Kurchatov’s memo on the dangers of nuclear war, when Sputnik was launched on 04 October 1957. Thereafter a “space race” paralleled the arms race and became a new venue for superpower competition. Bertrand Russell, for example, was scathing in his righteous ridicule of the space program as being merely a symptom of the Cold War. (Chad Trainer has discussed this in Earth to Russell.)

It has become a commonplace of commentary on the Apollo missions that this was the occasion of an intellectual turning point in our collective self-understanding. The photograph of Earth taken from space on the way to the moon was a way to communicate some hint of the “overview effect” to the public. Again, we were forced to think in planetary terms by this new image of Earth hanging isolated against the blackness of space. Earth was achingly beautiful, we all saw, but also terribly vulnerable.

The Cold War arms race and space race came together during the latter part of the twentieth century in a kind of cosmic pessimism over the very possibility of the longevity of any civilization whatever, here extrapolated far beyond the Earth to the possibility of any other inhabited planet.

When Carl Sagan wrote his Cosmos: A Personal Journey during the height of the Cold War, the concern over nuclear war was such that the term L in the Drake equation (the length of time a SETI-capable civilization is transmitting or receiving) was frequently judged to be quite short, only a few hundred years at most. This is given a poignant depiction in Carl Sagan’s Dream described in the last episode of Cosmos.

It could be said that nuclear weapons and space exploration driven by political competition opened our eyes to our place in the cosmos in a way that might not have made a similar impression if the stakes had not been so high. Samuel Johnson is often quoted for his line, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Similarly it could be said that the Cold War and the nuclear arms race brought the whole of humanity face-to-face with extinction, and we pulled back from the brink. The danger is not over, but the human species has been changed by the experience of imminent destruction.

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3 Responses to “Existential Lessons of the Cold War”

  1. Lyle Upson. said

    Well written fascinating insight into a history that I recall from my earlier years when the cold war was a happening thing… reading an article of this nature picks on a huge visionary picture for which I find emotionally warming, in that I can look back on this picture as well as look forward from that era… it helps to often think about where we are and where we are going in terms as you have expressed here

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Lyle,

      Strange, is it not, that we can be nostalgic for the Cold War? That is to say, nostalgic for mutually assured destruction and all the weirdness of the period that escalated with the arms race.

      Best wishes,


  2. Lyle Upson. said

    interestingly, with the fear that was present, a huge relief came over societies with the end of the standoff, yet the younger generations don’t have the experience of living through and seeing the end of that period … the fear of the younger generation therefore is different to the fear of the older generation for predominantly that reason … while this is a broad-brushed comment, my feel is the two generations view the nuclear weapons through different worldviews … it might very well be that both generations today need to be sharing in discussions on the nuclear weapons, in order to perhaps prevent a disaster

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