Briefing the president but keeping the public in the dark

James Arkin

Twelve million Americans would be killed outright and 60 million would be dead within a year. The federal government, with the exception of the vice president and perhaps one cabinet member, would be wiped out. Citizens would be dependent on bartering for up to a year. Widespread fires would destroy 169,000 square miles of land, a larger area than the state of California. A lethal blanket of radiation would cover up to half the nation for weeks.

There would be 41 million immediate deaths in the Soviet Union and more than 100 million people dead after one month. The Gross National Product in the USSR would be reduced by 75 percent, the government would be almost completely destroyed, there would be severe transportation problems, and medical supplies would be scarce. 

This was the official, predicted outcome of a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union in the late 1950s, at a time when the U.S. military already had more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and was busily expanding its arsenal at the pace of nearly 20 new bombs a day. The grim estimate, although briefed to President Eisenhower in 1958, was kept secret by the government for more than half a century. 

It was posted online in late July by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit historical research group affiliated with George Washington University, along with other previously classified documents about nuclear weapons briefings and communications involving top security officials. The Archive first requested release of some of the documents in 1993 and had to submit at least five appeals, according to William Burr, a senior analyst there who directs its nuclear history documentation project. 

Official estimates of how much death and destruction would result from a major nuclear conflict were prepared annually for the president from 1957 through 1963 by a group called the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, a panel attached to the White House National Security Council and composed mainly of top military and CIA officials. But the panel’s existence, as well as its product, was long kept secret. 

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.