16 May 2015


Those of us who came of age in the late Cold War imagined that if a nuclear war came it would be The End of Everything. By contrast, those who came of age after the Cold War never thought there’d be a nuclear war at all. With Putin’s military forces on the loose in Ukraine and all around Europe, the chance of war by miscalculation, even a nuclear war is rising. What would such a war look like? With the world situation vastly different from the late Cold War and with nuclear arsenals much smaller, it would probably not be a brief nuclear exchange but something more limited, albeit still horrific.

Perhaps such a war would be like one that the U.S. government imagined in 1955. In June of that year, the government conducted a massive relocation exercise called Operation Alert in cities across the country. ABritish Pathé newsreel tells the story in breathless shorthand. As part of the exercise, the State Department moved key personnel to an above-groundlocation at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains in Front Royal, Virginiathat now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution. There, according to records held at the National Archives, they practiced how they would continue to conduct the business of the department in case of World War III.

Among other documents, the Archives holds “Situation Report #1,” issued by the State Department’s intelligence arm on D+1 of the war game. It is an interesting artifact of the time. In 1955 nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Iron Curtain were much smaller than they became later and intercontinental ballistic missiles did not exist. Thus, the Soviet ability to strike the U.S. homeland was also much more limited and the “war” unfolded much more slowly than it would have even ten years later. As a result, the imaginary war of June 1955 combined attributes of World War II as well as the World War III that haunted us in the 1980s.

The first line of the situation report says that “all American air bases overseas have been subject to nuclear attack.” However, the continental United States has not been bombed … yet. Clearly, however, this danger was all too real, hence the necessity to relocate to Front Royal. (New York, Washington, and other American cities participated, too, with civilians encouraged to take shelter. Later their cities would be notionally destroyed.) In addition, “Aggressor” (i.e. Soviet) ground forces have attacked Germany and U.S. forces “have withdrawn across the Rhine.” Meanwhile, “Strategic Air Command reports successful nuclear attack[s] against the Aggressor’s air bases and military installations.”

As Europe descends into a war that at the end of its first day already rivals or exceeds the horror of World War II, the political dynamics are complex. The situation report describes the reactions of various countries in ways that skirt the line between stereotype and enduring political realities. The U.K. and West Germany have declared war on the Aggressors and British forces have bombed Aggressor targets. “In Italy and France there is complete confusion. … Neither government has yet issued any statement.” Greece is “totally preoccupied with problems of internal order” and Yugoslavia has mobilized its military but has not “indicated who is considered the enemy.” Of course, the Aggressor government has blamed the whole thing on the United States. Elsewhere, the Arab world is mired in “confusion and paralysis,” the Pakistani government has said that it will “stand by the US” but must use all its forces to “guard the Indian and Afghan frontiers” and India has “asked for immediate action by [the] UN to bring about a cease-fire.” Presumably the situation only got worse as the game progressed.

Hopefully, the world will not be as divided and dithering as it faces the 21stcentury aggression of Russia under Vladimir Putin and his nuclear sabre-rattling. Hopefully, also, we will never face a nuclear war, even a small one like that imagined in 1955.

Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.

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