Thinking the Unthinkable (Again): Part I

Thinking the Unthinkable (Again): Part I

Seven years ago we published a WGR on nuclear war and civil defense.[1] Over the past seven years, we have seen an increase in actual and potential nuclear proliferation. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have either reviewed or are reviewing their policies on nuclear weapons and we are clearly seeing a departure from the late Cold War thinking on nuclear policy. The recent false alarm in Hawaii is an indication of heightened concerns and suggests that another look at this issue is warranted.

In Part I of this report, we will review the development of nuclear weapons and the U.S. deployment policy from the end of WWII to the end of the Cold War. This history will include analysis of how the theory of deterrence developed over time and introduce the events of the post-Cold War world. In Part II, we will discuss how the Cold War arrangements have broken down in the post-Cold War world and the ensuing nuclear proliferation. We will also examine how states will cope with this changing nuclear weapons environment and the evolution of new nuclear doctrines. This will include a discussion on civil defense, nuclear strategy and weapons development. We will conclude, as always, with potential market ramifications.

The Early Days

The Truman administration faced the prospect of a land invasion of Japan in 1945. Although the European theater of war concluded in May 1945, invading Japan remained a formidable task. Operation Downfall was a two-part plan to invade Japan; while casualty estimates were wide, U.S. and Allied losses were expected to be 1.7 million at the low end and could reach 4.0 million. To understand the scale of the invasion, one phase, dubbed “Operation Coronet,” would have landed 25 divisions of Allied troops; D-Day had 12 divisions. The invasion was a massive undertaking and, although the Allies would have likely prevailed, it would have come at great cost.

As the vice president, Truman had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon. When President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the new President Truman was arguably behind the curve on the development of the atomic bomb project. The “Trinity” nuclear test was conducted on July 16, 1945. It worked, and two bombs were fashioned after the successful test. It was at this point that Truman faced the difficult decision on whether to proceed with the costly invasion or deploy this new weapon and hope that its destructive power would convince Japan to accept an unconditional surrender. On August 6 and 9, 1945, atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. Planners had another bomb prepared for deployment later in August and three each for the next two months. However, the Japanese government communicated its desire to surrender on August 10, 1945, and no more nuclear weapons were dropped. Although the surrender documents weren’t formally signed until September 2, the war was effectively over on August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito publicly announced the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.