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Thinking About the Unthinkable: Planning for Nuclear Conflict in the Early Cold-War Era

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, April 25, 2024 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1D0047
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Nuclear detonation conducted at Bikini Atoll, 1946 (U.S. Army)

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the world witnessed a first in its history: Two global superpowers armed with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. Such a nuclear exchange would not only be more destructive than any other human conflict—but thanks to the persistent radiation released by the weapons—would create a poisoned apocalyptic world in which “the living would envy the dead,” in a phrase famously attributed to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

For decades, the Bureau of Atomic Energy Scientists kept its “Doomsday Clock” just a few minutes shy of midnight to underline how perilously close the world stood to a nuclear war. While many Americans repeated the idea that nuclear war was too terrible to contemplate, a group of scholars and theorists within the defense and policy worlds thought deeply and carefully about how to wage—and win—such a conflict should it ever erupt.

Historian Chris Hamner examines the thinking of scholars like Herman Kahn and those at the noted RAND Corporation as they puzzled out how to deter World War III or, failing that, how the U.S. could emerge victorious, as well as how to understand what everyday Americans were thinking about the monstrous possibility of nuclear war.

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