Worldwide Effects of Nuclear War

Some Conclusions

We have considered the problems of large-scale nuclear war from the standpoint of the countries not under direct attack, and the difficulties they might encounter in postwar recovery. It is true that most of the horror and tragedy of nuclear war would be visited on the populations subject to direct attack, who would doubtless have to cope with extreme and perhaps insuperable obstacles in seeking to reestablish their own societies. It is no less apparent, however, that other nations, including those remote from the combat, could suffer heavily because of damage to the global environment.

Finally, at least brief mention should be made of the global effects resulting from disruption of economic activities and communications. Since 1970, an increasing fraction of the human race has been losing the battle for self-sufficiency in food, and must rely on heavy imports. A major disruption of agriculture and transportation in the grain-exporting and manufacturing countries could thus prove disastrous to countries importing food, farm machinery, and fertilizers--especially those which are already struggling with the threat of widespread starvation. Moreover, virtually every economic area, from food and medicines to fuel and growth engendering industries, the less-developed countries would find they could not rely on the "undamaged" remainder of the developed world for trade essentials: in the wake of a nuclear war the industrial powers directly involved would themselves have to compete for resources with those countries that today are described as "less-developed."

Similarly, the disruption of international communications--satellites, cables, and even high frequency radio links--could be a major obstacle to international recovery efforts. In attempting to project the after-effects of a major nuclear war, we have considered separately the various kinds of damage that could occur. It is also quite possible, however, that interactions might take place among these effects, so that one type of damage would couple with another to produce new and unexpected hazards. For example, we can assess individually the consequences of heavy worldwide radiation fallout and increased solar ultraviolet, but we do not know whether the two acting together might significantly increase human, animal, or plant susceptibility to disease. We can conclude that massive dust injection into the stratosphere, even greater in scale than Krakatoa, is unlikely by itself to produce significant climatic and environmental change, but we cannot rule out interactions with other phenomena, such as ozone depletion, which might produce utterly unexpected results.

We have come to realize that nuclear weapons can be as unpredictable as they are deadly in their effects. Despite some 30 years of development and study, there is still much that we do not know. This is particularly true when we consider the global effects of a large-scale nuclear war.