The Limited Nuclear War Hidden Behind the Long Peace

The Limited Nuclear War Hidden Behind the Long Peace

The Cold War is often defined as a dangerous period in which the world narrowly avoided the use of nuclear weapons. Whether this is ascribed to the inescapable logic of deterrence, or to wise choices being made by leaders of nuclear weapon states, even under the pressure of events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons protected people rather than harming them. This view is only possible with the privilege – and blindness – of perspective. There have been 2,056 nuclear weapon detonations since 1945: statistically, a nuclear weapon exploded every 8.48 days between 1946 and the end of 1991.

While nuclear weapons were not used directly against human beings throughout this history, their effects were too vast to contain within test site boundaries. Millions of people were exposed to radiation from nuclear detonations during the Cold War. These human beings, and the millions more exposed to radiation from the production of nuclear materials and from accidents at nuclear reactor sites are known as the global hibakusha and are the subject of my book, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha. In addition to exploring the history and scientific mechanisms of the harm they endured, I also address the political and scientific paradigms that have kept them invisible.


When nuclear weapons detonate, they give off energy in several forms: blast, heat, and radiation. However, we experience harm from radiation in two different ways. The explosion of a nuclear weapon gives off a large burst of radioactive rays; these can be understood as similar to x-rays, the energy is present during the detonation and is no longer present seconds later.

During these seconds the gamma waves pass through virtually all material, including human bodies. Exposure to these bursts cause dire health effects. The explosions also produce radioactive fallout, which we encounter as particles that are ionized during the explosion. The fireball of the detonation draws these particles up into the cloud; it is the amassing of these particles that causes the top to ‘mushroom.’ Unlike the radioactive waves, these particles remain radioactive after the detonation.

Depending on the chemistry of the particle they can remain dangerous for days, years, or even millennia. As the mushroom cloud drifts after the explosion, these particles “fall out” of the cloud and contaminate areas far from the epicenter – areas initially unharmed by the blast, heat or the immediate radioactive waves.

Scientists, politicians, and military officers were aware of the potential use of such materials to harm enemy soldiers and civilians before nuclear weapons were first manufactured. Allied troops that landed on beaches in Normandy on D-Day in 1944 included special units equipped with Geiger Counters in anticipation of the Nazis having “salted” the beaches with uranium particles.

The United States began to study the use of fallout as a means of harming enemy troops and terrorizing civilians as early as 1947, and by the mid-1950s both the United States and the Soviet Union had developed nuclear war fighting plans that included the use of massive fallout clouds from H-bombs to irradiate and kill millions.

Despite widespread knowledge of their harmful effects, nuclear weapons were tested in the atmosphere, upwind of populated areas. In 1961, US President John Kennedy warned Civil Defense leaders that “Radioactive fallout, extending down-wind for as much as several hundred miles, could account for the major part of the casualties which might result from a thermonuclear attack on an unprotected population.” Yet, Kennedy approved plans to “test” 96 nuclear weapons the following year, including multiple H-bombs.

Test or attack?

When is a “test” actually an attack? The horror of weapon effects does not change from being warfare to research simply because of the intent of the party detonating the weapon. Nuclear test sites were selected because of the inability of downwind populations to politically resist.

The three NATO nuclear weapon states all conducted their thermonuclear tests in colonial or postcolonial spaces in the Pacific; the UK and France never conducted a nuclear test within their own borders. These choices (and archival documents) demonstrate a clear understanding of the harm being unleashed by testing H-bombs.

For populations near thermonuclear weapon test sites, in places like Kazakhstan, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and Kiribati, the Cold War was a limited nuclear war. Sickness and early mortality; forced displacement from homes and communities; continued habitation in contaminated ecosystems; long-lived radionuclides embedded into food production areas; erosion of traditional and sustainable cultural practices—these are all legacies of Cold War nuclear weapon testing, spread across multiple continents.

Studies of the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were weaponized to cloak the harm being done to the global hibakusha. The Life Span Study (LSS) correlating exposures to radiation with subsequent health outcomes – the “gold standard” study of harm from radiation – excluded any consideration of harm from internalizing particles.

There were valid scientific reasons to make this choice for the cohort of hibakusha after the two nuclear attacks in 1945, but during the Cold War most people who were irradiated were exposed to fallout and not the burst of gamma radiation from being directly attacked. The LSS does not assess harm from internalized particles yet is used even today to dismiss the health effects clearly evident after the deposition of fallout on communities from nuclear test sites to Chernobyl and Fukushima. Here in Hiroshima, it was only last year that those exposed to “black rain” (fallout) after the nuclear attack were granted status as hibakusha.

We must not forget the legacy of spent nuclear fuel from operating nuclear reactors, whether to produce plutonium for weapons or electricity. Posing risk to thousands of future generations, the (currently) more than 400,000 metric tons of this spent fuel is the most substantive legacy of human civilization: long after our cities have crumbled, and our languages are forgotten, this deadly inheritance will remain. It is how our descendants will know us. The plutonium in those spent fuel rods will remain militarily viable for tens of thousands of years. Any future political leader can simply dig up our disposal sites and manufacture nuclear weapons. We made that, perhaps we made that for them.

About the Author

Robert Jacobs, PhD, is Professor of the History of Science and Technology, Hiroshima Peace Institute, Graduate School of Peace Studies at Hiroshima City University. He is the author of the book Nuclear Bodies: Global Hibakusha.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Experimental agricultural plot on radiologically contaminated soil in the Polygon, Kazakhstan (Robert Jacobs)