It happened today - June 14, 2015

UNIVAC June 14 is the anniversary of the 1951 “dedication” of the world’s first commercial electronic digital computer, UNIVAC, manufactured by Remington Rand and bought by the Census Bureau. It’s amazing to reflect on how far we’ve come since this eight-ton behemoth began cranking at roughly one kilohertz using 5,000 vacuum tubes. But I want to reflect instead on how little distance we’ve come since the U.S. went through its first nationwide civil defence drill three years later.

There’s an unbearably cheesy feel to anything associated with nuclear fears in the 1950s, and never more I think than with those brisk hide-under-your-school-desk videos like 1951’s “Duck and Cover” with Bert the Alert Turtle offering a grimly surreal upbeat look at mass death and the end of civilization.

The 1954 exercise involved 54 cities, including some in Canada, responding to an imagined aerial and submarine nuclear attack targeting most major urban areas. At 10:00 alarms were sounded and people headed for shelters including President Eisenhower.

The result was an estimated 12 million deaths, a number so large as to be both unimaginable and intolerable. Of course it was far smaller than the number that would have died by the 1960s, when the Soviets had missiles (the shock of Sputnik in 1957 was about half that the no-good Reds had gotten into space first and half that they’d done it with technology that could deliver a hydrogen bomb with minimal warning and no effective defence).

So it became fashionable to assert that nuclear war was too horrible to think about. The problem of course is that mighty few major problems are effectively solved by ignoring them in a state of resigned panic.

Nuclear war is especially bad because an unwillingness to face its consequences dramatically increases the likelihood of having to. One could of course simply decide to surrender unconditionally to the first credible nuclear threat. But that means it will definitely occur soon and your way of life will vanish. Or you can refuse to calculate what proportion of civilians will die under various scenarios and refuse to prepare for them, which will tempt an adversary to strike.

The alternative, very well captured by Herman Kahn’s 1962 book title Thinking About the Unthinkable, is to contemplate what would happen given various numbers and types of nuclear weapons being launched in various sequences and try to figure out, and communicate, the consequences to an attacker. It is easier if the adversary is atheist communists who believe death is the end than with religious fanatics who believe nuclear Armageddon is the ticket to a heaven strangely reminiscent of a brothel.

You simply cannot deter a nuclear attack except by being willing to retaliate or perhaps pre-empt according to which seems to save the most lives in the short and long run. And that requires you to estimate the outcome of various horrifying scenarios and choose the best one or the best set with all the probabilities you can estimate taken into account.

I would still skip the upbeat part with the cartoon characters, mind you.