‘Nuclear Winter’ Discussed in Newly Released Reagan-Era Documents

By Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva is a former reporter for The Epoch Times.
June 6, 2022Updated: July 17, 2022

Newly released government documents from the 1980s outline the devastation that would be wrought on the planet if nuclear superpowers went to war—which should serve as a reminder for policymakers to prioritize peace negotiations as the war in Ukraine rages on, according to Scott Horton, editorial director of Antiwar.com.

Horton told The Epoch Times on June 6 that the nuclear winter documents, released last week by the George Washington University-affiliated National Security Archive, come “with the American and NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine bringing the threat of war to its highest point since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.”

Such a war would kill “billions,” said Horton, author of the forthcoming book, “Hotter than the Sun: Time to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.” According to the National Security Archive documents, the country’s top scientists feared such a scenario: Two superpowers fire nuclear weapons at each other, producing enough smoke to blot out the sun for weeks. Temperatures fall, crops die, and world starvation ensues.

Now commonly referred to as “nuclear winter,” such a scenario was once thought implausible by many U.S. national security officials. But that thinking began to change in the 1980s, when the then-Defense Nuclear Agency—now the Defense Threat Reduction Agency—began researching the issue, according to newly released documents from that era.

The documents, released on June 2 by the National Security Archive, include internal scientific records discussing the possibility of a nuclear exchange that results in “atmospheric trauma.”

“The net effect of a summertime nuclear exchange would be that summer conditions in mid-latitudes would turn to dark, near winter-like conditions, while a wintertime nuclear exchange would lead to somewhat more severe winter conditions,” reads a declassified 1984 report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Lower latitude temperatures would become more like those in middle or higher latitudes.”

The Livermore report and other studies from the 1980s produced controversy in the Reagan administration. In response to a 1986 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on nuclear winter, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) accused the GAO of “giving more validity to the nuclear winter theory than was warranted.”

However, the GAO would be supported by later reports on the subject, including a 1988 study from the Committee on Interagency Radiation Research and Policy, which found that previous governmental reports had understated the devastating consequences of nuclear war. While previous studies warned that crop production would be destroyed in the Northern Hemisphere in the wake of a nuclear exchange, the 1988 report says crop production could be nonexistent throughout the entire globe.

“[Crop] production may approach zero after a nuclear exchange, even in the absence of climatic perturbations. Thus, the [previously assumed] worst-case scenario may be a gross underestimation of the likely effects of a nuclear war on human populations,” the 1988 report reads, critiquing a 1985 study by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

“Crops cannot be produced without fossil fuels to till the soil, control the pests, harvest the crops, process them for market, and transport them to markets.”

Horton, whose book on nuclear weapons comes out this month, said the 1980s reports helped produce a shift in how U.S. national security officials think about nuclear war.

“What the old Cold Warriors did not realize until the ’80s was that the global drop in temperatures from the smoke and soot caused by the firestorms ignited by the bombs would surely cause the death of billions of people through famine and set humanity back centuries,” he said.

Unfortunately, policymakers have forgotten the lessons learned from the Cold War, Horton said.

To Horton’s point, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and numerous U.S. policymakers have called for driving Russia out of Ukraine altogether—despite warnings from National Intelligence Director Avril Haines last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons if he thinks he’s losing the conflict.

Horton said the United States and Russia should be focused on diplomacy rather than continuing to escalate their conflict—lest they risk the nuclear winter scenario first contemplated more than 40 years ago.

“With the American and NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine bringing the threat of war to its highest point since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it is long past time for our population to recognize the threat these weapons pose to humanity and that we must do everything we can to disarm our mutual ‘doomsday machines’ before it’s too late,” he said.