JF Ptak Science Books
ITEM: Demographic Facets of War, by Joseph Coker, 1962. 11x8 inches, offset mimeograph publication, staple bound. 24pp. Very good condition. RARE. $250.00
Self- and purposefully-deceptive belief in spectacular and unsupportable scenarios espoused by governmental leaders which affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people deserve their own Dante-esque categorization: and that’s one that I haven’t come up with yet. This post is one of a continuing thread on the history of atomic weapons.
I wonder how it was that we humans didn’t blow ourselves into melty dissolving bits during the Cold War. Somehow all of those thousands of megatons of disastrously radioactive explosives that were completely and reliably deliverable didn’t get launched—not even by accident, not even during all of those hot itchy-finger DEFCON 2 situations. Did MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction ) actually work? Did the attempt at making a winnable nuclear confrontation keep people from actually trying to do so? Did the overwhelming and insane buildup of weaponry actually have so much enormous and foul intellectual weight that no one could actually make the decision to use the weapons for fear of snuffing out all human life?
Here’s an embarrassingly shining case in point: Dr. Joseph D. Coker’s paper to the Population Association of America representing the thinking of the Office of Emergency Planning and the Executive Branch in general, which freely discussed the survivability of the United States following even a post-massive nuclear exchange. Dr. Coker was the director of the National Resource Evaluation Center, which tried mightily to figure out how/where /what/how the essential 'stuff” of America could be saved/stored/allocated after the end of the world. Actually, Dr. Coker said that the big attack wouldn’t be the end of the world, so we needed to plan for surviving.
A few cases in point, some of which, I must warn you, are breathtaking and Strangelovian in their myopia:
Since Dr. Coker was addressing the Population Studies people, he related much of what he had to say (regarding national resources) to the American people. He found that millions of people could be saved if they built a blast shelter (not a fallout shelter) that was covered with mounds of heavy material and outfitted for an extended stay of two to 22 days. The unfortunate part of this scenario, Coker says, is that these shelters work best when 10 miles or more away from a detonation zone. And since these zones were all over the country targeted by thousands of warheads, very few people (especially in cities) would be outside the 10-mile ring, which made the blast shelter basically useless.
Coker notes that if an attack of 1000 megatons [a limited exchange] was aimed exclusively at U.S.air bases, “total fatalities will approximate 10% of the U.S. population”. If this attack was aimed at population centers rather than the air bases, it would kill 40% of the population. A 5,000 megaton attack on air bases would produce 50% overall fatalities in the U.S.; if that amount was centered on large populations, the number would jump to 80% of the population. 10,000 megatons would yield 75% and 95%, respectively. “A 50,000 megaton attack would kill almost all U.S. citizens under either targeting assumption”. These figures didn’t include radiation deaths.
A big variable here not controlled for was the distribution of population at the time of attack. The numbers that were used were compiled by the census and counted folks who would be at home. So, the numbers above worked if and only if the Soviets attacked after dinner when everyone was at home for the night. Since it would make sense to attack when people were at work at their industry or job or whatever during the day—thus maximizing the effect of the bomb—the casualties would actually be higher.
And what does that mean? Dr. Coker relates this gem (on page 21): “The post-attack labor force available thirty days after the attack probably will represent a significantly lower fraction of the population than does the preattack labor force….” And this: “A nuclear attack can be expected to alter the occupational composition of the labor force.”
This sort of thinking overtakes the factual aspects of massive attack, with Coker stating on page 24 “I wish to say emphatically that it [post-attack America] will not be anything like that depicted in Neville Shute’s On the Beach. It will be bad enough, but not that hopeless.”
And this absolutely incredible/horrendous and perhaps worst-use-ever of the word “awkward”:
For the love of King Neptune’s Pants: Awkward? How in the name of _______ could someone in such a high position and authority relate massive attacks on every major American population center which would cover the area in fire and thousands of gigantic highly radioactive craters in which a city used to exist be called “awkward”? How great a sin was this, to influence opinion on holocaust via pathetic and unreasonable means?
And then this, on the survivability of our governmental and economic institutions:
“The post attack institutional environment will depend on the continuity, resourcefulness and general effectiveness of our leadership and the survival and resilience of pre-attack institutions…”
Hm? The post-attack institutions will depend on themselves?
This of course is followed by a major plug for Dr. Coker’s own work, because the preparations undertaken by the NREC will directly affect the survivability of post-attack America. So don’t stop the funding. “The more complete and realistic our preattack [sic] planning and preparations have been and the more effectively the government is at all levels in inspiring and retaining the confidence and support of the population, the less drastic institutional changes will be.” So it is the mealy aspect of inspiration that will direct the survivability of whatever it is that makes America so.
I should point out that Coker’s use of “post attack” and “pre attack” appear as two words, one word and a hyphenated word, depending on nothing. This is only a forty-page document.
Another nugget on the post-Armageddon future on the distribution of wealth, mostly hinging on blast shelters: “Per capita wealth in material terms may or may not be reduced by attack.” There will be a relatively proportional number of people who emerge from the smoking holes to staff surviving industry, and so per capita wealth will stay about the same. If, on the other hand, people build more blast shelters, then the proportion of surviving workers to factories will increase, and “the surviving plant capacity will be spread more thinly among them”. It is left unstated, but what that means is that more successful implementation of blast shelters would mean a reduction in per capita wealth. Dr. Coker also forgets what he said earlier that the blast shelters really didn’t work unless they were more than ten miles from a target. Considering that the industrial workers would be living close to, um, industry, they will no doubt be (in 1962) in a ten-mile radius to where the blast would be. Then of course there would probably be more than one bomb, so the blast area would be more than a ten-mile circle, and so on and so forth.
In the following paragraph, Dr. Coker somehow draws all manner of feel-good high-probables around him, encasing himself like a sandman in a thin layer of improbability, to come to the following conclusion:
“…few of the analysts who have studied carefully these post-attack [sic] survival and recovery problems take any stock in the oft-repeated theory that the survivors will envy the dead. On the contrary, after a very rough year or two, the surviving population, if it so chooses, can begin to enjoy the advantages of a social structure and a physical environment not so very different from those which prevailed before the attack.” [Emphasis mine.]
This is an astonishing work of incredible deceit, and may be the worst quote of the lot. But it is so difficult to choose between unacceptable bits of thinking like this, raking out the horrible from the terrible.
Here’s another deceit that was absolutely better understood in 1962 than the writer acknowledges: “The long-term effects of radiation are subject to much less understanding and certainty than are the short term effects. There is some evidence that increased radiation exposure results in reduced life expectancy and increased evidence of leukemia and various degenerative diseases…” And this: “Genetic effects are more controversial.” Than what?! And this: “Studies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki experience are said thus far to be inconclusive.” Honestly this was very well understood in 1962, and statements like these were enormously irresponsible if the data were actually misunderstood and criminal if they weren’t.
There are many more examples—I’d say actually that the entire paper was at the level of Apocalypse Fairy Tale—but I’d like to close with just one more, this one using another fanciful version of the possible post-nuclear future and another highly insulting euphemism. On transportation: “We hope in the near future to develop a family of network and transportation models to estimate capabilities to move surpluses into deficit areas in order to cover deficits during each time period and to support the use of more ambitious resource management techniques focussed [sic] on recovery problems.” Aside from bad sentence structure and misspellings I could hardly imagine sitting through a presentation where a person thought this stolen undercooked tripe. What we have arrived at here at the end of the paper is references to smoke-in-a-hole cities being “deficit areas”, and the successful removal of human consideration from the conversation—strange as Dr. Coker was addressing the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America. (I’d love to know what the association members thought of the talk afterwards.)
And so what can we draw from the experience of knowing thinking like this? Is it as sterile as it might seem, so distant from our experience? The scenarios have changed, as have the leaders and delivery systems, but the insatiable stupidities have evolved and morphed into our own time. Its easy to raise our eyebrows now on the whole MAD approach and the writings of people like Dr. Coker. The truth of the matter is that we have plenty of this sort of thinking going on right now, big head-waggers that will loom in our futures with the attached questions of “how could this have happened?”. WMD is one of the many examples of this, a Big Lie that was repeated for years and which ultimately cost the lives of many thousands of people and a great perpetuator of the culture of fear. President Bush drove that one into the ground and so far as I know still employs it when necessary, threatening listeners with fear of those three letters like they were a practice hand grenade. (I recall that a far-right radio personality filled with afterbirth blood and urine eyes said that he would resign his show “in a year” if WMD were not found in Iraq; that was five years ago, and of course he is still there, bloated and ponderous and mostly violently wrong as ever.) The Savings and Loan debacle. The deathly ambitious practices leading to our recent depression. The billion malnourished and desperate children in the world. And so on. The point is that there is no paucity of thinking displayed by Dr. Coker in the past, and there is definitely no lack of it right at this very moment. The problem is seeing it for what it is in the present and to not have to wait for the future to get to the truth of the matter.
[And how can I end this discussion without a bit more of Stanley Kubrick's magnificent Dr. Strangelove.., who pointed out these absurdities better than,perhaps, anyone?]
Ah, don't fret! The ending is just below (and just when you are about to laugh ("Mein Fuhrer, I can WALK" the other and last shoe drops.).