The World Didn't Understand How Bad Nuclear War Would Be Before This Exercise

Adam Rawnsley

Key Point: Someone leaked details to West Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper. According to the leaked info, targets in West Germany had borne the theoretical brunt of the exercise, with 268 of the 335 mock nuclear weapons detonating inside the country.

Throughout the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear war hung over Europe like a recurring nightmare. But in the early years of the Atomic Age, most people only dimly understood the consequences of tactical nuclear war. It wasn’t until nearly a decade into the superpower contest that Europe’s nightmare gained a vivid, terrifying clarity.

That clarity came from Carte Blanche, NATO’s first major exercise to simulate what a nuclear exchange with the Soviets on the continent would look like.

When officials finally tallied the numbers, the theoretical war’s toll on Germany included 1.7 million dead and 3.5 million wounded — killing more people in a matter of hours than strategic bombing had taken during the entirety of World War II.

The results of exercise shocked and horrified citizens in NATO countries, especially in West Germany — ground zero for any war with the Soviets, and alarmed their leadership. For years afterward, Carte Blanche shaped attitudes toward nuclear weapons and their role in defense of Europe.

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world broadly understood that nuclear weapons possessed unprecedented destructive power. But a grasp of weapons’ specific impact — especially that of smaller, tactical nukes — was more elusive.

That was especially true for America’s NATO allies, which lacked both nuclear weapons of their own and the kind of detailed understanding of their capabilities and effects that came from development and ownership of the weapons. The development of tactical nuclear weapons and strategy drove the need to game out what a nuclear war might look like.

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