By the late 1950s, the USA, the UK and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them that any nuclear exchange was virtually guaranteed to result in the destruction of both sides - known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.

How can Mutually Assured Destruction be made...not?

A few definitions and restrictions:

  • Firstly, this change has to have happened prior to July 1962 (when US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave his "no cities" speech outlining US MAD plans), and should stop MAD being a possibility for as much of the rest of the Cold War as possible.

  • Secondly, the change should be at least plausible for the time period, and the less hand waving it requires, the stronger it will be.

  • Let's also define making MAD not assured as either of the two superpowers could reasonably expect to attack the other with nuclear weapons and not suffer unacceptable damage.

  • Let's define unacceptable damage as an amount of damage great enough to stop the state from continuing to function. As an example the British Moscow Criterion assumed that the Soviet Union would consider the complete destruction of Moscow to be unacceptable (the Soviet Union was highly centralised).

Finally, reasons why something can't be done are stronger than reasons they haven't - for example, an answer explaining a plausible scenario in which nuclear weapons are impossible for reason X would be stronger than an answer explaining that people just didn't think to make them because Y (of course, preventing nuclear weapons being made is just one way of preventing MAD).

Answers which require smaller changes to history are also stronger than those which will lead to large changes - Let's define smallest as causing the least change from history as it actually happened until 1962 - changing the rules of physics so that fusion no longer happens would have massive consequences for the entire universe, so is a large change despite being subatomic. Note that smallest doesn't imply small, only not as large as others

  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ Dear US/Russia/whoever is interested, I (and hopefully we) do NOT help you to exterminate another nation without repercussions or start a new arms race. $\endgroup$ – Thorsten S. Mar 22 '18 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ By any chance was this inspired by the Asimov story, "Spell My Name with an S"? $\endgroup$ – thepizzaelemental Mar 22 '18 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Does it matter whether one or both sides KNOWS that destruction is not assured? For example, if there is a fundamental flaw which means one (or both) sides nukes won't detonate (or won't arrive) but nobody knows that, is that acceptable? $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Mar 22 '18 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @thanby I actually briefly played in a band named after this (Perimetr), so I've done a bit of reading on it. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 22:34

25 Answers 25



Earlier non-proliferation treaty

1950: Korean War

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invades South Korea. The United States give them an ultimatum: go back north, or they will suffer the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagazaki. The North Koreans refuse, thinking that the USA would never do this, as North Korea has two powerful allies: the Soviet Union and China.

But a strategic bomber flies over North Korea, dropping several bombs. North Korea is destroyed, and must surrender. However, Soviet Union, China and North Korea agree to make peace upon one term: no more nuclear weapons. USA accepts, as these bombardments were badly seen both by his neighbors, and the US citizens.

1951: Non-proliferation treaty

After the Korean War and the major political crises that she causes, the USA decide to dismantle their still little nuclear weapon arsenal (remember, Greenhouse is in 1951, first Thermonuclear weapon is in 1952, and Soviet Union have a really small nuclear arsenal in early 50s)

Aftermath: No Mutually Assured Destruction

All countries agree to only use nuclear power as civil usage, and not as a weapon. Trying to do it leads to heavy consequences, as we see it today with some countries. Conventional wars and the Cold War still exists, and there is still a fear of a third World War, but no MAD anymore.


The first soviet nuke was detonated on 29th August 1949.

If in the 4 years between the nuking of Nagasaki (9th August 1945) and that date the US would have struck first, nuking Moscow and wiping out the Soviet leadership, it could have resulted in no MAD, as one of two sides would have not developed.

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    $\begingroup$ so no MAD as long as France, UK and USA are allies which is a good incentive to keep being ally. $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Mar 22 '18 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ The UK and US worked together on nuclear weapons, so I don't think the US' bombing the USSR would have stopped the UK from developing them out of fear - more likely the govt would have decided they were no longer necessary and cancelled them to pay for other things. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ Bertrand Russell explicitly advocated nuking the Soviets in a preemptive war from 1945-1949. $\endgroup$ – Eric Brown Mar 22 '18 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Of course it will lead to "one of two sides would have not developed" it is only unclear which one. Nuking Moscow won't give easy victory to US. $\endgroup$ – talex Mar 23 '18 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that early nuclear bombs has relatively limited power that ppl can stay harmless (at least to the instant damage) in a regular underground bunker. And they can only be delivered by bombers. There's very low chance that you can "wipe out the Soviet leadership" by a single strike, provided that you are able to deliver a B29 squad from nearest airbase to Moscow (a.k.a impossible, B2 is not a thing then). $\endgroup$ – tweray Mar 23 '18 at 14:39

Continued open warfare

Having defeated Germany and Japan, degrading relations between east and west cause Russia and the US to move straight into open warfare. This prevents the build up of warheads to the point of MAD. Conventional strikes on development facilities mean numbers of weapons don't increase and technologies are much slower to develop.

MAD was a symptom of two parties building up excess warheads over and above any practical requirement. Continued war footing changes the game. Weapons are constantly in use rather than building up in reserves. Mutual destruction may well still occur, but it's no longer assured.

Not exactly a small change in history from our end, but how small a change was it at the time? It had been under 100 years since Britain was last in open war with Russia, but British troops had taken sides during the Russian civil war and Britain didn't recognise the USSR until 1924, so in real terms you're looking at barely over 20 years since the prior conflict. Even at the start of WWII, Britain had more recently been at war in Russia than with Germany.

This was a seriously considered option by the name of Operation Unthinkable which included rearming the Wehrmacht on the way through to assist with the ongoing war.

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    $\begingroup$ See the Western Allies shelved plans to keep fighting WW2 against the USSR, including rearming German forces: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Unthinkable $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar Mar 22 '18 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ Just to clarify, some nukes are being produced by each side, and they're getting used? If used on cities (strategically, not just tactically against enemy military units / bases), yeah gradual destruction would be a very real thing as more and more population centres turned into nuclear wastelands. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Mar 22 '18 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ I was about to make Operation Unthinkable an answer but saw the link from Emilio. If the Allies had defeated Russia one could plausibly argue that MAD would never have been needed. I would suggest adding this historical fact as part of your answer. $\endgroup$ – Tracy Cramer Mar 22 '18 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Remember that before ICBMs the delivery platform of choice for the nukes were bomber planes. Both sides learned a lot from WW2, so hunting down a single bomber, even with a lot of fighters around it, is a non-issue if you know what it's carrying. Bombers survived in large packs in WW2. But you don't have many A-bombs for the pack! Unsure if a nuclear bomber can be successfully disguised as non-nuclear one (Enola Gay had some lift problems), further unsure if it is practical to send conventional bombers at Dresden-equivalent scale to what would become ground zero. $\endgroup$ – Oleg Lobachev Mar 23 '18 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegLobachev, which again slows everything down to below the total destruction threshold. Though Germany and Britain both had working jet aircraft by this point, nobody else yet did, which tips the balance heavily against Russia if they can be put to full use. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Mar 23 '18 at 13:48

Anti-nuclear technology

Or how to defuse a nuclear weapons safely after it has been launched, with a relatively guaranteed success rate. At some point in history, this MUST have been researched by the countries of the world. If you imagine that the scientists actually found a way to prevent nuclear weapons attack, then MAD is not assured. After all, why would anyone fear launching a nuke when they can annihiliate the danger of any incoming retaliation ?

If this sort of technology existed, the world would keep their nukes like a tool of pressure, but it would have a totally different meaning. Maybe they would try mission to sabotage the anti-nuclear technology of their enemies ?

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    $\begingroup$ This looks like the seed of an answer, do you know of any plausible anti-nuclear technology that might have been developed prior to July 1962? The first successful attempt to shoot down an ICBM was only last year, after all. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention that ICBM can be shot down in space, but there are other way : dropping it like in WWII, a torpedo, a rocket, a hand grenade... as there are plenty way tu use a nuclear weapon, I don't see any technology that can defused ALL kind of weapons $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Mar 22 '18 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Kepotx : a cloud of nanomachines spread all over the planed and controlled by a superintelligent AI could do it, but that would bring its own, different (and possibly orders of magnitude larger) problems. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 22 '18 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz good luck doing that before 1962... and if you can stop anyone from doing anything with a nuclear weapon, you can stop anyone from doing everything at all. Basically, world control. $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Mar 22 '18 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Kepotx The smallest known nuclear weapon is probably some form of nuclear artillery en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_artillery, not suitable for a hand grenade $\endgroup$ – bob0the0mighty Mar 22 '18 at 14:57

Lots of discussion of reducing the firepower of nations, or improving the anti-missile defences.

The reason MAD works is because nobody wants to deal with the consequences of a nuclear war. But what if you were simply harder to hurt?


TL:DR redesign your nation to minimise the damage of a nuclear assault using defensive terrain and a dispersed populace/infrastructure.

You want to protect infrastructure and disperse the population so you provide no targets suitable for nuclear strikes.

You should duplicate critical infrastructure such as power, water, fuel and telecommunications in locations throughout the nation, particularly out in the country where they will have to be targeted specifically to be destroyed. Bury them underground where possible, harden them with concrete, guard them with anti-missile systems and make sure some of them are national secrets. Maintain reserves of water and fuel at secret locations.

The goal being to provide continuity of infrastructure.

Continuity of government is already a goal in real life with facilities around the US particularly and other nations too intended to provide this service. (eg: Raven Rock and Norad)

If you can maintain at least partial power, water and fuel infrastructure, the rebuilding process will be far easier.

The second part is to protect the people. The best way to do this is scatter the urban sprawl wider and use defensive terrain to protect against blasts. Most nukes are airbursts, but their ground-shockwave will produce much of the damage. building houses low and wide will help protect them.

Cities and the suburbs around them are frequently built on very flat terrain, or in a valley area which actively shapes the blast of a nuclear strike to be more effective. Building artificial hills and valleys to put towns and suburban sprawl in would mitigate the blastwaves fairly quickly and protect against the Flash-damage while being actually quite scenic in peacetime.

The main concern then becomes the fallout and providing for the needs of the people in the immediate aftermath. If we're already performing extensive earthworks, then the best option would be to provide underground tram-lines into the city center from the suburban areas. These tunnels would be networked out to nodes throughout the suburbs and link to fallout shelters and supply bunkers where the population can retreat to in an emergency.

So your nation can now weather the storm of nuclear war better than most.. Your citizens enjoy a modern and efficient public-transit system and aren't cramped together in urban sprawl. You enjoy the benefit of a happy people in peacetime.

Destruction is no longer mutually assured. You may lose the city itself, but the people and core infrastructure will survive for the most part, meaning you can rebuild.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, the Swiss approach. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ If you're going to put this much effort into distributing infrastructure (and it's a good idea!), why not build out a lot more of your living and working spaces underground? Any region with limestone formations can be mined out for economic value (using the room and pillar method) leaving behind large warehouse sized areas which are inexpensive to develop and maintain (for instance, heating and cooling can be very economical). Now you have large surface areas that can be developed into parks and natural recreation areas which are useful in peacetime but can be easily abandoned during war. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mar 23 '18 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ Not a bad idea, but practically speaking, who wants to live underground? Natural lighting has a surprisingly big effect on the human psyche even over short periods of time. But yes, constructing warehousing and industrial facilities in mined out limestone caverns would be a great option even today! $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Mar 26 '18 at 8:14

Perhaps "mutually assured destruction" was merely a propaganda tool used by governments on both sides of the cold war to keep their populations from demanding a full-scale war. Nuclear weapons exist, but testing and experimentation during the nuclear arms race exhausted the vast majority of the available nuclear fuel. Additional sources of weaponizable nuclear fuel were never discovered. Each side knows the other is completely bluffing when they speak of their massive nuclear arsenal. Sure they have a few, but not enough to cripple an entire nation (certainly not one as geographically distributed as the US or USSR). The only reason both sides kept up the charade is that they knew the result of using one of their nukes would be a full-scale conventional war between the world's remaining superpowers, quickly escalating to "world-war" proportions and devastating - both physically and financially - a world that had not yet recovered from the last epic conflict (potentially worse than two countries only destroying each other). Instead, the cold war was really about each side using espionage and politics to tear down the other from within, hoping to collapse it without any traditional military involvement. For an outside observer, this could appear essentially the same as in our true timeline. Only the highest-level government and military officials would know the true nature of the conflict.

Note that this doesn't necessarily preclude the development of nuclear power generation. Only weaponizable fuel is critically scarce.

  • $\begingroup$ thorium is abundant and non-weaponizable, IIRC. OTOH this doesn't preclude dirty bombs. $\endgroup$ – Will Ness Mar 25 '18 at 12:18

SDI could have been started much earlier and much more advanced than in reality. Consequntly, the ABM-Treaty would never have been there. I think this adheres best with the goals you set.

For this to work out, you have to maybe move some technologies a few years back or have existing ones at that time be a little more capable. Also the effort the countries put into applying them into the field has to be scaled up.


Missile defense

The Soviet Union achieved the first nonnuclear intercept of a ballistic missile warhead by a missile at the Sary Shagan antiballistic missile defense test range on 4 March 1961.

Project Nike:

Nike Hercules (MIM-14). It improved speed, range and accuracy, and could intercept ballistic missiles. [...] The Nike Hercules was deployed starting in June 1958

For an overview of historical ICBM-deployments see below. Also notice that the early ICBM´s where not too reliable themselves.

ICBM Deployment from Wikipedia

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it's that plausible actually - you're talking about a project that was still (I quote from the Wikipedia page you linked) 'decades away from being a reality' in 1987. 'Just moving some technologies back' half a century isn't exactly trivial. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ You don´t have to recreate all means of catching a missile in use today, only sufficient means to catch a high % of the Missiles that where in use then. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Mar 22 '18 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ What I mean is, I don't think it's possible to recreate any of the means of stopping a missile in use today by 1962. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, mostly the means today are still using another (smaller) missile. Which was first successfully carried out 1961, apparently. See here $\endgroup$ – Daniel Mar 22 '18 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ See the wikipedia page on missile defense I referenced in my post. The site I linked in the comment was meant as a reference that missiles are still the weapon of choice to destroy other long range missiles. Sorry for beeing unclear in the comment $\endgroup$ – Daniel Mar 22 '18 at 15:17

Here's one that's (arguably) a variant of what actually happened in the late 1980's. Let's call it a deluded actor scenario.

There's a really convincing charlatan who manages to convince the leader of one side (doesn't really matter which one), that he's got some magic/tech that will make their side mostly immune to the other side's ICBM's. Let's say he's got a magic anti-missile stick.

Now, it doesn't really matter if the stick actually works. What matters is that the leader with the stick believes it works, and the leaders on the other side know that he believes that.

Now you no longer have MAD. Since one side believes it is protected, it will happily ignore any threats the other side makes, while still believing it is quite capable of safely nuking the other side if that side does something they don't like.

Thus in any nuclear confrontation the stick-less side is left with the choice of either giving in, or pulling the ripcord and destroying the world. Meanwhile the side with the stick thinks they never have to give in.

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    $\begingroup$ Going down the rabit hole: that the leader with the stick only has to convince the other side that they believe the stick works, they don't actually have to believe it... What more, the leader with the stick doesn't have to convince the other side that the leader with the stick believes it, they just have to convince the other side that the leader with the stick believes they have convinced the other side. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Mar 23 '18 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk - Essentially correct. But considering the stakes, its probably best/safest/simplest for the leader with the stick to actually be deluded enough to believe it. Carrying out a successful multileveled deception like you describe is hard, and of course creating working magic anti-missile sticks is really hard too. But delusional leaders are a dime a dozen. $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Mar 23 '18 at 17:52

Lord of the Flies.

Squirming a little, conscious of his filthy appearance, Ralph answered shyly. "Hullo."

The officer nodded, as if a question had been answered. "Are there any adults--any grownups with you?"

Dumbly, Ralph shook his head. He turned a halfpace on the sand. A semicircle of littleboys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands, were standing on the beach making no noise at all.

"Fun and games," said the officer.

The fire reached the coconut palms by the beach and swallowed them noisily. A flame, seemingly detached, swung like an acrobat and licked up the palm heads on the platform. The sky was black.

The officer grinned cheerfully at Ralph.

"We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?"

The Roswell incident in 1947 was more than a crashed flying saucer. It was a visit by extraterrestrials, prompted by their detection of the nuclear explosions ending WW2. This visit (and similar unpublicized visits in China and the USSR) was to notify humanity that certain types of actions on the part of humanity would not be permitted. Specifically, these aliens charged with overseeing Earth would see to it that humanity would not be allowed to destroy itself with nuclear weapons.

Rather than being cowed and well behaved (like the boys in Lord of the Flies), the relevant parties took this notice as carte blanche to go ahead and try to destroy each other and humanity, with increasing confidence (as these attempts were thwarted in part or whole) that alien intervention would prevent actual total destruction of earth.


If you identify and remove a key figure on the Soviet side that delays them by a few years, that possibly gives the US a head start to build up enough of an arsenal that they could strike first once the USSR starts testing.

Given that they were able to kickstart their own development by working off what they'd been able to steal from the US project, better counter-espionage on the US side might do it.

Identifying Klaus Fuchs as a spy earlier and preventing him passing information to the Soviet project might work. Or possibly Harry Gold, either rolling up his network or turning him and providing misleading information to slow down their development.


No Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties

A manner in which that can be done has actually been addressed, and given the implied risk, been outlawed (more or less) by a sequence of treaties. SDI programs (by name, "exotic weapons") which use rail guns or ultra-high-intensity lasers, as an example, to provide an enduring shield against all or most nuclear assaults would make it that much more likely for the owning party to launch a nuke. An example of such a treaty is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

In the time since, numerous surprisingly effective defensive technologies such as particle cannons, electrolasers (generally in an effort to safely take out a fleet of bombers), X-Ray lasers (which ironically require the detonation of a warhead to work), and SDI rail launchers have been developed, but not deployed. Make what you will of it.

If this was never addressed by international treaty, then everyone's nuclear trigger fingers would be quite a bit itchier. On the other hand, it might not matter quite as much. Hard to say. Let's just be grateful that cooler heads have prevailed.

  • $\begingroup$ This immediately came to mind when I read OP. MAD probably could have been ended long ago, except it seems people feared another arms race more than they feared "mutually assured destruction". $\endgroup$ – Meridian Mar 22 '18 at 18:17

1. Sabotage

One country succeeds in large-scale infiltration of the opposition's bomb manufacture. A nuclear device is an extremely high precision gadget: a small asymmetry in the explosive lens would ensure a fizzle instead of a full-scale explosion. There are dozens of similar almost-undetectable sabotages that can be carried out.

So, MAD avoidance lies in the fact that while the tested units worked, the bombs actually loaded onto the missiles won't. They're completely identical to functional nuclear weapons, except for a tiny flaw that will prevent the last stage fission.

One way - one very risky way - of doing this would be to leak a lot of nuclear technology to the other side (this would almost need to be have been done from the USA to the URSS), together with a competent enough and credibly disgruntled enough scientist to "defect" to the other side. He would then both supply technology advanced enough to stifle any other research (why labor to produce an alternative knock-off when you can go after the real deal?), and ensure the production units would not work. The problem being, of course, that such a person would probably never be trusted enough to be able to pull off the scam.

2. More sabotage

One country, seeing where things are going, apparently keeps its missile program running, but in reality develops a secondary program to build miniaturized nuclear devices designed for very long deployments. This is easily feasible, since portable nuclear demolition charges appeared in the Fifties. They spend a long time in designing failsafes, stealthing and shielding. Then, they smuggle said devices in the opposition's territory, hiding them in underground tunnels, or just holes in the ground where it is unlikely that someone will ever look.

Once the enemy's territory is satisfactorily seeded, the "M" in "M.A.D." no longer holds. The enemy is also informed that at the first sign of readiness to launch, whether in response to this threat or not, all devices will be simultaneously detonated. To prevent such an equivocation, they are urged to immediately dismantle their launching capability.

(The same holds for method #1. As soon as the game is revealed, the enemy must be kept from reacting or secretly undoing the damage. This would require implausibly (?) large quantities of ruthlessness).

  • $\begingroup$ The first sabotage would work, but not the second. "Hey we have developed a different brand of your technology and managed to smuggle large quantities of mini-nukes into your country without being noticed. They are hidden so we know you'll likely think we are just bluffing and not believe us and should you accidentally find one we'll have to detonate to make our threat believable" $\endgroup$ – Demigan Mar 22 '18 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ You could say "choose two cities, any two cities" and reveal the location of one mini-nuke in each. In both cases, however, as soon as you issue the ultimatum, you more or less have to invade. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 22 '18 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ How is pre-seeded bombs scattered throughout a nation functionally different from the ability to deliver nukes via bombers or missiles, from the MAD point of view? You say "disarm or we'll blow up all your cities with bombs we've hidden there", they say "yeah, but enough of our secret nuclear ICBM-bases/submarines/etc will survive that we can still annihilate all of your largest cities afterwards". It's still MAD $\endgroup$ – Ben Mar 23 '18 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben you would need to deploy the nukes before either side has a significant launch capability - or intercontinental bombers. In other words, you have a narrow window of opportunity. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 23 '18 at 6:45

This answer is probably a bit more memetic than some others, which may or may not be suitable for your world:

One Nation Didn't Get Any Of Those German Rocket Scientists

MAD burns down to ICBM delivery - you can stop bombers quite effectively (at least from reaching population centers) using nuclear tipped SAM/AAM - which are less complex than ICBMs due to the lower range and lower accuracy required. So, as long as any one side has less than around 100 (non-MIRV'd) missiles - then MAD isn't assured. Missile production facilities probably wouldn't recover from any "limited" nuclear strike.

With that as our given assumptions, here's the scenario: Operation Paperclip is either a resounding failure or a resounding success - one side of the victorious blocks gains the largest part of the German rocketry know-how and thus gains a head start worth 10 years in rocketry (already the soviets had a slight lead with intercontinental rocketry in the real world).

What would be a reasonable prerequisite for this to happen? The Soviets, arriving in Germany first, continue moving the front as far west-ward as they dare, to capture German assets of any kind. Or: The German rocket scientists fled en-masse to surrender to the Allies, hearing of the atrocities the Soviets committed during their approach.

As the years move by, one nation continues to hold a significant technological advantage in rocketry, making the availability of a compatible warhead the limiting factor. Once this has been designed, a first-strike enabling ICBM force with little counter-force from the opposing side is available.

This puts one side at a deciding advantage, and anticipating the MAD doctrine they strike first, eliminating enemy airfields in a first strike, and then defending only against the airborne alert bombers heading for their territory. To pick up your example of the Moscow criterion: Defending Moscow against incoming bombers should be very much possible, since they would all have to come via the arctic and would face interceptors with nuclear tipped anti air missiles.

Some more technical notes:

In the end a credible first strike is mostly based on missile accuracy - you need to be able to wipe out airfields with hardened bunkers and carrier groups, as well as strike deep underground command and control bunkers with multiple weapons.

500 meters of CEP will not get your very far, but is plenty to take out civilian/industrial targets. So a slight lead in rocketry and guidance as actually happened was not enough.

You need <100m CEP intercontinental accuracy, before your enemy has meaningful intermediate range (~1000-3000km range) missiles. You could still strike Moscow with dozens of nuclear IRBMs from southern Germany or vice versa. This would put the USSR at a disadvantage, since they cannot strike the mainland US with IRBMs. They could hit London though - whether this was considered an acceptable loss for a US-led NATO, I don't know.


So, MAD is a theory that any country that starts a nuclear war with another nuclear power would take an unacceptable loss to itself, thus rendering Nuclear War a start. What enforces MAD is the existence of a nations "Second Strike" capability by maintaining a "Nuclear Triad".

Second Strike (aka Retaliatory Strike) is the concept that the nation is attacked will have enough of it's nuclear forces survived to hit the enemy nation with a mass retaliatory strike that could cause enough of an unacceptable loss to the aggressor that the First Strike was not worth it. At the height of the cold war, the US military estimated that if they were a victim of a First Strike surprise attack, 97% of all their nuclear forces would be destroyed in the opening salvo, so they built their forces to numbers that made it so a mere 3% of their nuclear forces could inflict these casualties to the USSR.

A Nuclear Triad is a term used to describe the three delivery systems of the war head to the target: Air Based, Sea Based, and Land Based missiles. The USA used stationary silos with solid rocket missiles, which meant that they were ready to fire within minutes but the USSR knew exactly where they were. The USSR used mobile platforms for their rockets with a liquid fuel, which allowed them to move missiles to avoid detection, but the fuel used was so volatile it took them several hours to properly fuel a rocket and every thirty days, they would have to completely drain the fuel or risk premature detonation of the rocket on the launch pad, so it was really obvious when they intended to launch them.

Both forces also used gravity bombs dropped from bombers but since conventional bombings were all the rage during WWII, the defensive measures to deter this system was the easiest to impliment. Still, the US would have constant flights of bombers to the "Fail Safe Point" near the Soviet Border and then return to base 24/7. They also had another portion of their bomber compliment on stand-by, ready to fly with 15 notice warning.

The final member of the Unholy Trinity is the Nuclear Submarine, which is what allowed MAD to truly be successful. Nuclear Subs could stay submerged for longer than the crew could and this allowed both sides a mobile nuclear delivery platform that was somewhere under 70% of the surface of the planet. The survival of these subs and their missiles would be critical to second strike as now a safe first strike was impossible without retaliation. When the actual use of this came into being is not exactly well known, but Nuclear armed subs were fielded by both sides during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962. In fact, it was recently revealed that one Soviet Sub was discovered by a US destroyer, which proceeded to drop Depth Charges on it to force it to surface. In the Soviet Sub, the Captain had ordered the firing of a nuke on the sub and the First Officer refused to do his duty to launch.

Now, it's important to say this because it's essential to early MAD: At no time was the USSR capable of launching an attack on the United States. However, the USSR had superior intelligence capabilities and would resort to all sorts of tactics to trick the United States into thinking they had the numerical edge. May Day military parades included multiple waves of nuclear capable air planes... which were just the same formation of planes that would fly in circles and change their formation on the next pass. Similarly, the Soviet's ground based mobility meant tracking the number of missiles was very difficult. The CIA estimated in 1957 that the USSR could field 10 prototype missiles by mid 1958... By Mid 1958, this rose to 100 operation missiles by 1960, 500 by 61. Think Tanks in DC, feeling the true intel was classified and worse, gave the number as high as 1,500 at a point where the US operation forces would at best be 130 operation missiles. These number advantages would later be revealed to be gross exagerations... the USSR had a total force including prototype missiles, 4 missiles in their nuclear arsenal.

This is where your change could happen. Had the United States realized early on that this missile gap was in their favor, not to the detriment, they may have been less scared of the demands of the USSR and finally had enough and started a war the Soviets were ill equipped to finish.

As a final note, MAD did not end with McNamara's announcement. The prevailing policy of the Cold War was to ensure that their First Strike did not decimate your ability to launch a second strike. In fact, the threat of SDI in the 80s eliminating the USSR Second Strike was feared by many to be more deadly than Nuclear War. The Soviets panicked so much, they spent themselves into collapse to try and counter it.


In 1959 there are a limited number of nuclear scientists in the world, and they tend to hang out in a limited number of places.

A small aggressive non-nuclear power with highly developed espionage capability could conceivably decide that killing them all is a much more cost-effective strategy than building their own nuclear program.

tl;dr Israel kills all the nuclear scientists, continuing the build the stockpile is impossible without training more scientists. Israel kills those too.

The cost of building a nuclear program from scratch becomes prohibitively high in the post-war reconstructive environment, draining resources from initiatives like the Marshall Plan.

The two superpowers now start competing on who can spend more resources on rebuilding their half of Europe rather than who can blow up the world best.

Bonus irony points if Israel kills all the scientists with radiation poisoning and makes it look like that is the inevitable natural result of doing practical nuclear research.

Marie Curie's death is seen as an object lesson in hubris, and the academy takes the point.

  • $\begingroup$ There are a small number of nuclear scientists not because only a few people are fundamentally able to do it, but because only a few people are needed to do it. Witness how small nations have been able to develop nuclear capability even when subject to embargo. I'm pretty sure if all the practicing nuclear scientists were killed, more would learn. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Mar 22 '18 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth my understanding is that outside of the single example of Israel, every country that has nuclear weapons has them by using the results and staff of WW2 nuclear programmes or help from an existing nuclear nation. North Korea for example was aided both by Pakistan, and by having access to the results of the abortive Japanese nuclear programme that was done on what is now their soil. $\endgroup$ – Racheet Mar 23 '18 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Racheet Goldschmidt was part of the Manhatten project, and was the father of the French bomb. Isreal initial nuclear ambitions where in concert with France. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Mar 23 '18 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that you would need to destroy all the records as well. While there is a select few of highly specialized scientists which you need to build new and better bombs, there are too many engineers able to build more of the old ones, given the blueprints and access to enough funds and materials. Since blueprints and the production of fissile materials will both be in heavily secured facilities, stopping an existing program will need more than a few assassinations. $\endgroup$ – mlk Mar 24 '18 at 11:25

Improved stealth technology

In the real world, the first ICBMs were flown in in 1957 by Russia. These are one method for delivering nuclear weapons anywhere on the planet, with large aircraft and submarines being other usual candidates. In addition to being a practical warhead delivery system, the flights of these rockets started the space race.

In your fictional world, the space race yielded early non-space related technology advances. Teflon was invented.

Wikipedia molecule images of Teflon:

enter image description here

enter image description here

However, it was found that if every third or fourth Fluorine atom was replaced with lead oxide to form Tefloblum then any incident radar would be scattered. A practical and easily applied stealth paint technology had been invented.


 F F
 | |
 | |
 F O-Pb

All jet and missile warhead delivery systems were painted in Tefloblum in 1959. As a result, it was possible to:

  1. launch nuclear weapons on ICBMs, or launch long range bombers without detection
  2. deliver a crippling first strike, such that retaliation would not be possible from ground based weapons (assuming they had been correctly targeted)

In the decades that followed research was focused on:

  • Submarine launched nuclear weapons to allow retaliation strikes - including improvement of the yield and range of small submarine carried nukes, and the quantity available at sea
  • Improved radar detection technology, to allow detection of stealth missiles/bombers - through satellite observation and alternate radar wavelengths

However, it was not until the mid 1980s that these technologies were sufficiently advanced that the ability to detect and return fire developed to MAD levels.

Thus the world had an additional 20 years of non-MAD cold war, and diplomacy took alternate avenues to prevent war. Did anyone use their first strike ability? We'd be interested to know once you write the rest of the story.

  • $\begingroup$ One caveat you should consider is that ICBMs produce a great deal of heat on both launch and reentry. Infrared satellites and ground based installations would detect them even if radar did not. It looks like the technology was still fairly primitive ~1960 but if either side had any inkling that the other had stealth missiles you bet they would have prioritized these systems: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missile_Defense_Alarm_System. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Mar 23 '18 at 20:13

Kessler syndrome blocking ICBMs

Start with a more extreme version of the space race. Say instead of stopping at V-2 rockets, Germany launches a V-3 rocket, the first ICBM (with a conventional payload) late during the war, impacting somewhere in Brooklyn. Although completely inefficient as a bombing strategy, this leads to a general panic in the US public (and in Russian leadership after the war, when you combine this rocket with the atomic bomb) and even more advanced German technology for both sides to use after the war.

As a result, Sputnik goes up in 1952 and the US soon follow. In the next decade, both sides launch stuff into low earth orbit like there is no tomorrow. Satellites, capsules, small space stations with telescopes to spy on the enemy (hand operated, as the electronics are still at 1950s level), spent upper stages, maybe even a few nukes, just to have them at hand. Just add up all the proposals the military made during the space race and finance them.

However around 1960, everything goes haywire. Maybe there is some high speed collision of two unmarked spy satellites, maybe some anti-satellite weapon is tested, maybe a rocket launch fails spectacularly while nearly in orbit. No matter what, now you have a lot of high speed debris, which in turn starts to hit other things, which then also tend to explode, astronauts and cosmonauts jump into emergency capsules back to earth, leaving their stations unattended. In short, the utter chaos of a Kessler syndrome erupts, the lower earth orbit fills with trash. Both sides blame each other, but there is nothing that can be done except to wait for a few decades while stuff slowly deorbits.

With this, ICBMs suddenly become useless, as most of them will not survive the flight. Both sides of course start to invest heavily in fast bombers and shorter range atmospheric missiles, but of course equally in the methods to intercept them. As a result, the destruction is not so assured anymore. Some stuff will get through, coastal cities like New York and St. Petersburg might easy enough to reach, but anything heading towards Moscow or Chicago will be spotted and shot down.

As added benefit of this scenario, the resulting high amount of shooting stars will make night scenes so much more romantic...

  • $\begingroup$ Kessler Syndrome only applies to objects orbiting a gravity well though. ICBMs are suborbital delivery vehicles, and should barely be impacted by debris in stable orbits. Debris in low orbits (with periapsis at the apoapsis of the warheads) will burn up after months to years. $\endgroup$ – Rick Moritz Mar 24 '18 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ I thought about this to. However suborbital does not mean low apogee, only perigee still at ground level. Wikipedia puts a possible apogee at around 1200 km, which is definitely an altitude with stable orbits. You can of course lower this, however if you still want to cover the distance, this means a long flight time in the atmosphere, which opens you up to drag problems and possible interception. Also while trash in lower orbits will burn up, ongoing collisions higher up will throw debris into lower orbits too. $\endgroup$ – mlk Mar 24 '18 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ I will however grant that there might be a time problem, in the sense that ICBMs are only up there for such a short time, that most of them will not be hit too much. However I guess answering this question in one way or the other would need quite a bit of physical modelling to answer. $\endgroup$ – mlk Mar 24 '18 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ You could probably also engineer around this by using waveriders instead of ballistic missiles, which obviously have their own challenges (guidance is much easier in space, than in the athomsphere). $\endgroup$ – Rick Moritz Mar 24 '18 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this would probably be the next step, first normal cruise missiles, then hypersonic versions thereof, such as using waveriders. However the question specified 1962 and even with slightly more advanced rocket tech, those are still far of. And since no satellites mean no GPS, guidance is indeed a big problem. Also I assume that waveriders will be noisy enough to make a bright target for an advanced enough SAM-technology a long time before they hit, while ICBMs are kind of hard to spot apart from the last few seconds as they reenter the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – mlk Mar 24 '18 at 12:00

1 Change: A well placed and respected spy.

What the US didn't know was that the USSR only had warheads for 1/2 of their missiles and they only had fuel in 1/2 of their missiles. Furthermore, they weren't the same half.

The KGB were so afraid of someone acting without orders that they had to give an order to install warheads on the missiles.

The US could have wiped them out with the cost of only a few million of its own citizens.


1: Missile technology and detection advances rapidly, and the missile-defense shield actually functions even against those multi-nukes.

2: Missile technology doesn't advance quickly, and ICBM's get a high failure rate/don't reach far enough. You don't want to fire your ICBM if it could accidentally break up above your own country...

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    $\begingroup$ To copy a comment from an earlier answer, do you know of any plausible technology that might have been able to achieve 1 by 1962? $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Walrus So you are asking for a plausible way to stop nukes, in 1962, even though we haven't had any successful plausible one's in our modern day and age? I don't think there's an answer possible with those criteria $\endgroup$ – Demigan Mar 22 '18 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ If, as you say, your point 1 isn't plausible then I'd just edit your answer to focus on point 2 - I agree, a proper missile defence system by 1962 isn't really plausible. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ And an answer saying that there is no way of stopping MAD being a threat by 1962 is also a reasonable one. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 22 '18 at 11:03
  • $\begingroup$ @walrus I think point 1 is plausible if point 2 also applies. If the ICBM has more trouble being launched compared to smaller missile technology then the missile defense system might have a shot (heh). Alternatively, if the defensive missiles are much much cheaper and can be fielded in incredible quantities to counteract the downsides of how hard it is to hit an ICBM you could have a plausible way to counteract the ICBM. But we are talking about ludicrously cheap missiles here then and launching 1000+ missiles to blanket the sky and hit the ICBM. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Mar 22 '18 at 11:26

Given your restriction, I think that most of the answer are wrong, since they focus on how to not enter in a MAD scenario.

Anyway, following your restrictions about the definition of MAD and unaceptable damages, then a single plane that would carry a bomb to Moscow (yes, I am thinking about Mathias Rust flight) on the right day can be sufficient since once Moscow is destroyed and the command chain severed by your definition URSS has no more the possibility or the will to retaliate, if not because there are nobody left to give the order.

The plane used by Mathias Rust enter in production in 1956 and he did his flight in 1987. I suppose that in the '60s the radar technology was unable to catch him. Ok, the problem is if a Cessna can fly with a nuke as payload, but at the time you can probably use some other plane to the same effect.

(I am assuming that, like the USA, the order to launch an atomic strike must be given from some very high level officer that is not stationed in the silos himself)

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    $\begingroup$ I think MAD had it's own form of dead-man's switch known as "Fail Deadly": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fail-deadly also, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letters_of_last_resort $\endgroup$ – Meridian Mar 22 '18 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Meridian probably you are right. The trick is to delay the switch activation until you are in a position where your destruction is not total or remain in the acceptable spectrum. But again, with the limitations given in the question, the switch is irrilevant. $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Mar 22 '18 at 20:45

Technology exist to fizzle warheads with Neutron Bombs before the reach their target. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutron_bomb The quantity of fission material is minimized to prevent self detonation by the bomb maker- avoiding critical mass. A small reduction of this fission material can be created by a neutron bomb when flying into a cloud of neutrons. The warhead becomes a "dud".


Chemical lasers invented earlier

Lasers were known to be theoretically possible long before the Cold War, and researchers discovered many different ways of generating maser and laser beams from the early 50s to the present day.

Chemical lasers are able to generate and transmit very high amounts of energy quickly.

Chemical lasers are kind of going out of fashion now, but in the '90s they were the future of missile and artillery defence. If they'd been invented in the '50s there absolutely would have been a rush to throw defence budget money at them.

Without modern computers, it would still be possible to build an analogue targeting computer using the theory of "cybernetics" that was available at that time, using feedback based electrical control systems to guide the laser beam to targets tracked by radar. It wouldn't be 100% reliable, and would require some field testing with dummy warheads to calibrate, but even if it barely works it would be enough to make policy makers think long and hard about whether mutual destruction will always be assured.


The Soviet Union did build some early nuclear power plants. One of those could do a Chernobyl, irradiating critical industrial infrastructure and seriously impacting the Soviet economy.

In an idealistic approach, perhaps the Soviet leader could call the US president and invite them to come look at the aftermath of that power plant meltdown, while asking - is this what we really want to do to each other? There has to be a better way to resolve our differences.

A bit of 1950's tech that was overlooked was the B49 flying wing bomber. During early tests, it was found to have a significantly reduced radar cross section, as much as 40% smaller. Had the US picked up on that and chosen to pursue it, as they did almost 50 years later with the B2, radar defeating aircraft could have been developed in the 1950's. Stealth technology played a major role in the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, as it invalidated the huge investment they had made in radar based air defenses.

It wasn't so much the stealth aircraft, but the expense of trying to develop a counter after the Soviets had poured a fortune into radar based defenses, that did the damage.

One 1960's development, the anti-ballistic missile system, wasn't effective. The ABM treaty did not result from a desire to perpetrate MAD, but an acknowledgement that ABM's could be easily defeated. This was learned from the 'rainbow tests', so called for the rainbow colors seen. These were very high altitude nuclear explosions carried out in the the early 1960's. The largest of these was Starfish Prime, a 1.8 megaton device set off at an altitude of 250 miles over the Pacific. What we learned from our tests and the Soviets learned from their tests was that nukes produced a powerful electromagnetic pulse, as Starfish Prime knocked out several satellites, and a Soviet detonation over their own country disabled a couple of power generation plants.

The tests also produced a cloud of radiation that persisted for several days, that was impenetrable by radar. Thus, the counter to ABM's: set off a nuke high over the country, fire the ICBMs through the resulting cloud of radiation, and the target country's radar wouldn't pick up the incoming warheads until they were in their terminal phase, moving at a speed of around Mach 25... impossible to hit with an interceptor.

It's important to cover why land based ABM's weren't pursued in the 60's and 70's, because it also explains why the 1980's SDI was so provocative to the Soviets. SDI positioned the interceptors in space, above any such radiation cloud, and thus able to spot and intercept ICBM's in their semi-orbital phase, when they were moving very slowly. If it had worked... what the Soviets didn't know was that we couldn't get SDI to work in the 1980's. The tech just wasn't there... yet.

That would be an interesting twist to a story, that one side conned the other into going broke.

In fiction, no one would believe it.

In fact, that's pretty much what happened... a combination of stealth aircraft obsoleting the huge investment in radar, SDI that didn't quite work, and Chernobyl, not just the human cost but the financial cost of the aftermath.


Chemical poisoning of the uranium mines.

Some nation without a nuclear program, but with a very capable chemical industry consistently drops persistent nerve poisons on the places that are sources of uranium. Some agents are peristent for months or years.

At the time you are talking about, most of North America's uranium was coming from Canada, from Uranium City. Given the foreign equivalent of the B36 it would be very difficult to stop the first bombing of the mines and town.

You only have to stop one side. That side has to capitulate if the other side says 'surrender or die'.

An arms race, but on the lines of cruise missiles develops, either under computer control (such as computers were then) or with a human pilot who either suicides or aims it, and bails 5 minutes short of the target.


Bad Maths.

In this alternate-universe, the person responsible for calculating how much fuel was required in the missiles for one country wrote something down wrong in their formula. And every missile since then has been fueled using the same Expert's calculations...

As such, none of their nuclear weapons are actually able to reach The Enemy™ without being loaded on a plane, ship or boat/submarine. Unfortunately, <insert unfortunate country here> are entirely unaware of this fact. By the time they can ready and mobilise their (comparatively easy to shoot down/sink) vehicles, the "war" will already be over.

While not Mutually Assured, there is still likely to be destruction, just wherever the stamina-challenged missiles land instead of their targets. This could be anything from hitting your own country, hitting a previously neutral 3rd-party, or just landing in the ocean (potential tidal waves?)

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, it is standard practice to keep submarines/planes loaded all of the time -- see second strike capability. $\endgroup$ – user2781 Mar 22 '18 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ This answer also ignores the existence of missile testing - the first time they launched a test, those wrong calculations would be apparent. In actuality, that kind of simple mathematical mistake would have been caught and corrected long before they got to the stage of actually testing. $\endgroup$ – walrus Mar 23 '18 at 16:33

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