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Suppose that during the height of the Cold War, nuclear war unknowingly breaks out. Seemingly "on accident", by the actions of a certain group of individuals, the nuclear missiles get launched by both sides, without the agreement of the political authorities. The nuclear missiles are launched by some individuals or a group of conspirators who are not aligned with the rulers of the countries. The rulers of the countries did not want the nuclear war to start. It happened without their knowledge or approval.

But what was done was done. Several cities were destroyed, and fallout covered a significant amount of territory. But no any other military actions were taken. But the governments of these two countries have a kind of 1984 agreement with each other. They are secretly in cahoots, only making an appearance of a Cold War, and somewhere along the line someone accidentally started a nuclear war in reality.

Now that the damage has been done, the corrupt rulers are quickly scrambling to control the damage, preserve the status quo, and prevent the general public from even knowing that a nuclear war ever took place. They want to cover it up, to make sure that the general public would be uninformed of whatever happened. They want to preserve the status quo, that the fake "Cold War" is still going on, and nothing has happened.

Both of these governments are secretly working together to keep the knowledge of nuclear war from spreading. And they can use any methods to preserve the status quo. They could simply kill witnesses, kill or intimidate people who are speaking the truth, controlling the media with an iron fist, and restricting the movement of people in the country. But what would they do about the cities that got destroyed, or about the fallout over the large territories? What are some actions that they could conceivably try to cover up the nuclear war, either by claiming that aliens did it, or something else?

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    $\begingroup$ @JBH The OP isn't asking if there would be a cover-up, they are asking how would a cover-up work. In other words, it's not about decisions, it's about methodology. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Nov 29, 2023 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild That's systemically the same thing. A government covers things up by choosing to use the media, choosing to control information, choosing... No, I disagree. Historically we've always closed "how would organization X accomplish Y?" questions as too story-based if only because it depends too heavily on the circumstances of the story, not the nature of the world. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 29, 2023 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH "How would you make an airplane fly? That's too story-based. If Bernoulli happens to observe something about lift and the shape of wings, that's a personal, character-based action and out of scope for the site!" $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Nov 29, 2023 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Jedediah Developing technology is permitted on this Stack. Developing story plots is not. Therefore, explaining how a society or inventor can bring an invention to pass is not permitted. Geez... this Stack rule has existed for years and is embodied in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 29, 2023 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ For persons who sort of neglected to look at the "Too Story Based" criteria, cited above, they will have missed reading the following statement. "Capabilities of characters within a world and creation of groups of characters (like nations) are on-topic, but questions must focus on what is possible or likely to develop, not what someone would or should do." The question what can be done, Thus on-topic. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 29, 2023 at 4:12

14 Answers 14

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Solve the right problem

What you are trying to hide is not the fact that there was a nuclear exchange...

"I am sorry, a what now?"

An exchange of nuclear weapons. They did not have a war because a war requires a declaration of war. And the fact that hostilities took place does not necessitate a declaration of war, nor does it necessitate Mutually Assured Destruction.

So your faux-adversaries do not need to hide the fact that nuclear weapons were flung at each other, a task which is practically impossible anyway because such things will be noticed.

What they do need to explain is why they did not step up to full-blown war and world wide annihilation.

Exactly what explanations are viable depends entirely on the rest of the world politics. Especially this: what did the two nations publically state before the atomic cow pat hit the fan? How did they say they would react?

But in the end I think they will mutually agree to...

Lay it on thick with the misinformation

The best way to cover up a lie to drown it in lots of truths and half-truths.

So these nations will agree to muddy the waters as much as they can regarding who shot first. And both will claim the moral high-ground saying that they showed admirable restraint in the face of this unprovoked attack.

...and then it will be business as usual, the Cold War goes on after this little heat-wave, now with ample justificatin to show that the other side cannot be trusted and are in fact evil buggers that will even take to tossing nukes about.

In summary

Solve the right problem.

Hiding nuclear destruction is a hard, nigh impossible problem to solve.

Covering up a conspicuous lack of animosity after this exchange, on the other hand, is — still not easy — but a far more accomplishable task, at least compared to covering up city-sized piles of radioactive glass and ash.

Using the hostilities as a propaganda tool to justify continued Cold War turns this unexpected kerfuffle into a useful asset. All that is needed is that the propaganda ministries of the respective countries go into overdrive and use their rumour mills to churn out deliberately conflicting stories about the exact timeline of the event.

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Just find a scapegoat. There's always some group either domestic or foreign that can be labelled as dangerous nutcases and given the blame. Then apologise for the intelligence shortcomings which failed to stop the imaginary group. Be excused by the public since you're owning up to the failing and promising to do better while looking heroic.

Then shift public focus somewhere else by invading the middle east or playing wargames in the Ukraine or something. If all else fails fly some planes into a building and then invade a couple of countries in retaliation live on TV and make it like a video game.

It's a great business opportunity for everyone from arms dealers to caterers. A few million people died, but as Stalin said 'One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic'.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't a third faction attacking both sides a great reason to momentarily stop the cold war? It's basically the plan of Ozymandias in Watchmen to end the cold war by introducing a bigger threat to all of mankind. This one's not bigger, but still hard to justify. And if it's not a third party that hits both sides, it "has to be" a proxy from the enemy and calls for retaliation! $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2023 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Control the media and you can say anything you want. Truth is unimportant. So whatever story suits your agenda is the one you publish. Everything else is a laughable conspiracy theory $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Nov 29, 2023 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ Stalin did not say this. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Stalin#Misattributed $\endgroup$
    – leo848
    Nov 29, 2023 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ This is how it realistically would play out, because it is pretty much the bare truth: you have a bunch of traitors (launching nukes without authorization is treacherous) that conspired to plunge the nation into nuclear war (yikes, now we are talking serious treason!), so nothing remains to cover up... they can just speak the truth: traiterous agent provocateurs tried to get the nation into war, and caused the deaths of millions of their countrymen by destabilising the situation. So, 10/10 for realism, but also not very conspiratorial and not actually threatening The Big Secret™. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 1, 2023 at 13:08
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"It was terrorists who dun it!"

The destruction of cities by nuclear fire is just too big a calamity to sweep entirely under the carpet of lies and disinformation. Therefore, the best way forward is not to deny the event, but to shift the blame.

The event may have been caused by people following orders to launch missiles in the event of an attack, it may have been caused by people exceeding their orders, or it may have been started by a third party. Whatever the cause, as long as information about that can be controlled, the situation can be controlled.

So, this cabal controlling the two supposedly 'hostile nations in their cold war' would merely have to come up with a plausible story or two to explain how missiles were launched... preferably two conflicting stories. Country A goes with Story A, Country B goes with the conflicting Story B, and as long as neither story is a cassus belli in itself, the disagreement over the cause can be a reason for the two nations to continue to 'distrust' one-another rather than uniting over being mutually manipulated by some third party.

That way, each government would also have the excuse of 'rooting out traitors/infiltrators/spies' to institute more repressive or intrusive initiatives, with the public's support.

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I think other answers are greatly over-estimating the amount of information that people can get in a society with "1984" level control. In our world, this would be nearly impossible to hide. But we're not talking about our world. Without any free press or freedom of travel, anyone living and working more than about 200 miles from one of the explosions (i.e. in virtually any city not directly hit) would never know it happened.

The people in the suburbs would get a story about an industrial accident and would have no reason to go digging further unless they are protagonist troublemakers. That story might even make regional news if the government felt such a report would be useful. This would explain damaged infrastructure to anyone who didn't look too closely. And nuclear fallout? Who cares? The next generation is going to have more cancer cases than normal. The puppet masters can plan for that in their population projections, but beyond that it's just not a problem.

The people who were close enough to see the blast but far enough to survive will have to be handled in whatever way people are normally handled when they see something they're not supposed to. Disappearing permanently? Re-education camps? Whatever the world already allows for. This might be an unprecedented new scale, but it won't be the first time that sort of thing happened.

And what about people with relationships? Your aunt from the next city over suddenly stops returning calls? Well, it's unfortunate, but people get reassigned suddenly sometimes. Secondary characters have survived in this world long enough to know that you don't ask why unless you want to be suddenly reassigned yourself.

So TL;DR? In a "1984" style setting, this is more of an annoyance than a problem. Just keep doing what you're already doing (until the annoying protagonists make use of that information in some way).

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  • $\begingroup$ Another helpful fact is that a bright flash and a mushroom cloud is technically a thing all big enough explosions do, not only nuclear ones, which could be used to discredit even direct witnesses. They can't prove anything unless they saw the actual warhead flying in and doing the job. $\endgroup$
    – Kugelblitz
    Dec 3, 2023 at 15:02
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I think most of the answerers here are overthinking this. The obvious solution is:

A massive disinformation and propaganda campaign

Since you mentioned 1984 I'm assuming both of these countries have great control over the mass media within their respective territories. So, just downplay the fallout by reporting it as other things:

  • Communication lost with family and friends in one of the destroyed cities? Oh unfortunately there was a natural disaster (tornado or whatever) - your family member must have been one of those affected. So sorry for your loss.

  • Rivers were poisoned by the nuclear waste? No, there was just a leakage detected at a nuclear testing facility, several people became ill and died but it is being contained.

  • Food shortage due to destruction of crop lands? There was a famine this year due to low rain or oddly long winter, don't worry it will recover by next year.

Then just restrict communication with people from different regions so nobody knows the full story and can't connect the dots between these seemingly unrelated incidents.

The only issue is the physical damage - it's hard to deny what you can see with your own eyes, so just limit the exposure as much as possible. You can easily restrict travel by saying there is some kind of virus outbreak so people need to be isolated in their own cities. That just leaves the people who live nearby; they will probably need to be "re-educated" and threatened not to tell anyone.

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    $\begingroup$ Thing is though, 1984 is a great book, but it isn't a great example of how people and societies work. The USSR couldn't stop people knowing about what they did. For sure they could stop people doing anything about it, but they couldn't control that knowledge. Even North Korea has limits to what they can hide from their own people (you can't cover up countrywide hunger). $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Nov 30, 2023 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham I think you're disregarding how much it works. Look at the way our current society is treating the situation in Gaza. People who say "Israel's conducting a genocide" are seen as fringe. People who say "Israel blew up that hospital because it was actually a terrorist base, not a hospital" are mainstream. They haven't stopped the former getting out, but they've spread the latter message quickly enough that the former is generally seen as a kind of fringe conspiracy theory. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:36
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It's not a war, it was just a technical glitch of the launch system

Instead of trying to hide the fact that nuclear explosions happened (hard), try to hide why they happened. It would still be difficult to hide where the explosions came from physically (it's obviously not just a nuclear power plant, lol), but you can just play it off as a software or electrical error.

The internal "don't launch nukes" capacitor finally burnt out.

If people dig in further, you can shift the story to it being a UI issue.

Our mistake, turns out that capacitor never existed! Technical details are very hard to get straight, unfortunately. Actually, the system forgot to ask Crazy Tim for confirmation of the Nuke launch. Tim assumed it would because it's an irreversible operation. So it was actually caused by a poor UI decision when you think about it.

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    $\begingroup$ That might convice the people it would be a REALLY GOOD IDEA to get rid of this error prone system and the government that build and controlled it, and at the same time raise doubts if that evil foreign power, that didn't fully commit to nuclear annihilation, was that evil and big of a threat in the first place. You wouldn't want that to to happen.. $\endgroup$
    – LazyLizard
    Nov 30, 2023 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @LazyLizard: Dear me, I think you’ve misunderstood. Our launch systems are entirely reliable; it was their faulty system that had the glitch (typical shoddy work, inexcusable negligence leading to such appalling tragedy). And as everybody saw, our system responded perfectly as intended, showing them they couldn’t attack us with impunity, but holding appropriately back to avoid further escalation once the accidental nature of their launch was clear. $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2023 at 0:39
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It's super important to note that no matter who did it, nuclear war is nuclear war and has non-zero consequences. Because of that, it is in the government's best interest to not only create a third party to attack, but to accurately target and remove dissidents or terrorists within the country that would possibly cause a "true" major powers nuclear war. Therefore, whatever solution they come up with, needs to be dosed with McCarthyism, to have the public opinion strongly turned against anyone who would cause such a fallout in the future.

The solution I'd suggest is for both sides to explain it as a rebel or terrorist faction aligned with the second power within the country, but one without official ties to the other government. We see this situation already playing out IRL with the Houthis in Yemen, where they get blamed for firing missiles at American warships, when in reality they're a group controlled and funded by the Iranian government. The American government doesn't want to start a war with Iran and potentially Russia / China, so it's much easier to blame the rebel faction or group. A similar solution would probably work in your story as well.

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    $\begingroup$ "nuclear war is nuclear war" Yes, but not every exchange of nuclear weapons is nuclear war. Yes, any use of military means — from a conscript drunkely taking the wrong turn and wandering accross the border (ask the Brits and Irish about this one) to employing weapons of mass destruction — on a foreign sovereign nation, is an act of war, but that does not automatically mean that war will be declared. So there is plenty of wiggle-room here. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Nov 30, 2023 at 11:38
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You didn't really indicate the genre and wider circumstances leaving an opening for me to offer: The crack/parody/comedy option.

For example to go with the given option you could have the government say that aliens did it, but have the joke lie in how absurdly gullible you portray the citizens as. Maybe have one random 'crazy' conspiracy theorist proclaiming the truth and being brushed off while inadvertently acting as the straight man to the reader, but basically all the rest of the people buy the lie hook line and sinker which causes other problems as people go crazy from fear. Everybody who can is building a nuclear shelter, causing all sorts of shortages and tons of stress for construction workers and DYI shop clerks. Have it be like covid for us, but instead of masks everybody is required to wear a tin foil hat. And then have the epic climax be that aliens actually did come to attack the earth but were scared off by the nuclear bombs and the general insanity but the presence of one of their rookies captured on film is enough to prove the government's lies.

If this is a parody and the comedy level is one of extreme exaggeration for everything and or for children, then no one actually cares about the bomb especially when the two governments just "come out" about being in a friendship publicly and then host a huge party to prove how not-enemies they are and then if anyone objects they could get rid of them maybe making a spectacle of the rebel Hunger Games style.

If you are not going the humor route I can see a few semi serious options:

If the world this takes place in is partially fantasy, anywhere from steam punk to being towards the end of a magitech industrialization, and or the supernatural is known to be an actual factor. The government could say it was caused by a space cryptid/demon/god/a bad luck curse, and have it be believable and maybe even actually true.

If the civilization is dystopian the government might actually have 100% control over everything already. Like they run all the news agencies and everything/as in basically every kind of media public or not is just at least 99% propaganda. Also people are indoctrinated and brain washed from a very early age and maybe mind control and or memory manipulation of the masses is a thing and they disappear anyone that is immune (I am thinking a later plotline is that the fall out from the nuclear radiation in addition to the usual horrible side effects it also in low levels like on the out skirts makes some/many people immune to the brain washing/mind control potentially causing trouble later). So basically they just have to tell people that there always was a nuclear wasteland over there what are you talking about? Things are the same as they always have been and everything is fine and dandy and under control take this nice happy pill and get back to work. Basically gaslight everyone but succeed. Reminds me of of what I have seen of that one game 'We Happy Few' .

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That really depends on what they actually need to cover up. The fact that cold war supposedly turned hot? The fact that nuclear strikes happened? The fact that a few cities got destroyed?

First I'd like to point out that the fallout from nuclear weapons is greatly exaggerated, referring to real world example, so people could settle back to those cities almost immediately after the fact, but something would have to be done with survivors.

So to answer the first question - the easy thing to blame would be on industrial accident(s). Since, I presume, the strikes happened relatively at the same time, some more work would have to be put into making it look plausible, but it can be done. Does this era have computers? Things can be blamed on computer viruses or cyber terrorism, say that terrorists hacked into some factory producing something explosive and/or dangerous and caused this explosion. Some real world explosions can be compared with smaller nukes, but as long as the population is enough unaware and ignorant this lie can be fed to them. They don't have computers? Well you can try to scapegoat some chemical companies, say they got infested with rogue actors that caused industrial sabotage on a massive scale.

To answer the second question - assume the war with the other nation has gone hot, but no nukes have been used. Blame conventional high-yield weapons. Claim the enemy has struck something like a gunpowder factory or a weapons storage. Blame destroyed cities on firebombing by enemy aircraft, which create a hellscape no less terrifying than nuclear weapons.

Also, as a bonus, you can go for unconventional route - conspiracy theories. That would be a great and evil way to do it. After all, if the public can find the best ways to prove something is real that isn't, why not let them find the answer to the question they seek and embrace it? Wall off the cities, don't tell anyone anything and say that cities are under "quarantine" until the investigation is finished. Which investigation? Let the public decide. Look to the most interesting theory (besides those cities getting nuclear blasted) and embrace it. Maybe public will think there is a dangerous contagion there? Or they make a theory that there is an ongoing fighting in the cities already. Or that there is terrorist activity. Or they are taking people from those cities somewhere (maybe drafting to war?). And then just tell the news outlets to embrace it, put it in print and at some point say that the "investigation" has concluded that public was right this time!

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Create A Different Nuclear Disaster

Just tell everyone that a Chernobyl or a Fukushima happened.

It gives you a great excuse for having a bunch of dead people and for creating a radioactive exclusion zone. You'll have to gaslight or disappear anyone who claims to have seen a mushroom cloud or missile, but that shouldn't be hard for a sufficiently authoritarian government.

For Bonus Points you can blame the accident on whatever political enemies you'd like -- "the opposition party forced us to cut funding and look what happened," or "the people demanding free elections finally showed their true colors with a terrorist attack."

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    $\begingroup$ Reality check: Chernobyl and Fukushima are not Hiroshima / Nagasaki-like flattened wastelands. You are going to have every nuclear physicist going " 'ang on a second... that's not how it works... that's not how any of it works". $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Nov 30, 2023 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK - but Chernobyl and Fukushima have 30 km exclusion zones so you keep everyone out and they can't observe the ~2km zone of destruction. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Nov 30, 2023 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ Besides, if you're doing the giant government conspiracy thing, there aren't any independent nuclear physicists - the government doesn't allow you to study important topics until they own you. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Nov 30, 2023 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ And that totally(!) keeps people from venturing into the zone... no-one would ever dare approach to, y'know, loot and steal lots and lots of stuff from people that — according to official accounts — do not need them any more. Mm hm... $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Nov 30, 2023 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK - I feel like you're missing the "massive, unethical, government conspiracy" thing. If someone ventures into the exclusion zone, you just kill them, and say "guess the radiation got them. I told you all it was dangerous." It only needs to be plausible, not air-tight. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Nov 30, 2023 at 15:49
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They were closing in on a cult. The cult leaders at least chose suicide over capture. We have enough real-world examples of cults doing this that it's not that unreasonable--it's just they usually don't go out with a thermonuclear bang.

And note the effect--it was a coordinated simultaneous raid (enemies can cooperate on dealing with external threats) on their entire leadership. Thus there isn't anybody left to go after. Missile fields are usually in very remote places (deliberately, to isolate the fallout when they're attacked), in a 1984 world there very well might not be civilians permitted close enough to even see the birds. And if the incident involved boomers there's even less to see.

Such cultists are usually too inept to build nuclear weapons (we've seen them try--and not even get to first base. They managed to make Sarin but not an adequate dispersement device and only killed IIRC 7.) However, that doesn't mean they couldn't have recruited someone who did know. Pick a few scapegoats that actually died in ways that could have been murder (was it really an accident he hit that elk or did someone stage it?) and blame them. (For those of you who don't know elk--they are big enough a collision at highway speed can easily be fatal and like most wildlife they have no respect for the danger of being in a highway at night. There aren't nearly as many of them as there are deer so they don't cause as many accidents, but it's much worse for the occupants of the car to hit an elk.)

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In his novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, Neil Stephenson takes a jab at the conspiracy scene. Somebody orchestrates the hoax that the city of Moab, Utah has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb, with paid actors as witnesses and fake videos which set in motion an avalanche of fake news about the alleged incident which takes on a life of its own and is impossible to eradicate, despite of all the evidence to the contrary provided by reality: I mean, you can actually go there and see it.

If you are willing to escalate that idea you can take it a step further and turn it inside out: The government and all the state controlled media (see the Twitter files, escalated just one step) declare reports of the attacks a hoax. Anybody promoting it is labeled a conspiracy theorist. Posts by them are silently suppressed, the "established" media are controlled, for all intents and purposes everything is normal.

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"Yes, hello, Dmitri. Listen, I think we need to talk... ... No, WE didn't launch any missiles! We sort of thought maybe ... You didn't either? Well, that's really a shame. A lot of our cities are burning, Dmitri, and I'm afraid ... yes, I know, Dmitri, but you don't have to worry about winning an election every four years! I mean, this is the kind of thing that's hard to explain to the voters! ... OK, sure, you've got the Politburo to worry about, but maybe they've all been incinerated? ... Well, who knows - maybe you got lucky. ... Yes, of course, it's not really something to joke about, but I thought it might lighten the mood. ... Well anyways, Dmitri, while I've got you on the line, there was something I wanted to ask. ... Sure. Anyways, since a lot of our cities have already been destroyed, and a lot of your cities have already been destroyed, why don't we just kind of, you know, finish the job? I mean, we could launch our remaining missiles at our undamaged cities, and you could launch your remaining missiles at your undamaged cities, and then, you see, we could just kind of sweep the whole thing under the rug. ... Yes, I think - General, do we have enough missiles left to wipe out our undamaged cities? Thank you. Yes, Dmitri, the general assures me we have enough missiles left to handle that. ... What? Well, sure, you could use bombers if that's what you've got left. I mean, we might have to do the same thing! ... Oh, sure - always nice to talk to you! Say hello to Mrs. Dmitri, and maybe we can get together for one of those nice conferences in a few decades, once the radiation has gone down. Bye-bye, Dmitri! Arrivederci!"

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Have you ever seen a nuclear detonation up close? Me neither. All I've ever seen are Youtube videos. In real life, after the blast most people who witness it will either be dead or dying soon. Everyone else will only see the destruction.

Just say the damage was caused a meteor that broke into pieces before hitting the Earth. We usually only see dino-killing asteroids AFTER they've gone past us. And though we always say the chances of one hitting us are very low, they are never zero.

The fact that every single government in the world agrees with this narrative should convince most people. Anyone who doesn't buy it is a conspiracy-theorist and a crackpot.

And if they ask why the impact sites are radioactive, well, the asteroid had lots of uranium in it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not plausible. Uranium is a very rare element in the space. $\endgroup$
    – Trang Oul
    Dec 1, 2023 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ @TrangOul who cares about plausibility? This is a government cover-up. It doesn't even have to make sense. We are living in 2023, not the 1990's. $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2023 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ Tons of people have witnessed nuclear blast without any issue, in couple cases it even became an unofficial tourist attraction (rarehistoricalphotos.com/atomic-tourism-las-vegas). Yes, the flash might temporarily blind you if you just happen to look that way as it detonates and you don't want to be windward from it if fallout happends, but plenty of people would see the giant mushroom cloud without any risk $\endgroup$
    – Kugelblitz
    Dec 3, 2023 at 14:44

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