October 28, 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis has just concluded. John F. Kennedy gathers his top experts across fields to discuss the escalating threat of total nuclear annihilation. After two weeks of closed door meetings, the president along with his advisers have come to the same conclusion with absolute certainty. They bring in additional voices--scientists, governors, congressmen, and businessmen--across the United States and further discuss the matter. The conclusion remains unchallenged, and every new voice added to the discussion comes to the same conclusion:

Total nuclear war with the USSR within the next 5-20 years is entirely unavoidable if the United States attempts to maintain its sovereignty as a country.

The government realizes that most is lost, however they can't accept that everything is lost. They need a plan; they need to do something.

In the face of undeniable mutual destruction (to the level that could be accomplished with the weapons of that era), what could the government hope to protect? How would they accomplish this? How long might it take?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Duck and cover". $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ You're asking multiple questions, which is considered "too broad", and then most of those questions are, in and of themselves, "too broad", however all that that takes a back seat to this whole exercise being "primarily opinion based" so ... yea. Voting to close. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM The multiple questions really are just "what is the plan" just worded differently, so I don't agree there. Although I possibly agree with the opinion-based bit, although I don't follow enough to say. Why do you think it's opinion based? Are you asking that I define the purpose of the government (the acting party)? $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree that it's too opinion based or too broad - Nex Terren is basically asking in case of nuclear war, what will the US do, which could be answered using knowledge of their capabilities and policies. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM How is this opinion based? There are definite good options, and definite bad options to this, and it should be pretty easy to figure out which is which. Vote to keep open as Not opinion based. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 16:22

5 Answers 5


Having the ability to get as many people as possible underground is going to be important, but massive earthworks are pretty expensive, so getting ready made holes as starting points would probably help speed things up.

There are a lot of caves that could be used as starting places and then enlarged:

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A lot of the places that don't have caves do have mines that could be used. The Salt mine under Detroit, lots of coal mines

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and other mines and excavations.

This will allow you to save most of the money for shelters under the big cities.

For resources you start by taking a percentage of grain and other storable foods and putting them into underground silos, dig greenhouses, and set up areas to raise animals.
Medicine, and the means to make more, should also be put into the shelters, along with as much printed knowledge as you have to help with rebuilding afterward.
Tools and equipment to start reconstruction and farming.

You really only need to last about two weeks. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1 percent of its initial radiation level.

A lot of people will die afterward from disease and starvation, but this can be minimized with a little forethought and planning.

  • $\begingroup$ You only need to last two weeks after the nuclear war ends. The war may last a day, or years, who can say? If the enemy learns of this plan (which they most likely will), they might set up automated strikes against the location at regular intervals to keep your people pinned in the shelter. $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Kys It may last years, but likely it'll last hours. They launch everything they have, we launch everything we have, everyone goes back to step 0. That's kind of the point of mutually assured destruction; when it's over you may be gone, but they won't be alive to enjoy the victory. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Kys - With what? First, in 1962 they (the Russians) had fewer than 300 launchers, so it was imperative on their part to launch everything they had. The motto in these situations is "Use it or lose it." Second, nobody in their right mind (even by the standards of Global Thermonuclear War - Thinking the Unthinkable) entertained the notion of automated launches. Too unreliable and too prone to failure. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ How do you get 10s and 10s of millions of people from where they are (mainly the northeast and north central) to all those caves in rugged, rural areas with poor roads? And... as soon as the Sovs discover our plans (because "spies"), guess where they'll target? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Well, in my answer I did put This will allow you to save most of the money for shelters under the big cities. some of it could also be used to improve roads, maybe put in rail lines. The hardest part I think will actually be parking, but that can be solved by having mass transit to surrounding areas with lots of big fields. As to targeting the bunkers, why would they waste nukes on hardened targets deep underground in the middle of nowhere? $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 13:14

The government basically did prepare for this. There were (are?) numerous bunkers with long term occupation in mind built across the country. Rapid evacuation plans for high level government officials. Distributed military and transportation networks so they would be very hard to totally disrupt. Clear chain of command line through hundreds of people. Ultimately, attempt to construct an anti- ballistic missile shield across an entire continent. Marine based rapid first strike capability (ballistic missile subs parked off the Russian coast). We escalated MAD to the point where even the Russians backed down.

If you are asking what MORE the US could have done in order to preserve the USAs cultural legacy post nuclear war, I think rushing lunar and Lagrange point colonization with permanent occupation would be the answer. Perhaps a deep sea colony as well but I think the space facilities would be the most unreachable. If you read some of the space colonization literature from the 60's and 70's, they make it seem like we could have had orbital habitats within just a few years if we were willing to spend the money and lives to do it.

  • $\begingroup$ Consider that the question states that the decision is entirely certain - that is, the government knows there will be fallout, and it knows how many people need to be saved - just building "numerous" bunkers will not save millions of people $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ A centralized solution was never part of the US plan because it cannot work at that scale. The government attempted to create hardened sites for the elements required to preserve the government functions and released detailed instruction to the citizens on how to survive the fallout of a nuclear attack using their individual resources. Raising the certainty would, hopefully, have increased investment in the various required shelters by the populace. CD released analysis and summaries for private citizens for this reason. e.g. "About Fallout" archive.org/details/AboutFal1963 $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 3:21
  • $\begingroup$ @TheNate is correct, an American solution, especially in the 60's, would allow for private industry to take care of the American populace. There were bomb shelters you could buy and bury in your backyard. The US was a lot less urban back then and memories of the Great Depression were much stronger. undergroundbombshelter.com/news/… $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Jason K 3: There were also supplies - food, medicines, radiation meters, &c - stored in places like school basements. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Indeed. I believe there are still medical depots across the country which are probably an outgrowth of nuclear war preparation cdc.gov/phpr/stockpile/products.htm. Plus you can see "bomb shelter" signs in unobtrusive places in most cities and towns. They are still there. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 20:33

Least Work Required - Go with the needs of the many, not the few.

Disband a Country or Two

You said "Total nuclear war with the USSR within the next 5-20 years is entirely unavoidable if the United States attempts to maintain its sovereignty as a country."

While migrating millions of people underground, or building hundreds of bunkers, which require extremely large stockpiles to last the entire country's population through the fallout, may seem like a good idea, it would require unprecedented planning, precision, and money in a short time.

This is not the traditional approach, and I am ready for the onslaught of downvotes, but consider what would happen if a peace treaty were written, saying something like the following:

The United States recognizes that both ourselves and the USSR cannot maintain sovereignty at once while preserving the lives of our citizens.

Therefore, we seek to resolve this dispute by ending the sovereignty of our nation and demoting those in power while maintaining our judicial and constabulary systems to prevent anarchy.

We will arrange a government that can cooperate with other countries effectively, or divide into smaller democratic countries, and we strongly implore you to do the same. This will maintain the peace.

In the event that, once the New United States (NUS) forms, your country has not done the same, you may expect the current circumstances to resume.

In the event that the USSR disregards this message and initiates full nuclear war, expect the annihilation of your own population by allies to the United States.

We look forward to your decision.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Honestly, I don't see this ever happening for two reasons. 1) if any president or congress tried proposing this the American people would remove them from office and get someone else. There is no legal way in the constitution to surrender. 2) We've always had a "don't negotiate with terrorists" thing because if we roll over for this we'll look weak and that will invite even more attacks. The thinking would be "If we disband, that will weaken us, and they'll just invade anyway." If the choices were to dissolve the nation or launch a first strike they'd launch the nukes and damn the torpedos. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Also as others have pointed out back in the 60s the USSR didn't have that many ballistic missiles that could reach us, which is why the thing in Cuba was a issue, being so close. The US would very likely strike first, knowing that while we might lose a few big cities, we'd hurt them much worse. Surrender wouldn't show up as an option on the list. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 Reply for first comment - yes, this is unlikely, but when faced with the idea of certain nuclear war, I'm sure the american people would rather have a temporary change in government than risk their lives; "surrender" and "adjust" are slightly different. Still, I agree this scenario isn't completely likely. Second point is valid except the US would not give up its weapons in the process - if need be, they could still reasonably retaliate. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 Reply for the second - As mentioned in my last comment, surrender is different than change. Furthermore, "losing a few big cities" in nuclear warfare really isn't an option, no matter how much damage we do to them $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 20:49

First, one would have to define the "survival" goal. What is supposed to survive? Most of the population? A viable industrial base? A sovereign nation? A distinctive culture?

Consider a Preemptive Strike

If the decisionmakers are certain that the Soviets will deliberately (or accidentally) start a war, most of the arguments against a preemptive strike will be gone. Sure, there will be megadeaths. Sure, there will be nuclear winter. But the best way to ride it out is to have your forces start a deliberate, well-rehearsed attack "out of the blue" to catch at least some of the enemy force before it can be launched.


Identify what you need to rebuild an industrial base and put it into distributed shelters. Machine tools. Generators. Refineries. Drill rigs. (Of course the plans will fall short. For want of a nail it will fail.)

Build shelters for the population and equip them to dig themselves out of the rubble and to travel through contaminated zones to a place of safety. The US is large enough, especially in cooperation with Canada and Mexico, that there will be some "less contaminated" areas where people can try to survive. Sure, cancer rates will rise a lot.


If the survivors had the ships to travel to Australia, would the Australians welcome them? And would the result be "USA Reborn" or "Unemployed Refugees Down Under"? The outcome will be better if it was prepared by secret negotiations and if the refugees can bring the contents of Fort Knox, plus machine tools etc.

Of course if the plan got known, Australia might get plastered, too. So talk with South Africa. Argentina. If nothing else, rumors of these talks would force the Soviets to spend nukes on empty desert. Reduces the rad count in Kansas.

Follow-Up: Balance of Forces

In the early 60s, the USSR had only a few intercontinental missiles. Their other missiles and bombers didn't have a truly global reach. Understanding the truth about the "missile gap" might make all three options more palatable. The President and his advisors might even see a limited window of opportunity to do so, and decide to act now to save at least some of America. They might argue "fight now, and when the dust settles 100 million Americans will be left. Fight in five years, and it might be none."

Mao is said to have dismissed megadeaths that way. Don't count the deaths, count who will have more people left. Might have been bluster, might have been cold-blooded calculation.

  • $\begingroup$ If I was the Australian prime-minister or the president of Argentina, I would contact the Secretary-General of the CPSU the minute the American ambassador left the room... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ @LuísHenrique, I guess the Queen would not be amused if one of her servants blabs to a Commie. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ The Queen be darned, the matter is to avoid the country becoming an alternative target for a nuclear retaliating force. ...but I would probably inform the Queen, or the British prime-minister too. Just in case they want to reassert their colonial rights over the vast emptiness of North America... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ You think Britain and Australia would be spared this fight? Why? $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 3:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Western Europe would need to be directly attacked for that, requiring a splitting of the arsenal, which, of course, would happen. Fallout spreads by concussion and then wind. In the northern hemisphere, that's generally east. If you watch hard sci fi or real models on related topics, you'll see this effect addressed. (TlDr: We aren't disagreeing, here. Just tossing you some supporting details, at this point.) $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 6:41

If USSR is threatening the sovereignty of the US and a nuclear war is inevitable, clearly, Soviet Union is accepting the fact that it would be hit hard by US nuclear strike. This time, you should remember, was the exact time we started to talk about properly implemented MAD (Mutual assured destruction). If the government and experts deduce that the nuclear war is inevitable the only reasonable option is a massive preemptive strike. This would allow the US to destroy as many Soviet nuclear devices as possible.

In 1962 majority of the nuclear attack from both sides would be carried out by bomber operations. The US is speculated to have had a slight edge in air attack and defence back in 1962, so the Presidend's and army's conclusion would probably be to strike immediately.

Striking immediately is profitable as it is better to dictate the place and time of the fight, and destroy Soviet bombers on their fields. War is anyway inevitable. Another reason not to wait is that in 1962 the US, and they have to assume the Soviets too, are developing their submarine based ballistic missiles. The problem of this part of the nuclear triad that you cannot destroy it. Striking now with bombers and ICBMs could possibly destroy all Soviet nuclear devices before the are delivered to the American soil, but in 20 years a reasonable proportion of Soviet warheads will be safely underwater surviving the initial attack only to retaliate.


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