Alright, so since the earlier question turned out to be too broad, I am going to ask a different one now. Here is the scenario from the earlier question:

"So, a little thing that propped into my head was an interesting idea I had. So, let us say it is the year 2018, and a bunch of Iranian terrorists are able to smuggle a 40 kt nuclear device stolen from Pakistan (which fell into a civil war in late 2017 after anti-government protests turned violent). The device detonates, and all three branches of the Federal Government are completely destroyed, along with a total casualty estimate of 258,260."

How long could the US last as a political entity after the attack?

NOTE: By "last as a political entity", I mean if the States can avoid being balkanised into multiple independent states.

EDIT: To clarify on the details, here is a screenshot from NukeMap: Simulation of Nuclear Terror Attack

EDIT 2: I am adding two additional screenshots for the sake of information:Part I of the statisticsPart II of the statistics

EDIT 3: The total estimate for the casualties amounts to both the dead and injured and only accounts for the initial losses.

EDIT 4: Oh and just in case, the screenshots all depict the extent of the damage after the explosion and also the initial body count and injured people. Oh and NOTE: This also accounts for the "advanced options" feature in NukeMap.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you clarify the effects of the attack? DC alone has a population of almost 700 thousand, so if the effects of the attack are concentrated to a subsection of the city then all the federal agencies on the outskirts of the city, as well as in southern Maryland and northern Virginia, should be unaffected. To completely destroy the federal government, you'll need a much bigger crater. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    May 8, 2017 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ "all three branches of the Federal Government are completely destroyed" - how so? Seems impossible, as @Catgut explained. Also, with nuclear bombs in use military would kick in. And where the idea that states might separate came from? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 8, 2017 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ And now we are on a watchlist. $\endgroup$ May 8, 2017 at 16:27
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designated_survivor $\endgroup$ May 8, 2017 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeKissling At this point, I would suspect we get an "Oh, them again," rating, rather than immediate addition to another watch list. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    May 8, 2017 at 17:38

5 Answers 5


However long it takes for an empire to expire... That's about it.

The US Government structure is pretty decentralized as it is. If you have ever read the Constitution, it is a remarkably short document to establish the framework for a government. Most of the true power is supposed to reside with the States.

Your attack will do very little to the infrastructure. It won't even damage much of the monetary structure. The money lives in Delaware, New York, Texas and California.

Since the advent of the Internet, a lot of government agencies already back information up to places that are selected for geological and weather stability. These are usually long ways away from the capital and far outside the effect of the attack.

What it will do is slow down any current government shenanigans and force a series of special elections. In the meantime, I suspect a Handful of surviving politicos who may not have been in Washington will get with some generals to form an interim government, Elections will be held, a new government elected and established under the constitutional framework. A few years later and the only difference between the current corrupt political cesspit and the new capital will be the scenery.

The reasoning behind this is that all of our elected government officials, all of our military, officer and enlisted alike, and many others, take an oath to defend the Constitution. Not the current government, not the President, not Congress, not the courts, the Constitution. Of all of the Military men and women of my acquaintance (a lot) BELIEVE in the Constitution. I think that alone will minimize the chances of balkanization.

There is a lot of media play on various secession movements in the US, but the truth is that these movements are tiny. The make a fun 5 minute segment on the news, but there isn't anything more to them than that.

The other thing it WILL do is unite a lot of us against whatever organization launched the attack. By the time we get our stuff back together enough, we would probably begin doing our best to absolutely destroy the attackers. there is nothing like a sucker punch to unite all of us oddballs in the States.

  • $\begingroup$ Pretty much that. Without an already prevalent will of secession or independence movements at the time of the attack, no country would splat up just because a terrorist attack, no matter how critical it was. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 9, 2017 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ Aka: I need another way to justify a US collapse scenario. :( $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, pretty much this. For all the talk of secession by various states (Texas, for example), when push comes to shove, I think the USA would stay together. The September 11th terrorist attacks demonstrated that an attack from a foreign power tends to galvanize and unify the American people rather than balkanize them. $\endgroup$ May 10, 2017 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Charles Burge: It seems to me that most of the secessionist movements aren't really wanting to leave the US. Instead, they regard Washington as having left, and don't want their part of the country to go with it. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 10, 2017 at 3:47

At least as long as it would last without the attack. Or even longer.

Wiping out the Capitol and its surroundings while everyone including the president is around would be quite the blow. It would halt the federal government activity for months while cabinet and other positions are refilled and put up-to-date.

But it wouldn't destroy it. Consider it just a Major Inconvenience.

Also, the Union would not dissolve.
As much they like to grumble against the Federal, the States aren't a bunch of disparate states only held together by the Federal government force. They are together quite voluntarily. They won't separate just because the Fed is KO for a while.

And you gave them the most hurtful enemy the US ever had. If anything, that would unite them even more.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not only would wiping out Washington not destroy the US, I dare say a lot of us would consider it a distinct improvement :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 8, 2017 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - :) I wasn't going to go there.. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 19:40

As I understand it, the entire line of succession is never all in one place; someone is always out of DC in an "undisclosed location" (the "Designated Survivor"). This is specifically to prevent this scenario from coming about; there will always be someone in a position to take the reins first as Acting President, then as President - who can then start arranging for the state governments to be contacted to appoint Senators to replace those killed in the attack, and to have them call special elections to replace Representatives similarly killed. While the mechanism is different, the scenario was essentially the same at the end of Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor and beginning of Executive Orders. Clancy has been known to do his homework thoroughly, so it's likely that the government would be able to reconstitute itself, and would likely have strong public support (recall the public reaction following the events of 11 September 2001, and 7 December 1941 (which I was reminded of by another StackExchanger)). Essentially, your scenario is anything but a nation-killer.

  • $\begingroup$ I had heard of the Clancy books, but I forgot about them. Nice! Also, good reference to post 9/11 behavior. You could include reaction to Pearl Harbor in 1941. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    May 8, 2017 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI So, basically, I need another way to make the US suddenly become the former US? $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian As things stand today, a single sudden attack to one city wouldn't do it. You would have to hit several key cities at once and find a way to completely cut off regions from one another. I mean completely, no communication, no travel , massive energy and other disruptions. Another hundred years or so into the future, maybe one strike, but not right now $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    May 9, 2017 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI. Fair enough. I also got a suggestion that perhaps a political divide could make things more chaotic back in the chat. :P $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul TIKI: I disagree. As things stand, you could destroy every major city in the US, and it would only strengthen the resolve of the remainder. Cities are really superfluous, perhaps even antithetical, to what you might call the spirit or essence of America. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 9, 2017 at 17:25

Actually, you dont need THAT much to politically and economically collapse a nation with a single nuclear device. Take, for example, Manhattan during peak hours. How many people are there during that time, in a lethal range of a 40kt warhead? 1.5 million inhabitants alone (2010 census), and probably more if you include people that come to work there. Its also an important economical center of the US.

Striking such point will generate millions of casualties that need rescue/care/support. Consider the effect that WTC had, where there were - comparably - very little immediate casualties. Add to that the fact, that you will be totally unable to provide even basic relief/support/health care to affected people. How many burn victims you will have? Several hundred thousands, very probably more. How many hospital beds does US have that can support the scale of injury that will be prevalent? Not enough. Can you provide transport ability / logistics to transport the casualties? You cannot. Not enough ambulances, and time. Not to mention area denial during first 2-3 days due to radiological effects. Social and political backslash would be enormous enough, not to mention any economic effects.

Really, you do not need a prompt decapitating strike against whole of government for country to collapse into chaos.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, you might want to explain in further detail (since the others tend to disagree). :P $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ Easy. Social/political backslash. Even WTC was a shock to the US (and rightfully so, being first time the nation was attacked, on its own soil, with such effect). Compare how many changes were made to society/rights/national policy. What would the changes be if you magnify the effects to a nuclear weapon? When people see that their country is totally unable to provide relief/care/safety ? Will they remain how they are, or, if not, who will come into power in the next election (should there even be one after that!) ? What will that cause to the country in the long run? Etc. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ Well, that makes sense. I wonder what happens to the States and how long before they collapse. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly. As I said, unless you are aiming for prompt, immediate effect, you do not really need much. And even then, all it could be needed are 2-3 strikes in succession,and a skilled politician with ill cause. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ So, I should probably save this for Part II later on. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 13:16

First, a slight suggestion - you have potentially grossly understated the casualties possible. If the strike is time to occur at noon during a presidential inauguration (for maximum literary effect, just as the president finishes his oath and shakes the Chief Justice's hand), you would kill the entire crowd. While the Trump inauguration was (relatively) sparsely attended, and only totalled on the order of 200,000, the first Obama inauguration pulled somewhere near 1.8 million.

Of course, while that is the best/worst case (depending on which side you're on) it also occurs during maximum security, so it's arguably the hardest time to pull it off successfully. On the gripping hand, it's anyone's guess if the security measures in place for an inauguration are geared up to preventing a nuke. There's lots of room for creativity here.

With that said, such an attack would have the immediate effect of drawing the country together on an unprecedented scale, and would make the post-Pearl Harbor and post-911 responses look like languid tea parties. As mentioned, the Designated Survivor policy would be in place, so at least one legitimate member in the chain of succession would be available. As a result, there would be little likelihood of a military assumption of power, either official or unofficial.

While it's true that the 3 branches would be pretty well decapitated, the actual damage to most of the country is minimal. Communications, for instance would be largely untouched, and the military would respond as it always has, with the Pentagon destruction providing slots to be filled almost instantly. And the loss of the Pentagon would only really affect the very top of the chain of command (the Joint Chiefs, especially) but most of the operational commanders (command, corps, divisional and below) would survive. I suspect most state governments would take a hit, since I expect most governors would be in Washington. And, since we're assuming a very popular president-elect (large crowds, remember?) you should presume most of Congress would be gone. While this would make passing laws to respond to the attack a bit difficult for several months, I suspect that temporary Executive Orders, plus laws on the books allowing emergency/wartime responses would be interpreted in favor of doing what needs to be done.

So, on to the question of the survival of the nation.

Well, it's pretty clear that the nation would survive (in the short run) just fine. One answer suggested that the inability to respond successfully to a mass casualty incident such as this would delegitimize the government by showing it to be inadequate. While I might be wrong, I suggest that this is just silly. While horrified, the rest of the nation would, I submit, recognize that there is pretty much no way to mount a successful response. There would be any number of individual errors which could be criticized post-mortem, but that sort of scale is simply beyond what any emergency plan can handle without required a monumental, sustained effort which would be grotesquely expensive and wasteful until it was needed.

What would happen, I think, is that the primacy of the Federal government would be greatly enhanced. This is a trend which has been in place since the needs of WWII followed by the Cold War, with the expansion of Federally-empowered rights/entitlements which have characterized the last 50 or so years. The country would effectively shift to a war footing, but without an easily-identified external enemy. Internal surveillance, already boosted enormously post-911, would really kick into high gear. Defense/security spending would rise dramatically, with most of the increase aimed at internal security. After all, we already have a WFS (Whole Freaking Shitload) of nuclear warheads, but we don't know who to send them to - unless some group is dumb enough to credibly claim credit for the attack. Shortly before they get hammered.

In many respects, these changes can be seen as an acceleration of trends already in place. Given this view the ultimate effect of such an attack would be to hasten the end of the nation, simply by speeding up the "natural" forces which should be assumed to one day drive us into decline.

  • $\begingroup$ You do realise this only accounts for initial losses, correct? The total losses are probably a lot higher. And this already got retconned, so...... :P $\endgroup$ May 9, 2017 at 16:39

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