Considering the nuclear arsenal that existed in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, could it have destroyed the entire world, following the events below?

Edited question a bit:
Considering the nuclear arsenal that existed in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, could it have destroyed all life on the surface of the world, following the events below?

27 October, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis is at its peak, the USS Beale dropped depth charges on a Russian submarine below it, the B-59. Unbeknownst to the US, this submarine contained a nuclear missile of 15kt. Running out of air, the three Russian officers bickered amongst themselves what to do, and in the end unanimously decided on launching the nuclear missile at the USS Randolf, a giant aircraft carrier. The US then probably would’ve quickly invaded Cuba to neutralise the Russian missiles stationed there, as was already suggested by the Joint Chiefs, before the Russians could prepare the missiles for launch. Although there were short range nuclear missiles on Cuba for exactly such an attempt, and the approaching US forces would have been decimated by these short range missiles. Then the US would most likely retaliate again by just dropping nuclear bombs on Cuba using the Air Force Bombers that were already in the air.

Following this is retaliation after retaliation until there were no bombs left or until bombs couldn't be launched anymore.

So considering the powers that held the nuclear weapons, mostly the US and USSR (and a couple European countries), would their squabble destroy all life on the surface of the world?

I'd imagine that neither the US and USSR or any of the European countries had any interest in throwing a nuke at, for example, New Zealand.

  • Would this place still be destroyed by the following radiation and/or nuclear winter?
  • And how destroyed would it be? Could plants survive, insects, or nothing at all?
  • Could humans, that sheltered underground, survive and grow crops on the land again in the near future after the war? (Near future would be within 50 years)

Edit: After reading all the comments and answers going in the direction of how to kill all life on earth, that was not my intention. I only wanted to know if, back then, the amount of nuclear warheads that existed would have killed all/most life on earth - which was actually not what I wanted.

I am building a post nuclear war world that escalated from the Cold War, with a destroyed surface, but capable of rebuilding a society (fairly) quickly. Thanks to a couple answers I now know that the southern hemisphere would be less affected, giving me many great ideas.

Apologies for the lack of motive behind this question that got some people going in an unintended direction!

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ It depends on what you mean by entire world. If it means killing all life, then the answer is no, because you can't kill cockroaches. Killing all humans is possible even if the initial effects (blast, radiation etc) fail to hit all humans. If enough dust is kicked up so that the sun is completely blocked, then there is very little to do to survive (especially in the 1960's). It might be, however, that achieving this dust cloud would need more than just detonating all the nuclear warheads in random places (not sure though, haven't tried it myself). $\endgroup$
    – user31530
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 11:47
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ In general, the cockroach thing is a myth. It turns out that cockroaches are actually highly adapted to and highly dependent on human civilization and probably wouldn't survive its demise. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2017 at 16:33
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Tardigrades, though, would probably survive almost anything short of melting the planet's crust or the atmosphere going anoxic everywhere. They've lived through all the 'big five' mass extinctions; they can survive radiation doses of thousands of Grays, and days of vacuum exposure. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2017 at 4:04
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Destroying all life on planet Earth, even just surface life, is very hard and probably beyond humanity's capacity to do at this particular point in its development. That is to say, something we couldn't manage even if we explicitly set out to do it. (This is not meant as a challenge.) Destroying civilization is a snap, destroying all human life on planet Earth is achievable, mass extincting most other things visible with the naked eye should be doable. But all life, or even destroying the whole planet? The sun could do it without breaking a sweat, but our nukes are woefully inadequate. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2017 at 10:50
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Even killing all the humans is vastly more challenging than simply destroying human civilization. It's kind of like approaching the speed of light - it's a lot easier to kill the first 90% than the remaining 10%. Extending the same thing to all life on Earth with its massive diversity is again a problem vastly greater in magnitude. Even reliably killing all the bacteria in a biological sample is a challenge (food preservation usually either tries to keep the population small enough, or help another, harmless bacteria/... to flourish). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 12:20

5 Answers 5


This is 1962.

At this stage, Russia did not have a huge nuclear stockpile:

Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the first ICBMs had only been around since c. 1959. So basically this represents the last point in the Cold War where the USA could reasonably expect to survive a nuclear exchange with the USSR in some shape or form. Remember that the vast majority of weapons were still dropped by bombers, and it's not clear how many USSR bombers would have gotten through at this stage.


The USA get perhaps 50-100 nuke hits, many off-target. There's a lot of fallout, but not civilization-ending. The USSR might get over 1000 (The USA stockpile is much bigger) and be wiped out as a country; a Warsaw pact invasion through the Fulda Gap and North German Plain is stopped with the extensive use of nuclear landmines and shells; no doubt nukes also hit the UK and France. Western Europe comes off very badly. Eastern European forces rebel against the Soviets, probably with success. China sits it out.

Nuclear winter is not really a 'thing' at this stage, there are just not enough missiles. Indeed, it never gets worse than a Mount Pinatubo-style eruption. Fallout is dangerous locally for for a month or two regionally—but radiation dangers are frequently overstated. Your risk of cancer may increase by a factor of 10, but will you notice as you struggle to find enough food to eat?

Fast forward 5-10 years and the results are very different—both the USA and USSR become nuclear wastelands. Even so, it's mostly a northern hemisphere thing, no one is going to bother wasting nukes on most of Africa, or India, or much of South America.

  • 22
    $\begingroup$ Not to mention that the atmospheric circulation of the southern hemisphere is pretty well insulated from the northern hemisphere... Argentina, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand are poised to become the new scientific and technological powerhouses! $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 12:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ we may even prevent catastrophic global warming that is a worry now $\endgroup$
    – Reed
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 13:22
  • 16
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP specially Brazil, with all those jungle tiles... $\endgroup$
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 14:27
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Agreed in the terms of answering the question the OP asked: fallout is not severe enough to pose a threat to human civilization. However, describing how the third world war would have gone it's way too speculative. The USA had more bombs, but it doesn't mean they could manage to drop them on target, it's not clear that eastern countries had revolted against Russia siding with the countries who had just nuked their land, West Germany maybe would prefer surrender to the soviets than allowing the USA using tactical nukes on its soil, etc... $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 16:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Martin Schröder Oh, I'm sure german government were ok with tactical nukes being used, or they had objected to be deployed. But when push comes to shove, the german population maybe had a very different idea. Living under a communist regime may not be pretty, but living in a refugee camp in France because fallout has made your city a radiactive wasteland is way worse. Remember, no military strategy survives contact with the enemy. The germans who were lived in 1962 were either children or survivors of WWII; I think their appettite for "total war" was already satiated. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 6:33

The world is a sphere of rock and metal, and nothing that humanity can do or is ever likely to be able to do will have any significant effect on its continued existence. There's a thin film of volatiles on the surface, and some interesting emergent systems of complex chemicals mixed in with those volatiles, and we could probably have a significant effect on those, but it's only a tiny tiny part of the world.

Adding to this answer to cover the edited question, the answer is still no. Bacteria are incredibly tough, diverse and versatile, and it's not within our capacity to kill them all. Even if we did, sub-surface bacteria would very quickly recolonise the surface.

  • $\begingroup$ My bad, should've worded it more carefully. I didn't mean the actual destruction of Earth. I actually meant the destruction on the surface of the earth, all life that didn't go below ground. Will edit my question. $\endgroup$
    – Quwin
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 11:49
  • 23
    $\begingroup$ In fairness when people talk about man's ability to "destroy the world" with modern WMDs, I don't think they've ever seriously meant the ability to destroy the whole planet Earth (not if they have any sense, anyway). In a philosophical sense though, wiping out all life on Earth would be equivalent to "destroying the world" in so much as "the world" is not simply a sphere of rock and metal, but also the perception of creatures which live on it's surface, and make it an experiential reality rather than just a solid object. $\endgroup$
    – danl
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 11:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Related: How to destroy the Earth $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2017 at 21:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Boiling the oceans/venusforming Earth is probably not within current human capability either. There's not that much carbon in fossil fuels - if it all was released, we'd probably end up in a Hothouse Earth state like the Eocene or warmer parts of the Mesozoic, but not Venus-like. OK, with thousands of years to work with, maybe we could break enough CO2 out of carbonate rocks... But it's extremely implausible. Solar intensity at Earth is about half what it is at Venus. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2017 at 4:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Polygnome: burn off the atmosphere? In what sense? Earth's atmosphere isn't flammable (nitrogen combining with oxygen to make nitrogen oxides takes a lot of energy input) and I don't know of any human-available means of accelerating much/most of the atmosphere to escape velocity. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2017 at 4:12

Distinguishing between destroying the world and merely killing everyone on it.

In short, yes there were certainly enough nukes to kill everyone several times over.

New York Times: March 6, 1984

Q. How many tons of TNT equivalent do all the nuclear weapons in the world add up to, per person? [...]

A.Governments do not reveal how many megatons (the equivalent of a million tons of TNT) they have, but fairly recently the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London estimated the total megatonnage of the United States and the Soviet Union at approximately 10,000. The population of the world is about 4.7 billion. Setting aside the comparatively trivial megatonnage of the smaller nuclear powers and dividing the 10 billion tons by the 4.7 billion people yields about 2.1 tons, or 4,200 pounds of TNT equivalent for every man, woman and child on earth. [...] In 1960, it has been estimated, the world total was about 30,000 megatons, though you may feel that 2.1 tons per person is still plenty.

After this simple consideration, you need to ask the questions about where these weapons were targetted. Would everyone have been killed or would, say, Africa and South America have been left largely untouched by the direct exchanges. A lot of the cold war targetting data has now been declassified and is available on the web so you can see whether your home would have been on somebody's list.

The comments are questioning whether this is a viable way to explain how many warheads were available. It's not, it's a political way to challenge the stupid numbers of warheads that were available, used by anti-nuclear protesters for decades.

Comments are also saying that Russia didn't have so many warheads, they didn't, not as many as the US anyway.

Russia: 1905
USA: 18638

Russia: 6129
USA: 31139

Plot those two on a graph together and no, it doesn't look so good for Russia, but think about what those numbers really mean. Each warhead is a city killer. Maybe 3 warheads for a very large city, many were later stacked in MIRVs anyway so that's already 3-14 as a cluster.

The US only has 300 cities with a population over 100,000. How many nukes do you really need to effectively wipe out that population? Sure there'll be a few survivors here and there, but the job is effectively done, the fallout and firestorms can do the rest.

Sure you're going to have trouble killing off every last African tribesman but that's not to say it's impossible, the bigger question is would anyone have actually fired anything at them, to which the answer is no. There would most likely be a lot of survivors in the southern hemisphere even after a major exchange, but not many in the north.

The nuclear arms race was entirely political, very expensive, and completely pointless. The idea was to bankrupt the Russian economy by challenging them to keep up, not actually create an effective military arsenal (spoiler: it worked).

I'm torn between leaving you with a cheerful note from Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer on this, so you get both.

  • $\begingroup$ Loved the Flanders and Swann song ;) Thank you for directing me to the declassified targeting data! Didn't think of that. It will help greatly with determining the level of destruction. $\endgroup$
    – Quwin
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 12:26
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Nuclear weapons can't be evenly distributed across a population, particularly in the United States, and the global nuclear arsenal in 1962 was much smaller and less capable than that of the 1980s. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9, 2017 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ Hence why the targetting, as specifically mentioned, is important. You need to know where the weapons are going, not just how many there are. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 13:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's a nonsensical way to calculate it. You can't distribute nuclear yield into the bodies of the human population evenly, no matter how you target them. I don't think it even works as a first order sanity check sort of thing, it just isn't useful. $\endgroup$
    – Elukka
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 16:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I really don't think the weapons back then were enough to do it. They were designed for destroying war targets, not for exterminating life. But if we had designed slightly different (i.e. much dirtier) ones, and exploded them all in various portions of the atmosphere, northern and southern hemisphere alike, then it would have been a definite possibility. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Wise
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 8:10

The whole arsenal could not cover the whole world. But what would be devastating are the radioactive clouds. So even if New Zealand or Australia wouldn't be nuked the air and water would sooner or later travel there and poison everything.

Such case is talked in the novel

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I think this answer deserves a little more fleshing-out $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ Having read the book, and since the fleshing-out has been done well in other answers, I think this answer is adequate as-is. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 12:52
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ @user535733, if you need to have read the book then the answer needs fleshing out, to be a proper answer it has to stand on its own not just in light of other answers and a book. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 13:33
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @user535733 referencing a novel, and not some sort of study/essay/model, is not a terribly convincing argument. How many nukes are required to create significant radioactive clouds? Would typical wind patterns/bombing locations allow those clouds to travel to the right locations to cause significant damage to civilization? Would it just increase the odds of getting cancer in those areas that were indirectly affected? Or would people have their skin sloughing off? TL:DR; This answer provides no real backing for its claim. $\endgroup$
    – SethWhite
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 16:32
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You're only going to get the sort of "radioactive cloud" you describe if every single bomb is an enhanced-radiation device set for ground burst. In the real world, militaries don't bother salting their nukes because the increased radiation has no military value, and set the bombs for air burst because it greatly increases the damage done (by orders of magnitude). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 21:07

Atmospheric and ground atomic tests in the '60s were conducted on a rather small scale, exploding one bomb at a time. Nevertheless they had a global impact, by spreading radioctive nuclides on large areas thanks to atmospheric circulation. See the increase in atmospheric C14 content or the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

Basically the impact of an atomic bombardment is heavy locally, due to fireball and air blast, but the combined effect of dust launched on the upper atmosphere and radioactive nuclides spread by atmospheric circulation does not limit the damage to a small area.

Expecially the dust, shielding solar radiation, will have as a consequence the notorius nuclear winter on a planet scale, New Zealand (or whatever country untouched by nukes) included. Chernobyl shows us that plants and animals can manage to survive a nuclear incident, but we didn't have a nuclear winter in that case.

  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't a nuclear exchange between Russia and the USA be contained to the northern hemisphere? And with how the atmosphere moves keep the southern hemipshere mostly safe from fallout? $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 12:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Mormacil, I am not sure. CFC emission was also mostly due to northern emisphere, but ended up on the South Pole. And nuclear explosions can easily blow dust above the troposphere... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 16:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .