What would the world be like after a nuclear attack of some type? That’s the question answered by the President’s National Security staff in the June 2010 second edition of the Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation.

I haven’t read the entire 130 page document, but I did read a chunk of it, as well as an interesting article about it by Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Here’s the provocative opening paragraph that got me to click on his piece:

Good news! You’ve got a pretty good chance of surviving a terrorist’s nuclear blast in your city — especially if you’re a rich white man.

Chernus seems particularly interested in the fact that the Obama administration has produced this report — even though the first edition (available here) was issued on January 15, 2009, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration. Moreover, the original report noted that a future edition would do “additional work” on “relevant topics” such as “psychological impacts to the population.”

What does the second edition of the report say about psychiatric disorders — and why will rich white men inherit the world?


According to the latest report, attack survivors will realize they have severe ARS (“acute radition syndrome”) and many are doomed to develop psychiatric disorders as well. Among the “risk factors” listed, the National Security staff (pp. 95-6) includes female gender, ethnic minority, and lower socioeconomic status. In Chernus’s words, “once they [women, minorities and the poor] start going crazy they’re less likely to survive.” Here’s how the report (p. 96) phrases that last claim:

The social, psychological, and behavioral impacts of a nuclear detonation will be widespread and profound, affecting how the incident unfolds and the severity of its consequences.

Chernus compares the report’s frequent optimism about survival rates to Eisenhower-era policy discussions about civil defense. “The big problem, in his [Ike’s] view, was ‘how you get people to face such a possibility without getting hysterical.’”

Though the report concerns the likely aftermath of even a single terrorist nuclear use, the discussion of psychological response and potential survival rates reminded me instead of the prescient film Dr. Strangelove –made not long after Ike’s presidency ended.

Near the end of the film, President Merkin [a-hem] Muffley asks the title character the following question:

But look here doctor, wouldn’t this nucleus of survivors be so grief stricken and anguished that they’d, well, envy the dead and not want to go on living?

The nuclear strategist Strangelove largely dismisses this particular psychological concern and asserts that the privileged white men in the room should be protected as priority survivors in the post-apocalyptic world:

Mr. President, I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens. It would be quite easy… heh heh…at the bottom of ah… some of our deeper mineshafts. The radioactivity would never penetrate a mine some thousands of feet deep. And in a matter of weeks, sufficient improvements in dwelling space could easily be provided…

A quick survey would have to be made of all the available mine sites in the country. But I would guess… that ah, dwelling space for several hundred thousands of our people could easily be provided.

…a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills. Of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition.

By Dr. Strangelove’s reckoning, the female-to-male ratio in the mineshafts should be about 10-to-1 — and “women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.” That’s a different post-war psychological concern, eh?

Indeed, the gender politics in the film are obviously quite provocative, essentially equating male sexual fantasies with war and nuclear planning. The latest Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation suggests that absurd nuclear fantasies continue to influence today’s security policymakers.

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