[Recently I heard a story about World War II that rings true today. Back then both sides used cyphers to scramble their messages, especially the ones about war plans, troop movements and so forth. The Germans had an especially good cypher, called Enigma, which they thought unbreakable. What they didn’t know was that the British had, in fact, broken it. So the Brits had a window into German operations and could take appropriate countermeasures when necessary. But the British advantage would last only so long as the Germans were unaware that their messaging was compromised.

The British advantage could be helpful for a lot of reasons, most especially because in the 1940s the Germans did a lot of bombing in England. In those days, by the way, many bombing campaigns were considered “strategic;” i.e., were focused on destroying factories, ports and other war-making “infrastructure.” The Germans didn’t worry much about civilian casualties when going after strategic targets. Later in the war our side pretty much did the same thing to them.

Well, one day the Germans did a major bombing run against Coventry, England, a town in the industrialized Midlands. The locals weren’t told about it in advance, didn’t evacuate, and the raid was catastrophic. In one night over 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the city’s buildings damaged.[1]So why wasn’t the target city warned? Well, there are two versions of an answer:

  • One is that the central government simply didn’t know Coventry was targeted that night. The government had data about an impending attack, but didn’t know where the German bombers would go.
  • The other is that the government did in fact know the target, but withheld the information for reasons of state. Warn Coventry and most likely that would tell the Germans Enigma was compromised. The British would lose their intelligence advantage.

So which is it? Did Winston Churchill sacrifice some civilians to preserve a competitive advantage in World War II? Or did he not know about the Coventry raid? Some say that the British had some information that might have helped them identify the target, but they didn’t understand it. On the other hand, Churchill himself is quoted as saying he had “aged 20 years” when he decided to let Coventry burn.[2] That implies he knew. This sounds like a good topic for a thesis. Perhaps some Ph.D. candidate in History can get to the truth for us.

The point of the story is not that it’s true or false. It’s that there are circumstances, conceivable circumstances, where our government – or any government – might elect not to tell its citizens about a threat. The TV version of that, of course, is the plastic character who decides people would panic if they knew the truth about this or that, so he [or she] lies to save us from ourselves. That’s pretty much a sci-fi cliché. Don’t tell anybody about the space aliens; if you do, the country might disintegrate!

But instead let’s talk about something more serious, about what happens if our government lies to us or says nothing about impending danger, and when that might happen. In particular, let’s look what might happen at the start of a global thermonuclear war.]

This is Fred, by the way, and yes, I’m back on nuclear war. Lots of people criticized my last post, saying I was far too pessimistic. Sure, if war caught us by surprise, people at the various grounds zero would not have much time to evacuate. But really, the critics said, when would a major war sneak up on us like that? Crises leading to war take time to build. Surely there would be advance warning. People would leave their bullseye neighborhoods as soon as they knew there was a problem.

Perhaps. Let’s think about evacuation for a bit. People won’t run until they’re sure there’s a crisis, right?   So who should they believe: the media [who these days are alarmists about everything, just to keep the ratings up]; the family psychic or minister, who seems to know just about everything; or our government?  I’m betting that, at the end of the day, most folks would turn to the government when the issue is war or peace. After all, it’s supposed to be the expert on foreign crises and will fight any wars that erupt. And in a crisis what will our government say about whether people should flee their homes? That depends. Remember Coventry.

Who Wants A Nuclear War?

Atomic conflicts are not a new problem. Luckily we’ve avoided nuclear war for seven decades, so we have no actual experience with it. But we’ve been thinking about it all that time, and a lot of good work has been done. For our purposes let’s start with an early example of the war plan genre: Herman Kahn’s scary treatise about the unthinkable, On Thermonuclear War.[3] It’s a classic; old but still relevant; one of the foundational books in the field. It also has things to say about our current subject.

Herman Kahn believed most governments, if left to their own devices, would prefer peace over war. [He said that over 50 years ago, and perhaps had in mind stable governments like those in Eastern and Western Europe; not the failed states we find today here and there around the globe.] Peace is safer than war. But, he added, if war is inevitable, most governments would prefer to strike first, rather than wait for their enemy to take the initiative.[4] Those who go first, attacking the enemy’s strike forces, improve their chances of surviving the engagement. This, of course, also was Dwight Eisenhower’s view when he was President.

If a country decides war is probable, the pressure on it to strike first increases. Once the other side understands that, it’s also motivated to do a first strike.  There is a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that pushes both sides toward war.[5]

How Bad the War?

It would be very bad. Back in the 1950s we had a combination of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the inventory. [The so-called “A” and “H” bombs.] The difference between them is the difference between kilotons and megatons. A kiloton is 1000 tons. A megaton is 1000 kilotons. The destructive power of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was measured in kilotons. Today the warheads on our missiles are measured in megatons. “Megaton weapons are comparable to gross forces of nature, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.” [6] If used, they would be enormously destructive.

Evacuating People

So here we are in a paranoid situation, two countries, hyper vigilant, sure that there will be a war, each afraid that the other will attack first, and then one of them evacuates its cities. Flee, flee, it says to its people! The bombs are coming! What does that tell the other side? That its enemy is going to war, and is preparing its people to survive retaliation after it strikes? That’s the logical conclusion, wouldn’t you think? But evacuation is more than a “tell” in poker. It’s the same as a declaration of war. [7]

Herman Kahn was of two minds about this. He thought that evacuations should be low key and reassuring to the other side. Evacuations should be “as undramatic as possible,” and assurances should be given that no decision has been made to go to war. But if one side has decided to launch a surprise attack, of course it would make reassuring noises. Why ruin the surprise? And why would its adversary believe anything from a country that’s obviously mobilizing?

Why indeed? Even Herman Kahn saw the problems. “Evacuation-type maneuvers,” he said, “are risky because they may touch off an attack by the other side.[8]” And that, I think, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece. Why would a government refuse to tell its population about an impending threat? Answer: To avoid aggravating an already bad situation. Perhaps it thinks a peaceful resolution is still possible. Perhaps it’s going to launch a pre-emptive strike and doesn’t want to telegraph its intentions. Either way, it doesn’t want to agitate the other side. Boom!


So get used to it. In a crisis your government may well lie to you, for the very best reasons, of course. There are always reasons. Use your own judgment when you read the news.

[Please note: This post is speculative only. We don’t have any government secrets here at Elemental Zoo Two, and don’t want any. If you want confidential sources, named or unnamed, go to the Washington Post. And we’re not accepting calls from North Korea. Have a nice day.]



[1] See the Wikipedia entry on the Coventry Blitz, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventry_Blitz .

[2] Id. at Coventry and Ultra.

[3] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction 2007, 2010). The Transaction edition is a reprint of the original, plus some additional material added by the publisher. The book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at __. Page references will be to the 2nd Transaction edition of 2010.

[4] Thermonuclear War at p. 136. “Most governments when asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace, because it looks safer. These same governments, when asked to choose between getting the first or the second strike will very likely choose the first strike. They will do so for the same reason they choose peace in the first choice; it is safer.… [M]ost governments would much prefer getting in the first strike once they feel war is inevitable, or even very probable.”

[5] Id. “As soon as either side thinks that war is probable it is under pressure to pre-empt. …[T]he instability is increased  by the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” in which each side feels a pressure to strike mainly because it feels the other side has exactly the same pressure.”

[6] Thermonuclear War at p. 313: “The most important technological development … is the fact that it would have been a thermonuclear rather than an atomic war.  The difference between megaton and kiloton is very large, in some ways larger than the difference between a kiloton and a ton. Megaton weapons are comparable to gross forces of nature, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. The effects of the use of such weapons are not only extremely widespread; they are also occasionally very subtle and hard to predict. As a result, for the first time in the history of war we have what might be called the problem of the post attack environment.”

[7] Thermonuclear War at p. 648. “If true and clear to the enemy, this is extremely serious, because he will be impelled to strike the U.S. during the evacuation (not to kill civilians, who are not really a military target, but to get in the first blow.)”

[8] Id. at 132.