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See where the US would have nuked the Soviet Union if the Cold War turned hot

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This holiday season, while you're spending time with family and friends, why not take a moment to remember how close the world came to total nuclear destruction just a few decades ago? During the 50 years of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union stuck to an uneasy — and sometimes broken — peace, held in place by the theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD). If one nation pulled the trigger on a nuclear attack, the other would respond in kind, automated systems, long-range aircraft, and roving submarines pummelling a multitude of targets with a vast stockpile of atom and hydrogen bombs.

And now, thanks to William Burr, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University, we know exactly where the United States would have sent its nuclear bombs if full-scale war had erupted between the USSR and its allies. Burr, who requested a list of the United States' Cold War nuclear targets in 2006, recently received more than 800 pages of documents showing the Soviet airfields, military facilities, and other locations that the US Strategic Air Command planned to strike in the case of war.

One list includes population centers as specific targets

The list, which was drawn up in 1956 for possible use by 1959, is split into two parts. On one list, the SAC noted more than 1,100 airfields, each to be targeted with bombs between 1.7 and 9 megatons. Of these, the top two slots were held by fields in what is now Belarus, both of which would allow the USSR to strike against NATO countries in Western Europe. These airfields and others, scattered across the Eastern bloc, were the priority targets at the time because the aircraft they housed were the only way for the Soviet Union to carry out its own nuclear counter-offensives against the United States. Over time, they would have become less important targets, as both sides developed intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines capable of striking more rapidly and from varying locations.

While the first SAC list notes strictly military targets, the second shows just how devastating a nuclear war between the two world superpowers would have been. It features 1,200 cities, each containing a host of "designated ground zeroes" (DGZs) listed by priority, at which bombs would be aimed. Air force command centers and industrial complexes are high on the list — which has Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) as targets one and two — but also included are sites noted simply as "population." These locations were chosen as clusters of humanity, and the bombs dropped on them would be aimed to kill as many people as possible.

Moscow was priority one for bombs

The information Burr received doesn't expand on the reasoning for these population targets, and doesn't specify expected casualties. During World War II, many argued that one of the main purposes of the atomic bomb was to cripple the morale of an enemy population "through fear," Burr quotes Major Muir Fairchild in 1940, "of death or injury for themselves or loved ones, [so] that they would prefer our terms of peace to continuing the struggle, and that they would force their government to capitulate." The US Air Force moved away from that thinking and ruled out "intentional" attacks on civilians after the war, but at the time the list was drawn up, Burr says the SAC was pushing for a 60 megaton bomb that it believed would be important for deterrence purposes. For comparison, even a one-megaton bomb would be 70 times as large as "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

But as we can tell by the fact we're still here and not just piles of ash on a scorched and lifeless world, the SAC list was never used in a real nuclear attack, and just a few years later would become obsolete as the Soviet Union developed longer-range deployment technologies.