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The Center Of Everything

Nuclear War

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The 1980s began with the failure of a 46-cent computer chip causing the NORAD headquarters to mistakenly believe that they were under attack by Soviet missiles. Some 100 U.S. B-52s were readied for take-off before the mistake was discovered.

On July 25, 1980, President Carter signed Presidential Directive 59, which called for flexible, controlled retaliation against political and military targets in the event of a "prolonged" nuclear war. When Carter left office the following January, he said in his Farewell Address that "in an all-out nuclear war, more destructive power than in all of World War II would be unleashed every second during the long afternoon it would take for all of the missiles and bombs to fall."

The United Nations held its second Special Session on Disarmament in June 1982. One million people gathered in New York in the largest peace demonstration in history.Cold War rhetoric intensified in the early years of the Reagan Administration. President Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in March 1983. Two weeks later, on March 23, he announced plans to proceed with a space-based missile defense which became known as "Star Wars." Despite heavy criticism, Reagan pushed ahead with research and development of the multi-billion dollar project.

In September 1985 Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear installation, released information about Israel's nuclear weapons program. Based on his evidence, experts concluded that Israel may have had up to 200 nuclear weapons stockpiled. For his disclosure, Vanunu was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Rome, secretly tried in Israel, convicted of treason and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment, much of which has been spent in solitary confinement.

In 1986 the world was shocked by two major technological failures. The Challenger spacecraft exploded shortly after takeoff, killing the seven astronauts aboard. The second incident occurred at reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The reactor core fuel exploded, sending a radioactive cloud containing some 50 million curies of radiation around the world, contaminating large areas of the Ukraine and Belarus.

Representatives of 150 nations gathered in August 1987 for the UN Conference on the Relationship Between Disarmament and Development, boycotted by the U.S. on the grounds that disarmament and Third World development should be treated as separate issues. In September 1987 the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in both countries to reduce the risks of accidental nuclear war. In December the two nations signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, agreeing to remove these weapons from Europe.

By the end of the 1980s the Cold War was thawing. The Berlin Wall was opened to allow free travel between East and West on November 9, 1989. The Eastern European countries were electing non-communist governments. Dissident leaders such as Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia were being elected to the highest officers in their countries.

During the decade of the 1980s some five and a half million people were killed in warfare, nearly three-quarters of whom were civilians.