The Cold War Legacy

Military activities and preparations for war can have enormous environmental impacts even without a shot being fired. The development of the atomic bomb during the early 1940s, referred to as the Manhattan Project, not only had devastating consequences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also produced a long-lasting legacy of deadly radioactive pollution in the United States. In 1939 Nobel Prize physicist Niels Bohr warned that although it was possible for the United States to build an atom bomb, it could not be done without "turning the country into a gigantic factory." Following the end of the Cold War in 1991, it became apparent to what extent that factory had contaminated such diverse sites as Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Rocky Flats, Colorado; where the air, groundwater, surface water, soil, vegetation, and wildlife all show signs of radioactivity. The Soviet Union's nuclear program created similar problems, concentrating production in "secret cities" such as Chelyabinsk-7, which many have called the most polluted city on earth. Given the highly toxic nature and extremely long half-life of most radioactive waste, cleanup and containment of these sites will pose problems for generations.

The Cold War legacy brings into focus the "necessity" and "proportionality" calculations that underlie most reasoned decisions about environmentally damaging wartime actions: whether there are alternatives to taking a particular action, and whether the military advantage gained from taking such an action outweighs the environmental and other harm that potentially may result. Most scholars would agree that the development of the atomic bomb was justifiable as a means of defeating fascism and winning World War II; they similarly agree that Iraq's actions in retreating from Kuwait were indefensible, even on military grounds. Other cases, such as the United States' defoliation campaign in Vietnam or bombing of civilian infrastructure in Kosovo, are more controversial. In any case, the historical record, the continued development of international treaties and institutions, and the increasing awareness that environmental issues must be considered even during wartime, all should provide a basis for improved military tactics and more environmentally aware decision making in the future. see also Terrorism.


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Internet Resources

Environmental Change and Security Project. "Bibliographic Guide to the Literature." Available from

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Environmental Law Institute. (1998). "Annotated Bibliography: First International Conference on Addressing Environmental Consequences of War: Legal, Economic, and Scientific Perspectives." Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute. Available from

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Jay Austin

Ever since the U.S.S. Arizona sank in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a slow trickle of fuel oil has seeped toward the surface, casting a rainbow sheen on the now-still waters. The Arizona had 1.5 million gallons of oil in its tanks when it was attacked, and it is unknown how much remains. Although the current 2.5-gallon-per-day leak does not present much of an environmental hazard, the caretakers of what is now the Pearl Harbor National Monument have made plans to minimize impacts if the Arizona's hull collapses and releases the remainder into the harbor's fragile marine ecosystem.

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