Megadeath (or megacorpse) is a term for one million deaths by nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation for the term is a 1953 article from the Birmingham News, and it appears again in 1959 in the New Statesman. The term was used to refer to the "megadeath intellectuals", the group of thinkers surrounding RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn. The concept was notably discussed in Kahn's 1960 book, On Thermonuclear War.
In the book, Kahn observes that "It was difficult for people to distinguish in the early 1950s between 2 million deaths and 100 million deaths. Today, after a decade of pondering these problems, we can make such distinctions perhaps all too clearly. Most of the decision makers and planners who have been facing the prospects of a thermonuclear war would find it difficult to distinguish between zero and two million deaths and very easy to distinguish between two million and a hundred million deaths." In a table, Kahn outlines "tragic but distinguishable postwar states" in which the number of deaths range from 2 to 160 million, and asks "will the survivors envy the dead?".
Though the term was created in order to discuss the likely consequences of conducting nuclear war, such a large number of deaths could also be associated with other nation-state weapons of mass destruction.
In popular culture
The British satirical show, Beyond the Fringe, used the term in 1960. In the sketch "Civil War", a civil defense spokesman says that "if we are lucky enough, in the course of any future hostilities, to be the aggressor, we are in a position to strike a blow of 20, 30 or even 40 megadeaths. Or to put that in more human terms, 40 million dead bodies strewn about the place. Now following such a blow, our Sea Slugs would come into their own, bringing our score into the 70 or even 80 megadeaths bracket, which is practically the maximum score permitted by the Geneva Convention"
Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, adapted from Peter George's 1958 novel "Red Alert", was heavily influenced by Kahn's writings. In the film, General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) carries a binder titled "World Targets in Megadeaths." Turgidson promotes an all-out pre-emptive strike, which he feels will result in acceptable American casualties, with the phrase "...choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you've got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed."
- "megadeath". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Kahn, Hermann (1960). On Thermonuclear War. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-313-20060-2.
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. George C. Scott, Peter Sellers. Columbia Pictures, 1964. Film.