What To Do If Nuclear War Seems Imminent
This post describes precautions to take in a scenario like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war seems plausibly imminent within the next days or weeks. This is not a guide for what to do if a missile is currently inbound and will strike within minutes or hours.
If tensions between nuclear powers are running extremely high, and you are in or near a plausible target during a nuclear war (such as a major city in the United States or Europe), then I recommend evacuating to a safer place as soon as possible, and staying for days or weeks until things have calmed down. New Zealand is an excellent place to go, or if international travel doesn’t seem justified, then any nearby rural area will probably do fine.
This plan requires that you maintain a valid passport, so that you can leave your country on short notice if needed. No other special preparations are needed.
Proper calibration here should include substantial tolerance for false positives. For people with the means available, I think it was correct to evacuate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it did not end up leading to nuclear war.
Why New Zealand?
New Zealand is of little or no strategic relevance to the current conflicts between nuclear powers. The experts I’ve talked to agree that it’s implausible that anyone would target New Zealand with nuclear weapons, or that anyone would invade New Zealand in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.
New Zealand is easy to enter. As of 2023, Westerners can usually enter the country as a tourist with 72 hours’ notice or less.1
New Zealand is a major food exporter. If supply chains are disrupted, you’ll be close to the source.
New Zealand is very stable internally. It has a strong Anglo tradition of governance, reasonable national pride, no coups or civil wars within the last century+, negligible riots or ethnic strife, etc.
New Zealand is culturally familiar. It’s an English-speaking country that’s firmly within Western Civilization. As such, most of my audience will be more comfortable staying there while waiting for tensions to calm down, and will stick out less if there’s chaos or rioting after a war.
No other country is so good on so many of these dimensions.
If you are unable to enter New Zealand, then there are many other countries which look like good options: many South American countries, Australia, and Botswana.
If you are unable to leave your country (this is unlikely if you have a valid passport; see below) or if a long journey seems unwarranted, then you should drive to a small town far from any metropolis or other plausible target. For people in the Bay Area, the Modoc Plateau in northeast would be one good destination. Once there, organize, acquire supplies, and find a location to dig fallout shelters. Construction is described in Nuclear War Survival Skills, the full text of which is online. The book claims untrained civilians can build the shelters in 1-2 days. You might want to print or buy a copy ahead of time.
How will I know when to evacuate?
This will probably be obvious. Past diplomatic crises between nuclear powers have frequently been widely publicized.
If I decide to evacuate, I will send a brief alert to anyone who signs up to receive one via this form.
Won’t all the flights get booked due to mass panic?
Probably not, judging by past cases. For example, it looks like there were no large-scale evacuations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in spite of very alarming headlines. (It seems to me that most people have trouble thinking about nuclear destruction in a way that permits any action whatsoever.)
What about nuclear fallout?
Based on a friend’s analysis, fallout risk in New Zealand is low unless New Zealand itself is targeted, and the experts I’ve talked to agree that this is implausible.
Fallout is dangerous for about two weeks. Nuclear War Survival Skills (full text) describes how to build shelters, which would be uncomfortable but effective.
This is a light revision of the essay originally posted on September 13, 2018.
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When I first wrote this in 2018, anyone with a valid passport from most countries could enter New Zealand with no prior application whatsoever. Since they started requiring a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority application, it’s possible there might be a different country which is better overall to enter in a time-sensitive emergency. I have not redone the full analysis.