A wise professor I had once declared that every war fought after August 1945 has been a nuclear war. Even if atomic weapons never actually came into play, the very thought that they could has had an outsize impact on a great many world events. For example, the containment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to very limited areas of operation was, in the end, the result of American and Soviet leaders trying to avoid nuclear exchanges. Escalation would have been easy – hence Truman firing MacArthur – but the availability of nukes helped keep a lid on things.
And so it is that we are all told that only the U.S. has ever used nuclear weapons in anger, and then only twice, in a single week in a single country.
But that’s not entirely true.
Ask France. Or Algeria.
The long history of French Algeria is fascinating in its own right, though outside the scope of this little post. In short, France began to colonize it in the early 19th Century and came to consider it as more than a colony, but an outright piece of France proper (it’s closer to mainland France than Hawaii is to the Lower 48, after all). But in the aftermath of Vichy rule and the turmoil in WWII France, the fragile arrangement was doomed. Unrest spread as soon as the war in Europe was over, and by 1954 Algeria was in the throes of a full-fledged insurgency that lasted until 1961. By the end of it, official French policy was withdrawal from Algeria and eventual independence, and even then, they still managed to have two sets of enemies – Algerian guerillas (who also supported French withdrawal, but more violently), and French Algerian colonists (pieds noirs) who didn’t want to leave their homes and fought government efforts to get them out. Ugly.
France’s response to the Algerian War of Independence killed a couple hundred thousand people, ended the Fourth Republic, elevated Charles de Gaulle to power with the Fifth, nearly caused a military coup, and somewhere along the way, while everyone was busy, included a few nuclear weapons being set off within Algerian borders.
Yes, that’s right – in 1960-61, France detonated four separate nukes at Reggane, deep in the Sahara. Two more were detonated at Ekker before Algeria was granted independence on July 5, 1962. Strictly for testing, of course; data collection and, you know, science.
Um… but it’s hard to claim that these tests were for purely technical purposes with no political considerations whatsoever. By 1960 things were at their height, and a nice demonstration of enormously destructive fission right in the enemy’s backyard would be a handy way of demonstrating the coercive elements of French power. Such demonstrations are a core competence of nuclear weapons.
All players needed a reminder that the French government would decide the final outcome. Both Algerian natives opposed to all things French (specifically the FLN guerrilla group) and intransigent pieds noirs opposed to French withdrawal needed to understand this. Someone somewhere in Paris made the calculation that nukes would help make the point.
Anyway, these were nuclear weapons unleashed to affect the outcome of an armed conflict. Just because the blasts didn’t hurt anybody doesn’t mean they had no effect.