Washington D.C., January 22, 2020 - On 24 February 1972 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s inbox included a Joint Chiefs of Staff message concerning the ongoing efforts by military planners to develop a “Communist Chinese Nuclear Package” for the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the Pentagon’s nuclear war plan. Laird’s office was mistakenly included in the message’s routing. According to documents published for the first time by the National Security Archive, the message “displeased” Laird in part because it showed that the Joint Chiefs had been excluding his offfice from their nuclear target planning discussions. For Laird, the message's timing was also problematic: that week President Richard Nixon was visiting China for the first time. Having already initiated a major review of nuclear war planning, Laird ordered the Joint Chiefs to recall the message and to suspend further discussion of it until the policy review had been completed.
The idea of a special nuclear targeting plan for China had emerged as early as 1966 when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the Joint Chiefs to review U.S. strategy for a “nuclear attack” against China in conflicts that involved the Soviet Union or with China only. McNamara’s request remains classified so it is not clear what motivated him in particular, whether concerns about the Vietnam War escalating into direct conflict with China or Beijing’s progress in developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that could threaten U.S. allies in the region and perhaps eventually reach U.S. targets (although it took decades before China had an ICBM capability). In any event, by the close of the Johnson administration, top Pentagon officials were asking the Joint Chiefs to develop specific target lists for nuclear targeting of China but also to make recommendations about methods of attack and which delivery systems to use against which targets.
When the Nixon administration came to power in early 1969, the Joint Chiefs continued work on a nuclear targeting plan focusing on China, although top civilian officials were not involved as before, for reasons unknown. By the fall of 1969 the Chiefs were on the verge of a decision whether the SIOP should include a “separate” China package, aimed at nuclear targets and facilities, and whether to assign the Director of Joint Strategic Target Planning (DSTP) the task of developing the option.
The planners were to consider whether guidance for the “Peking package” would be relevant for the development of a separate China nuclear option in the SIOP. The “Peking package” may have referred to a plan to include Chinese political and military control centers in a plan to strike “Alpha” targets – Chinese nuclear delivery capabilities – as long as they were not in urban areas. The “Peking package” may have been derived from a “Moscow Peking Missile Package” that was developed in the late 1960s. This was one of many “sub-variations” of the SIOP attack options that target planners had developed.
Whatever accounted for the delay, possibly a simple lack of urgency, in developing the China nuclear package, it was not until early 1972 that the Joint Chiefs had formulated instructions to the DSTP, which they asked the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command to review. The message described the target categories assigned to the “China nuclear package”, which had two variants: the destruction of the Chinese nuclear threat to U.S. allies and forces in East Asia and the destruction of China’s prospective threat to launch ICBMs that could reach the continental U.S. The general objective of the variants was to “negate any immediate Communist Chinese nuclear threat to the United States and preclude the PRC from emerging as the dominant nuclear power following a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR.” The circumstances in which the U.S. would launch such attacks was not discussed, but the underlying purpose would have been to preserve the central role of American power in world affairs.
Laird was “displeased” that he had learned only inadvertently that the Chiefs had been having this discussion of a major nuclear policy issue. As noted, the timing of the message disturbed him, just when President Nixon was in China, but he also had other concerns. Laird had already authorized a panel directed by Assistant Secretary of Defense John S. Foster to review nuclear war planning. The goal was to give the president more choices during a military crisis than to rely on the catastrophic nuclear strikes that were characteristic of the SIOP. Nixon himself brought up the issue publicly by mentioning “new and disturbing problems” raised by strategic parity with the Soviet Union: “Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans?”
What bothered Laird was that the Joint Chiefs were considering major changes in targeting policy before the Foster policy review had been completed. Therefore, he directed JCS Chairman Thomas Moorer (who was a member of the Foster Panel) to put the “China package” proposal in abeyance until the Foster panel had completed its work, although he was free to bring up the matter directly with the panel. It is worth noting that Laird did not criticize the idea of planning a nuclear strike designed to destroy China’s nuclear forces. A “disarming strike” against China had been the subject of continuing discussion at meetings of the Defense Program Review Committee during 1971 and 1972, in which senior Pentagon officials participated.
The flap over the China package raises an interesting question. Why did the Joint Chiefs believe that the secretary of defense had been erroneously placed on the distribution list for the message? More may be learned from the Admiral Moorer diaries, but one implication appears to be that highly sensitive information on nuclear targeting did not typically reach the secretary’s desk or the inbox of senior civilian defense officials generally. A few years earlier, national security adviser Henry Kissinger received a briefing at SAC headquarters where, according to the DSTP, “certain aspects of the SIOP … were deliberately not gone into." In general, military target planners believed that their work required a high degree of secrecy and organizational autonomy and that interference by civilian officials was to be avoided. Of course, Laird would have seen it differently, that target planning had such important political implications that civilian authorities had to be in the loop, which to an important extent was why he had established the Foster panel in the first place.
The subset of documents from the late 1960s published in today’s posting have long been declassified but not enough was in the public record to indicate the how far the “China package” went in the Pentagon planning process. With the recent declassification of the JCS message from February 1972 it becomes evident that senior military planners intended to continue discussion of a policy option that already had some support in the national security bureaucracy. That China would be excluded from the SIOP by the end of the decade few may have anticipated.