Washington, D.C., May 22, 2020 – Seventy-five years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the start of the atomic era, questions about the value, danger, and morality of nuclear weapons continue to present a huge challenge for politicians, military strategists, and ordinary citizens.
As that freighted anniversary approaches, the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault has gathered a selection of primary sources that could be considered key to understanding the arc of U.S. nuclear policy during the crucial first four decades. The aim is to encourage broad discussion of the many facets of nuclear history grounded in direct evidence.
No doubt many readers will have their own ideas for what to include. We welcome nominations – feel free to submit to the address above. At a future date, we will publish an assortment of additional materials in an annex to this posting.
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A Short Documentary History of U.S. Nuclear Posture during the Cold War
By William Burr
The 75th anniversary of the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is approaching. The United States and the world had entered the atomic age at the moment of the secret test of an atomic device in New Mexico on 16 July 1945. No one could know how the new weapon would shape the political landscape at home and abroad although President Harry S Truman declared that “atomic power can become a powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace.” Truman may have been right to hope that the bomb would help prevent world wars but any hope that the bomb would bring greater security to the world would prove mistaken. That the bomb has not been used in anger since August 1945 is a boon but the further development of nuclear weapons since then and their increase and dispersal created dangers far beyond what Truman could have conceived at the dawn of the atomic age.
Truman himself presided over the initial creation of an atomic weapons stockpile that reached 720 bombs in his last year in office. Besides authorizing the expansion of fissile materials production capabilities, Truman made the fundamental decision to develop thermonuclear weapons, with the first H-bomb test in 1952. He also approved the creation of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command that would deliver atomic weapons to their targets. Recognizing, from the experience of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, Truman established the system of presidential control over nuclear use decisions that continues to this day.
This posting of 27 declassified documents is intended to serve as a basic primary resource on nuclear history and as such is designed to provide an overview of major elements of the U.S. nuclear weapons posture from the Truman era into the 1980s. Minimally, the nuclear posture includes force levels, control of the weapons, technology for delivering them, and the plans for targeting them. Choosing just 25 or so documents on these issues is necessarily arbitrary because there are many high-quality declassified records to choose from. Moreover, some highly important materials remain classified. Nevertheless, it is possible to select a relatively small set that are particularly emblematic in conveying the development of the U.S. nuclear posture, which to a great extent, signified the array of forces that could be used for the devastation of targets – including civilian populations, as Truman pointedly noted – with as much precision as possible. For those who controlled that capability, the point was to deter attack on the United States and its allies, knowing that the use of nuclear forces could destroy all parties to a conflict.
A number of the documents in this collection are at the presidential level, which is appropriate in light of the central role of the chief executive in making nuclear use decisions. These include documents on presidential control and on the emergency or “pre-delegated” use of nuclear weapons. A document from the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy administrations depicts the role of the “football” a briefcase that includes documents on war plans and special instructions geared for a nuclear crisis. Another document from the Kennedy administration describes which foreign governments needed to be consulted about nuclear use decisions and the practice of U.S. nuclear deployments in those countries whose governments Washington believed did not need to be consulted at all.
Other White House-level documents include Presidential Directive 59 and National Security Decision Directive 13, which attempted to give top-level direction to strategic targeting planning and policy. A few of the policy documents, the Reagan-era National Security Decision Directives 32 and 238, with important language on nuclear weapons policy, have been published before on-line but fully declassified versions have hitherto been buried more or less in obscurity.
Some of the documents are about nuclear weapons themselves and their delivery systems. A RAND Corporation report about the H-bomb conveyed the anticipated scope of its destructiveness. Documents from the 1950s illustrate the Navy’s plans for deterrence. A never-before published memorandum by CNO Arleigh Burke reviewed the role of nuclear-armed aircraft on carriers in war plans. A Navy report projected the prospective role of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile in nuclear deterrence, even potentially assigning it a central role as a deterrent force. Another document, a memorandum to President John F. Kennedy from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara rejected the idea of “minimum deterrence” based on an SLBM force. McNamara’s role in the genesis of the “assured destruction” concept used to size strategic force levels is documented in a memorandum by JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. Documents from the 1960s and 1970s speak to the role of MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) in augmenting the lethality of ICBM payloads, as well as the failed proposals to ban them.
Other documents illuminate the development of war plans and planning. The 1949 Harmon Report, published here for the first time, presents a critique of the first war plan, TROJAN. A speech by General Curtis LeMay, commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command, reviewed SAC targeting strategy in a general war while a contemporaneous report by State Department official Gerard C. Smith gave insight into the destructiveness of SAC attack plans. Two documents from the 1961 Berlin crisis provide contrasting approaches to war planning: a Joint Chiefs of Staff report detailed Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) targeting and the huge levels of destruction that a nuclear war over Berlin would have caused, while a White House strategy memorandum outlined step-by-step political and military actions designed to avoid general war, if possible. A Nuclear Weapons Employment Planning (NUWEP) directive from 1974 shows how civilian defense officials used presidential guidance to direct military commanders to develop a range of attack options, from limited to major strikes.
One of the documents on this list was produced during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most protracted and dangerous Cold War nuclear crisis. A memorandum by then-Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, it documents the decision to put the Strategic Air Command at Defcon 2, readiness for war, on 24 October 1962.
One of the noteworthy features of the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s was that presidents tried to guide nuclear target planning so they would have more choices about the level of destruction. However, the military officials at the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS), who prepared the SIOP, did not receive scrutiny by civilians, who could ensure that there was an appropriate layer of outside follow-up, consistency with presidential objectives. The JSTPS’s relative isolation in Nebraska compounded the lack of dialogue between senior civilians and military commanders about the nature of the war plans. Thus, the plans developed without reference to the guidance – such as city withholds and limited nuclear options – that Presidents Carter and Reagan had issued. It was not until the mid-1980s that Pentagon civilian planners were able to gain some control of the process and it was not until the Cold War had ended that the SIOP became subject to thorough civilian review. The documentary record of this story remains classified, although key documents have been requested from the Defense Department.
The growing interest in flexibility and options for the president provided the context for a novel proposal that the Strategic Air Command put forward toward the close of Ronald Reagan’s first term. SAC’s commander-in-chief General Bennie L. Davis proposed the development of highly accurate non-nuclear weapons as a way to strengthen deterrence without further reliance on nuclear weapons. If the Davis proposal had any impact on discussions within the Pentagon it remains to be learned.
Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, David Lilienthal Papers, box 197
This entry from the diary of Atomic Energy Commission chairman David Lilienthal illuminates the thinking of President Harry S. Truman about the use and control of nuclear weapons. The recently created Atomic Energy Commission had custody of the weapons and Truman wanted them kept under civilian control. The armed services sought direct control of the weapons and as Cold War tensions heightened during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, senior defense officials urged Truman to transfer custody from the AEC.
Giving the Pentagon leadership a chance to make its case, on 21 July 1948, Truman met with Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, and Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall, along with Atomic Energy Commission Chairman David Lilienthal and the other members of the Commission. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal included in his diary an account of the meeting, but David Lilienthal’s was fuller, including Truman’s widely quoted statement about why atomic bombs could not be used like other weapons.
Lilienthal recounted Truman saying, with a “poker face”: “You have got to understand that this isn't a military weapon … It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that." Forrestal and Symington pressed their case, but Truman would not relent. Three days later, Truman publicly announced his decision to retain civilian custody of the weapons. Over time, he would relax his position on custody, but not his basic thinking on nuclear weapons use.
Document 02 NEW
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CCS 373 (10-23-48) Bulky Package, JCS (copy courtesy of James Ragland)
This report by an ad hoc panel of the JCS, headed by Air Force Lieutenant General H.R. Harmon, demonstrates how nuclear weapons use was embedded in the Truman administration’s military planning, but also discloses official perceptions of the limits of the war plans. The U.S. strategic war plan in effect in early 1949, TROJAN, targeted 75 Soviet cities with 133 atomic bombs. Yet, the Harmon panel concluded that, even if the attack was carried out perfectly, it would not in itself "bring about capitulation, destroy the roots of Communism, or critically weaken the power of Soviet leadership to dominate the people." Moreover, Soviet military capability to take "selected areas" of Western Europe, the Middle East, and Far East "would not be seriously impaired," although fuel and lubricant shortages would subsequently decrease troop mobility. A 30 to 40 percent reduction in industrial capacity would be achieved, but follow-up attacks would be necessary to prevent recovery.
Even though the atomic air offensive would leave Soviet power intact, the Harmon committee concluded that “the advantage of its early use would be transcending” because it was the “only means of inflicting shock and serious damage to vital elements of the Soviet war making capacity.” Moreover, “an early atomic offensive will facilitate greatly the application of other Allied military power with prospect or greatly lowered casualties.”
U.S. Air Force FOIA release; available on Digital National Security Archive.
One of the implications of the Harmon report, that 133 atomic bombs were not enough to break the Soviet Union, may have fed into the pressure for the hydrogen-bomb or “super” that accelerated after the Soviets tested an atomic device in August 1949. The decision for the H-bomb, whose development President Truman approved in January 1950, had the strong support of the Strategic Air Command which would be the sole customer for the Super when it was ready. While the bomb was still being developed, months before its first test in late 1952, the Air Force's civilian research arm, Project RAND (acronym for "research and development") began exploring the implications of this fearsome new weapon. The study, conducted by Bernard Brodie, Charles Hitch, and Ernst Plesset, was widely briefed in the national security establishment up to President Truman himself.
With explosive yields potentially ranging from a million tons of TNT to 25 million tons, the RAND analysts characterized thermonuclear weapons as "killers and fantastically destructive." As “area weapons” that would target large swaths of urban-industrial territory they could kill millions of people in the United States and the Soviet Union if dropped on the fifty largest cities. Besides the devastating blast effects, the analysts saw "increased probability of fire." If a five-megaton bomb was dropped on a city, "a firestorm must be expected as far out" as four miles from ground zero. Given such destructive effects, the authors concluded that "large-scale reciprocal use of atomic and thermonuclear weapons against cities would not fall short of national suicide for both sides." That judgement would trouble Brodie and his colleagues for the rest of their careers.
Navy FOIA release; available on Digital National Security Archive
NAVWAG I was one of the first studies to “stake out a claim” for a U.S. Navy role in strategic warfare. What made such a role conceivable was that same month Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke approved the objective, to be obtained by 1965, of a nuclear-powered submarine that would carry intermediate-range ballistic missiles for striking targets as far as 1,500 miles away. Months before, Burke had approved the development of a submarine launched IRBM that would be capable of carrying a lightweight thermonuclear weapon (circa 600 pounds) whose explosive yield would be in the range of a megaton. This would provide the Navy with a capability to bombard and destroy large tracts of urban-industrial territory.
Burke approved NAVWAG 1 on the strength of its conclusion that a nuclear-powered submarine was the only missile-launching system that would have “assurance of survival when deployed in small numbers.” The initial missiles should have a range of 1,150 miles with a yield of 0.4 megatons and a CEP of four miles but "High launch rates, submerged launch, and longer range should be programmed for development to enhance submarine safety and permit penetration to more distant targets." Targets for initial FBM capability, in range of submarine patrols in the Norwegian Sea, should be Moscow and other highly defended population or industrial targets.
Directing that the mission of the Navy’s “Fleet Ballistic Missile system” should be “expressed as a deterrent capability,” Burke endorsed the NAVWAG study as the basis for subsequent planning.
National Archives, Record Group 59. Records of the Department of State, Records of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject Files of Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Aerospace, 1950-1966, box 6, II.3.B Weapons Effects - 1955-57
Gerard C. Smith, who was the secretary of state’s special assistant on atomic energy matters, played a major role in the nuclear education of John Foster Dulles. After Secretary of State Dulles made press conference statements that underestimated the fallout hazards associated with using low-yield nuclear weapons, Smith took him aside to explain why the U.S. Air Force would never accept tactical nuclear weapons as a substitute for strategic bombardment. After Dulles took issue with the statement that megaton nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union would "cause tremendous destruction of life and property," Smith realized that his chief needed better information but he could go no further at the moment because others in the room lacked "Q" clearances for atomic energy information. When Smith found an opportunity for a briefing, Dulles learned that "if the SAC strikes were successful … Russian casualties would be in the tens of millions." The criterion that Smith used for nuclear devastation was blast destruction: if the megatonnage of nuclear weapons dropped on Soviet cities was "divided into the total area of Russia, it would "result in substantial over-pressure over the whole area." Had he taken mass fire damage into account the estimated casualties would have been greater.
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Curtis E. LeMay Papers, box 206, Top Secret File Number 60725
The comprehensive destruction that worried Gerard Smith was the consequence of the detailed planning described in this speech by Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay. It encapsulates his thinking about SAC’s mission, its capabilities, and on-going plans for the development of new weapons systems to target the Soviet Union and its allies. In this speech, LeMay argued that the popular view of deterrence was based on fear of the destruction of urban centers, but what deterred the “professional military” was a capability to “destroy long-range delivery of nuclear weapons.” Winning depended on a capability to destroy the adversary’s nuclear delivery system so that the “enemy cannot impose his will on us and we can impose our will on him.” Crucial to winning and to deterrence was the destruction of the enemy’s “Air Power Target Battle System” involving “immediate attack” on 954 targets, including bomber forces, bases, government and military control centers, and weapons storage units.
LeMay also appraised the bomber and missile nuclear delivery systems that were either at hand or in the works. LeMay had great confidence in the B-47 and B-52 bombers and the ability of “combat-ready crews” to penetrate Soviet air space and accurately deliver weapons at the “bomb release line,” although as the Soviets improved air defenses they would face a tougher challenge. He had less confidence in bombers under development, such as the B-58 and the nuclear-powered bomber, WS-125A.
On intercontinental ballistic missiles, then not yet deployed, LeMay partly appraised them for their utility to the bomber mission because, in their early stages, their accuracy would be low. Thus, “using it initially to damage Soviet air offense and defense systems on the ground holding them down until they can be destroyed by the manned bomber.” ICBMs could also be used to “disrupt” control centers and their communications networks.
Taking account of political pressures to cut government spending, LeMay argued that the services had to come up with a “Priorities Plan” that would preserve deterrence while pruning unnecessary programs. For example, he proposed eliminating forces that “are not clearly capable of prompt and effective combat in a very short war.” That meant that not a “nickel” would be spent on anything else without assurance that the U.S. had the forces necessary for the “Air Power Battle.” He could not foresee a “protracted war” nor a need for large surface forces for post-war “clean-up and policing.” Only “token forces” were necessary for “showing the flag” in peacetime.
Document 07 NEW
U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, Archives, Strategic Plans Division, box 394, 3010 War Plans 1960
This is one of the few available records that give a good sense of the nuclear weapons capabilities and assignments of U.S. aircraft carriers at the height of the Cold War. At a time when the Eisenhower administration was looking askance at the budgetary costs of aircraft carriers, Burke prepared a strong defense, arguing that the nuclear-armed attack aircraft on carriers in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic were a formidable asset for general war. The carriers are “deployed in advanced areas ready to strike assigned targets on instant notice.” That the aircraft were on “moving bases” with “built-in mobility” meant they did not provide a target for ballistic missiles. Moreover, in comparison with the U.S. Air Force, the Navy had no need for “expensive hardening, digging of holes in the ground, or airborne alerts.”
Besides providing the number of strike aircraft, carriers, and targets assigned to the 6th Fleet (Mediterranean) and the 7th Fleet (Western Pacific), Burke discussed the role of the 2nd Fleet in the Atlantic, whose carriers had 167 nuclear targets. In the event of strategic warning, “the Fleet will be in position for immediate strike.” In surprise attack conditions, “the Fleet will move rapidly from the Western Atlantic to launch positions in the Norwegian Sea.”
Burke also discussed nuclear targeting arrangements and responsibilities. In the war plan, the U.S. Element of SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] gave first priority to “immediate, automatic” attack of 11 “control centers” (political and military headquarters), seven in the Soviet Union and four in East Germany. Of the 11, the 6th Fleet had responsibility for five of the targets in the Soviet Union.
To ensure that bombs reached targets, the Navy had been developing new techniques to deliver the weapons at the low altitudes required to evade air defenses. According to Burke, the Navy requested the “development of a laydown weapon” to improve the effectiveness of low-level atomic attacks. “This has been done and the Navy and Marine Corps have the only U.S. capability for this type attack at the present time.” Undoubtedly Burke had the Mark 105 Hotpoint in mind, but may not have mentioned it to avoid “restricted data” classification issues.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Ann Whitman Files, Presidential Transition Series, box 1, Memos re Change of Administration (4)
On 19 January 1961, the day before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, President Eisenhower and General Andrew Goodpaster gave the president-elect a briefing on the contents of the emergency satchel whose contents related to the “operational arrangements and preparations in existence so the president could give direction to the government and the nation in the event of emergency.” Included in the satchel, later known as the Football, was a book of Emergency Action Documents that were ready for a presidential signature. 
Goodpaster showed Kennedy the “book containing the policy statement, instructions, and controls on the matter of existing advance authorizations for the use of atomic weapons” designed so that “the U.S. could not be caught by surprise.” Those were the predelegation arrangements that remained highly secret for many years. Another book described the Defense Department’s “emergency actions,” possibly a reference to DEFCONS [Defense Readiness Conditions] and the means by which the Joint Chiefs would communicate with the president “in event of an emergency.”
The briefing covered emergency plans to move the president and his family, emergency facilities [at Mount Weather and other locations] “from which he would operate, and the initial operations [also not specified] planned to be performed.” Goodpaster also reviewed the “arrangement” that President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon had established in the event that the president was temporarily incapacitated: “the Vice President would accede to the powers of the Chief Executive.” Although Eisenhower may not have mentioned it, Nixon had been routinely accompanied by his own emergency satchel-holder. For his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy made no such arrangement.
CIA Special Collection, The Berlin Wall Collection: A City Torn Apart
As suggested by the briefing to President Kennedy (Document 8), the presidential administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower made a number of innovations in the nuclear policy field, such as the Football and predelegation arrangements. Another was the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the U.S’s first centralized war plan covering the nuclear weapons systems of both the Air Force and the Navy. Eisenhower was dismayed by the plan’s destructiveness, but he nevertheless approved the first of its kind, SIOP ’62 (fiscal year), which officially went into effect in April 1961.
Produced in June 1961 as the Berlin Crisis was heating up – Khrushchev had already set his six-month deadline for a treaty with East Germany – this Joint Chiefs of Staff report on “Berlin Contingency Planning” included key details of the first SIOP. What made this extraordinary JCS report initially available to the public was a joint effort by the National Declassification Center at the National Archives and the CIA’s Historical Publications Office to declassify several hundred documents on the Berlin Crisis to mark the 50th anniversary of the October 1961 Checkpoint Charlie incident. Since the posting went on-line, however, the JCS report was removed, probably at the request of the Defense Department. No doubt, many researchers had already downloaded the document making its removal rather Sisyphean.
According to the JCS report, if the full U.S. nuclear force assigned to the SIOP struck the Soviet Union, 54 percent of the total population would be killed, that is some 108 million out of 217 million. If the smaller alert force (bombers on 15 minutes to 2-hour alert) was used, total Soviet casualties would be 37 percent, or about 80 million. Against China, the full force would kill a smaller proportion because there were fewer cities: 16 percent of an estimated 650 million, or about 104 million. Poland, the site of Soviet air defense installations, would suffer 2,636,000 million casualties in an attack by the full force. The report, sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was for National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to use for answering questions posed by White House adviser and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
The horrific casualty figures were the direct consequence of standard operating procedures used by war planners. According to the JCS report, SIOP-62 stipulated a 95 percent assurance factor for the destruction of targets “representing a direct threat” to the continental U.S. A very high assurance of destruction was considered to be essential to minimize the danger posed by Soviet forces to the continental United States. To meet the assurance criteria, SIOP-62 posited a mass attack of an alert force of over 1700 nuclear weapons. Some Designated Ground Zeroes (DGZs) would be struck by two or more weapons, creating more devastating weapons effects (fires, blast, and radiation). The high degree of assurance is one of the bases of the “overkill” that was associated with U.S. nuclear war plans.
The JCS provided considerable detail on major target categories, especially “nuclear threat” targets, in order to answer fully one of Acheson’s questions. To the query on how much of the Soviet Union’s strategic attack forces would be destroyed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s response was hardly encouraging: an estimated 42 percent of the total would suffer “severe damage” if the United States launched a preemptive attack. This left the Soviet Union with considerable retaliatory strength to impose massive destruction on the U.S. and allies.
Other SIOP targets mentioned by the JCS were command centers and cities. 103 “government control centers” in China and the Soviet Union were on the target list (over and above 23 other centers which were co-located with other targets); the preponderance was no doubt Soviet. The target list also included almost all Soviet cities with populations of 50,000 or greater. The alert force would target 199 cities, while the full force would target 295. The cities were included in the “urban-industrial” category and that the DGZs for a given city probably included several co-located installations (munitions factories, steel works, railroad yards, etc.). In these instances, the JSTPS probably used the “target island” concept to help plan strikes on adjacent military or industrial installations that were to be destroyed by striking a DGZ somewhere on the “island.”
At that time, no one in the military or the civilian sector had responsibility to determine what the appropriate numbers of weapons in the plan should be, or whether the plan required so much overkill. The JSTPS simply allocated to the plan all the nuclear weapons that the services had put at their disposal, based on their own budgetary assessments. Thus, the SIOP was a “capabilities plan.” No one at the Defense Department had the authority to assess the plan. It was not until the Cold War ended that the SIOP was subject to scrutiny at the (civilian) Secretary of Defense level.
National Archives, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, Central Decimal Files, 1960-1963, 700.56311/7-2861.
Prepared during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, this document summarizes the options for overseas nuclear deployments and access to bases available to Washington during wartime. Some of the options involved agreements and understandings that Washington had reached with a number of NATO and other governments concerning the use of nuclear weapons. Some were with major Cold War allies such as the United Kingdom, where the use of British bases required agreement with the prime minister, who would also be consulted on the use of nuclear weapons “anywhere” but only if time permitted. The U.S. had similar understandings with Canada and France. In some circumstances, however, there were no understandings, at least not yet. For example, with some NATO countries, such as Italy, the U.S. would “unilaterally determine” that it could use nuclear weapons and bases “in accordance” with the alliance’s plans. In other countries or territories, such as West Germany, Okinawa, and South Korea, the U.S. faced “no limitations” on the use of nuclear weapons. With some governments, such as Iceland and Norway, the U.S. would have to obtain their consent to using the bases in the first place. With Japan, nuclear deployments and the launching of combat operations would require the government’s permission
FOIA release [Also available on Digital National Security Archive, U.S. Nuclear History, 1955-1968]
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara greatly valued the missile launching capabilities of Polaris submarines especially because they could serve as a reserve force to threaten Soviet cities in the event of a Soviet first strike. Therefore, he supported a force of 41 submarines, with 16 missiles each, which coincided with Arleigh Burke's original estimate. Moreover, early in the Kennedy administration, McNamara reacted positively to a briefing by the Weapons System Evaluation Group (WSEG) suggesting that a Polaris submarine force would be enough for the U.S. deterrence posture. Nevertheless, Air Force ideas would have a more powerful influence on his thinking and by the fall of 1961, using a sort of straw-man argument, McNamara rejected "minimum deterrence" (see pages 4-5). While he rejected as impractical the first-strike capability sought by the Air Force, McNamara nevertheless found finite deterrence wanting because it could not threaten "high-priority" military targets in retaliation for a deliberate Soviet attack; he saw that as necessary to "reduce Soviet power and limit the damage that can be done to us by vulnerable Soviet follow-on forces." Like Air Force leaders, McNamara believed that finite deterrence could not provide that capability nor was it sufficiently threatening to deter "Soviet aggression against our Allies."
John F. Kennedy Library, Presidential Papers, National Security Files, box 332: National Security Action Memoranda NSAM 109 U.S. Policy on Military Actions in a Berlin Conflict
The JCS report on Berlin Contingency planning discussed above (Document 9) was a legacy of the Eisenhower administration’s approach to the Berlin Crisis – using the threat of general nuclear war to deter the Soviets from going through with their threat to turn over to the German Democratic Republic the control over access to West Berlin, which was situated deep inside East Germany. For years since the end of World War II, as part of the Allied occupation system, the Soviets had controlled check points for road and rail traffic between West Germany and West Berlin. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the possibility that the Soviet Union might end its occupation role and turn over that control to the East Germans caused great apprehension since West Berlin was an emblem of the U.S. commitment to the Western alliance. With the stake in the city’s security so high, the prospect that an access crisis could generate a military confrontation and then general nuclear war was a nightmare for both Cold War statesmen and ordinary citizens.
When the Kennedy administration came to power, its strategists believed that a general war threat was not entirely credible. They wanted conventional military options to persuade Moscow that Washington was willing to risk nuclear war if Moscow or East Germany undertook disruptive action in the Berlin corridors. For the Kennedy team, larger conventional forces and "flexible response" were essential so that the president could wield a credible military threat. Through a complex process of planning during the summer and fall of 1961, mostly in the offices of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze, there developed a "preferred sequence of actions” for a Berlin crisis. NSAM 109 was the end-product of the contingency planning.
The actions contemplated would be increasingly serious, from small probes to test Soviet intentions, to non-combatant action (economic embargoes, naval harassment, etc.), and then non-nuclear military action "to display to the Soviets the danger of possibly irreversible escalation." If all else failed, and the "Soviets continue to encroach upon our vital interests," then the NSAM projected the use of nuclear weapons, from "selective nuclear attacks" to "general nuclear war."
National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the JCS Chairman, Maxwell Taylor records, box 6, October 1962
The Cuban Missile Crisis involved unparalleled U.S. nuclear alert activities in the attempt to coerce the Soviet Union into withdrawing its medium-range ballistic missiles from Cuba. Among the U.S. activities was putting nuclear bomber and missile forces on Defense Condition (Defcon) 2, a high state of readiness for war. In addition, one-eighth of the strategic bomber force went on airborne alert, armed with nuclear weapons. But the decision-making process that brought SAC into the mix has been obscure.
This memorandum from Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, formerly commander-in-chief Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), shows LeMay taking the initiative by suggesting to JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor actions that SAC and the Continental Air Defense Command could take as a deterrent to Soviet military action: airborne alert, "maximum readiness posture," dispersal of B-47 bombers and air defense forces, and Defcon 3 worldwide for U.S. military forces. Taylor checked "OK" next to the recommendations except for the one suggesting that a "maximum readiness posture" be reached by 12 noon on 23 October. Next to that item, Taylor, or someone else, wrote that it would be implemented when the blockade began. Thus, Defcon 2 began on 24 October, the first and only Defcon 2 during the Cold War.
The Defcon 2 posture was highly secret, although known to the White House staff in advance. The Soviets probably found out about the “maximum readiness posture” very quickly because SAC Commander-in-Chief Thomas Power sent out, apparently on purpose, the instructions to division and wing commanders in non-coded form.
The Defcon 2 posture demonstrated the danger of imminent nuclear war, which encouraged both Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach a settlement before things got out of hand. Nevertheless, without willingness on both sides to make concessions, such as withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, a settlement could have been far more elusive.
Digital National Security Archive
This document provides the proximate origin of the concept of “assured destruction,” which later gave rise to the idea of “mutual assured destruction,” in a conversation that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had with JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor in September 1963. It also suggests the ebb of first-strike thinking in the Kennedy administration. McNamara wanted Taylor’s staff to prepare a memorandum to the president on “required” strategic force levels; for that task, he put across concepts for determining what level of force was enough to deter the Soviets Union from attack for a 1969 budget. This was the beginning of the process that led to the Draft Presidential Memorandum (DPM) on strategic forces for FY 1965-1969 that went to President Lyndon Johnson in early December 1963, President Kennedy having been assassinated. The DPM was the first of a series where McNamara evaluated U.S. strategic nuclear force levels using the assured destruction and damage limiting concepts.
An important purpose of the study was to determine whether by 1969 it would be possible to concurrently strike military and urban-industrial targets or whether the Soviets would have enough land-based missiles in hardened silos and submarine-launched ballistic missiles to effectively make counterforce targeting too costly to be feasible. If counterforce was too pricey, then the objective became determining whether to maintain forces beyond “full deterrence” for the “off-chance of striking the enemy first” or whether to strike military targets “of uncertain location and identification.”
To evaluate whether the U.S. needed a 1200 or 1400 Minuteman force, McNamara wanted the analysis to use the following “blocks” of forces. What McNamara said about the first block captured the basic idea of “assured destruction:” that level of “force essential to deterrence – sufficient visible deliverable strength to destroy the Soviet Union as a viable society.” He defined that level of destruction quantitatively as a “30% loss of population and 50% loss of industrial capability.” A capability to cause such damage “should assure against a deliberate resort to general war and leave us exposed only to the danger of miscalculation.”
A second block was the forces that would “limit damage” to the United States by destroying threat targets. This was later called “damage limitation.” This would include weapons that could be used for a first strike against military targets or against the same targets in a retaliatory situation. Later, damage limitation would include anti-ballistic missile defenses.
A third block was the strategic forces needed for a “full first strike if it can be shown that this capability is both worthwhile and capable of attainment.”
All three concepts – assured destruction, damage limitation, and first strike – were analyzed in the December 1963 DPM. A “full first strike capability” was not, however, endorsed because McNamara found it unfeasible by the 1965-1969 time period. The 250 or 750 extra Minutemen proposed by the Air Force, over and above the l,000 recommended by McNamara, would not “significantly improve the outcome of the war for us.”
Digital National Security Archive
During the summer of 1964, Air Force science advisers were writing favorable reports about a new technical possibility that would increase the lethality of U.S. nuclear forces. With the Minuteman force limited to 1,000 missiles, the invention of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) made it possible to put more warheads on each missile, with each one capable of striking a separate target. Moreover, accuracy improvements were making it possible to strike targets with some precision.
When MIT professor Jack Ruina sent this letter to Herzfeld and Rathjens he was about to go on leave for two years to serve as president of the Institute for Defense Analyses. Before then, he had been active in the Jason group of part-time science and technology advisers. As Ruina assumed his new role, he took note of several developments: “The new thing on the horizon which should be taken very seriously is the development of very low C.E.P.'s in an ICBM force,” thus reducing “the yield requirements for counterforce capability very dramatically thereby making various new developments feasible and attractive.” With a lower circular error probable (CEP), warheads with smaller yields would be far more destructive if they struck the target accurately.
The development that Ruina had in mind was “what the Air Force calls MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles).” He could see that it would not be easy to pack multiple warheads on an ICBM reentry vehicle and make them deliverable but, as it became possible, the MIRV would provide “a cheaper way of doing what might be desirable” if there were no constraints on the size of the nuclear arsenal. If there were limits, however, “the possible use of MIRV can make a qualitative difference in capability.” Ruina saw using them for counterforce targeting as “the most obvious,” because lower CEPs would make a direct hit on an ICBM silo more possible. He also wrote that MIRVS can “be used to complicate the problem for defense.” In other words, if 1000 ICBMs had 3,000 warheads and decoys, it would make it more difficult for an adversary to knock them out or distinguish between decoys and actual weapons.
Ruina believed that a systematic study of the implications of MIRVs needed to be conducted but noted that the Jason Group was not the right forum, because the participants were part-time. In any event, the development and production of MIRVs would soon become a major item in the defense budget. By 1968 the MIRV testing had begun for Minuteman ICBMs and Poseidon SLBMs, although whether testing should be deferred became an issue because the United States and the Soviet Union were beginning to discuss strategic arms limitation negotiations.
Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, box 9, Meetings, Records Memoranda on Use of Nuclear Weapons
One of the Eisenhower administration’s most secret nuclear policy innovation was a system of “predelegation” – instructions for the use of nuclear weapons when the United States was under attack and military commanders could not reach the president. Eisenhower approved the first set of predelegation instructions in January 1959 but they continued to be revised until May 1960. When John F. Kennedy became president, he left the arrangements in place, not wanting to go against a major military decision made by the D-Day commander. Early in the Johnson administration, however, the Defense Department recommended some changes, which the president approved in March 1964.
During the heat of the 1964 presidential campaign, President Johnson's National Security Assistant McGeorge Bundy prepared this summary of the instructions which was declassified in 1998. Following statements by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about predelegation, President Johnson denied that there was any such authority. On 22 September 1964, Bundy advised Johnson to make a statement in case Eisenhower levied "charges of deception;" the president, however, did not correct the record. In this document, prepared the next day, Bundy summarized the essential features of the instructions for commanders that Johnson had approved the previous March, and which were along the same lines as the original Eisenhower instructions. By that time, the instructions had their own code name, “Furtherance.”
Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Papers of Lyndon B. Johnson. Special Files, Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings, box 4, October 14, 1968 - 1:40 pm, Foreign Policy Advisory Group Meeting
Five years into his term, President Johnson, on the advice of Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, the Joint Chiefs, and his security adviser Walt W. Rostow, changed the "Furtherance" instructions (Document 16) on the grounds that they were too dangerous as they stood. Prior to President Johnson's decision, instructions for the emergency use of nuclear weapons, in the event of the death or disappearance of the president, stipulated a “full nuclear response” even if the initial strike were conventional, or the result of an accident, with both China and the Soviet Union targeted regardless of whether either of them had launched the first strike.
On 14 October 1968, the advisers discussed the problem with the “Furtherance” instructions and a possible solution at a series of White House discussions mainly focusing on Vietnam War issues, such as the Paris peace talks and the proposed bombing halt. The meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others where the "Furtherance" instructions were discussed began at 1:38 p.m. White House staffer (and later CNN executive) Tom Johnson took notes. Joining the meeting, but probably after this conversation, was Senator Richard Russell (D-GA), a long-standing LBJ confidant, and U.S. Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland.
Instead of a nearly automatic "full" nuclear strike against both China and the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack, the advisers recommended that top commanders initiate a "limited response" against the appropriate country. That would be all the more necessary in the event of a "small-scale or accidental attack." Moreover, in the event of a nuclear response to a conventional force attack, "as is now in the plan," the retaliation would be non-nuclear – a step toward a no-first-use policy. With the revised instructions, commanders had explicit direction to avoid a nuclear holocaust. At the session, speaking of the new approach, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow advised Johnson: "We think it is an essential change. This was dangerous." The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff concurred.
The next day, Johnson signed off on new predelegation instructions, which remain largely classified. The Nixon administration inherited the “Furtherance” system, but it is not known whether it was changed in any important way.
Declassification release by Defense Department; Digital National Security Archive.
Ivan Selin, a leading systems analyst at the Pentagon, sent Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard a memorandum to sign, which he summarized as follows: “a major U.S. damage limiting program is not feasible, in view of likely Soviet reactions.” In effect, Selin was suggesting that the U.S. had reached the situation that McNamara had discussed six years earlier: counterforce and damage limitation would not be feasible because of the great costs.
Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, had joined the Nixon administration earlier in the year, serving as deputy to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had sent the national security establishment a series of requests for studies, in large part to keep the agencies busy. One of them was National Security Study Memorandum 3 which was to result in a study of the “security and foreign policy implications of a wide range of alternative budget levels and strategies for strategic and general purpose forces.”
The NSSM 3 study identified several damage limiting force levels involving greater expenditures on ICBMs and ABM systems that, if used in conflict, could greatly reduce U.S. casualties in the event of a U.S. first strike or even if the Soviets struck first, according to the models used. If, however, the Soviets built up their forces in response to U.S. damage limiting programs, then they could kill many more Americans through a first strike or through retaliation. Responding to the Soviet buildup by increasing ABM and air defenses would cost between $1-6 billion (current dollars), resulting in annual budgets in the $20 billion range.
One of the NSSM 3 working groups had estimated that if the U.S. went ahead to build up damage limiting forces, the Soviet leadership would view that as “representing a U.S. determination to threaten their strategic position and possibly to gain a first-strike capability.” The Soviets had the wherewithal to “offset” such a U.S. capability, but “it is highly likely that they would in fact react to what they would undoubtedly view as a severe threat to their deterrent.” Thus, the U.S. could face not only an arms race but the possibility of “increased East-West political tensions.”
National Archives, Record Group 59. Records of the Department of State. Policy Planning Council Records. Miscellaneous Records, 1959-1972, box 298. SALT March 1970; also on Digital National Security Archive
By the time the SALT negotiations were underway, the U.S. had successfully tested MIRVs on Minuteman and Poseidon warheads with deployments beginning in 1970 and 1971, respectively. President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, signed off on MIRV programs; they were not about to go against Secretary of Defense Laird and the Joint Chiefs, who were highly committed to the deployments. Nevertheless, some in the administration warned against the MIRV, arguing in favor of a ban on testing or deployment on the grounds that unimpeded development by both Moscow and Washington would create a more insecure environment at substantial cost.
In March 1970, Raymond L Garthoff, a State Department member of the SALT delegation, wrote a closely reasoned paper in support of a ban of MIRVs and low levels for anti-ballistic missiles. Without a MIRV ban, he wrote, the U.S. “would rapidly move ahead … in offensive capability.” By 1976, it would have over 7,000 RVs on the Minuteman and Poseidon force. The Soviets would assume that the United States would be using some of the RVs to “cross-target” their ICBM silos, that is, assign a MIRV from several Minutemen to the same Soviet target to ensure against the failure of one of them. Nevertheless, the Soviets could catch up; suggesting that the huge Soviet SS-9 ICBM had a “high MIRV potential,” Garthoff estimated that by the close of the 1970s, they could have 4,600 RVs, with 3,300 of them aimed at “hard targets” in the United States.
Letting MIRVs run free would result in a new arms race, with each of the superpowers strengthening their efforts “as a hedge against uncertainties,” which would drive a “spiral of strategic arms competition,” in which each side could find their deterrent at risk. According to Garthoff, “each side would no doubt take actions to reassure that it retained a secure second-strike capability, but this would involve a process marked by uncertainties, instabilities, and high costs with no gain in security.” A situation such as this was what Ivan Selin may have had in mind when he wrote the May 1969 memorandum to David Packard (Document 18).
Garthoff argued in favor of “very low” ABM levels for similar reasons; to avoid a missile defense race and greater strategic instability. The 64-launcher Moscow ABM system was complete, but without agreed caps on ABMs, the Soviets could have over 2,000 launchers by the end of the decade. The projected Safeguard ABM system would have 879 launchers. Thus, Garthoff argued that “with no (or high) limits on ABMs, and no MIRV ban, the momentum of the arms competition clearly will require major new US strategic programs in this decade beyond those presently projected.”
The possibility of a MIRV ban received unfocused discussion at an NSC meeting a week later, with no consideration given to the kinds of arguments raised by Garthoff. Although the McCloy Committee made a higher-level attempt on behalf of a MIRV ban, McCloy had little traction at the Nixon White House. A few years later, when Kissinger was secretary of state, a reporter asked him if he was “sorry” that the Nixon administration had gone ahead with the MIRV. By then the Soviets were testing and deploying MIRVs on their latest heavy ICBMs. Kissinger did not directly respond, but said that “I wish I had thought through the implications of the MIRVed world in 1969 and 1970 more thoughtfully than I did.”
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-1973, Def 12 USSR
By the time this document was written, the U.S. was on the verge of a launch-on-warning capability. According to information compiled by State Department INR analyst Frank Perez (who was not writing as an advocate), potentially "unambiguous warning" would be provided by sophisticated warning systems and a missile tracking capability, which were becoming available. The 440-L Over-the-Horizon system and the 647 early warning satellite, also known as the Defense Support Program, could detect the plumes of mass ICBM launches.22 Perimeter Acquisition Radars (PAR), a type of phased array radar, could provide "absolute certainty as to the size of the attack and ... where [it] originated and to where it was directed," for example, whether Minuteman fields were a target. The possibility of an accidental warning was not considered.
With new warning systems in place, Frank Perez wrote, a president would have a choice other than "rid[ing] out the attack and then respond[ing] with what residual [forces] remained." Instead, the president could "respond to a Soviet attack based on his assessment of the situation." Indeed, if deterrence failed and the Soviets launched an attack, Perez recommended against an all-out response by Minuteman forces because that would invite a Soviet attack on U.S. population and industrial centers. Instead, he suggested a controlled response of some 200-300 Minutemen against high-value Soviet military targets away from urban-industrial centers, supposedly limiting civilian casualties. Whether an attack by 250 Minutemen could actually limit escalation looks questionable.
Neither Perez nor his superior officer, Leonard Weiss, were interested in launch-on-warning not because they thought it should be used. Nevertheless, they saw it as useful for deterrence. The Soviets would detect a U.S. capability to get the Minutemen "off the ground in time." Even if the Soviets tried to strike first, launch-on-warning would enable the United States to inflict "intolerable damage" on the Soviet Union. Recognition of that capability would deter Moscow from "the possibility of undertaking a first strike."
By 1972, according to the recollections of former Minuteman officer Bruce Blair, launch crews in U.S. Minuteman silos in the northern plains were routinely conducting launch-on-warning drills to see how quickly they could carry out launch orders once SAC received warning that a Soviet ICBM attack was on the way.
Digital National Security Archive
This document relates to a theme in Nixon administration national security planning: the search for smaller, seemingly more credible, alternatives to the massive attacks stipulated in the SIOP. Nixon made public and private statements suggesting that he wanted alternatives to threats of a global holocaust and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird picked up on them by directing John S. Foster, the director of research and engineering at the Pentagon, to establish a panel to review the war plan and develop alternatives. Overlooked in official histories and the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, the highly secret Foster panel, which completed its report in May 1972, had an important long-run impact on U.S. nuclear planning.
NSC staffer Philip Odeen, who probably drafted this paper, informed Kissinger that the Foster panel had completed a report that was being reviewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Odeen had access to the findings and his summary provided significant detail on its contents. Looking at ways to give command authorities the widest possible choice of attacks and to control escalation so as to limit destruction, the panel proposed concepts of nuclear options, including Major Attacks (essentially the current SIOP options), Selective Options, and Limited Options. With limited options, Odeen argued, it might be possible to "stop the war quickly and at a low level of destruction." If, however, escalation could not be controlled and general nuclear war unfolded, the panel proposed a new objective for U.S. forces: "to minimize the enemy's residual military power and recovery capability and not just destroy his population and industry." The goal would be the destruction of assets essential for postwar recovery, with some implication that industry and populated industrial areas would be targeted.
As in the SIOP, pre-emption would remain an option. According to Odeen, “we would likely go after Soviet nuclear threats to us and our allies,” while withholding the capability to strike urban-industrial targets “to deter the Soviets” from hitting U.S. cities.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, National Security Council Institutional Files, box 343, folder: NSDM 242 [2 of 2]; also Digital National Security Archive
The Foster panel’s findings were the subject of National Security Study Memorandum 169, produced during mid-1973. In January 1974, after Kissinger reported favorably on the basic findings, noting the need for presidential guidance on how to plan for nuclear conflict, Nixon signed off on National Security Decision Memorandum 242.
A few months after the promulgation of NSDM 242, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger signed off on guidelines that came to be known as "NUWEP" (nuclear weapons employment policy). In keeping with the Foster panel report and the NSSM 169 study, NUWEP tasked the military high command to develop strategic plans based on concepts of deterrence and escalation control. The NUWEP called for, and set requirements for, Major and Selected Attack Options, Regional Nuclear Options and Limited Nuclear Options. A key goal of Major Attack Options was the destruction of "selected economic and military resources of the enemy critical to post-war recovery," including political and military leadership targets. With respect to economic recovery targets, NUWEP called for inflicting "moderate damage on facilities comprising approximately 70% of [the Soviet or Chinese] war-supporting economic base." The "nuclear offensive capabilities of the enemy" remained a key targeting objective. In keeping with previous targeting guidance, NUWEP allowed for nuclear strikes under varying conditions of initiation, e.g., strategic warning/preemption and tactical warning of attack/retaliation.
While providing detailed guidance for the major and selected options, NUWEP covered Limited Nuclear Options in only general terms, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of creating plausible and realistic options. To regulate the destructiveness of nuclear attacks, NUWEP guidance also set parameters for Damage Expectancy (DE). DE could be as high as 90% (and higher for some attacks) which meant that some targets would require multiple strikes to assure their destruction. Based on assumptions about blast damage, the DE criteria did not take into account the destruction caused by fire, one of the routine effects of nuclear bursts in urban areas.
NUWEP guided the creation of SIOP-5, which went into effect in early 1976. The new SIOP, however, did not include limited strikes. Presidential guidance notwithstanding, nuclear strike options remained massive for years.
JCL, Brzezinski Collection, box 23, Meetings-Muskie/Brown 7/80-9/81
When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, learned that the Joint Chiefs had created only a few limited nuclear options and that retaliatory options “remain massive in both direct and collateral damage.” Moreover, no less than earlier in the decade, U.S. command and control arrangements, including the National Command Authority and presidential succession, remained vulnerable and “among the weaker links.”
Carter initiated a series of top-secret studies that resulted in Presidential Directive 59 three years later. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, defense adviser Leon Sloss, and Brzezinski’s military adviser, William Odom, played key roles in the process. In fact, Odom wanted to make the SIOP largely irrelevant by seeking "genuine flexibility" that would make it possible to follow a "look-shoot-look" approach during an East-West military conflict. Rather than developing pre-planned options which could never truly anticipate future contingencies, Odom wanted a "national military operational staff" that could develop options as needed.
In July 1980, after several years of work by Defense Department analysts, President Carter signed PD 59. Beginning with a discussion of the importance strategic nuclear forces for deterrence, the United States would retain such force levels that an adversary would realize “that no plausible outcome would represent a victory.” In the event that deterrence failed, the United States “must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and suffer costs that are unacceptable.”
Odom’s objections notwithstanding, the directive called for pre-planned options for strikes against the Soviet Union and its allies. The options would be for attack on a broad range of targets – military, urban, industrial, and leadership. “Sub-options” would also be available, presumably limited attacks on selected target categories. There would also be options for “lesser contingencies,” including conflicts with "Cuba, North Vietnam [sic[, and North Korea." An excised sentence probably refers to China, possibly removing the People's Republic from the SIOP altogether and relegating any attack plans to U.S. unified commands.
Language on launch-on-warning refrained from an endorsement – it was not U.S. "policy" – nevertheless, a capability was to be available in the form of "pre-planned options" for attacks by "vulnerable" ICBMs. That was a concession to Brown who sought such an option.
In keeping with Odom’s wishes, the directive include language on the importance of flexibility for designing targeting plans on "short notice" with appropriate staff capabilities in the military commands and the National Command Authority.
To permit post-attack options, a reserve force of the "most survivable and enduring strategic systems" was to be available against a "wide target spectrum." The appropriate reserve forces would be the “most survivable and enduring strategic systems,” which was an indirect reference to missile-launching nuclear submarines, such as the Poseidon and the Trident.
To make feasible the kind of war that Carter’s advisers had in mind, where tactical and strategic nuclear weapons supported conventional operations, the "major weight of the initial response" to Soviet nuclear use was to be on "military and control targets." That would include nuclear forces, command-and-control, stationary and mobile military forces, and industrial facilities that supported the military, with preplanned options available for political controls and "general industrial capability." Methods of striking targets was to pay due regard to limiting “collateral damage to urban areas;” also, to limit collateral damage, options to withhold targets from attack were to be available.
The directive also included language on improved C3I capabilities, on the importance of their survivability, but also on capabilities to identify targets and assess damage. The assumption was that “strategic stability” depended on sturdy and survivable command and control arrangements on the grounds that vulnerability could invite attack.
Several months later, Secretary of Defense Brown signed off on the latest NUWEP which, drawing on PD 59, provided detailed guidance on target planning for top Pentagon officials and the commanders-in-chief of unified and specified commands (CINCSAC, CINCPAC, etc.). The guidance remains heavily excised, although under appeal at ISCAP. Unbeknownst to the civilian leadership, however, the CINCs followed the guidance loosely at best; for example, supposed withholds for cities would actually have destroyed them and the strike options included no meaningfully limited attacks; they were all large-scale. It would take years before civilian policymakers discovered these and other departures from policy.
Release by Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel
Even before the Reagan administration had an agreed national security policy statement (see below), the president had signed off on a “nuclear weapons employment policy” to succeed PD 59. Following a logic similar to that document, Reagan's NSDD 13 sought to enhance deterrence partly through a military posture that "makes Soviet assessments of war outcomes, under any contingency, so uncertain and dangerous as to remove any incentive for initiating attack." For a failure of deterrence, NSDD 13, like PD 59, supported a capability to "wage war successfully," but implied the possibility of winning nuclear war by seeking to "deny the Soviet Union a military victory at any level of conflict."
Should deterrence fail, Reagan authorized "pre-planned options" and "immediate options" for attack. The pre-planned options included the gamut of strategic nuclear and other military targets, along with economic, and leadership targets. The directive provided options for withholding attacks on political and economic targets to give the Soviet leadership incentives to settle lest those targets be put at risk. Immediate options were for “targets of significant value (as, for example, ground formations) that emerge in the course of the developing conflict situation.”
Like PD 59, NSDD 13 assumed that command-control-communications-intelligence (C3I) systems had to be "sufficiently survivable and enduring to support" U.S. target plan, including “effective control. and direction of forces in a protracted conflict.” Sturdy command and control arrangements were also necessary to make sure that the “Secure Reserve Force is capable of being employed after an extended withhold period.”
Somewhat like PD 59, NSDD 13 stipulated that it was U.S. policy not "to rely on" launch-on-warning in an "irrevocable manner." That gave some leeway for rapid launch of ICBMs in response to tactical warning and it did not rule out launch-under-attack as incorporated in the SIOP. In any event, the point was to "leave Soviet planners with strong uncertainty as to how we might actually respond to such warning." Moreover, upon receipt of warning information, the U.S. "must be prepared to launch our recallable bomber forces upon warning that a Soviet nuclear attack has been initiated."
As noted earlier, the war plans developed by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff in Omaha did not follow presidential guidance; no one had responsibility to ensure that follow-up occurred and military planners in Omaha did their job as they saw fit. Even the language about launch-under-attack and launch-on-warning caused problems because the planners believed that civilians did not need to know how those capabilities would be preserved.
The companion document to PD-59 was Presidential Directive 58 on “Continuity of Government,” signed by President Carter a few days later and recently declassified at the Carter Library. With this, Carter ordered the creation of a “capability for the Presidency. … under the most stressing conditions,” including a capability to “survive a nuclear attack.” Thus began one of the most secret and sensitive programs in the national security field.
CIA Electronic Reading Room
The Reagan administration had been in office for nearly a year-and-a-half before it issued a statement of national security strategy. Why that is so is a story that should be told when the relevant primary sources are available. Whatever the reasons for delay, the statement that was issued in the spring of 1982 provides insight into the mind-set of the officials who presided over U.S. policy during this period. Significantly, the thrust of the paper is on military planning, for the purposes of deterrence or actual conflict with the Soviet Union and its allies. While there are statements of broad aims of policy, there is virtually no discussion of diplomatic strategy toward the Soviet Union, including the role of arms control. It is possible that internal conflict within the administration precluded consensus statements on those issues, although an NSDD on relations with the Soviet Union would appear in early 1983.
One of the assumptions shaping this paper is that the U.S. had lost strategic superiority – that is, with the Soviets attaining “parity” in striking power, the United States no longer had the overwhelming nuclear forces that could be used for coercive purposes against the Soviets Union. Moreover, the Soviets had a conventional forces advantage, although the advantage was not analyzed. To compensate, it was essential for the United States to “draw upon the resources and cooperation of allies and others to protect our interests and those of our friends.” In that respect, “a strong unified NATO remains indispensable to protecting Western interests.” In that connection, it was a policy objective “to strengthen the influence of the U.S. throughout the world by strengthening existing alliances” and “by forming and supporting coalitions of states friendly” to the U.S.
As suggested, the aims expressed by the paper assumed continuing conflict and Cold War with the Soviet Union. Thus, the United States must “contain” the Soviet Union but also “reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence.” Nevertheless, the Soviets were not necessarily the cause of unrest that sometimes threatened U.S. interests: “Unstable governments, weak political institutions, inefficient economies, and the persistence of traditional conflicts create opportunities for Soviet expansion in many parts of the developing world.”
The Soviet Union and its allies posed the key military threat to the United States, but Moscow was unlikely to initiate military action against Washington because of the risk of nuclear war. U.S. wars with Soviet client states were, however, “more likely,” although that involved a greater risk of a “direct conflict with the Soviet Union.” Yet, the ability to protect allies had diminished: with the change in the “relative nuclear balance,” the “nuclear umbrella” had “eroded.” The greater risk of Soviet retaliation meant that Washington “may be increasingly unwilling to escalate to the nuclear level in accordance with our strategy.” Nevertheless, if war is thrust upon us,” the U.S. intended “to control escalation and to prevail,” a stronger statement than wage war “successfully” (NSDD 13).
The long discussion of nuclear strategy (“Section D”) flowed from NSDD 13 and elaborated on many of its points. Thus, deterrence of nuclear attack was crucial to U.S. strategy, but so was deterrence of “non-nuclear aggression.” But if deterrence failed, it was important for decision makers to have a range of strike options smaller than “general nuclear release.” Thus, the plans “should provide the NCA with the ability to conduct military operations at all levels of conflict in ways that will be militarily effective and will maximize the chance of controlling escalation.” Moreover, “nuclear forces will be configured to provide a wide range of options, from highly selective and limited strikes up to and including general nuclear release.”
By this time, defense officials, such as Frank Miller, director of strategic policy at the Office of Secretary of Defense, were becoming aware of inconsistencies between presidential guidance and actual war plans. However, it would take several years before he was in a position to do anything about it.
Document 26 NEW
MDR release by Defense Department, under appeal
The problems that Frank Miller and others were finding with the SIOP might have had something to do with the genesis of a proposal by SAC Commander-in-Chief Bennie L. Davis to strengthen deterrence with non-nuclear strategic forces. The changing political climate, with growing interest in strategic force reductions and the Nuclear Freeze, indicated widespread antipathy toward nuclear weapons and the relevance of a non-nuclear force posture.
The proposal spoke to Davis’s interest in developing a force posture that provided greater strategic stability: by addressing a “growing Soviet strategic threat” while at the same time trying to “raise the nuclear threshold” to reduce the prospects of early use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. With the growing interest in “reduc[ing] our reliance on nuclear weapons without compromising deterrence,” Davis informed Weinberger that his staff was looking at the possibility of “increased U.S. reliance on strategic nonnuclear weapons rather than complete reliance on nuclear weapons.”
Several factors encouraged the interest in non-nuclear strategic weapons – the move away from “assured destruction” and massive retaliation, growing interest in more flexible retaliatory capabilities, and the relevance of strategic nuclear force reductions to achieving long-term stability. Moreover, recent technological developments were relevant to finding new ways to strengthen deterrence. According to the White Paper attached to Davis’s letter, it was arguable that the U.S. had become dependent on nuclear weapons in the first place because non-nuclear munitions lacked the accuracy and firepower to “place the required Soviet targets at risk.”
Looking at such technologies as air-to-ground missiles (AGM) and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), the White Paper’s authors saw great potential in long-range standoff weapons that could be delivered from heavy bombers. Making that possible were technological advances in propulsion, guidance systems, and “smart submunitions.” Especially relevant for increased accuracy were developments in inertial navigation and computer speed, and the global positioning satellite system (GPS). Moreover, developments in radar and sensors made it possible to “acquire and track targets at long ranges.”
The authors of the White Paper argued that long-range bombers held “the most potential for the strategic nonnuclear role because of their inherent flexibility.” The bomber was an “ideal platform because of its long-range, all-weather, day/night ability to deliver diverse payloads.” Facilitating that development while strategic force reductions were occurring could “help us move confidently toward strategic nonnuclear options while maintaining the degree of nuclear deterrence required.”
The introduction of non-nuclear weapons would not change U.S. strategic planning for deterrence. Air Force planners would continue to “identify an appropriate target base,” allocate weapons to targets, and develop the SIOP to “provide future National Command Authorities the most flexible range of options possible.” In addition, the duties of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff would probably grow “as the range of weapons they use to meet those responsibilities evolves.”
It is worth noting that Davis made some of his thinking public in an article in Air Force magazine in March 1984. How, or even if, Secretary of Defense Weinberger or other senior officials responded to this original proposal remains to be learned. It is worth wondering whether he or others would have asked: how can the Soviets tell whether an air-to-ground or an air-launched cruise missile is non-nuclear and whether the risk of any attack by modern weapons, even if non-nuclear, would raise the risk of nuclear war?
CIA Electronic Reading Room
Only a few weeks before the October 1986 Reykjavik summit, the NSC staff developed a new NSDD on national security policy to serve as “the primary source of U.S. national security strategy.” As with NSDD 32, much of the text concerns strategic goals, threat assessments, and military strategy in event of war, with considerable emphasis on the importance of allies. The NSDD also includes arms control objectives along with an appraisal of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, which it treated as a more effective threat: “The potential exists for more creative and energized Soviet foreign policies inimical to U.S. interests.”
A section focuses on “grand strategy” long before that term became fashionable in international relations departments. It includes the following statement about one of the strategy’s purposes: to prevent “a single hostile power or coalition of powers from dominating the Eurasian landmass or other strategic regions from which threats to U.S. interests might arise.” When reading that, some readers may recall Melvyn P. Leffler’s influential article, “The American Conception of National Security and the Beginning of the Cold War, 1945-1948,” published in the American Historical Review in April 1984, which appeared only two years before the NSDD. In that essay, Leffler wrote about the “enormous apprehension” that policymakers had about the risk that the Soviet Union could “gain control of all the resources of Eurasia, thereby endangering the national security of the United States. The parallels in the language are striking, suggesting that Leffler was certainly on to something, although it is possible that his article may have influenced the NSDD drafters by sharpening their thinking about U.S. security interests.
The sections on nuclear policy and wartime strategy indicate continuity with NSDDs 13 and 32, but also some new thinking. As before, “Deterrence of nuclear attack constitutes the cornerstone of U.S. national security and that of its allies.” Yet, “if deterrence fails we must have the capability to counter aggression, to control escalation, and to prevail.” Military planning “should not assume automatic authority for the use of nuclear weapons,” although “we will not hesitate to meet our obligations to our allies by any means at our disposal.” An interesting departure was the suggestion that non-nuclear means could be used against nuclear forces. Thus, successful termination of a war may “include conventional attacks on Soviet nuclear forces, including Soviet ballistic missile submarines.” Actions such as that (including “seizure of strategically significant territory”) “could be intended to deny the Soviets the ability to operate from sanctuaries and to deter or control escalation.”
By the time this NSDD had been prepared, Frank Miller had assembled a group of analysts at the Office of Secretary of Defense; they had gained access to hitherto inaccessible targeting data and realized that the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff had not created any limited options nor any true withholds. With the support of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger they drew up guidance for a “true cities-withhold” option and an “entirely new set of limited options that were both focused and militarily effective.” They also made reforms concerning the Secure Reserve Force, launch under attack, and “deconflicted” SIOP guidance so that U.S. pilots in the European theater were not put at risk by chasing after targets covered by other commands.
 . For the impact of the atomic bombings on Truman’s thinking about nuclear use and control, see Alex Wellerstein’s contribution in Michael Gordin and John G. Ikenberry, The Age of Hiroshima (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
 . For the Harmon report, see David A. Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,” International Security 7 (1983), 16; Ken Young and Warner R. Schilling, Super Bomb: Organizational Conflict and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020), 111-112.
. Ibid, 97.
 For more on fire effects and nuclear weapons, see Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007)
 Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill,” 52.
 . This extraordinary document is cited in David F. Krugler’s valuable study, This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 169-171 and 232, note 5.
. According to Goodpaster, underlying the emergency orders was the assumption that “martial law, martial rule” would be in effect. See Krugler, This Is Only a Test, 162.
 . See Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill,” passim.
 . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 13-16.
 . For straw man, see Jeffrey Lewis, "Minimum Deterrence," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August 2008, 38-41.
. For useful coverage of the airborne alert and the Defcon during the crisis, see Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, 1993), 63-69.
 . For the details, see U.S. Strategic Air Command, History and Research Division, Strategic Air Command Operations during the Cuban Crisis of 1962, (1963).
 . CEP is the radius of a circle within which half the warheads aimed at a target are expected to fall. For the relationship between accuracy and lethality, see Lynn Eden, “The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal and Zero: Sizing and Planning for Use – Past, Present, and Future,” in Catherine McArdle Kelleher and Judith Reppy, Getting to Zero: The Path to Nuclear Disarmament (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 69-89.
 . For a useful history, see Ted Greenwood, Making the MIRV: A Study of Defense Decision Making (Lanham: University Press of America, 1978).
 . Background Briefing on Vladivostok Summit and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II; Attached to Cover Memorandum from Monroe Leigh to Ambassador Anderson, "Transcripts of Backgrounders and the Freedom of Information Act,” 27 February 1975, copy from Digital National Security Archive,
. Butler, Uncommon Cause, 9-10.
 . Ibid., 11.
 . Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 352-353
 . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 6-7.
 . The article was published with comments by two doyens of Cold War history, John Lewis Gaddis and Bruce Kuniholm, with Leffler’s trenchant response. The American Historical Review 89 (1984):346-400.
 . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 8-11.