35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Overkill, Assured Destruction, and the Search for Nuclear Alternatives: U.S. Nuclear Forces During the Cold War

Strategic Air Command
Published: May 22, 2020
Briefing Book #705

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

National Security Archive Posts Key Records on Strategic Nuclear Planning, Presidential Control, and New Weapons   

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.[1]

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.


The Documents

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Document 26 NEW
Letter from Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command General B.L. Davis to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, 21 March 1984, enclosing White Paper, “Stepping Back from the Nuclear Threshold,” Secret, excised copy
Source: 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?

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Document 27
National Security Decision Directive 238, “U.S. National Security Strategy,” 2 September 1986, with memorandum from John Poindexter to cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs attached, Top Secret, excised copy
Source: 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.[21] 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.[22]


[1] . See Frank Miller’s contribution to George Lee Butler, Uncommon Cause: A life at Odds with Convention, Vol.IL The Transformative Years (Parker Co: Outskirts Press, 2016), 6-21.

[2] . 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).

[3] . 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.

[4]. Ibid, 97.

[5] 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)

[6] Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill,” 52.

[7] . 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.

[8]. 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.

[9] . See Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill,” passim.

[10] . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 13-16.

[11] . For straw man, see Jeffrey Lewis, "Minimum Deterrence," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August 2008, 38-41.

[12]. 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.

[13] . For the details, see U.S. Strategic Air Command, History and Research Division, Strategic Air Command Operations during the Cuban Crisis of 1962, (1963).

[14] . 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.

[15] . For a useful history, see Ted Greenwood, Making the MIRV: A Study of Defense Decision Making (Lanham: University Press of America, 1978).

[16] . 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,

[17]. Butler, Uncommon Cause, 9-10.

[18] . Ibid., 11.

[19] . 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

[20] . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 6-7.

[21] . 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.

[22] . Butler, Uncommon Cause, 8-11.