US Nukes 2

U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy: A Video History, 1945-2004

Sandia Labs Historical Video Documents History of U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy

Interviewees include Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, James Schlesinger and Last Strategic Air Commander-in-Chief Lee Butler. Includes Revelations on “Out of Control” Nuclear Targeting During the 1980s.

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 361

Disk 2: 1954-1964: Chapters 10 through 17

 These chapters cover the rise of formative concepts for Cold War nuclear strategy: the debates over massive retaliation and flexible response, the impact of the RAND Corporation on strategic planning, Air Force thinking on the need for a preemptive strategy, the emergence of “assured destruction” and the second strike force concept, and the origins of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the U.S.’s first comprehensive nuclear war plan.

The influential role of the RAND Corporation is spelled out clearly, from the debates over massive retaliation to Robert McNamara’s early tenure as Secretary of Defense. The late William Kaufmann, RAND consultant and MIT professor, explains why he thought Eisenhower-Dulles nuclear strategy was not only “horrendous” but incredible. The discussion of the RAND base vulnerability study demonstrates the close connection to Air Force interest in preemptive strategies. As Eden and James Schlesinger observe, the problem of survivability would raise pressure, during a crisis, to preempt and “get in the first blow.”

The concept of a “survivable second strike force” is important to the history of nuclear deterrence by demonstrating the futility and risk of a first strike and preemptive attacks. The chapter on a “survivable second strike force” gives credit to RAND and the 1955 Killian Report for stimulating thinking along those lines, but credit should also go to the Navy. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) launched from a virtually undetectable platform epitomized the possibility of retaliation by a survivable reserve force. The chapter provides useful background on the development of a SLBM warhead and the development of low frequency radio systems to maintain command and control of SLBMs. Polaris’s key role in as deterrent force is well explained, but not mentioned is the concepts of finite deterrence developed by Navy leaders. CNO Arleigh Burke argued that the Polaris force could provide the basis for a more stable and safer deterrent than the Air Force’s quick-reaction, preemption-oriented, and vulnerable land-based missiles and bombers.

The chapters on “Fear of Thermonuclear Attack” and the evolution of massive retaliation evoke the atmosphere of the late 1950s in both the larger society and in the world of the policymakers and the nuclear planners. The nearly direct line from the terrifying Castle test series in the Pacific to the emergence of arms control policy later in the decade is manifest. The coverage of the debates over massive retaliation is interesting, but William Kaufman never gets a chance to explain that the Air Force hated his counterforce strategy because it was inconsistent with their plans for a comprehensive nuclear onslaught. The chapters also cover anxieties over a bomber gap and the missile gap, but the Air Force’s inclination for worst case analysis is handled with kid gloves (and that the Soviets tricked Air Force intelligence with repeated over-flights during an air show is not mentioned)7. The discussion of the U-2 is interesting but does not make it clear what its role was in clearing up the bomber gap.

“Integrated Planning” provides good coverage for the development of the first SIOP. Due attention is given the “shock” that top Kennedy administration officials felt when they became aware of the huge size and inflexibility of the first SIOP, but the plan’s scale and scope is muted. The viewer gets no sense of the numbers of weapons assigned to the initial strike or the numbers of designated ground zeros (DGZs) that they targeted. Yet, those numbers have been available for years, in Fred Kaplan’s and David Rosenberg’s classic accounts of early nuclear strategy. Moreover, the chapter tiptoes around the concept of “overkill,” although Rosenberg demonstrates why it is central to understanding SIOP-62. Exemplifying the “overkill” is that using SIOP-62 damage criteria, SAC target planners estimated that destroying a target like Hiroshima would require 300 to 500 kilotons, 20 to 30 times the yield of the weapon used in 1945.8

The discovery that “missile gap” favored Washington, not Moscow opens the chapter on “flexible response,” but the viewers do not learn that what made that possible is the Corona photographic reconnaissance satellite, declassified back in the 1990s. Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” had RAND connections and their role in the development of flexible response, including SIOP options, receives due prominence; so does William Kaufmann’s “no cities”/counterforce (although the preemptive aspect of is not spelled out). McNamara describes flexible response as a strategy of “withholding,” and further recounts his famous advice to President Kennedy: “it would be contrary to the interests of the US and NATO to initiate the use” of nuclear weapons. While Western European objections to conventional strategies are clear enough, the debate over a deterrence based on a higher or lower threshold for nuclear weapons use does not come across. Notwithstanding the U.S. interest in more conventional forces, the U.S. deployed 7,000 theater nuclear weapons as “symbols of American support.”

“Assured Destruction” begin with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The emphasis for Khrushchev’s motivation is on the Jupiter missile deployments in Italy and Turkey (although confused with the Thors deployed in Great Britain), but Moscow’s concern about U.S. threats to Cuba are not mentioned. The presentation on why Kennedy rejected an airstrike is sharp, but how the crisis was settled is not. We never learn what happened to the Jupiters; some judicious editing would have created room for the basics of the secret deal. The missile crisis quickly segues into discussion of the concept of “Assured Destruction,” a tool used for “sizing” or measuring the adequacy of strategic forces. What measured “assured destruction” was whether U.S. strategic forces had a second strike capability to destroy 30 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of industrial capability.


7John Prados, The Soviet Estimate: U.S. Intelligence Analysis and Russian Military Strength (New York: Dial Press, 1982). 42-43.
8David A. Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,” International Security 7 (1983): 48-49; Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive.