US Nukes 3

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 3: 1965-1983: chapters 18 through 23

The chapters on this disk cover anti-ballistic missiles [ABM], “mutual assured destruction” [MAD], the emergence of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), détente and Strategic Arms Limitations Talks [SALT], strategic targeting from Nixon to Carter, the “Second Cold War,” strategic policy during the early Reagan administration (“From Countervailing to Prevailing”), and the controversy over the Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI].

The discussion of the Soviet ABM system and early U.S. missile defense programs, Sentinel and Safeguard, leads to the momentous decision to MIRV ballistic missiles. MIRVs would enable the offense to work around and strike targets defended by ABMs. Because MIRVs greatly improved “offensive capabilities” by creating thousands of new warheads, they created a serious arms control problem. Thus, Robert McNamara retrospectively says “I think I was wrong” to support MIRVs when he was Secretary of Defense.

The coverage of détente necessarily focuses on the relationship with deterrence and arms control, capturing well the ambiguity of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. As Kissinger’s former deputy, General Brent Scowcroft observed, the purpose was to “calm things down” while allowing both sides to “keep on building systems.” The presentation does not clearly show what made that possible: the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] I agreement froze numbers of ICBMs for both sides, allowing the Soviets to catch up with the United States in deploying thousands of MIRVed nuclear warheads on the latest generation of Minutemen ICBMs. That the Minuteman force was on a highly risky quick-reaction, launch-on-warning posture is never discussed.9

A major element in these chapters is the growing interest in limited nuclear options, which became codified in National Security Decision Memorandum 242 and then updated and modified in Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59. A key issue was the credibility of deterrence, with advisers from Kissinger to Brzezinski worried that even the “smaller” SIOP options were so huge that they reduced the credibility of deterrence. Although Michael Nacht notes that some worried that creating smaller options could make the use of the weapons more likely, Schlesinger counters that this was “not our view” because the new policy made war less likely (presumably by increasing the dangers).

Interviews with former top officials on strategic targeting policy during the late 1970s provide interesting results. Senior Pentagon nuclear planner Frank Miller argues that U.S. policy had fallen into an “intellectual trap” by taking “what would deter us” and “mirror imaging” it on Soviet policy. Statements by the late Leon Sloss, a State Department official who directed the Carter administration’s strategic targeting review, suggest what Miller had in mind: evidence that the Soviets were building underground shelters in the Moscow area suggested that “the leadership was plainly serious to survive a nuclear war.” The Kremlin believed that it could “survive and control a nuclear war.” Thus, the Carter administration sought to disabuse the Kremlin of that notion by creating “pre-planned” strike options that directly targeted the Soviet leadership. James Schlesinger was critical of the new approach because attacking leadership targets would “destroy all possibilities of restraint,” but secretary of defense Harold Brown suggested that the Soviets would be impressed and deterred by the reminder that “they would never survive nuclear war.”

The narrative and interviews reproduce the outlook of nuclear strategists during the 1970s and 80s, but do not probe the claims that Moscow saw nuclear war as “survivable.” Years after the end of the Cold War, it ought to be worth exploring whether Soviet-era sources confirm, modify, or refute such assumptions, but no such effort is made here. Had the Sandia researchers looked into it, they might have located an unclassified contract study for the Pentagon from the mid-1990s, based on interviews with former Soviet generals. It concluded that the U.S. government “[Erred] on the side of overestimating Soviet aggressiveness” and underestimated “the extent to which the Soviet leadership was deterred from using nuclear weapons.” According to the study, the Soviet military high command “understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war” and believed that nuclear weapons use had to be avoided at “all costs.” In 1968, a Defense Ministry study demonstrated that Moscow could not win a nuclear war, even if it launched a first strike. Although Soviet ideology held that survival was possible, no one in the leadership believed it. In 1981, the General Staff concluded that “nuclear use would be catastrophic.”10

The Pentagon study was buried in relative obscurity until released through the FOIA in 2009. Nevertheless, a valuable and telling summary by John Battilega, an authority at SAIC on the Soviet military, was published in 2004.11 The use of Battilega’s evidence could have encouraged a more nuanced presentation of Soviet strategic thinking and facilitated a better understanding of the “intellectual trap” created by misunderstanding Soviet policy. This problem may point to a problem with the interview selection. Although Sandia tried to compensate by including experts like David Holloway, interviews with a few Russians with personal knowledge of Soviet nuclear history may have brought even more credibility to the enterprise.

The Carter administration saw its “countervailing” strategy as one that could terminate hostilities but never saw “winning” nuclear war as a possibility. By contrast, the Reagan administration’s initial emphasis was on “prevailing” in nuclear war, which, Frank Miller concedes, was “unfortunate rhetoric.” Acknowledging Reagan’s anti-nuclear inclinations, the final chapters on the disk show that his administration’s strategic modernization programs “fuel[ed] public fears,” triggering a nuclear freeze movement at home and a Euromissile crisis abroad, also sparking debate over “nuclear winter.” The coverage of Reagan’s 1983 SDI proposal is evenhanded, with critics noting that there were “no deployable systems” or a possibility for “comprehensive defense.” The last chapter ends with the crisis of the fall of 1983, the “lowest point” in the Second Cold War.


9Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1993).
10John Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, and John F. Shulle, Soviet Intentions 1965-1985, Volume I: An Analytical Comparison of U.S.-Soviet Assessments During the Cold War (BDM Federal, Inc., September 22, 1995) at
11John Battilega,”Soviet Views of Nuclear Warfare: The Post-Cold War Interviews” in Henry D. Sokolski, ed. Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2004),151-174.

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