Fred Kaplan, hailed by The New York Times as “a rare combination of defense intellectual and pugnacious reporter,” takes us into the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “Tank” in the Pentagon, and the vast chambers of Strategic Command to bring us the untold stories—based on exclusive interviews and previously classified documents—of how America’s presidents and generals have thought about, threatened, broached, and just barely avoided nuclear war from the dawn of the atomic age until today.
Kaplan’s historical research and deep reporting will stand as the permanent record of politics. Discussing theories that have dominated nightmare scenarios from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kaplan presents the unthinkable in terms of mass destruction and demonstrates how the nuclear war reality will not go away, regardless of the dire consequences.
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Chapter 1: “Killing a Nation” CHAPTER 1 “Killing a Nation”
In the spring of 1945, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, asked his top bombardier, Major General Curtis LeMay, when the war would be over. Nazi Germany had recently surrendered to the Allies, but the Japanese kept fighting, despite the pummeling of their cities by LeMay’s firebombing raids.
LeMay took the question to his staff officers. They calculated how many Japanese cities hadn’t yet been hit, how many more bombs were needed to hit them, and how long it would take for the men of his XXI Bomber Command to deliver and drop them. LeMay came back with the answer.
“The war will be over by the first of September,” he told Arnold with his trademark gruff confidence. That, he explained, was when his men would run out of targets to hit—when every square mile of Japan would be incinerated.
This was LeMay’s philosophy of how to win modern wars: bomb everything.
In fact, the war ended a few weeks earlier, on August 6, when a B-29 Superfortress aircraft, nicknamed Enola Gay, dropped a new kind of weapon—an atomic bomb—on Hiroshima. The level of destruction was astonishing. LeMay’s air raids had been terrifying enough: his most intense attack, five months earlier, had amassed 334 B-29s to drop incendiary bombs over Tokyo, burning to a crisp nearly sixteen square miles of the city and killing 84,000 residents. A single A-bomb, dropped by a single airplane over Hiroshima, obliterated almost five square miles and killed 150,000 people. On August 9, another B-29, called Bockscar, dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki. Six days later, the Japanese emperor surrendered. The war was over, but warfare had been transformed.
The generation of Army airmen who came of age in the 1930s, LeMay included, were enthralled by the theories of the Italian and American generals, Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, visionaries who saw air power as the decisive force in wars of the future, transcending the brutal skirmishes on the ground, striking directly at the enemy’s industrial strength and civilian morale, without which its leaders could no longer wage war. The present war, the Second World War, the first war in which air power played a major role, hadn’t yet clinched the case, especially in the European theater, where the clash of armies still dominated. But at the end of the war, this new weapon, it was thought, might make the airmen’s dream come true.
In 1947, in recognition of its impact on the recent victory, the Army Air Forces were declared a separate service, coequal with the Army and the Navy. This was a significant move. As long as they were a unit within the Army, the air forces would support the Army’s policies and missions, mainly by providing air support to troops on the battlefield. Even LeMay’s bombing raids were initially intended to degrade Japan’s military machine and thus pave the way for the Army’s impending invasion of the mainland. But as a separate service, the U.S. Air Force, as it was now called, could set its own missions and strategies. (LeMay was already accustomed to this: toward the end of the war, when thick clouds over Japan prevented him from hitting specific targets, he started dropping firebombs on populated areas—because areas were all he could hit—on his own initiative.)
In 1948, LeMay was placed in charge of a unit within the Air Force known as SAC, the Strategic Air Command, which planned the missions for the planes that would drop atomic bombs in the next war. Under LeMay’s tight, aggressive leadership, SAC came to dominate not only the Air Force but the entire military establishment: its thinking, its culture, its war plans, its budgets.
At first, President Harry Truman resisted this juggernaut. Soon after Hiroshima, as he realized the full extent of the new weapon’s devastation, Truman decided not to build any more A-bombs, in case the United Nations banned them. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen and that the Russians were getting aggressive in Berlin, he cranked up the program. But even then, he kept the bomb under civilian control. For several years, the Air Force had to go through the Atomic Energy Commission even to load the weapons onto their planes.
On July 21, 1948, at a meeting with David Lilienthal, the AEC commissioner, and a few of the top generals, Truman explained his reasoning: “I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that”—and here, Truman looked down at his desk reflexively—“that this is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had.” He continued:
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 thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.
Much of the history of the bomb over the subsequent seventy years, and doubtless beyond, is the story of the generals—and many civilian strategists, as well—trying to make it a “military weapon” after all.
At first, the Army and the Navy tried to halt history too. In 1949, when the Defense Department cut the budget for ships in order to buy more bombers, the Navy’s top echelon of admirals staged an unprecedented revolt. Several of them condemned the A-bomb on moral grounds. At a congressional hearing, Rear Admiral Ralph Ofstie—who had served on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, a postwar panel of officers and economists that downplayed the role of air power in the Allied victory—condemned Air Force–style city-bombing as “random mass slaughter,” “ruthless and barbaric,” and “contrary to our fundamental ideals.”
Other officers criticized the A-bomb as militarily ineffective. One unfortunate Navy commander named Eugene Tatom testified that you could stand at one end of Washington National Airport, set off an atom bomb on the other end, and walk away “without serious injury.”
The admirals’ revolt soon collapsed from its own incoherence. The contradiction between Ofstie’s testimony and Tatom’s was risible: the A-bomb couldn’t be both barbaric and toothless. It became all too clear that the admirals’ main problem with the bomb was that the Air Force had it and the Navy did not. The admirals relented and then, after something less than a decent interval, embraced the bomb with a convert’s fervor.
Besides, the bomb was, by and large, popular. Tensions between the United States and its largest wartime ally, the Soviet Union, had been brewing since their joint victory. The war had ended with their troops facing one another across the border demarking the two new German states—a U.S.-occupied West Germany and a Soviet-controlled East Germany. Since then, the United States had demobilized much of its vast army; life on the home front was settling into normalcy. If the Cold War heated up to a shooting war, as seemed likely, better, many believed, to win it quickly by slamming the Communists with A-bombs than to send millions of American boys back to the grueling battlefields of Europe from which they’d only recently departed.
By 1952, a mere three years after the admirals’ revolt, all of the Navy’s new combat planes were designed to carry nuclear weapons. The Army and even the Marine Corps were equipping their battalions and brigades with short-range nuclear missiles and even nuclear artillery shells to help repel an invasion.
In that same year, the Los Alamos laboratory built and tested a hydrogen bomb. While the blast of an A-bomb was measured in kilotons (the equivalent of thousands of tons of TNT), the H-bomb released the power of megatons (millions of tons). Some of the scientists who’d helped build the atom bomb questioned whether this new weapon—at first called the Super—was more destructive than any war aim could justify. But by this time, the Cold War was in full force; if American scientists could build an H-bomb, Soviet scientists could someday do so too. Just months later, in fact, the Soviets did test a bomb that came close to matching the explosive power of the H-bomb. And so the project zoomed forth, and super-bombs were cranked out in vast quantity.
The American military wove the new weapons into its war plans with no hesitation. In March 1954, the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the top officers of all the branches of the armed forces—declared in a Top Secret document, “In a general war, regardless of the manner of initiation, atomic weapons will be used at the outset.” The term “general war” was defined as an armed conflict that pitted American and Soviet forces directly against one another. In other words, a war between the world’s two new superpowers would be, from the first salvos, a nuclear war. This would be the case “regardless of the manner of initiation.” Any armed Soviet incursion into territory deemed vital to U.S. interests—even a tentative crossing of the East-West German border—would spark an instant, all-out nuclear response.
This wasn’t exclusively the military’s position. The JCS document that set forth this policy was attached to a policy paper titled “U.S. Objectives in the Event of General War with the Soviet Bloc,” drafted by the National Security Council and signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was a retired Army general—a five-star general, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, and the Army chief of staff soon after. Yet, like most of the citizens who elected him president by an overwhelming margin in 1952, he had no hunger for another land war. His most popular campaign pledge had been to end the war in Korea, a bitter stalemate that had gone on since 1950, killing more than 35,000 American troops. He ended the war, so it seemed, by threatening to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union—which, along with the new Communist government of China, had backed North Korea in its invasion of South Korea. An armistice was signed six months after he took office.I
It wasn’t that Eisenhower was itching to use nuclear weapons; he abhorred their destructive power and understood that a nuclear war would herald catastrophe. But for that reason, he thought that threatening to use them would deter the Kremlin and any other foe from aggression.
He came to this view in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. After winning the election, he traveled to Korea and visited the troops, then flew to Guam and Pearl Harbor, where he met his entourage of top advisers, who joined him on board the cruiser USS Helena, to steam back to the United States.
The group included his designated secretaries of state and defense, John Foster Dulles and Charles Wilson; his incoming treasury secretary and budget director; and Admiral Arthur Radford, commander of the Pacific Fleet, whom Eisenhower wanted to size up as a possible chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Radford passed the audition.)
In the relaxed setting of a boat ride in the Pacific, they talked about how to solve what Eisenhower called the “great equation”—how to protect the nation without wrecking the economy. Eisenhower was a penny-pincher. Throughout his presidency, in speeches, diary entries, and private conversations with aides, he worried that weakening the U.S. economy would weaken its defenses—and that a rising federal budget, even if much of it was spent on troops and weapons, would hurl the nation’s economy and thus its defenses into a tailspin.
So the solution that Eisenhower and his group devised—the essence of the great equation—was to rely a lot more on the nuclear bomb.
Almost immediately after taking office, Eisenhower directed his cabinet secretaries to flesh out the idea. A little more than a year later, in March 1954, the NSC and JCS signed the documents declaring that atomic weapons would be used at the outset of a general war. Two months before then, in order to close off further debate and to make the new policy public, Eisenhower told John Foster Dulles to deliver a speech on the subject to the august Council on Foreign Relations.
Titled “The Strategy of Massive Retaliation,” the speech portrayed an enemy—the Sino-Soviet bloc—bent on exploiting weaknesses in every crevice of the Free World. If we played the enemy’s game, Dulles said, we would wind up sending troops to shore up defenses everywhere, thinning our forces, straining our alliances, and going bankrupt in the process. Instead, he announced, the United States would now pursue “maximum protection at a bearable cost”—meaning it would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.” In other words, it would retaliate, at the start of a war, with nuclear weapons.
Through the next few years, battles continued to rage within the Pentagon over the degree to which the nation should rely on nuclear weapons for its defense. On one side, Army generals and Navy admirals argued that the military should at least try to push back a Soviet or Chinese invasion with conventional forces in the first rounds of battle—a strategy that would mean, among other things, larger budgets for their services. The JCS policy paper of March 1954 reflected this balanced approach to some degree, stating: “It is the policy of the United States that atomic weapons will be integrated with other weapons in the arsenal of the United States.” In other words, atomic weapons would be “used at the outset,” but in tandem with conventional weapons, as part of a campaign that “integrated” nuclear and nonnuclear forces.
On the other side of this interservice rivalry, Air Force generals pushed for the pure Mitchell-Douhet vision: relying entirely on nuclear weapons and winning the war by annihilating Russia. At one closed Senate hearing, General LeMay derided any other form of armed strength, and any other strategy, as obsolete. An aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate’s top Democrat, wrote in a memo after the hearing that LeMay “is not just calling for more bombers and more H bombs. He is calling for nothing but heavy bombers and H bombs.”
Late in 1955, the JCS chairman, Admiral Radford who just a few years earlier had been a ringleader in the revolt against the growing dominance of the A-bomb, switched sides and joined the Air Force in its unabashed advocacy. The Army chief of staff, General Matthew Ridgway, remained a dissident. A decorated officer in World War II and commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, Ridgway resigned in protest. His successor, General Maxwell Taylor, another commander in those wars, roused his staff to mount one more round of resistance.
In a draft of the following year’s JCS war plan, known as the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, Taylor tried to insert language suggesting that the military might refrain from using nuclear weapons in wars that were smaller and more geographically confined than general war. When Radford found out about Taylor’s maneuver, he fired off a memo to all the Chiefs, calling the proposal “a radical departure from the present approved policy,” which “clearly states” that “atomic weapons will be used not only in general war but in local war”—including small, distant wars that didn’t necessarily involve vital interests—“if the situation dictates.”
Radford met with Eisenhower on May 14 to complain about Taylor’s recalcitrance. Eisenhower said that, on one level, he agreed with Taylor: a really small war, one involving a few Army or Marine battalions, might be fought with only conventional weapons. But beyond that, especially if the fighting grew to the magnitude of the Korean War, we would have to bring in nuclear bombs.
The admiral had no problem with that distinction, but he added that if we ever got involved in, say, Vietnam, we wouldn’t send large numbers of soldiers, as the French had done with disastrous results. Instead, Radford said, we’d drop nuclear bombs there too. Eisenhower didn’t disagree.
Ten days later, in a final appeal, Taylor asked for a meeting in the Oval Office with Eisenhower and Radford to make his case against this all-but-total reliance on the Air Force and nuclear weapons. Eisenhower calmly reminded his old Army friend that it was official U.S. policy to base all military planning on the use of nuclear weapons, without restriction, at the outset of any war with the Soviet Union. True, some NSC staffers had advocated using conventional weapons and escalating step by step if possible. But, Eisenhower said, he personally thought that atomic bombs would be dropped at once and in full force; he saw no basis for thinking otherwise; it was “fatuous” to believe the United States and the Soviet Union would be “locked in a life and death struggle” without using atomic weapons.
Eisenhower did not concede, as he had in his earlier one-on-one meeting with Radford, that he might refrain from going nuclear in a very small war. Instead, he now told Taylor that, even in those kinds of wars, commanders should plan on using “tactical” atomic weapons—short-range missiles and munitions—against strictly military targets.
Taylor argued that even the use of small nuclear weapons would trigger escalation to general war. Eisenhower waved away the concern, saying that they were no more likely to do so than setting off “twenty-ton blockbusters.”
Then came a remark that Eisenhower intended as reassurance, but that left Taylor puzzled and angry. Don’t worry, the retired Army five-star general told the current Army chief of staff, you won’t be rendered obsolete: if nuclear war comes, the Army will be vital for maintaining law and order on the home front.
Still, for all his calm confidence, Eisenhower was conflicted about the nuclear era. By this time, the Soviets had built their own atomic arsenal and a fleet of aircraft with the range to drop bombs on American soil. On July 1, seven weeks after his meeting with Radford and Taylor, the president and his senior national security advisers heard a Top Secret briefing on the consequences of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The briefing was delivered by a retired Air Force general named Harold Lee George, the staff director of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, a secret unit—its very existence was highly classified—inside the National Security Council. The unit’s task was to take data and intelligence about Soviet and American nuclear arsenals, encode the data in a computer program that simulated mutual attacks, and calculate the results.
The results were grim, for both sides. An attack by the United States destroyed the USSR as a society. But an attack by the Soviet Union hardly left America unscathed: the federal government would be wiped out; the economy would undergo near-total collapse, with no recovery of any sort for at least six months; two thirds of the population would require medical care, and most of them would have no way to obtain it.
Eisenhower was visibly shaken by the briefing. That night, he wrote in his diary, “The only possible way of reducing these losses would be for us to take the initiative” and to “launch a surprise attack against the Soviets.” But that option, he continued, was “impossible.” It would go “against our traditions,” and, in any case, Congress wouldn’t allow it.
The only way to keep the nation secure, he concluded, was to maintain a powerful deterrent—and that meant a mighty nuclear arsenal. If deterrence failed, if the Soviets doubted our resolve and mounted an attack, Eisenhower was stumped on how to respond. For that, he relied on General LeMay.
LeMay wasn’t the first leader of the Strategic Air Command. When SAC was formed in 1946, a year before the Air Force became independent, General George Kenney was put in charge. Kenney had run the air campaign in the Southwest Pacific toward the end of World War II, but he had never been involved in strategic bombing, nor was he a remarkable organizer.
When LeMay succeeded him in 1948, he found a command in shambles. LeMay ordered a drill: every B-36 bomber, from every SAC base across the country, would launch a full-scale mock attack on Dayton, Ohio. The results were devastating: not a single pilot finished the mission, not a single navigator found his assigned target, not a single gunner managed to simulate the procedures of dropping a bomb.
Over the next three years, through relentless drilling, unforgiving discipline, and shrewd lobbying for more money from Washington (for more planes, personnel, and bombs), LeMay whipped SAC into shape, transforming it, in the words of his admirers, from a “hollow shell” to a “cocked pistol.” His intensely loyal subordinates gave him a variety of doting nicknames: “Old Iron Pants,” “The Big Cigar,” “The Demon,” and “Bombs Away LeMay.”
When LeMay had been a colonel, placed in charge of an air division in Europe in the early years of World War II, he heard reports that many pilots were aborting their missions in the face of heavy fire from German fighter planes or antiair batteries. Upon taking command, he told his airmen that he would ride in the lead plane on every bombing run, and if any plane behind him veered away from battle, its entire crew would be court-martialed. The abort rate plummeted overnight.
Now at SAC, as commander of the most powerful armada of planes in the history of the world, LeMay’s mystique only deepened. The culture of SAC was the cult of LeMay.
On paper, LeMay answered to higher powers, specifically to the Air Force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, who subscribed to a more traditional concept of warfare. While LeMay was firebombing cities in Japan, Vandenberg was commander of the Ninth Air Force, providing close air support to Army soldiers fighting in France. So, when he and his aides in the Pentagon devised plans for a nuclear war, they focused on tactical objectives—defeating the Soviet Union’s armed forces, not just obliterating it as a country.
Vandenberg described his plan as “killing a nation,” but he parsed the campaign into three categories of targets, which he labeled “Delta-Bravo-Romeo.” Delta stood for “the disruption of the vital elements of the Soviet war-making capacity.” Bravo called for “the blunting of Soviet capabilities to deliver an atomic offensive against the United States and its allies.” Romeo stood for “the retarding of Soviet advances into Europe.” In this scheme, destroying all three sets of targets would destroy the Soviet Union as a war-making power.
LeMay thought this was abstract nonsense. The quickest way to destroy the Soviet war machine was to destroy the Soviet Union—especially its large cities, where the political leaders and military commanders and factory workers lived. This concept had worked for LeMay in Japan; and now that A-bombs and H-bombs were in the arsenal, the idea of going after small, discrete targets—a ball-bearing plant here, an electrical plant there—struck him as the height of inefficiency. It was also impractical. Nobody quite knew where a lot of these targets were; SAC’s pilots would have to go searching for them while flying over enemy territory. This was the opposite of planning, and LeMay was a stickler for rigid plans. (On this point, the Joint Chiefs’ intelligence branch shared LeMay’s skepticism.)
Besides, LeMay had already written his own orders. Labeled SAC Emergency War Plan 1-49, it called for slamming the Soviet Union with “the entire stockpile of atomic bombs” in “a single massive attack,” dropping 133 A-bombs on seventy cities within thirty days.
SAC headquarters was located at Offutt Air Force Base, just outside Omaha, Nebraska, more than a thousand miles west of Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon. This remoteness from the center of political power would have put many commanders at a disadvantage, but LeMay turned isolation into a strength. It allowed him to ignore orders when they contradicted his ideas about modern warfare. So he ignored Vandenberg’s nuclear war plan and continued to work on his own.
In preparation for LeMay’s plan, his staff drew up a list of roughly 100 targets to hit, mainly the largest Soviet cities. As SAC’s budget swelled, and as the labs churned out more bombs, LeMay’s intelligence officers came up with more targets. The work took on a self-serving circular logic: more weapons drove the need to find more targets; more targets propelled a need to buy more weapons.
From 1949, the year of SAC’s first war plan, to the spring of 1955, the list of targets grew fourteen-fold—and continued to grow each year through the end of the decade.
Over the same time span, the Navy also expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons, most of them strapped under the wings of combat planes, which, in a war, would take off from supersized aircraft carriers as they steamed near Soviet and Chinese shorelines. Some of these planes would hit the same targets as SAC bombers. To LeMay, this was a nuisance, but not much more than that.
In the mid-1950s, though, the Navy launched a new project, a new kind of weapon, which posed—and was explicitly designed as—a threat to SAC’s survival.
Since the collapse of their revolt at the start of the decade, the Navy’s admirals had never stopped resenting the Air Force for usurping the defense budget—nor had they stopped looking for a path to regain their own dominance.
In 1956, Admiral Arleigh Burke, the newly named chief of naval operations, thought he found it. Burke, the commander of a carrier task force in the Second World War, had been a keen supporter of a controversial program in the late 1940s to build a nuclear-powered submarine. Now, as the Navy’s top admiral, he jump-started funding for a similar, more modern sub capable of carrying sixteen long-range ballistic missiles, each tipped with a half-megaton nuclear warhead. The missile would be called the Polaris.
Around this time, several defense analysts, in the Pentagon and in outside consulting firms, were warning that, as the Soviets built more nuclear weapons, the Air Force’s bombers, sitting on airfields—and its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which were scheduled for production in the next few years—would be vulnerable to an attack.
The Polaris subs didn’t have that problem. They could roam beneath the ocean’s surface, undetectable and therefore invulnerable. The Polaris missiles were proving in tests to be inaccurate, but that didn’t matter much: a half-megaton blast would flatten buildings across a radius of five miles, meaning each missile would demolish a large city, even if it veered a bit off course.
In short, the Polaris could do what SAC’s bombers would do—and without the bombers’ vulnerability, which practically invited the Soviets to launch a preemptive attack. The implication was clear: the Navy could soon supplant the Air Force as the main proprietor of the bomb.
Just a year before the Polaris project got under way, the Navy formed a team of technical specialists called the Naval Warfare Analysis Group. And the analysts of NAVWAG, as the group’s name was abbreviated, devised a strategic doctrine—a new way of looking at nuclear weapons and nuclear war—that provided a rationale for the Polaris and a critique of SAC’s weapons and war plan.
NAVWAG’s main thesis was that, once the Soviets had their own nuclear arsenal, the notion of winning a nuclear war was absurd and any plan to launch an American first strike was suicidal. Therefore, the only sensible purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter an enemy attack. The only way to deter an enemy attack was to develop a nuclear arsenal that could answer an enemy attack with a devastating counterblow to the enemy’s cities. The best way to do that was to maintain an invulnerable second-strike force. And the most invulnerable force imaginable was a fleet of missile-carrying submarines moving undetected beneath the ocean’s surface.
Under this doctrine, it didn’t matter if the Soviets kept building more and more nuclear weapons. As long as the United States had enough weapons to destroy the Soviets’ cities—Burke thought that the missiles in forty submarines, or 640 missiles in all, would be sufficient—and as long as those weapons couldn’t be attacked, there was no need for the United States to respond in “an eternal, strength-sapping” numbers contest.
By contrast, the only way to compensate for the vulnerability of SAC’s bombers’ missiles was to build more bombers and missiles—and to keep building more as the Soviets built more. This approach, the NAVWAG study noted, was “a prescription for an arms race” and “an invitation to the enemy for preventive-war adventurism.”
In the summer of 1957, at the annual conference where the service commanders came to the Pentagon and briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on their individual slices of the nuclear war plan, one of the NAVWAG analysts outlined this new view of how many weapons were really needed. LeMay was in the room, as commander of SAC, and as he listened to the briefing, his tongue started shoving his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and back again. It was well known that LeMay’s emotional state could be gauged by the intensity of his cigar’s lateral movements. By the end of the NAVWAG briefing, he’d nearly chewed it down to a stub.
The Air Force chief of staff, General Thomas White, was also worried. Eisenhower had military aides from each service working for him in the White House. The Air Force aide had been writing memos, warning White that his Navy counterpart was making serious “inroads” in selling Polaris to the president.
Burke and his fellow admirals were waging war on the Air Force, and the NAVWAG report—which Burke circulated to all active and retired Navy officers—was the lance of the charge. White and LeMay knew they had to come up with their own doctrine—a strategic concept that only the Air Force could execute—and to spread the word at least as widely.
The first step, White felt, was for the Air Force to come clean on a crucial piece of its strategy for nuclear warfare. The NAVWAG report, and Burke’s whole concept for the Polaris, rested on the premise that a “second-strike” deterrent was enough to keep the nation secure. The Air Force had contributed to this notion, White wrote in a memo to all of its commanders, “through the over-use of the term ‘retaliation.’?” It was time to emphasize, up front, that in a confrontation with today’s enemy, the nation needed to “take the initiative.” The ability to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack was necessary but insufficient. We also needed the ability to preempt that attack before it happened—to destroy the Soviet missiles and bombers before they were launched, before they inflicted catastrophic damage on American soil.
At the same time, White knew that he needed something more than “take the initiative” to sink the Polaris. A preemptive strike might take out a large part of the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal, but probably not all of it; if the Soviets retaliated with the weapons that survived, they could still kill millions of Americans.
The Air Force had its own think tank, the RAND Corporation. Unlike NAVWAG, which was a unit of the Navy, RAND was nominally independent, but it received most of its funding from the Air Force and was frequently called upon to support or rationalize Air Force doctrine and weapons.
By coincidence, a new analyst at RAND named William Kaufmann, a former political science professor at Princeton, had come up with an idea that fit the bill. A few years earlier, Kaufmann had written an influential critique of John Foster Dulles’s “massive retaliation” speech, arguing that it was tantamount to suicide in an age when both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear arsenals. Kaufmann’s main point was that Dulles’s doctrine lacked credibility: the Kremlin wouldn’t believe that an American president would attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons in response to an incursion in Asia or even an invasion of West Germany—because the Soviets would respond by launching a nuclear attack on the United States. Kaufmann recommended, instead, a strong buildup of U.S. conventional forces to deter and repel a Soviet invasion on the Kremlin’s own terms. Army officers, including General Maxwell Taylor, loved Kaufmann’s article and distributed it widely, though it made no inroads in Eisenhower’s White House.
At RAND, enmeshed in debates over nuclear strategy, Kaufmann figured out a way to apply his thesis to his new sponsor’s agenda, especially in its fight with the Navy. (He titled one of his memos on the subject “The Puzzle of Polaris.”) He called his idea the “counterforce” strategy. It stemmed from the same premise as his critique of Dulles: in an era when both sides have nuclear weapons, it would be suicidal to launch a nuclear first strike on the other side’s cities. But, he observed, there were other kinds of targets, even for nuclear bombs. For instance, if the Soviets invaded West Germany, and if we were unable to mount a conventional defense, we could launch a small number of nuclear weapons against the USSR’s military forces, especially its nuclear bomber bases and missile sites—deliberately leaving its cities untouched. Then, the American president could tell the Soviet premier: Stop your invasion, or I’ll launch my remaining nuclear weapons against your cities.
Neither White nor LeMay was keen on the notion of a “limited” nuclear attack; it rubbed against what they saw as the main appeal of nuclear bombs—the immensity of their destructiveness. SAC was aiming some of its bombs at specific Soviet military sites. Since the early 1950s, U.S. intelligence had made strides—thanks to Air Force and CIA reconnaissance planes, communications intercepts by the National Security Agency, and the recruitment of well-placed spies—in discovering where some of the sites were located. Still, SAC’s officers drew the target circles on the map in such a way that the bomb’s blast would destroy the military site and a large chunk of a nearby city. In this view, the resulting civilian damage—the number of urban factories destroyed and people killed—wasn’t something to avoid; to the contrary, it was touted as a “bonus.”
Yet Kaufmann’s counterforce strategy contained a kernel of appeal to Air Force officers: SAC bombers—and only SAC bombers—were accurate enough to hit Soviet military targets without doing much damage to nearby cities. By contrast, the missiles on Polaris submarines would veer too far off target to pull off this feat.
And so, even though they didn’t quite buy its principles, the top officers of the Air Force adopted counterforce as their strategy. Before the Polaris challenge, Air Force doctrine had referred to city bombing as SAC’s “Primary Undertaking” and the destruction of military targets as the “Alternate Undertaking.” White now realized that this fell into the Navy’s trap. The label “Primary Undertaking” would be cited by many as proof that SAC agreed with the Navy’s emphasis on attacking cities as “the most important segment” of nuclear strategy. This inference, White wrote in a memo, would be invoked not only “as further justification of Polaris” but also as a strong argument—which the Navy was already making—to “eliminate virtually any strategic requirement other than Polaris” and thus to eliminate SAC. He had to switch the priorities, even if, behind the scenes, the actual policy remained the same.
By this time LeMay was stationed in the Pentagon, having been promoted to Air Force vice chief of staff. He understood what White was up to. But his successor at SAC, General Thomas Power, vigorously protested the doctrinal shift. Power had been LeMay’s chief of staff during the firebombing of Tokyo, and he took on the task with such enthusiasm that LeMay made him deputy when he took over SAC. Now, as his successor, Power emulated his former boss with a disciple’s zeal.
There was a cruelty to Power’s zest for bombing cities. Even LeMay privately referred to his protégé as a “sadist.” When Bill Kaufmann briefed him on the counterforce strategy at SAC headquarters, Power reacted with fury. “Why do you want us to restrain ourselves?” he screamed. “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards!” After a bit more of this tirade, Power said, “Look. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!”
Kaufmann snapped back, “You’d better make sure that they’re a man and a woman.” Power stormed out of the room.
Afterward, Power cabled White to make sure Kaufmann’s briefing didn’t reflect Air Force policy. White wrote back, assuring him that, while the briefing made a convincing case for “a wider range of options in the future,” official doctrine would still call for attacking “a mix of vital military and important urban-industrial targets.” In short, SAC would still get its way.
Embracing counterforce provided the Air Force some intellectual heft in the fight against the Navy, but that wouldn’t be enough to win the bureaucratic war, especially since the Navy’s concept of deterrence resonated with President Eisenhower’s policy of massive retaliation. The harder, crucial task would be to crush the Polaris—if not to kill the program, then to place its operations under SAC’s control.
LeMay had been pushing for some time to consolidate all the nation’s nuclear weapons under his command. To officials outside the Air Force, he stressed the need to eliminate redundancies. The Joint Chiefs of Staff calculated that, in a general war, at least 200 targets inside the Soviet Union and China would be hit by Air Force bombers and Navy attack planes. (The Army and Marine stockpiles of short-range nuclear missiles and artillery shells didn’t pose a problem, as they would be fired at tactical targets on the battlefield.)
LeMay had a case, but by early 1960 General White concluded that a unified command was a pipe dream: the admirals and the Army generals were implacably opposed, and for good reason. So White devised what he described in private memos as a “fallback position.” He proposed the creation of a new organization called the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. It would consist of officers, from all the services, who would combine their individual nuclear war plans—their lists of what weapons would be fired at what targets—into a Single Integrated Operational Plan. Sitting on top of all these creations—which soon became known by their acronyms, the JSTPS and the SIOP—would be the Director of Strategic Targeting.
The catch was that the JSTPS would be located inside SAC headquarters, and the Director of Strategic Targeting would be the same four-star Air Force general who served as SAC commander. In short, the SIOP would be a multiservice war plan, but SAC would plan the war.
White put forth a seemingly innocuous rationale for this arrangement: when it came to performing the bomb-damage calculations, charting the logistics, scheduling the precise times when hundreds of bombers and missiles would fly over hundreds of targets halfway across the globe, SAC was the only entity that had the experience, and SAC headquarters was the only place stocked with enough computers, to crunch the necessary data. Clearly, this was a case for a power grab within the military, but it was also true: no other service could do what SAC had learned to do—what SAC had invented as an activity—over the previous dozen years.
On June 14, Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates flew to SAC headquarters in Omaha to hear General Power brief the concept, which carried the title “Unity in the Strategic Offensive.” White and his staff had written the briefing, along with strict instructions to Power on how to present it; but they figured that Gates—who had been at the Pentagon for just six months—would be more impressed if he heard it inside the belly of the nuclear war machine, with the banks of computers churning in the background.
Gates was sold. On July 6, he endorsed the idea in a meeting with the president. Eisenhower needed no persuading. General Nathan Twining, the former Air Force chief of staff who was now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been complaining for months about the Navy’s refusal to cooperate in any way with SAC. Nearly a year earlier, in August 1959, Twining had sent a memo to all the service chiefs, asking them eighteen basic questions about nuclear targeting. The chiefs had failed to reach consensus on any of them. Eisenhower, who had just over six months remaining in his presidency, approved White’s plan.
On August 16, Gates formally anointed the SAC commander as the Joint Chiefs’ agent on all matters relating to the planning and waging of nuclear war. Control of the bomb was thus transferred from the Pentagon to Omaha.
Burke and Taylor acceded to the directive—they knew when they were outgunned—but Burke, in particular, was livid. He recognized the JSTPS and the SIOP for what they were: the tools of a takeover.
A matchless brawler when it came to internecine conflicts, Burke hated the Air Force with a passion. “This is just like Communism being here in the country,” he grumbled to a few of his aides after realizing the implications of White’s scheme. “It needn’t have happened,” he mused at another meeting, “that Lumumba can take over a country or that Castro, with a very few people and no following at the beginning, can take over a country, with a well-disciplined force, small but well-disciplined. It doesn’t have to happen that way. It just does.” To Burke’s mind, the Air Force was doing to national security what Patrice Lumumba had done in the Congo and what Fidel Castro had done in Cuba.
One of Burke’s aides tried to calm down the boss during one of his diatribes. “They think they are doing the best thing they know how for the country,” he said of the Air Force brass.
“You’re more generous than I am,” Burke replied. “They’re dishonest. They’re dishonest, and they know it. They have no feeling at all that they are responsible for anything but the Air Force. They will wreck the United States.”II
General Tommy Power and his crew at SAC took no time to set up the new machinery. Within two weeks of Gates’s directive, they presented an organizational chart for the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. More than half of its officer corps—140 out of 269 slots—would come from SAC, with another eight representing its parent service, the Air Force. (This did not include the 1,300 SAC officers who worked in the same building.) Just twenty-nine officers on the JSTPS would come from the Navy, ten from the Army, and three from the Marines.
As Burke predicted, the SAC-heavy staff proceeded to design a war plan—called SIOP-62, because it would take effect in Fiscal Year 1962—that emphasized SAC weapons, made a case for buying more SAC weapons, and relegated the Navy’s Polaris missiles to a secondary mission.
Burke well understood that whichever service drew up the list of targets, and set the rules for how much damage to inflict on those targets, would also be the service that decided which weapons would be aimed at those targets, how many of those weapons were needed to do the necessary damage, and therefore how many more weapons the nation needed to build—in short, how much more money the Pentagon and Congress needed to give the service that built those weapons.
At the first SIOP Planning Conference, chaired by General Power on August 24, the main topic on the agenda was the creation of a National Strategic Target List, abbreviated as the NSTL.
The Navy officers at the meeting tried to cap how many targets the United States needed to hit with nuclear weapons in the event of war. But Power noted that the NSTL wasn’t about military requirements. The point was simply to list all the objects, all the possible targets in the USSR, the Warsaw Pact nations, and China that had some strategic value—air bases, naval ports, missile sites, radar stations, command-control facilities, military factories, civilian factories. It didn’t necessarily mean that the SIOP would call for all those targets to be attacked. The Navy backed down.
As it turned out, the list identified about 4,000 points on the map as “targets.” All told, the Air Force and Navy combined had 3,423 nuclear weapons with the range to hit those targets. It was no coincidence that those two numbers weren’t far apart—or that the number of targets slightly exceeded the number of weapons. If anyone argued that SAC had too many nuclear weapons, General Power could respond that, to the contrary, he didn’t have enough weapons to hit all of the enemy’s targets. The NSTL became a device to justify the arsenal’s expansion.
Because SAC’s philosophy of war required more weapons, and the Navy’s did not, the two quarreled over how many targets the U.S. military had to hit—and how many weapons it needed to hit them.
SAC’s intelligence officers predicted that, by 1962, the Soviets would have 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Navy’s intelligence branch predicted they would have just 200. SAC officers vastly outnumbered Navy officers on the JSTPS, so SAC won the argument. That meant 500 extra targets, requiring 500 extra weapons to hit them—or actually, as Power and his staff worked the numbers, way more than 500 extra weapons.
Even before the JSTPS held its first meeting, Power had convinced the Joint Chiefs to sign a document called the National Strategic Target and Attack Plan, which set the basic rules for the SIOP. The N-Stap, as it was called, required that certain targets—for instance, Soviet and Chinese bomber bases, missile sites, and other crucial military facilities—had to be destroyed with a probability of “at least” 75 percent.
The key phrase was “at least.” In the first round of bureaucratic negotiations, SAC officers argued that there were 200 extremely important targets that each had to be destroyed with a probability of 97 percent—and another 400 targets that needed to be destroyed with 93 percent assurance. Under Navy pressure, SAC relaxed these demands. Still, the final draft of the SIOP specified seven targets that had to be destroyed with 97 percent assurance, 213 targets with 95 percent confidence, 592 targets with a 90 percent chance, and 715 targets with 80 percent.
These rules dramatically inflated the number of nuclear weapons that would be “required” for an attack. A fair number of bombs and missiles would veer widely off course; some of them wouldn’t explode; some bomber planes would be shot down en route to their targets. As a result, it was imprudent to assume that one bomb or missile would destroy a target with anything close to 90 percent certainty. Thus, for each target that had to be destroyed with a high degree of certainty, SAC would have to launch more than one weapon. And there were hundreds of such targets.
Burke’s fears were vindicated; and, as his men in Omaha took a closer look at the war plan’s details, they realized the game was more rigged than even he had predicted. The SIOP, it turned out, laid down nine nuclear weapons on four targets in Leningrad, twenty-three weapons on six target complexes in Moscow, and eighteen weapons on seven target areas in Kaliningrad.
Calculating the ratios across the board, they saw that the SIOP assigned an average of 2.2 nuclear weapons—each unleashing an explosive force of several megatons—to each and every target across the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. And, in keeping with LeMay’s philosophy of modern war, these weapons would be launched in waves as massive and rapid as possible.
If a war started with short notice, the SIOP called for firing 1,459 nuclear weapons—all of the weapons that were on day-to-day alert, ranging in power from 10 kilotons to 23 megatons, totaling 2,164 megatons in all—against 654 targets.
If the United States had time to prepare a first strike, which most SAC officers assumed would be the case (they assumed no president would sit back and let the Soviets or Chinese get in the opening salvo), the plan called for launching 3,423 nuclear weapons—a total of 7,847 megatons—against 1,043 targets.
The objective, either way, was to disable the Sino-Soviet bloc’s nuclear weapons, destroy its military and governmental centers, and cripple its economy to the point where it could no longer sustain a war.
No one disagreed with this objective—the Joint Chiefs had endorsed it ahead of time—but the Navy officers on the targeting staff regarded all of SAC’s rules, assumptions, and calculations as excessive. As a result, they argued, SIOP-62 would inflict way more damage than the objective required.
At one point, the SAC planners were asked how many Russian, Chinese, and Eastern European people would die in the all-out version of SIOP-62’s attack. The answer came back: at least 275 million. Who ever heard of such a number? What kind of war, what plausible strategic goal, required killing so many civilians?
On December 1, Secretary Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chiefs of the various combatant commands, and their top aides—thirty-two officers and officials in all—gathered at SAC headquarters to hear General Power brief them on the finished SIOP.
In the discussion that followed, Rear Admiral John Hyland, a decorated war pilot who had commanded an air group on the USS Intrepid in the Pacific Fleet and who now served in the Pentagon’s strategic plans office, spoke up on behalf of the Navy. He particularly criticized the SIOP’s “requirement” to destroy so many targets with a probability of 90 percent. The number was not only excessive, Hyland said, but impractical. In the fog of war, nobody could hit these targets with such high confidence; nor was there any way, after the bombs were dropped and the missiles were launched, to assess whether the targets had been truly destroyed, merely damaged, or hit at all.
Finally, Hyland noted, the plan took into account only the damage caused by the bombs’ blast. Ignored were the other effects of a nuclear explosion: heat, fire, smoke, and the radioactive fallout that would contaminate an area, making it impassable for months, if not longer.
SAC’s targeting staff had an explanation for this omission: there was plenty of data, from studies of conventional bombing in World War II, on the effects of blast, but almost nothing on the other effects. And those effects were, to some degree, unpredictable, influenced by weather, wind, and other factors. Still, to wave the effects away, simply because they couldn’t be precisely calculated, greatly understated the damage wreaked by a nuclear attack. There was no reason to kill as many people or to destroy as much territory as SIOP-62 called for. And even if there were, the damage could be done with far fewer weapons.
Hyland knew that others in high places had expressed the same concerns and horror. One of them was President Eisenhower’s chief science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, a chemist who’d headed the Explosives Branch of the Manhattan Project, which built the first A-bomb. At Eisenhower’s request, Kistiakowsky had traveled to Omaha for a private SIOP briefing, taking along one of his aides, a fellow weapons scientist named George Rathjens. Before the trip, Rathjens asked a CIA liaison for the name of the Soviet city that most resembled Hiroshima in size and industrial concentration. When he got to SAC headquarters, he asked a staff officer how many weapons the SIOP laid down on that city. The answer: one 4.5-megaton bomb, followed by three 1.1-megaton bombs, in case the first one was a dud. The A-bomb that destroyed one third of Hiroshima, at the end of World War II, had released an explosive force of 12.5 kilotons.
In other words, SIOP-62 would hit that Soviet town with more than six hundred times the blast power of the Hiroshima bomb.
One other senior officer protested the war plan’s excess at General Power’s December briefing—General David Shoup, commandant of the Marine Corps (and, later, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War). The Marines had little interest in nuclear weapons. They had only three officers on the JSTPS, which fairly reflected the Corps’ small atomic arsenal—fewer than 200 short-range artillery rockets. Still, Shoup was bothered by one of the briefing’s charts, showing that tens of millions of Chinese would die as a result of the U.S. attack.
“Do we have any options, so that we don’t have to hit China?” Shoup asked.
“Well, yeah, we could do that,” Power replied, squirming in his front-row seat, “but I hope nobody thinks of it because it would really screw up the plan.”
The next day, December 2, Gates and the Joint Chiefs held a meeting on whether to approve SIOP-62. Gates asked if anyone had a comment. General Shoup stood and said, “Sir, any plan that kills millions of Chinese, when it isn’t even their war, is not a good plan. This is not the American way.”
Nonetheless, the plan was approved with no revisions. It would go into effect the following April.
By this time, Maxwell Taylor had resigned from the Army and written a book condemning the policy of massive retaliation. Burke and Shoup had made their protests known and saw no point in resisting further. Eisenhower’s time in office was nearly up. A new president, a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, would enter the White House in a couple of months. The fight could be taken up again soon.
Meanwhile, the template was set for the policies and politics on nuclear weapons and nuclear war through the decades to come, into the next century.
I. It remains a dispute how much this threat affected Moscow’s actions; Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953, three months before an armistice was signed, may also have had an impact. But Eisenhower and many others viewed the threat as decisive.
II. Burke secretly tape-recorded many conversations, including this one, which comes from a transcript typed by his secretary.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "Killing a Nation" 4
Chapter 2 The Race Begins 31
Chapter 3 The Crises 48
Chapter 4 "This Goddamn Poker Game" 76
Chapter 5 Madman Theories 100
Chapter 6 Bargaining Chips 121
Chapter 7 "A Super Idea" 147
Chapter 8 Pulling Back the Curtain 175
Chapter 9 "A Shrimp Among Whales" 198
Chapter 10 "Let's Stipulate That This Is All Insane" 222
Chapter 11 "Fire and Fury" 260