A Countervailing View
No, we did not think we could win a nuclear war.
William Burr is to be applauded for successfully gaining declassification of Presidential Decision-59, "Nuclear Weapons Employment," and related documents more than 30 years after its adoption. Unfortunately, his interpretation of what those documents said and meant is badly flawed. Moreover, the views he attributes to me neither were, nor are, mine. I have examined the internal memos of the State Department and the staff of the National Security Council, which I had not previously seen, as well as reread the policy guidance and implementing documents issued by President Carter and by me. It is important that these documents and the decisions and policies they mirror, as well as the lessons they carry, be correctly understood.
PD-59 directed implementation of a revised policy for nuclear weapons employment in terms of force structure, command and control arrangements, doctrine, and plans. The purpose of PD-59 was to assure, and make plain to Soviet leaders, that they and their regime would not survive a general thermonuclear war; that there could be no victory in such a war because utter destruction would be the outcome. We in the Carter administration were concerned by Soviet military writings. Some of those indicated that while the USSR did not seek to fight a nuclear war, if it happened, they hoped to "win" by surviving as an organized state. Some U.S. analysts, including the "Team B" that issued its report toward the end of the Ford administration, believed that the Soviets intended to gain an ability to win. And indeed, extensive facilities in the USSR sought to protect the leadership from nuclear strikes by the United States, dwarfing any U.S. counterparts.
PD-59 had two goals. One was to disabuse Soviet leaders from the view, assuming they held it, that they could win or survive a nuclear war. We did that both by our declared policy and by the adjustment of our strategic forces and plans for their use if war came. The other goal was to reinforce the U.S. ability, already initiated in earlier years by Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger, to carry out nuclear strikes in a selective way. Burr writes, "Drafters of PD-59…believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war." Perhaps that was so for some, but I, who had the responsibility for implementing it, had a different view. As I wrote in January 1981 in my final report to Congress (echoing statements on the record before PD-59 was issued), "First, I remain highly skeptical that escalation of a limited nuclear exchange can be controlled, or that it can be stopped short of an all-out, massive exchange. Second, even given this belief, I am convinced that we must do everything we can to make such escalation control possible, that opting out of this effort and resigning ourselves to the inevitability of such escalation is a serious abdication of the awesome responsibilities nuclear weapons, and the unbelievable damage their uncontrolled use would create, thrust upon us."
Plans and controls that maintained the possibility of stopping short of escalation to mutual destruction — even after initial use — made sense. This "countervailing strategy" embodied flexibility, escalation control, survivability, and endurance. Our strategy included alternative mixes of targets: Soviet strategic forces; other military forces; Soviet leadership and control; and their industrial and economic base, which would automatically affect but not be directed at their urban populations. Two very able senior staff members produced the drafts of PD-59, which, as the minutes released by Burr show, were debated and revised by the members and advisers of the National Security Council. Walt Slocombe, later undersecretary of defense during the Clinton administration, was my action officer for PD-59 in the Defense Department. Bill Odom, then a brigadier general and later the director of the National Security Agency during President Reagan’s second term, was the action officer on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s staff.
As some of the declassified documents show, an agreed policy was reached, though differing individual perspectives remained. That may explain why Odom, according to Burr, describes me as "chasing [enemy] general forces in East Europe and Korea with ‘strategic weapons’ in a military exercise." That never happened. And it certainly does not correspond to anything I wrote or believed. Such a scenario was likely Odom’s own, as indicated by his writing several years after PD-59: "[I]t became possible to provide precise locating data to [Strategic Air Command]…and then to strike targets in less than an hour. … [C]onventional military forces already deployed to invade Western Europe could be hit with enough precision to cripple them and dramatically slow their offensive operations." Again, I emphasize, that was Odom’s thought, but not mine, and I was second only to the president in the chain of command.
My January 1981 report made clear my view that deterrence of nuclear war was vital because the use of nuclear weapons was likely to escalate to mutual destruction, and victory would not be a possible outcome. At first the Reagan administration turned away from that policy. T.K. Jones, a subordinate of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, argued that a fallout and blast shelter program "with enough shovels" could greatly reduce damage and casualties from a major nuclear exchange. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative claimed it could successfully intercept a Soviet ballistic missile attack. Together, these were advanced as a way out of the threat of destruction by nuclear war, offering a vision of safety or even some sort of victory. But even during Reagan’s first term, he returned to the Carter policy of deterrence of nuclear war by threat of retaliation and announced that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Détente with the USSR was again sought, and with the end of the Soviet Union during George H.W. Bush’s administration, the threat of mutual annihilation faded.
The Cold War has been over for more than 20 years and the security threats, both current and prospective, are different. Nuclear destruction does not now threaten the United States. But nuclear weapons remain. And looking forward, the lessons of strategic nuclear competition between the United States and the USSR inform and can ease the threat of nuclear war from or between other powers. The difficulties that hampered both the Americans and the Soviets, even with decades of experience, in signaling and in reading the short- and long-term intentions of the other, are likely to repeat or intensify for new or aspiring nuclear powers. Those nations offer a grave threat to international security in their interstate interactions and through possible leakage to non-state actors. It’s therefore important that a correct interpretation of the past inform the present.
Finally, a comment on Burr’s effort to understand PD-59 from newly released documents. Public release of highly classified documents after, say, 20 years, can be in the public interest; that is the case for PD-59. But the effort to understand them well after the fact — and out of context — brings to mind the efforts of children who want to know what grown-ups are saying behind closed doors. My 12 years in senior positions in the Defense Department, including four as secretary of defense, tell me that those conversations usually don’t differ much from what grownups say when the doors are open. That turns out to be true of PD-59 as well. For further details about the issues dealt with by PD-59, I refer the reader to pp. 38-45 of the Report of the Secretary of Defense to Congress, Jan. 19, 1981, which made clear my meaning and intent.