Why LBJ vetoed the Dr. Strangelove option.
- By William Burr William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, directs the archive's nuclear history documentation project.
This newly declassified document from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, released on appeal to the National Security Archive, illuminates one of the most sensitive secrets of the Cold War, right out of Dr. Strangelove. On October 14, 1968, in the middle of lengthy discussions with advisors about Vietnam War strategy, President Johnson set aside a few minutes to hear recommendations about the existing top-secret instructions for the emergency use of nuclear weapons by top military commanders if the United States came under attack and the president was either killed or had gone missing. The instructions to "predelegate" nuclear weapons use authority had been on the books since 1959 and updated in 1964, but National Security Adviser Walt Rostow told Johnson bluntly that they were "dangerous" and had to be changed.
What worried Rostow and other advisors was that the current instructions, approved by Johnson in 1964, called for an automatic "full nuclear response" against both the Soviet Union and China in the event of a nuclear attack. Moreover, the instructions stipulated a full-scale nuclear counter-attack even if the initial strike was conventional, or the result of an accident. And both communist giants would be targeted regardless of whether either of them had launched the attack.
At the meeting, Johnson’s military and civilian aides unanimously recommended that the standing orders, code-named "Furtherance," be revised in order to reduce the risk of a nuclear holocaust. Instead of a "full" response, top commanders could initiate a "limited response," implying that the retaliation could be tailored so that it was proportionate to the attack. Moreover, commanders would be instructed to respond to a conventional attack with conventional weapons. At the session, speaking of the new approach, Rostow advised Johnson: "We think it is an essential change." The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff concurred and President Johnson changed the policy the next day.
Exactly why this change in the predelegation orders was not made until the end of the Johnson presidency remains shrouded in secrecy. It certainly reflected the recognition at the highest levels of the U.S. government that a nuclear stalemate existed with the Soviet Union. U.S. nuclear supremacy — and whatever diplomatic or political leverage it conferred — had ended during the 1960s as the Soviet Union acquired a significant nuclear retaliatory capability. Preemptive attack on Soviet strategic forces remained an option, but it was a dubious one because Soviet forces were unlikely to be completely destroyed and could cause tremendous destruction to the United States and its allies. Under the new circumstances, Johnson’s advisors took former Secretary of Defense McNamara’s advice on the crucial importance of "greater flexibility and discrimination" in nuclear war planning. Thus, it was better to actually target the right country and "limit" it so as to avoid a disproportionate nuclear onslaught.
Also probably shaping Johnson’s decision in October 1968 was his visceral horror at the idea of using nuclear weapons and his determination to uphold the tradition of non-use, in place since August 1945. Using nuclear weapons, he once said, "would lead us down an uncertain path of blows and counterblows whose outcome none may know." McNamara had already advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson against using nuclear weapons first, and what Nina Tannenwald calls a "de facto no-first use policy" had emerged during the 1960s. But with the revised "Furtherance" instructions, Johnson took a step toward formalizing the de facto policy by instructing war planners to take a non-nuclear response to a conventional attack in an emergency. With his low opinion of the military leadership, perhaps Johnson did not have to be convinced that top commanders should have limited discretion.
It took nine years — and a mandatory declassification review appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) — to get this document declassified. Background documents that would help explain the circumstances under which Johnson changed the "Furtherance" instructions are now under appeal because they were denied in full or massively excised. Even though the basic secret of the predelegation instructions has been in the declassified record for years, federal agencies have treated them as sacrosanct secrets that cannot be revealed. ISCAP’s good decision should encourage other agencies to abandon their reflexive secrecy and declassify more information about "Furtherance."