Dept Of Secrets

How to Fight a Nuclear War

Revealed: Jimmy Carter's strategy for Armageddon. (We're still using it.)

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Presidential Decision Directive 59 — presented here on Foreign Policy‘s National Security channel and on the National Security Archive’s website for the first time — was one of the most controversial nuclear policy documents of the Cold War, yet until now it’s never been made public in its entirety.

Signed by President Jimmy Carter on July 25, 1980, the directive (titled "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy") aimed to give presidents more flexibility in planning for and executing a nuclear war — that is, options beyond a massive strike. Leaks of the document’s Top Secret contents, within weeks of its approval, gave rise to front-page stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post, alleging that its changes to U.S. strategy lowered the threshold of a decision to go nuclear.

With other recently declassified material, PD-59 shows that the United States was indeed preparing to fight a nuclear war, with the hope of enduring. To do this, it sought a nuclear force posture that ensured a "high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions." If deterrence failed, the United States "must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable."

Perhaps even more remarkable than this guidance is the fact that, although the Obama administration is conducting a review of U.S. nuclear targeting guidance, key concepts behind PD-59 still drive U.S. policy to this day.

The National Security Archive obtained the virtually unexpurgated document in response to a mandatory declassification review request to the Jimmy Carter Library. Highly classified for years, PD-59 was signed during a period of heightened Cold War tensions owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, greater instability in the Middle East, and earlier strains over China policy, human rights, the Horn of Africa, and Euromissiles. Press coverage at the time elicited debate inside and outside the government, with some arguing that the directive would aggravate Cold War tensions by increasing Soviet fears about vulnerability and raising pressures for launch-on-warning in a crisis.

A key element of PD-59 was to use high-tech intelligence to find nuclear weapons targets in battlefield situations, strike the targets, and then assess the damage — a "look-shoot-look" capability. A memorandum from NSC military aide William Odom depicted Secretary of Defense Harold Brown doing exactly that in a recent military exercise where he was "chasing [enemy] general purpose forces in East Europe and Korea with strategic weapons." That is, he was planning how to use large nuclear weapons to defeat conventional troops. Drafters of PD-59 like Odom did not believe that deploying weapons in this way would necessarily result in apocalypse — they believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war.

In part, the United States took this approach because the architects of PD-59 believed the Soviets had a concept of victory in nuclear war and already had limited nuclear options themselves. But post-Cold War studies have shown that the Soviet leadership realized neither side could win a nuclear war and had little confidence in the Soviet Union’s ability to survive a nuclear conflict.

The directive is presented below. For other relevant documents and more analysis, please visit the briefing book at the National Security Archive web site.

William Burr is the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.