David Hoffman

Don’t look now, Leonid

One of the enduring mysteries of the Cold War is how both the Soviet Union and the United States managed to misunderstand each other so badly. With such vast military, industrial and intelligence resources deployed against each other, the superpowers nonetheless stumbled around blindly at times, caught in a fog of miscalculation and misunderstanding. There ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

One of the enduring mysteries of the Cold War is how both the Soviet Union and the United States managed to misunderstand each other so badly. With such vast military, industrial and intelligence resources deployed against each other, the superpowers nonetheless stumbled around blindly at times, caught in a fog of miscalculation and misunderstanding. There are plenty of examples — the bomber gap, the missile gap, the Cuban crisis, Star Wars and germ warfare, to name a few.

These gaps and black holes of mistrust matter; the same problems exist today in other conflicts, such as the long-running dispute with Iran over nuclear weapons. We ought to realize by now that it is not only the weapons that are dangerous — so is deception, misunderstanding and threat exaggeration.

Take a stroll back in time to another era of tension, and the story of President Jimmy Carter’s nuclear weapons directive, PD-59, which has recently been released in full, thanks to the National Security Archive.

Carter signed Presidential Directive 59 on July 25, 1980, setting down new guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons in possible conflict with the Soviet Union. At the time, some U.S. strategists had come to the conclusion that nuclear war might not be a single spasm attack, but rather could unfold in a series of directed strikes. However abhorrent and irrational, the idea was that a president had to be prepared for nuclear war-fighting, at least as a contingency. (Soviet intentions were never very clear but intelligence reports had picked up evidence of underground bunkers being built to protect the military and political leadership in times of crisis, so there was worry they were preparing for nuclear war-fighting, too.)

The logic was this: if a nuclear wargasm was unlikely, a president needed to have options for a prolonged nuclear exchange, should deterrence fail. Carter’s directive ordered revisions in U.S. war planning for such a possibility, including more discrete pre-planned nuclear attack options for the president. This had been a goal of the Nixon administration as well. It meant picking out not only military targets but also devoting some of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to hitting the Soviet "political control system" and industry.

While there are many fascinating aspects of this directive, one that offers lessons for today is how PD-59 was received by the Soviets. We don’t know the full story, but they were certainly aware of it. Although the document was classified Top Secret at the time and not released, Carter’s decision to sign it was leaked to the press, and there was an open hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at which Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown both testified. (In the middle of a presidential election campaign, no less.)

Andrew W. Marshall, the long-serving director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, commissioned a study at the end of the Cold War to examine how the Soviet Union had made some of the key decisions about nuclear weapons in those years. As part of the study [pdf], Marshall offered some of his own recollections of U.S. policy in that period. He recalled:

"PD-59 was developed to reinforce deterrence by making it clear to the Soviet leadership that they would not escape destruction in any exchange. The objective was to clarify and personalize somewhat the danger of warfare and nuclear use to Soviet decision makers. Publication of selected elements of the contents of PD-59 was an integral part of the strategy, and Secretary Brown directed and personally cleared certain articles and discussions of the directive to ensure that Soviet leaders were made aware of some of its most important aspects."

According to John G. Hines, who led the study:

"Despite the fact that the U.S. had repeatedly and publicly declared its nuclear strategy to be based on deterrence, virtually all interview subjects stressed that they perceived the U.S. to be preparing for a first strike…. In addition, in PD-59 the Soviets saw a deliberate policy for launching a surprise, decapitating first strike against the Soviet leadership. The Soviets found this policy, backed up in the early 1980s by the technical capability to execute it, extremely threatening, especially in light of the pervasive memory of the June 1941 surprise attack, an experience which colored all Soviet strategic planning throughout the Cold War period."

We don’t know all the ways the Soviet leadership reacted. But the years after PD-59 was signed were among the most tense of the Cold War, including the very dicey autumn "war scare" of 1983.

Feeling vulnerable, one thing the Soviet leaders did was to build a quasi-automatic system that could launch all their land-based nuclear missiles in a retaliatory strike in the event the leadership was decapitated. This system, known formally at Perimeter and informally as the Dead Hand, was not fully automatic — the Soviets saw the dangers in that — but it was partially automated, with the final decisions being left in the hand of a few duty officers deep in an underground bunker. How those duty officers would react at a time of nuclear war has always been a matter of speculation and uncertainty. The Dead Hand system was put on combat duty in early 1985, just as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

It is not known precisely what role PD-59 played in stoking Soviet anxiety about decapitation in 1980. (There were other reasons they might have been worried, including the growing accuracy of U.S. weapons that could strike Soviet command and control centers with little warning.) But the overall message that the leadership was in the crosshairs was well received. Hines interviewed Gen.-Col. (ret.) Varfolomei Korobushin, the former deputy chief of staff of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. Korobushin played an important role in building the Dead Hand system. When Hines asked him if PD-59 had influenced the Soviet general staff’s perceptions, the general answered by immediately associating PD-59 with decapitation. He said:

"Yes, but your PD-59 would have been futile. Right now we have a system in place which would automatically launch all missiles remaining in our arsenal even if every nuclear command center and all of our leaders were destroyed."

Carter’s directive was part of an internal U.S. planning process, and there’s no doubt such a process was necessary. But the decision to provide some salient details to the Soviet leaders may have had consequences that were not fully understood at the time. Soviet paranoia about a U.S. first strike was already running very deep in the 1970s–but did the U.S. policy-makers know how deep? By sending signals on PD-59, did they cause the Soviets to grow even more worried about decapitation?

Oddly, the Dead Hand system was kept secret from the United States, and only came to light at the end of the Cold War. This made it even more dangerous. As I pointed out in my book, The Dead Hand:

"If the Americans had known of Perimeter–if they realized that decapitation of the Kremlin would trigger near-automatic retaliation–it might have given them pause. It might have been a deterrent. But in the peculiar dark world of the arms race, the Soviets treated the Perimeter
project as super-secret, and tried to mask what they had invented."

The lesson for today’s confrontations: an adversary does not always see the world the same way we do. It is important to grasp how they are thinking, and not just by reading the headlines. One question that we might ask about Iran, for example, is this: what conclusions are they drawing from all the threats of an attack on their nuclear facilities? What signals are they getting, and what miscalculations might be afoot? We knew very little about the deliberations of Kremlin leaders in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Do we know more about what Iran’s leaders are pondering today?


 Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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