By the late 1970s, Eden shows, the influential physicist Harold Brode
of Pacific-Sierra Research focused attention on the problem of nuclear
firestorms and the extent to which simultaneous ignitions were predictable
effects of nuclear explosions. During the 1980s, Brode and colleagues
under contract to the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) developed a methodology
for predicting mass fire that could be incorporated into the nuclear
war plans developed by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS).
Their research would have made it possible to develop a fire-blast VN
system that could more comprehensively predict the effects of nuclear
detonations. In the early 1990s, however, JSTPS Deputy Director Vice-Admiral
Michael Colley cancelled further research on nuclear fire effects. Despite
Brode's innovations, Colley believed that fire was not predictable and
that efforts to develop a fire-blast VN system for war planning were
unnecessary: "to my mind, fire is gravy. Whatever you can get from
fire just makes everything worse. And you don't need to particularly
measure it. It's just there." (Note 10)
Declassified material elucidating the serious problems raised by Lynn
Eden's study is scarce or otherwise highly technical. (Note
11) The following documents from the 1950s and early 1960s provide
evidence of the powerful influence of a "blast damage frame"
not only in the military but also among nuclear weapons experts at the
State Department. Other documents show, however, that some policy experts
believed that mass fires were routine effects of high-yield nuclear
weapons. When the newly-created JSTPS developed the first SIOP [Single
Integrated Operational Plan] in 1960, some senior officials, including
White House Science Adviser George Kistiakowsky and Chief of Naval Operations
Admiral Arleigh Burke argued that the JSTPS was building "overkill"
into nuclear war plans by not taking fire effects into account. Despite
these arguments, however, a JSTPS report shows that it believed that
mass fires were unpredictable and not worth planning for. The blast
damage frame held by PV and JSTPS officials remained unchallenged until
the early 1980s when nuclear weapons effects experts Harold Brode convinced
the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) to sponsor studies on nuclear fire
storms. Most of the publicly available Brode material is highly technical
but the document excerpted below provides evidence of his proposition
that mass fires are predictable weapons effects.
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe
Acrobat Reader to view.
1: U.S. Air Force Project RAND, Implications of Large-Yield Nuclear
Weapons, 10 July 1952, Top Secret, Excised Copy
Source: FOIA Release, U.S. Air Force
At the beginning of the 1950s, when thermonuclear weapons were being
developed, the Air Force's civilian research arm, Project RAND (acronym
for "research and development") began exploring the implications
of these fearsome new weapons. The study, conducted by Bernard Brodie,
Charles Hitch, and Ernst Plesset, was widely briefed in the national
security establishment up to President Truman himself. Characterizing
thermonuclear weapons as "killers and fantastically destructive,"
the RAND analysts looked at such problems as weapons effects, the impact
of Soviet acquisition, the possibility of defense, and offensive uses.
The discussion of weapons effects looked beyond the destruction caused
by blast and straightforwardly addressed the "increased probability
of fire." Looking at the impact of a five megaton bomb dropped
on a city, the analysts concluded that "a firestorm must be expected
as far out" as four miles from ground zero. Given such devastating
effects, the authors concluded that "large-scale reciprocal use
of atomic and thermonuclear weapons against cities would not fall short
of national suicide for both sides." That this made nuclear war
wholly inconsistent with any rational political objective would trouble
Brodie and his colleagues for the rest of their careers. While the Brodie-Hitch-Plesset
scenario depicted the varied effects of a thermonuclear explosion, the
"blast effects frame" had strong influence at RAND and the
organization's work tended to reinforce it. (Note 12)
2: Memorandum for the File, "Discussion with the Secretary"
by Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Gerard
C. Smith, 16 March 1957, Top Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59. Records of the Department
of State, Records of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military
Affairs, Subject Files of Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Aerospace,
1950-1966, box 6, II.3.B Weapons Effects - 1955-57
This document on the nuclear education of Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles illustrates the predominance of the "blast damage frame."
After Dulles made press conference statements that underestimated the
fallout hazards associated using low-yield nuclear weapons, his special
assistant Gerard C. Smith took Dulles aside to give him a better grasp
of the issue. In particular, Smith wanted to make sure that Dulles understood
that the U.S. Air Force would never accept tactical nuclear weapons
as a substitute for strategic bombardment. After Dulles took issue with
the statement that megaton nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union would
"cause tremendous destruction of life and property," Smith
realized that his chief needed better information but he could go no
further at the moment because others in the room lacked "Q"
clearances for atomic energy information. When Smith found an opportunity
for a briefing, Dulles learned that "if the SAC strikes were successful
Russian casualties would be in the tens of millions." The
criterion that Smith used for nuclear devastation was blast destruction:
if the megatonnage of nuclear weapons dropped on Soviet cities was "divided
into the total area of Russia, it would "result in substantial
over-pressure over the whole area." Had he included mass fire damage,
casualties would have been stated as even greater.
3: Letter from Captain John H. Morse, Special Assistant to the Chairman,
Atomic Energy Commission, to Lewis Strauss, Chairman, Atomic Energy
Commission, 14 February 1957, Secret
Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Records of Special Assistant for
National Security Affairs, NSC Series, Briefing Notes Subseries, box
17, Target Systems (1957-1961)
John H. Morse, who had served as director of atomic planning in the
air operations branch of the U.S. European Command, brought his experience
to bear in this discussion of nuclear planning by the military. While
he does not mention blast or fire effects, his description of Air Force
target planning methodology is plainly relevant to the "blast damage
frame," with such references as "damage to concrete structures"
and the requirement for a "high probability of cratering runways."
Particularly fascinating is Morse's concern over the "destructive
and disruptive nature of nuclear weapons" with megaton yields:
"the cumulative or ancillary effects may be as great or greater
than primary damage." While Morse only mentions fallout, firestorms
are consistent with his brief discussion of "cumulative" effects.
Significantly, he called attention to a Pentagon study that questioned
the tendency of nuclear planners to overlook "bonus" effects;
the report concluded that by taking into account the total impact of
a nuclear explosion, lower-yield weapons could be used to achieve the
"desired destruction." Morse noted that the Pentagon "rigorously
suppressed" this study and destroyed all copies. (Note
4: "Nuclear Weapons", Briefing for Secretary Herter, with
"Weapons Effects Briefing for Undersecretary of State," 27
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Records of the Department
of State, Records of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military
Affairs, Subject Files of Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Aerospace,
1950-1966, box 6, II.3.B Weapons Effects - 1955-57
Not long after becoming Under Secretary of State in February 1957,
Christian A. Herter received a standard briefing, apparently involving
Gerard Smith and General Herbert Loper, Assistant to the Secretary of
Defense for Atomic Energy, on nuclear weapons and their effects. The
outline of the briefing on weapons effects provided details on the vulnerabilities
of inanimate objects and humans. With respect to the vulnerabilities
of buildings, etc., blast was the "primary destruction agent."
The outline identified thermal radiation as a cause of fires, even noting
the "ignition energies" for fuels, wood, and paper, but apparently
did not see fire as important as blast in producing destruction. On
the vulnerabilities of humans, the outline gave full attention to gamma
radiation and fallout dangers, treating thermal radiation and blast
effects as relatively less important as casualty producers. That Smith
and his colleagues did not take fire into account is suggested in the
section of "protective measures" where "cover" is
listed as a way to evade thermal effects. As Eden's scenario suggests,
however, those who might seek shelter in basements in Arlington or Capital
Hill would not find protection from heat or carbon monoxide.
5: Letter from Brigadier General George S. Brown, Military Assistant
to Secretary of Defense, to Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command
Thomas Powers, 23 November 1960, Top Secret
Source: FOIA Release, Department of Defense
Not everyone was persuaded by Air Force arguments favoring "overbombing",
but it remained difficult to change the direction of nuclear planning.
In 1960, various organizational pressures led President Eisenhower to
approve the creation of a Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS)
that through interservice coordination would produce a National Strategic
Target List (NSTL) and a comprehensive nuclear war plan, the Single
Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). JSTPS's director would be the Commander-in-Chief
of the Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), thus putting SAC effectively
in charge of nuclear planning. This development had been a source of
heartburn for Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke, who saw it as
an Air Force power play to erode the JCS's authority in nuclear planning.
Burke failed to convince Eisenhower that there was a serious problem
and during 1960 the JSTPS developed what would become known as SIOP-62
(for fiscal year 1962). A plan for a massive strike against military,
government control, and urban-industrial targets in the Soviet Union,
China, and allied countries, the SIOP, as David Rosenberg has put it,
produced the "institutionalization of overkill." (Note
14) The relationship of the SIOP to the "overkill" phenomenon
and the "blast damage frame" is evident from General George
S. Brown's letter to CINCSAC Thomas Power. What Brown wanted Power to
know was that Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates believed that the
SIOP needed more work, not least because "weapons requirements
are perhaps increased unrealistically by restricting consideration of
weapons effects to blast damage" while there had been no effort
to "apply thermal effects and even radiation" to target planning.
It is possible that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke
or White House Science Adviser George Kistiakowsky (see documents 6
and 7) made Gates aware of the problem of excessive weapons requirements.
However, he would have no opportunity to follow up the problem because
the Eisenhower administration was then on its way out.
6: Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke to Flag and General
Officers, "National Strategic Target List and Single Integrated
Operational Plan," Special Edition Flag Officers Dope, 4 December
Source: U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Arleigh Burke Papers, Memos
and Ltrs (NSTL)
Arleigh Burke acquiesced in Eisenhower's decision to go forward with
the JSTPS; not surprisingly he saw serious problems in SIOP-62. While
characterizing it as a "good first" step in a report to the
Navy's high command, he made it plain that he saw significant weaknesses.
Like Secretary Gates, Burke was especially concerned about the SIOP's
damage criteria which he believed were unrealistically high: "the
damage on the facilities at Hiroshima which were incapable of any type
of operation and never were repaired in peacetime would not have met
this damage criteria." He also believed that using blast effects
only to compute nuclear devastation was a drawback: "it is certain
that there will be many firestorms and damage by neutrons beyond the
area of blast damage" (see page 5).
7: Joint Chiefs of Staff Paper 2056/208, 27 January 1961, enclosing
memorandum from Secretary of Defense Gates to the Chairman, JCS, 20
January 1961, and Excerpts from Memorandum to President Eisenhower from
Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology George
Kistiakowsky, 25 November 1960, Top Secret, Excised Copy
Source: National Archives, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, RG
218, 3205 Target Systems (17 Aug 59) Sec. 9
Burke and Gates were not the only senior officials who expressed reservations
about SIOP-62. The White House science adviser, Harvard chemistry professor
George S. Kistiakowsky, traveled to SAC headquarters in November 1960
where he heard JSTPS briefings on the war plan. He shared Burke's doubts
about the damage criteria because they led to "unnecessary and
undesirable overkill." Kistiakowsky also recognized the limits
of the blast damage approach: he wrote to Eisenhower that "The
JSTPS used blast effects as the only criterion of damage and neglected
thermal radiation, fires which will be caused by it and fall-out"
(see p. 1914). The day he turned in his report, Kistiakowsky briefed
Eisenhower on his findings; the latter confided to his naval aide Captain
E.P. Aurand that the briefing "frightened the devil out of me."
Eisenhower was surprised by the numbers of targets and the huge scale
of the attack plan. Believing that there had to be limits, he wondered
whether it might be better to let SAC "have one wack--not ten wacks"
at each target. But it was too late for Eisenhower to change the direction
of U.S. war planning. (Note 15)
8: JSTPS Report 3-61, Staff Study, "Damage Criteria,"
3 June 1961
Source: FOIA Release, U.S. Strategic Command
The huge excisions from this study show how sensitive the issue of
nuclear devastation has been to the U.S. military. Certainly, the residual
content that has been left shows the supremacy of the "blast damage
frame" for measuring nuclear weapons destruction. Thus, Annex A
begins by discussing the vulnerability number (VN) system used for predicting
blast damage. That the JSTPS wholly discounted Gates', Burke's, and
Kistiakowsky's thinking about the likelihood of mass fires is evident
on page 10. There, the JSTPS analysts briefly discussed the problem
and possibility of nuclear fire effects. After noting that the spread
of fire depended on a number of considerations and reviewing the damage
to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they concluded that firestorms were unpredictable:
They are "not a special characteristic of nuclear explosions. They
may or may not occur."
To help make their case about the unpredictability of fire effects,
the JSTPS analysts argued that the plutonium weapon that devastated
Nagasaki did not produce a firestorm. Yet, strong evidence shows otherwise,
despite the important geographical differences between Hiroshima (where
mass fire is undisputed) and Nagasaki. Citing MIT scientist Theodore
Postol, who has argued that Nagasaki was "Hiroshima in a fireplace,"
Eden maintains that mass fire also occurred at Nagasaki. That city is
"Located in an upward sloping valley" and the valley's sides
"acted like the walls of a giant fireplace and the upward slope
acted like a flue." Fire spread up the flue, from low to high ground.
9: Harold Brode and Richard D. Small, Fire Damage and Strategic
Targeting, PSR [Pacific Sierra Research] Note 567, sponsored by DNA,
Washington, D.C. (Los Angeles: PSR, June 1983), excerpts
Source: courtesy of Lynn Eden
Nearly twenty years after JSTPS analysts dismissed the problem of mass
fire physicists Harold Brode and Richard Small were intensively researching
the fire damage issue in studies for the Defense Nuclear Agency. In
this document, their first major study on fire for DNA, Brode and Small
tacitly disagreed with the earlier JSTPS approach by arguing that a
nuclear detonation "ensures a very large number of ignitions and
the rapid development of a large area fire." Therefore, in spite
of such uncertainties as weather and civil defense measures, among other
factors, "fire damage can be predicted with useful consistency"
and can be "as reliable as corresponding blast damage predictions."
Because fire was likely to cause "more complete and permanent damage,"
including it in damage prediction methodology would improve the accuracy
of nuclear war planning. Recognizing that nuclear war is a nasty business,
they wrote, "A new damage methodology including fire effects need
not wait for changes in national objectives. If 'moderate damage' to
'steel frame' buildings is the appropriate guide for destroying a city
of a million or more inhabitants, then fire can only complete the job
more effectively." (Note 17)
Eden's book shows that Brode made significant progress in winning support
for his methodology, but skepticism about the predictability of firestorms
remained a powerful obstacle and the JSTPS cut off funding for additional
research on the subject in the early 1990s. (Note 18)
Documentation on the JSTPS's decision remains classified; so does information
on the Pentagon's apparently more positive interest in the mass fire
problem in the late 1990s. By shedding light on basic elements of the
U.S. nuclear posture these issues warrant further investigation by journalists
and scholars alike.
1. Quotation from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral
Arleigh Burke, December 1960 (see document 6)
2. Eden chose a 300 kiloton weapon because "many
weapons in modern arsenals have yields of 300 kilotons or more."
On the U.S. side, Minuteman IIIa's and MX's have yields of 335 and 300
respectively, while Russian ICBM warheads have yields ranging from 550
to 750 kilotons. See Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations,
Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2004), pp. 270-271.
3. See Eden interview for "The American Experience:
Race for the Superbomb," at <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/filmmore/reference/interview/eden.html>.
A study done for the Defense Nuclear Agency in 1990 estimated fire damage
radii as "2 to 5 times larger" than for blast effects. Eden,
Whole World on Fire, p. 246.
4. In making this argument, Eden builds upon David
A. Rosenberg's pioneering research on the history of U.S. nuclear strategy;
see Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American
Strategy, 1945-1960," in Steven Miller, ed., Strategy and Nuclear
Deterrence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 113-182.
5. Stephen Schwartz, et al. Atomic Audit : The
Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington,
D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1998).
6. This description of blast effects draws upon Federation
of American Scientists, "Nuclear Weapons Blast Effects," at
Quotation from Eden, Whole World on Fire, at p. 19.
7. Image from Samuel Glasstone, The Effects of
Nuclear Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964),
as reproduced, with the other stages of the air burst, on the "Trinity
Atomic Web Site" <http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/atomic/nukeffct/airburst.htm>.
8. For examples of VN ratings of targets, see Natural
Resources Defense Council, The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for
Change (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, 2001),
p. 122; see also <http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/warplan/warplan_ch5.pdf>.
9. For a digitalized film of the same event, shot from
slightly different perspective, viewable with "Quick Time,"
on the "Trinity Atomic Web Site."
10. Eden, Whole World on Fire, p. 275.
11. Eden worked from documents released through Freedom
of Information Act requests, some of which were prepared jointly by
her and the National Security Archive. She also worked from other archival
documents, unclassified government reports, and interviews.
12. Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp. 81-82.
13. At first glance, it would seem that Morse was
referring to the Army-Navy study "Project Budapest," that,
according to David A. Rosenberg, was a "devastating critique"
of Air Force nuclear planning. But "Budapest" was not presented
to the Joint Chiefs until August 1957, some months later, so the study
that Morse mentions must have been a forerunner. For details on "Budapest,"
see Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill," p. 161.
14. Ibid., pp. 114-115, 174. For further discussion
of Burke's battle, see Kaplan, Wizards, pp. 264-266.
15. Rosenberg, "Origins of Overkill, p. 118.
16. Eden, Whole World on Fire, p. 20.
17. Ibid, pp. 233-238, for discussion of this study.
18. Ibid, chapters 9 and 10.