More Archive Resources on Nuclear History:
Washington, D.C., May 18, 2001 – The National Security Archive publishes here for the first time President Dwight D. Eisenhower's instructions to commanders providing advance authorization ("predelegation") for the use of nuclear weapons under specific emergency conditions, what political scientist Peter Roman has called "Ike's Hair Trigger."1 This document and several related ones were declassified on 4 April 2001 by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) in response to an appeal by the National Security Archive, which first requested the documents in 1993.2
Eisenhower began making decisions on predelegation in the mid-1950s when he approved instructions for the use of nuclear weapons for the air defense of U.S. territory. Soon he came to support broader instructions that would allow a quick reaction to other kinds of nuclear attacks when there was not enough time, or it was not possible, to communicate with higher authorities. For example, if the Soviets suddenly attacked major U.S. forces in Europe or if they launched missiles against U.S. territory and the president could not be reached, top commanders would have the authority to use nuclear weapons in response. Authorized commanders would include the Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), Commander-in-Chief, European Command (CINCEUR), and Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Command (CINCLANT), among others.
That Eisenhower authorized and approved predelegation instructions has been disclosed in declassified documents published in earlier National Security Archive electronic briefing books during 1998.3 Those documents were also released by ISCAP in response to mandatory review appeals filed by Archive staff. One of the most important items released in 1998 was a presidential authorization, dated 22 May 1957, that provided guidelines for the preparation of specific instructions to the Defense Department and authorized commanders on the "expenditure of nuclear weapons" in emergency circumstances, for example, if a nuclear attack upon U.S. territory had begun and the president could not be reached.
While important documents on Eisenhower's decisionmaking on predelegation have been declassified, significant material remained unavailable until ISCAP's recent actions. The most prominent was the "implementing instructions" prepared in response to Eisenhower's May 1957 authorization. ISCAP also declassified two documents that illustrate Eisenhower's important supervisory role during 1958-1959 when State Department and Pentagon officials prepared drafts of the instructions. Eisenhower played a central role in the review process in order to avoid imprecisely worded instructions that could permit the reckless or accidental use of nuclear weapons. Thus, at various stages he acted to tighten up the language to ensure that authority to use nuclear weapons was not "assumed through accident or misinformation."
Even though ISCAP released significant information, the "Instructions" remain partly classified. Apparently, the Defense representative to ISCAP objected to complete declassification on the grounds that some of the text relates to war plans currently in effect. Whether the withheld language would shed further light on risky elements in predelegation policy remains to be seen. Certainly Peter Roman's question as to why "civilian leaders willingly reduced their control on such a critical area and accepted increased dangers" remains a challenging one for students of Cold War national security policy.
Document 1: Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Memorandum of Conference with the President, June 27, 1958 - 11:05 AM," 30 June 1958, Top Secret, 4 pp.
Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Records of the White House Office of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, NSC Series, Subject Subseries, box 1, file "Atomic Weapons, Corresp. & Background for Pres. Approval & Instructions for Use of," (2)
This record of an Eisenhower meeting with senior State and Defense Department officials was selected for publication in the State Department's Foreign Relations series but it was not declassified, presumably because of Defense Department objections.4 Goodpaster's account depicts one of the moments in Eisenhower's review of a draft of the instructions to commanders. Apparently the draft included some imprecise language because he argued that delegating authority to a "local commander would be getting pretty far out." Nevertheless, Eisenhower's approach did not preclude risks because he acknowledged that the need for a rapid response could require "greater delegation." Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw other risks: the possibility that the instructions might lead to restrictions on U.S. freedom of action; they were bound to leak to allied governments; and U.S. allies would try to impose restrictions on nuclear weapons use or even try to expel U.S. forces. This did not seem to worry Eisenhower because he insisted on tight controls over the instructions: only six or seven top commanders would read them and they "would have to certify that they have not shown [them] to anyone else."
Document 2: Letter from President Eisenhower to Deputy Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, 2 November 1959, Top Secret, 2 pp.
Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Records of the White House Office of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, NSC Series, Subject Subseries, box 1, file "Atomic Weapons, Corresp. & Background for Pres. Approval & Instructions for Use of," (4)
This letter illustrates Eisenhower's considerable interest and involvement in the preparation of the predelegation instructions. Significantly, it shows his determination to ensure that the language narrowed the risks of "giving license" to the Pentagon and authorized commanders to "expend" nuclear weapons. Consistent with that, Eisenhower also wanted to approve the language of any supplementary guidance to commanders on procedures for obtaining U.S. government consent for nuclear weapons use. Also to prevent misunderstandings, Eisenhower wanted Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who would soon become Secretary of Defense, to meet with the authorized commanders to ensure that they were of "one mind" as to the "letter and spirit" of the instructions.
Document 3: "Instructions for the Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Accordance with the Presidential Authorization Dated May 22, 1957," revised between 28 January 1959 and 12 May 1960, Top Secret, Excised Copy, 23 pp.
Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Records of the White House Office of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, NSC Series, Subject Subseries, box 1, file "Atomic Weapons, Corresp. & Background for Pres. Approval & Instructions for Use of," (1)
The various dates on this document, from 28 January 1959 to 12 May 1960, show Eisenhower's continuous effort to ensure that the instructions conformed to his wishes, so that top commanders would understand the circumstances under which the "expenditure" of nuclear weapons would be permissible without direct approval by civilian authorities. Thus, to prevent a nuclear response to minor military encounters and incursions, the instructions described major attack scenarios by "Sino-Soviet forces" that could prompt nuclear use decisions: launching of missiles against the U.S. by a submarine; missile/bomber, "air-to-air" or "strafing" attacks against a "major U.S. force", "major assault" by "Sino-Soviet" forces in an area "occupied by major U.S. forces in foreign territory", or nuclear attack upon the United States itself. In other words, nuclear weapons use would be permissible only if U.S. territory or major military forces were in danger of destruction. Moreover, assuming that there would be someone left to pick up the pieces the authorization to use nuclear weapons was temporary, "effective only until it is possible ... to communicate with the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead."
Significantly, except for the reference to "missiles", the instructions did not specifically differentiate between nuclear or conventional attacks on U.S. forces operating overseas. For example, if Warsaw Pact forces suddenly moved into West Germany and overwhelmed U.S. forces there with conventional means, the CINCEUR would have the authority to initiate a nuclear response. Although Eisenhower had reservations about authorizing nuclear responses to conventional attacks, such an authorization was wholly consistent with his concept of deterrence. For example, U.S. and NATO planning during the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized early use of nuclear weapons during a major military confrontation in Central Europe. As much as Eisenhower deplored the possibility of nuclear war, his estimate that the Soviets would not make decisions to destroy themselves enabled him to tolerate any risks that inhered in the predelegation instructions.
The "instructions to commanders" paper was worked into a series of instructions to each unified or specified commander. In 1998 ISCAP also declassified versions of these papers but they were incomplete and may have been superseded by other documents.5
However the instructions at the CINC level read, Eisenhower had great confidence that his CINCS would not transgress them and precipitate a cataclysm. Certainly to ensure strict secrecy but perhaps also to limit the risks, knowledge of the instructions would be "limited to a restricted group of people" (the details of which remain classified). These restrictive procedures were effective; the existence of predelegation instructions came to light during the early 1980s6, but it took nearly two decades for the Defense Department to agree to release details on one of the deepest and riskiest Cold War military secrets.
Document 4: National Security Archive, Letter to Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, "Eisenhower LIbrary Mandatory Review Case NLE 89-321," 13 December 1999, 2 pp.
Document 5: Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, Letter to National Security Archive, includes attachment, "ISCAP Decisions on the Twelth [sic] Appeal Filed by the National Security Archive," 4 April 2001, 2 pp.
1. Peter J. Roman, "Ike's Hair Trigger: U.S. Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60," Security Studies 7 (Summer 1998): 121-65, written just before the 1998 ISCAP releases, remains the basic study of Eisenhower's decisions.
3. See <http://www.nsarchive.org/news/19980319.htm>. For press coverage of 1998 releases see Walter Pincus, "Military Got Authority to Use Nuclear Arms in 1957," Washington Post, 21 March 1998, p. A1, and "Eisenhower Issued Limited Nuclear Authority Absent Presidential Order, Ibid., 2 September 1998.
6. See David A. Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," in Steven E. Miller, ed., Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence (Princeton University Press, 1984), at 153 and 159--first published in International Security in Spring 1983--for perhaps the earliest published reference to predelegation instructions.