Newly Declassified Documents Published by the National Security Archive this Month

WASHINGTON, D.C. - 20 March 1998 -- Recently declassified U.S. government documents, now published by the National Security Archive disclose one of the Cold War's deepest secrets, that during the most dangerous phases of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation during the early 1960s top military commanders had presidentially-authorized instructions providing advance authority to use nuclear weapons under specified emergency conditions. The documents show that President Eisenhower approved "predelegation" instructions in late 1959 so that top commanders would have the authority to make a rapid nuclear response if a Soviet attack on Washington killed national command authorities, such as the President. The instructions remained in place in "basically the same" form through the 1960s, although information on the later period and the current situation is still classified.

Historians and political scientists have known for some years that Eisenhower made decisions to predelegate nuclear weapons authority and that after he left office predelegation arrangements of some sort continued. Until now, however, virtually no documentation about them or how his successors treated the instructions has been available. A public interest documentation center that is a project of The Fund for Peace, the National Security Archive filed declassification requests with the National Archives and the Eisenhower and the Johnson presidential libraries and obtained these documents, many heavily sanitized, on Eisenhower's predelegation decisions, including May 1957 guidelines, and what we can assume to be drafts of the JCS instructions to commanders in late 1959. Other documents disclose the status of Eisenhower's instructions during the 1960s.

Early drafts of guidelines on predelegation approved by Eisenhower in May 1957 suggest that policymakers considered authorizing nuclear weapons use in at least two situations: 1) when attacks by sea or by air on U.S. territory and possessions provided no time for consultation with the President on defensive measures, or 2) when "enemy attacks" prevented a Presidential decision and it was necessary to protect U.S. forces abroad, including those in international waters, or to launch SAC to retaliate to nuclear attack on the continental United States. Whatever the circumstances, Eisenhower would later insist that it be “very clear that an authorizing commander knew in fact that the nuclear attack had occurred on the continental United States.” The late 1959 JCS instructions to CINCSAC (less heavily excised than those to CINCEUR or CINCLANT) begin with a general statement of purpose: to authorize commanders "to expend nuclear weapons in defense of the United States, its Territories, possessions and forces when the urgency of time and circumstances does not permit a specific decision by the President or other person empowered to act in his stead." CINCSAC could approve nuclear release only in "circumstances of grave necessity."

According to the documents, many of which remain under appeal at federal agencies, the chronology of presidential decisions was as follows:

  • In March 1956, Eisenhower requested the State and Defense Departments to prepare a policy statement on advance authorization of nuclear weapons use that would serve as the basis for specific instructions to senior commanders.
  • In late 1956, Eisenhower approved instructions enabling air defense forces to use nuclear weapons to repel a bomber attack on U.S. territory.
  • In May 1957, Eisenhower approved a more comprehensive set of highly-secret guidelines as the basis for further planning by the State Department and the Pentagon.
  • In December 1958, the agencies presented Eisenhower with a comprehensive set of instructions. The next step was to prepare specific instructions to designated commanders.
  • In late 1959, Eisenhower approved predelegation instructions from the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS] to the Commanders-in-Chief of the Atlantic Command [CINCLANT], European Command [CINCEUR], and the Strategic Air Command [CINCSAC], commanders with major responsibility for nuclear weapons.
  • John F. Kennedy let Eisenhower's instructions stand, despite admonitions in January 1961 by White House aide McGeorge Bundy about the danger of "decisions-in-advance" that might allow a "subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action [to] start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you."
  • March 1964, President Johnson approved "updated Instructions for Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Emergency Conditions" that were "basically the same" as Eisenhower's.

That Kennedy’s decision to let Eisenhower's predelegation instructions stand meant that they remained in effect during one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous periods of the Cold War, the 1961-1962 Berlin Crisis and the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It may have been the experience of the Cuban crisis, when tensions were at a fever pitch and the Air Force blundered by test-firing an ICBM, that encouraged Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to conclude that predelegation was "not in the US interest." The documents show that in January 1963, McNamara told other U.S. officials that he worried that a designated commander might confuse an accidental nuclear launch or explosion with an all-out attack. This problem convinced him only the President should "decide to launch in response to an apparent nuclear attack." Even with his concerns about the risk, however, in March 1964, McNamara recommended that the President approve updated instructions on emergency release of nuclear weapons.

Information on any predelegation arrangements that Lyndon Johnson or his successors approved after March 1964 remains classified, although studies by Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Blair indicate that predelegation continued at least through the late 1980s. Whether predelegation in some form remains in place is an open question; the reluctance of federal agencies to declassify additional materials on Eisenhower's decisions suggests that it remains a sensitive issue. As Bruce Blair has shown, the high alert/quick response nuclear posture that developed in tandem with predelegation during the 1950s and 1960s continues in spite of the Cold War's end. Recent press reports indicate that another Cold War vestige, an "overkill" nuclear use posture, also exists. The possibility that predelegation instructions also endure raises additional questions whether U.S. leaders have adequately adjusted command and control arrangements to a post-Cold War environment where dangers of nuclear suprise attack are remote.

These documents are available below. Along with 1,400 others, they have also been published in a comprehensively indexed microfiche set, totaling more than 20,000 pages, entitled, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-1968 (Alexandria, Va., Chadwyck-Healey Inc.), edited by senior analyst William Burr. The Archive prepared this collection with the financial support of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, Charlottesville, VA.

Bibliographic note:

For significant studies with discussion of predelegation and related issues, see Bruce G. Blair The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington D.C., The Brookings Institution, 1993); Peter Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1992); David A. Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," in Steven E. Miller, ed., Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984); and Scott Sagan, Moving Targets, Nuclear Strategy and National Security (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989)

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