The National Security Archive
The George Washington University
Gelman Library, Suite 701
2130 H Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Phone: 202/994-7000
Fax: 202/994-7005

May 18, 2001
For more information contact:
William Burr: 202 / 994-7032

WASHINGTON, DC - President Dwight D. Eisenhower's top secret instructions that delegated nuclear-launch authority to military commanders and the Secretary of Defense under specific emergency conditions, declassified for the first time last month, today appeared on the World Wide Web site of the National Security Archive, which obtained released of this highly sensitive document after repeated efforts starting in 1993. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) declassified this document and several related ones on 4 April 2001 in response to an appeal by National Security Archive senior analyst William Burr, director of the Archive's nuclear documentation project and editor of The Kissinger Transcripts (New Press, 1999).

President Eisenhower began making decisions for advance authorization of nuclear weapons use ("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 specified commanders to react quickly to other kinds of attacks.  By early 1959, two years after he had issued an authorization requesting instructions, Eisenhower approved, subject to later revision, "Instructions for the Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Accordance with the President Authorization Dated May 22, 1957." This and other documents show that:

  • Authorized commanders--including U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Europe; Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic; and Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command--could "expend" nuclear weapons "when the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the president"

  • Top commanders could not use nuclear weapons in response to "minor" incidents but only when Soviet or Chinese forces launched air or surface attacks against "major" U.S. forces in international waters or foreign territories "with the evident intention of rendering them militarily ineffective"

  • In the event of a nuclear attack on the United States, the instructions authorized the Secretary of Defense or top commanders to order retaliatory action if they were unable to communicate with the president or his successors

  • Eisenhower had confidence that his commanders would not break discipline but he closely monitored the drafting of the instructions so they would not be misinterpreted as "giving license" for nuclear weapons use.
  • National Security Archive staff first requested the "Instructions" in 1993 under the mandatory review provisions of Executive Order 12356, although other requesters had begun pursuing them in 1989.  Declassification took over ten years because the "Instructions" were among the deepest U.S. military policy secrets of the Cold War.  According to David A. Rosenberg, a professor of strategy at the National War College and author of pioneering historical studies of Cold War nuclear strategy, ISCAP "should be applauded for releasing these documents because it has pushed back the boundaries of declassification to some of the most sensitive and unknown areas of U.S. government operations during the Cold War."  Not only do these releases "confirm the basic facts about predelegation, they also help flesh out the degree of control that Eisenhower thought that he had over the government and how he tried to meet the challenges of the perilous times that he felt the country faced."
    Go to the Documents

    An independent non-governmental research institute and library located at the George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Publication royalties and tax-deductible contributions through The National Security Archive Fund, Inc. underwrite the Archive's budget.