Newly Declassified Documents on Advance Presidential Authorization of Nuclear Weapons Use

Newly declassified documents from the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations reveal some of the most sensitive details of previously secret presidential instructions predelegating use of nuclear weapons in emergency conditions. While the new documents confirm that U.S. presidents were willing to authorize the almost automatic use of nuclear weapons for defensive purposes, e.g., against incoming bombers, they also clearly show that presidents sought to prevent impulsive use of these deadly weapons in other circumstances. During this critical phase of the Cold War, presidents authorized predelegation instructions in part to reduce the danger of a catastrophic strategic nuclear exchange.

The government's Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel [ISCAP] released these documents on predelegation in response to appeals filed by the National Security Archive. The Defense Department had already released excised versions of these documents, some of which the National Security Archive published on its World Wide Web page in April 1998. In its most recent series of declassification actions ISCAP overruled Defense and other agencies on 81 of 96 documents--84.5 percent of the total--including the following three documents on predelegation. In only 15.5 percent of the cases did ISCAP reaffirm agency classification decisions. The high proportion of "overrules" is a stark indicator of the great extent to which federal agencies routinely overclassify information, even when the information has long been overtaken by events. Recent declassification releases by ISCAP have one particularly troubling aspect; ISCAP lacks jurisdiction over some nuclear weapons data and cannot prevent the Department of Energy from classifying information that has long been in the public record (see discussion of document 2, below).

The documents released by ISCAP disclose the essential features of predelegation instructions during the early 1960s. As the new material shows, the instructions were not a blanket authorization for nuclear weapons use. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson sought to avoid giving excessive leeway to military commanders to prevent their precipitously initiating a devastating U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. In a 23 September 1964 memorandum to President Johnson, McGeorge Bundy pointed out that under current guidelines senior military commanders could use nuclear weapons unilaterally, without consulting the President, but only to attack threatening military targets in the upper atmosphere or the high seas (e.g., incoming bombers or submarines that were about to launch missiles at U.S. territory). Although nuclear weapons could cause "enormous civilian and industrial damage," Eisenhower assumed that providing advance authority to use them against specific military targets at some distance from civilian populations was "a very much less serious matter."

For other military contingencies, where there was greater danger of a nuclear holocaust, presidents sought greater control. According to instructions approved by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, if Soviet strategic forces attacked the continental United States or U.S. forces abroad, a senior commander had to "make every effort" that was "consistent with the preservation of his command" to consult the President (or his successor) before using nuclear weapons. As is generally known, if Soviet strategic forces had attacked the United States and the president could not be reached, the Commander, Strategic Air Command [CINCSAC] had instructions to order an attack on Soviet territory. If, however, Soviet forces attacked U.S. forces stationed overseas and U.S. commanders could not reach the president or needed to take emergency action to avert a catastrophic defeat, they could order nuclear weapons use against those "hostile forces." They could not, however, automatically attack the territory of the Soviet Union, unless the United States was also under assault. To that extent, Eisenhower and his successors sought to prevent an incident involving U.S. forces in Western Europe or elsewhere, from automatically triggering a major nuclear war. Since presidents saw a contingency involving U.S. forces overseas, e.g. crisis over Berlin, as one of the most plausible causes of U.S.-Soviet conflict during this period, they wanted predelegation instructions to help them avoid doomsday.

The detailed predelegation instructions that Eisenhower and his successors approved are still classified. While U.S. leaders wanted to reserve nuclear weapons use for only the most extreme circumstances, it remains to be seen whether the instructions had any holes in them that might have given senior commanders more leeway than Eisenhower intended. Those instructions should now be ripe for declassification given ISCAP's decision to release their general substance. Also unclear is the exact relationship between the predelegation instructions and the Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP], the U.S. nuclear war plan first codified in 1960. If Eisenhower wanted predelegation instructions to help them avoid doomsday, the first SIOPs were inconsistent with that purpose because they posited massive use of nuclear weapons in an initial attack. The most significant imponderable, however, is whether the Soviets would have cooperated in limiting a nuclear conflict on European territory. Certainly, public statements by Soviet leaders suggested that they rejected any notions of "limited nuclear war." Archives in the Former Soviet Union may some day disclose whether such statements were designed to influence international opinion or whether they reflected the Soviet leadership's more considered judgement.

William Burr
30 August 1998

Click on the document icon to view each document.

[Doc. 1]Document 1: "Authorization for the Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons," 16 May 1957, attached to memo from James Lay, "Policy on Use of Atomic Weapons," 22 May 1957
Earlier release of this document.

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, box 9, Meetings, Records Memoranda on Use of Nuclear Weapons

This is the complete text of Eisenhower's guidelines for advance authorization; in March 1998 the Archive published on its Web page a heavily excised version of this document. These guidelines provided the basis for the subsequent State- Defense planning that led to the more detailed instructions for commanders that Eisenhower approved in late 1959.

[Doc. 2] Document 2: "Memorandum of Conference with the President, 19 December 1958 - 2:30 PM," 31 December 1958", prepared by John S. D. Eisenhower.
Earlier release of this document.

Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Ann Whitman Files, Dwight D. Eisenhower Diaries, box 35, Staff Notes, December 1958

A more heavily excised version of this document was published here in March 1998. It records the discussion on predelegation midway between Eisenhower's signing of the authorization in May 1957 and his approval of instructions to commanders in late 1959. The newly released material highlights some of Eisenhower's concerns about predelegation, especially that it not be sub-delegated to lower-level commanders, e.g., the commander of the Seventh Army in Europe, without specific presidential approval.

The document opens up with a discussion of plans for the dispersal of nuclear weapons to make them more accessible to commanders in the field. The Department of Energy excised some of this conversation on the grounds that it constitutes "Formerly Restricted Data" under the Atomic Energy Act and must remain classified. ISCAP only has jurisdiction over "national security information" and cannot overrule DOE on information specifically protected by statute. The excision on page 2 concerns a specific country that was the site of U.S. bomber aircraft and U.S. nuclear weapons storage facilities. Most likely, the reference is either to Morocco, the United Kingdom, or Spain. As it has long been in the public record that U.S. nuclear weapons were present in all three countries at various stages of the Cold War, it is difficult to understand why the Energy Department believes that disclosing this information would violate statutory obligations. There are other recent cases, some truly absurd, where DOE has withheld information that is common knowledge (e.g., that the U.S. once had nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey). This pattern of classifying non-current information about the former locations of U.S. nuclear weapons raises questions about the Department's commitment to openness and the soundness of its information classification practices.

[Doc. 3]Document 3: McGeorge Bundy for the President, "Summary of the Existing Plans for Emergency Use of Nuclear Weapons," 23 September 1964

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, box 9, Meetings, Records Memoranda on Use of Nuclear Weapons

President Johnson's National Security Assistant McGeorge Bundy prepared this document during the heat of the 1964 presidential campaign. In the wake of statements by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about nuclear weapons predelegation, President Johnson had denied that there was any such authority. On 22 September 1964, Bundy advised Johnson to make a statement on predelegation in case Eisenhower levied "charges of deception"; the President, however, did not correct the record. In this document, prepared the next day, Bundy summarized the essential features of the instructions for commanders that Johnson had approved the previous March. The March 1964 instructions were essentially the same as those that Eisenhower had approved in late 1959 and that President Kennedy had tacitly reaffirmed during his administration.

Return to Nuclear History

Return to the National Security Archive homepage