Nuclear History at the
National Security Archive
U.S. Nuclear History Documentation ProjectUSNHDP DocumentsMIRV Documents
Predelegation of Nuclear Authority
Electronic Briefing Books:The United States, China, and the Bomb
The U.S Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS)
Since its inception, the National Security Archive has sponsored significant research and publication projects on nuclear weapons issues and their history. The Archive's systematic declassification requests have resulted in a number of major publications, including:
The Cuban Missile Crisis - One of the Archive's earliest efforts was to document the missile crisis, perhaps the most acute crisis of the nuclear era. The Archive's Freedom of Information Act and litigation efforts produced what still may be the largest available primary source collection on the crisis. A multimedia chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis, including photographs, document images, and transcripts from the Executive Committee meetings, is available here on the Archive's website.
The Berlin Crisis - Although never as desperate as the Cuban crisis, when anyone considered, during 1958-1962, what issue of East-West contention could lead to nuclear war, the Berlin problem was always high on the list. With the support of the Nuclear History Program, the Archive's research program led to a successful Freedom of Information Act effort and the publication of an important collection of documents on U.S. military and diplomatic policy during the crisis.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation - Since the days of the U.S. nuclear monopoly, American policymakers grappled with the problem of establishing barriers to entry for membership in the "nuclear club". Supported by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Archive carried out a major effort to document the historical record of U.S. policy on nuclear proliferation. This effort resulted in a major publication as well as a substantial collection of declassified material. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Database contains the bibliographic records and indexes from this collection.
The Soviet Estimate: U.S. Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991 - This published set includes all National Intelligence Estimates [NIEs] and Special National Intelligence Estimates [NIEs] analyzing Soviet domestic affairs, foreign policy, and military developments that the CIA released to the National Archives during 1993-1995. Central to this collection are the series of NIEs that analyzed the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear capabilities. Another highlight of this collection is a formerly top secret History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972, produced in 1980-1981 for the Office of the Secretary of Defense by Ernest May, John Steinbruner, and Thomas Wolfe, using then-classified intelligence estimates and other U.S. government documents.
U.S. Nuclear Weapon Policies, 1955-to date [work in progress] - Also funded by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, this systematic declassification project will produce a series of document publications. The first set, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955-1968 was published in 1998.
Also available for nuclear history research are significant unpublished collections, including:
Nuclear History Program Collections - During its existence, the National Security Archive worked closely with the Nuclear History Program [NHP], a transnational organization that sponsored groundbreaking research on the history of nuclear weapons programs and policies in the United States and Europe during the Cold War. Besides funding the Archive's work on the Berlin crisis, the Nuclear History Program donated two important collections of materials to the Archive:
NHP Collection - An important collection of material on nuclear arms control during the Eisenhower administration collected by Charles Appleby for his dissertation research. This collection also includes document briefing books for NHP oral history interviews on NATO nuclear strategy.
Nuclear History Program Database - Database on nuclear delivery systems deployments and developments prepared for the Nuclear History Program by Phil Karber and Michael Yaffe.
Nuclear History Collection (Fred Kaplan Donation) - This is the material that Kaplan collected when he was researching his book, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York, 1983; reprinted, Stanford, 1991)
Nuclear Safety Collection (Scott Sagan Donation) - Documents collected by Stanford University political scientist Scott Sagan for his book The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, 1993).
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Unpublished Collection - This collection contains documents that were either not used in the Making of U.S. Policy set or that were elicited through the Freedom of Information process after the set's publication.
U.S. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments Database - This database includes document catalogs, bibliographies and other materials that the Advisory Committee collected when it was preparing its reports to the public. All documents that the Committee collected are available at the National Archives as is an ascii version of the database. The Archive's version of the database retains the original Lotus Notes format developed by the Advisory Committee staff. The database is available for use at the Archive's reading room, by appointment.
The Archive has also obtained, and makes available at this WWW site, the original ACHRE gopher materials containing Committee data, sources, meetings, and the interim report.
U.S. Nuclear History Documentation Project
This project has been generously supported with grants from the
W. Alton Jones Foundation, Charlottesville, VA.
One work-in-progress at the National Security Archive is a project on U.S. nuclear weapons policies, 1955-to the present. To provide a basis for understanding the special characteristics of the U.S.'s nuclear weapons posture, the National Security Archive has undertaken a major program to induce the declassification of key documents on strategic nuclear policy and programs during the period after 1955, when President Dwight Eisenhower made the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program a national priority. Through Freedom of Information Act and mandatory review requests to executive agencies and research at the National Archives and presidential libraries, the Archive is developing a rich collection of material on strategic weapon development and deployments, nuclear planning, strategic intelligence, and arms control.
The Archive will publish this collection in two installments: the first covers the 1955-1968 period, when U.S. strategic forces reached levels and acquired features that endured until the end of the Cold War. This was the period when the Pentagon added the B-52 bomber and the Polaris and Minuteman missiles to the U.S. weapons inventory. Concurrently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force devised the Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP], which, in one version or the other, was the U.S. nuclear war plan for most of the Cold War. This set includes material on the following issues:
- Development of strategic nuclear delivery systems: long-range bombers, ICBMs and SLBMs, and presidential decisions on nuclear force levels
- Interest in greater warhead accuracy and the development of multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) technology during the late 1950s and the 1960s
- Strategic Air Command's alert programs during the 1950s and 1960s
- Decisions on anti-ballistic missile programs, including Johnson's decisions to fund an "anti-Chinese" program in 1967
- Presidential decisions on nuclear weapons production and stockpiles
- Nuclear weapons deployments and command and control
- Nuclear weapons safety and accidents
- Nuclear sharing and the emergence of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group
- Nuclear testing and the development of new weapons
- U.S. nuclear war planning, including target intelligence, the origins of the Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP], 1959-60, and Kennedy administration efforts to make the SIOP more flexible during 1961-62
- Intelligence reporting on Soviet strategic force deployment and nuclear weapons policies
- Arms control discussions and initiatives during 1964 (nuclear freeze), and 1967-68 (origins of SALT process)
- Significant nuclear proliferation policy developments (e.g., preparation of Gilpatric report and reviews of the "Nth" country problem)
The second part of the set covers the 1969-1982 period. With the U.S. recognition of Soviet strategic parity, arms control initially took the center stage; however, the period ended with revived confrontation and efforts to bolster U.S. nuclear forces. Although strategic force levels remained stable, new systems such as Trident and MX were introduced and policymakers renewed efforts to develop limited nuclear options and to refine nuclear targeting.
To the extent made possible by the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, this set will document:
- Debate and policy decisions over the MX and strategic modernization during the late 70s and early 1980s
- Development of the Trident SLBM
- Continuing Air Force and Pentagon interest in enhancing ICBM and SLBM accuracy and Congressional and other political efforts to check the accuracy movement (because of apprehension over first strike potential)
- MIRV testing/deployment and Minuteman III
- SAC's development of SEAGA [Selective Exercise of Ground and Air Alert] in place of airborne alert
- Intensified efforts during the 1970s, culminating in Presidential Directive 59 in 1980, to make the SIOP more flexible and to give the president limited nuclear alternatives to the massive nuclear strikes embodied in the SIOP
- Changes in SIOP targeting policy during the 1970s
- NATO Nuclear Planning
- U.S.-Soviet strategic arms talks
- Intelligence reporting on Soviet strategic force deployment and nuclear weapons policies
Sample DocumentsThis WWW site includes sample documents that illustrate some of the project's major themes:
Issue: Strategic nuclear delivery systemsDocument One: "NAVWAG Study No. 1, Introduction of Fleet Ballistic Missile into Service," 30 January 1957, Original classification: secret [excerpt]
This report, prepared by John Coyle of the Naval Warfare Analysis Group, was one of the first systematic efforts to analyze the mission of the fleet ballistic missile [FBM] that had become a Navy project during 1955-56. NAVWAG Study No. 1 concluded that a submarine would provide the best launching mode for the missile and that the weapon would mainly have a deterrence purpose: to threaten the Soviet Union's urban-industrial sector. Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke endorsed the recommendations in a memo dated 15 January 1957.
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Issue: Strategic Nuclear TargetingDocument Two: Memorandum for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles from Policy Planning Director Gerard C. Smith, "Oral Presentation of the Annual Report of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee," 25 November 1958. Original classification: top secret. [original in Policy Planning Staff collections, Department of State Records, National Archives]
Smith summarizes his thoughts on the annual presentation of the National Security Council's Net Evaluation Subcommittee [NESC]. Every year, from the mid-1950s until 1964, the NESC presented the President and the National Security Council with a highly classified report assessing the net outcome of a U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear war. Although a full NESC briefing is yet to be declassified, this document raises some important questions about U.S. nuclear planning during the 1950s; it also provides an example of the ways that ethical concerns could enter into the top secret discussions of over nuclear strategy.
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Issue: Nuclear Weapons DeploymentsDocument Three: "Report on Visit to Jupiter Sites in Italy", 18 September 1961, by Allen James, Bureau of European Affairs, U.S. Department of State. Original classification: secret. [original in State Department Lot 65D478, National Archives]
During the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the U.S. worked closely with NATO allies in deploying nuclear-armed Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles [IRBMs] into the Western European area: Thor Missiles in the United Kingdom and Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy respectively. This report gives a detailed description of the Jupiter deployments in Italy, including command and control arrangements and security problems relating to the installations. The Jupiter's nosecone would carry a 1.45 megaton warhead; launching would involve a system in which both Italian and U.S. Air Force officers would turn keys. Both keeping the Jupiter armed and using a two-key system were violations of the Atomic Energy Act. The paragraph on 144-b refers to Atomic Energy Act requirements for sharing restricted data on nuclear weapons with foreign governments. The last paragraph suggests why, despite growing objections to the Jupiter deployments, the Kennedy administration found it politically difficult to remove Jupiter missiles from Italy before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
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Issue: Nuclear Weapons SafetyDocument Four: Cable from Lt. General James Walsh, 7th Air Force, South Ruislip, England, to Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command [CINCSAC] Curtis LeMay, 21 July 1956. Original classification: top secret. [original in Curtis LeMay Papers, Library of Congress]"
This message records one of the occasional near-misses that have marked the history of the nuclear weapons programs. "Mark-6" is a reference to a kiloton weapon stored in the igloo. Depending on the type, its yield would have ranged between ten kilotons and 150 kilotons. The reference to a "miracle that one mark six with exposed detonators sheared didn't go" is ambiguous; presumably the weapon was unarmed so it may refer to the possibility that the high explosive detonators would have exploded and strewn nuclear material about.
Issue: Command and Control and WarningDocument Five: "The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control, and Warning, 1945-1972", by L. Wainstein et al., Institute for Defense Analyses Study S-467, June 1975. Original classification: top secret. [excerpt]
This is chapter 27 of a study that IDA analysts prepared as background material for Ernest May, John Steinbruner, and Thomas Wolfe when they prepared thel top secret study The History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972 for the Defense Department in 1981. This chapter provides a synopsis of Enclosure C of Weapons System Evaluation Group [WSEG] Report No. 50, "Evaluation of Strategic Offensive Weapons Systems." The enclosure presented an extremely grim picture of the vulnerabilities of U.S. command and control systems in the event of a nuclear attack. According to the IDA analysts, the report concluded that despite the highly sophisticated nature of some of the system's elements, U.S. command and control was "fragmented, inelastic, fragile, and highly vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack."
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Issue: Agreements with Foreign Governments on Use of Nuclear WeaponsDocument Six: L. D. Battle, Executive Secretary, U.S. Department of State to McGeorge Bundy, The White House, "Check List of Presidential Actions," 28 July 1961. Original classification: top secret. [original in State Department decimal files, National Archives]
Prepared during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, this document summarizes the formal and informal agreements that Washington had made with foreign governments concerning the use of nuclear weapons. Although the British and the Canadians worked hard to limit presidential freedom of action with respect to overflights and the use of weapons deployed in their territory, most of the arrangements gave U.S. presidents considerable freedom of action.
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Issue: Strategic IntelligenceDocument Seven: Office of the Director of Intelligence, U.S. European Command, "USEUCOM Joint Intelligence Appraisal," circa 1 March 1967. Original classification: secret [extract]
This is an example of the routine intelligence reporting that the European Command published during the 1960s. Although the CIA's National Intelligence Estimates are better known, the USEUCOM Joint Intelligence Appraisal published recently acquired information on Eastern European and Soviet military developments that could be released at the secret level. This excerpt contains a review of Soviet ICBM developments during 1966, including the ongoing testing of the SS-9 and SS-11 ICBMs as well as two other systems.
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Issue: Nuclear Weapons ProliferationDocument Eight: Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, University of California, Livermore, "Summary Report of the NTH Country Experiment," W. J. Frank, ed., March 1967. Original classification: secret. [extract of heavily excised document]
This report describes an experiment that took place at a time when policymakers wanted to know how difficult it would be for a non-nuclear power to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory paid two newly-minted physicists, with no access to or knowledge of classified information, to "produce a credible nuclear weapons design." After three "man-years", the two physicists had a design for an implosion nuclear weapon. The report's conclusions remain classified, but apparently the experiment was a success: it showed that any capable physicist could design a nuclear weapon.
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