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"Eisenhower Advisers Discussed Using Nuclear Weapons in China"
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post
April 30, 2008


Related posting

April 9, 2008
Fighting the War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973
Air Force Histories Reveal CIA Role in Laos, CIA Air Strike Missions













Air Force Histories Released through Archive Lawsuit Show Cautious Presidents Overruling Air Force Plans for Early Use of Nuclear Weapons

B-57 D aircraft used for atomic cloud sampling operations during Operation Hardtack nuclear test series (April-August 1958) Source: U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Division, Record Group 374, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 374-ANT, box 5, Project 23 Operation Hardtack WDC-1C-20.

Washington, D.C., April 30, 2008 - The U.S. Air Force expected to use nuclear weapons against China during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958, but President Eisenhower required the Air Force to plan initially to use conventional bombs against Chinese forces if the crisis escalated, according to a previously secret Air Force history obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit and posted today by the National Security Archive. Eisenhower's instructions astounded the Air Force leadership, but according to Bernard Nalty, the author of one of the studies released today, U.S. policymakers recognized that atomic strikes had "inherent disadvantages" because of the fall-out danger in the region as well as the risk of escalation.

The ten formerly Secret and Top Secret histories obtained from the FOIA lawsuit shed new light on the Air Force's role in developing and deploying the massively destructive nuclear arsenal that thermonuclear weapons made possible. They cover key phases of the U.S. nuclear weapons program: nuclear tests, producing and deploying nuclear delivery systems, developing strategic concepts for nuclear weapons use, participating in command and control systems, executing nuclear threats during crises, and civilian control over the use of nuclear weapons, including repeated presidential caution.

These histories trace:

  • The story of the deployment of the Minuteman ICBM which, over forty years later, remains an integral part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (See Document 1 and Documents 3-6)
  • Debates between Air Force leaders and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara over how many Minuteman ICBMs were necessary for a deterrent force that could threaten the destruction of Soviet society. (See Document 3)
  • The development and deployment of the multiple-independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and their initial counterforce mission, that have been deployed on Minuteman III, whose MK 12 nose-cone assemblies were inadvertently sent to Taiwan in 2006.  (See Documents 4-6).
  • The high-level Air Force interest, beginning in the 1950s, in ideas of preemptive nuclear options in the event of war with the Soviet Union. (See Document 9)
  • Air Force successful opposition to the Navy and Army's "finite deterrence" proposals which, in reaction to the Air Force's nuclear "overkill", proposed to reduce nuclear forces to the minimum needed to deter a Soviet attack. (See Document 9)
  • The story of Air Force "atomic cloud sampling" missions to collect radioactive debris from atmospheric nuclear tests to help measure the effectiveness of nuclear weapons. (See Document 7)
  • The role of the January 1963 highjacking of a Venezuelan ship Anzoategui in encouraging President Kennedy to seek a more effective Pentagon command center that could quickly update the White House on important developments. (See Document 8)
  • Air Force operations during five crises: Lebanon (1958), Taiwan Strait (1958), Congo (1960), Cuba (1962), and Dominican Republic (1965). (See Document 10)

The National Security Archive requested these histories during the 1990s, and the Air Force's failure to respond reasonably to the Freedom of Information Act request led to a FOIA lawsuit. Successful legal action by the James & Hoffman law firm on the Archive's behalf led to a ruling in 2004 by federal judge Rosemary Collyer that the U.S. Air Force had "failed miserably to handle [National Security] Archive FOIA requests in a timely manner." Ever since that ruling, the agency has been trying to catch up with and process the backlog of neglected requests that the Archive had filed during the 1980s and 1990s. The Air Force FOIA system is still largely broken, but at least it is now tracking new requests and processing old ones more effectively than it has in the past. Nevertheless, work on a number of old cases has not been completed, so the Air Force's record of compliance with the FOIA remains shaky.

One of the problems that led to the lawsuit was the utter refusal of the former leadership of the Air Force History Office to process FOIA requests for its classified histories. During the 1990s, the Office completely ignored declassification requests, never even bothering to acknowledge them. Indeed, the Office's managers were unfriendly to the very idea of declassifying these histories and some were antagonistic to the National Security Archive. No doubt owing to the lawsuit but also normal retirement, the leadership and policies at the History Office shifted. The situation improved significantly when individuals like the late William T. Y'Blood assumed greater responsibility at the Historical Office, which began to handle declassification requests responsibly and cooperatively. This remains true even for requests not covered by the lawsuit.

These histories, many of which had been classified for decades, exemplify the variety of nuclear-related studies produced by the Air Force history program during the 1960s and early 1970s. They include detailed accounts of the first three generations of the Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) programs: from the liquid-fueled Atlas, Thor, and Jupiter, to the solid-fueled quick-reacting Minuteman I and II, and then Minuteman III, which was equipped with multiple independently retargetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The Minuteman, built with mass-production techniques, would become the workhorse for the U.S. nuclear posture for decades to come. 500 Minuteman IIIs, although without MIRVS, remain on alert in silos across the Northern Plains. None of these missile histories were declassified in their entirety; the Air Force has excised, as Formerly Restricted Data (FRD), details concerning the specific characteristics of the nuclear weapons designed for the reentry vehicles as well their accuracy.

Other studies further demonstrate the range of the Air Force program in the nuclear era. One of them is a narrative of a little known activity--the sampling of materials from radioactive clouds--that took place during the atmospheric nuclear tests series that ended in the early 1960s. Because this program's basic purpose was to measure the effectiveness of weapons tested, and often involved piloted aircraft it was highly dangerous; whether pilots and crew were adequately protected is an open question. Air sampling had an intelligence dimension that this study also explores. Also declassified was a study on the Air Force and deterrence during the 1950s, which showed how the Air Force defined basic nuclear strategy, but also how the other services and changing circumstances induced the Air Force leadership to begin preparing for limited, non-nuclear Cold War conflicts. In the same vein, another history on the Air Force role in foreign policy crises during the 1950s and 1960s suggests that the trend in presidential thinking away from using nuclear weapons in non-U.S.-Soviet conflicts also required the Air Force to moderate its exclusive reliance on nuclear preparations. Finally, another released history covers the Air Force's interaction with other military and civilian organizations to meet the demands of the Kennedy White House for more centralized command and control over military forces in order to improve presidential management during crises.

These official histories share the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. The strengths can include a richly detailed narrative and footnoting that serve as guides to classified sources that can be requested for declassification review. The weaknesses can include a bland style, and little or no analysis. Nevertheless, in some of these accounts the authors try to generalize from their evidence, for example, the discussion of "trends" in "The Air Force Role in Five Crises." While their underlying premises reflect Cold War ideology, these histories rise above a narrow institutional point of view because they recount the interaction of diverse Air Force organizations with each other, as well as with other military and civilian organizations. For the most part, no organization receives special privilege, although the study on "the Air Force and Strategic Deterrence" gives the Air Force high command the last word in the debate with the other services.


Part I. ICBM Histories

Document 1: "USAF Ballistic Missiles, 1958-1959," by Max Rosenberg, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, July 1960, Secret, Excised copy

One of the first in a series of Air Force histories of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, this one reviews the early phases of the Atlas, Minuteman, and Titan missiles, as well as Thor and Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and the Skybolt air-launched missile. (Note 1)  Rosenberg had access to Joint Chiefs of Staff files so the Air Force's interactions with the Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense are integral to his account. A good part of the narrative tells the story of the first generation liquid-fueled ICBMs and IRBMs, but this was the period when research and development work on the solid-fueled Minuteman ICBM became important to the Air Force agenda; with its expected low cost and ease of use, it promised to become an important part of the strategic arsenal. The author discusses the role of inter-service rivalry at every stage of the early history of Minuteman: for example, the Air Force saw the new ICBM as helping to maintain its competitive position with the Navy, which was developing its own solid-fuel vehicle, Polaris. Moreover, opposition from the Army and Navy influenced Air Force efforts to get priority assigned to work on the Minuteman.

The Air Force has exempted portions of this history, such as details on the agreement with the British on Thor missile command and control arrangements, and, apparently, concepts for the overseas basing of Jupiter medium-range ballistic missile (See pages 17-18 and 43-44). As the Pentagon took both of these systems from the U.S. arsenal decades ago, these excisions exemplify the retrograde nature of the classification rules for historical overseas deployments of U.S. nuclear weapons systems. Confirming this point is that the British declassified the arrangements years ago. (Note 2)

Document 2: "The Development of the SM-68 Titan," by Warren E. Greene, Volume I and Volumes II-III (List of Supporting Documents), Historical Office, Deputy Commander for Aerospace Systems, Air Force Systems Command, August 1962, Secret, Excised copy

This study reviews the development, production, and initial deployment (1962) of the largest ICBMs fielded by the United States: Titan I (98 feet long, 110 tons fueled) and Titan II (108 feet, 165 tons fueled). (Note 3) Greene's detailed history of the weapon system takes into account the broader institutional context, not only the Air Force and Defense Department bureaucracy but also the relationship with contracting organizations, such as Bell Labs, and the role of universities and organizations, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the RAND Corporation, in producing ideas about the possibility of nuclear weapons that were light enough to be launched on a guided missile.

Volumes II and III list the sources used, but apparently the documents themselves were not available for processing.

Document 3: "USAF Ballistic Missile Programs, 1962-1964," by Bernard C. Nalty, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, April 1966, Top Secret, Excised copy

This history covers the complex problems raised by the introduction of ICBMs into the U.S. arsenal, problems made more intricate by the transition from deployments of liquid-fueled ICBMs, such as Atlas, to the solid-fueled Minuteman.  A key problem that the Air Force had to confront was the problem of missile reliability; the Atlas ICBM alone had about 40,000 "identifiable parts" and the possibility of malfunction made it necessary to develop testing programs to try to ensure that these intricate machines would launch and arrive at their targets. An interesting discussion of costs shows how hurried deployment schedules inflated the cost of the ICBMs, as did changes requested by the Office of Secretary of Defense. For example, to support its "flexible" or "selective" response approach, the McNamara Pentagon wanted the capability to launch Minuteman selectively, instead of in large salvos, capabilities for target selection (eight different targets per missile),  but also tighter command and control to prevent unauthorized or accidental launch and an airborne launch control center to permit emergency launch. These changes, and others, tended to make the Minuteman more expensive. Another problem that the Air Force faced was one of defense: worried that the Soviets would deploy an anti-ballistic missile system, the Air Force spent millions for R&D work on decoys and multiple warhead systems, what became known as multiple-independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), to evade prospective defenses.

Instead of narrowly focusing on the technology, the author explores the relationship between ICBM force deployments and strategic doctrine. According to the Air Force's Chief of  Staff Curtis LeMay nuclear deterrence depended on a first strike capability and a force of 1,500 Minuteman missiles that could be used in a "counterforce" strategy to destroy Soviet nuclear delivery systems.  Although an advocate of "counterforce" as a way to limit damage to the United States, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was dubious that the United States could successfully destroy Soviet missile forces even in a first strike.  His main interest was a deterrent threat that could destroy Soviet society ("assured destruction") and McNamara believed that 1,000 Minuteman was enough for that.  In the deep background of all of these histories, although seldom explicitly discussed, was the nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), whose targeting emphasis followed LeMay's "counterforce" preference, but included the urban-industrial targets covered by the "assured destruction" concept.

Document 4: "USAF Ballistic Missile Programs, 1964-1966," by Bernard C. Nalty, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, March 1967, Top Secret, Excised copy

This history covers a crucial period in the history of the Air Force missile program. While the Air Force was deactivating the liquid-fuelled Atlas ICBM, Air Force scientists and officials made decisions to undertake research and development work on MIRVs, an innovation that would intensify the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition during the 1970s. There had been debate within the service over whether existing ICBMs carrying more than one reentry vehicles were lethal enough to destroy a hardened target (e.g, an ICBM silo), but a study by the service's Scientific Advisory Board determined that nearly two-thirds of targets that had to be attacked quickly ("time urgent"), such as bomber bases, could be destroyed relatively easily ("soft targets"). A "bus" carried by the third stage would launch the three vehicles toward their separate targets within an elliptical area 50 miles across and 200 miles in length. In December 1965, as work on the MIRV was going forward, the Defense Department designated Minuteman III, with a more powerful third stage suited for carrying the bus, to be the Air Force's first MIRVed ICBM.

This study also covers Air Force programs to develop bomber-launched short-range attack missiles (SRAM) to destroy air defenses, decoys such as chaff clouds to complicate enemy defenses, and ICBM modernization with Minuteman II. Among Minuteman II's "refinements" were an option for eight targets, using Greenwich Mean Time so that targets could be struck simultaneously, and ultra-high frequency receivers at launch facilities to establish communications with an airborne launch control center (ALCC). Another innovation was a proposed successor to Minuteman, a highly accurate Advanced ICBM, which would be deployed either in silos or mobile launchers.

This report gives the impression (see page 6) that, in the event of a communications failure, the Air Force enacted arrangements to give Minuteman combat crews the authority to "transmit the launch enable code on its own authority, an arrangement designed to cope with the possible destruction of the responsible headquarters." This amounted to a predelegation arrangement, but apparently it was never put into effect. According to Bruce Blair, who was a Minuteman launch officer in the early 1970s, the "predelegated enabling (arming) provision was never implemented in the field, and it certainly was not the case in 1970 and later." (Note 4)
Document 5: "USAF Ballistic Missile Programs, 1967-1968," by Bernard C. Nalty, Office of Air Force History, September 1969, Top Secret, Excised copy

This history continues the story of the complex effort to maintain and develop a reliable ICBM force, under centralized command and control, which could accurately destroy targets thousands of miles away. One part of that story was the Minuteman modernization program, which included the installation of such features as an "enable command time" as another safeguard against unauthorized launch, development of plans for airborne launch control centers (ALCCs) that could be used to launch remotely 470 Minutemen, and the implementation of an emergency rocket communication system (ERCS) that would enable SAC headquarters to launch the Minuteman force during or after a nuclear strike. Also to ensure tighter control, SAC worked on a cancel launch in process (CLIP) program, which could prevent missile launch up to the moment the silo lid opened up.

While these innovations were under way, SAC continued missile flight tests and tests at operational sites to ensure that the missiles would reach targets. These tests were necessary because they picked up a range of problems, including accuracy errors, which SAC wanted to correct. The effects of nuclear weapons, through overpressure and radiation efforts, also posed challenges for ICBM force managers. One concern was that Soviet missiles could detonate warheads thousands of feet above the silos and create a radiation barrier that could disable U.S. ICBMs in flight ("pindown"). To try to solve this problem, the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a variety of proposals, including firing "at least part of the retaliatory force either upon warning of an attack or in the event of strikes against missile warning radars" anywhere. The implementation of a launch-on-warning posture would, however, require changes in national policy.

Besides work on specific upgrades and problems, the Air Force continued to develop the new weapons described in the 1964-1966 history. The most significant were the research and development work on MIRVs and Minuteman III. The Air Force had been looking at various small reentry vehicles, but the Mk-12 system--the key component of the MIRV--was the only one that was fully funded. At the same time, Air Force contractors were working on Minuteman III, whose third stage would carry the MIRV bus. Funding problems led to a six month delay in Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for Minuteman III, to June 1970, and one of the contractors, Aerojet General, used the circumstances to file higher cost estimates than its initial low bid, which the Air Force treated as a bait and switch technique. Consequently Aerojet lost part of its contract, but work on Minuteman III progressed and its first R&D launch in August 1968 was an "unqualified success," with each of the three RVs hitting their separate targets.

In addition to the most significant weapon systems, the narrative covers chaff and decoys developed to protect against ABM, problems with developing short-range attack missiles (SRAMs) designed to destroy defensive radars, and hardrock silos that were to withstand overpressures of up to 3,000 pounds per square inch. Moreover, R&D on an Advanced ICBM proceeded, although the Defense Department was not ready to approve deployment during the mid-1970s, partly because it was not convinced of the need for a Minuteman follow-up.

Document 6: "USAF Ballistic Missile Programs, 1969-1970," by Jacob Neufeld, Office of Air Force History, June 1971, Top Secret, Excised copy

A central part of Neufeld's story is the deployment of the MIRVed Minuteman III. While the August 1968 Minuteman R&D launch was successful, the next one failed and the follow-up was a partial failure all because of mechanical problems, many relating to the guidance and control system, which led the Air Force to drop North American Rockwell and award a new contract to Honeywell. By mid-1970, however, after 25 tests, Minuteman III had proved its reliability and it had achieved its accuracy objective of 0.25 NM circular error probable.  With the deployment of the first Minuteman IIIs in June 1970, that system and the MIRV would become integral to U.S. nuclear forces. The introduction of MIRVs, however, raised demands for more capacious computer systems. The computers on Minuteman I and II were already "saturated" and MIRV created a need for computers, which became known as the command data buffer (CDB) program, which could quickly retarget the RVs in accordance with the needs of the SIOP.

With the Soviet Union achieving parity in strategic missiles, Defense officials became more and more alarmed that U.S. ICBMs would be vulnerable to a Soviet strike. Nevertheless, it was difficult to achieve consensus on whether special shelters or hard rock silos, among other technological fixes, would provide protection against the alleged threat. Another survivability threat, "pindown," led the Air Force to deploy high altitude radiation detection systems and CLIP (cancel launch in process) devices so that launch control officers could negate a firing order if they detected threatening radiation. The author does not mention whether launch on warning was still under consideration for circumstances when pindown was anticipated.

The Air Force kept looking over the horizon for plausible threats in the future. While Air Force leader continued to support an Advanced ICBM program, Defense officials rejected funding requests; Neufeld paraphrases Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze as arguing that the proposed ICBM would be a "big inviting target." Never saying die, the Air Force developed proposals for more ICBMs: Nemesis, Vulcan, Ranger, and Janus. These concepts lingered in obscurity, partly because SAC was more interested in finding ways to improve Minuteman III than in supporting untried weapons systems.  

MIRVs had relatively small warheads, in the several hundred kiloton range (over a dozen Hiroshimas) compared to the megaton Minuteman II (scores of Hiroshimas), but they had some promise as counterforce weapons, especially against soft targets, because of their expected accuracy. The Air Force also wanted a warhead that could destroy missile silos and other heavy-duty concrete installations--a "hard target killer"--and developed proposals for the Mk-19 with a proposed CEP of 0.2 nautical miles (1,200 feet). Senior level Defense Department officials, however, were not interested because it would have looked like the United States was developing a first-strike weapon, an impression that the administration wanted to avoid when it was engaged in the delicate Strategic Arms Limitations Talks with Moscow. Nonetheless, the Air Force continued to research new reentry vehicle technology.

Part II: Special Topics: Crises, Deterrence, Nuclear Testing, and Command and Control

Document 7: "History of Air Force Atomic Cloud Sampling," Volume I Narrative, by Master Sergeant Leland B. Taylor, Historical Division, Office of Information, Air Force Special Weapons Center, Air Force Systems Command, January 1963, Secret/Restricted Data, Excised Copy

Atomic cloud sampling was one of the most distinctive military activities during the Cold War years when the United States conducted atmospheric nuclear tests. So that the "efficiency" of nuclear weapons could be measured, drone and later piloted aircraft would fly through radioactive clouds to collect samples of radioactive particles and gases produced by the detonation. Radio-chemists and physicists would then analyze those materials. Not surprisingly, this study shows that atomic cloud sampling was difficult and hazardous work, to the extent that drone aircraft were used during early tests to avoid pilot exposure to radiation. Drones had their limits, however, and the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission came to believe that piloted aircraft could more effectively gather samples a few hours after a detonation. During the 1948 Sandstone tests, one incident helped change the thinking; a weather aircraft accidentally flew through a radioactive cloud with the crew supposedly "suffer[ing] no ill effects" [p. 21]. Whether the safety measures were adequate or not, the nuclear testing bureaucracy began to develop protections such as special lead/fiberglass vests and lead-covered seats. (Note 5) Moreover, to minimize exposure crews and observers were rotated and aircraft had to be decontaminated. Finding the right aircraft was another problem; until B-57s were available, pilots had trouble flying into the heights of the huge clouds generated by megaton H-bomb tests. Things could go wrong, of course, as in the notorious famous SHRIMP shot in the 1954 Castle series when underestimating the yield and a failure to forecast local winds led to major fallout exposure of troop and operational areas.

Besides giving a history of cloud sampling activities during the major test series through the late 1950s, the author reviewed the nuclear intelligence mission of the 4926th Test Squadron, which included missions to collect air samples originating from tests in the Asian mainland. U-2 aircraft, controlled by the Strategic Air Command, were available for these missions.

Document 8: "The Air Force and the Worldwide Military Command and Control System," by Thomas A. Sturm, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, August 1966, Secret

Throughout the Cold War and after, civilian and military authorities at the Pentagon worried about the vulnerability of the U.S. command and control system to disruption by nuclear attack, but also being blindsided by unexpected developments or losing control of important military assets. This history, which is broader than an Air Force institutional history, looks at how the Kennedy administration sponsored studies and organizational changes designed to give the President and his advisers more effective control over nuclear forces and more survivable communications systems, along with "continuity of operations" plans so that "controlled" or "flexible" response could be option during an East-West crisis.  Towards these ends, during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations the Pentagon created the National Military Command Center (NMCC), the Defense Communications Agency (NCA), and alternate headquarters and command posts, including the National Emergency Command Post (NEACP), and the National Emergency Command Post Afloat (NECPA).

An interesting development in this connection was the January 1963 highjacking of a Venezuelan freighter Anzoategui, by pro-Castro radicals (pages 42-43). The U.S. Navy's inability to locate the ship quickly (it took four days) so that the Venezuelans could recover it, as well as information coordination problems between CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon, made President Kennedy want a more effective NMCC so that the White House could be more quickly brought up to-date on important developments. (Note 6) While communications systems would improve, National Command Authorities could never solve the threat to command-and-control posed by nuclear weapons.

Document 9: "The Air Force and Strategic Deterrence, 1951-1960," by George F. Lemmer, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, December 1967, Secret, Excised copy

The theme of this volume is the Air Force's quest for strategic nuclear superiority, which it defined as the key to preventing conflict with the Soviet Union. While some of this volume's contents will be familiar to some readers, such as the account of Eisenhower-Dulles "New Look" strategy and the nature of the Air Force concept of deterrence, some unfamiliar or previously obscure details make it worth perusing. Partly in response to Air Force requirements for "overwhelming strategic power," the Atomic Energy Commission developed light but devastating thermonuclear weapons which could be carried on long-range strategic bombers and even fighter-bombers, thus erasing any meaningful distinction between tactical and strategic weapons. As Lemmer notes, the Air Force concluded that atomic weapons were insufficiently destructive ("inefficient") and that powerful thermonuclear weapons were necessary apparently because "the type of buildings in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be much more blast resistant than the structures destroyed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs" (p. 23). Convinced that the first minutes and hours of a war with the Soviet Union would be decisive, Air Force leaders developed concepts of "counterforce" to target and destroy Soviet nuclear forces before they could be used against U.S. targets. While some Air Force leaders, including General Curtis Lemay, favored preventive war during the 1940s, the leadership grew more and more interested in preemption, which was closely tied to the counterforce strategy. Perhaps because of its sensitivity, Lemmer does not mention that preemption was an option in the Single Integrated Operational Plan from the outset.

As the author shows in some detail, Air Force thinking met resistance from Army and Navy leaders, who raised concerns about "overkill" and argued that smaller and more survivable forces, such as "city busting" Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles, could provide a "finite deterrence" that would be enough to prevent conflict with the Soviet Union. Others spoke of the need for "flexible response" options so that the president would have conventional military options in the event of "brush fire" conflicts I the Asia and elsewhere in the Third World. Air Force leaders, however, saw "finite deterrence" as an excuse for cutting the military budget and as an abdication of the U.S.'s status as a world power. Moreover, not recognizing Soviet aversion to war, they argued that no one could tell whether threats against cities would be enough to deter Moscow. Not only was the Air Force high command reluctant to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons in any conflict, they believed that the United States needed large nuclear forces so that it could take the initiative during a confrontation, using them for threats and "shows of force." Nevertheless, as Nalty shows in his "Five Crises" study (see document 10), Air Force thinking would begin to shift as presidents demanded more conventional and more limited options.

Document 10: "The Air Force Role in Five Crises, 1958-1965: Lebanon, Taiwan, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic," by Bernard C. Nalty, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, June 1968, Top Secret, Excised copy

Source: Mandatory Declassification Review request by the National Security Archive

Prepared in 1968, when the domestic U.S. controversy over overseas intervention was raging, this study drew on previous Air Force histories to describe the role of air power during recent foreign policy crises and draw some lessons about its use. Much of the information will be familiar to readers, but the author presents some previously obscure but interesting details about the mechanics of aerial intervention, whether unilateral, such as the deployments of the Tactical Air Command's composite air strike force for the Lebanon and Taiwan Strait crises during the summer of 1958, or humanitarian and international, such as the Air Force role in the 1960 Congo crisis.

The discussion of the Taiwan Strait crisis includes significant detail on nuclear planning, including the initial plan to drop multiple 10-15 kiloton bombs on airfields in Amoy (now called Xiamen) in the event of a Chinese blockade against the Offshore Islands. This was in accordance with the drift of Air Force thinking which considered nuclear weapons as usable as "iron bombs." While SAC aircraft in the Pacific were alerted accordingly, President Eisenhower ruled out the initial use of nuclear weapons. Instead, he ordered the Air Force and Navy to prepare for conventional strikes as a show of determination. If the conflict escalated, nuclear strikes could have followed. What led the White House to change the ground rules was the recognition that atomic strikes had "inherent disadvantages": fallout would cause civilian casualties not only in China but in Taiwanese territory and the risk of nuclear escalation could present itself. (Note 7) As the author observed in the last chapter, an important lesson from this crisis was "armed forces must expect civil authority to impose tight controls on them in times of emergency."

The account of crises in the Caribbean, Cuba and Dominican Republic, further confirm the point about civilian authorities seeking tight control.  The account of the missile crisis provides a useful overview of SAC and TAC activities during the crisis, such as the latter's plan to use conventional forces to destroy the Cuban Air Force in one day. TAC forces would strike 212 Cuban airfields and defensive installations, with the strike force maximizing surprise by flying from home bases instead of fields in Florida. The discussion of the Dominican crisis is interesting in part because it shows how the DEFCON system was tailored to alert specific units for non-nuclear circumstances, as well as an example of Air Force-CIA cooperation in implementing a psychological warfare campaign (during which "one man was wounded while throwing leaflets from a plane"). The author suggests, without giving any detail, that President Johnson prevented military action that could have produced the "slaughter of rebels" during the crisis. (Note 8)

From several of these cases, the author perceived a significant trend: the cautious approach that presidents took during crises and their reluctance to use nuclear weapons when better alternatives were available, e.g., during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis Eisenhower "forced U.S. military planners to review their attitude concerning nuclear war." Thus, Air Force leaders began to rethink their earlier opposition to limited war as well as to find practical means to support future presidential decisions by supporting development work on high explosive weapons (such work had stopped during the mid-1950s) and by developing overseas stockpiles for fighting non­-nuclear war.

Document 11: "Air Operations in the Taiwan Crisis of 1958," by Jacob Van Staaveren, Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, November 1962, Secret

This account provides comprehensive coverage of Air force nuclear and non-nuclear planning, organization, and operations, as well as significant detail on Navy, Marines, and Taiwanese military activities, during the second Taiwan Strait crisis. While the author did not have Nalty's access to information about the White House role in contingency planning, he gives the reader a total picture of the U.S.'s "show of force", which included massive Naval deployments and the creation of a special Composite Air Strike Force (CASF) "X-Ray Tango." While contingency plans called for nuclear strikes launched from Clark Air Base (Philippines) and Kadena Air Base (Okinawa) in the event of a direct U.S.-China military confrontation (p. 16), the services had to re-do their plans once they had received Eisenhower's instructions to plan for non-nuclear attacks. As Van Staaverern argues, this requirement caused "much anxiety" among U.S. military leaders in the Pacific, who worried that non-nuclear operations might not work, partly because of the size of Chinese forces, but also because of shortages of "iron bombs," among other supplies. (Pages 28, 5, 55) Nevertheless, the crisis did not break out into armed conflict, an outcome for which both the Navy and the Air Force tried to take credit (p. 57), although they were unaware that Mao Zedong intended to keep the crisis within bounds and avoid any direct confrontation with U.S. forces. (Note 9)

Document 12: "Fifth Air Force in the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1958," by Arthur C. O'Neill, Pacific Air Force, Fifth Air Force, Office of Information Services, Director of Historical Services, 31 December 1958, Top Secret

Prepared only months after the events, with re-deployments from the build-up then under way, the author's access to relevant documents as well as interviews with Air Force officers, helped him prepare a finely grained account of almost every aspect of Fifth Air Force activities during the crisis.  Headquartered in Japan, the coverage of the build-up of non-nuclear air forces shows the disruptive impact of crisis operations: the U.S. base at Kadena became so crowded that Air Force leaders had to consider alternative basing. Adding to the pressure was the possibility that the Japanese government might object to the use of the bases for operations against China, a problem that made the Air Force look closely at U.S. bases in the Philippines and Korea (pages 16-17). Additional evidence on the problems caused by Eisenhower's requirement for non-nuclear operations showed up in messages from the commander of the 313th Air Division, who complained about "'major deficiencies'" in personal and equipment for handling conventional bombs" (p. 59). Also of interest is the chapter on intelligence work prior to and during the crisis, where the author argues that the Fifth Air Force Intelligence Office had "fully anticipated" the Chinese bombardment of the Offshore Islands in late August 1958 (p. 32). Moreover, the author provided detailed coverage of combat operations between Chinese MIGs and Taiwanese F-86Fs; the Taiwanese were equipped with U.S.-supplied heat-seeking Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, which gave the Air Force an opportunity to evaluate the performance of this new weapon.



1. With its abundance of detail and the scope of its coverage, another Air Force history, Jacob Neufeld, Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1990) supersedes this account.

2. See Stephen Twigge and Len Scott, Planning Armageddon: Britain, the United States, and the Command of Western Nuclear Forces, 1945-1964 (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 109-111.

3. For a more recent comprehensive account, see David K. Stumpf, Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000).

4. Bruce Blair e-mail to editor, 21 March 2008.

5. For some of the imponderables concerning the health risk caused by even low-level radiation exposure, see J. Samuel Walker, Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), e.g., 20-21.

6. A reference to this incident is in Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965) which, at 684-685, mentions that Kennedy was "vastly, if somewhat amusedly, annoyed by the incapacity of his government to help Caracas cope with the situation."

7. For more on the crisis, as well as the larger problem of nuclear weapons use, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 182-184. For nuclear deployments in the region at the time of the 1958 Taiwan crisis and in period that followed, see the invaluable account posted by Hans Kristensen at the FAS Strategic Security Blog.

8. In this connection, the author cites his classified top secret study, The Air Force and the Dominican Republic (U.S. Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, 1967).

9. Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 197-198).