How Much is Enough? Part II
"Prague Treaty Cuts Are Modest, Real"
Old Cold War Proposals Went Even Lower

Thomas Blanton and William Burr, editors

Posted - April 8, 2010

For more information contact:
Thomas Blanton, William Burr: 202/994-7000

Gorbachev and Reagan at one of their one-on-one sessions at Hofdi House during the Reykjavik summit, October 1986.  During these meetings, Reagan and Gorbachev discussed proposals for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock is seated to Reagan's left. (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
Chart: From Finite Deterrence to Zero -- Force Level Alternatives during the Cold War (Click on image above to view)

Washington, D.C., April 8, 2010 - The new START Treaty signed today in Prague represents "real" but "modest" cuts in strategic nuclear forces comparable to some Cold War alternatives but still higher than the most far-reaching proposals considered by Presidents Reagan and Carter, according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive. The documents show that the Prague cuts reach levels lower than the Carter administration's "deep cuts" SALT II proposal in 1977 and very close to the "finite deterrence" numbers contemplated by Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke in the late 1950s. Yet the Prague cuts do not reach the far lower numbers of nuclear weapons recommended by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, or initially considered by President Jimmy Carter, or the zero nuclear forces in 10 years proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The Prague Treaty represents the first time in this century that U.S. and Russian heads of state have agreed to a schedule of specific cuts of strategic nuclear force levels, but they are only a small down payment on President Obama's pledge to use the power of the presidency to move the nuclear weapons states toward abolition. In light of the historical record, the Prague Treaty levels are still significantly higher than what some Cold War presidents and top officials thought was even possible. While President Ronald Reagan proposed going down to zero by 1996, his initial target, a 50 percent cut of strategic warheads and delivery systems, would have left the U.S. arsenal with thousands of strategic warheads and almost a thousand strategic delivery systems as of 1991. President Jimmy Carter also saw nuclear abolition as a desirable goal, but the first SALT II proposal he presented to the Soviet leadership in 1977 would have left both sides with around 2,000 strategic delivery systems, far more than what is currently being considered.

The Prague Treaty levels are in the range of what at least one Cold War military leader thought was conceivable.  During the late 1950s, Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke developed a concept of a "finite deterrent" force of 45 Polaris submarines, with 720 submarine-launched ballistic missiles [SLBMs], of which 400, or 55 percent, would be on patrol ("on station"). Burke made interesting and compelling arguments for strategic forces dominated by Polaris submarines and the numbers he had in mind are close to U.S. force levels in the Prague Treaty.

The Prague Treaty numbers are significantly higher than what other Cold War statesmen thought possible or worth looking into. In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara posited a force of 400 strategic warheads (one megaton)  as enough for the basic "assured destruction" deterrence mission. Years later, McNamara revisited this number when he wrote that "less than five hundred" was enough for deterrence. In 1977, when Jimmy Carter became president he contemplated the possibility of massive cuts bringing U.S. and Soviet strategic forces down to 200-250 strategic delivery systems. Even after Secretary of Defense Harold Brown questioned whether such low numbers were compatible with U.S. security, Carter remained interested in missile force levels of a "few hundred," although his preferences could not be translated into negotiating positions.

The United States and Russia have some distance to go in order to match the low numbers--200-250 missiles, 400-500 strategic warheads--proposed during the Cold War.  And even those numbers are far from abolition, although much closer than the thousands of missile and nuclear warheads deployed during the height of the arms race. The documents suggest that the process of moving toward zero will be a prolonged and complex one necessarily involving arms control negotiations with other nuclear states, such as China, France, India, and Pakistan, as well as the enactment of other measures, such as the fissile materials production cut-off and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Note 1)


Read the Documents

Document 1: "Virtual Invulnerability to Enemy Action"
Air Force memorandum for the record, "Hearings by the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, Senate Committee on Armed Services, on DOD [Department of Defense] Ballistic Missile Program," 28 July 1961, with cover memo to Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay
Source: Library of Congress, Curtis LeMay Papers, box 153, Chief of Staff Memos [Also available on Digital National Security Archive, U.S. Nuclear History, 1955-1968]

Two days before he retired as Chief of Naval Operations, Arleigh Burke, with Secretary of the Navy John Connally, testified before the Senate Arms Service Committee.  In his testimony, as recorded by Air Force observers, Burke laid out the underlying reasoning for why he believed that Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles should play a central role as a "finite deterrent" or "minimum deterrent" force without explicitly calling it that. (Note 2) Burke and Connally showed unmistakable self-assurance in their discussion of advantages of Polaris and the disadvantages of competing systems. In keeping with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's stated preference for forces which could "ride out" a nuclear attack, whose survival did not require a "hair trigger response," and could be "applied with deliberation" by national authorities, Connally emphasized Polaris's "freedom from the catastrophic conditions existing on land if an enemy strikes first," while Burke called attention to the "unique capabilities of the system and ... its virtual invulnerability to enemy action."

Photo of Admiral Arleigh A. Burke (1901-1996), taken 8 July 1955, the month before he became Chief of Naval Operations.  (Naval Historical Center, Photograph Division, Photo #: 80-G-668829) (Thanks to David A. Rosenberg for digital image)

In keeping with those purposes, Burke called for a Polaris fleet of 45 submarines which with 16 missiles each would total 720 SLBMs. 55 percent (400) would be on station, 15 percent would likely be undergoing repair, and 30 percent would be an uncommitted reserve (leaving station, on their way to station, etc.). In other statements, Burke assumed the necessity for some bombers and ground-based missiles, but never made a specific proposal on desirable force levels. That he saw ground-based forces as inviting targets to preemptive strikes he probably saw low numbers as advisable.

When Senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo) questioned whether Polaris was undetectable, Burke flatly responded that it "could not be detected"; further, he "could point to no R&D technique having any promise in this area." The displeasure of Air Force officers over Burke's testimony is evident when they cited his disparagement of silo-based ICBMs and the "presumption that they could not survive in the years to come." In his testimony Burke had "referred to ground shock problems and the fact that such parts as heavy silo doors could be jammed by the impact of nuclear weapons."

Document 2: "Intolerable Punishment to Any Industrialized Nation"
Memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson, "Recommended FY 1966-1970 Programs for Strategic Offensive Forces, Continental Air and Missile Defense Forces, and Civil Defense," 3 December 1964, Top Secret, Excised copy
Source: FOIA release [Also available on Digital National Security Archive, U.S. Nuclear History, 1955-1968]

Robert McNamara initially rejected minimum deterrence because he had wanted forces that could threaten high priority military targets; he eventually supported a Minuteman force of 1000 ICBMs as a compromise with the Air Force, which had wanted many more. Nevertheless, several years later, McNamara hinted that a small nuclear force was sufficient for the basic deterrence mission of "assured destruction," a term that he and his advisers developed for sizing strategic force levels. In a Draft Presidential Memorandum (DPM) sent to President Johnson in late 1964, McNamara defined an assured destruction force as one that could destroy 25 percent of the Soviet Union's population and more than two-thirds of its industrial capacity. That was a "level of destruction [that] would certainly represent intolerable punishment to any industrialized nation and this should serve as an effective deterrent" (p. 4). Several pages later, during a discussion of the "destructive potential of various size U.S. attacks on Soviet cities," McNamara observed that a force of 400 strategic weapons, probably about one megaton each, was enough to destroy "nearly 30 percent of the population of the entire nation" and "almost three-fourths of the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union." In other words, a force of 400 was sufficient to achieve the "assured destruction" mission. Doubling the number, to 800, would only produce marginal benefits.

The experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other considerations, may have encouraged McNamara to make this point. When President Kennedy and the "ExCom" learned that the Air Force could not guarantee that a U.S. air strike would destroy all Soviet missiles on Cuba, the prospect that a few missiles or even one could survive was enough to deter the United States from taking military action against Cuba. In any event, McNamara drew no explicit policy conclusions from his brief discussion of 400 weapons; he may not have seen 400 as enough for deterrence by itself because elsewhere in the DPM he supported a "balanced" nuclear force that included some damage limiting capability. Nevertheless, over the years his thinking shifted and by the 1980s, if not earlier, he supported a concept of deterrence that echoed earlier Navy thinking. In 1986, he wrote that "five hundred or fewer warheads" were sufficient for deterrence. Perhaps forgetting his earlier rejection of finite deterrence, McNamara wrote that he had learned from reading David Rosenberg's work that "in 1958 and 1959 the Navy had put forward such a plan." (Note 3)

Document 3: "Several Hundred"
Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to the President, "Implications of Major Reductions in Strategic Nuclear Forces," 28 January 1977, Secret, Excised copy
Source: FOIA request (donated copy)

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he expressed his strong anti-nuclear inclinations in his inaugural address when he stated that "this year we will move a step toward our ultimate goal—the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth." Even before his inauguration he had announced that he would seek reductions from the equal aggregate level (2,400) that President Ford and General Secretary Brezhnev had reached in Vladivostok in 1974. A few days after his inauguration, Carter asked Secretary of Defense Harold Brown for his appraisal of a truly radical cut in strategic forces--with the Soviet Union and the United States each having a force of about 200-250 strategic delivery systems (Carter's preference was for SLBMs), down from 2,092 strategic delivery vehicles (bombers, SLBMs, ICBMS) on the U.S. side and 2,462 on the Soviet side.  Why President Carter chose that particular number needs clarification; perhaps he wanted to see how the Pentagon would react to the idea of massive cuts. But only a few days after Brown sent his critical response, Carter showed that he remained interested because he raised with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin the possibility of cutting missile force levels down to "several hundred." (Note 4)

Brown's reaction was measured, but highly critical because senior officials at the Pentagon "believe it is unproductive to give serious attention to such levels, even as goals." While Carter's preference was for an SLBM force, Brown considered other force mixes in his appraisal. His assessment helps explain why many senior defense officials during the Cold War believed that high levels of strategic forces were necessary. Brown acknowledged that nuclear forces at the level of 200-250 would be tremendously destructive, but there was a question whether they could meet "assured destruction" requirements or "permit coverage of large numbers of military targets." Brown also saw a risk in the credibility of U.S. security guarantees to NATO Europe, which traditionally rested on strategic nuclear defense.  A small strategic force could create the perception that U.S. strategic deterrence was "completely decoupled from NATO defense"; that could provide the Soviets with a "conventional attack temptation."

Brown also considered the broader political implications of strategic force cuts, for example, the possibility that they would "significantly alter world power relationships" because China and other countries would be able to match the U.S. and Soviet Union in nuclear forces. This would make it essential to bring other nuclear powers into agreement on force levels to make the cuts acceptable in the United States. Whether the cuts would help or hurt U.S. nonproliferation policy was difficult to estimate but the "political linkage would be complex." Another implication of the cuts would be an "extraordinary erosion of bipolarity," with the emergence of more "power centers and international actors," whose implications would require more analysis.

A U.S.-Soviet agreement on 200-250 delivery systems also raised very difficult verification problems. Brown argued that "high confidence" could not be assured even with on-site inspection because the "possibilities for cheating (or breaking out) would be vast, and even with an army of inspectors it might be possible to evade compliance." With forces at low levels, even modest increases could have strategic importance, "thus creating the incentive to cheat."

Document 4: Deep Cuts
Acting Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs Reginald Bartholomew to the Secretary, "SCC/NSC Meeting on SALT, March 10 3:00 P.M." 8 March 1977, Top Secret
Source: FOIA request

Much needs to be learned about the Carter White House's internal process of decision, but Brown's impact did not discourage Carter from seeking cuts in strategic force levels, although they were not as deep as he might have preferred. Reginald Bartholomew's memorandum to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance gives a good sense of the complexity of arms control, especially the difficulty that federal agencies in the national security field have in reaching a consensus on negotiating positions. This was all the more true for SALT II where negotiators had to tackle a variety of tricky issues, including numbers of cruise missiles, and Soviet Backfire bombers (whether they were medium-range or intercontinental), ceilings on heavy missiles or modern-large ballistic missiles (MLBMs), and numbers of multiple-independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

Bartholomew and his middle-level colleagues soon found themselves cut out of White House deliberations, but the numbers that they discussed for reductions were close to what Carter and his top advisers had in mind. They considered "deep reductions" in the range of 1,000-1,500 delivery systems, but were "not enthusiastic" about them because they raised so many complications, some of which Brown had noted, e.g., impact on "third-country forces" and "verification uncertainties." Numbers in that lower range were better considered as an objective for SALT III.  What they found to be a better number for SALT II was 2,000, which was around the 1,800-2,000 range which Vance raised with Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Gromykoa few weeks later. The Soviets, however, rejected those numbers out of hand because what the U.S. sought would force disproportionately larger cuts on the Soviet side. Thus, Carter and Vance had to start all over again. (Note 5)

Documents 5A-B:  The Zero Option
Document 5A:Russian transcript of Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, 12 October 1986 (morning), published in FBIS-USR-93-113, 30 August 1993, 11 pp.
Document 5B: U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Final Meeting, 12 October 1986, 3:25 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. - 6:50 p.m., 16 pp.

As they were starting to bring the Cold War to a close, during their summit meeting at Reykjavik in October 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev considered one of the most astounding and dramatic proposals of the nuclear era. Both Gorbachev and Reagan shared the same dream, the abolition (or "liquidation") of nuclear weapons, and both turned to that goal repeatedly during the intense discussions. Reagan actually proposed the abolition of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles in a two-phase plan, 50 percent cuts by 1991 and down to zero in 1996 through coordinated diplomacy with the other nuclear states. For the Soviets the ringer in Reagan's proposal was that Washington would be able to continue testing of missile defenses in the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI while proceeding with the 10 year program. Although Reagan repeatedly offered to share SDI with the Soviet Union, as Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov explained to one of the U.S. officials, the U.S. proposal would require "an exceptional level of trust" and therefore "we cannot accept your position." (Note 6)

After the summit, skeptical Reagan administration officials scaled back his goal of nuclear abolition to the more limited notion of abolishing ballistic missiles, where the Soviets had a numerical advantage. Even that foundered on opposition from the U.S. military which presented huge estimates of needed additional conventional spending to make up for not having the ICBMs that they believed were necessary to address the long-standing fear of a Soviet ground forces threat to NATO Europe.



1. For one of the most detailed and comprehensive plans for nuclear disarmament, see International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Policymakers (Canberra, 2009). For an important study of the possibility of, and the obstacles facing, nuclear abolition, see George Perkovich and James Acton, editors, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate(Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009).

2. For Burke and "finite deterrence," see David A. Rosenberg, "Arleigh Albert Burke," in Robert William Love ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980), especially 278-279 and 292-294, as well as "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960." International Security 7 (Spring 1983): 50-61. For more on Burke and finite deterrence, see William Burr, editor, "How Much is Enough?": The U.S. Navy and "Finite Deterrence," National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 275, 1 May 2009.

3. Robert S. McNamara, Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 123.

4. Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994),  884-885.

5. Ibid, 888-889.

6. For more on the summit, see Thomas Blanton and Svetlana Savranskaya, eds., "The Reykjavik File: Previously Secret Documents from U.S. and Soviet Archives on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit," National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 203, 13 October 2006.