U.S. Had Plans for "Full Nuclear Response" In Event President Killed or Disappeared during an Attack on the United States

Both USSR and China Were To Be Targeted Simultaneously, Even If Attack Were Conventional or Accidental, and Regardless of Who Was Responsible

LBJ Ordered Change in Instructions in 1968 to Permit More Limited Response, Avert "Dangerous" Situation

Newly Declassified Document Expands Limited Public Record on Nuclear Predelegation

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 406

Posted - December 12, 2012

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr -
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

President Lyndon B. Johnson listening to Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. Secretary of State Dean Rusk sits to Johnson's left, with Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga) sitting further to the left. Secretary of State Dean Rusk sits to Johnson's right (second from left in the photo), with Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) sitting to Rusk’s right. The photograph was taken 14 October 1968, not long after Clifford had made the recommendations to update the "Furtherance" instructions.

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, on-line photograph collection.

Washington, D.C., December 12, 2012 – As late as 1968, the U.S. government had plans in place to fire an automatic "full nuclear response" against both the Soviet Union and China in the event of the death or disappearance of the President in the course of an attack against the United States, but President Lyndon Johnson changed that policy in October 1968, according to a previously Top Secret document published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. (see Document 5A)

Prior to President Johnson's decision, instructions for the emergency use of nuclear weapons that both he and his predecessors had previously approved stipulated a full-scale nuclear counter-attack even if the initial strike were conventional, or the result of an accident, and both Communist giants would be targeted regardless of whether either of them had launched the first strike.

This new information is contained in a record of a meeting between President Johnson and his top national security advisers on 14 October 1968. At the meeting, Johnson's military and civilian aides unanimously recommended that the standing orders, known by the code-name "Furtherance," be revised substantially in order to reduce the inherent risks involved. The changes included providing instructions to commanders to respond to a conventional attack with conventional weapons—an implicit "no-first use" nuclear policy. At the session, speaking of the new approach, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow advised Johnson: "We think it is an essential change. This was dangerous." The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff concurred.

The meeting record, marked "Eyes Only for the President," was released to the National Security Archive in late November 2012 under a Mandatory Declassification Review appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), nine years after the filing of the original request. The declassified transcript offers important insights into the still-heavily shrouded subject of predelegation of nuclear weapons use. The meeting record is accompanied in today's posting by several related items that provide contemporary context to the subject matter.


* * * * *

On 14 October 1968, while holding intense meetings on Vietnam War policy, President Lyndon Johnson's civilian and military advisers temporarily changed the subject when they recommended changes in standing top secret instructions to senior military commanders on the emergency use of nuclear weapons. Since the Eisenhower administration, U.S. presidents had secretly approved instructions to military commanders authorizing or "predelegating" them to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack if the president was killed or otherwise unavailable. The changes in the instructions that President Johnson was considering were designed to prevent what national security adviser Walt W. Rostow called a "dangerous" situation that could inadvertently lead to nuclear weapons use on a catastrophic scale. The next day, Johnson approved the changes that Rostow had deemed "essential."

Recently declassified by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) in response to a mandatory review appeal by the National Security Archive, the record of the meeting shows that President Johnson considered recommendations to revise the "predelegation" instructions, codenamed "Furtherance," by removing a perilous element of inflexibility from them. Instead of a nearly automatic "full" nuclear strike against both China and the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack, top commanders could initiate a "limited response" against the appropriate country. That would be all the more necessary in the event of a "small-scale or accidental attack." Moreover, in the event of a nuclear response to a conventional forces attack "as is now in the plan," the retaliation would be non-nuclear-a step toward a no-first use policy. With the revised instructions, commanders had explicit direction to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

ISCAP released this document in full nine years after the initial mandatory declassification review request to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. In 2010, the National Archives had denied an initial appeal of the heavily excised record necessitating the appeal to ISCAP. But ISCAP released this document just as it had released other records on predelegation, opening up what had been one of the deepest U.S. government secrets during the Cold War. The existence of advance authorizations for the emergency use of nuclear weapons had been such a sensitive secret that even authors of top secret U.S. government studies of command-control-communications vulnerabilities were constrained from discussing them. During the late 1990s declassification requesting by the National Security Archive produced major breakthroughs in this area when appeals to ISCAP produced key documents on the instructions from the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations. The declassifications, which produced head-lines in The Washington Post, included President Eisenhower's initial request in 1957 for instructions, the instructions themselves, and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy's summary of them prepared for President Johnson in September 1964.

The record of the 14 October 1968 "Furtherance" discussion raises more questions than it answers. Why was this decision made in the last months of the Johnson presidency? Why hadn't it taken place during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who had been a proponent of "greater flexibility and discrimination" in nuclear war planning. [1] What was the "plan" that had required a nuclear response to a conventional attack? Was it the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, which provided guidance to military planners for global conflict, or (less likely) the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the plan for nuclear war? What is the significance of the conventional (non-nuclear) response to a conventional attack? Moreover, what did Johnson and his advisers mean by a "limited response."

Certainly the decision to update the predelegation instructions reflected the recognition at the highest levels of the U.S. government that a nuclear stalemate existed with the Soviet Union. U.S. nuclear supremacy had ended during the 1960s as the Soviet Union acquired a significant nuclear retaliatory capability so whatever political and diplomatic leverage that nuclear superiority provided had substantially eroded. [2] Preemptive attack on Soviet strategic forces continued to be available as an option in the SIOP but it was a dubious one because Soviet forces were unlikely to be completely destroyed and could cause tremendous damage to the United States and its allies. Under the new circumstances, Johnson's advisers took McNamara's advice on the need for "flexibility and discrimination" in nuclear planning. Thus, it was better to calibrate an attack so that it was targeted against the right country and so that it was "limited" enough to avoid inviting a disproportionate nuclear onslaught.

As for the decision to differentiate China and the Soviet Union in an emergency attack response, it is unclear why this change had not been made before 1968. It is worth noting that when the SIOP was created in 1960, it stipulated an undifferentiated massive attack against all Soviet bloc targets, including China, with tremendous anticipated civilian casualties. That led an exasperated Marine Corp Commandant General David Shoup to argue that it was "unfair" to include China in an attack if it had done nothing to invite it. [3] To address that problem, SIOP-63 made it possible for the president to order "withholds" of an attack against any country on the target list. It was not only China that was of concern; Poland and other Eastern European countries, as well as Moscow and Beijing, were also candidates for "withholds." [4] In any event, apparently the "Furtherance" instructions from 1964 did not include an explicit withhold to spare China from automatic retaliation in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. To cover this gap, Johnson's advisers must have believed it necessary for top commanders to receive explicit guidance so that they made appropriate decisions in the absence of a president.

Under the new "Furtherance" policy, a conventional attack would merit a nonnuclear response, not a nuclear retaliation as had been doctrinal in NATO policy until 1967. That year, the NATO defense ministers had approved Military Committee [MC] 14/3 which took a major step away from the idea of an "automatic" nuclear response. Moreover, McNamara had already advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson against using nuclear weapons first; what Nina Tannenwald calls a "de facto no-first use policy" had emerged during the 1960s. That was certainly consistent with Johnson's aversion to the notion of using nuclear weapons. But with the revised "Furtherance" instructions, Johnson took a step toward formalizing the de facto policy by instructing war planners to take a non-nuclear response to a conventional attack in an emergency. [5]

What Johnson, Rostow, Clifford et al believed a "limited response" would involve is not spelled out in the available documents. They may have seen existing nuclear attack options as too big, a question that policymakers had been grappling with since the late 1950s when ideas about "flexible response" became influential. Johnson's advisers may have been trying to find an answer to a question that the next president, Richard Nixon, would begin to ask: if the worst case came to pass and a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was about to start, why didn't the president have limited and credible alternatives to the catastrophically huge attacks that constituted the SIOP? Nixon's National Security Decision Memorandum 242 (January 1974), and later Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59 (June 1980), were attempts to prompt Pentagon planners to develop limited nuclear options so the President had more plausible, although nevertheless terribly destructive, options in a crisis.

Even though the Cold War circumstances that made top policymakers devise special instructions to prepare for apocalyptic contingencies of nuclear destruction have passed, the "Furtherance" documents are not strictly historical arcana. In light of concerns about terrorist attacks, nuclear or otherwise, and earlier concerns about nuclear war, the elaborate Continuity of Government plans that began to be developed during the Carter and the Reagan administrations are as much of an attempt to deal with the problem of presidential authority and its survival as the predelegation instructions that President Johnson and his predecessors had approved. Whether predelegation survives in some form, or whether it has been superseded by COG plans to ensure the survival of others in the line of succession, is still not a matter of public record.

Today's publication includes limited background information on "Furtherance." The available documentation includes some of the first known references to the "Furtherance" codename, and provides a time-line for President Johnson's initial approval of a streamlined version of the predelegation instructions. As readers will note, much information remains exempt from disclosure and some of the released documents are so massively excised that they may as well have been denied in their entirety. All are the subject of several appeals to the National Archives, the Defense Department, and ISCAP. In light of the recent ISCAP release it should be possible for the agencies to make expeditious decisions on the other documents before another 9 years have passed.




Documents 1A-B:

A: Notes by White House military aide General Chester Clifton on President Johnson's meeting with the Joint Chiefs, 4 March 1964, nonclassified

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security Files, Clifton Files, box 2, Meetings with the President Vol. I (2 of 2)

B: Presidential Daily Diary, 4 March 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson Library On-line collections

On 4 March 1964, at 6:15 p.m., President Johnson met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss several current issues. One was the predelegation instructions, which he had inherited from President Kennedy. By this stage, the instructions had a code name, "Furtherance," although how recently that had been devised remains to be learned. Johnson received a briefing on updated instructions, which had been simplified and revised [See document 2]. Whether the instructions were different from what Eisenhower approved in 1959 is not clear, but notes of the meeting taken by Johnson's military aide, General Chester Clifton, centered on the civilian chain of command so the updated instructions may have touched upon that issue. As the handwritten notes indicate, if military commanders were "unable to get President," then the "V.P." would be in charge. If the Vice President was unavailable, "no V.P.", "then the power is in McNamara's [Secretary of Defense] hands." This was not strictly by the book, because the Speaker of the House was next in line of succession-there was no Vice President in 1964-- and the "power" would have been in the Speaker's hands. The assumption that President Johnson and his advisers were making was that the "power" would be in the hands of the officials who constituted the National Command Authority-the President and the Secretary of Defense. So if the President or a successor was out of commission during a crisis, then the Secretary of Defense (or his successor) would make the necessary decisions.

Also on the agenda were Cuba and arrangements for the release of U.S. nuclear air defense weapons to Canadian air forces. President Johnson approved release of the weapons under specific circumstances: in the event of a "surprise attack" or if Defcon 1 had been declared (which meant a state of war). [6] Having recently ordered a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, including covert operations, President Johnson asked the Chiefs to "tell me everything we can do we are not doing."


Document 2: Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson, 14 March 1964, Top Secret, Excised copy under appeal at ISCAP

Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security Council Files, box 32, Nuclear Weapons, General, Volume 1

In this memorandum, Secretary of Defense McNamara explained that he had reviewed the instructions that the Joint Chiefs had given to President Johnson on 4 March and that he recommended approval. He had one observation which is excised and whose content is the subject of an appeal to ISCAP.


Document 3: President Johnson to Secretary of Defense McNamara, 26 March 1964, Top Secret

Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Formerly Top Secret Subject-Numeric Files, 1964-66, box 5, Def 12 US

Later in the month, President Johnson approved the updated instructions which he understood to be "basically the same as those approved by President Eisenhower and continued in effect by President Kennedy." Johnson asked national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to consult with McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk to see if the instructions "reflect our coordinated views."


Document 4: "Instructions for Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Emergency Conditions," n.d. [circa late March 1964], Top Secret, excised copy

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Addendum, box 52, "Furtherances, Top Secret"

This is a massively excised version of the instructions that President Johnson approved. It is currently under appeal with the Defense Department.


Documents 5A-C:

A: Notes of the President's Meeting with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford et al., October 14, 1968, Cabinet Room, 1:40 p.m, Top Secret

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Papers of Lyndon B. Johnson. Special Files, Tom Johnson's Notes of Meetings, box 4, October 14, 1968 - 1:40 pm, Foreign Policy Advisory Group Meeting

B: Presidential Daily Diary, 14 October 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson Library on-line collections

C: Original excised version of "Notes of the President's Meeting" as released at Lyndon B. Johnson Library in 2003

A top secret memorandum from Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford (cited in document 6) dated 25 September 1968 recommended changes in the "Furtherance" instructions. On 14 October 1968 Johnson had a series of meetings with foreign anSd military policy advisers mainly focusing on Vietnam War issues, including the Paris peace talks and the proposed bombing halt. The meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others where the "Furtherance" instructions were discussed began at 1:38 p.m. White House staffer (and later CNN executive) Tom Johnson took notes. Joining the meeting, but probably after this conversation, was Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga), a long-standing LBJ confidant, and U.S. Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland. [7]


Document 6: President Johnson to the Secretary of Defense, 15 October 1968, enclosing massively excised attachment, Top Secret, under appeal at ISCAP

Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Files, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 146, Top Secret Furtherance, For the President

The next day President Johnson authorized Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford to put into effect the "Furtherance" instructions. He also asked the Defense Department to send copies of implementing instructions when issued by the Joint Chiefs. This document and several that follow have so far been found only in the files of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Apparently, President Johnson's national security staff transferred them to Henry Kissinger, the incoming national security adviser, probably on the assumption that the new administration needed information on a sensitive problem. The available record does not indicate whether Nixon and Kissinger left Johnson's "Furtherance" policy alone or made additional changes.


Document 7: Memorandum from Carl Walske, special assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy) to Bromley Smith [Executive Secretary, National Security Council], "Instructions for Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Emergency Conditions (Code Name FURTHERANCE)," 14 November 1968, with memoranda to commanders-in-chief attached, Top Secret

Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Files, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 146, Top Secret Furtherance For the President

As President Johnson had requested, the Pentagon sent the White House copies of the implementing instructions to commanders-in-chief of unified and specified commands. As Clifford had advised and Johnson had decided, the CINCs would receive two documents: 1) the instructions, and 2) a "Resume of US-Foreign Nuclear Agreements (Current as of 8 October 1968)." The instructions would not go into effect until after all the CINCs had received briefings and the Joint Chiefs had so directed. For the commanders with the most substantial nuclear weapons responsibilities--CINCONAD, CINCSAC, CINCPAC, and CINCEUR-- the instructions spelled out arrangements for the passage of "personal authority" to implement "Furtherance" instructions should the CINCs be unavailable as well as the highly controlled dissemination of information about them. On the use of nuclear air defense weapons, the CINCs were reminded of the predelegation authority that been in effect since 1956. [8]


Documents 8A-B:

A: Resume of U.S.-Foreign Nuclear Agreements (Current as of 8 October 1968)," Top Secret, excised copy

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Addendum, box 52, "Furtherances, Top Secret"

B: L.D. Battle, Executive Secretary, Department of State, to McGeorge Bundy, "Check List of Presidential Actions," 20 July 1961, Top Secret

Source: National Archives, Record Group 59. Department of State Records, Central Decimal Files 1960-1963. 700.56311/7-2861

When Clark Clifford mentioned to President Johnson that the "Furtherance" instructions included two documents, he meant the instructions themselves and a reference document for commanders on the countries which had NATO nuclear weapons stockpiles, basing arrangements with the United States, or consultative arrangements on the use of nuclear weapons. A heavily excised version of the reference document appears here, A related memorandum prepared years earlier for President Kennedy, as the Berlin Crisis was heating up, provides an idea of the type of information the commanders would have received. Some circumstances had changed since 1961; for example, U.S. forces had no access to bases in France because of the latter's departure from the NATO military structure. Moreover, nuclear use consultative arrangements with the United Kingdom had new elements, while one with West Germany was being finalized.


Documents 9A-B:

A: Memorandum from Carl Walske, special assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy) to Bromley Smith [Executive Secretary, National Security Council],
"Instructions for Expenditure of Nuclear Weapons in Emergency Conditions (Code Name Furtherance)," with memoranda to commanders and JCS telegrams attached,
30 December 1968, Top Secret, excised copy, under appeal at ISCAP

Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Files, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 146, Top Secret Furtherance For the President

B: JCS cable 3397 to Commander-in-Chief Continental Air Defense Command et al., "Alternate Methods for Executing the SIOP and General War Plans," 18 October 1968, Top Secret, excised copy

Source: National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Records of JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, box 80, 323.3 CINCSAC

The Pentagon sent to the White House the next set of instructions to the CINCs; they had been briefed on 4 November and the Joint Chiefs had determined a time and date--excised from these documents-- when the Furtherance instructions went into effect. Portions of the instructions are substantially excised but they refer to a JCS cable on "Alternate Methods for Executing the SIOP and General War Plans." That cable and a follow-up message were included with the package sent to Bromley Smith. The opening paragraph of the 18 October cable is completely excised from the most recent classification, but a version released in the late 1990s is complete in that respect. Stunningly, the security reviewers for the most recent release decided that the fact of presidential control-civilian control over the military-over the implementation of the SIOP is a sensitive secret that must be protected.


Documents 10A-B: Lists of documents from the Lyndon Johnson Library file on "Furtherances"

Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Addendum, box 52, "Furtherances, Top Secret"

Document 10A lists the documents that the Johnson Library withheld in their entirety. 10B lists the excised documents; as mentioned, most of them are massively redacted. The list indicates a running exchange during 1965-1967, involving Walt Rostow and other officials at the NSC, State Department, and the Defense Department, on the issues raised by the "Furtherance" instructions.



[1] For "flexibility and discrimination," see David A. Rosenberg, "Constraining Overkill: Contending Approaches to NuclearStrategy,1955-1965," Naval Historical Center, Colloquium on Contemporary History Project, 23 September 2003.

[2] For stalemate, see William Burr and David Rosenberg, "Nuclear Competition in an Era of Stalemate, 1963-1975," Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, volume II (Cambridge, 2010), 88-111.

[3] Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 269-270. For more details on casualties, see "U.S. War Plans Would Kill an Estimated 108 Million Soviets, 104 Million Chinese, and 2.3 Million Poles: More Evidence on SIOP-62 and the Origins of Overkill," National Security Archive Weblog Unredacted (November 8, 2011).

[4] As national capitals, Moscow and Beijing were "withhold" candidates so that U.S. presidents would have someone with whom to negotiate if they decided that was a priority.

[5] During the 1958 Taiwan crisis, Eisenhower had ordered an initial conventional response in the event of Chinese military action. For Johnson's aversion to the idea of nuclear weapons use and de facto no-first use, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge, 2007), 206-207 and 252-256.

[6] John Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada (Toronto, 1999), especially 24-28.

[7] A heavily excised version of this memorandum appears in the State Department's historical series Foreign Relations of the United States1964-1968, Volume X (Washington, D.C., 2002), 751.

[8] For early decisions on air defense predelegation, see Christopher Bright, Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War (New York, 2010), 50-54.