If the President disappears…nuke everything

If the United States is under attack and the President is killed or missing…nuke every Communist in the Northern Hemisphere by destroying the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Even if they didn’t start it.

"Who we hitting?" "Everyone." "Why?!" "Can't find the President."

“Who we hitting?” “Everyone.” “Why?!” “Can’t find the President.”

That was pretty much the U.S. nuclear war plan up until 1968, when Lyndon Johnson, his national security team, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff finally got the willies about it badly enough that Johnson ordered it changed.

This is another remarkable — if creepy — find by Bill Burr and the National Security Archive at George Washington University. According to Burr:

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.

The document looks like this. (And yes, they really did mark them “EYES ONLY FOR THE PRESIDENT,” meaning no copies and no dissemination.)Ashampoo_Snap_2012.12.19_19h41m16s_001_

Note that this wasn’t some insane Doomsday Order hidden in a safe in the Pentagon: these were orders that LBJ and other presidents, including Kennedy, had approved. (But hey, it’s not like Jack Kennedy would get squirrelly and disappear during a major nuclear crisis; it’s not like he was taking a lot of prescriptions or anything, right?)

As I posted here about a year ago, the U.S. nuclear war plan already included hitting China in a war with the USSR, a “nuke ‘em just to be safe” addition to which only one of the Joint Chiefs, USMC Gen. David Shoup, objected. But at least this time, everyone figured out, in the words of advisor Walt Rostow, that getting rid of this contingency was “an essential change. This was dangerous.”

Why would anyone draw up a plan like this in the first place? Until the mid-1960s, American strategists faced a Sino-Soviet alliance with a massive conventional and numerical superiority, and they decided that common sense dictated that no war would ever be fought against the Soviet Union that didn’t include China and vice versa. Maybe that was a good assumption, but nuking all of them at once under almost all circumstances is a pretty extreme solution.

I suspect it took several years of studying the Bomb, and a gargantuan buildup of nuclear arms — the U.S. had over 30,000 by 1967 — before the realization really started to sink in that a major nuclear war would be a civilization-ending event. And by late 1968, it was obvious that the Chinese and the Soviets hated each other’s guts, and were more likely to fight each other than to fight the United States, so there was no need to go after them both.

(This didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from arguing for years afterward that the whole Sin0-Soviet split was a head-fake. I actually knew some of them.)

This would be just another of those “what the hell were we thinking” documents from the Cold War, except that it does raise a point about nuclear planning today in one way: the idea that nuclear weapons solve strategic problems that otherwise seem insurmountable.

Talk to the opponents of nuclear reductions, and you’ll hear the same tired arguments: some targets can only be hit with nukes, nothing else is fast enough, our enemies don’t fear anything else, and so on. And besides — the unspoken or sometimes explicit addendum always goes — conventional forces are too expensive. If North Korea acts up, we can’t field a big enough army to take them on without nuclear arms.

Thinking that nuclear weapons can compensate for conventional gaps is dumb. (Which is to say, it’s the way the Russians still think about nuclear weapons.) One form of force cannot substitute for another. The “nuke ‘em all” strategy of the 1960s is the only the most extreme result of using nuclear arms as a crutch, or as a stand-in for thinking about an actual strategy.

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