RESEARCH DOCUMENT /// “How Much is Enough ?”: The U.S. Navy and “Finite Deterrence”

"How Much is Enough ?": The U.S. Navy and "Finite Deterrence"

The Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602), one of the earliest Polaris submarines, cuts through the Atlantic Ocean in this undated photo. (U.S. Navy photo posted on NavSource, original provided by Pelican Harbor Submarine Veterans)

Navy Leaders Worried that U.S. Posture of “Hair Trigger Readiness” and Vulnerable
Missile Silos Could Cause “Uneasy” Enemies to Launch Surprise Attack

“Even the Maddest Russian” was Deterred because the Soviets “had Striven too Hard to
Industrialize” to Risk Nuclear Devastation: CNO Arleigh Burke

Navy Report on Nuclear War Plan: “A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the end of Two Hours”

Update of EBB 275 – with new text and additional documents

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)

The Lockheed Aircraft-developed Polaris missile in mid-air during an early test at Cape Canaveral on 24 June 1958 (Location of original photo: National Archives, Still Pictures Division, Record Group 342B, box 329)

Rear Admiral William F. Raborn, USN (left), and Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, examine a cutaway model of the ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington (SSBN-598), in July 1959. Raborn was director of the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Office, which directed research, development, and production of the Polaris submarine. (U.S Navy, Naval Historical Center, Photographic Section, Photo # USN 710496) (Thanks to David A. Rosenberg for digital image)

Washington, D.C., October 14, 2021 – The Pentagon’s plan for a trillion-dollar spending program to build new ICBMs, submarines, and bombers has met pushback from critics in and out of Congress who worry about excessive military spending. Some argue that ICBMs are destabilizing and that fewer land-based missiles and bombers and continued investment in submarine-launched ballistic missiles would reduce the U.S.’s vulnerability to nuclear attack. These points recall the debates over "how much is enough" some sixty years ago when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke argued that a small strategic force of mainly nuclear missile-launching Polaris submarines was enough to deter a Soviet attack while large numbers of land-based missiles would provide vulnerable targets for the Soviet Union. Burke and Navy leaders developed a concept of "finite" or "minimum" deterrence that they believed would make the United States safer by dissuading nuclear attacks and removing pressures for a dangerous "hair-trigger" posture.

Top level Kennedy administration defense officials rejected Burke’s finite deterrence notions, but they continue to be relevant to the contemporary debate over nuclear force posture. A recent report from the Federation of American Scientists reviews the advantages of a smaller and less dangerous and destabilizing nuclear force structure. Assessing proposals for a Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—the new term for Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) (ICBM)—as costly and perilous, the FAS study implicitly treats alert bombers and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as less vulnerable and more stabilizing.[1]

In early 1960, when Eisenhower’s budget director Maurice Stans was told that the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile-launching submarines could "destroy 232 targets, which was sufficient to destroy all of Russia," he asked defense officials, "If POLARIS could do this job, why did we need other … ICBMs, SAC aircraft, and overseas bases?" According to Stans, the answer "he had received … [was] that was someone else’s problem." This electronic briefing book of declassified documents obtained through archival research and published by the National Security Archive shows how the U.S. Navy, tried to take responsibility for this "problem" by supporting a minimum deterrent force that would target a "finite" list of major urban-industrial and command centers in the heart of the Soviet Union.

With their capability to destroy key Soviet targets, Burke believed, the virtually undetectable and invulnerable Polaris submarines could "inflict terrible punishment" and deter Moscow from launching a surprise attack on the United States or its allies. By contrast, Burke saw land-based missile and bombers as vulnerable to attack, which made the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship dangerously unstable. While he did not propose eliminating all strategic bombers and ICBMs, he believed that a force of about 40 Polaris submarines (16 missiles each) was a reasonable answer to the question "how much is enough?" Although the Kennedy administration rejected Burke’s concept, years later former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara revived it by arguing that 400 nuclear weapons were "enough" to deter a Soviet attack.

Today’s publication includes:

  • A report by Admiral Roy Johnson arguing that the proper basis of deterrence lay in the "assured delivery of rather few weapons," which was "sufficient to inflict terrible punishment." Even "10 delivered weapons would produce a major disaster with fully a quarter as many casualties as the first hundred." (Document 3)
  • A speech by Arleigh Burke where he argued that Polaris submarines would mitigate the vulnerabilities of strategic forces but would also "provide time to think in periods of tension" making possible gradual retaliation as well as opportunities for "political coercion, if we like, to gain national objectives more advantageous than simple revenge." (Document 7)
  • Burke’s inside "Dope" newsletter to top Navy commanders where he declared that hair-trigger nuclear response capabilities and preemptive nuclear strategies were "dangerous for any nation" because they could initiate "a war which would not otherwise occur." (Document 14)
  • The record of Burke’s conversation with the Secretary of the Navy, where, having lost a major bureaucratic conflict over the direction of nuclear targeting, he declared that Air Force leaders were "smart and ruthless … it’s the same way as the Communists; it’s exactly the same techniques." (Document 17)
  • Secret debate between Burke and JCS Chairman Nathan Twining over what was required for deterrence and who should have authority over war planning (Documents 11 and 12).

This is a reposting and update of an Electronic Briefing Book published in May 2009, when there was optimism that the Obama administration would take initiatives to cut U.S. nuclear forces. As noted below, the situation turned out differently in part because President Obama had a different estimate of what was politically possible. Nevertheless, the issues presented in the 2009 publication are relevant to current discussions and the posting has been updated to take that into account. The “finite deterrence” debate of 1960-1961 was one of those moments in Cold War history when top officials considered radical changes in the U.S. nuclear posture, involving significantly smaller or differently structured strategic forces. More powerful interests and conflicting policy imperatives put those proposals aside, but they are worth revisiting because their proponents raised searching questions about force deployments that were seldom addressed during the Cold War.

Besides the documents highlighted above, today’s publication includes several new items. One is a 1954 U.S. Navy report of a Strategic Air Command (SAC) briefing on nuclear war plans demonstrating how, according to the plan, it would leave the Soviet Union “a smoking radiating ruin at the end of two hours.” This briefing, originally declassified in the early 1980s, was one of the first official releases on U.S. nuclear war planning during the Cold War. Also [, doc 6]] published today is a 1958 RAND Corporation appraisal of the Polaris missile-launching submarine, which found “much to commend” in Polaris, in large part because of its “dispersal, concealment, and mobility.”

Most of the sources for the documents in this publication are collections at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Navy’s archives. The digital version of the records produced here consists of scanned PDF images, produced by the National Security Archive staff, of the paper originals. Until more and more archival records are digitized, which will likely be a slow process over many years, researchers who wish to delve further into the archives (whenever they are open) will often be looking at paper files.

"How Much is Enough?": The U.S. Navy and "Finite Deterrence"

Ever since 1945, and especially after when tensions with the former Soviet Union turned into Cold War, United States government officials and outside analysts have considered the question, "How much is enough?" when thinking about appropriate levels for U.S. nuclear forces. Were force levels just right, not large enough, or too large and dangerous to deter possible threats or to support other purposes, such as political coercion or preempting an attack? During the Cold War and since, other nuclear powers have faced similar questions and have come up with a range of answers. China and France, for example, focused more on straightforward deterrence and built relatively small nuclear forces. In contrast, the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which sought preemptive capabilities, produced a total of over 70,000 nuclear warheads because of their Cold War arms race.

During the last fifteen years, the U.S.’s reliance on a large nuclear weapons stockpile has been the subject of continuing debate.

In 2008, the so-called “Gang of Four,” George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, raised explicitly the prospect of abolishing nuclear weapons altogether on the grounds that their existence anywhere posed too many dangers in an age of non-state actor terrorism.[2] The goal was embraced by former President Barack Obama in his speech at Hradcany Square in Prague on April 5, 2009, where he proclaimed "America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Obama’s hopes produced only a few tangible results because he concluded that unilateral moves had too many downsides for the U.S. international position, supporting instead cuts in nuclear forces that occurred in concert with allies and adversaries.[3] Nevertheless, he left major legacies. One was the 2013 guidance that war plans, including nuclear targeting, “must … be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict”: distinction, proportionality, and precaution. That required that the “United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.” While the detailed implications of nuclear targeting policy are secret, this was a profound change from U.S. Cold War policy on the non-applicability to nuclear weapons of the 1977 Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.[4]

The momentum for nuclear abolition persisted notwithstanding President Obama’s inclinations and the resurgence of support for nuclear weapons programs inside the Trump administration. The abolitionist impetus resulted in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whose negotiation began in late 2016, which the UN adopted in 2017, and which entered into force on 22 January 2021. The ban treaty has strong moral force, but like the NPT it has no enforcement mechanism. Moreover, none of the nuclear weapons states have supported it.

While the Biden administration is unlikely to support the ban treaty at any point, it supports reduced reliance on nuclear weapons as a path toward greater security. This puts it at loggerheads with the important forces at the Pentagon and Congress who think otherwise, so how the White House navigates the difficult issue will have a lasting impact. The Nuclear Policy Review that the White House sponsors will be highly significant in this respect because by dealing with the proposals for more spending on ICBMs and bombers it will have to find its own answers to the problem of "how much is enough." In this context, it seems appropriate to look for a "usable past" and discover moments in recent history when U.S. government officials, from senior commanders to presidents, looked at the possibility of basic changes in the U.S. nuclear posture.[5]

The Polaris Program and the Origins of Finite Deterrence

In the late 1950s-early 1960s the concept of "finite deterrence" (or "minimum deterrence") emerged as an alternative to the Eisenhower administration’s emphasis on "massive retaliation." With nuclear weapons reaching their maximum destructiveness and ballistic missiles about to become a central element of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, U.S. presidents would approve the high levels of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers that would endure for decades. The pressures for high numbers of weapons were substantial, stemming from the Air Force’s standard operating procedure of targeting numerous Soviet military installations ("counterforce"), as well as the exaggerated apprehensions in Washington about a "missile gap" favoring Moscow. Nevertheless, CNO Arleigh Burke rejected Air Force strategy on the grounds that a smaller nuclear force, consisting mainly of Polaris submarine-launched missiles and threatening a "finite" group of Soviet urban-industrial targets, would be enough for the deterrence mission. A deterrent force based on submarines, proponents argued, would provide more secure, nearly invulnerable, weapons and put policymakers under far less pressure to launch quickly in a crisis than would bombers and ICBMs.

Critically shaping the Navy perspective was the advent of the Polaris ballistic missile program, which would deploy intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) on nuclear submarines, launching them from below the ocean’s surface. When Arleigh Burke initiated the innovative Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program in the mid-1950s, he was interested in a capability that would reduce the U.S.’s dependence on vulnerable fixed-base weapons, such as the Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber force. The conviction that submarine-based IRBMs would be virtually undetectable informed Navy thinking that Polaris could become the U.S.’s chief nuclear deterrent force, supplemented by carrier aircraft and limited numbers of bombers and ICBMs (although some Navy strategists proposed a Navy-only deterrent system). In a line of reasoning developed by the Navy’s strategists and others, the Polaris fleet would provide a "finite deterrent" to any threats of nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail by the Soviet Union. A Naval commander, Paul Backus, coined the term "finite deterrence" in a prize-winning paper he published in early 1959.[6]

What made the Navy’s approach so interesting was that it was developing ideas for a limited nuclear force posture during a tense period of the Cold War when a "missile gap" was beginning to preoccupy national leaders. Yet, Navy leaders and a few like-minded State Department officials were tenacious Cold Warriors who believed that their strategy would enable the United States to prosecute the conflict +with Communist states more effectively without some of the dangers posed by alternative postures.[7]

Defense Politics and the Eclipse of Finite Deterrence

If the Navy’s finite deterrence strategy had prevailed, the superpower nuclear arms race might have developed in a different way, with a smaller strategic arsenal on the U.S. side, and perhaps a parallel development on the Soviet side. Yet, as confident as Navy leaders were in the validity of their strategic concept, they were operating in an uncongenial political environment. Ideas of "minimum" or "finite deterrence" lacked enough institutional and political support to make them viable, especially in the tense atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s when pressures were moving in the opposite direction. Burke and his colleagues were developing their ideas in the wake of the "Sputnik" flap and the "missile gap" controversy when many worried that the Soviet Union was going to produce a substantial and threatening ICBM force that could knock out SAC. President Eisenhower, who worried about excessive force levels, nonetheless supported both Polaris and a large Minuteman ICBM force because of his uncertainty about Soviet capabilities and possible U.S. vulnerability. [8]

Influential Democrats, such as former secretary of the Air Force Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo) repeatedly charged that the Eisenhower administration was letting U.S. air power fall behind the Soviets, and when the missile gap controversy emerged, he stepped up the pressure, as did Senator John F. Kennedy, who was positioning himself as a defense hawk in the 1960 presidential campaign. While Symington and Kennedy strongly supported Polaris, they had no interest in constraining SAC’s role in nuclear strategy. [9]

The Navy had a powerful adversary in the Air Force, whose leaders saw finite deterrence as an attack on their strategic concepts, which required a large ICBM force to make good on their expansive and expensive counterforce strategy. In speeches, Air Force leaders harshly attacked the Navy for rejecting "war winning objectives in nuclear war" (see Document 19). While the Air Force was not strong enough to win control of the Polaris force through a failed bid to centralize control over strategic forces, it won other battles with the Navy, notably in a conflict over organizational mechanisms for creating the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). While the targets that the Navy emphasized for deterrence, major urban-industrial centers, were part of the SIOP, the overwhelming emphasis of the war plan was counterforce, Soviet nuclear threat targets.[10]

Kennedy’s attacks on the Republicans and their presidential candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, over a U.S.-Soviet missile gap in Moscow’s favor, helped him win the presidency. In the first days of the new administration, in January 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received what turned out to be an all-day briefing on the recently produced Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG)-50 report on the strategic force posture. Completed at the end of the Eisenhower administration, the WSEG-50 study sharply criticized counterforce strategy, but it also found minimum deterrence wanting for not providing a credible enough threat. The oral presentation, however, may have given a better spin on the Navy’s strategy and the possibility of basing national deterrence strategy on the Polaris submarine fleet. While the briefing greatly impressed McNamara, an Air Force Project RAND briefing on counterforce strategy that he heard a few days later had an even more important impact. McNamara remained enthusiastic about Polaris and its role in a "controlled response" strategy for later stages of a nuclear war, but Project RAND "no cities/counterforce" concepts would strongly influence his thinking. By contrast, White House science adviser Jerome Wiesner and the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) supported finite deterrence concepts, but their influence was marginal when compared to McNamara’s.[11]

When Arleigh Burke retired as CNO in the summer of 1961, the most committed supporter of finite deterrence was out of government. That Burke’s ideas had no place in the Kennedy administration became evident in the fall of 1961 when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent a report to President Kennedy explicitly rejecting "finite deterrence" as a plausible strategic posture (although he later changed his mind). Thus, "overkill" levels of bomber, ICBM, and SLBM forces developed during the 1960s and remained substantially uncut until the Cold War had ended.

It was not until the end of the Cold War that proposals for a finite deterrence system re-emerged but briefly and tenuously. During the Clinton administration’s nuclear posture review, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Ashton Carter presided over the first Nuclear Posture Review. Willing to challenge the old verities, Carter’s first proposal was to eliminate ICBMs and cut back numbers of strategic bombers, with a minimum deterrence posture to be based on SLBMs. The service chiefs sharply protested, and Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch received a briefing with vu-graph slides. Deutch listened for a few minutes and then directed that the slides be destroyed. The Triad was sacrosanct, not to be challenged by an assistant secretary.[12]

Minimum deterrence stayed underground until the “Gang of Four” raised the idea of nuclear abolition in 2007 and 2008. Former officials Jan Lodal and Ivo Daalder suggested that a “finite deterrence” nuclear force could serve as a half-way measure, arguing that ICBMs were destabilizing but that the missile-launching submarine force was “invulnerable while on patrol and could ride out any attack.” In the same vein, but with a different emphasis, a report by Robert S. Norris, Hans Kristensen, and Ivan Oelrich, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence — A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons, proposed a land-based bomber and missile force, eliminating all submarines, as a minimal deterrent. Given that the Trident SLBMs had a counterforce role, suitable for preemptive purposes, they questioned whether Trident had a stabilizing role. Significantly, during the Obama administration, ideas of minimum deterrence would re-surface when NSC staffer Jon Wolfsthal encouraged a new look by asking colleagues to read the Norris-Kristensen-Oelrich report. Wolfsthal, however, was unsuccessful in shaking things up—the Triad was not to be questioned.[13]

While the Obama administration was interested in cutting the ICBM force, moves in that direction were stymied by the “ICBM Caucus” – U.S. Senators with Minuteman silos in their states. Meanwhile, the momentum globally for a nuclear ban treaty was strong and by the end of Obama’s second term it was being negotiated. The nuclear ban treaty entered into force in January 2021, although with no support from the nuclear weapons states and their allies. A nuclear ban is not on the Biden administration’s agenda, but arms control has been; one of the White House’s first acts was an agreement with Russia to extend the New START Treaty for five years, putting a ceiling on numbers of strategic weapons and delivery systems. Moreover, since the early summer of 2021 the U.S. and Russia have been holding talks on strategic stability issues.

Candidate Biden was critical of the previous administration’s plans for new ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers, but President Biden’s budget includes Pentagon plans for new systems, perhaps to avoid a fight with the “ICBM caucus.” Indeed, the Biden administration proposes to increase spending for those programs at levels above its predecessor. The pending White House Nuclear Posture Review may rethink those proposals, or it may support more spending for the Triad. Presumably it will leave intact Obama’s strictures against civilian targeting while closing loopholes created by the previous administration.

In the meantime, the Pentagon’s plans remain deeply controversial. A recent Federation of American Scientists study, Siloed Thinking: A Closer Look at the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent provides a detailed, critical appraisal of a central element of the plans: the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Seeing land-based ICBMs as destabilizing and vulnerable, the report rejects the GBSD as costly and dangerous. Instead, the FAS report supports extending the life of Minuteman III as far less expensive and more stable. The report further suggests that cuts in the ICBM force would even be better: “any reductions to such a uniquely destabilizing weapon system would reduce the risk of a devastating nuclear attack on US soil.” Instead, the report treats alert bombers and SLBMs as less vulnerable and more stabilizing. In particular, it calls for “prioritiz[ing] the role of ballistic missile submarines in ensuring that the United States is able to ‘ride out’ a nuclear attack, accurately assess damage, and still maintain an assured retaliatory capability.”[14]

Given the changes in U.S. policy on the laws of nuclear war that took place in 2013, any finite deterrence targeting proposals and enhanced reliance on SLBMs for deterrence would have to be accommodate the principles of the Geneva Conventions so as to avoid targeting civilian populations. Historically, proponents of finite deterrence in the Navy and the State Department acknowledged that implementing their strategy would kill large numbers of people, but they believed that it was far less destructive of human life than the ground bursts used in Air Force counterforce targeting. Later, as criticisms of civilian targeting became more prominent, U.S. targeting policy became obfuscatory, e.g., targeting "economic recovery" capabilities instead of urban-industrial complexes as such, but the results would have caused large-scale civilian fatalities all the same.[15] Such practices, however, were officially ruled out in 2013, although how successful current targeting protocols, if they survived scrutiny during the last administration, are at avoiding or minimizing conflicts with Geneva remains unknown.

The Documents

Document 1 New

“A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours”Op-36C to Op-36 Via: Op-36B3 Subj: “Briefing Given to the Representatives of all Services at SAC Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, on 15 March 1954,” signed by W.B. Moore, Captain, USN, 18 March 1954, Top Secret

Mar 18, 1954


U.S. Navy Heritage and History Command, Navy Archives, Records of the Strategic Plans Division (Op-30), folder A43 (l), Status of War Plans; Operation Plans, 1954 [copy courtesy of David Alan Rosenberg]

An exemplar of the state of U.S. nuclear war planning in the mid-1950s, with the U.S. Navy’s perspective, can be found in this extraordinary record of a Strategic Air Command briefing first published in International Security, Winter 1981/1982, by David A. Rosenberg in "A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End Of Two Hours": Documents on American Plans for Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, 1954-1955.” The briefing at SAQ Headquarters in March 1954 was attended by Captain William B. Moore, the executive assistant to the director of Op-36, Atomic Energy Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, who later prepared a detailed account of the briefing. As Rosenberg observed, “Like many other naval officers involved in war planning and nuclear weapons matters during the early post-war period, Moore was clearly skeptical regarding the wisdom of SAC’s priorities and plans, as well as its claims about its capabilities,” but “his recounting of the briefing [was] careful and accurate.”

Rosenberg’s evaluation of the SAC briefing and related documents remains highly valuable. One his major points was that Moore’s account captured the most essential features of the SAC “optimum” plan for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Although SAC had specific target priorities (“BRAVO”: Soviet nuclear capabilities; DELTA: Soviet war-making capabilities; and ROMEO: Soviet armies heading into Western Europe), the planners allowed “operational considerations [to] blur the distinctions between different types of targets.” SAC’s optimum plan sought to “strike the entire target list in a single massive blow,” thus enabling bombers to enter and exit Soviet air space rapidly so as to “maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the nuclear offensive, and to reduce U.S. losses to a minimum.” Moore wrote that his “final impression” of the SAC offensive was that it would have a calamitous impact on the Soviet Union.

Plainly impressed by the briefing, Moore suggested that SAC was “in a higher state of combat readiness today than any other U.S. military command.”

But he also observed that SAC commanders were “optimistic” about their capabilities to implement complex war plans, which among other elements, assumed that air defenses could not deflect a mass bombing raid that approached Soviet territory from many directions. And Moore further noted that during the briefing and the Q&A afterwards “no questions” were raised about the morality of the war plans or their impact, whose effect would be to annihilate huge numbers of Soviet civilians. Plainly he found that disturbing but said no more about it.

Documents 2A-C: To "Supplant [SAC] in Substantial Measure"

Document 2A

Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans and Policy Admiral Ruthven E. Libby to Chief of Naval Operations, "Guided Missile Sites in the Middle East," 25 January 1957, Top Secret

Jan 25, 1957

Document 2B

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Harry Felt to Chief of Naval Operations, "Guided Missile Sites in the Middle East," 31 January 1957, Top Secret

Jan 31, 1957

Document 2C

Admiral Libby to Chief of Naval Operations, "Railroad: Running of," 1 February 1957, Top Secret

Feb 1, 1957

While the Navy was developing the Polaris submarine and missile, a wide-ranging discussion was taking place in the U.S. government about the possibility of installing land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Europe and elsewhere. Reacting to an earlier Navy memorandum on a possible IRBM deployment in the Middle East, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Ruthven Libby suggested that was inadvisable because both the Soviets and the Strategic Air Command sought to target and to destroy "every known airfield and all known atomic facilities." Such a targeting strategy would produce a disaster: "The damage and casualties to each country accruing from the atomic exchange designed primary to eliminate each other’s atomic capability is all out of proportion to the purely military objective; and it is generally acknowledged that effective defense against this attack is not possible." Believing that the U.S. strategic posture was becoming dangerously unstable, Libby argued that the "best defense is to remove our atomic retaliatory capability from fixed bases either in the United States or elsewhere and put it afloat," thereby "eliminat[ing] the military necessity which the Soviets will feel to attack the continental United States" in general war.

Vice CNO Admiral Harry Felt looked askance at this paper, but Libby suggested that there had been some misunderstanding. It was not a matter of "casting envious eyes on the SAC side of the fence," because it was not the Navy that "needs the IRBM; the IRBM needs the Navy." Deploying missiles on submarines would enable the Navy to do something better than superimposing itself on SAC. Using language that would have caused nightmares among Air Force leaders, Libby suggested that ship-borne IRBMs could actually "supplant [SAC capability] in substantial measure." If "we had a substantial number of IRBM submarines deployed … around the Eurasian periphery, we would have a retaliatory capability which would be difficult…for the Soviets to neutralize." Further, "I think the United States would be better advised to channel funds and manpower in this direction rather than to more B-52s, more airfields, more tankers, and more overseas bases in somebody else’s front yard." The term "finite deterrence" had yet to be coined, but Libby’s emphasis on a retaliatory submarine-based deterrent was heading towards it.

Document 3

"A Stable Stalemate of Mutual Deterrence"

Dec 31, 1969



Navy Archives, Records of Strategic Plans Division, box 354, 1957 A16-10

The radical concepts that Admiral Libby spelled out in his brief memoranda were fleshed out in a report prepared by Admiral Roy Johnson’s Long Range Objectives Group (Op-93) and the Naval Warfare Analysis Group.[16] Rejecting SAC’s strategic concepts (as well as preventive war), Navy analysts argued that the proper basis of deterrence lay in the "assured delivery of rather few weapons" which was "sufficient to inflict terrible punishment." Even "10 delivered weapons would produce a major disaster with fully a quarter as many casualties as the first hundred." Moreover, with deterrence based on invulnerable missile-launching submarines there would be "no premium on striking the first blow" and it would be possible to use strategic forces with "constraint and deliberation." If deterrence failed, such a capability would decrease the "magnitude of the economic and social disaster of general war … and afford a prospect of salvaging at least some national political objectives."

The analysts further suggested that the Soviet Union would ultimately develop comparable systems "invulnerable to surprise" which could lead to a "stable stalemate of ‘mutual deterrence.’" This may not be the first use of the term "mutual deterrence," but it may have been a very early use.

Besides laying out the conceptual basis for a new strategy, the report included recommendations to reorient planning, forces, and budgets. Thus, SAC should be "constrained" to move it away from its emphasis on the "initiation" of attack, while the submarine-launched fleet ballistic missile (FBM) program should accelerate, high-yield warheads should play a smaller role in the nuclear stockpile, and conventional forces should be expanded for greater "freedom of action" in Cold War confrontations. For their criticisms of the Air Force’s risky force posture, it is worth noting that the authors argue that "Hungary was defaulted primarily for lack of divisions in Europe."

Document 4

"Make No Wild Claims" on PolarisCNO Personal No. 35, To: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 5 March 1958, Secret, Excerpt: Item 5 on "Polaris" (pages 13-15), Secret

Mar 5, 1957


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter # 33-38 Jan-June 1958 One way that CNO Arleigh Burke kept in touch with his admirals was by sending out bulletins expressing his thinking and knowledge—-the inside "dope"—on a range of issues, from budgets to administration, but also strategic assessments. In a set of talking points for use by senior officers when publicly discussing the Polaris system, Burke advised the admirals to avoid "wild claims" because Polaris had yet to be tested as a system. Moreover, admirals should not argue that the Navy wanted to put all the "nation’s eggs in one basket for deterrence." Nevertheless, Burke’s arguments about Polaris’s advantages pointed in that direction by identifying fixed-based systems with provocation, instability, vulnerability, and arms races.

In this report, Burke demonstrated how Navy leaders were developing the soon-to-become-familiar concept of “crisis stability.” According to Burke, because of Polaris’s near-invulnerability, whenever an East-West crisis arose U.S. leaders would not be under “psychological pressure to push the button first in fear that our reprisal capability might be knocked out by surprise.” That, Burke suggested, could be “important [for permitting] stability during periods of international tension which come and go.”[17]

Document 5

"The Air Force Hopes to Kill Our POLARIS program"CNO Personal No. 36, To: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 2 April 1958, Secret, Excerpt: Item 1 [pp. 7-18] on "Request for Additional DOD Supplemental Funds," Secret ("Flag Officers Only-Hold Closely- Secret")

Apr 2, 1958


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter # 33-38 Jan-June 1958

In a report to the admirals on budget developments, Burke provided some of the flavor of inter-service rivalries over nuclear weapons systems. For the Navy, the key items in the proposed add-on to the fiscal year 1959 budget were acceleration of the Polaris program and augmentation of anti-submarine warfare capabilities. With the Secretary of Defense giving the services an opportunity to comment on each other’s programs, the Navy found both the Army and the Air Force criticizing Polaris. The Army pointed to its "unproved" feasibility and joined the Air Force in raising questions about Polaris’s accuracy and its ability to strike "specific targets." The Air Force also questioned the system’s abilities to "maintain an alert on station" status and to "transmit and receive communications while submerged." For its part, the Air Force was pushing the solid-fuel Minuteman ICBM as a successor to the liquid-fuel Atlas and Titan missiles. Burke saw an Air Force design to use Minuteman to "kill" Polaris because it was making "drastic claims about the minimum costs and time scale of completion of MINUTEMAN in comparison with POLARIS."

Document 6 New

E.P. Oliver, Polaris Weapon System, 28 October 1958, RAND Memorandum RM-2311, Secret, excised copy

Oct 28, 1958


Air Force FOIA release

Whatever Air Force hopes may have been about “killing” Polaris, it wanted its contractor, the RAND Corporation, to prepare a “factual and unbiased assessment of the Polaris weapon system potential.” The ensuing report was highly positive, finding “much to commend in Polaris as a part of the U.S. strategic forces.” Among the attributes that reduced the Polaris’s vulnerability compared to other weapons systems was its “dispersal, concealment, and mobility,” especially the latter, which ruled out the “possibility of the enemy knowing in advance the precise geographical coordinates of the force except for the part undergoing overhaul in port or being serviced at a tender.” Also favoring Polaris was that it removed “strategic targets from the U.S. or populated areas so that targeting this system does not result in collateral or bonus damage.” In addition, if an adversary launched a “premeditated” attack, Polaris “could have a useful wartime life measured in weeks or months, which under present plans no other strategic system would have against a coordinated ICBM and manned bomber attack.”

That the Soviet Union would have great difficulty in tracking Polaris was an advantage, as noted. “This is not to say that the Soviet will not be able to take effective action against the Polaris system; but the characteristics of’ the operating medium, the state of’ underwater detection technology, and the available tactics favor the evader rather than the tracker if the Polaris submarine is quiet.”

The report raised questions about the effectiveness of Polaris as a deterrent because “there has been no definitive analysis of the relation between damage capability and deterrence.” One estimate or “guess” about the destruction necessary to deter was “25 per cent structural collapse” in about 100 cities or about 10 million fatalities. Even though such losses would be “calamitous” the Soviets lost more people during World War II and they “were able to continue a major military action, win the war, and subsequently recover.” Even with the uncertainties of what would constitute deterrence, the author saw “first-order considerations” that made Polaris “an attractive system.” It appeared to “promise a useful damage capability against soft known military targets and deterrence targets and combines this capability with a basing principle which offers unique advantages.”

Document 7

"More Advantageous Than Simple Revenge"

Dec 31, 1969



Library of Congress, Thomas White Papers, box 28, Navy [Also available on Digital National Security Archive [DNSA]

The Navy’s new thinking disturbed Air Force leaders like Chief of Staff Thomas White who wanted to make a case against it by finding examples of older Navy language condemning "inhuman and indiscriminate bombing of cities and population." White’s assistant (future JCS chairman) George S. Brown could not find any examples, but he did find an unclassified Arleigh Burke statement making the basic case for the Navy’s approach. According to Burke, Polaris would mitigate strategic force vulnerabilities, but it would also "provide time to think in periods of tension" making possible gradual retaliation as well as opportunities for "political coercion, if we like, to gain national objectives more advantageous than simple revenge." In addition, "security against surprise …discourages an arms race," which reliance on "the fortress concept" of buried fixed installations would aggravate.

Document 8

A "Finite" List of Targets "Fatal to the Structure of the Soviet Empire"Gerard C. Smith, director, Policy Planning Staff, to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, "Review of Strategic Concept," 20 January 1959, Top Secret 1959-01-20

Dec 31, 1969


State Department Policy Planning Staff director Gerard C. Smith had been working closely with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in trying to develop alternatives to massive retaliation which both believed was becoming less and less credible as the "primary deterrent to all kinds of Communist aggression." In this paper, Smith fleshed out proposals for a minimum deterrence force that he believed was consistent with the direction of Dulles’ thinking. But Smith’s suggestions for an alternative nuclear strategy met formidable resistance at the Pentagon, although some of his ideas would dovetail with the policies of the Democratic administrations during the 1960s.[18]

Like Navy planners, Smith rejected the Air Force’s "counter-force" strategy with its emphasis on targeting "very large-yield" nuclear weapons on Soviet strategic installations. He argued that quick-reacting ICBMs would be elusive targets and that the resulting nuclear explosions and fall-out would kill millions around the world; moreover, budgetary costs were substantial. As an alternative to massive retaliation and a vulnerable force of bombers and missiles, Smith placed "much greater emphasis … on the invulnerability of the force." He suggested striking a "finite" list of targets—"control centers and power bases"—using smaller yield and airburst weapons; damage and fatalities would be large, but not as destructive as a counter-force attack. The U.S. would be striking major political and population centers, which would be "fatal to the structure of [the Soviet] empire." It would be interesting to know whether Smith chose the word "finite" on his own or whether he had read (or heard about) the Backus paper prior to publication.

Smith did not mention Polaris, but he may have been thinking about submarines and mobile missiles generally when he wrote that "mobility and elusiveness are among the qualities we should emphasize." Those qualities, Smith argued, would have great advantages; not only would they make impractical "a pre-emptive Soviet nuclear attack to disarm us," they would also reduce the "risk of war by misadventure as we would not have to react instantaneously to an ambiguous threat of major Communist aggression." Moreover, a force that directly threatened Soviet "imperial control centers" would be more acceptable to allies than counterforce because of the lessened "danger of severe fall-out effects extending around the world."

Document 9

"The Finite Deterrent System" versus Launching a "World Holocaust"Arleigh Burke for All Flag Officers, "Views on Adequacy of U.S. Deterrent/Retaliatory Forces as Related to General and Limited War Capabilities," 4 March 1959, Confidential

Mar 4, 1959


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum #44-49 May-June 1959

With this memo, Burke introduced "finite deterrence" the Navy’s vocabulary. Some of the presentation restated points made in earlier documents, such as Burke’s letter to retired admirals [document 6] and Smith’s memorandum, but the report provided a comprehensive treatment of the Navy’s new concepts. Rejecting preventive war or "surprise attack" on Soviet nuclear bases as a strategy—it would "launch a world holocaust"—Burke argued that the United States must chose a "finite" set of targets which would require fewer megatons than counterforce. A "finite deterrence" target system would threaten "the most vulnerable and essential features in Soviet life: … the control structure of their government and the Communist Party and the industrial complex which is the foundation of their national power." That would "mean killing a lot of people" if war came, but like Smith, Burke argued that counterforce relying on ground-burst strikes of high-yield weapons would "result in killing a much larger number of people." While Burke allowed for the importance of "multiple strike systems", the analysis emphasized the value of invulnerable weapons systems "in the years ahead" and the problems associated with air bases and land-based missiles.

Document 10

"Key to Survival in the Nuclear Age is Dispersal"CNO Personal No. 51, To: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 6 July 1959, Secret, Excerpts: Item on Command and Control of Polaris Submarines [pp. 4-8]

Jul 6, 1959


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum #51, 53-54 July-Dec 1959

SAC’s commander-in-chief (CINCSAC) Thomas Power’s proposal to establish a strategic command that would control the Polaris fleet preoccupied Burke and his colleagues for the following year. While Power argued that better coordination of strategic forces required centralized control, Burke was not going to give up Navy control of Polaris. As a background source told the old Washington Star, the Air Force "will have to walk over a prostrate Arleigh Burke to get" Polaris. In this CNO "Dope" piece, Burke reviewed the briefing he gave to Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy arguing that the "present unified command structure is entirely adequate and needs no basic changes to handle Polaris." From Burke’s perspective, a "single command" could delay retaliation against a Soviet attack: "Strike back capability must be dispersed to more than one Unified Commander just as certainly as the individual striking units must be dispersed." Burke prevailed to the extent that he kept a naval officer in command of Polaris; the first Polaris boats would be under the control of the Naval officer who was commander-in-chief of both the Atlantic Command (CINCLANT) and Atlantic Fleet (CINCLANTFLT). But this was a power-sharing arrangement because the Atlantic Command was a unified command which reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and ultimately the Secretary of Defense.[19]

Document 11 New

JCS Chairman Nathan Twining to Secretary of Defense, “Target Coordination and Associated Problems,” 17 August 1959, CM-380-59, enclosed in JCS 2056/131, 20 August 1959, Top Secret

Aug 20, 1959


DNSA; National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3205 (17 Aug 59)

What became a major step toward the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), JCS Chairman Nathan Twining sent the secretary of defense a long memo on nuclear targeting issues. Concerned about duplication in nuclear targeting and believing that targeting diverse nuclear forces needed better coordination, Twining noted the strongly held views among the Chiefs about targeting priorities. Rejecting ideas of finite deterrence, he argued that “The necessity for prevailing in general war is of such vital import that any error in judgment should be on the safe side.” Therefore, he favored going “heavy” by targeting all systems: “(l) The critical components of Soviet long-range nuclear delivery capability, (2) Governmental and military control centers, (3) War- sustaining resources [and] (4) Population centers.” Those would become the target systems covered by the SIOP when it was completed in late 1960.[20]

Addressing the basic issue of the destructiveness of nuclear war, Twining observed that the Army and the Navy tended to “favor a lower level of destruction while the Air Force favors a higher level of destruction” because it is cheaper to destroy a target the first time around then to reattack it. To solve that problem, Twining recommended the development of an “outline operational plan which provides a general plan of attack, to include timing and the characteristics of delivery vehicles and weapons.” Such a plan could be developed through war gaming techniques to determine “how many bombs or missiles should be launched against the various elements of the strategic target system.”

Naming the concept “a single integrated operational plan” (which would be formally created a year later), Twining argued that such an approach was necessary and that SAC’s commander-in-chief “should be charged with the responsibility for developing” it, with the output to be reviewed by the JCS. Twining raised other questions, for example: whether aircraft carrier forces should have strategic target roles because of “uncertainty as to their location at the outbreak of general war.” Twining answered that question by arguing against that responsibility for carrier forces, suggesting instead, for example, that they could be treated as a “strategic reserve for follow-up attack as required.”

For the Polaris missile-launching submarine force, whose deployment began the following year, Twining proposed that if it “developed a significant combat capability (in terms of reliability and weight of effort, which can be delivered on target), we may then find that a Unified Strategic Command is required.” So it could better coordinate targeting and use of strategic forces, such a Command would have control over bomber and missile forces from all of the services. In the meantime, the SIOP, once created, would direct the targeting of Polaris missiles as soon as they were available for use. Interservice rivalries held up the creation of a unified strategic command until 1992, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act (1986) and the end of the Cold War made it possible to overcome those obstacles.

Document 12

"How Much is Enough"Arleigh Burke to Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Target Coordination and Associated Problems," 30 September 1959, attached to J.C.S. 2056/143, 22 December 1959, Top Secret, excised copy

Dec 22, 1959


National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, file: 3205 (17 Aug 59)

Hoping that ongoing studies of national nuclear targeting policy would preserve the Navy’s autonomy, Burke quickly responded to Twining’s memorandum. Significant portions of his memorandum remain excised, including the discussion of different targeting “philosophies” (mainly counter-force and countervalue), but he tactfully raised his concerns about Air Force strategy in his discussion of "how much is enough.” Much can be gleaned by comparing it with the fully declassified Twining memorandum. According to Burke, as some of the services were making an "over-estimate of the [attack] effort required" the United States would end up with a "needlessly high number of weapons and delivery forces." To get the right balance, Burke wanted the Joint Chiefs of Staff to "repossess some of their prerogatives" instead of delegating war planning authority to others, especially to the SAC leadership.

So that the United States would "prevail in general war," Burke supported the idea of a "diversified threat" to the Soviet Union. He asserted that with short warning time and greater missile accuracies, "we can no longer place major reliance upon planes operating from fixed bases" or rely on "fixed missile sites, even though hardened." Cautiously putting across the idea of finite deterrence, he argued that what the United States needed for deterrence was a "retaliatory force that stays alive" and Polaris was a "missile system that can, above all others, stay alive." Later in the paper, he emphasized the security advantages of "returning to an artillery concept" but without "us[ing] United States soil as the artillery base." "Technology provides us with the means for using the oceans as the artillery base."

The Pentagon’s declassifiers have opposed full release of this document despite several requests filed since the early 1990s. In 2019 (see Document 12A), it released an even more redacted version, now under appeal. Another version was released earlier (See document 12B) with far more information declassified. In that version, the discussion of target systems and other topics remains classified at crucial points, but enough information was released to make it clear, for example, that Burke disagreed with Twining’s recommendation against assigning H-hour pre-planned strategic targets to aircraft carrier forces.

Document 12A

2019 Release, under appeal

Dec 22, 1959

Document 12B

Earlier release

Dec 22, 1959

Document 13

"A Possible Launch Area [of] Tens of Millions of Square Miles"CNO Personal No. 54 to: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 24 November 1959, Secret, Excerpts: Item on "SSBN Ultimate Potentials" [pp. 29-31]

Nov 24, 1959


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum #51, 53-54 July-Dec 1959

Although classified secret, Burke’s piece for his admirals on the Polaris system’s potential may have been meant for their use as background for discussing the submarine with members of the public. Believing that the American public needs to be "accurately and truthfully informed" about how it could be defended but also shown that the Navy was "far-sighted," Burke suggested that the Navy should not keep Polaris’s "developmental potential" under a bushel. In a set of arguments designed to highlight the superiority of the SSBN [ship submersible-ballistic missile-nuclear powered] over other strategic nuclear systems, Burke declared that as Polaris missiles acquired longer ranges, it would allow the United States to "move its deterrent missile forces many, many miles from land," to "enlarge the possible launch area … to tens of millions of square miles," and assure "beyond any question the invulnerability of the SSBN system."

Document 14

"Dangerous For Any Nation"CNO to: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 2 February 1960, Secret, Excerpts: Items "Airborne Alert," "Considerations of Preventive War, Preemptive War, and Taking the Initiative," and "Statement on Ballistic Missiles."

Feb 2, 1960


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum Feb-July 1960

Beginning in 1958, the Strategic Air Command began testing the feasibility of the airborne alert concept of flying nuclear-armed B-52s on a continuous basis. As Burke’s editorial suggested, he was skeptical of this new program; it could cause excessive wear and tear on B-52s and funding for bombers would disadvantage Polaris and the ICBM programs. But, as his short essays on preventive/pre-emptive war and ballistic missiles indicated, what worried Burke was a "hair trigger" strategic posture. He did not specifically mention the Air Force—the branch of the service most associated with preemptive, first strike, and rapid reaction strategic capabilities—but Burke believed that such postures were "dangerous for any nation." Not only did preemptive strategies "place too great a dependence upon the reliability and effectiveness of [the] intelligence system," they created a need for quick reacting weapons systems that would help a country "get the jump on the other nation" and "devastate [it] before it is devastated." The danger, as Burke saw it, was "initiating a war which would not otherwise occur." With survivable and invulnerable forces, such as Polaris, providing "true deterrence" such risks could be minimized. "No hair-trigger decision based on real or fancied intelligence is necessary."[21]

The then on-going discussions of an alleged U.S.-Soviet "missile gap" did not alarm Burke, even if the Soviets "lead us." He believed the U.S.’s world-wide deployment of nuclear strike forces—with SAC and carrier-based forces around the world, as well as nuclear forces in Western Europe—would be able to deter "even the maddest Russian." he argued, the Soviet leadership has "striven too hard to industrialize Russia to risk its devastation." While the United States could not be complacent because advances in Soviet ICBM accuracy were possible, if it continued to develop "fully mobile" and concealed retaliatory forces, the United States would "provide the enemy with a surprise attack timing and coordination problem of … almost insurmountable proportions."

Document 15

"Someone Else’s Problem"C. A. Haskins, National Security Council staff, "Polaris," 10 February 1960, Top Secret, excised copy

Feb 10, 1960


Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Staff Secretary Files, Subject Series, Department of Defense Subseries, box 2, File: Defense Department Vol. IV, March-April 1960 (folder 3)[22]

This group of excerpts from National Security Council minutes includes a startling comment by Eisenhower’s budget director, Maurice Stans (later Richard Nixon’s chief fund-raiser in 1972). Told that the Polaris missile force could "destroy 232 targets, which was sufficient to destroy all of Russia," he asked defense officials, "If POLARIS could do this job, why did we need other IRBMs or ICBMs, SAC aircraft, and overseas bases?" According to Stans, the answer "he had received … [was] that was someone else’s problem." In any event, the Navy estimated that a fleet of about 45 submarines would be enough to threaten the list of Sino-Soviet targets, given that some percentage of them would be at sea, with the rest at home base, coming, or going. By the end of the year, the first Polaris submarine was patrolling North Sea waters in striking range of the Soviet Union.

Document 16

"Set Any Detractors Straight"CNO to: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, 11 April 1960, Secret Excerpts: Item on "Polaris Missile Speedup"

Apr 11, 1960


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum Feb-July 1960

Burke was pleased to report to his commanders that the Polaris testing program was showing good results which in turn had enabled the Navy to recommend accelerating the construction program and augmenting the size of the prospective fleet. Also under consideration at the Pentagon was a proposal to deploy Polaris missiles on surface ships. What really troubled Burke was criticism of the program and he provided the admirals with information to rebut the critics on a number of issues, including missile accuracy and range, warhead power, communications, and submarine vulnerability.

Document 17

"They’re Smart and Ruthless … It’s the Same Way as the Communists; it’s Exactly the Same Techniques"Admiral Burke’s Conversation with Secretary Franke, 12 Aug 60, Top Secret1960-08-12

Dec 31, 1969


Navy Archives, Arleigh Burke Papers, SIOP/NSTL Briefing Folder; DNSA

While Burke kept the Polaris out of the hands of a new unified command, he lost the battle over control of strategic targeting policy, a contest which SAC and the Air Force won. This record of a conversation between Burke and Secretary of the Navy William B. Franke gives a detailed account of the bureaucratic maneuvering and presidential decisions which gave SAC’s commander-in-chief a second hat as director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) with responsibility for preparing the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). Having proposed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepare the "master target list," which would give the Navy a prominent role in shaping nuclear strategy, Burke believed that the plan for a JSTPS would undercut the JCS’s authority.

President Eisenhower thought otherwise, agreeing with Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates that there was not enough coordination of targeting and that the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Staff lacked the capability to prepare a detailed war plan. Burke told Franke that he would accept the new arrangement and wanted to "make this thing work", but he was plainly disturbed by the prospect of SAC control over the war plan. While the JSTPS would include Navy representatives, including the deputy director, Burke did not think it would make much difference, "like putting a little bug in a piece of plastic … The plastic encases the bug." Gates told Burke that the target list was "going to be small," but the CNO thought it was "going to be a big list." With SAC control, "the number of atomic weapons will be tremendous and they will be the wrong kind of atomic weapons. The number of forces will be tremendous."

As it turned out, SIOP-62 embodied the levels of "overkill" that worried Burke, with over 3,200 weapons aimed at over a thousand targets. As far as national strategic planning was concerned, "finite deterrence" was off the table.[23]

Document 18

"Polaris is here, it’s proved, it’s reliable"CNO to: Flag and General Officers, Subj: Dope, "Trends and Feelings on Future Army, Navy, and Air Force Programs," 23 December 1960, Secret, Excerpt

Dec 23, 1960


Navy Archives, Flag Officers "Dope," CNO Personal Newsletter and Memorandum 23 December 1960

In perhaps his last "Dope" newsletter, Burke reviewed the major Army, Navy, and Air Force weapons systems then under consideration, including the Army’s Nike-Zeus anti-ballistic missile program and the Air Force’s B-52, B-70, Skybolt, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman programs. On Nike-Zeus, he cited the Air Force’s criticisms, but nevertheless supported more research and development work, although production should not be undertaken until "effectiveness [is] known." On the Air Force programs, Burke supported Pentagon recommendations for B-52 wings, but he was highly critical of the Skybolt air-launched missile (which was doomed, in any event), the B-70 bomber, and all the Air Force ICBM programs. Atlas and Titan he saw, as did others, as vulnerable; Burke recommended curtailing both missiles. While the Air Force wanted over 800 Minutemen by Fiscal Year 1964, Burke saw that as too many because of unproven cost effectiveness and survivability problems; moreover, "a large number of these missiles will draw more ICBMs into the United States." Even if nuclear targeting policy was going in a direction that Burke opposed, he still held his finite deterrent commitment, perhaps believing that Polaris would prove itself and the logic of the case would prevail. Therefore, he recommended "major reliance on systems of high inherent survivability, proven reliability and accuracy."

Document 19

"Open Strategic Invitation to Acts of Soviet Military Aggression"Speech by General David A. Burchinal at Air War College, "Joint Planning from a Service Viewpoint," 12 January 1961, Secret

Jan 12, 1961


Air Force FOIA release; DNSA

In a lengthy and informative speech to the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Air Force deputy director of plans Lieutenant General David Burchinal gave a presentation on the making of national military strategy and its relationship to military planning and budgeting processes. The speech is especially instructive on the strategic planning process, including the production of the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP), the annual plan for the "employment" of the armed forces for three major contingencies: continued cold war, limited war, or general nuclear war. Burchinal showed how inter-service struggles over budgets, influence, and doctrine shaped military planning and occasioned significant "splits" between the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the doctrinal level, Burchinal emphasized the Air Force’s commitment to a counterforce strategy that threatened Soviet military assets, especially strategic nuclear forces, which he argued were what Moscow found most "unacceptable" to lose.

Explicitly rejecting the concept of finite deterrence, Burchinal implied that the Navy’s opposition to counterforce was defeatist: it was the denial of a "war-winning objective in general nuclear war" (p. 26). From the Air Force perspective, by limiting limited targets to urban-industrial areas, finite deterrence was an "open strategic invitation to acts of Soviet military aggression against our allies or in peripheral areas – against which we can do nothing because of strategic inadequacy." Implicitly, Burchinal assumed that the prospect of urban-industrial destruction would not sufficiently deter the Soviets from aggressive political moves toward NATO Europe or third world countries. For first-strike-minded Air Force leaders, what was especially troubling about Navy strategy was that it was useful only for retaliation and that was "not enough." Finite deterrence is "part of a strategy … not a whole strategy."[24]

Documents 20A-C: "Dependable Striking Power"

Document 20A

Memorandum from Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James S. Russell to OP-00 [CNO Burke], enclosing memoranda from Admiral George Miller on "Dependable Striking Power," 24 January 1961, Secret

Jan 24, 1961

Document 20B

Memorandum from Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans & Policy) to OP-00, "Dependable Striking Power," 2 February 1961, Secret

Feb 2, 1961

Document 20C

Memorandum from Admiral Sharp to Op-60, enclosing memorandum from Rear Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Director, Long Range Objectives Group (Op-93) to Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans & Policy), on "Dependable Striking Power," 2 February 1961, Secret

Feb 2, 1961


Navy Archives, Strategic Plans Division (1961), Box 411, 3060 Military Preparation for War (Continental Defense)

In one of the last Navy proposals for a finite deterrence posture, Rear Admiral George Miller, then assigned to the Joint Staff, argued that the new SIOP, with its emphasis on a first-strike contingency, was not adequate for retaliation if "our fixed bases and command control centers had been destroyed." The Navy should develop plans for that situation, he argued, but also a "building program … with the objective of providing, in the next 5-10 years, a more dependable deterrent retaliatory posture for the United States." The current posture of "hair trigger readiness," reliance on vulnerable fixed-base systems, and "provocative intelligence-gathering," Miller argued, "could cause such uneasiness among our enemies as to our real intentions" that they may launch a surprise attack. Therefore, Miller proposed removing "nuclear striking forces from within the United States and [deploying] them in mobile bases over the far reaches of the global uninhabited seas."

Top officials on the CNO’s staff, such as Admirals Thomas Moorer and Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, as well as Deputy CNO James Russell, read Miller’s paper and agreed with much of it. Yet they saw faulty assumptions (e.g., about basing of U.S. ICBMs) and a lack of realism that would make it necessary to re-work the proposal. Moreover, both Russell and Sharp also believed that Miller’s proposal would be seen as "parochial" because, in Sharp’s words, it "aimed at providing the Navy with the capability to do the job alone." Observing that "the USAF is too entrenched in aerospace to permit such a radical shift in funding," Moorer suggested a "positive approach" of trying to get along with the other services. The Navy had to keep in mind that the Army and Air Force "also make a significant contribution" even if their forces did not have "the survival potential of forces afloat."

Document 21

"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

Jul 28, 1961


Library of Congress, Curtis LeMay Papers, box 153, Chief of Staff Memos; DNSA

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 this Air Force record of the testimony, 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." Burke expounded on the "unique capabilities of the system and … its virtual invulnerability to enemy action."

When Senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo) questioned Polaris’s undetectability, Burke flatly responded that Polaris "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 in Burke’s testimony was evident when they cited Burke’s 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 22

"Reject the ‘Minimum Deterrence’ Extreme"Memorandum to President Kennedy from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, "Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces, 1963-67," 23 September 1961, Top Secret, Excised copy

Sep 23, 1961


FOIA release; DNSA

Robert McNamara greatly valued the Polaris system, especially because it could serve as a reserve force to threaten Soviet cities in the event of a Soviet first strike. Therefore, he supported a force of 41 submarines, with 16 missiles each, which coincided with Burke’s original estimate.[25] Moreover, early in the administration, McNamara reacted positively to the WSEG briefing suggesting that a Polaris submarine force would be enough for the U.S. deterrence posture. Nevertheless, Air Force/RAND Corporation ideas would have a more powerful influence on his thinking and by the fall of 1961, using a sort of straw-man argument, McNamara rejected "minimum deterrence" (see pages 4-5).[26]

While he rejected as impractical the first-strike capability sought by the Air Force, McNamara nevertheless saw finite deterrence wanting because it could not threaten "high-priority" military targets in retaliation to a deliberate Soviet attack; that was necessary, to "reduce Soviet power and limit the damage that can be done to us by vulnerable Soviet follow-on forces." Like Air Force leaders, McNamara believed that finite deterrence could not provide that capability, nor was it sufficiently threatening to deter "Soviet aggression against our Allies."

Document 23

"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

Dec 3, 1964


FOIA release; DNSA

Rejecting minimum deterrence, McNamara eventually supported a Minuteman force of 1000 as a compromise with the Air Force, which had wanted much more. Nevertheless, several years later, and perhaps remembering the briefing on Polaris, McNamara hinted that a small nuclear force was sufficient for the basic deterrence mission of "assured destruction," which was 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 national 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 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 think along those lines. When President Kennedy and the "ExCom" learned that the Air Force could not guarantee that a U.S. air strike could destroy all Soviet missiles in Cuba, the prospect that even one missile would survive was enough to deter the United States from taking military action against the missile sites. In any event, McNamara drew no explicit policy conclusions from his brief discussion of 400 weapons; he may not have seen that as plausible for deterrence 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, McNamara 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."[27]

Thanks to Lynn Eden, Emeritus, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, for helpful comments on this posting, and to David Alan Rosenberg, for his counsel.


[1]. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has also made incisive criticisms of the GBSD proposal. See William J. Perry and Thomas Z. Collina, “$264B for ICBMs That Would Be Destroyed in the Ground? No, Thanks,” Defense One, 21 April 2021. See also, Fred Kaplan, "The Missile Trap, Slate, 19 March 2021.

[2]. For the op-eds by the "Gang of Four" – George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – see "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," and "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, and January 15, 2008. See also Jan Lodal and Ivo Daalder, "The Logic of Zero: Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons," Foreign Affairs (November/December 2008), and George Perkovich and James Acton, eds., Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009). For an earlier discussion, see Harold A. Feiveson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999).

[3]. Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (Simon & Schuster, 2020), 230-232.

[4]. For background, see Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner, “The Rule of Law and the Role of Strategy in U.S. Nuclear Doctrine,” International Security 45 (2021):126-166, and by the same authors, “The Illegality of Targeting Civilians by Way of Belligerent Reprisal: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Doctrine,” Just Security, 10 May 2021.

[5]. Jeffrey Lewis, "Minimum Deterrence," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August 2008, 38-41, is a starting point. See also his important study, Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), on Beijing’s construction of a minimum deterrence posture during the Cold War. How much the Chinese are going beyond that, for example, with their construction of hundreds of missile silos, is a matter of controversy. See, for example, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “China’s Nuclear Missile Silo Expansion: From Minimum Deterrence to Medium Deterrence,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1 September 2021.

[6]. Paul Backus, "Finite Deterrence, Controlled Retaliation" in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute (March 1959, 23–29). Hanson Baldwin referred to a "‘finite’ deterrent" in "Big Defense Issue: What Kind of Deterrent," New York Times, 1 February 1959. Thanks to David A. Rosenberg for information on the Backus article.

[7]. Some inspired academics and experts who were exploring concepts and possibilities of arms control during this period thought along related lines, such as a proposal for a “200-Missile Stabilized Deterrence Agreement,” developed in the Summer Study on Arms Control, Collected Papers (Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1960), 151-165. During one of the Summer Study seminars, after Jerome Wiesner mentioned the danger of an “accident-triggered nuclear war,” Thomas Schelling suggested unilateral steps to reduce such risks, such as the “choice of Polaris weapons over ICBMs, thus increasing the period allowed for decision.” Ibid, at 45-46.

[8]. 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. Also relevant is Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Ballistic Missile Guidance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 148-152.

[9]. Peter J. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); James C. Olson, Stuart Symington: A Life (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003); Christopher A. Preble, John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004).

[10]. Rosenberg, "Arleigh Albert Burke," 302-304.

[11]. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 106; Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 258-261; Deborah Shapley, Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara (Boston: Little Brown, 1993), 105; Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 110.

[12]. Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (Simon & Schuster, 2020), 251-252.

[13]. Kaplan, The Bomb, 240-241.

[14]. On similar lines, with its emphasis on an SLBM-based deterrence force, is an important study by the late Bruce Blair and colleagues at Global Zero, Jessica Sleight and Emma Claire Foley: The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture (Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero, 2018).

[15]. David Alan Rosenberg, "Nuclear War Planning," in Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman, The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 165.

[16]. See also the discussion in Rosenberg, "Arleigh Albert Burke," 293.

[17]. Michael Gerson, “The Origins of Strategic Stability: The United States and the Threat of Surprise Attack,” in Elbridge A. Colby and Michael S. Gerson, eds., Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2013), 25.

[18]. Gerard C. Smith, Disarming Diplomat: The Memoirs of Gerard C. Smith, Arms Control Negotiator (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1996), 71-77.

[19]. Ibid, 302-303.

[20]. See Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill,” 5-6, 62.

[21]. During this period, pre-emption was also the favored strategy of the Soviet strategic forces, although internal critics such as Premier Nikita Khrushchev did not believe that it could successfully destroy the enemy’s nuclear forces. See David Holloway, “Racing Toward Armageddon? Soviet Views of Strategic Nuclear War, 1955-1972,” in Michael D. Gordin and G. John Ikenberry, eds., The Age of Hiroshima (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 78.

[22]. First cited in Rosenberg, "Origins of Overkill," 57 (note 188).

[23]. Rosenberg, "Origins of Overkill," 4-6, 65-66.

[24]. For the Air Force critique of Navy strategy, see also Edward Kaplan, "Peace through Strength Alone: US Air Force Views on Arms Control in the 1950s and Early 1960s," in James M. Smith and Gwendolyn Hall, eds., Milestones in Strategic Arms Control, 1945-2000: United States Air Force Roles and Outcomes (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 2002), 32-35.

[25]. Ball, Politics and Force Levels, 62.

[26]. For "straw man," see Lewis, "Minimum Deterrence," 39.

[27]. Robert S. McNamara, Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 123. A few years earlier, a University of Michigan political scientist, Alexander Yanov, wrote an op-ed, "An Avoidable 20-Year Race," advocating "minimum deterrence" postures for both superpowers, New York Times, 10 October 1984.

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