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DID THE U.S. MILITARY PLAN A NUCLEAR FIRST STRIKE FOR 1963?
By Heather A. Purcell and James K. Galbraith
Notes on National Security Council Meeting
July 20, 1961
General Hickey, Chairman of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee, presented the annual
report of his group. General Lemnitzer stated that the assumption of this year's study was a
surprise attack in late 1963, preceded by a period of heightened tensions.
After the presentation by General Hickey and by the various members of the
Subcommittee, the President asked if there had ever been made an assessment of damage results
to the U.S.S.R which would be incurred by a preemptive attack. General Lemnitzer stated that
such studies had been made and that he would bring them over and discuss them personally with
the President. In recalling General Hickey's opening statement that these studies have been made
since 1957, the President asked for an appraisal of the trend in the effectiveness of the attack.
General Lemnitzer replied that he would also discuss this with the President.
Since the basic assumption of this year's presentation was an attack in late 1963, the
President asked about probable effects in the winter of 1962. Mr. Dulles observed that the attack
would be much less effective since there would be considerably fewer missiles involved. General
Lemnitzer added a word of caution about accepting the precise findings of the Committee since
these findings were based upon certain assumptions which themselves might not be valid.
The President posed the question as to the period of time necessary for citizens to remain
in shelters following an attack. A member of the Subcommittee replied that no specific period of
time could be cited due to the variables involved, but generally speaking, a period of two weeks
should be expected.
The President directed that no member in attendance at the meeting disclose even the
subject of the meeting.
Declassified: June, 1993
During the early 1960s the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) introduced the world to the
possibility of instant total war. Thirty years later, no nation has yet fired any nuclear missile at a
real target. Orthodox history holds that a succession of defensive nuclear doctrines and strategies
-- from "massive retaliation" to "mutual assured destruction" -- worked, almost seamlessly, to
deter Soviet aggression against the United States and to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.
The possibility of U.S. aggression in nuclear conflict is seldom considered. And why should it be?
Virtually nothing in the public record suggests that high U.S. authorities ever contemplated a first
strike against the Soviet Union, except in response to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, or
that they doubted the deterrent effect of Soviet nuclear forces. The main documented exception
was the Air Force Chief of Staff in the early 1960s, Curtis LeMay, a seemingly idiosyncratic case.
But beginning in 1957 the U.S. military did prepare plans for a preemptive nuclear strike against
the U.S.S.R, based on our growing lead in land-based missiles, And top military and intelligence
leaders presented an assessment of those plans to President John F. Kennedy in July of 1961. At
that time, some high Air Force and CIA leaders apparently believed that a window of outright
ballistic missile superiority, perhaps sufficient for a successful first strike, would be open in late
The document reproduced opposite is published here for the first time. It describes a meeting of
the National Security Council on July 20, 1961. At that meeting, the document shows, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the CIA, and others, presented plans for a
surprise attack. They answered some questions from Kennedy about timing and effects, and
promised further information. The meeting recessed under a Presidential injunction of secrecy that
has not been broken until now.
The Real Missile Gap
In 1960, claims of a "missile gap" favoring the Soviets had given the Democrats a critical election
theme, and many millions of Americans entered the Sixties feeling intensely vulnerable to the new
Soviet ICBM threat. But as Richard Reeves has recently written, intelligence based on satellites
launched in August of 1960 soon challenged the campaign assessment and public view. (Reeves,
228) The United States had beaten the USSR to an operational ICBM and enjoyed clear, and
growing, numerical advantage. We were far ahead, and our military planners knew it.
Kennedy was quickly convinced of this truth, which was further confirmed as new satellites
brought back new information. Later in 1961, a National Intelligence Estimate came through
showing only 4 Soviet ICBMs in place, all of them on low alert at a test site called Plesetsk. By
fall, Defense Undersecretary Roswell Gilpatric was to acknowledge in a public speech that US
forces (with 185 ICBMs and over 3,400 deliverable warheads at that time) were vastly superior to
those of the Russians.
It was in this context, of an increasing nuclear edge based on a runaway lead in land-based
missiles, that Kennedy faced his first nuclear-tinged crisis, which erupted over Berlin in July of
The Berlin Crisis
The July 20th meeting took place under conditions of unusual tension. Only three months before,
Kennedy had suffered the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and his loss of confidence in both the
CIA and the Joint Chiefs. One month before, he had been shaken by his Vienna confrontation
with Nikita Khrushchev. Now, the Soviets were threatening to turn control of access to West
Berlin over to the East Germans, and to conclude a separate peace treaty with that satellite state.
At the crucial National Security Council discussion of the brewing Berlin crisis on July 13,
Secretary of State Dean Rusk had opposed negotiations with the Soviets until the last moment
(Newman, 115). As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., then a special assistant, later summarized for the
President, adviser Dean Acheson had prepared a paper arguing that
we are in a fateful test of wills, that our major task is to demonstrate our
unalterable determination, and that Krushchev will be deterred only by a US
readiness to go to nuclear war rather than to abandon the status quo. On this
theory, negotiation is harmful until the crisis is well developed; then it is useful
only for propaganda purposes..." (Foreign Relations, XIV, 173)
Kennedy favored negotiations over conflict. While not directly challenging Acheson, he
encouraged Schlesinger to produce an unsigned memo critical of Acheson's stance.
Schlesinger advised caution. In a passage especially pertinent to the larger issue, he wrote:
The [Acheson] paper hinges on our willingness to face nuclear war. But this
option is undefined. Before you are asked to make the decision to go to nuclear
war, you are entitled to know what concretely what nuclear war is likely to mean.
The Pentagon should be required to make an analysis of the possible levels and
implications of nuclear warfare and the possible gradations of our own nuclear
response. (Foreign Relations XIV 173)
It is possible (though we do not know) that the decision to bring the Net Evaluation to Kennedy
occurred in response to the raising of these concerns. At any rate, the meeting occurred.
The Burris Memorandum
The memorandum reproduced here was written for Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who did not
attend the meeting, by Colonel Howard Burris, his military aide. Declassified only in June of
1993, it has not previously received any public attention so far as we have been able to determine.
The first paragraph introduces General Hickey and his group, the Net Evaluation Subcommittee.
Although the Subcommittee report is described as "annual," this would be the first one given to
President Kennedy and his advisors, and it is not clear whether President Eisenhower received
such reports in person. General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stepped in to
explain the "assumption" of the 1961 report: "a surprise attack in late 1963, preceded by a period
of heightened tensions." The question arises: A surprise attack by whom on whom?
The following paragraphs answer the question. The second paragraph reports that after hearing
the presentations, President Kennedy asked the presenters "if there had ever been made an
assessment of damage results to the U.S.S.R. which would be incurred by a preemptive attack."
Kennedy also asked for an effectiveness trend since "these studies have been made since 1957."
Lemnitzer responded that he would later answer both of the President's questions in private.
Paragraph three records Kennedy asking a hypothetical question: what would happen if we
launched a strike in the winter of 1962? Allen Dulles of the CIA responded that "the attack
would be much less effective since there would be considerably fewer missiles involved."
Lemnitzer then cautioned against putting too much faith in the findings since the assumptions
might be faulty. The discussion thus provides a time-frame. December of 1962 was too early for
an attack because the U.S. would have too few missiles; by December of 1963 there would likely
be sufficient numbers.
Paragraph four reports one more Kennedy question: how much time would "citizens" need to
remain in shelters following an attack? The President receives a qualified estimate of 2 weeks
from a member of the subcommittee. The group was clearly talking about U.S. citizens protecting
themselves from the globe-encircling fallout following a U.S. nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R.
Paragraph five adds to the intensity of the document with Kennedy's directive "that no member in
attendance disclose even the subject of the meeting."
Other Accounts of the Meeting
So far as we know, the official record of this meeting remains secret. The excellent Foreign
Relations of the United States, volume XIV, "Berlin Crisis 1961-1962," published in late 1993,
though replete with memoranda detailing the nuclear aspects of the Berlin confrontation, makes
no mention of it. The only official reference we know of is the agenda for the National Security
Council issued on July 18, 1961, declassified in 1977, which reads, simply "The Net Evaluation
Subcommittee (NSC 5816; N.S. Action No. 2223) ... Presentation of the report by the Chairman
of the Subcommittee." (The most detailed discussion of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee we
have found is in Desmond Ball's Politics and Force Levels (pp. 192-3), which identifies the larger
task of the Subcommittee as the preparation of revised targeting plans.)
On the other hand, the fact of a meeting, and Kennedy's personal reaction to it, has been reported.
The President was displeased. But no account yet published has told what he was displeased
For example, Arthur Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times gives this account:
...Kennedy received the Net Evaluation, an annual doomsday briefing analyzing the
chances of nuclear war. An Air Force General presented it, said Roswell Gilpatric,
the deputy secretary of defense, "as though it were for a kindergarten class..
Finally Kennedy got up and walked right out in the middle of it, and that was the
end of it. We never had another one." (p. 483)
McGeorge Bundy evidently refers to the same meeting in this passage:
In the summer of 1961 [Kennedy] went through a formal briefing on the net
assessment of a general nuclear war between the two superpowers, and he
expressed his own reaction to Dean Rusk as they walked from the cabinet room to
the Oval Office for a private meeting on other subjects: "And we call ourselves the
human race." (p. 354)
(Dean Rusk's memoirs repeat Kennedy's remark, though they place the meeting "shortly after our
assuming office." Richard Reeves, for his part, does not mention the July meeting, and attributes
Kennedy's remark to a later briefing in September, 1961.)
Numerous other apparent accounts of the meeting exist, though they do not refer to it by name or
date. All agree on Kennedy's reaction. But none reveal what was actually discussed. Theodore
Sorenson's Kennedy, published only four years later, presents an understandably benign version:
That briefing confirmed, however, the harsh facts [Kennedy] already knew: (1)
that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could 'win' a nuclear war in any
rational sense of the word; (2) that, except to deter an all-out Soviet attack, our
threat of 'massive retaliation' to every Communist move was no longer credible,
now that it invited our own destruction; and (3) that a policy of 'pre-emptive first
strike' or 'preventive war' was no longer open to either side, inasmuch as even a
surprise missile attack would trigger, before those missiles reached their targets, a
devastating retaliation that neither country could risk or accept. (p. 513)
Unfortunately, the critical third point was not yet true. As UnderSecretary of State Roger Hilsman
wrote in 1967:
As the intelligence community looked at their estimates in 1958, 1959, and 1960,
and even through the first half of 1961, they saw a missile gap developing that
would come to a peak about 1963. (p. 162)
What Hilsman does not say explicitly is that the estimated missile gap was in America's favor. The
Soviets had virtually no operational ICBMs in 1961, a fact known to American intelligence at
least by the end of 1960. And it appears the Russians did not solve their fundamental technical
problem, namely building a hydrogen bomb small enough to be carried by a missile of manageable
size, until years later. (Sorenson, 524; Bobbitt, 61).
Dean Rusk describes the meeting as an "awesome experience" in his memoirs, As I Saw It,
published in 1990.
President Kennedy clearly understood what nuclear war meant and was appalled
by it. In our many talks together, he never worried about the threat of
assassination, but he occasionally brooded over whether it would be his fate to
push the nuclear button... If any of us had doubts, that 1961 briefing convinced us
that a nuclear war must never be fought. Consequently, throughout the Kennedy
and Johnson years we worked to establish a stable deterrent... (p. 246-7)
What Rusk does not say is that the problem of a "stable deterrent" in 1961 did not lie in an
insufficiency of American missiles. It lay, rather, in the need for the Soviets to develop sufficient
effective ICBM forces, to deter us. That is an ugly but unavoidable fact. Rusk goes on, a page
later, with comments that appear almost anguished, and for which his own account of the meeting
gives no apparent rationale:
...the United States has never renounced possible first use of nuclear weapons. I
personally think that the United States is committed to a second strike only, after
we have received nuclear weapons on our own soil. Under no circumstances
would I have participated in an order to launch a first strike, with the possible
exception of a massive conventional attack on Western Europe. (p. 248)
The July 25 Speech on Berlin
Nuclear conflict was very much in the air that week. Another document of the time indicates the
directions Kennedy's nuclear thinking was actually taking -- quite the Cold Warrior, but at the
same time far removed from pre-emptive strikes and the inflexible all-out attack envisioned by the
Joint Chiefs. This is a paper entitled "Nuclear Strategy in the Berlin Crisis," by the economist
Thomas C. Schelling, which was sent to Hyannis Port over the weekend of July 21, 1961 and
which, as Bundy noted, made a "deep impression" on the President. In it Schelling presented
arguments for a capability, which did not then exist, to wage limited nuclear war:
the role of nuclears in Europe should not be to win a grand nuclear campaign, but
to pose a higher level of risk to the enemy. The important thing in limited nuclear
war is to impress the Soviet leadership with the risk of general war - a war that
may occur whether we or they intend it or not....We should plan for a war of
nerve, of demonstration, and of bargaining, not of tactical target destruction."
(Foreign Relations, XIV, 170).
Schelling also advocated centralization of the control of weapons in the hands of the President so
permit deliberate, discriminating, selective use for dangerous nuclear bargaining.
This means preventing any use, by anyone, not specifically authorized as part of
the nuclear bargaining plan...This is a controlled strategic exchange." (op. cit.,
Schelling's paper thus called attention to a key concern: the diffuse character of nuclear command
and control in 1961 did not assure that the President in fact enjoyed the full authority over the
bomb which most Americans assumed to be the case. Establishing such control became a priority
for Kennedy in the months that followed. (Desmond Ball, 193).
The cumulative impact of this diverse advice can be seen in Kennedy's televised address to the
nation on July 25, 1961. "We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of
Berlin, either gradually or by force" Yet Kennedy also stressed the dangers: "miscommunication
could rain down more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human
history" (Newman, 115). He asked for increased military appropriations and called out 150,000
reserve personnel. But he did not engage the Soviets. The wall was allowed to remain intact
when constructed in August of 1961, a symbolic column of soldiers was sent through to West
Berlin, and a fallout shelter program was undertaken in the United States.
With the Burris memorandum, the reasoning behind the fallout shelter program now begins to fall
into place. As a civil defense measure against a Soviet nuclear attack, the flimsy cinderblock
shelters Americans were told to build were absurd. But they could indeed protect those in them,
for a couple of weeks, from radiation drifting thousands of miles after a U.S. pre-emptive strike
on the Soviet Union. It is known that Kennedy later regretted this program.
Down the Road: 1962 and 1963
The U.S. was far ahead in the arms race. Yet the military continued to press for a rapid build-up
of strategic missiles. Curtis LeMay had asked for at least 2400 Minutemen; Thomas Powers of
the Strategic Air Command had asked for 10,000. All were to be unleashed in a single paroxysm
of mass annihilation, know as SIOP, the Single Integrated Operating Plan.
SIOP was a recipe for blowing up the world, whether in a first or a second strike. As McGeorge
Bundy wrote to the President on July 7, 1961:
...All agree that the current strategic war plan is dangerously rigid and, if continued
without amendment, may leave you with very little choice as to how you face the
moment of thermonuclear truth. We believe that you may want to raise this
question with Bob McNamara in order to have a prompt review and new orders if
necessary. In essence, the current plan calls for shooting off everything we have in
one shot, and is so constructed as to make any more flexible course very difficult.
(quoted in Kaplan, 297)
During that summer of 1961, the Defense Secretary ordered an overhaul of SIOP carried out by
RAND analysts (including Daniel Ellsberg) and quickly approved by the JCS. (Bobbitt, 48)
Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara eventually imposed a limit of 1,000
Minuteman missiles, angering the Chiefs. Kennedy also launched efforts to gain operational
control of the nuclear force, then far from being securely concentrated in the President's hands.
The Burris memorandum may help to explain both the military's drive for a vast U.S. nuclear
build-up, despite the fact that America was already far ahead, and the resistance from JFK and
McNamara. The Net Evaluation Subcommittee had offered the Pentagon, the CIA, and President
Kennedy a glimpse of the opportunity that lay ahead in the winter of 1963: U.S. nuclear
superiority so complete that a first strike might be successful. But it also alerted Kennedy to a
danger. American nuclear superiority might then be so complete, that rogue elements from the
military and intelligence forces, seeking to precipitate an American first strike, might not feel
deterred by fear of Soviet retaliation. What was the dispute over the numbers of land-based
ICBMs really about? To be sure, at some level it involved the sufficiency of deterrence. But there
may also have been an even graver concern: the offensive capabilities of the nuclear force, at a
time when the President could not be sure of his control over the nuclear button.
By October of 1962, the U.S. nuclear lead remained strong, though perhaps not yet air-tight,
given the number of Soviet bombers and the risks to Europe. Twenty years later, Anthony
Cordesman described the picture:
During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the US had approximately 1500
B-47s and 500 B-52s, and had already deployed over 200 of its first generation of
ICBMs. In marked contrast, the Soviet strategic missile threat consisted of a few
token ICBM deployments whose unreliability was so great that it was uncertain
exactly whom they threatened. Soviet long range bomber forces consisted only of
100 Tu-Bears and 35 May Bison, whose range and flight characteristics forced
them to fly at medium and high altitudes, and which made them extremely
vulnerable to US fighters and surface-to-air missiles. (p. 7, cited in Bobbitt)
Kennedy resisted strong pressures to test this advantage in October of 1962, as he might have had
to do, had he agreed to launch bombing raids on the Cuban missile installations. Nikita
Khrushchev's memoirs, published in 1970, tell of graphic fears expressed by Robert Kennedy to
the Russian ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin at the peak of the crisis:
Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba,
an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will... If the situation
continues for much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not
overthrow him and seize power. The American military could get out of control.
Not even the American editors of Khrushchev's memoirs took these remarks seriously at the time
they were first published. A rare editorial note reads: "Obviously this is Khrushchev's own version
of what was reported to him. There is no evidence that the President was acting out of fear of a
military take- over." (Khrushchev, 498).
Looking down the road, the Net Evaluation calendar of 1961 implied that the period from Cuba
to Dallas and just after was, perhaps, critical to the survival of the world. Had tensions escalated
or been aroused in some violent way in late 1963, the President might have faced an excruciating
choice -- to strike first, or to give up "victory" during the last brief moment in all history when it
could conceivably have been won.
We cannot say whether Kennedy believed the Net Evaluation calendar, or indeed, perhaps equally
serious, whether he believed that others in the government might believe it. We do know that the
last year of his life saw repeated initiatives to settle conflicts and reduce tensions: the
normalizaton of Berlin, the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey, the no-invasion pledge on Cuba
and the effort, only partially effective, to end to the covert campaign (OP/MONGOOSE) against
Castro, the test-ban treaty, and -- though the point is disputed -- the order in October 1963 to
begin a phased withdrawal from Vietnam. By November of 1963, the potential for "heightened
tensions" leading to uncontrollable pressures to strike first had indeed been reduced. And, some
time later, the Soviet Rocket Forces did evidently shut the window, building ICBMs more rapidly
than the U.S. could target them; the Soviets also improved their submarine force. From that
point, the world probably became a good deal more secure. But exactly when this happened is not
And Lyndon Baines Johnson, the recipient of Burris's note, was still uneasy on the point when he
assumed office on November 22d, 1963, amid swirling rumors connecting Lee Harvey Oswald,
falsely as we now know, to the KGB. David Wise, then Bureau chief of the New York Herald
Tribune reports hearing Johnson tell in late 1963 of recruiting Earl Warren to head the Warren
Commission in the following terms:
...when Warren came to the White House, [LBJ] told the Chief Justice he knew he
had been a first lieutenant in World War I, and he knew Earl Warren would walk
across the Atlantic ocean to save the lives of three Americans, and possibly a
hundred million lives were at stake here... (p. 292)
Whose lives, exactly?
One meeting, even in the White House, does not establish that first-strike was in fact the nuclear
policy of the United States. Kennedy's recorded response, moreover, indicates his personal
determination, shared by his civilian advisers, that it never become so. But we do know, from
Howard Burris's notes, that a first strike plan had authors close to the decision center. Kennedy's
subsequent actions and Johnson's eerie remark are consistent with the possibility that the calendar
and risks of a first-strike window remained in the minds of both men as late as November, 1963
and possibly in Johnson's mind for a good deal longer.
In any event, the fact that first-strike planning got as far as it did raises grave questions about the
history of the Cold War. Much more needs to be known,: about nuclear decisionmaking under
Eisenhower and Nixon, about the events of late 1963, about later technical developments such as
MIRV and Star Wars. Surely it is now time to declassify all records on this and related history.
Heather A. Purcell and James K. Galbraith are at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs,
The University of Texas at Austin.
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