Washington, DC, May 1, 2009 - President Obama's recent call for a "world without nuclear weapons" immediately raised questions of how do you get there, what does deterrence actually require before you get there, and how many nuclear weapons would that involve at each step. Exactly these questions of "how much is enough" were fifty years ago in secret debate within the U.S. government, when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke argued that a small force of mainly nuclear missile-launching Polaris submarines was enough for deterrence. Burke and Navy leaders developed a concept of "finite" or "minimum" deterrence--highly relevant to today's debate--that they believed would make the United States safer because it would dissuade nuclear attacks while removing pressures for a dangerous "hair-trigger" posture.
In early 1960, when President 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." An electronic briefing book of declassified documents obtained through archival research and published for the first time 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 threaten 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.
The Archive's briefing book 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."
* 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."
* 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."
* 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 "a war which would not otherwise occur."
This is the first in a series of electronic briefing books that will document moments during the Cold War when top officials considered radical changes in the U.S. nuclear posture, involving significantly smaller strategic forces. More powerful forces and conflicting policy imperatives defeated these proposals, but they are nonetheless worth revisiting because their proponents raised searching questions about nuclear strategy that were never properly addressed during the Cold War.
Visit the Archive's Nuclear Vault for more information: www.nsarchive.org/