U.S. Nuclear War Plan Option Sought Destruction of China and Soviet Union as “Viable” Societies
Edited by William Burr
Pre-delegation Instructions Excluded Yugoslavia from Attack on “Sino-Soviet” Nations
SIOP-64 Established Overkill Levels of Expected Damage: 95 Percent
The SIOP Revisited
U.S. nuclear war plans during the Johnson administration included the option of a retaliatory strike against nuclear, conventional military, and urban-industrial targets with the purpose of removing the Soviet Union “from the category of a major industrial power” and destroying it as a “viable” society. This is one disclosure from a Joint Staff review of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) obtained via a Mandatory Declassification Review request by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive and posted on our site today.
The document, the Joint Staff’s review of SIOP guidance in June 1964, showed continued acceptance by policymakers of the cataclysmic nuclear strike options that had been integral to the plan since its inception. Accordingly, the SIOP set high damage requirements—95 percent for the top priority nuclear targets—ensuring that it remained an “overkill” plan, referring to its massively destructive effects. Prepared and continually updated by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, the SIOP has been characterized by some as a “doomsday machine.”
U.S. nuclear war planning drew on Cold War assumptions about the danger of a Soviet surprise attack against the United States. The possibility that deterrence could fail and that U.S.-Soviet conflict could break out made U.S. defense officials seek attack options “capable of execution under all reasonably foreseeable conditions under which hostilities may begin.” For such purposes, the SIOP included a retaliatory option in the event of a Soviet surprise attack and a preemptive option in the case of intelligence warning of an imminent Soviet attack
The U.S. government has never declassified any version of the SIOP, forcing researchers to rely on ancillary documentation to shed useful light on elements of the plan. The Joint Staff review posted today is the latest such evidence. Base-line declassified knowledge about earlier versions of the SIOP includes:
- SIOP-62 and its successors involved massive nuclear strikes against Sino-Soviet targets, with thousands of weapons aimed at over a thousand targets, with “Alpha” category nuclear weapons and delivery systems – nuclear-tipped missiles and bombers loaded with nuclear weapons – the top priority.
- To satisfy policymakers who wanted the president to have a wider range of choices, by late 1962 the SIOP included two preemptive and three retaliatory options. Included in the Football briefing material for the President, the SIOP options were strikes, sometimes in combination, on nuclear weapons and delivery systems (Task Alpha), on non-nuclear military targets (Task Bravo), and on urban-industrial targets (Task Charlie).
- SIOP-63 established a high damage expectancy of 90 percent probability of severe damage to targets, a requirement that made the SIOP an instrument of “overkill” because multiple nuclear weapons would strike high priority targets
The Joint Staff review of the SIOP-64 guidance includes new information on nuclear war planning:
- The SIOP guidance permitted “withholds” to hold back strikes on specific countries. Recognizing the reality of Sino-Soviet tensions, it would be possible to launch nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union without attacking China or vice versa or to withhold strikes from Eastern European countries, namely Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania
- Priorities for Task Alpha targets: At the top of the list of the most urgent target categories were: heavy and medium bomber bases, unprotected ICBM sites (silos did not shield Soviet ICBMs until early 1964), and IRBM/MRBM [intermediate range/medium range ballistic missile] sites.
- For the top priority “Task Alpha” targets, the SIOP-64 guidance set an even higher damage expectancy of 95 percent, “a high degree of probability of damage.” Thus, overkill continued to be baked into the SIOP. Yet, because nuclear planners based their assessments of damage on the blast effects of nuclear explosions, they did not take into account the further devastation caused by fire effects, especially in urban areas.
- The purpose of one of the retaliatory options was to destroy the Soviet Union as a “viable” society because it targeted Soviet military forces (conventional and nuclear) plus strikes on urban-industrial targets – Task Charlie.
Unlike the 1956 Strategic Air Command Report on target systems in 1959, the SIOP guidance paper was written at a fairly high level of generality that did not include discussion of specific target systems. Nor did it review specific nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, making references only to “survivable” delivery forces for urban-industrial targets and “rapid reaction offensive forces” for the urgent Task Alpha targets. Plainly these were references to the survivable Polaris SLBMs and the rapid response Minutemen and Titan ICBMs. By May 1964, not long before Taylor circulated the guidance paper, the Pentagon had hundreds of missiles for SIOP tasks: 488 alert Minutemen, 70 Titan I and II; and 208 Polaris A-1 and A-2 SLBMs. Besides the missiles, the arsenal of nuclear delivery vehicles included 630 B-52 and 450 B-47 bombers, the latter of which were being phased out. 
The SIOP’s preemptive options should not be confused with a first strike. President Eisenhower had ruled out one first-strike possibility, preventive war against the Soviet Union, but the option for a preemptive strike against Soviet military targets became standard in U.S. nuclear planning. Informing preemption was the prospect that strategic intelligence could produce warning of an impending Soviet attack that a U.S. strike could avert or at least blunt. Moreover, some military planners believed that by destroying Soviet nuclear forces first a preemptive strike could limit damage to the United States. Yet, by September 1963, top defense officials were concluding that damage limitation strategies could fail. At a White House briefing on the 1963 report of the highly secret Net Evaluation Subcommittee [NESC], General Leon Johnson told the president that “There is no way, no matter what we do, to avoid unacceptable damage in the U.S. if nuclear war breaks out.” All the same, preemption remained in the menu of SIOP options and the logic of damage limitation “became deeply ingrained in decisions about the numbers and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”
Vice President Johnson did not attend the meeting on the NESC report and it is unknown whether Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefed him on the limits of preemption. McNamara, however, was confident that should nuclear war come he and the president could have improvised an attack without relying on the SIOP options.
The urgency given to counterforce targets and the availability of preemptive options added momentum and instability to the U.S.-Soviet strategic competition. Washington identified more Soviet nuclear installations for the target lists, which then boosted the Pentagon’s requirements for more nuclear warheads. Putting ICBMs on high alert for counterforce missions added to the risk of accidental nuclear war as did the preemptive option. The primacy the Joint Staff gave to the counterforce mission guaranteed that the SIOP would be an instrument of overkill but may have been inconsistent with stable deterrence.
U.S. apprehensions notwithstanding, a first strike was never part of Soviet military doctrine. Yet Soviet political and military leaders feared a U.S. first strike, mirror imaging Washington’s fears. While some Soviet military officials sought a preemptive capability, key leaders such as Deputy Premier Alexei Kosygin rejected it altogether.
Also published today by the National Security Archive is new information on the nuclear pre-delegation instructions approved by President Johnson in March 1964, codenamed “Furtherance.” The instructions covered a specific contingency: if the Soviet Union launched a surprise attack and if the U.S. president and successors could not be reached, and if detonation of nuclear weapons on U.S. territory could be confirmed. Under those circumstances,
U.S. commanders could respond with an all-out attack against the “Sino-Soviet” bloc, which meant all countries allied with Moscow and Beijing. According to a recently declassified document from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, published today by the National Security Archive, only Yugoslavia, an estranged Soviet ally, would be spared from the nuclear strike, because of its independent status.
This document from March 1964, prepared a few weeks after President Johnson's decisions on "Furtherance," clarified the meaning of "Sino-Soviet" in the pre-delegation instructions. According to General Andrew J. Goodpaster, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, in the latest version of the SIOP and the pre-delegation instructions, "Sino-Soviet" meant "all of the Sino-Soviet nations and satellites, [but] not Yugoslavia." Nevertheless, because neighboring Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, all countries aligned with either China or the Soviet Union, would be targeted in an all-out strike, Yugoslavia's population could suffer severe damage effects as well, especially radiation.
Even though the guidance for SIOP-64 recognized the reality of the Sino-Soviet split by permitting a China "withhold," it took four years, (until 1968), before President Johnson rescinded the blanket "Sino-Soviet" requirement from the "Furtherance" instructions, thus allowing top commanders to discriminate between "Sino-Soviet" countries, e.g., by excluding China from an attack.
The report did not explain why those three countries were eligible for withholds (but not, for example, Poland). Given Albania's close ties to China, it is possible that the government wanted the ability to withhold Albania as a target if it was also withholding strikes against its ally China. Moreover, U.S. intelligence was aware that Soviet-Romanian relations were troubled. In fact, during Fall 1963, Foreign Minister Corneliu Manescu told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that the Soviets had not consulted Romania during the Cuban Missile Crisis and that the Soviets had not deployed nuclear weapons in Romania. In response, Rusk assured Manescu that U.S. military planning would take that into account.[i] (The "Furtherance" instructions showed the limits to the withholds, at least before 1968.) Why Bulgaria was included is far from evident because it was so closely aligned with the Soviet Union.