Friday, November 25, 2005

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie: Nixon and Kissinger’s Search for Limited Nuclear Options

Recently declassified documents at the National Security Archives show how President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were concerned that U.S. nuclear strategy was basically only a single option: Mutually Assured Destruction. The documents show how a mix of moralism, strategy, bureaucratic politics, and even Watergate drove the National Security Council to grapple with the idea whether there could be a limited nuclear war. It is the story of how the Single Integrated Operational Plan or SIOP was reconsidered during the Nixon Administration and how its three target packages—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie—became part of the new doctrine. The documents and the analysis of William Burr of the National Security Archives are available here.

The tone of the memos and transcripts is framed, perhaps, by Kissinger’s quote from one NSC meeting that “to have the only option of killing 80 million people is the height of immorality.” Yes, but that doesn’t mean that the other options don’t make for chilling reading. While Nixon, in particular, was concerned with the specter of nuclear annihilation, there was also the concern was that the U.S.’s nuclear threat would not be credible if the only threat we had was to destroy the world. Credibility required some option that was less extreme. Consequently, pragmatism also informed the strategic reconsideration

The documents also show other factors that may be somewhat surprising. For example, one report notes that

The documents reveal Kissinger's chilling insight that government budget-crunchers would prefer complete nuclear warfare because it was already planned for and would be cheaper than recasting U.S. capabilities to permit limited strikes.
"They believe in assured destruction because it guarantees the smallest expenditure," he told an August 1973 National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room.


Watergate also played a part in the increased focus on a survivable nuclear option. Kissinger said in an August 1973 meeting that "My nightmare is that with the growth of Soviet power and with our domestic problems, someone might decide to take a run at us."

The various declassified documents, and William Barr’s guided tour through the documents shed light on how the government went about considering the issues of the utmost importance, which literally had implications for the survival of the species.

Burr notes the following, for example:

Not all in the government agreed with Kissinger on the merits of limited nuclear options. One of Kissinger's close advisers, Winston Lord, signed off on a paper prepared by several members of the Planning and Coordination Staff that took exception to the new thinking. While no one quarreled with the merits of flexibility, the Staff worried about some of the implications of the concept of "controlled nuclear escalation," including a "possible adverse impact on deterrence, overreliance on nuclear forces, and overconfidence in the applicability of nuclear escalation in a wide variety of situations." The arguments did not persuade Kissinger, who scrawled: "Good paper though I disagree with much of it."

For those with an interest in national security or executive decision-making, Burr’s essay and the underlying documents are a compelling read.