The United States had secret plans to launch a simultaneous “full nuclear attack” against both the Soviet Union and China in the event that the president was killed or disappeared during an attack on America.
This all-out nuclear war would be launched against the two communist giants regardless of who was responsible for the attack on the US and regardless of whether only conventional weapons were used, or if it the attack was merely an accident. This protocol, which if ever initiated would have almost certainly resulted in global thermonuclear annihilation, remained in place until 1968, when the Lyndon B. Johnson administration ordered a more measured response in an attempt to avoid a disastrous situation.
This shocking Cold War plan, codenamed Furtherance, was revealed on Wednesday by the National Security Archive. The new information is documented in an October 1968 meeting between President Johnson and his top national security advisers, at which both military and civilian officials unanimously recommended revising Furtherance in order to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
The advisers called for three major changes to Furtherance. First, they recommended targeting only the USSR or China, not both, for nuclear attack in the event that the US came under attack.
“We do not recommend full attack at all times,” the memo from the meeting reads. “This would permit a limited response.”
Second, the implementation of an implicit “no first-use” policy that ordered nuclear commanders to respond to a conventional attack with conventional weapons was recommended.
Third, two documents of instruction rather than one were recommended. The significance of this is not made clear by the memo.
“We think it is an essential change,” National Security Adviser Walt Rostow wrote of the suggested changes. “This was dangerous,” he said of Furtherance.
The record of the meeting, marked ‘Eyes Only for the President,’ was obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University last month after a Mandatory Declassification Review appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) nine years after a request was originally filed.
The policy of launching a nuclear war against nations that attack or threaten the US with conventional weapons has been around since the birth of the atomic age. Japan, after all, had no nuclear arsenal, or much of a conventional military for that matter, when the US waged history’s only nuclear war by annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki even while Japan was trying to find a way to surrender.
In the immediate postwar period, the US browbeat the Soviets with its atomic monopoly, threatening to nuke its erstwhile World War II ally when it failed to withdraw its forces from Iran in 1946. The USSR did not possess its own atomic bomb until 1949. Declassified documents also show that the US repeatedly threatened to drop atomic bombs on North Korea during the 1950-53 war there, and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reportedly offered France multiple atomic bombs to use during that country’s ill-fated attempt to retain its colonies in Indochina. In Paris, cooler heads prevailed and the offer was rejected.
In 1972, after the US had been bogged down in its own Vietnam war for the better part of a decade, President Richard Nixon expressed his desire and willingness to use nuclear weapons against the peasants of North Vietnam. “That, I think, would just be too much,” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger replied.
It was also revealed that during the 1961 Berlin crisis, President John F. Kennedy considered a surprise nuclear attack on Soviet military targets.
In a top-secret plan called NSC-68, a US first-strike against the Soviet Union using nuclear weapons causing a massive number of civilian deaths was envisioned.
“A very serious initial blow could… reduce the capabilities of the USSR to supply and equip its military organization and its civilian population as to give the United States the prospect of developing a general military superiority in a war of long duration,” NSC-68 stated. It would be absolutely essential for the United States to strike first and strike hard because “in the initial stages of an atomic war, the advantages of initiative and surprise would be very great.” The strategy outlined in NSC-68 envisioned the collapse of the USSR and a “new world order” based on American global hegemony and the worldwide economic domination.
The “first-strike” doctrine espoused by NSC-68 was extremely dangerous in the tense age of MAD, the suicidal nuclear stalemate of mutually-assured destruction that characterized US-Soviet relations throughout the Cold War.
Even after the Cold War ended, the United States drew up plans for preemptive nuclear, chemical and biological attacks against countries that did not possess nuclear weapons. In 1992, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his deputy Scooter Libby, two neoconservative luminaries who would go on to play important– and notorious– roles in the George W. Bush administration, authored a strategy plan called‘Defense Planning Guidance’ that called for global US domination and the use of weapons of mass destruction against countries that potentially posed threats to American hegemony.
Eight years later, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative group founded and staffed by many prominent Bush administration figures including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz and Jeb Bush (almost none of whom had any military experience), released a plan called “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” RAD advanced the ideas contained in the 1992 Wolfowitz doctrine, calling for regime change throughout the Middle East and even China, a permanent global US military presence, enlargement of conventional and nuclear arsenals, the militarization of outer space and the development and use of biological warfare capabilities.
US nuclear first-strike policy continues to this very day. President Barack Obama’s latest Nuclear Posture Review, announced in October, maintains the long-standing threat to use nukes, even against non-nuclear nations.