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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"As late as 1968, the U.S. government had plans in place to fire an automatic "full nuclear response" against both the Soviet Union and China in the event of the death or disappearance of the President in the course of an attack against the United States, but President Lyndon Johnson changed that policy in October 1968, according to a previously Top Secret document published today for the first time by the National Security Archive"...


As late as 1968, the U.S. government had plans in place to fire an automatic "full nuclear response" against both the Soviet Union and China in the event of the death or disappearance of the President in the course of an attack against the United States, but President Lyndon Johnson changed that policy in October 1968, according to a previously Top Secret document published today for the first time by the National Security Archive.

Prior to President Johnson's decision, instructions for the emergency use of nuclear weapons that both he and his predecessors had previously approved stipulated a full-scale nuclear counter-attack even if the initial strike were conventional, or the result of an accident, and both Communist giants would be targeted regardless of whether either of them had launched the first strike.

This new information is contained in a record of a meeting between President Johnson and his top national security advisers on 14 October 1968. At the meeting, Johnson's military and civilian aides unanimously recommended that the standing orders, known by the code-name "Furtherance," be revised substantially in order to reduce the inherent risks involved. The changes included providing instructions to commanders to respond to a conventional attack with conventional weapons—an implicit "no-first use" nuclear policy. At the session, speaking of the new approach, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow advised Johnson: "We think it is an essential change. This was dangerous." The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff concurred.

The meeting record, marked "Eyes Only for the President," was released to the National Security Archive in late November 2012 under a Mandatory Declassification Review appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), nine years after the filing of the original request. The declassified transcript offers important insights into the still-heavily shrouded subject of predelegation of nuclear weapons use. The meeting record is accompanied in today's posting by several related items that provide contemporary context to the subject matter.

* * * * *

On 14 October 1968, while holding intense meetings on Vietnam War policy, President Lyndon Johnson's civilian and military advisers temporarily changed the subject when they recommended changes in changes in standing top secret instructions to senior military commanders on the emergency use of nuclear weapons. Since the Eisenhower administration, U.S. presidents had secretly approved instructions to military commanders authorizing or "predelegating" them to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack if the president was killed or otherwise unavailable. The changes in the instructions that President Johnson was considering were designed to prevent what national security adviser Walt W. Rostow called a "dangerous" situation that could inadvertently lead to nuclear weapons use on a catastrophic scale. The next day, Johnson approved the changes that Rostow had deemed "essential."

Recently declassified by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) in response to a mandatory review appeal by the National Security Archive, the record of the meeting shows that President Johnson considered recommendations to revise the "predelegation" instructions, codenamed "Furtherance," by removing a perilous element of inflexibility from them. Instead of a nearly automatic "full" nuclear strike against both China and the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack, top commanders could initiate a "limited response" against the appropriate country. That would be all the more necessary in the event of a "small-scale or accidental attack." Moreover, in the event of a nuclear response to a conventional forces attack "as is now in the plan," the retaliation would be non-nuclear-a step toward a no-first use policy. With the revised instructions, commanders had explicit direction to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

ISCAP released this document in full nine years after the initial mandatory declassification review request to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. In 2010, the National Archives had denied an initial appeal of the heavily excised record necessitating the appeal to ISCAP. But ISCAP released this document just as it had released other records on predelegation, opening up what had been one of the deepest U.S. government secrets during the Cold War. The existence of advance authorizations for the emergency use of nuclear weapons had been such a sensitive secret that even authors of top secret U.S. government studies of command-control-communications vulnerabilities were constrained from discussing them. During the late 1990s declassification requesting by the National Security Archive produced major breakthroughs in this area when appeals to ISCAP produced key documents on the instructions from the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations. The declassifications, which produced head-lines in The Washington Post, included President Eisenhower's initial request in 1957 for instructions, the instructions themselves, and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy's summary of them prepared for President Johnson in September 1964.

The record of the 14 October 1968 "Furtherance" discussion raises more questions than it answers. Why was this decision made in the last months of the Johnson presidency? Why hadn't it taken place during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who had been a proponent of "greater flexibility and discrimination" in nuclear war planning. [1] What was the "plan" that had required a nuclear response to a conventional attack? Was it the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, which provided guidance to military planners for global conflict, or (less likely) the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the plan for nuclear war? What is the significance of the conventional (non-nuclear) response to a conventional attack? Moreover, what did Johnson and his advisers mean by a "limited response."

Certainly the decision to update the predelegation instructions reflected the recognition at the highest levels of the U.S. government that a nuclear stalemate existed with the Soviet Union. U.S. nuclear supremacy had ended during the 1960s as the Soviet Union acquired a significant nuclear retaliatory capability so whatever political and diplomatic leverage that nuclear superiority provided had substantially eroded. [2] Preemptive attack on Soviet strategic forces continued to be available as an option in the SIOP but it was a dubious one because Soviet forces were unlikely to be completely destroyed and could cause tremendous damage to the United States and its allies. Under the new circumstances, Johnson's advisers took McNamara's advice on the need for "flexibility and discrimination" in nuclear planning. Thus, it was better to calibrate an attack so that it was targeted against the right country and so that it was "limited" enough to avoid inviting a disproportionate nuclear onslaught.

As for the decision to differentiate China and the Soviet Union in an emergency attack response, it is unclear why this change had not been made before 1968. It is worth noting that when the SIOP was created in 1960, it stipulated an undifferentiated massive attack against all Soviet bloc targets, including China, with tremendous anticipated civilian casualties. That led an exasperated Marine Corp Commandant General David Shoup to argue that it was "unfair" to include China in an attack if it had done nothing to invite it. [3] To address that problem, SIOP-63 made it possible for the president to order "withholds" of an attack against any country on the target list. It was not only China that was of concern; Poland and other Eastern European countries, as well as Moscow and Beijing, were also candidates for "withholds." [4] In any event, apparently the "Furtherance" instructions from 1964 did not include an explicit withhold to spare China from automatic retaliation in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. To cover this gap, Johnson's advisers must have believed it necessary for top commanders to receive explicit guidance so that they made appropriate decisions in the absence of a president.

Under the new "Furtherance" policy, a conventional attack would merit a nonnuclear response, not a nuclear retaliation as had been doctrinal in NATO policy until 1967. That year, the NATO defense ministers had approved Military Committee [MC] 14/3 which took a major step away from the idea of an "automatic" nuclear response. Moreover, McNamara had already advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson against using nuclear weapons first; what Nina Tannenwald calls a "de facto no-first use policy" had emerged during the 1960s. That was certainly consistent with Johnson's aversion to the notion of using nuclear weapons. But with the revised "Furtherance" instructions, Johnson took a step toward formalizing the de facto policy by instructing war planners to take a non-nuclear response to a conventional attack in an emergency. [5]

What Johnson, Rostow, Clifford et al believed a "limited response" would involve is not spelled out in the available documents. They may have seen existing nuclear attack options as too big, a question that policymakers had been grappling with since the late 1950s when ideas about "flexible response" became influential. Johnson's advisers may have been trying to find an answer to a question that the next president, Richard Nixon, would begin to ask: if the worst case came to pass and a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was about to start, why didn't the president have limited and credible alternatives to the catastrophically huge attacks that constituted the SIOP? Nixon's National Security Decision Memorandum 242 (January 1974), and later Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59 (June 1980), were attempts to prompt Pentagon planners to develop limited nuclear options so the President had more plausible, although nevertheless terribly destructive, options in a crisis.

Even though the Cold War circumstances that made top policymakers devise special instructions to prepare for apocalyptic contingencies of nuclear destruction have passed, the "Furtherance" documents are not strictly historical arcana. In light of concerns about terrorist attacks, nuclear or otherwise, and earlier concerns about nuclear war, the elaborate Continuity of Government plans that began to be developed during the Carter and the Reagan administrations are as much of an attempt to deal with the problem of presidential authority and its survival as the predelegation instructions that President Johnson and his predecessors had approved. Whether predelegation survives in some form, or whether it has been superseded by COG plans to ensure the survival of others in the line of succession, is still not a matter of public record.

Today's publication includes limited background information on "Furtherance." The available documentation includes some of the first known references to the "Furtherance" codename, and provides a time-line for President Johnson's initial approval of a streamlined version of the predelegation instructions. As readers will note, much information remains exempt from disclosure and some of the released documents are so massively excised that they may as well have been denied in their entirety. All are the subject of several appeals to the National Archives, the Defense Department, and ISCAP. In light of the recent ISCAP release it should be possible for the agencies to make expeditious decisions on the other documents before another 9 years have passed.

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