How Much is Enough?

The U.S. Navy and Finite Deterrence

Linked with the National Security Archive NSA.

Published on National Security Archive NSA, Electronic Briefing Book No. 275, by William Bur, May 1, 2009.

(A Moment in Cold War History when the Fundamentals of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Were at Stake – For more information contact: William Burr- 202/994-7000)

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 raised 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 …  

… 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.” (Document 2)
  • 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.” (Document 5)
  • 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.” (Document 14)
  • 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.” (Document 11)

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. (full text).

Read all the Documents 1 to 20 plus Notes (scroll down).

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