Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.
The slides used to brief Nixon that day have been partially declassified and released by the National Security Archive, and they suggest how complex the whole decision process would be. In the event of nuclear war, Nixon was told, he would have three functional tasks: Alpha, for strikes on the most urgent military targets; Bravo, for secondary military targets; and Charlie, for industrial and urban targets. If the president ordered an attack of Alpha and Bravo, urban areas would be spared. But beyond these were dozens of decisions, attack options, targets, and variations. There were committed forces and coordinated forces, hard-core forces and theater forces. Nixon was shown the "decisions handbook" or black book, with tabs, which was open in front of him.
At the end of the briefing, Nixon was shown a slide marked "Conclusion." He was reassured the war plan was flexible and responsive. "Procedures for execution are straight-forward and in themselves neither new or unusually complicated," Nixon was told. "It is in the decision-making process, the evaluation and selection of the many attack responses available, wherein the problem becomes complex."
Then the briefer warned:
"In a crisis mounted over a period of time, it should be possible to eliminate early some of the alternatives, such as whether or not to attack particular countries. In a long, drawn out crisis, with highly intensified force readiness on one or both sides, it may be even possible to eliminate from further consideration some of the attack options. But in a sudden emergency, with little or no warning, all of these considerations must be entertained and discussed with the president [pause] and perhaps in no more than a very few minutes."
Such a nightmare scenario hung over the Cold War until the very end, and even beyond. No one really could predict how a president or Soviet leader would react when faced with a do-or-die choice in just minutes. The imponderables troubled every American and Soviet leader of the nuclear age. And the high state of readiness of the weapons, on alert to fire in a short period, reflected the very deep tensions of the era.
In the early 1980s, U.S. officials were particularly worried that the system for command-and-control of nuclear weapons had become outdated, and began taking actions to improve it. One day, President Ronald Reagan told one of his assistants, Thomas C. Reed, that he didn't want to fly away in a helicopter if there was a nuclear alert. "I want to sit here in the office," Reagan said. Referring to Vice President George H. W. Bush, Reagan added, "Getting into the helicopter is George's job." A few years after the Soviet collapse, in January 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin got his own taste of the tension when he was called to the briefcase-sized remote terminal for nuclear command to monitor what looked like a possible nuclear attack. After a while the Russians realized it was not a threat; the rocket flew away from Moscow and toward the North Pole. It was not an American missile but a weather rocket launched from Norway. The Russians had been notified of the launch, but lost the paperwork.
Next week, this terrifying dilemma will be in the spotlight again. Sources tell me that President Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to come out before he heads to Prague to sign the new strategic arms treaty, will make a fresh effort to address the issue of nuclear weapons on alert. The posture review is a document intended to establish the U.S. strategy and policy on nuclear weapons for the next five to 10 years. This is the third such review since the end of the Cold War, and is being closely watched for signs of change from the old days of superpower standoff. Both the United States and Russia keep their missiles ready to launch, a practice from the days when deterrence required each side face the other with cocked pistols.