William Burr is to be applauded for successfully gaining declassification of Presidential Decision-59, "Nuclear Weapons Employment," and related documents more than 30 years after its adoption. Unfortunately, his interpretation of what those documents said and meant is badly flawed. Moreover, the views he attributes to me neither were, nor are, mine. I have examined the internal memos of the State Department and the staff of the National Security Council, which I had not previously seen, as well as reread the policy guidance and implementing documents issued by President Carter and by me. It is important that these documents and the decisions and policies they mirror, as well as the lessons they carry, be correctly understood.
PD-59 directed implementation of a revised policy for nuclear weapons employment in terms of force structure, command and control arrangements, doctrine, and plans. The purpose of PD-59 was to assure, and make plain to Soviet leaders, that they and their regime would not survive a general thermonuclear war; that there could be no victory in such a war because utter destruction would be the outcome. We in the Carter administration were concerned by Soviet military writings. Some of those indicated that while the USSR did not seek to fight a nuclear war, if it happened, they hoped to "win" by surviving as an organized state. Some U.S. analysts, including the "Team B" that issued its report toward the end of the Ford administration, believed that the Soviets intended to gain an ability to win. And indeed, extensive facilities in the USSR sought to protect the leadership from nuclear strikes by the United States, dwarfing any U.S. counterparts.
PD-59 had two goals. One was to disabuse Soviet leaders from the view, assuming they held it, that they could win or survive a nuclear war. We did that both by our declared policy and by the adjustment of our strategic forces and plans for their use if war came. The other goal was to reinforce the U.S. ability, already initiated in earlier years by Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger, to carry out nuclear strikes in a selective way. Burr writes, "Drafters of PD-59...believed they could control escalation during a nuclear war." Perhaps that was so for some, but I, who had the responsibility for implementing it, had a different view. As I wrote in January 1981 in my final report to Congress (echoing statements on the record before PD-59 was issued), "First, I remain highly skeptical that escalation of a limited nuclear exchange can be controlled, or that it can be stopped short of an all-out, massive exchange. Second, even given this belief, I am convinced that we must do everything we can to make such escalation control possible, that opting out of this effort and resigning ourselves to the inevitability of such escalation is a serious abdication of the awesome responsibilities nuclear weapons, and the unbelievable damage their uncontrolled use would create, thrust upon us."
Plans and controls that maintained the possibility of stopping short of escalation to mutual destruction -- even after initial use -- made sense. This "countervailing strategy" embodied flexibility, escalation control, survivability, and endurance. Our strategy included alternative mixes of targets: Soviet strategic forces; other military forces; Soviet leadership and control; and their industrial and economic base, which would automatically affect but not be directed at their urban populations. Two very able senior staff members produced the drafts of PD-59, which, as the minutes released by Burr show, were debated and revised by the members and advisers of the National Security Council. Walt Slocombe, later undersecretary of defense during the Clinton administration, was my action officer for PD-59 in the Defense Department. Bill Odom, then a brigadier general and later the director of the National Security Agency during President Reagan's second term, was the action officer on Zbigniew Brzezinski's staff.