As some of the declassified documents show, an agreed policy was reached, though differing individual perspectives remained. That may explain why Odom, according to Burr, describes me as "chasing [enemy] general forces in East Europe and Korea with 'strategic weapons' in a military exercise." That never happened. And it certainly does not correspond to anything I wrote or believed. Such a scenario was likely Odom's own, as indicated by his writing several years after PD-59: "[I]t became possible to provide precise locating data to [Strategic Air Command]...and then to strike targets in less than an hour. ... [C]onventional military forces already deployed to invade Western Europe could be hit with enough precision to cripple them and dramatically slow their offensive operations." Again, I emphasize, that was Odom's thought, but not mine, and I was second only to the president in the chain of command.
My January 1981 report made clear my view that deterrence of nuclear war was vital because the use of nuclear weapons was likely to escalate to mutual destruction, and victory would not be a possible outcome. At first the Reagan administration turned away from that policy. T.K. Jones, a subordinate of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense, argued that a fallout and blast shelter program "with enough shovels" could greatly reduce damage and casualties from a major nuclear exchange. President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative claimed it could successfully intercept a Soviet ballistic missile attack. Together, these were advanced as a way out of the threat of destruction by nuclear war, offering a vision of safety or even some sort of victory. But even during Reagan's first term, he returned to the Carter policy of deterrence of nuclear war by threat of retaliation and announced that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Détente with the USSR was again sought, and with the end of the Soviet Union during George H.W. Bush's administration, the threat of mutual annihilation faded.
The Cold War has been over for more than 20 years and the security threats, both current and prospective, are different. Nuclear destruction does not now threaten the United States. But nuclear weapons remain. And looking forward, the lessons of strategic nuclear competition between the United States and the USSR inform and can ease the threat of nuclear war from or between other powers. The difficulties that hampered both the Americans and the Soviets, even with decades of experience, in signaling and in reading the short- and long-term intentions of the other, are likely to repeat or intensify for new or aspiring nuclear powers. Those nations offer a grave threat to international security in their interstate interactions and through possible leakage to non-state actors. It's therefore important that a correct interpretation of the past inform the present.
Finally, a comment on Burr's effort to understand PD-59 from newly released documents. Public release of highly classified documents after, say, 20 years, can be in the public interest; that is the case for PD-59. But the effort to understand them well after the fact -- and out of context -- brings to mind the efforts of children who want to know what grown-ups are saying behind closed doors. My 12 years in senior positions in the Defense Department, including four as secretary of defense, tell me that those conversations usually don't differ much from what grownups say when the doors are open. That turns out to be true of PD-59 as well. For further details about the issues dealt with by PD-59, I refer the reader to pp. 38-45 of the Report of the Secretary of Defense to Congress, Jan. 19, 1981, which made clear my meaning and intent.