National Security

Nuclear Fight Club

What would Jimmy Carter do?

I thank Harold Brown for his fascinating response to my recent post on Presidential Directive 59. Dr. Brown is generally critical of my article, but I believe we are in much closer accord on major points than he suggests.

For example, I agree that neither he nor anyone in the Carter administration had a concept of winning a nuclear war. While PD-59 was a program for capabilities to prosecute or "fight" a nuclear war if U.S. leaders concluded that one was unavoidable, no responsible official in the administration believed that it was possible to win such a horrible conflict (nor do I suggest that they did). Indeed, an important purpose of PD-59 was to avoid a nuclear war by establishing a more threatening, and therefore credible, deterrent force, a point which I make a number of times in a more detailed posting on the directive at the National Security Archive website.

I also agree with Dr. Brown that his annual reports as secretary of defense are important; they provide real insight into the substance of PD-59. In my full posting, I cite several of them in an endnote. All the same, public reports only go so far and important elements of the PD-59 discussion remained secret for many years. This is especially true of the dangerous launch-on-warning option that Dr. Brown, as secretary of defense, included in the directive despite objections from the White House.

Dr. Brown discusses the impact on U.S. nuclear planning of alleged Soviet beliefs about the possibility of surviving nuclear war: the United States threatened to target the Soviet leadership to "disabuse" them of the notion that nuclear war was winnable. That is how top U.S. officials thought, but it is worth recalling that when information on PD-59 leaked out (selectively), contemporary critics wondered whether it was destabilizing. In a crisis, Soviet leaders might have been tempted to launch nuclear forces first to reduce the threat of a U.S. strike on their command posts. That Sec. Brown codified a launch-on-warning option in PD-59 may have compounded the instability.

With respect to one of Dr. Brown's specific comments, when I wrote that the "drafters of PD-59" thought it possible to control escalation to avoid all-out nuclear war, I had William Odom specifically in mind. For example, in a memorandum dated March 22, 1980, Gen. Odom suggested the possibility of avoiding "rapid escalation" with "days and weeks [passing] as we try to locate worthy targets." I take Dr. Brown's point that as secretary of defense he was skeptical about the possibility of controlling escalation and that he said so at the time.

Fortunately, the world survived the Cold War with that theory left untested, but Dr. Brown's comments suggest there were divisions within the government on the meaning of PD-59. That raises the question: what did President Jimmy Carter really think about the directive when he signed it? Was his thinking closer to the Odom view, or was he also skeptical about the concept of controlled escalation? President Carter's thinking on this matter was probably close to Brown's, but more declassifications may shed light on how he thought about PD-59. 

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