ANN: Declassified US Navy Documents on Nuclear Strategy

christopher ball's picture

From     National Security Archive

Correction to the previous email. 

"How Much is Enough?": The U.S. Navy and "Finite Deterrence"

Navy Leaders Worried that U.S. Posture of "Hair Trigger Readiness" and Vulnerable Missile Silos Could Cause "Uneasy" Enemies to Launch Surprise Attack

"Even the Maddest Russian" was Deterred because the Soviets "Had Striven Too Hard to Industrialize" to Risk Devastation: CNO Arleigh Burke

 Navy Report on Nuclear War Plan: "A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the end of Two Hours"

 Update of EBB 275 – with new text and additional documents

Washington, D.C., October 14, 2021 – Over sixty years ago, U.S. Navy leaders made arguments very similar to those being raised by today's critics of the Pentagon's trillion-dollar spending program for new ICBMs, submarines, and bombers: that new missile-launching submarines (capable of launching Polaris missiles in the early 1960s) could provide the main basis for U.S. nuclear deterrence at much lower cost and greater security for U.S. forces.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke was one of the leading exponents of this view in the early 1960s, arguing that a small force of Polaris submarines could deter a Soviet attack, while large numbers of ICBMs would provide vulnerable targets. To reduce vulnerability, Burke and other Navy leaders developed a concept of "finite" or "minimum" deterrence that they believed would make the United States safer by dissuading nuclear attacks and removing pressures for a dangerous "hair-trigger" posture.

Today's posting is an update of a May 2009 Electronic Briefing Book on the U.S. Navy and "finite deterrence" featuring several new documents obtained from U.S. archives and FOIA requests.

The issues presented in the original posting are still relevant to current discussions. The "finite deterrence" debates of 1960-1961 marked one of those moments in Cold War history when top officials proposed major changes in the U.S. nuclear posture, involving significantly smaller and differently structured strategic forces. More powerful interests and conflicting policy imperatives succeeded in derailing those proposals, but they are worth revisiting for the searching questions they raised about the nuclear posture that were never resolved during the Cold War.


THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.