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New Left Review I/148, November-December 1984

Donald MacKenzie

Nuclear War Planning and Strategies of Nuclear Coercion

In March 1954 a us Navy captain, William Brigham Moore, travelled to Nebraska to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. He and some thirty fellow officers were there to be briefed on that Command’s plans for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Some at least of the audience were clearly taken aback by what they heard and were shown. Successive charts revealed the ‘optimum plan’. In it 735 bombers approached Russia ‘from many directions so as to hit their early warning screen simultaneously’. Heavy lines on the charts showed the wings of bombers flying on inexorably into the heart of the Soviet Union, destroying as they went both Soviet airfields and Soviet cities. ‘Pretty stars’ marked the many nuclear bombs dropped. ‘The final impression was that virtually all of Russia would be nothing but a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours.’ In the last half-hour of the briefing the officers had their chance to question General LeMay, Commander of the Strategic Air Command. One of them asked the obvious question: ‘How do sac’s plans fit in with the stated national policy that the us will never strike the first blow?’. Captain Moore could only catch the gist of General LeMay’s reply. LeMay said that policy ‘sounds very fine’, but it was ‘not in keeping with United States history: I believe that if the us is pushed in the corner far enough we would not hesitate to strike first’. [1] Captain Moore’s memorandum on the briefing was found in the Archives of the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. Declassified in 1979, it was published by historian David Alan Rosenberg in his ‘“A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours”: Documents on American Plans for Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, 1954–1955’, International Security 6, Winter 1981–82. General LeMay and John Bohn, Command Historian of the Strategic Air Command, informed Rosenberg that Moore’s account of what appears to have been a standard briefing was substantially accurate.

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Donald MacKenzie, ‘Nuclear War Planning and Strategies of Nuclear Coercion’, NLR I/148: £3

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