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’.footnote1

Captain Moore’s notes on the briefing are one of several key documents from us military archives that are leading to a re-evaluation of our understanding of the history of the nuclear age. Above all, these documents force us to rethink an assumption that has become part of the common currency of the peace movement: that in the past nuclear weapons were kept as deterrents, to be used only in retaliation for a previous nuclear attack; that plans to ‘prevail’ in a nuclear war are new.

What is at stake is not simply historical accuracy. As Jonathan Schell writes, ‘if we ask what it is that we would have to give up in order to resolve the nuclear predicament, we find that it is nothing less than the whole present structure of international affairs.’footnote2 To know how we can abolish the Bomb, we do indeed need to know its place in the ‘present structure of international affairs’. The view that its place is that of a deterrent is deep and pervasive—it has, for instance, patently influenced opponents of nuclear weapons like Schell, as well as advocates. Yet it is a view that is in an important sense quite false. False not just for the new generation of ‘nuclear war fighting’ strategies, but always false. If ‘deterrent’ means a weapon whose role is to protect from nuclear attack by threatening overwhelming retaliation, United States war planning—and also that of the Soviet Union—has never been satisfied with a ‘deterrent’.

The idea that ‘nuclear war fighting’ is new is closely connected both to a political programme and to an analysis of an arms race. The programme is that of repudiating the nuclear war-fighting ‘innovations’ of the last few years, and returning to ‘simple deterrence’, perhaps together with stronger conventional forces. While such a programme is not on the immediate political agenda, quite conceivable shifts—perhaps a further strengthening of the European peace movements and American freeze movement—might well give it important momentum.

The analysis of the arms race that is linked to the idea of the newness of ‘nuclear war fighting’ is technological determinism. ‘The military technological tail wags the political dog’, writes former director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Frank Barnaby.

‘Moves away from a deterrent strategy and toward a nuclear-war fighting strategy . . . are being made in the United States and the Soviet Union, because military scientists have produced more precise weapons’—precision mattering here because an inaccurate missile can still destroy a city, but it takes great accuracy to destroy a missile in its underground silo.footnote3

Much of the prevalence amongst the peace movement of the idea that nuclear war fighting is new follows from the conjuncture in time of its recent revival (which we can date to the early months of 1980), and President Carter’s Presidential Directive 59 of July 1980. That Directive was leaked, almost certainly deliberately, to Richard Burt of the New York Times. Its emphasis on a ‘countervailing’ nuclear strategy, and its call for the targeting of Soviet nuclear forces, became frontpage news. While the aim of leaking it had been to bolster Carter’s flagging image for toughness in the growing election campaign against Reagan, it had the unanticipated effect of fueling the growth of the peace movement world-wide. A generation brought up to believe that nuclear weapons were kept only for retaliation was brought face-to-face with the us President apparently saying otherwise: it only made sense to target Soviet silos if the us intended to strike before the missiles in those silos were fired.footnote4