Stranger than Strangelove: how the US planned for nuclear war in the 1950s

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) CC BY-SA

Those who have written about the nuclear Cold War remain grateful to Stanley Kubrick for giving us the satirical 1964 film Dr Strangelove which captures the madness that swept the world for 40 years. The name Strangelove may be overused but the United States has now released a secret file that really does justify the sobriquet: “Stranger than Strangelove”. Almost anodyne in title, Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 is a truly shocking document, revealing the scale of the holocaust that would have been unleashed in a nuclear war.

But a little context first. Back in 2006, the journalist Michael Dobbs filed requests for the declassification of many Pentagon Cold War documents. Dobbs optimistically hoped these documents would illuminate his book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. After years in the review system, in October 2014, some 2,200 documents were released – and with Dobbs’ help, the not-for-profit National Security Archive in Washington DC (not to be confused with the National Security Agency) has been working on the bundle ever since.

The archive has recently released its assessment and the highlights are that major cities in the Soviet Bloc, including East Berlin, were high priorities in “systematic destruction” for nuclear attack and that H-bombs were to be used against priority “air power” targets in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. The report also found that plans to target people (“population”) were in violation of international legal norms.

The cover of the SAC assessment. National Security Archive, George Washington University

Meanwhile, Strategic Air Command (SAC) wanted a 60-megaton bomb – a weapon with the equivalent destructive power of over 4,000 Hiroshima devices.

Nightmare scenario

SAC’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, originally produced in June 1956, provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified. This 800-page study is unprepossessing, a list of geographical locations in the communist bloc and then a corresponding series of alpha numerical descriptors which reflect the targets.

Under the leadership of Dr William Burr, who specialises in nuclear history and who has been doing remarkable research for the archive since the 1980s, a team painstakingly cross-indexed the descriptors with other documents to build up a picture of where the US Air Force (USAF) would have delivered their nuclear payload.

According to Burr, as far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history. It is still partly redacted. SAC specified the numbers and types of nuclear weapons required to destroy each Designated Ground Zero (DGZ). The nuclear weapons information is completely excised from the report making it impossible to know how many weapons SAC believed were necessary to destroy the various targets. Nevertheless, the SAC weapons stockpile was increasingly rapidly at the time, from more than 2,400 in 1955 to more than 12,000 in 1959. It was to reach 22,229 in 1961.

Even after this length of time, the SAC study provokes a frisson. According to its authors, their target priorities and nuclear bombing tactics would expose nearby civilians and “friendly forces and people” to high levels of radioactive fallout.

What’s more, the study’s authors developed a plan for the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad (now St Petersburg), East Berlin, and Warsaw.

“It’s disturbing, for sure, to see the population centres targeted,” writes Burr, adding:

Whatever SAC planners had in mind, attacks on civilian population per se were inconsistent with the standards followed by Air Force leaders. While they were willing to accept mass civilian casualties as a consequence of attacking military targets, as was the case during the Korea War, they ruled out ‘intentional’ attacks on civilians… Moreover, attacks on populations violated international legal norms of the day, which were summarised in the then-unratified Hague rules on aerial warfare (1923).

Systematic destruction

It is worth remembering at this stage of the Cold War that the attacks would have been carried out by human beings in long-range jet bombers rather than missiles. Every SAC crew was given a nuclear target in the Soviet Union in case of war.

In the 1990s, I interviewed many SAC pilots about dropping nuclear weapons on cities. They dealt with this remarkably pragmatically, as military people do. They viewed it as a patriotic duty or as a job of work, retrospectively providing a successful deterrent. My questions stirred little reflexivity or rumination. I recall one pilot I interviewed, Colonel Sam Myers revealing for the first time his target: “OK, my target for my crew was Gorky. And, this involved airborne alert missions. And we did have full weaponry aboard.”

Another target set was of urban-industrial areas identified for “systematic destruction”. SAC listed more than 1,200 cities in the Soviet bloc, from Estonia to China, all given graded priorities. Moscow and Leningrad were unsurprisingly priority one and two. Moscow included 179 DGZs and Leningrad had 145 – including “population” targets.

In both cities, SAC identified air power installations, such as Soviet Air Force command centres, which it would have eliminated with thermonuclear weapons early in the war. The main priority air-power targets would have been chosen from 1,100 airfields across the Soviet bloc starting with long-range Red Air Force nuclear bomber bases.

According to the study, they would have been targeted with bombs ranging from 1.7 to nine megatons. The document batch shows that SAC wanted a 60-megaton weapon which it considered vital for deterrence and also because it would produce “significant results” in the event of a Soviet sudden attack. Burr points out that one megaton would be 70 times the explosive yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Overkill

It has long been known that many targets would have been subjected to multiple nuclear attacks – and this led to the expression “Overkill”. But the study suggests the actual overkill would have been greater than previously believed. The SAC’s preference for ground-burst detonation of nuclear weapons rather that exploding them in-air would have been far dirtier and had such an attack taken place it would have greatly contaminated the earth’s atmosphere.

It is now hard to recall the constant fear in the ordinary person’s mind during the Cold War. But it is worth remembering that for many years this was symbolised by the huge B52 nuclear laden bombers which SAC kept in the air 24 hours-a-day, ready to attack the communist bloc.

Architect of US air war policy, General Curtis LeMay. US National Archives, still pictures division

This approach to defence was very much the vision of one man, the head of SAC from 1948 to 1957, General Curtis LeMay. Before LeMay took over, SAC had 49,589 personnel with just 713 World War II aircraft. By 1955, purely by the force of LeMay’s personality, this had grown rapidly to 200,000 personnel and 3,068 aircraft, mostly jet bombers.

SAC had forward bases around the world forming an “iron ring” around the Soviet Union. Britain, “the unsinkable aircraft carrier”, provided one of SAC’s key bases. LeMay is widely believed to have been the model for General Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. Two decades ago, I revealed that LeMay ran his own agenda in the 1950s of trying to provoke the Soviet Union into nuclear confrontation. Fortunately for us, it was one of his few failures.

The consequences of such a nuclear attack would have been beyond the imagination: one estimate is that it would have killed 520m people in the Communist bloc alone.

Need to know

It is not clear how the RAF’s Bomber Command nuclear V-force was integrated into the US’s war plans. It is a sad fact that the UK does not have an organisation comparable to the National Security Archive that has the resources to take a opaque document like the study and reveal the significance of its content.

There is much more to discover, for instance the intelligence gathering operation that must have taken place to identify the 1,100 air bases in the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies and the many other installations referred to, in what was a hermetically sealed bloc at that time. In the UK, much intelligence based material is still classified.

Virtually no post-World War II MI6 material has been released into the National Archives at Kew. Some MI5 material has been released recently. Many of these files have come from a Government secure depot at Hanslope Park. In 2013 it was discovered that the Foreign Office had unlawfully hoarded more than a million files of historic documents that should have been declassified and handed over to the National Archives. The Foreign Office claimed they had been mislaid from government archive records.

They included a substantial number of MI5 documents. It will take the National Archives at least ten years to release them into the public domain. Those that have already been released are fascinating and include the personal files of double agent Guy Burgess. Also released recently have been MI5 files and documents on public figures such as the author Doris Lessing, historian Christopher Hill, moral philosopher Mary Warnock and historian Eric Hobsbawn.

But we know little about how the UK might have worked with its NATO allies in a nuclear war which, thanks to the analysis of these declassified documents, we now have a much clearer picture of.


Paul Lashmar’s book: Spy Flights of the Cold War, was published in 1996 by Sutton Publishing Ltd.