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New Evidence on the Origins of Overkill

Published November 22, 2007

This National Security Archive report's summary states, "The first comprehensive U.S. nuclear war plan, produced in 1960, was controversial within the U.S. government because top commanders and White House scientists objected to its massive destructiveness—the “high level of damage and population casualties”—according to newly declassified histories published today by the National Security Archive.The war plan also appalled Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who wanted to find ways to curb its overkill, but the first nuclear plan revised on his watch remained massively destructive.

The nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), has been among the U.S. government’s most sensitive secrets.  No SIOP has ever been declassified and details about the making of U.S. nuclear war plans have been hard to pry loose.

Declassified histories from the early 1960s of SIOP-62 (for fiscal year) and SIOP-63 provide an acute sense of the way that the U.S. government planned to wage nuclear war, as well as how the plans were made and the inter-service conflicts over them. Among the disclosures:

  • The availability of options for preemptive or retaliatory strikes against Soviet and Chinese targets.
  • Goals of high levels of damage (“damage expectancy”) were intrinsic to the plan, which explains why historians have treated “overkill”, or excessive destruction, as one of its most distinctive features.
  • The internal debate within the military over the war plan, especially Army and Navy concern about excessive destruction and radiation hazards to U.S. troops and people in allied countries near targeted countries.
  • The high priority of military targets; according to the National Strategic Targeting and Attack Policy (NSTAP), one of the SIOP’s purposes was “to destroy or neutralize the military capabilities of the enemy.”
  • How the JSTPS constructed the five alternative strikes that constituted SIOP-63 (fiscal year 1963) in order to be responsive to Secretary of Defense McNamara’s quest for alternatives to nuclear attacks on urban-industrial areas, and limit the destructiveness of nuclear war, by focusing on nuclear targets only (“no cities/counterforce”).
  • The role of “strike timing sheets” in the plan, showing how each bomber and missile would reach its target without destroying each other (“fratricide”).

The documents highlighted in this release are declassified histories of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS), the organization which produced the SIOP from 1960 until the end of the Cold War. Since the 1990s, the National Security Archive used the FOIA several times to attempt to secure declassification of the SIOP-62 and SIOP-63 histories, but the Pentagon withheld the most interesting and important portions.  Three years ago, the Archive made another request for the same documents, this time using the mandatory review process.  While the declassification office at the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Services initially withheld much information, an appeal produced notably better results compared to those obtained from the earlier FOIA requests.  This is especially true of the SIOP-63 history, which is significant because this plan had a major influence on U.S. nuclear strategy during the years that followed." 

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