Michael KreponAssured Destruction

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had his hands full trying to set criteria for nuclear requirements at a time when the training and ethos of the Strategic Air Command called for taking the initiative and winning decisively. McNamara’s braininess, his coterie of civilian “whiz kids,” and their attachment to cost-effectiveness methods alien to the Pentagon brass, generated great friction. None were more affronted that General Curtis LeMay, the head of SAC, who thought McNamara “was turning his country’s back on the capacity for victory though air power in nuclear war.”

This quote comes from McGeorge Bundy’s masterful Danger and Survival, Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988). McNamara briefly considered a “damage limitation” nuclear posture, which meant avoiding cities and targeting opposing forces that could do great harm. But this targeting doctrine invited open-ended targeting requirements: the more damage limitation capability the U.S. fielded, the more targets the Soviet Union could be expected to proliferate. Besides, many key targets, including command and control nodes, were presumably located in or near cities.

So McNamara embraced the notion of assured destruction, which was not to be confused with minimal, credible deterrence. In support of his assured destruction strategy, McNamara picked the nice, round number of 1,000 ICBMs. Again, here’s Bundy:

“When he chose to have 1,000 Minuteman missiles, he was choosing a number that Congress would find acceptably large, not a number that he himself could demonstrate as strategically necessary. There were critics who argued then and later that a smaller number would have been enough, but the politically important alternatives before McNamara at that time were those desired in the Air Force – anywhere from 2,400 missiles to 10,000.”

McNamara initially quantified assured destruction as the ability to absorb a Soviet first strike and then kill, by immediate effects, 25 to 30 percent of the Soviet population as well as two-thirds of Soviet industry. Later, he adjusted these percentages downward a bit, to 20-25 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of Soviet industrial capacity.

Assured destruction was all well and good, until the Soviet Union embraced big numbers of its own, whether because of paranoia, domestic, bureaucratic and interest group drivers – or as U.S. Hawks surmised, because the Kremlin planned to fight and win a nuclear war. The superpowers became enmeshed in a nuclear competition fueled by the twin impulses of seeking advantage and fearing disadvantage. How else could one explain the trajectories on which the United States and the Soviet Union would produce over 100,000 nuclear weapons during the Cold War? This competition invited catastrophe. A blunting diplomatic instrument was needed, and a coterie of academics, mostly from Cambridge, called this construct arms control.


  1. JP (History)

    “Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had his hands full trying to set criteria for nuclear requirements at a time when the training and ethos of the Strategic Air Command called for taking the initiative and winning decisively.”

    Um, sounds like SAC already had the right criteria.

    MAD was all well and good, except the Soviets never subscribed to it. MAD presumed the superpowers had similar strategic objectives, but in fact the strategic problems the Soviets faced were quite different from those the Americans faced, and therefore a “brainy” SecDef should have expected the Soviets to take a different approach from the Americans.

    What a disaster the LBJ / McNamara team was. The legacy of their blundering remains with us to this day.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      McNamara was defining “assured destruction.” Neither side ever subscribed to “mutual assured destruction” as a strategy, and as far as I know it was never presented as a strategy. MAD was an endstate that evolved from both sides–as MK put it–“seeking advantage and fearing disadvantage.” If LBJ and McNamara had followed SAC’s preferred numbers, would the outcome have been substantially different?

    • Scott Monje (History)

      That should really be Kennedy and McNamara.

  2. JP (History)

    AD did not evolve from both sides seeking advantage. It evolved from one side, the USA, refusing to seek advantage, or more accurately, refusing to maintain its own advantage. RSM invented AD in order to sanctify the decision not to maintain the missile superiority that was the legacy of the Kennedy administration in the face of a large and clearly visible Soviet launcher construction program.

    And yes, if LBJ and RSM had determined to maintain US strategic superiority, then the outcome would most certainly have been substantially different.

    The principal reason the USA could not maintain its strategic missile advantage was another catastrophic LBJ and RSM decision — the ongoing war in Vietnam. As I said, what a disastrous strategic team they were!

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I’ll give you Vietnam, but MAD is the outcome of an interactive process. One side can’t determine the outcome alone (although the end state might have been a balance at a different magnitude). On the other hand, if the US had maintained strategic superiority, what would have been the advantage? Lack of US superiority didn’t cause nuclear war to break out. Clear US superiority didn’t prevent the outbreak of various crises in Berlin or Cuba.

  3. Laura (History)

    Does anyone know if AD actually ever became official US policy? I’ve researched it a bit, but don’t think it was ever actually indoctrinated anywhere. The same as it is today, its difficult to ascertain what the actual ‘requirements’ they had to fulfill at the time.

    • Coyote (History)


      I was a missile combat crew member in SAC during the closing years of the Cold War and I commanded a Minuteman III squadron a few years ago.

      Assured destruction (mutual or otherwise) was neither policy nor doctrine. “Deterrence” was the buzzword.

      All nuclear-armed officers were (and are still) required to provide a graded “Nuclear Certification Briefing” to their squadron commanders as the final step of their training and upgrade process. We were required to brief the following:

      “The purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter war. Should deterrence fail, we will execute our lawful orders seeking to end hostilities at the earliest possible time on terms favourable to the US and its allies. We will retain a survivable nuclear force throughout hostilities to prevent being coerced after hostilities by any unfriendly force. We will then resume our mission to deter subsequent wars.”

      “Assured destruction” was/is a political and academic term useful in policy discussions. It is not a military concept. We always fight to win and hope the policy and strategy are in alignment with reality so that we have a chance at winning whatever the desired end state the president identifies. The choice to go to war was not ours, nor did any of us relish the thought of going to war. Anyone who did was dismissed from nuclear-related duties immediately. Nevertheless, we were fully committed to carrying out our duties and would have done so.

      The success of “deterrence” rested on our willingness, readiness, and determination to fight to win—and our ability to convince adversaries that we would do so. Therein you will find the doctrine.

      The wisdom of fighting a nuclear war is another issue altogether, as is the perceived value of deterrence through strength or security through mutual vulnerability. That is something I shall leave for others to discuss.

      I am glad the Cold War is over and I am relieved to see the numbers of nukes dropping, but am greatly concerned by the rush to proliferate that is occurring in many states.



    • Scott Monje (History)


      The notion of assured destruction, to the extent that it was used, would have applied to decisions about the structure and size of the nuclear force. So I’m not sure it would necessarily have to come up in the operational setting that you describe here (not that I dispute anything you say, which is quite interesting).


      How come you didn’t approve my comment from yesterday? Was I out of line?

  4. Bill (History)

    The initial evolution of the AD concept was not related to “refusing to seek advantage.” When AD was developed as a strategic forces budgeting device during 1961-1963 the “missile gap” on the Soviet side was in effect and Washington had strategic superiority. The “large and clearly visible Soviet launcher program” did not yet exist. It is true that McNamara continued to support AD when the Soviets were closing the missile gap but he believed that 1,000 Minuteman with Polaris and B-52s was enough. More bombers and missiles would have made the rubble bounce higher, but I don’t think that is a “different outcome” that anyone would reasonably seek.

  5. bradley laing (History)

    –according to what I’ve read, the nuclear war planners refused to admit that radioactive fall out, or secondary fires started by nuclear explosions, should be included in calculations for war fighting.

    –I assume that some still-classified study was made, including the fall out, and the secondary fires, admitting that the whole premise of MAD, or just “assured destruction” was untrue, so long as the fallout and secondary fires were excluded.

    —Or, am I wrong about something?

  6. bradley laing (History)

    City on fire – For decades war planners have ignored the fire damage that would result from a nuclear attack. By counting blast damage alone, they could demand a far larger nuclear arsenal.
    Author: Lynn Eden
    Publisher: [Chicago : Atomic Scientists of Chicago, 1946-
    Edition/Format: Article Article : English
    Publication: Bulletin of the atomic scientists. 60, no. 1, (2004): 32
    Database: ArticleFirst
    Database: ArticleFirst
    Other Databases: British Library Serials

    (not yet rated) 0 with reviews – Be the first.

    • Steeljaw Scribe (History)

      Not entirely true – for example, “GLOBAL ATMOSPHERIC CONSEQUENCES OF NUCLEAR WAR” a 1983 paper by Turco, et al (including someone by the name of “J.B. Pollack”)stated:

      We investigate the.globa1 atmospheric and climatic consequences of nuclear war for a wide range of detonation yields and scenarios, and for variations of uncertain physical parameters over their plausible ranges of values. Significant hemispherical (and possibly global) attenuation of the solar radiation flux ( to less than ten percent of ambient for several weeks) and cooling of continental land areas (by 30 K or more for 1 to 2 months) may be caused by smoke generated in city and forest fires ignited by airbursts of all yields, and by fine dust raised i n high-yield surface bursts.

      Paper may be found here: http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19900067303_1990067303.pdf
      w/r, SJS

  7. yousaf (History)

    Re. the subject of AD, there is an important new paper by Martin Hellman of Stanford that examines the oft-repeated (but statistically incorrect) statement that nuclear weapons have kept us safe for 60+ years — curious if folks have comments on this:


    How risky is nuclear optimism

    Society’s resistance to even minor changes in our nuclear posture demonstrates that it sees little or no risk in the nuclear status quo. This article proposes using an engineering discipline known as risk analysis for determining whether society’s nuclear optimism is justified. If requested by Congress and performed by the National Academies, a risk analysis of nuclear deterrence could bring greater objectivity to the debate over our nuclear posture. The National Academies have frequently been called on by the government to provide objective, impartial advice on similar matters, as exemplified by a current study of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The major difference is that, in the case of nuclear deterrence, it is essential to mitigate the risk before disaster strikes, not afterward.

  8. bobbymike (History)

    We should have built 5000 Minutemen and also the very large WS-120A missile, would have ended the Cold War decades earlier.

    One of the issues missing from this article was that McNamara wanted the USSR to catch up to the US so they would “be our equal” and not feel threatened.

    • FSB (History)

      Could you clarify how that would have ended the Cold War?

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > We should have built 5000 Minutemen and also the very large WS-120A missile, would have ended the Cold War decades earlier.

      But not, perhaps, in a way we’d have been able to appreciate, at least for very long.

      However, this reminds me of a Cold War anecdote:


      “Back to work again, the first task I engaged in with my new team mates, Maury, Paul, and Ron, was to help them write an invited paper on the use of multiple warhead payloads to be presented at the upcoming Anti Missile Research Advisory Council (AMRAC) symposium to be held at the secure Naval Air Station in San Diego in September, 1962.

      “AMRAC was headquarted in Washington, D.C., with publishing and archives maintained at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

      “The subject of our paper was multiple warhead delivery systems. The title of our paper was “CLAW”, which stood for “Clustered Atomic Warheads”. We delivered this paper at a top secret restricted session of AMRAC at the secure Naval Station in San Diego in 1962. It was the first paper of its type advocating multiple warhead payloads. MIRV hadn’t been invented yet. The capability for Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles didn’t exist in 1962. Our system could deliver multiple warheads, but only on a single target in a circular or elliptical pattern. This was an advance in the state of the art at that time.


      “Following the success of our AMRAC paper, I was promoted to Project Engineer for the design of a heavy payload system, 39,000 pounds on top of a Titan III missile. The mission was to negate the Leningrad SAM defense system to allow our B 52’s access to the target. My liaison officer was a U.S.A.F. major, who was a B 52 pilot. His idea was that when we softened up the target with our nuclear barrage, he would fly in and finish it off.

      “Me and my team designed a three tiered payload with 13 one megaton Mark 11 RV’s in each tier (39 total) which would be spun out in space and impact the Leningrad defenses in three concentric elliptical rings. Our liaison officer was ecstatic, his bomb run would be unopposed. What he didn’t seem to realize was that there would be nothing left to bomb after we laid down a barrage equal to 2000 times the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima.”

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “One of the issues missing from this article was that McNamara wanted the USSR to catch up to the US so they would “be our equal” and not feel threatened.”

      That’s a good point. For instance, the perceived threat emanating from the rapid US ICBM buildup led Khrushchev to seek a quick and easy countermeasure by installing MRBMs and IRBMs in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. The incident that brought us closest to nuclear armageddon was a consequence of clear US superiority and the fact that the Soviets didn’t respond to it the way you seem to assume they would. As I said, one side can’t determine the outcome alone; the other side’s actions and reactions also matter.

  9. Michael Clauser (History)

    Arms control to what end? Nuclear global zero is unobtainable. Reductions will reach an “infinitesimal point” rendering final eradication impossible. And far before that moment becomes a remote possibility, the U.S will see its darkest, riskiest days. Pax Americana will have ceased. http://michaelclauser.com/2011/03/06/why-nuclear-global-zero-is-unobtainable/

  10. bradley laing (History)

    10 March 2011

    Russia’s new RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was put on combat duty for the first time with the Teikovo missile regiment in the Ivanovskaya Oblast in central Russia on 4 March.


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