Jimmy Carter’s Controversial Nuclear Targeting Directive PD-59 Declassified

Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 390, by William Burr, September 14, 2012.

  • Designed to Give President More Choices in Nuclear Conflict than “All-Out Spasm War”
  • White House Officials Envisioned Prolonged Nuclear Conflict Where High-Tech Intelligence Systems Provided a “Look-Shoot-Look” Capability
  • Leak of PD-59 Exposed White House Exclusion of State Department in National Security Decisions

…  The National Security Archive obtained the virtually unexpurgated document in response to a mandatory declassification review request to the Jimmy Carter Library [See Document 12]. 

Highly classified for years, PD 59 was signed during a period of heightened Cold War tensions owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, greater instability in the Middle East, and earlier strains over China policy, human rights, the Horn of Africa, and Euromissiles.

In this context, the press coverage quickly generated controversy by raising apprehensions that alleged changes in U.S. strategy might lower the threshold of a decision by either side to go nuclear, which could inject dangerous uncertainty into the already fragile strategic balance. The press coverage elicited debate inside and outside the government, with some arguing that the PD would aggravate Cold War tensions by increasing Soviet fears about vulnerability and raising pressures for launch-on-warning in a crisis. Adding to the confusion was the fact that astonishingly, even senior government officials who had concerns about the directive did not have access to it.

With other recently declassified material related to PD-59, today’s publication helps settle the mystery of what Jimmy Carter actually signed, [1] as well as shedding light on the origins of PD-59 and some of its consequences. Among the disclosures are a variety of fascinating insights about the thinking of key U.S. officials about the state of nuclear planning and the possible progression of events should war break out:

  • PD-59 sought a nuclear force posture that ensured a “high high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions.” If deterrence failed, the United States “must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable.” To make that feasible, PD-59 called for pre-planned nuclear strike options and capabilities for rapid development of target plans against such key target categories as “military and control targets,” including nuclear forces, command-and-control, stationary and mobile military forces, and industrial facilities that supported the military. Moreover, the directive stipulated strengthened command-control-communications and intelligence (C3I) systems.
  • President Carter’s first instructions on the U.S. nuclear force posture, in PD-18, “U.S. National Strategy,” supported “essential equivalence”, which rejected a “strategic force posture inferior to the Soviet Union” or a “disarming first strike” capability, and also sought a capability to execute “limited strategic employment options.”
  • A key element of PD-59 was to use high-tech intelligence to find nuclear weapons targets in battlefield situations, strike the targets, and then assess the damage-a “look-shoot-look” capability. A memorandum from NSC military aide William Odom depicted Secretary of Defense Harold Brown doing exactly that in a recent military exercise where he was “chasing [enemy] general purpose forces in East Europe and Korea with strategic weapons.”
  • The architects of PD-59 envisioned the possibility of protracted nuclear war that avoided escalation to all-out conflict. According to Odom’s memorandum, “rapid escalation” was not likely because national leaders would realize how “vulnerable we are and how scarce our nuclear weapons are.” They would not want to “waste” them on non-military targets and “days and weeks will pass as we try to locate worthy targets.”
  • An element of PD-59 that never leaked to the press was a pre-planned option for launch-on-warning. It was included in spite of objections from NSC staffers, who saw it as “operationally a very dangerous thing.”
  • Secretary of State Edmund Muskie was uninformed about PD-59 until he read it about in the newspapers, according to a White House chronology. The State Department had been involved in early discussions of nuclear targeting policy, but National Security Adviser Brzezinski eventually cut out the Department on the grounds that targeting is “so closely related to military contingency planning, an activity that justly remains a close-hold prerogative and responsibility” of the Pentagon.
  • The drafters of PD 59 accepted controversial ideas that the Soviets had a concept of victory in nuclear war and already had limited nuclear options. Marshall Shulman, the Secretary of State’s top adviser on Soviet affairs, had not seen PD-59 but questioned these ideas in a memorandum to Secretary Muskie: “We may be placing more weight on the Soviet [military] literature than is warranted.” If the Soviets perused U.S. military writing, it could “easily convince them that we have such options and such beliefs.” Post-Cold War studies suggest that Shulman was correct because the Soviet leadership realized that neither side could win a nuclear war and had little confidence in the Soviet Union’s ability to survive a nuclear conflict.

Background: … (full long text, Documents 1 to 21, Notes 1 to 17).

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