A 'Secret History' of Nuclear War Planning in America

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In 2017, when President Trump threatened to rain fire and fury on North Korea if it leveled any more threats at the United States, our guest, Fred Kaplan, decided it was time for a new book. Kaplan's 1983 book, "The Wizards Of Armageddon," was about nuclear war strategy during the Cold War. He says the recent confrontation between North Korea and the United States got Americans thinking about the prospect of nuclear war in a way they hadn't since the end of the Cold War nearly 30 years before. So he decided it was time to look again at how American leaders have managed these terrifying weapons and the threat they pose to the world today.

Kaplan read thousands of declassified documents and interviewed former military leaders and government officials. The result is his new book about how American presidents and their advisers and generals have thought about, planned for and sometimes narrowly avoided nuclear war over the past 70 years. Fred Kaplan is a national security columnist for Slate and the author of five previous books. His latest is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War."

Fred Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

FRED KAPLAN: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: I'm going to begin with a clip from a movie. This is one of my favorite films of all time, "Dr. Strangelove." It's a satirical film by Stanley Kubrick made way back in 1964, and it's a movie about nuclear war. What happens is that an American Air Force commander has gone rogue, sent his bombers to attack the Soviet Union, figuring that when the president and the other military leaders figure out this has happened and they can't recall the bombers, they'll have no choice but to commit to a full-out attack.

And in this little scene we're going to hear, the president is with his military commanders in a bunker. And one of his generals, played by George C. Scott, is saying, we can do this. Let's commit to a full-scale attack, and we will win. And then we'll hear the president, played by Peter Sellers, respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB")

GEORGE C SCOTT: (As General Buck Turgidson) We would destroy 90% of their nuclear capabilities. We would, therefore, prevail and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force, which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated.

PETER SELLERS: (As President Merkin Muffley) General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons.

DAVIES: So when I heard that back then - President Merkin Muffley saying it's the policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons - I assumed that was certainly true. We're peace-loving people. It wasn't, was it?

KAPLAN: No. One of the few things about "Dr. Strangelove" was - which is not accurate is that line. It has, in fact, always been the policy that the United States reserves the right to go first. And, in fact, for the first few decades of the nuclear arms race, it was assumed the main - the plan 1A of the nuclear war plan was for us to go first. Now, it wouldn't be an unprovoked nuclear attack. It would be in response to, say, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. And at a time when we had very little in the way of conventional defenses to stave off the attack, the assumption was that we would use nuclear weapons.

President Obama raised the possibility - he started a debate within the National Security Council to abolish that policy, to go to a no-first-use policy because, you know, really, seriously, would we ever really do this? But there was an argument within the National Security Council. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made this argument. He said, well, look, Mr. President; we could face a large-scale biological attack from, say, the Soviet Union or China or North Korea or Iran or whatever. We don't have biological weapons anymore. Wouldn't you want to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response? That would be a first use. And Obama had to admit there was some logic to that. And so even though he made it clear - and toward the end of the administration even publicly - that he did not think we would ever or should ever use them, he did not change the doctrinal policy of reserving the right to go first.

DAVIES: So for all those decades in the Cold War, the idea was that having this possibility that we would launch a massive nuclear attack in response to a provocation was considered a necessary deterrent to the Soviets.

KAPLAN: Right. But what happened was the Strategic Air Command, which is now called Strategic Command, which controlled the planning and use of nuclear weapons - they went off on this autonomous streak. Nobody really could control them. It was very highly classified. Even people in the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in Washington - 'cause Strategic Command is out in Omaha - didn't really have a complete grasp of what they were doing. And the war plan just got baroque - I mean, really insane. It got to the point where - well, in the 1980s, there was a commander of Strategic Air Command named General Jack Chain, who said in a hearing, I need 10,000 weapons because I have 10,000 targets.

So, I mean, what would start happening is the targeteers out in Omaha would just keep generating targets that they might have to hit in the event of a nuclear war, and then SAC - Strategic Air Command - would raise that as a requirement for how many nuclear weapons we needed. It was a self-generating circular logic that had increasingly little relationship to any sense of what war aims might be or what U.S. policy was or should be.

DAVIES: Let's go over a little bit of the history. John F. Kennedy takes office after winning the 1960 election and goes out to Omaha to meet with, you know, the military leaders. You write that he came away as shocked and appalled as he'd ever felt in his life. Why?

KAPLAN: Well, the war plan at the time - the nuclear war plan - and, again, it was a nuclear war plan because we didn't have much in the way of conventional defenses - was this. If the Soviet Union or communist China or whatever even made a slight ground invasion of some allied - vital allied territory - and let's say they hadn't used any nuclear weapons at all yet - U.S. policy was to unleash our entire nuclear arsenal against every target in the Soviet Union, the satellite nations of Eastern Europe and China, even if China wasn't directly involved in the war. This was something like 7,000 nuclear weapons. At some point, somebody asked, well, how many people would get killed in this attack? And the estimate was 285 million people would be killed in this attack.

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