Concern about a nuclear "horror option" occupied time and attention at Nixon White House |

Concern about a nuclear "horror option" occupied time and attention at Nixon White House

WASHINGTON – Widely recognized as a military hawk, President Richard M. Nixon fretted privately over the notion of any no-holds-barred nuclear war, newly released documents from his time at the White House reveal.Visions of such an all-out war involving nuclear missiles were unpalatable from the first days of Nixon’s presidency, starting in 1969 and lasting until the summer of 1974, when he resigned during the Watergate scandal.Recently declassified papers from that time in history show that Nixon wanted an alternative to the option of full-scale nuclear war – a plan for a gentler war, one that could ultimately vanquish the rival Soviet Union while still avoiding the worst-case scenario.The White House papers from this era provided a glimpse behind the scenes at attempts there to find choices other than “the horror option,” as national security adviser Henry Kissinger called the scenarios for all-out atomic war that were then in place.Qualms about causing so much death were hardly the only motivation. U.S. officials worried that their nuclear threat lacked credibility because it was so awful adversaries questioned whether Washington would ever use it.In a 1969 diary entry, Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, recalled the president taking part in an exercise that day aboard the Boeing 707 outfitted to conduct nuclear warfare from the air.”It was pretty scary,” Haldeman wrote. Nixon asked many questions about “kill results,” his aide said, adding about his boss: “Obviously worries about the lightly tossed-about millions of deaths.”The picture was pieced together by William Burr, a researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, from Nixon-era papers released by the National Archives as well as documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.The documents reveal Kissinger’s chilling insight that government budget-crunchers would prefer complete nuclear warfare because it was already planned for and would be cheaper than recasting U.S. capabilities to permit limited strikes.”They believe in assured destruction because it guarantees the smallest expenditure,” he told an August 1973 National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room. “To have the only option that of killing 80 million people is the height of immorality.”The papers show Kissinger struggling with a reluctant military and intelligence apparatus to sell them on the idea of limited nuclear strikes. Many doubted the Soviets would settle for a tidy little nuclear war; they feared a conflagration would quickly follow, devouring cities and killing millions.But until Nixon took up the matter, the only options in the nuclear playbook involved the highest stakes possible and unspeakable death, and that apparently unsettled him even as he engaged North Vietnam in a war that was claiming civilian casualties.By one official estimate, the United States, even if crippled by unprovoked Soviet missiles, could retaliate with missiles killing 40 percent of the Soviet population, or some 90 million people. Many more people would be killed if the United States struck first; that estimate remains classified.Countless studies flowed from the effort to expand nuclear options to include “smaller packages.” But it was not until 1974, the year Nixon resigned, that he signed a directive setting that process in motion.Burr said the United States eventually achieved an expanded range of nuclear options, in part because of the development of more accurate missiles and other weapons in years that followed.Nixon’s nascent strategy echoes in the debate today over training nuclear weapons on tough but selective targets. The Bush administration decided in the fall to abandon development of bunker-busting nuclear warheads and try to achieve similar capability with conventional weapons.Historically, Nixon is known as “unsentimental and sort of callous in some ways,” Burr said, but the documents also show a president “worried about the huge number of casualties involved.”Even so, the prime concern may have been the credibility of the U.S. threat, and Burr noted that the narrower options under review targeted centers of the Soviet government and economy, not just military assets, and any such attack would have created untold casualties, too.Kissinger pushed the idea with urgency even as the Watergate crisis unfolded. “My nightmare is that with the growth of Soviet power and with our domestic problems, someone might decide to take a run at us,” he said in the August 1973 meeting.Years earlier, he voiced skepticism that the Soviets would ever be the first to unleash a full-scale atomic assault. It was not rational, he said, “to make a decision to kill 180 million people.”R. Jack Smith, then deputy director for intelligence at the CIA, countered with skepticism that the Soviets would do anything less. A limited attack was the “least likely contingency,” he argued. “One could not believe that the Soviets would launch a few nuclear ICBMS.”One secret report concluded that if wider nuclear warfare were to develop from a limited attack, a restraint, of sorts, could still be possible.In that event, the U.S. objective would be “to minimize the enemy’s residual power and recovery capability and not just destroy his population and industry.”—On the Net:National Security Archive: 7/8nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB173/Vail, Colorado

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