PPS files, lot 64 D 563, “Natl Sec (civil defense)”

Memorandum by Paul H. Nitze and Carlton Savage of the Policy Planning Staff 1

top secret

Continental Defense

Continental defense has become imperative for the United States as a consequence of the threat posed by the Soviet development of atomic weapons.

The first Soviet atomic explosion detected by the United States was in late summer of 1949. Since that date, increasing U.S. attention has been devoted to continental defense, focused principally on: (1) military measures, offensive and defensive, including early warning of the approach of hostile craft; (2) non-military measures, including civil defense, reduction of urban vulnerability, post-attack rehabilitation, and continuity of Government.

Even before the first Soviet atomic explosion and in anticipation of the event, the Department of Defense began (1947) to prepare an air defense system for the defense of Continental United States and Alaska. This action was initiated by the Air Force in requesting an appropriation for the development of an early warning system. In 1948 and 1949 Department of Defense planning recognized the developing threat, but limited resources prevented substantial effort on a continental defense program. This early air defense planning visualized the need for early warning, radar control and direction systems, anti-aircraft artillery, naval picket vessels, and a fighter-interceptor force.

In NSC 68 of April 7, 19502 it was stated that within the next four or five years the Soviet Union would possess the military capability of delivering a surprise atomic attack of such weight that the United States must have substantially increased general air, ground, and sea strength, atomic capabilities, and air and civilian defenses to deter war and to provide reasonable assurance, in the event of war, that it could survive the initial blow and go on to the eventual attainment of its objectives.

In January 1951 the Federal Civil Defense Administration was established. Shortly thereafter, the FCDA, the NSRB, and the Department of Defense initiated Project East River to study the problem of continental defense, particularly its civil aspects. The report of Project East River was prepared by a large group of private citizens [Page 319] working over a period of almost two years. It pointed up the dangers to the United States from Soviet atomic attack, and recommended a number of measures for the defense of continental United States.

The impact of Project East River as well as further consideration within the Government of continental defense led to the Statement of Policy of December 31, 1952 (NSC 139).3 It stated that because of the developing Soviet atomic threat: (1) we should plan to have an effective military and civil defense system ready no later than December 31, 1955; and (2) as one key element in this defense, an early warning system capable of providing a minimum of three hours warning should be made operational as a matter of high urgency, with a target date for completion of December 31, 1955. Negotiations looking toward the establishment of such an early warning system were begun immediately with Canada. As a consequence, we have received permission to construct an experimental station on Canadian soil, similar to two we decided to construct in Alaska, and we have begun construction of the three stations. We have also received permission from the Canadians to make surveys, with them, and to recommend the selection of sites for the extension of the system if the experiments prove successful.

The Panel of Consultants on Disarmament reported about this time that during their deliberations of several months no problem forced itself upon them more insistently and regularly than that of continental defense; that the intensive U.S. pre-occupation with the development of massive capability of atomic attack is not matched by any corresponding concern for U.S. defense in case of a Soviet atomic attack here; and that “there is every reason to proceed with greatly intensified efforts on continental defense.”

NSC 141 of January 19534 concluded that probably 65 to 85 percent of the atomic bombs launched by the Soviet Union could be delivered on target in the United States; that a continuation of our continental defense programs, civil and military, at the level of the then existing appropriations involved critical risks; and that basic to the attainment of our objectives is allocation of large additional resources to civil and military defense of the continent.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave their views on this subject in a memorandum of March 19, 1953 regarding the proposed reductions in U.S. military expenditures.5 They said that growing Soviet capabilities [Page 320] called for increased resources for continental defense; that there can be “no reduction in the commitment to defend the United States against disaster”; and that, therefore, some modification of the policies pertaining to other areas would be necessary in order to make available the minimum forces for this “primary task”.

The latest official guidance on this subject is in NSC 149/2 of April 29, 19536 which states that we should increase emphasis on the protection of continental United States from enemy attack, by both offensive and defensive military measures and by non-military measures.

Valuable information on continental defense will become available soon from the Kelly Committee and the Edwards Committee which were appointed some months ago to study several aspects of the problem.

From the above it is evident that even before the Soviet atomic explosion in 1949 there has been an increasing realization of the danger to the United States from Soviet atomic potentialities and of a consequent urgency for continental defense measures. Yet in spite of this, there has been inadequate preparation to meet the danger, and the Soviet atomic stockpile has grown faster than our capacity to protect the homeland from attack. According to NSC 141, our civil defense is now only about ten to fifteen percent effective, and the Soviet Union will possess in the period 1954–1955 a capability to make an air attack on the United States of “critical proportions”.

There appear to be four principal reasons for the huge gap between realization of danger and preparation to meet it: (1) there was earlier Soviet development of atomic weapons than had been anticipated, and an under-estimation of general Soviet technological capacity; (2) the realization of danger in the United States has not been intense enough or widespread enough in the Executive branch, in the Congress, or among the people to bring about appropriate action; (3) there has been a general belief that by building a powerful offensive capability we could deter a Soviet attack on the United States; (4) there is apprehension that we might devote more resources to home defense than merited by the security which such a system is capable of providing, and thereby unduly penalize both the deterrent value and the direct defense value of offensive striking power.

The urgency of continental defense in National policy, foreign and domestic, is underlined by the realization that the survival of our Republic and the entire free world depends on the protection of [Page 321] continental United States which provides the mobilization base, the arsenal, the industrial potential and the human resources required to save us all from disaster.

To deal with this problem we should implement the policy proposed to the National Security Council for candor on the atomic arms race. There should also be held a briefing of Congressional leaders on this particular subject. In line with the policy of candor, the Congress and the people should be thoroughly informed on a continuing basis of the danger to the United States from atomic attack. Concurrently, there should be public disclosure of programs adopted by the NSC for meeting the danger.

As stated above, NSC 149/2 wisely provides that we should increase our emphasis on continental defense. The problem is how to do this under the budgetary limitations laid down in NSC 149/2, limitations which include among other points a reduction in manpower and resources for the air force.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have argued convincingly that some modification may be required in other policies to make available the minimum forces for the “primary task” of continental defense. We cannot have even this minimum of security under contemplated budgetary limitations and allocations. To obtain the minimum we would have to raise the limitation or make cuts in other major national security allocations.

The funds required now to accelerate the building of a more adequate continental defense are not impossibly great. The aim should be to begin a sustained effort in an endeavor soon to reach a point at which we can measurably reduce the risk to the civil population of wholesale slaughter and to our mobilization base of virtually complete destruction. Absolute and total protection is probably impossible. An ideal program would not give absolute protection and would be extremely expensive.

Of all aspects of continental defense, early warning of the approach of hostile craft is unique in that it is essential both to military and civil defense. For the military, it is necessary if our interceptors are to get into the air, ground defenses to be alerted, and SAC bases and planes preserved from destruction. In civil defense, it is necessary to enable civilians to take shelter or to be removed from danger areas. Moderate additional funds would make possible the improvement of the present early warning system and greatly increase the probability of detection, identification, and tracking of enemy planes. Distant early warning would cost considerably more. This subject should receive urgent consideration, taking into account the information to be developed by the Joint America-Canadian study group. Distant early warning will become increasingly [Page 322] important in the near future with the increase in speed of airplanes and the development of longer range guided missiles.

It is estimated that our present air defense system could destroy between one and twenty percent of the attackers depending upon the tactics and strength of the enemy force. To increase the rate of kills, substantial additional resources are required for interceptors and guided missiles. And, aside from an increased rate of kills, improved air defenses could be expected to adversely affect the accuracy of enemy bombing, thereby further reducing the damage to targets. With greater air defense capabilities, we could exploit more fully the technical capabilities of the warning and control equipment which is in being and programed. Future technical improvements may possibly increase the rate of kills, but it must be recognized that because of the expected increase in enemy weapons and planes over a period of time, the number of his planes over target would still be large and might increase faster than the rate of kills. In fact, although with heavy expenditures in the future we can increase the rate of kills, we cannot now lay down a program that would give complete protection. What we can do by improving our air defenses is to push further into the future the time when the enemy’s capability for delivery could be critical for us.

In dealing with the problem of continental defense it is important to recognize the inter-relationship of military defense, offensive striking power, and the civil defense program. These three elements are complementary and mutually supporting. A balanced program will, therefore, include civil defense and other non-military measures. In civil defense, shelters are of paramount importance for the protection of the civilian population. A program that might reach a billion a year for a few years to provide shelter for those persons who cannot be protected otherwise could in conjunction with other programs reduce expected casualties as much as 75%. Another indispensable non-military measure is the reduction of urban vulnerability through spacing and protective construction of industrial plants and other buildings. This is a long-range program and with Government encouragement can be financed largely by industry. Other essential non-military measures are programs for continuity of Government and for post attack rehabilitation, neither of which calls for an extensive outlay of funds. Programs on these subjects have been developed by the NSRB and later by ODM.


That an ad hoc committee of the NSC be established immediately, composed of representatives of State, Defense, JCS, ODM, and FCDA, to review existing programs and develop for NSC consideration [Page 323] a balanced continental defense program with specific cost estimates for its implementation.

  1. A notation on the source text reads: “Copy of this sent for NSC Planning Bd discussion.”
  2. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. i, pp. 234292.
  3. NSC 139, “An Early Warning System,” Dec. 31, 1952, and related documentation is scheduled for publication in the compilation on U.S. relations with Canada in volume vi .
  4. For extracts from NSC 141, see p. 209.
  5. The memorandum under reference cannot be further identified.
  6. For text, see p. 305.