16. Memorandum of Discussion at the 361st Meeting of the National Security Council0

[Here follow a paragraph listing the participants at the meeting and Agenda Items 1. “Monitoring a Long Range Rocket Agreement,” 2. “Technical Feasibility of Cessation of Nuclear Tests,” and 3. “Significant World Developments Affecting U.S. Security.” For Agenda Items 1 and 2, see Document 148.]

4. Launching of SAC Alert Forces (“Fail Safe”)

General Cutler introduced the Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Power, who, after a few introductory remarks, indicated that Colonel Wisman of his staff would brief the Council on the launching of the SAC alert forces (“Fail Safe”).1

The President seemed extremely pleased with this discussion of the procedure for launching SAC alert forces, and noted that this was something we had been talking about for years and had wondered why we couldn’t have it. The President then inquired whether our SAC alert force plans went up from their bases in the direction of the Soviet Union singly or in groups. General Power replied that all went singly. The President added that, in short, no Soviet submarine would be likely to detect a whole flock of U.S. planes flying toward their targets and sound the alarm.

The President inquired of General Power whether he had sufficient alert force planes to provide for a new alert force promptly after the first alert force was in the air. General Power assured the President that this was the case.

Secretary Dulles inquired about the communications system which would enable the recall of the SAC alert planes from their targets in the Soviet Union if the alarm proved to be false. Could the communications system be upset by such things as sun-spots? General Power reassured Secretary Dulles that in the early tests he had been 95% successful in testing whether the crews carried out their orders.

Secretary Dulles next inquired as to the conditions of the nuclear weapons carried in the SAC alert planes. Were the warheads ready and [Page 60]in place. Secretary Quarles explained that there was no danger of an unforeseen nuclear explosion in the weapons now being carried in the tests of the SAC alert procedure. Not wholly satisfied, Secretary Dulles pointed out that when these SAC alert planes take off they do not know whether it is “the real thing” or not. Would not Soviet intelligence pick up the flight of these SAC alert planes, and would they not in turn be uncertain whether these flights portended a real attack on the Soviet Union or not? Being thus uncertain, the Soviets might start their deliveries of nuclear weapons against the United States even though no actual attack by the United States on the Soviet Union was intended. General Power said that he was well aware of this risk, that a great deal of attention had been paid to it; but that, of course, there was no absolutely sure way to prevent a miscalculation.

The President then said he wished to take up with General Power certain ideas that he, the President, had with respect to the instructions which were to be provided to the crews of the SAC alert forces. The President’s views were subsequently set forth by General Cutler in a memorandum to Secretary Quarles dated April 3, 1958.2

The National Security Council:3

Noted and discussed an oral presentation on the subject by the Commander-in-Chief and members of the staff of the Strategic Air Command.

[Here follow Agenda Items 5. “U.S. Policy Toward Libya,” and 6. “Preparations for a Possible Summit Meeting.”]

S. Everett Gleason
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Drafted by Gleason on April 4.
  2. The “Fail Safe” concept is described in Air Force Chief of Staff General White’s March 10 memorandum, in which he also stated that he had ordered institution of the procedure on March 1. (Attachment to JCS 1899/398; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 218, JCS Records, CCS 381 U.S. (5–23–16) Section 94) See the Supplement.
  3. Not printed. (Eisenhower Library, White House Office Files, Records of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs) See Document 25 and footnote 2 thereto.
  4. The following paragraph constitutes NSC Action No. 1891, approved by the President on April 7. (Department of State, S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, Records of Action by the National Security Council)