18. Memorandum for the Record0

Meeting in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 7 April 1958.


  • Secretaries McElroy, Quarles, Brucker, Gates, Douglas, Sprague, Dulles; Generals Taylor, Pate, White; Admiral Burke; Mr. Gerard Smith; Admiral Strauss; General Cutler; General Goodpaster

Mr. McElroy said he had brought the group together at the President’s request to consider a matter which Secretary Dulles had raised with the President a few days before—pertaining to the strategic concept under which we are now working.

At his request, Mr. Dulles presented the problem. He recalled that in December 1950 he had advanced the doctrine of “massive retaliation”1 somewhat as an offset to a speech by former President Hoover supporting a “fortress America” Doctrine.2 Mr. Dulles thereafter supported the use of a capacity for massive retaliation as a deterrent, avoiding the necessity for sufficient local strength everywhere to hold back the Soviets. Now he thought new conditions are emerging which do not invalidate the massive retaliation concept, but put limitations on it and require it to be supplemented by other measures.

Since 1950, the Soviets have themselves gained great destructive power. The capacity for massive attack is no longer a deterrent which we alone have. The prospect is now one of mutual suicide if these weapons are used.

As a result, our allies are beginning to show doubt as to whether we would in fact use our H-weapons if we were not ourselves attacked. In fact, we cannot ourselves be sure that we would do so because the situation may be quite unclear during the critical period. As present leaders drop out in major allied countries, new governments seem bound to be even more skeptical.

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Accordingly the question must be asked, “Have there been developments in the nuclear field that make possible an area defense based upon tactical weapons?” The idea is one of local defense against local attack, possibly through the use of atomic artillery against key passes, for example into [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. There is the further question whether, if our concept is simply that of general war, we build weapons only for that, thus leaving us unable to take other kinds of action, and making us prisoners of a frozen concept.

In summary, he added these comments about the concept of massive retaliatory attack: This was inevitable when conceived in 1950; it is deteriorating as an effective deterrent; it is giving rise to increasing doubts on the part of our allies; it may be subject to alteration through the development of new weapons. While he could not speak as to the military points, it is State’s considered opinion that although we can hold our alliance together for another year or so, we cannot expect to do so beyond that time on the basis of our present concept. Accordingly, we should be trying to find an alternative possessing greater credibility.

Mr. McElroy then spoke, indicating that in his opinion the question has been appropriately raised. He said it is one which Defense has been studying. There is some possibility that thermonuclear weapons are coming to be like chemical warfare—neither side will think their use worthwhile. He said he felt that our weapons position, as Secretary Dulles had indicated, is substantially governed by the strategic concept, under which we have concentrated on producing large weapons in recent years. Secretary Dulles commented that he is not proposing that we give up the capacity for massive retaliation. Mr. McElroy said a central question is whether we could conceive of tactical weapons being used without provoking the use of the “big ones.” Many people think this could not be done.

General Twining pointed out that the Chiefs are aware of the problems, and are trying to avoid getting into a rigid position. Initially, and he thought wisely, there was a concentration on the large weapons. But now we are building a great many small ones. He added that we could not stop an attack [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] for example, with small weapons alone.

Secretary McElroy acknowledged that we have not spelled out just how we would use tactical weapons, for example, if the Chinese were to renew the attack in Korea. The question is whether there is something between conventional and massive nuclear attack. He thought it is worth putting some time against this question, for we may come out with something new.

Admiral Burke commented that we now have the capacity for massive retaliation. We need to develop the capacity for smaller operations. Our need is, not rigidity, but an ability to move effectively into big, intermediate [Page 64]or small operations. Mr. Dulles recalled that Churchill had said that it was our retaliatory power that saved Europe over the postwar years; Mr. Dulles did not think that this would remain true for another decade.

General Taylor said there should be a clear realization as to how limited we are in the field of small weapons. There are major possibilities in this field, however. He referred to the possibility of having tactical atomic weapons of size ranging from ten tons TNT equivalent to 100 tons in 1960 or 1961. Mr. Dulles said he felt there was a proven need for more graduated weapons.

Secretary Quarles then spoke, indicating that he thought the massive retaliation concept is inescapable. We cannot rely on area defense, since the enemy could use the same kind of weapons against us. He thought that the defense has not gained relative to the offense through the development of nuclear weapons. Secretary Dulles commented that perhaps the study will bring out something different from what we are doing now. If it does not, perhaps we should not be making tactical weapons at all. Mr. McElroy said that these observations do not imply that the study should not be made—he thought that it clearly should.

General White pointed out that we are building a great number of small weapons at the present time. Secretary Dulles said there was, however, a lack of tactical doctrine. He felt it was extremely important to have such a doctrine, because the decision to “press the button” for all-out war is an awesome thing, and the possibility that such a decision would not be taken must be recognized.

Secretary Gates said there is also a question to be considered: if the deterrent fails to deter, then what should our retaliatory force be designed to do. General Twining said we must keep ourselves flexible in this regard. Logically, great industrial and communications centers are probably the correct targets; however, military men have to plan with the realization that they might be prohibited from attacking such targets. If they are held to attack military targets only, they must have much greater numbers of weapons and vehicles.

In the concluding remarks, Mr. Dulles said that the matter involves considerations of such high policy that he saw little point in having the problem studied by staff level people. Mr. Quarles commented that there is much in the background of our thinking in this matter that bears on the points raised in the discussion. Mr. Dulles said that background is not enough; we must have something we can present to our allies.

A. J. Goodpaster3
Brigadier General, USA
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Staff Secretary Records, Nuclear Exchange. Top Secret. Drafted by Goodpaster on April 9. Another memorandum of this conversation by Smith is in Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, Military Issues 1958–1959.
  2. In an address delivered before the American Association for the United Nations in New York on December 29, 1950, Dulles outlined a strategic doctrine that pointed out the difficulties of area defense and emphasized deterrence through the capacity for counterattack. Dulles had also stressed, however, that “total reliance should not be placed on any single form of warfare or any relatively untried type of weapon.” The term “massive retaliation” was not used in this address. For text, see The New York Times, December 30, 1950.
  3. “Our National Policies in This Crisis,” a radio address delivered by Hoover on December 20, 1950. Text is ibid., December 21, 1958.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.