141. Summary Record of the 517th Meeting of the National Security Council0

Report of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee

General Taylor presented the Net Evaluation Subcommittee report1 and introduced General Leon Johnson, with the suggestion that the President might wish to question him about the report.

The President asked whether, even if we attack the USSR first, the loss to the U.S. would be unacceptable to political leaders. General Johnson [Page 500] replied that it would be, i.e. even if we preempt, surviving Soviet capability is sufficient to produce an unacceptable loss in the U.S.

The President asked whether then in fact we are in a period of nuclear stalemate. General Johnson replied that we are.

Referring to a statement of the Air Force Association which appeared in this morning’s Washington Post,2 the President asked how we could obtain nuclear superiority as recommended by the Air Force Association. General Johnson said this was a very difficult question to answer. He acknowledged that there is no way, no matter what we do, to avoid unacceptable damage in the U.S. if nuclear war breaks out. He later acknowledged that it would be impossible for us to achieve nuclear superiority.

Secretary McNamara said that Defense Department studies showed that even if we spend $80 billion more than we are now spending, we would still have 30 million fatalities in the U.S. in the 1968 time period, even if we made the first strike against the USSR.

The President said these fatality figures were much higher than those he had heard recently in Omaha.3 As he recalled it, SAC estimated 12 million casualties.

General Taylor said these were higher casualty figures than the President had ever seen. Today’s figures include two new factors:

Soviet weapons were targeted on U.S. cities.
The use by the Soviets of huge megaton weapons was included in the computations for the first time.

The President said that de Gaulle believed that even the small nuclear force he is planning will be big enough to cause unacceptable damage to the USSR. He asked why we need to have as much defense as we have if, as it appears, the strategy is based on the assumption that even if we strike first we cannot protect the security of the U.S. in nuclear warfare.

General Johnson replied that no matter what we do we can’t get below 51 million casualties in the event of a nuclear exchange. We can, however, bring down this number by undertaking additional weapons programs.

The President asked if this doesn’t get us into the overkill business. General Johnson replied in the negative. We can cut down U.S. losses if we knock out more Soviet missiles by having more U.S. missiles and more accurate U.S. missiles. We estimate that we can save 20% in megatonnage down in the U.S. if we can achieve more accurate missiles. The [Page 501] more Soviet missiles we can destroy the less the loss to us. There is no question but that we can increase the accuracy of our missiles. The Soviets are not competing with us on numbers of missiles. They need, according to our calculation, only 1200 weapons. They, of course, can increase the megatonnage by enlarging the size of their weapons.

General Johnson said that his personal conclusions from this study were three:

We have to get better weapons, especially anti-ballistic missile weapons, to increase the number of Soviet missiles that we keep from landing in the U.S.
We must perfect ways of stopping missiles fired by Soviet submarines.
We must pay greater attention to chemical and biological warfare weapons. The problem with such weapons to date has been that the incubation period is three days, but conceivably could be brought down to one day.

General Johnson pointed out that each of the strategies used against the USSR resulted in at least 140 million fatalities in the USSR. Our problem is how to catch more of the Soviet missiles before they are launched and how to destroy more of the missiles in the air over the U.S.

Secretary McNamara said there was no way of launching a no-alert attack against the USSR which would be acceptable. No such attack, according to the calculations, could be carried out without 30 million U.S. fatalities—an obviously unacceptable number. Under conditions existing in 1968 with our forces on the alert, only 300 warheads are used to produce the casualties in the Soviet Union. Ninety-five percent of our force is for non-fatality purposes. Thus, preemption today or in 1968 is not an acceptable course of action.

Secretary McNamara said the President deserved an answer to his question as to why we have to have so large a force. The answer lies in the fact that there are many uncertainties in the equations presented in today’s report. The factors included in the report are probable, but they do not represent the entire range of possibilities. By introducing pessimistic factors, the estimates given today are drastically changed. He said the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are studying our current force level and they would be recommending a force level to meet a reasonable anticipated situation. The Chiefs are now considering the range of our weapons in relation to the range of anticipated factors.

General Johnson said he had concluded from the calculations that we could fight a limited war using nuclear weapons without fear that the Soviets would reply by going to all-out war. He said that the Russians have obviously made similar calculations, and, seeing the unsatisfactory estimated results of an all-out nuclear war, would not escalate a limited war even if we used tactical nuclear weapons.

[Page 502]

Secretary Rusk called attention to the deep schizophrenia involved in the present nuclear situation. If Congress knew the conclusions presented in the report, the Administration could get funds for aid and information programs which are the resources we must rely on in our effort to prevent all-out nuclear war.

Mr. Bundy called attention to the fact that this study and the existence of the sub-committee itself had been one of the few government projects which had been kept secret.

Mr. McCone asked General Johnson what he thought would happen to our capability, if, in an arms agreement, we accepted a percentage reduction in the number of our weapons. He doubted such a percentage cut would have much effect. Secretary Rusk agreed that we would have to go very deep in an arms cut to have a substantial effect on our capability. General Taylor said: “That is, if the Russians honestly carry out a comparable cut.”

The President said he concluded from the report that the forces which will be used under present circumstances are conventional, limited and tactical. General Johnson agreed, adding that nuclear war is impossible if rational men control governments.

Secretary Rusk said he agreed, but he did not get much comfort from this fact because, if both sides believed that neither side would use nuclear weapons, one side or the other would be tempted to act in a way which would push the other side beyond its tolerance level. He added that a response to pressure might be suicidal, being prompted by a desire to get it over with. He referred to the current situation as “This God Damn poker game.”

General Taylor agreed that the conclusions of the report did mean that there was a low possibility of escalation. Secretary Rusk repeated his view that we can’t assume that nuclear war won’t happen and referred again to suicidal tendencies. He wondered who else could be exposed to the conclusions of the sub-committee.

The President again said that preemption was not possible for us and that that was a valuable conclusion growing out of an excellent report.

Secretary Dillon returned to the subject of publicizing the conclusions of the report. He recalled that a similar report three years ago indicated that we would be doing much more damage to the Soviet Union than they would do to us. Today’s report indicated damage would be more nearly equal. Consequently, he thought that it would be easier for us to make public the conclusions of this report.

Secretary Rusk said we could get out the basic facts of the report without identifying it. Some of the information was already in the public domain.

[Page 503]

General Taylor suggested that the intelligence community should review the report before any decision is made about making it public. He thought that the war game held on SIOP was better to use as a basis of judgment because this war game dealt with an actual situation in the current year.

The President thought that at some time we might consider making some of the report available to some of the Congressional leaders.4

(Attached is a copy of notes taken by the sub-committee members of the National Security Council discussion.)

Bromley Smith



Speaker—President—Is the level of damage we receive after we pre-empt against the Russians unacceptable?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Yes (followed by a description of the range of US fatalities resulting from the study through the years 1964 through 1968).

Speaker—President—I have read the statement in this morning’s paper by the Air Force Association. What is meant by their reference to nuclear superiority versus nuclear stalemate? How could you get superiority?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Stated he believed the members of the Committee of the Air Force Association which drafted the resolution did not have the facts as brought out in the report being presented at this time. (The last subsidiary attack was explained.)

Speaker—Mr. McNamara—Indicated he had a study conducted examining the scale of fatalities after having added 80 billion dollars to the defense budget for blast shelters, increased weapons systems—both offensive and defensive. Under all of these conditions in the 1968 time period, the minimum number of fatalities was in excess of 30 million.

Speaker—President—At Omaha I remember being briefed that if we pre-empt our casualties may be on the order of 12 million.

[Page 504]

Answer—Gen. Taylor—That briefing was related to the present SIOP.

Gen. Johnson—The variance rests in the difference in targeting objectives of the Soviets. The weight of effort devoted to urban industrial targets was the key to the variation in US casualties. The results of the Omaha report were obtained by the Soviets firing their retaliation counter force, this did not seem reasonable.

Speaker—Mr. Rusk—Does your study deal with any effects other than the direct weapon effects—such as disease, pestilence?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—No. However, the AEC made a study of the long term effects and basically concluded that not enough was known in this area. As a consequence, a letter was sent to Dr. Johnson, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, recommending additional efforts to provide answers on long term effects.7

Speaker—President—Why do we need as much as we’ve got?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Explained the reason was to reduce the damage and fatalities to our country. Improvement in US systems is of particular importance. Also the development of an ABM defensive system would be of greatest significance, particularly when deployed in an area such as the eastern segment of the US where approximately 70% of the population is concentrated.

Speaker—President—In the discussion the President asked about our conclusions from the offset attack on 23 cities.

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Discussed the results of the attack.

Speaker—President—If we can’t pre-empt and reduce fatalities, then what? Why do we have as much as we’ve got? Doesn’t it get into the overkill business?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Indicated that the Soviet knows without any doubt that we can destroy him due to the size of our force. In effect, there should be no margin for error in his assessment of our capabilities. Effort must now be expended to improve the systems in reliability and accuracy. Certainly along with this is the importance of multiple forces—bombers, SLBMs, ICBMs—to compound the Soviet problem. The statement on overkill has been exaggerated since our expectancy of damage against the Soviet time sensitive ICBMs in 1964 was calculated as no higher than 20%, whereas the 1968 estimate reached 70%. If this expectancy were increased to 90%, the overall megatonnage down on the US would be reduced by 20%.

Answer—Mr. McNamara—Gen. Johnson’s group has assumed probable planning factors and they seem to me to be reasonable assumptions. They do not represent all the possible factors so we must decide [Page 505] whether we are protecting ourselves against pessimistic factors of Soviet capabilities. By assuming a range of US forces we have calculated a range of US and Soviet fatalities. Large changes in forces result in only small changes in fatalities.

Speaker—President—Why does he have a smaller force?

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Soviet may consider he has sufficient force with which to deter, especially when viewed in relation to the scale of fatalities he is given the capability to produce in this country. (Described manner in which assessments are carried out and assistance rendered by NMCSSC.)

Speaker—Gen. Johnson—Volunteered that he would be very disturbed if the President considered this report indicated that we could reduce our forces and/or not continue to increase to those programmed. If a reduction should take place, the relative position of the US and Soviets would become less in our favor. The President said he understood.

Speaker—Gen. Johnson—Discussed the need for an effective ABM defense; emphasis on Laser and Casaba-Howitzer, intercepting sub-launched missile in boost phase. Also brought in new efforts in chemical and biological warfare such that biological warfare may be adaptable to strategic purposes.

Speaker—Mr. McCone—What would be the effect on casualties of incremental cuts in US and Soviet forces in the event of arms reduction?

Answer—Mr. Rusk—It would be necessary to go very deep into the forces by such cuts before there would be any significant effect.

Speaker—President—Would it be advantageous to tell the Soviets what probable casualties may result from an exchange in order to convince them of the possible outcome?

Speaker—Mr. Bundy—This report is one state secret which has been well kept and it would be a mistake to cite figures from it. There would then be a precedent for someone to ask about any comparable figures from next year’s report.

Speaker—Mr. Rusk—I believe such figures for casualties have already been made public. The President has spoken of it on some occasions.

Speaker—Gen. Taylor—I think we should ask the intelligence community how much information of this nature has already gotten out (i.e., casualty figures). (Mr. McCone accepted the query and a review of official US and Soviet statements will be made.)

Speaker—Mr. Rusk—Asked about the difference in results between a high state of alert and no alert.

Answer—Gen. Johnson—This comparison was not made in the study.

[Page 506]

Speaker—President—What about pre-empt today with the Soviets in a low state of alert?

Answer—Mr. McNamara—(Today’s situation not actually answered.) In the many studies I have had done for me I have not found a situation in which a pre-empt during a low-alert condition would be advantageous. Under no circumstances have I been able to get US casualties under 30 million. In fact, I have not been able to get them down to 30 million. In 1968 we can have 3000 warheads and 5000 MT on alert. Of this force, 95 percent will be used in counterforce attacks or for purposes other than to create casualties. They can destroy us with a few weapons and we can do the same to them. Therefore, pre-empt is not advantageous for either side.

Speaker—Gen. Taylor—The question then is whether we are justified in continuing military targeting.

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Indicated this had to be continued for the potential reduction it made in US casualties.

Speaker—Mr. Rusk—Gen. DeGaulle can sit on the sidelines with five weapons and deter.

Speaker—President—Is that why DeGaulle is satisfied with a small force?

Answer—Mr. Rusk—According to Gen. DeGaulle, he can inflict unacceptable damage on anyone.

Speaker—President—DeGaulle is then using atomic weapons as a trip-wire.

Speaker—Gen. Johnson—Gen. Peter Gallois (French)8 told me, when I was stationed at SHAPE, that certain elements in France believed that in time NATO would collapse and that the fight would be between the US and the Soviets. At that time the French wanted to be able to sit on the side lines and say to the Soviets—Don’t touch us, if you do, it will cost you five Hiroshimas.

Speaker—President—He believed this was probably correct and that DeGaulle would not use nuclear weapons to defend Hamburg.

Speaker—President—Consider the study to be very good and helpful. Asked how long worked on it and who composed the group.

Answer—Gen. Johnson—Explained the foregoing. Also explained why today’s force was not too large.

Speaker—President—This argues in favor of a conventional force.

Speaker—Gen. Johnson—Stated that he was convinced from this report that you could resort to nuclear weapons in a limited situation without it expanding into allout nuclear war.

[Page 507]

Speaker—President—I have been told that if I ever released a nuclear weapon on the battlefield I should start a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union as the use of nuclear weapons was bound to escalate and we might as well get the advantage by going first.

Speaker—Gen. Johnson—Stated he did not consider this necessarily true under the circumstances which exist.

Speaker—President—Since pre-emption does not show any advantage—and the Russians also recognize this—it is possible that the US could use tactical nuclear weapons in Laos without the Soviets assuming we would also use them in Europe on the slightest provocation. (This is not an assured understanding of the comment as made—it came in garbled in its import and intent.)

The meeting was concluded by a discussion of the manner in which this information could be released to Congressional groups. It was finally agreed that the source (NESC) should be protected and when the information is finally released, it should appear as though originating from another agency.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, 517th NSC Meeting. Top Secret. Drafted by Smith. The 21 attendees at this meeting in the Cabinet Room included the President, Rusk, McNamara, Dillon, Robert Kennedy, Seaborg, McCone, Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, Sorensen, and eight members of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee headed by General Leon W. Johnson. (Ibid., President’s Appointment Book)
  2. The Report has not been found. In a memorandum to Bundy dated August 28, Colonel Smith stated that the briefing would cover the report’s conclusions concerning projected results of general war at various intervals in the 1963-1968 period. Casualties and damage in the United States would “increase over the years. Soviet damage and capabilities will remain somewhat constant (because their capabilities are increasing). Probably the major NESC conclusion is that during the years 1964 through 1968 neither the US nor the USSR can emerge from a full nuclear exchange without suffering very severe damage and high casualties, no matter which side initiates the war.” Smith held that the study raised one major issue. U.S. “offensive and defensive weapons currently programmed will not reduce damage from a full nuclear exchange to an acceptable level. Consequently, there is a need for development of new offensive and defensive weapons.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, WYS Chron File, Apr-Sep 63)
  3. The statement was printed in The Washington Post, September 12, 1963.
  4. See Document 118.
  5. NSC Action No. 2470, dated September 12, states that the Council: “Discussed the report of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee.” (Department of State, S/S-NSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, Records of Action by the National Security Council)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
  7. Top Secret.
  8. Neither the study nor the letter to Gerald W. Johnson has been identified.
  9. Pierre Gallois, former head of the French Air Force.