24. Letter From the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Gilpatric) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

Dear Dean :

The enclosed memorandum reflects the current views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the use of nuclear weapons in limited war. I think you will find them of interest.

While the references by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to basic national security policy (NSC 5906/1)2 are historically accurate important revisions in the military portion of this document are now being prepared within the Department of Defense. While it is too early for us to indicate in specific terms what policy we will recommend on the use of nuclear weapons in limited war, the trend of our thinking has been made evident in the recommendations we have made on revisions to the 1962 budget and in the accompanying explanatory statement.3 It is very much in accordance with the views you expressed in your February 4th memorandum on defense posture.4

It is our conviction that greater emphasis be placed on the use of non-nuclear weapons in the defense of third areas. However, as you [Page 72] know, we believe that the United States must retain the ability to use nuclear weapons tactically in local wars under carefully controlled conditions.

When our review of basic policy is further along I would like to discuss our findings with you. I expect that this will be possible within the next few weeks.


Roswell Gilpatric

Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara



  • Assumptions Regarding the Use of Nuclear Weapons in Limited War (U)
In recent discussions relating to the review of defense posture currently underway, two questions have been frequently asked concerning:
The assumptions regarding the use or non-use of nuclear weapons in limited wars that are currently used in the formulation of force levels and equipment levels.
The validity of those assumptions in the future.
With respect to subparagraph 1 a above:
Force and equipment levels are based on Basic National Security Policy (NCS 5906/1), which provides in substance that:
Main, but not sole, reliance will be placed on nuclear weapons and that these weapons will be used in conjunction with other weapons when required to meet the nation’s war objectives.
The nuclear stockpile should include a variety of weapons to provide flexible and selective capabilities for general or limited war.
In the accomplishment of national objectives in certain limited war situations, nuclear weapons may not be necessary or appropriate. [Page 73] However, conflicts involving sizeable forces of the United States and the USSR should not be construed as limited war.
In carrying out the central aim of deterring general war, the United States must develop and maintain as a part of its military forces, its effective nuclear retaliatory power.
In dealing with limited aggression, the United States must be prepared to defeat such aggression in a manner and on a scale best calculated to prevent hostilities from broadening into general war.
These provisions have combined to give the highest priority to the development of forces primarily designed for general war. Requirements for limited war forces and equipment types are contained within the larger requirements for general war. Additional equipment levels for limited war are also provided for in military planning. However, budgetary and manpower limitations have necessitated lesser priorities for equipping and manning of forces to provide non-nuclear capabilities.
In substance, our national strategy requires that limited war operations be conducted with whatever weapons and forces are required by the military and political exigencies involved in each particular situation and by the national objectives to be attained. In terms of nuclear or non-nuclear weapons, the requirements of each of these contingencies are impossible to determine with precision in advance. They can be determined only in the light of the particular military and political context in which each has developed. Situations may occur in which authorization for use of nuclear weapons will be delayed, and there may be other contingencies which do not warrant the use of nuclear weapons. An appropriate mix of nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities for those of our forces which might be involved will provide the United States with greater political and diplomatic flexibility as well as greater battlefield flexibility and capability for survival than if only one of these capabilities is developed to the exclusion or neglect of the other. Forces and delivery vehicles which might be used in limited war should continue to have the capability of delivering either nuclear or conventional weapons.
With respect to subparagraph 1 b above, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are of the opinion that while expected changes in the world situation during the next 10 years certainly justify continuing review of national strategy, there is nothing foreseen that will justify abrogation of the principle that US forces must maintain a dual nuclear and non-nuclear capability. It can be reasonably anticipated that the trend in the future will be toward expansion rather than contraction of the weaponry available for these actions, as innovations in agents, weapon systems and techniques develop. For example, a US capability to utilize advanced nonlethal incapacitating agents in a limited conflict in the future might well offer substantial military advantages within the limitations imposed by delicate political considerations.
It is the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that in planning for limited war, a flexible capability for diverse levels of operations, employing the appropriate weapons, will continue to be of paramount importance.
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
L. L. Lemnitzer
Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 711.5611/4-1561. Top Secret.
  2. See footnote 3, Document 15.
  3. See Document 20.
  4. Enclosure to Document 10.
  5. Top Secret.
  6. Printed from a copy that indicates Lemnitzer signed the original.