54. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson1


  • Summary of the existing plans for emergency use of nuclear weapons

On March 26 you approved recommendations from McNamara and the Joint Chiefs to put into effect updated instructions for expenditure of nuclear weapons in emergency conditions.2

This instruction covers four emergency situations. Two of them are essentially defensive and would allow the use of nuclear weapons only against military targets in the air or at sea. These are: 1) active defense against air and space nuclear attack on the U.S., and 2) naval and air action against an imminent seaborne missile attack on the U.S.

In these two cases the commanders could act without contacting the President if the necessary delay would make it impossible for them to prevent the imminent attack.

The other two cases are 1) retaliation to a nuclear attack on the U.S., and 2) reply to a major assault on major U.S. forces at sea or in foreign territory. In these two cases every effort to contact the President must be made (with the qualifying phrase in the second case: “every effort consistent with the preservation of his command”). The authorized retaliation for an attack on the U.S. is a strategic attack on the Soviet Union. The authorized retaliation in the other case is against hostile forces but not repeat not against the Soviet Union itself.

The instructions reveal an interesting difference between situations in which nuclear weapons would do enormous civilian and industrial damage and situations in which they would be used in the upper atmosphere [Page 159] or on the high seas. In the latter cases commanders have latitude to decide that the delay in contacting the President would be excessive. This is in line with a belief which Eisenhower had that when the destructive force of nuclear weapons would hit only military forces, the decision on their use was a very much less serious matter. It is possible that we ought to take account of this distinction in anything we say in the next few days.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, Meetings, Records Memoranda on Use of Nuclear Weapons, Box 9. Top Secret. During the 1964 Presidential election campaign, Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party nominee, made statements about nuclear weapons pre-delegation. In response, President Johnson in a speech in Seattle, Washington, on September 16, said that he alone exercised control over the use of nuclear weapons. The text of his speech is in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book II, pp. 1078–1081. In a September 22 memorandum to the President, Bundy outlined two alternative positions the President could take on the issue. First, he could hold to the position of his Seattle speech, but because Bundy believed that position was not accurate and was open “to the charge of deception,” he preferred a second option, that “you should make a statement in which you make clear that there are indeed very specialized contingencies for which certain Presidential instructions already exist.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Intelligence File, Meetings, Records Memoranda on Use of Nuclear Weapons, Box 9)
  2. See Document 24.