92. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford1


  • U. S. Civil Defense Policy

I believe it would be appropriate to initiate a review of U.S. civil defense policy. The last review of U.S. civil defense policy (NSSM 57)2 was completed in 1970, and the last decision (NSDM 184, at Tab B)3 was signed on August 11, 1972. There have been a number of developments since that time with important implications for structuring our civil defense program, including continued Soviet strategic and civil defense programs and our adoption of a flexible nuclear response strategy.

Our current civil defense program is essentially a posture of planning in peacetime for surging in a crisis. This program keeps peacetime civil defense costs relatively low (approximately $70 million annually in the Defense budget), but at the same time is extremely limited in terms of its capability to provide for urban evacuation, expanded capacity and stockpiling of shelters, training and education, and protection of the industrial base.

The very limited nature of the current program raises questions as to whether it should be retained in its current form, or whether it should even be retained at all. Some argue that civil defense efforts would be futile in saving lives in a major nuclear war, given the size and capability of Soviet strategic forces. Others disagree with that assessment, especially in light of Soviet civil defense efforts and our new flexible response strategy. Some recent studies indicate that in a major nuclear conflict, Soviet fatalities would be far fewer than U.S. fatalities, generating concern about the impact of civil defense on the strategic balance and deterrence. Also, there are those who contend that under the flexible response strategy with its concept of bargaining through gradual nuclear escalation, the Soviets could evacuate their cities and then issue an ultimatum, rather than bargain over the next step.

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There is renewed Congressional interest in our civil defense policy. The Civil Defense Panel of the House Armed Services Investigating Sub-committee recently completed hearings (chaired by Congressman Leggett) on the U.S. civil defense program. Subcommittee Chairman Hebert has transmitted the Panel’s report to you (Tab C)4 with a request that you consider two recommendations in particular: (1) that the NSC conduct a study of the strategic significance of civil defense, and (2) that OMB look at the organizational base for civil defense activities. (Max Friedersdorf is responding to Hebert on your behalf, expressing appreciation for the report and indicating that policy matters such as these are under continual consideration within the Executive Branch.)

Also, the Joint Committee on Defense Production has been conducting hearings (chaired by Senator Proxmire)5 on U.S. preparedness and planning programs, including the U.S. civil defense program. As a result of these hearings, Senators Proxmire and Tower recently requested the Federal Preparedness Agency in GSA to provide a critical assessment of U.S. preparedness efforts.

In addition to the basic considerations regarding the strategic implications of civil defense, a factor underlying the Congressional interest is your decision in the FY 77 Defense budget that DOD civil defense activities should be devoted exclusively to nuclear attack preparedness. This involves reductions in matching funds assistance to state and local agencies for programs required primarily for natural rather than nuclear disaster preparedness. State and local agencies have complained about this cutback to Congressional committees.

It would be useful to review our civil defense policy and to weigh a number of questions concerning the proper structuring of our civil defense posture in the future. I recommend that you direct the preparation of a civil defense study and a NSSM which would do so is at Tab A.6 State, Defense, OMB, and the Federal Preparedness Agency in GSA concur.

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That you approve my signing the NSSM at Tab A calling for a review of U.S. civil defense policy.7

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box 44, NSSM 244 (1 of 3) (1). Secret.
  2. NSSM 57, May 23, 1969, “Review of U.S. Civil Defense Policies,” is Document 28 in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, Vol. XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969–1972.
  3. Not found attached. In NSDM 184, issued on August 14, 1972, President Nixon decided that the United States should maintain its then-current “overall level of effort in its civil defense activities.” NSDM 184 is ibid., Document 223.
  4. The panel’s report, April 1, and Hebert’s cover letter to Ford, May 18, are both attached, but not printed.
  5. Senator William Proxmire, D–Wisconsin.
  6. Tab A, as signed, is Document 95. In a July 20 memorandum to the President’s Staff Secretary Jim Connor, Franco wrote, “I concur with Scowcroft’s recommendation but would delay until after Kansas City [site of the Republican Party’s national convention, August 16–19]. This review could be seized upon as proof of alleged deficient military posture and indication U.S. civilian population is in danger of military balance shift to Soviet advantage.” (Ford Library, President’s Handwriting File, Box 30, Subject File, National Security—Civil Defense)
  7. Ford initialed his approval.