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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

Documents Cast Doubt Over US Nuclear-Use Chain-of-Command

On 20 March, the non-governmental National Security Archive in Washington released recently declassified documents, dating back to the 1950s, showing that - under certain, drastic circumstances - a US nuclear strike could have been authorized by military commanders. The circumstances most commonly envisaged were those of the President, Vice-President or other senior officials being dead or uncontactable following a nuclear attack against US territory or forces.

According to William Burr of the National Security Archive, the declassified documents prove conclusively that "during the most dangerous phases of the US-Soviet confrontation top military commanders had Presidentially authorized instructions to use nuclear weapons under specified emergency conditions."

Bruce Blair, of the Brookings Institution, addressed himself to the issue of whether this in extremis chain-of-command remains the case. Quoted on 20 March, Blair stated: "I believe that the Eisenhower precedent, with some variations on the theme, continued, probably to the present time, although the scholarly trail for me ended with the Reagan Administration..."

Editor's note: relevant documents and analysis can be viewed at the National Security Archive web-site, address http://www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive

Report: Nuke authority not just President's, Associated Press, 21 March.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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