William Burr - 202/994-7000 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Security Archive obtained the virtually unexpurgated document in response to a mandatory declassification review request to the Jimmy Carter Library [See Document 12]. Highly classified for years, PD 59 was signed during a period of heightened Cold War tensions owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, greater instability in the Middle East, and earlier strains over China policy, human rights, the Horn of Africa, and Euromissiles.
In this context, the press coverage quickly generated controversy by raising apprehensions that alleged changes in U.S. strategy might lower the threshold of a decision by either side to go nuclear, which could inject dangerous uncertainty into the already fragile strategic balance. The press coverage elicited debate inside and outside the government, with some arguing that the PD would aggravate Cold War tensions by increasing Soviet fears about vulnerability and raising pressures for launch-on-warning in a crisis. Adding to the confusion was the fact that astonishingly, even senior government officials who had concerns about the directive did not have access to it.
With other recently declassified material related to PD-59, today's publication helps settle the mystery of what Jimmy Carter actually signed,  as well as shedding light on the origins of PD-59 and some of its consequences. Among the disclosures are a variety of fascinating insights about the thinking of key U.S. officials about the state of nuclear planning and the possible progression of events should war break out:
- PD-59 sought a nuclear force posture that ensured a "high high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions." If deterrence failed, the United States "must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable." To make that feasible, PD-59 called for pre-planned nuclear strike options and capabilities for rapid development of target plans against such key target categories as "military and control targets," including nuclear forces, command-and-control, stationary and mobile military forces, and industrial facilities that supported the military. Moreover, the directive stipulated strengthened command-control-communications and intelligence (C3I) systems.
- President Carter's first instructions on the U.S. nuclear force posture, in PD-18, "U.S. National Strategy," supported "essential equivalence", which rejected a "strategic force posture inferior to the Soviet Union" or a "disarming first strike" capability, and also sought a capability to execute "limited strategic employment options."
- A key element of PD-59 was to use high-tech intelligence to find nuclear weapons targets in battlefield situations, strike the targets, and then assess the damage-a "look-shoot-look" capability. A memorandum from NSC military aide William Odom depicted Secretary of Defense Harold Brown doing exactly that in a recent military exercise where he was "chasing [enemy] general purpose forces in East Europe and Korea with strategic weapons."
- The architects of PD-59 envisioned the possibility of protracted nuclear war that avoided escalation to all-out conflict. According to Odom's memorandum, "rapid escalation" was not likely because national leaders would realize how "vulnerable we are and how scarce our nuclear weapons are." They would not want to "waste" them on non-military targets and "days and weeks will pass as we try to locate worthy targets."
- An element of PD-59 that never leaked to the press was a pre-planned option for launch-on-warning. It was included in spite of objections from NSC staffers, who saw it as "operationally a very dangerous thing."
- Secretary of State Edmund Muskie was uninformed about PD-59 until he read it about in the newspapers, according to a White House chronology. The State Department had been involved in early discussions of nuclear targeting policy, but National Security Adviser Brzezinski eventually cut out the Department on the grounds that targeting is "so closely related to military contingency planning, an activity that justly remains a close-hold prerogative and responsibility" of the Pentagon.
- The drafters of PD 59 accepted controversial ideas that the Soviets had a concept of victory in nuclear war and already had limited nuclear options. Marshall Shulman, the Secretary of State's top adviser on Soviet affairs, had not seen PD-59 but questioned these ideas in a memorandum to Secretary Muskie: "We may be placing more weight on the Soviet [military] literature than is warranted." If the Soviets perused U.S. military writing, it could "easily convince them that we have such options and such beliefs." Post-Cold War studies suggest that Shulman was correct because the Soviet leadership realized that neither side could win a nuclear war and had little confidence in the Soviet Union's ability to survive a nuclear conflict.
BackgroundWhen Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977, he inherited nuclear weapons targeting policies from his Republican predecessors, who had sought ways to give U.S. presidents alternatives to the terrifyingly massive and rigid pre-planned options of the Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP]. To make nuclear threats more plausible and to give presidents more choices than the SIOP attack options, in January 1974, Richard Nixon signed National Security Decision Memorandum [NSDM] 242. A few months later, in April 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger signed Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy [NUWEP] which provided guidance for the creation of limited, selective, and regional attacks, with more detail for major attack options. Among the goals set for Major Attack Options in the NUWEP was the destruction of "selected economic and military resources of the enemy critical to post-war recovery," including political and military leadership targets. With respect to economic recovery targets, the NUWEP called for inflicting "moderate damage on facilities comprising approximately 70% of [the Soviet or Chinese] war-supporting economic base."
The perception that the NSDM-242 exercise had not given the President more options for crisis-confrontation situations [see Document 1 below] led the Carter White House to initiate a nuclear targeting review that eventually produced PD-59. The Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff [JSTPS] had shown proficiency in creating massively destructive "pre-planned" nuclear strikes against Soviet military targets, but the Carter White House saw them as largely irrelevant. As Bzezinski explained, the "very likelihood of all out nuclear war is increased if all out spasm war is the only kind of nuclear war we can fight." Starting with the premise that conflict was more likely to start in Central Europe or Northeast Asia, the architects of PD-59 believed that high-tech reconnaissance systems could give the president and his advisers a "look-shoot-look" capability to improvise targeting during war. In this way, they could strike Warsaw Pact forces on the move with nuclear weapons instead of launching SIOP attacks against major military targets in the Soviet Union.
The JSTPS had responsibility for the SIOP, under the direction of an Air Force general who wore a second hat as Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command. In this capacity, he had a powerful influence in the military bureaucracy. Brzezinski aide William Odom saw little value to the massive SIOP attack options, believing that a flexible targeting system could help provide an adequate deterrent, but he could not wish SAC and the SIOP out existence because its leaders believed that those options were critical to the national defense. Thus, PD 59 was necessarily a bureaucratic compromise by providing for pre-planned attack options, including launch-on-warning but also flexibility to prepare war plans on "short notice" and strategic reserve forces for later stages of a conflict. War plans could range from massive attacks to "flexible sub-options" against broad classes of targets. To ensure that attack plans could be improvised, PD-59 mandated the creation of "staff capabilities" in the military and at the Pentagon that could "develop operational plans on short notice … based on the latest intelligence."
War plans developed under PD-59 were to "put the major weight of the initial response on military and control targets." Target systems would include tactical and strategic nuclear forces, military command centers, conventional military forces including armies in motion, and industrial facilities supporting military operations. Dropping "critical" recovery targets as a priority, pre-planned options would include "attacks on the political control system and on general industrial capability" either promptly or as "relatively prolonged withholds" that could be attacked later in a conflict. Yet the initial press coverage of PD-59 was slightly misleading by suggesting that targeting before the directive had focused on urban centers; the SIOP had always given priority to military targets and had provisions for excluding attacks on urban-industrial complexes unless Moscow had already attacked U.S. cities.
That the White House had initiated a major review of nuclear targeting remained largely secret until President Carter signed PD-59.  Nevertheless, the administration's interest in acquiring capabilities, such as the MX ICBM, for counterforce strikes against Soviet strategic targets had been in the news before the existence of the PD leaked.  In early August 1980 headline in national newspapers brought out the larger secret: the existence a new directive changing nuclear war planning, with the first story appearing in the Boston Globe on 3 August 1980. The news stories correctly emphasized key elements of PD-59, that it sought capabilities for "prolonged but limited nuclear war," and that it gave priority to military and leadership targets, and a capability to "find new targets and destroy them" once a war began. 
The press coverage cited "shudders" among former government officials such as Herbert Scoville who worried that the search for "less fearsome options for using nuclear weapons would reduce the inhibitions for employing them." Moreover, Federation of American Scientists Director Jeremy Stone asked "Who would be there to turn off the war if we nuked Soviet command centers?" Stone warned about pressures for "firing on warning", although the language on launch-on-warning was one element of the PD that stayed secret.  Those concerns dovetailed with private misgivings among State Department officials, such as Marshall Shulman who worried that the reported emphasis on the role of leadership and C3I targets could "only increase Soviet perceptions of vulnerability" and introduce "further instability in the strategic balance."
Newspaper stories about PD-59 raised questions whether President Carter and his advisers had adequately consulted Secretary of State Muskie and the State Department before or after signing the PD. Muskie first learned about the PD from the press coverage, which then noted his "unhappiness that he knew so little about the new doctrine." This became an issue at the State Department, which did not have a copy of the directive and where senior officials argued that the Department should be involved in the "formulation and assessment of national security decisions that have significant foreign policy implications." Muskie's top advisers recommended that he seek an understanding with President Carter that this should not have happened and should not happen again, but whether the two reached a meeting of the minds on this point is not clear.
One of the purposes of the PD was to influence more detailed guidance on nuclear targeting. Top-level officials at the Pentagon and the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff would use the ideas codified in the directive to develop more detailed instructions for shaping the production of pre-planned options and for developing "look-shoot-look" capabilities. By October 1980, Secretary of Defense Brown had approved the latest Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy to provide guidance for targeting in a crisis [see Document 21] Yet the ink had hardly dried on Brown's NUWEP when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency; in October 1981 the new administration supplanted PD-59 with National Security Decision Directive 13, "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy." NSDD-13 influenced NUWEP-82 which replaced Brown's guidance.
NSDD-13 remains largely classified, but years later, Odom wrote that it "carr[ied] the general thrust of PD-59, but with less comprehension of what was needed," and that "little or nothing of consequence was done to pursue this doctrinal change."  Future declassifications may test the accuracy of Odom's judgments. In any event, PD-59 (as well as NSDM-242) set the mold for target planning during the decades that followed, during and after the Cold War era. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, "the process for developing nuclear targeting and employment guidance … has remained virtually unchanged since 1991." Presidential directives and secretary of defense guidance approved during the George W. Bush administration included familiar themes. They provided for a planning structure "designed to avoid an 'all-or-nothing' response to a nuclear attack," identified "potential adversaries" and "scenarios" requiring pre-planned options, and emphasized a "capability to rapidly develop new options." While President Obama has set a nuclear-free world as a policy goal, it is unlikely that nuclear planning arrangements will change significantly in the foreseeable future.