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Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management
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Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management
Scott D. Sagan

Scott D. Sagan is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow serving in the Nuclear and Chemical Division, Plans and Policy Directorate (J-5), of the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This article was written when he was a postdoctoral fellow on Harvard University's Avoiding Nuclear War Project.

The author would like to thank the working group of the Avoiding Nuclear War Project at Harvard University, as well as Richard K. Betts, McGeorge Bundy, Raymond L. Garthoff, Alexander L. George, Vice Admiral Jerome H. King, Jr., USN (ret.), and Major Steven R. Sturm, USAF, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.


1. For a list of incidents prior to 1960 in which the threat of the use of strategic weapons has been raised by the United States see Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, Force Without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Washington: Brookings, 1978), pp. 47-48. For greater detail on most of these cases see J.C. Hopkins, The Development of the Strategic Air Command (Office of the Historian, Headquarters Strategic Air Command, July 1, 1982).

2. NORAD Regulation No. 55-1. Operations: Simulated Defense Readiness Conditions, Air Defense Warning and Weapons Control Status. April 27, 1960, p. 2. CCS 3180 Emergency Readiness Plans (Jan. 12, 1960), Records of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. Record Group 218. National Archives (hereinafter JCS).

3. Report by the J-3 to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Operational Readiness Measures. JCS 2056/158, June 6, 1960, p. 1463, 1472. CCS 3180 Emergency Readiness Plans (May 15, 1960), Sec. 1, JCS.

4. Recent examples include the following: in August 1976, three B-52s were sent from Guam to fly over South Korea, as a show of force, as American military forces cut down a tree in the DMZ; in August 1978, a number of SAC bombers were dispersed in response to the movement of Soviet submarines close to the American east coast; some alert measures may have been implemented when President Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981; and, finally, in more than one case, false warnings of attack have produced limited measures of increased nuclear command readiness. See Richard G. Head, Frisco W. Short, and Robert C. McFarlane, Crisis Resolution: Presidential Decision Making in the Mayaguez and Korean Confrontations (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1978), pp. 189-193; David M. Alpern, "A Soviet War of Nerves," Newsweek, January 5, 1981, p. 21; Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Caveat (New York: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 157-161; U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Recent False Alerts from the Nation's Missile Attack Warning System, Report of Senators Gary Hart and Barry Goldwater, 96th Congress, 2nd Session, October 9, 1980, pp. 5, 7.

5. Events Incident to the Summit Conference, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, 86th Congress, 2nd Session, May 27, June 1, 2, 1960, pp. 124, 133, 135.

6. See "RAF Planes on Alert," The New York Times, May 19, 1960, p. 9; "Test Alert Attributed to Gates," The Washington Post, May 17, 1960, p. 1; "Press Conference of N.S. Khrushchev in Paris on May 18, 1960," Pravda and Izvestia, May 19, 1960, pp. 1-2, in The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 10; and Events Incident to the Summit Conference, p. 125.

7. Message Number EC9-10366, CCS 3180 Emergency Readiness Plans (May 15, 1960), Sec. 1, JCS.

8. Report by the J-3 to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Operational Readiness Measures, JCS 2056/158, June 6, 1960, p. 1459. CCS 3180 Emergency Readiness Plans (May 15, 1960) Sec. 1, JCS.

9. Thirty-two minutes after Gates's message arrived, while the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs were being notified by telephone, a top secret message from CINCEUR Palmer to Chairman Twining arrived that suggested to the Joint Staff officers on duty that Palmer's forces were being placed on a "state of military vigilance" prior to JCS instructions, "apparently as (a) result of direct contact with SECDEF." Message EC 9-10368, CJCS...