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The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969
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International Security 27.4 (2003) 150-183

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The Madman Nuclear Alert
Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969

Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri

On the evening of October 10, 1969, Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), sent a top secret message to major U.S. military commanders around the world informing them that the JCS had been directed "by higher authority" to increase U.S. military readiness "to respond to possible confrontation by the Soviet Union." The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was ordered to stand down all aircraft combat training missions and to increase the number of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on ground alert. These readiness measures were implemented on October 13. Even more dramatic, on October 27 SAC launched a series of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, on a "show of force" airborne alert, code-named Giant Lance. During this alert operation, eighteen B-52s took off from bases in California and Washington State. The bombers crossed Alaska, were refueled in midair by KC-135 tanker aircraft, and then flew in oval patterns toward the Soviet Union and back, on eighteen-hour "vigils" over the northern polar ice cap. 1

Why did the U.S. military go on a nuclear alert in October 1969? The alert was a loud but secret military signal ordered by President Richard Nixon. Nixon sought to convince Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders that he might do anything to end the war in Vietnam, in accordance with his "madman theory" of coercive diplomacy. The nuclear alert measures were therefore specifically chosen to be loud enough to be picked up quickly by the Soviet Union's intelligence agencies. The military operation was also, however, deliberately designed to remain secret from the American public and U.S. allies. Indeed, [End Page 150] the nuclear alert operation was so secretive that even the senior U.S. military officers implementing the orders—including the SAC commander himself—were not informed of its purpose.

Nuclear Signals in Theory and History

Cloaks of secrecy still shroud this mysterious event, but a sufficient number of government documents have now been declassified to permit a serious examination of the October 1969 nuclear alert. This article both explains why President Nixon ordered this secret nuclear operation and uses the history of the event to help illuminate the dynamics of nuclear weapons decisionmaking and diplomacy. The emerging information provides new insights both about the nuclear history of the Cold War and about broader political science theories concerning the role of nuclear weapons in international politics.

Four common assumptions exist in the historical and political science literature about nuclear weapons diplomacy. First, scholars generally agree that rough Soviet-U.S. strategic parity in the 1960s, and a shared sense of nuclear danger after the Cuban missile crisis, led to a high degree of restraint in the use of nuclear threats. Under conditions of mutually assured destruction, leaders in Moscow and Washington avoided explicit threats, exerted tight central control over their nuclear forces, and used direct communications to defuse tensions that could escalate into a military confrontation neither side desired. McGeorge Bundy, for example, argued that after 1962 there was "great caution on the part of all states possessing nuclear weapons, caution not only with respect to their use, but also with respect to any step that might lead to a conflict in which someone else might be tempted to use them." 2 This conventional wisdom is challenged by evidence that, well into the period of strategic parity, U.S. leaders continued to make nuclear threats more often and for less purely "defensive" motives (i.e., to deter enemy attacks) than previously acknowledged. The well-known history of the U.S. nuclear alert during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, for example, should now be seen as consistent with a [End Page 151] pattern, rather than an aberration, in the diplomacy of Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. 3

The second common assumption is that the United States behaves as...