Assured Destruction

  • Lawrence Freedman
Part of the Studies in International Security book series (SIS)


The formula chosen to emphasize the disastrous nature of a general nuclear war was that of ‘assured destruction’. This term is now taken to refer to a nuclear strategy based purely and simply on a threat to destroy centres of population with no alternative nuclear options contemplated at all. It is also often taken as a creation of the mid-1960s, articulated by McNamara on the rebound from an unsuccessful attempt to promote a counter-force strategy. Having first expressed a desire to avoid city destruction, he now decided to concentrate American nuclear power on little else but cities.


Radar Assure Decis 
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  1. 3.
    Fred Iklé reports that in order to calculate the number of the enemy population that would be killed, a method known by the distasteful term ‘cookie cutter’ was used, in which nuclear weapons are assumed to ‘take out’ people in a neat circle, like a piece of dough, so that all are killed or injured within this circumference and none outside. Fred Iklé, Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the Century? (Santa Monica, Calif.: Arms Control and Foreign Policy Seminar, January 1973) pp. 13, 34.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Donald Brennan was most responsible for drawing attention to the acronym. Donald Brennan, ‘Symposium on the SALT agreements’. Survival, September/October 1972.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Warner Schilling has demonstrated how one can play with acronyms to make any point you care to make, e.g.: Capability of Firing First If Necessary = COFFIN. Warner Schilling et al., American Arms and a Changing Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), p. 44.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    James Trainor, ‘DOD says AICBM is Feasible’ Missiles and Rockets, 24 December 1962.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Stewart Alsop, ‘Our new strategy: the alternatives to total war’, The Saturday Evening Post 1 December 1962.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    John Kennedy, as a Senator, contributed to the belief in the strategic value of space by writing: ‘Control of space will be decided in the next decade. If the Soviets control space, they can control earth.’ This was cited by General Power to justify a call to ‘surpass them [the Soviets] in every phase of the space effort so as to prevent them from gaining control of space, denying us the space medium, and using space for aggressive purposes’. Power, Design for Survival, p. 239. One example of the ‘space war’ literature of the time is M. N. Golovine, Conflict in Space: A Pattern of War in a New Dimension. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1962). He argued that earth might be spared if the super–powers could be persuaded to decide their conflicts in space.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Henry Rowen, ‘Formulating strategic doctrine’. Appendices to the Report of the Commission on the Organization of Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy, Vol. IV. Appendix K (Washington DC: GPO, 1975), p. 227.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    See Robert Gilpin, American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1962).Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Herbert York and Jerome Wiesner, ‘National security and the nuclear test ban’, Scientific American (October 1964). This article became caught up in a general debate over whether military technology had now reached a plateau or whether there were to be more quantum jumps, and from that whether or not enough money was being spent in the Department of Defense on new projects. For a denunciation of the York/Wiesner thesis as it affected the welfare of the defence industry see Hanson Baldwin, ‘Slow–down in the Pentagon’, Foreign Affairs (January 1965).Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    See Edward Randolph Jayne, The ABM Debate; Strategic Defense and National Security (MIT Center for International Studies, June 1969),Google Scholar
  11. Morton Halperin, The decision to deploy the ABM’, World Politics, xxv (October 1972) and Freedman, US Intelligence and the Soviet Strategic Threat, Chapter Seven.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Secretary of State, Robert S. McNamara, ‘The dynamics of nuclear strategy’. Department of State Bulletin, LVII (9 October 1967). Morton Halperin was the actual author of the speech.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The International Institute for Strategic Studies 1983

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  • Lawrence Freedman

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