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Declassified Cold War Document Reveals Nuclear Targets


The world of "Doctor Strangelove" resurfaced when for the first time the National Archives released a list of planned targets for U.S. nuclear attack. This document is a Cold War relic. It identifies possible ground zeros in Europe, China and Russia for U.S. bombers. The document from the 1950s was studied and then recently published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. William Burr is a senior analyst with that research group. He joins me now in the studio. Welcome to our program.

WILLIAM BURR: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think that we learn anything about U.S. plans for nuclear war that we didn't know looking at a list like this?

BURR: Well, the list is part of the story, and the first part was to go after what they called airpower targets. So they're thinking in terms of striking airfields, airframe factories, atomic weapons storage sites, some of which targets were actually in cities like Moscow or Leningrad.

WERTHEIMER: So that was - that was part A of the plan.

BURR: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: And B was...

BURR: Part B was a plan for what they called systematic destruction. So after the nuclear threat targets were destroyed they'd start attacking urban industrial targets in major cities around the Soviet Union, also in China, Beijing, East Berlin. And so all the major cities would be slated for attack, at least so far in this plan

WERTHEIMER: What kind of weapons was the United States planning to use?

BURR: That's a good question. Now, the airpower targets, they slated the use of hydrogen bombs, which were just being developed and deployed. So these were multimegaton weapons. You know, one megaton is equal to, like, 47 weapons that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of World War II. So these are enormously destructive, have all kinds of consequences for U.S. allies, countries nearby in terms of the fallout hazard in which they knew it was a danger, the fallout hazard. But they said but our priority is airpower so what - come what may we have to get those targets whatever the consequences.

WERTHEIMER: And the consequences obviously would be that some of these things were near cities, some of them more in areas that were important agricultural areas. I mean, they were - they were just wreaking havoc.

BURR: East Berlin would be highly targeted, so what that would mean for West Berlin - they don't talk about the implications of the targets that they lay out.

WERTHEIMER: Does this plan - I mean, this sounds like something awful out of a movie. Is this scarier than you thought it would be?

BURR: When they start, you know, laying out the installations that would be attacked in each city, international norms - even at that time international norms sort of prohibited targeting people as such. So it raised a lot of questions and by that kind of targeting, the population targeting that you seen in this document I don't see it in later similar related information on war planning. And they always assumed heavy mass of population losses just by using nuclear weapons. But the idea of actually targeting people seemed to have gone by the wayside.

WERTHEIMER: So would you imagine that looking at this list and looking at the implications of this list might actually have caused policy to veer a little bit away from this level of destruction?

BURR: It's an interesting question. I mean, I'd - it's possible. We're trying to find more about this report and see if any of the documents about its preparation or the reactions to it are available, but so far no luck, but I'll be looking into it..

WERTHEIMER: William Burr, of the National Security Archive, thank you very much for coming in.

BURR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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