Cold War Air Defense Relied on Widespread Dispersal of Nuclear Weapons, Documents Show

Historians in the News

Washington, D.C., November 16, 2010 - To counter a Soviet bomber attack, U.S. war plans contemplated widespread use of thousands of air defense weapons during the middle years of the Cold War according to declassified documents posted today at the National Security Archive's Nuclear Vault and cited by a recently published book, Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan) by historian Christopher J. Bright. The U.S. government publicly acknowledged the facts of the deployments in the 1950s, yet they garnered surprisingly little public opposition, Bright concludes, in disclosing for the first time that air defense weapons comprised as much as one-fifth of the US nuclear arsenal in 1961. Still, nearly 25 years after the United States retired the last of them in 1986, their exact number remains secret.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most perilous crisis of the Cold War, Bright shows that top Defense officials wanted to limit a response to a bomber attack to conventional weapons, not realizing how much plans and deployments rested solely on nuclear weapons. Bright's work also raises the possibility that air defense weapons may have been among the most dangerous nuclear arms because of their widespread deployment and the predelegated use arrangements that could have led to inadvertent nuclear use during a crisis.

Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era is a reminder of the extent to which nuclear weapons were integral to Cold War American military strategy. It comes at a time when U.S. policy makers are giving renewed attention to nuclear arms, occasioned in part by President Barack Obama's support for their ultimate abolition, and the suggestion by others that existing U.S. nuclear warheads should be replaced or refurbished, along with continuing political disagreement about the necessity and adequacy of a New START arms control treaty with Russia....

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