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Robert S. McNamara
United States Secretary of Defense
September 18, 1967
In a complex and uncertain world, the gravest problem that an American Secretary of Defense must face is that of planning, preparation and policy against the possibility of thermonuclear war. It is a prospect that most of mankind
understandably would prefer not to contemplate. For technology has now circumscribed us all with a horizon of horror that could dwarf any catastrophe that has befallen man in his more than a million years on earth.
Man has lived now for more than twenty years in what we have come to call the Atomic Age. What we sometimes overlook is that every future age of man will be an atomic age, and if man is to have a future at all, it will have to be one overshadowed with the permanent possibility of thermonuclear
holocaust. About that fact there is no longer any doubt. Our freedom in this question consists only in facing the matter rationally and realistically and discussing actions to minimize the danger.
No sane citizen, political leader or nation wants
thermonuclear war. But merely not wanting it is not enough. We must understand the differences among actions which increase its risks, those which reduce them and those which, while costly, have little influence one way or another.
But there is a great difficulty in the way of
constructive and profitable debate over the issues, and that is the exceptional complexity of nuclear strategy. Unless these complexities are well understood rational discussion and decision-making are impossible.
One must begin with precise definitions. The cornerstone of our strategic policy continues to be to deter nuclear attack upon the United States or its allies. We do this by maintaining a highly reliable ability to inflict unacceptable damage upon any single aggressor or combination of aggressors at any time during the course of a
strategic nuclear exchange, even after absorbing a surprise first strike. This can be defined as our assured-destruction capability.
It is important to understand that assured destruction is the very essence of the whole deterrence concept. We must possess an actual assured-destruction capability, and that
capability also must be credible. The point is that
a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible
When calculating the force required, we must be conservative in all our estimates of both a potential aggressor's capabilities and his intentions. Security depends upon assuming a worst plausible case, and having the ability to cope with it. In that eventuality we must be able to absorb the total weight of nuclear attack on our
country -- on our retaliatory forces, on our
command and control apparatus, on our industrial
capacity], on our cities, and on our population --
and still be capable of damaging the aggressor to
the point that his society would be simply no
longer viable in twentieth-century terms. That is
what deterrence of nuclear aggression means. It
means the certainty of suicide to the aggressor,
not merely to his military forces, but to his
society as a whole.
Let us consider another term: first-strike
capability. This is a somewhat ambiguous term,
since it could mean simply the ability of one
nation to attack another nation with nuclear
forces first. But as it is normally used, it
connotes much more: the elimination of the
attacked nation's retaliatory second-strike forces.
This is the sense in which it should be understood.
Clearly, first-strike capability is an important
strategic concept. The United States must not
and will not permit itself ever to get into a position
in which another nation, or combination of
nations, would possess a first-strike capability
against it. Such a position not only would
constitute an intolerable threat to our security,
but it obviously would remove our ability to deter
We are not in that position today, and there is no
foreseeable danger of our ever getting into that
position. Our strategic offensive forces are
immense: 1,000 Minuteman missile launchers,
carefully protected below ground; 41 Polaris
submarines carrying 656 missile launchers, with
the majority hidden beneath the seas at all times;
and about 600 long-range bombers, approximately 40 percent of which are kept always in a high state of alert.
Our alert forces alone carry more than 2,200
weapons, each averaging more than the explosive
equivalent of one megaton of TNT. Four hundred
of these delivered on the Soviet Union would be
sufficient to destroy over one-third of her
population and one-half of her industry. All these
flexible and highly reliable forces are equipped
with devices that ensure their penetration of
Now what about the Soviet Union? Does it today
possess a powerful nuclear arsenal? The answer
is that it does. Does it possess a first-strike
capability against the United States? The answer
is that it does not. Can the Soviet Union in the
foreseeable future acquire such a first-strike
capability against the United States? The answer
is that it cannot. It cannot because we are
determined to remain fully alert and we will never
permit our own assured-destruction capability to
drop to a point at which a Soviet first-strike
capability is even remotely feasible.
Is the Soviet Union seriously attempting to
acquire a first-strike capability against the United
States? Although this is a question we cannot
answer with absolute certainty, we believe the
answer is no. In any event, the question itself is --
in a sense -- irrelevant: for the United States will
maintain and, where necessary strengthen its
retaliatory forces so that, whatever the Soviet
Union's intentions or actions, we will continue to
have an assured-destruction capability vis a vis