RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Nuclear War Planning and the Challenge of Civilian Oversight

Nuclear War Planning and the Challenge of Civilian Oversight

The Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Moorer years: JCS Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer, flanked to left by Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., and to the right by Air Force Chief of Staff General John Ryan and Marine Corps Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr. (copy from Naval History and Heritage Command)

Published: Jan 22, 2020

Briefing Book #694

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Joint Chiefs Wanted to Keep SecDef Melvin Laird Out of the Loop on Nuclear War Plans, Declassified JCS Document Shows

JCS Sent Message on Targeting Beijing’s Nuclear Forces during Nixon Trip to China

Miffed by Timing and Implications of Message, Laird Ordered Its Recall

Washington D.C., January 22, 2020 – On 24 February 1972 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s inbox included a Joint Chiefs of Staff message concerning the ongoing efforts by military planners to develop a “Communist Chinese Nuclear Package” for the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the Pentagon’s nuclear war plan. Laird’s office was mistakenly included in the message’s routing. According to documents published for the first time by the National Security Archive, the message “displeased” Laird in part because it showed that the Joint Chiefs had been excluding his offfice from their nuclear target planning discussions. For Laird, the message’s timing was also problematic: that week President Richard Nixon was visiting China for the first time. Having already initiated a major review of nuclear war planning, Laird ordered the Joint Chiefs to recall the message and to suspend further discussion of it until the policy review had been completed.

The idea of a special nuclear targeting plan for China had emerged as early as 1966 when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the Joint Chiefs to review U.S. strategy for a “nuclear attack” against China in conflicts that involved the Soviet Union or with China only. McNamara’s request remains classified so it is not clear what motivated him in particular, whether concerns about the Vietnam War escalating into direct conflict with China or Beijing’s progress in developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that could threaten U.S. allies in the region and perhaps eventually reach U.S. targets (although it took decades before China had an ICBM capability). In any event, by the close of the Johnson administration, top Pentagon officials were asking the Joint Chiefs to develop specific target lists for nuclear targeting of China but also to make recommendations about methods of attack and which delivery systems to use against which targets.

When the Nixon administration came to power in early 1969, the Joint Chiefs continued work on a nuclear targeting plan focusing on China, although top civilian officials were not involved as before, for reasons unknown. By the fall of 1969 the Chiefs were on the verge of a decision whether the SIOP should include a “separate” China package, aimed at nuclear targets and facilities, and whether to assign the Director of Joint Strategic Target Planning (DSTP) the task of developing the option.

The planners were to consider whether guidance for the “Peking package” would be relevant for the development of a separate China nuclear option in the SIOP. The “Peking package” may have referred to a plan to include Chinese political and military control centers in a plan to strike “Alpha” targets – Chinese nuclear delivery capabilities – as long as they were not in urban areas. The “Peking package” may have been derived from a “Moscow Peking Missile Package” that was developed in the late 1960s. This was one of many “sub-variations” of the SIOP attack options that target planners had developed.

Whatever accounted for the delay, possibly a simple lack of urgency, in developing the China nuclear package, it was not until early 1972 that the Joint Chiefs had formulated instructions to the DSTP, which they asked the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command to review. The message described the target categories assigned to the “China nuclear package”, which had two variants: the destruction of the Chinese nuclear threat to U.S. allies and forces in East Asia and the destruction of China’s prospective threat to launch ICBMs that could reach the continental U.S. The general objective of the variants was to “negate any immediate Communist Chinese nuclear threat to the United States and preclude the PRC from emerging as the dominant nuclear power following a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR.” The circumstances in which the U.S. would launch such attacks was not discussed, but the underlying purpose would have been to preserve the central role of American power in world affairs.

Laird was “displeased” that he had learned only inadvertently that the Chiefs had been having this discussion of a major nuclear policy issue. As noted, the timing of the message disturbed him, just when President Nixon was in China, but he also had other concerns. Laird had already authorized a panel directed by Assistant Secretary of Defense John S. Foster to review nuclear war planning. The goal was to give the president more choices during a military crisis than to rely on the catastrophic nuclear strikes that were characteristic of the SIOP. Nixon himself brought up the issue publicly by mentioning “new and disturbing problems” raised by strategic parity with the Soviet Union: “Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans?”[1]

What bothered Laird was that the Joint Chiefs were considering major changes in targeting policy before the Foster policy review had been completed. Therefore, he directed JCS Chairman Thomas Moorer (who was a member of the Foster Panel) to put the “China package” proposal in abeyance until the Foster panel had completed its work, although he was free to bring up the matter directly with the panel. It is worth noting that Laird did not criticize the idea of planning a nuclear strike designed to destroy China’s nuclear forces. A “disarming strike” against China had been the subject of continuing discussion at meetings of the Defense Program Review Committee during 1971 and 1972, in which senior Pentagon officials participated.

The flap over the China package raises an interesting question. Why did the Joint Chiefs believe that the secretary of defense had been erroneously placed on the distribution list for the message? More may be learned from the Admiral Moorer diaries, but one implication appears to be that highly sensitive information on nuclear targeting did not typically reach the secretary’s desk or the inbox of senior civilian defense officials generally. A few years earlier, national security adviser Henry Kissinger received a briefing at SAC headquarters where, according to the DSTP, “certain aspects of the SIOP … were deliberately not gone into." In general, military target planners believed that their work required a high degree of secrecy and organizational autonomy and that interference by civilian officials was to be avoided. Of course, Laird would have seen it differently, that target planning had such important political implications that civilian authorities had to be in the loop, which to an important extent was why he had established the Foster panel in the first place.[2]

The subset of documents from the late 1960s published in today’s posting have long been declassified but not enough was in the public record to indicate the how far the “China package” went in the Pentagon planning process. With the recent declassification of the JCS message from February 1972 it becomes evident that senior military planners intended to continue discussion of a policy option that already had some support in the national security bureaucracy. That China would be excluded from the SIOP by the end of the decade few may have anticipated.

The document

Document 1

Assistant Secretary of Defense Alain Enthoven to Secretary of Defense, "JCS Study of Nuclear Targeting of Communist China," 23 October 1968[ attached memorandum from (Acting) Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, same topic, 25 October 1968, Top Secret


Source: Defense Department FOIA release

In response to a directive from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1966, the Joint Chiefs had begun working on a nuclear targeting plan against China in the context of a war with Beijing or if the Soviet Union was "involved." Looking at the Chiefs’ latest version of the study, Alain Enthoven who presided over system analysis in the Pentagon, did not believe it included enough options. Working with Paul Nitze, Enthoven developed recommendations for more study of the Chinese economy so that more target lists of civilian and military installations could be developed.

In the instructions to the Chiefs, Nitze pointed to two important conclusions in their study: 1) that it was not practical to "target for a large percentage of casualties" in China, presumably because it would require too many weapons, and that it was possible to achieve high levels of damage against military and industrial target "with very low levels of fatalities." Nitze asked the Chiefs for further consideration of the details of placing weapons on specific targets under the various attack options.

Document 2

Major General Pete Stanis, Deputy Director, Joint Staff to Secretary of Defense, "Study of Strategic Nuclear Targeting of Communist China," 13 November 1968, Secret


Source: Defense Department FOIA release

Maj. Gen. Stanis informed the secretary of defense that the 25 October 1968 memorandum on China targeting and presumably the JCS study had been forwarded to the "principle [sic] planning agency" for the SIOP, the Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff, for its views. Once comments had been received, the Joint Staff would decide on "appropriate action."

Document 3

Lt Colonel Robert H. McCully, memorandum for Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, "The Single Integrated Operational Plan," 4 November 1969, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: Air Force FOIA release

This document includes a timeline for the development of a China nuclear option from McNamara’s original request to the Joint Chiefs in 1966 to the course of Pentagon planning. According to the chronology, in March 1969, the DSTP had commented on the 25 October 1968 secretary of defense memorandum indicating the "feasibility of developing [a] target list consistent with attack strategies," although current SIOP guidance did not provide scope for "selective targeting." The excisions in this document make it difficult to fully understand what the military planners had in mind, but the implication was that by the fall of 1969 they were seeking a specific SIOP option to destroy nuclear forces and installations in China. All of the planning activity described involved military offices only; civilian officials were not yet in the loop. The next step proposed by the Air Staff was for the Joint Staff to review the proposal before it went to the DSTP.

Document 4

[Sayre A.] Swartzrauber to JCS Chairman et al., "Single Integrated Operational Plan," 25 February 1972, Top Secret, enclosing memorandum from Secretary of Defense Laird to JCS Chairman on same topic, 25 February 1972, and JCS message 3440, same topic, 24 February 1972, Top Secret


Source: National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman’s Files, Thomas A. Moorer, box 48, SIOP, mandatory declassification review request

The JCS message that went mistakenly to Secretary Laird was a request that the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command review the instructions to the DSTP. The message described the target categories assigned to the "China nuclear package," which had two variants: one to minimize the Chinese nuclear threat to U.S. forces and allies in East Asia; the other to destroy a Chinese ICBM threat to the United States. Each of the variants had Designated Ground Zeroes of different scope: 160 for the option to minimize the Chinese nuclear threat to U.S. allies and U.S. forces in the region, while 12 (possibly a typo for 120) DGZs would be required to destroy ICBM capabilities. The general objective was to "negate any immediate Communist Chinese nuclear threat to the United States and preclude the PRC from emerging as the dominant nuclear power following a nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR." The circumstances in which the U.S. would launch such attacks was not discussed.

According to one of Moorer’s assistants, Admiral Swartzauber, the JCS message "displeased" Secretary of Defense Laird. It was not only the timing (President Nixon was in Beijing) that irritated Laird but the fact that a major policy message on U.S. nuclear war planning had been sent while a special panel on nuclear targeting policy, chaired by Assistant Secretary of Defense John S. Foster (and of which Moorer was a member), was beginning its deliberations. According to Laird, "I believe we should hold in abeyance consideration of any target/SIOP changes 1ike those addressed in the message, at least until the policy review and guidance panel I appointed … had an opportunity to make its initial report to me."

By setting up a special panel on nuclear targeting, Laird was responding to White House concerns about the immense destructiveness of the nuclear strikes included in the SIOP. Briefings on war plans and the huge casualty levels that they would cause had made Nixon, like other presidents, alarmed and uneasy. He also saw a credibility problem; in a crisis and confrontation, U.S, adversaries, nuclear or otherwise, would not find it believable that the U.S. would actually launch attacks that could destroy the world. The SIOP would have to be modified with small attack options to make it more suitable for crisis management. The damage that a few nuclear weapons would cause would still be terrible, but some nuclear policy experts believed that threatening to launch smaller attacks might be more believable. It was in that context that Laird gave the Foster panel its marching orders.


Nuclear Strategy and Weapons


East Asia


Nuclear Vault

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird with John S. Foster, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, at a Pentagon reception in Foster’s honor, 2 October 1972. Foster had been chair of the National Strategic Targeting and Attack Panel at the time of the kerfuffle over the JCS message on China targeting. (Photo, courtesy, OSD Historical Office)

The top of the first page of JCS telegram 3440, 24 February 1972, shows the mistaken routing to “SECDEF.”

Declassified intelligence reports indicate that beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. had been taking overhead photos of Chinese ballistic missile sites and related facilities, although few have been released. This is a photo from 1972 of CSS-1 (Dong Feng 2) medium-range ballistic missile equipment at the Teng-Sha-Ho military installation near the port city of Dalian. It was very likely on the targeting list developed for the “China Package.” National Photographic Interpretation Center, Basic Imagery Interpretation Report, “CSS-1 Missile Equipment Teng-Sha-Ho Military Installation [Excision], Ground Forces Facilities China,” April 1972.


1. "First Annual Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970’s,” 18 February 1970, in Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon 1970 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1971), p. 173.

2 . Quotation from CINCSAC message, 10 March 1970, from Document 12, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 173, 23 November 2005; Peter Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 59-60.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Documenting Iran-U.S. Relations, 1978-2015

Documenting Iran-U.S. Relations, 1978-2015

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after signing an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Geneva, November 24, 2013 (photo from

Published: Dec 19, 2019

Briefing Book #692

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

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Every U.S. President Tried – at Some Point and for Different Reasons – to Engage with Iran

New Digital National Security Archive Collection of 14,000 pages Covers the 1978-79 Revolution to the 2015 Nuclear Deal (JCPOA)

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Farah Pahlavi left Iran for the last time on January 16, 1979 (photo from Wikipedia).

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini disembarks from an Air France flight in Tehran after 15 years in exile in Turkey, Iraq, and France, February 1, 1979 (photo from Wikipedia).

U.S. Embassy officials taken hostage in Tehran, November 4, 1979, an image that continues to haunt American views of relations with Iran. (Reuters).

Presidential special envoy Donald Rumsfeld meets Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, December 20, 1983, symbolizing the U.S. tilt toward Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran.

President Mohammad Khatami made a powerful impression on U.S. officials during a rare interview on American television with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, January 7, 1998 (CNN screenshot).

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful figure in Iranian politics for almost four decades, repeatedly showed his interest in repairing the fractured U.S.-Iran relationship (photo by Morteza Nikoubazl, Reuters).

Iran and the United States faced off at the 1998 World Cup in Lyon, France, one of a handful of sporting events (including a celebrated visit to Iran by American wrestlers the same year) that many on both sides hoped would help improve the relationship. (Iran beat the U.S. soccer team 2-1.) (Photo by Patrick Kovarik AFP/Getty Images)

President George W. Bush delivers the State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, in which he labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea parts of an Axis of Evil (photo from The Economist).

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad takes a highly publicized tour of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility on April 8, 2008, a period when Iran was accelerating work on its nuclear program (photo from

Washington, D.C., December 19, 2019 – For 40 years, since the first year of the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the United States and Iran have been the bitterest of political adversaries. Yet, every U.S. president has at a certain point reached out to the theocratic regime in Tehran, either for a short-term policy objective or a longer-term improvement of relations, according to declassified records published this month by the National Security Archive. Furthermore, while Tehran rejected most of these probes, usually denounced as interference by “The Great Satan,” Iran’s own rulers have periodically found it in their interests to seek out the United States for a variety of reasons.

These conclusions, perhaps surprising given the abysmal state of affairs between the two governments, are among the main findings gleaned from a major new publication of once-classified documents on U.S.-Iran relations from the non-governmental National Security Archive through the scholarly publisher ProQuest.

The collection, U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the Nuclear Accord, 1978-2015, published on December 12, 2019, consists of 1,760 documents and almost 14,000 pages of materials mostly obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or culled from years of research at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and its associated presidential library system. Additional records come from British archives and other sources and include selected Iranian materials.

Among the topics and themes highlighted in the collection:

  • U.S. reactions to the unfolding Iranian revolution, 1978-1979
  • U.S. planning and responses to the 444-day hostage crisis, 1979-1981
  • Reagan administration support to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988
  • The Lebanon hostage crisis that led to the infamous arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, 1984-1986
  • The Khobar Towers bombing, attributed to Iran by U.S. intelligence, 1996
  • U.S. tracking of Iran’s relations with other Persian Gulf states, 1990s and after
  • Russia-Iran negotiations over nuclear energy, missile, and other deals, 2000s
  • Iranian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001 onwards
  • Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, 2002-2010
  • Background to talks leading to the JCPOA nuclear deal, 2013-2015

On the theme of presidential interest in Tehran noted above, U.S. Policy toward Iran traces the opportunities and setbacks experienced by each American president in attempting to reach across the political divide to the Islamic Republic.

For example, from the earliest days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran – and ascension to political power – in February 1979, President Jimmy Carter sought to curry favor with the country’s provisional government, although attempts to establish ties to clerics rising to positions of political prominence failed badly because of the stigma of associating with the United States.

President Ronald Reagan talked tough about combatting terrorists and at one point gave approval to military strikes against Iranian targets in the event of harm coming to American hostages in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, yet was eager to pursue supposed moderates in Tehran, using American weapons as currency, in hopes of freeing the captives. (Some in his administration also banked on achieving a political rapprochement with those elements.)

President George H.W. Bush, despite being tainted by Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, continued to harbor hopes of winning freedom remaining hostages in Lebanon (held by allies of Tehran), until he was duped by an unknown Iranian who managed to speak to him over the phone pretending to be Iran’s Parliament Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Bush soon turned his attention to Iraq.

President Bill Clinton was much more wary of contacts with Iran after his predecessors’ humiliating experiences, colored further by evidence of Iran’s involvement in terrorist acts such as the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. But with the surprise election of the reform-oriented Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, Clinton went virtually all in on signaling to Tehran his desire for a breakthrough in relations. After numerous communications and policy measures aimed at showing good intentions, however, domestic politics on both sides overwhelmed the two leaders’ best efforts.

Even President George W. Bush entertained the prospect of better relations with Tehran. In the wake of September 11, Iran’s leaders were among the first to convey well wishes to the American people. More concretely, Iranian and American envoys to the Afghanistan talks in late 2001 worked effectively together to advance the writing of Afghanistan’s new constitution. Despite acknowledgements in Washington of the positive results, other political forces in the administration held sway, producing the famous “Axis of Evil” reference in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. That in itself did not immediately doom the outlook for closer cooperation, as witnessed by the May 2003 “fax” to the State Department ghost-written by Switzerland’s ambassador to Tehran (the United States’ official intermediary with the IRI), and offering a “road map” for better ties, which the U.S. government rebuffed out of hand. Even after that, American and Iranian officials met several times to discuss developments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of all the presidents since 1979, Barack Obama is most closely identified with attempts to break through decades of mistrust with Tehran. In his first year, the Cairo speech and Noruz (Iranian New Year) message set the tone. By 2011, preparations had reportedly already started for secret negotiations that the two sides hoped would lead to a nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election was a major boost to the process and by July 2015 an accord had been signed. The American side went to pains to insist they had no aims or expectations for anything more than a nuclear deal. But as the documents in this new collection make clear, solving the Iran problem – if possible through a new era of rapprochement (or at a minimum reduced tensions) – was on the agenda of every president at one time or another, whether acknowledged publicly or not.

The following documents are a small sample of the 1,760 records in the new ProQuest collection. To arrange for a free trial of the full set, click here if your library does not currently have a subscription to DNSA.

Read the Documents

Document 01

Cable, Zbigniew Brzezinski to Ambassador William Sullivan, instructions on U.S. support for Shah of Iran (best available copy), Top Secret, November 3, 1978


Source: Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. Records of the Office of the National Security Advisor. Zbigniew Brzezinski Material–Country Files (NSA 6). Iran, 9/78-11/16/79. Box 29. Iran, 11/78

This cable from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan in Tehran comes as the revolutionary tide in Iran was cresting. Even at this late date, less than 10 weeks before the Shah would flee the country, many at the top levels of the U.S. government believed he would survive. Indicating the cable’s extreme sensitivity, it was sent through “privacy channels” and marked “exclusively eyes only” for the ambassador (delivered “in a sealed envelope” for good measure). Brzezinski’s instructions come from “the highest authority” and call on Sullivan to inform the Shah that “the United States supports him without reservation in the present crisis.” Within a week Sullivan would shock the White House with his famous “Thinking the Unthinkable” message (also in this collection), doubting the Shah’s future viability and advising the administration make plans for his abdication.

Document 02

Memorandum, Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter, “General Huyser’s Report,” Top Secret, , January 13, 1979


Source: Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. Remote Archives Capture. NLC-6-29-3-25-4

In the tumult of early 1979, President Carter decided to send a senior military figure, Gen. Robert Huyser, to Iran to engage chiefly with the military and help determine both their mood and the best course of action for the United States. He remained in Iran from early January to early February, a period that encompassed the Shah’s departure and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s arrival from years of exile. Huyser, who was deputy commander of the Supreme Allied Command, was chosen in part because he had developed a relationship with Iranian military leaders – and to some extent with the Shah – over the course of several recent visits to the country.

His mission became a topic of deep suspicion within and outside of Iran, with many Shah supporters suspecting the Carter administration of seeking to undermine the monarch while others believed his role was to foment a coup, along the lines of the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq. (See some of the history of that event here.) This memo from Brzezinski to the president, which attaches a reporting cable from Huyser, shows that multiple options were being considered, each depending on a highly fluid and confusing situation. The Archive’s new collection contains every available record of Huyser’s numerous conversations with senior Pentagon officials during his mission, along with related materials that show how utterly baffling the political scene was to outside observers.

Document 03

Memorandum, Cyrus Vance to President Carter, “White Paper on Iran,” Secret, c. March 25, 1980


Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 59, State Department Policy Planning Staff Directors Files, Anthony Lake files

After the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran in November 1979, a host of not just policy and political but legal issues arose that absorbed countless hours of U.S. government time. The Carter administration, anticipating intense congressional scrutiny over past U.S. policy as well as the involvement of entities such as the International Court of Justice at the Hague, decided to compile a record consisting of government records and a narrative history of U.S.-Iran relations. The project included the National Security Council and the State Department primarily and its output came to be dubbed the “White Paper,” even though it was not technically a policy statement. The Archive’s U.S.-Iran collection contains drafts and a variety of supporting materials from the White Paper, which took years to be made public. Here, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance updates President Carter on the project and offers some warnings about problems connected with it – which may partly explain the government’s reluctance to release the full record.

Document 04

Telegram, U.K. Embassy in Washington to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, “For Private Secretary,” Confidential, April 29, 1980


Source: National Archives (United Kingdom). PREM 19/276. Iran (Part 6)

The Carter administration communicated frequently with its British allies about the revolutionary situation in Iran and many of these records are available in the British archives. They offer an interesting, generally sympathetic though not always eagerly supportive, angle on U.S. policy that often includes slightly disdainful remarks about the personalities involved. This cable from the British Embassy in Washington follows a few days after a major moment in U.S.-Iran relations – the American hostage rescue attempt that ended disastrously in the Iranian desert. The document relates separate conversations Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Owen had with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Vance resigned after the failed mission, which he sharply opposed, though he confirms to Owen that this was only part of his motivation. Brzezinski, as usual, held the polar opposite view, leaving Owen with the impression he hoped the United States might go one step further and lay mines in Iranian waters. Owen includes some of his own opinions in this note which was copied to 10 Downing Street and bears Margaret Thatcher’s initials indicating the prime minister read the document.

Document 05

Information Memorandum, Jonathan T. Howe to the Secretary of State, “Iraq Use of Chemical Weapons,” Classification unknown, November 1, 1983


Source: Freedom of Information Act appeal

The Iran-Iraq War was a landmark event not just for Iran and the Middle East but for the United States relationship with Iran. At first choosing neither side, Washington eventually backed Iraq, albeit reluctantly, fearing even greater threats to American and Western interests from a dominant Islamic Republic than from an emboldened Saddam Hussein. Beginning in mid-1982 when Tehran decided to push into Iraq and become the aggressor rather than the defender (against Baghdad’s initial invasion), American support spanned the political, diplomatic, commercial, intelligence, and military spheres. This approach had numerous critics inside the U.S. government, largely because of the many compromises – political and moral – it required in the face of Saddam Hussein’s repeated outrages.

Using chemical weapons against both Iranians and his fellow Iraqis was perhaps Saddam’s most reviled act and is the subject of this memo. It shows that the U.S. knew that Saddam was relying on chemical warfare “almost daily” and while the author is expressing a widely held view within the U.S. government that Washington needed to do something to stop the practice, other records in the National Security Archive’s new Iran collection show that decision-makers never undertook the steps necessary to do that. This was one of the consequences of the war that deeply embittered Iran’s rulers and made it more difficult for the two sides to reach the common ground each sought at various times.

Document 06

Memorandum of Conversation, President George H.W. Bush and Sultan Qaboos, “Telephone Conversation with Sultan Qaboos of Oman,” Confidential, August 3, 1989


Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library

This phone call between President Bush and the Sultan of Oman follows the murder of an American hostage, Lt. Col. William Higgins, in Lebanon. Higgins was one of several Americans still being held captive after a spree of kidnappings in Beirut in the mid-1980s by Islamic radical organizations with ties to Iran. The infamous Iran-Contra scandal had roots in President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to gain the release of American hostages in Lebanon and the issue continued to cloud the administration of his successor, George H.W. Bush. Interestingly, Reagan (according to documents in the National Security Archive’s published Iran collection) was prepared to conduct military strikes against Iranian targets if any Americans were executed by their captors. Here, Bush is clearly not prepared for such a line of attack – unless another American were to be killed. Instead, he looks for assistance to a regional political actor who would come to play a regular role in mediating between Iran and the United States, including helping to stage the initial talks that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. Also of interest here is Bush’s awareness that at least some officials in Iran, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were “trying to be helpful.”

Document 07

Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin, Confidential, October 5, 1993


Source: Freedom of Information Act release from William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

A frequent concern of American policymakers over the years has been the relationship between Russia and Iran – specifically, Moscow’s willingness to sell military materiel, especially missiles, to Tehran. In this memcon between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, the subject is near the top of the American leader’s agenda. It would continue to figure in their conversations till the end of their terms, along with other regional issues as noted here, such as the Caspian oil pipeline and political instability in the Caucasus. While those concerns persist today, the high level of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on display here would soon largely evaporate – except notably on the 2013-2015 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Document 08

Message, President Bill Clinton to President Mohammad Khatami, Classification unknown, June 1999


Source: Freedom of Information Act release from William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

This letter from President Clinton reflects his desire to forge a better relationship with Iran’s reform-minded leader, Mohammad Khatami who had surprisingly won election to the presidency two years earlier. The problem standing in the way was the conclusion of the U.S. Intelligence Community that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) had taken part in the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 American servicemen and a number of Saudis. The FBI and others had pressured Clinton sharply to take retaliatory action but the lack of conclusive evidence at first made him hesitate. By the time the Saudi authorities produced confessions from the alleged perpetrators, Khatami’s election had altered the prospects for a rapprochement so dramatically that Clinton decided to forgo a harsh response.

That goal notwithstanding, the president was hardly immune to continuing political pressure to hold someone in Iran accountable for Khobar (a view he agreed with at some level himself). He therefore agreed to the decidedly mixed message that is contained in the letter he finally sent to Tehran. Instead of an unalloyed statement of interest in better relations, the letter opens with an accusation of complicity in a terrorist attack and a demand that Khatami “bring those in Iran responsible … to justice.” Predictably, the Iranian leadership, of which Khatami was just one component (and far from the most powerful), reacted angrily – in a response that is also part of the Archive’s new Iran publication – and the initiative came to nothing.

Document 09

Cable, “Afghan Conference Proceeding on Interim Administration Formation, Mood Remains Optimistic,” Confidential, November 29, 2001


Source: Freedom of Information Act release from State Department

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks opened an unlikely opportunity for the United States and Iran to cooperate. The Islamic Republic was apparently never seriously considered to be behind the attacks and in fact was among the first governments to express public sympathy for the victims. As it happened, the Bush administration’s decision to invade Afghanistan created specific grounds for cooperation with Tehran in the form of ensuring a new regime and system in Afghanistan that suited both countries’ needs. At the Bonn conference in late 2001, two counterparts, James Dobbins from the United States and Mohammad Javad Zarif from Iran, formed a positive working relationship and Dobbins later openly credited Zarif for his role in developing useful proposals and leveraging Iran’s relations with the Northern Alliance to push those ideas through. This cable from Dobbins, though heavily redacted in parts, gives a flavor of the talks in Bonn and a sense of how he came to lobby the Bush administration to encourage further bilateral cooperation with Iran. Events such as the Karine A seizure and President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech (all documented in the Archive’s new compilation) helped to solidify a general disinclination within the administration to take up the opportunity.

Document 10

Memorandum (Snowflake), Donald Rumsfeld to Lt. Gen. Bantz Craddock, “Iran,” Secret, June 2, 2003


Source: Defense Department release to Donald Rumsfeld

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s preferred method of communicating with staff was via brief notes that he produced in such volume that they became known as “snowflakes.” This one to his senior military adviser is typically succinct yet opens a potentially very large topic – what is Iran’s strategy in Iraq and specifically when will they start killing “uncooperative Iraqis” and, more to the point, Americans?

Document 11

Cable, Secretary of State to various diplomatic posts, “Conveying the Updated P5+1 Package for Iran,” “Sensitive but Unclassified,” June 16, 2008


Source: Freedom of Information Act release from the State Department

The George W. Bush administration never fully warmed to the idea of negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program, but under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the U.S. began to work somewhat more cooperatively with European, Russian, and Chinese partners under the rubric of the P5+1. The process became mired over issues such as whether Iran had a right to enrich uranium but the talks helped prepare the ground for the subsequent Obama administration’s more successful approach. This cable provides details of the latest P5+1 offer package to Iran, then under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Document 12

E-mail, Secretary of State to various diplomatic posts, “Secretary Sherman’s Briefing for the Diplomatic Corps on ISIL and Iran,” “Sensitive but Unclassified,” September 16, 2014


Source: Freedom of Information Act release from the State Department

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was the lead negotiator for the United States in the P5+1 talks with Iran that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. A small handful of other members of the Obama administration, led by her predecessor William Burns, had been engaged in secret bilateral talks with Iran since at least 2013. Other than official statements and press releases, very little internal documentation has come to light about this subject because of how recent it is and the nature of sensitive diplomatic negotiations. This e-mail provides a window into both the substance of the talks and some of the process involved. Sherman would remark later how much time was taken up with briefing allies and the Congress and soliciting international support from all corners to persuade Iran to agree to the eventual nuclear deal.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : The First Nukes on the Korean Peninsula

The First Nukes on the Korean Peninsula

Test of atomic weapon fired by the 280 mm. cannon at Frenchmen’s Flat, Nevada, 25 May 1953 during the Upshot-Knothole Grable test series. The explosive yield of the shot was 15 kilotons, in the same range as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. After much controversy in Washington, 280 mm. nuclear-capable artillery were deployed to South Korea in January 1958. (Photo from National Archives Web site)

Published: Nov 20, 2019

Briefing Book #690

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

New Evidence on the Origins of U.S. Deployments 1958-1991

John Foster Dulles Worried “These Great Monsters” Would Be “Disastrous” for U.S. Political Position

Defense Department and Budget Bureau Pointed to “Economies” from Deployments – More Bang for the Buck

Washington, D.C., November 20, 2019 – In the late 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles worried about the hit to America’s global political standing if the U.S. stationed nuclear weapons, some of which were huge, in South Korea while senior Defense Department officials pointed to the fiscal benefits of these deployments, according to declassified records posted today by the National Security Archive. Dulles, who had presided over U.S. nuclear deployments around the world, was cautious, declaring that it would be “disastrous to our position with our Allies and the United Nations” and wondering aloud “why it was essential that we be able to haul these great monsters around,” while DOD and the Budget Bureau insisted there were “substantial economies” to be had.

These internal U.S. debates, illuminated by recent document declassifications at the National Archives, shed light on various topics of continuing relevance to nuclear policy today, including long-standing concerns over positioning nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula and the fact that non-military factors often influence U.S. decisions to deploy atomic arsenals overseas. Eventually, more customary concerns over security and particularly the threat from North Korea helped President Eisenhower opt for deployments, but today’s posting underscores the complexities surrounding such decisions.

* * * * * * *

During the Cold War the United States deployed nuclear weapons around the world, on the territory of allies, on surface ships, and elsewhere. A key deployment site was South Korea, a major ally in East Asia and an enduring Cold War and post-Cold War flashpoint. Recently declassified documents at the National Archives shed light on the 1957 debate between State Department and Defense Department officials over whether Washington should deploy nuclear weapons in South Korea. While Defense officials saw budgetary advantages from nuclear deployments, State Department officials raised doubts. In a memorandum to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, published today for the first time, a senior official argued that it “would be disastrous to our position with our Allies and in the United Nations if we were to proceed and equip our forces in Korea with nuclear weapons in the absence of demonstrable and relatively comparable Communist actions.”

Especially controversial at the State Department was the proposed deployments of Honest John missiles and 280 mm. artillery. At an NSC meeting, John Foster Dulles, who worried about the diplomatic impact of nuclear deployments in Asian countries, said that “he could not understand why in the world it was essential that we be able to haul these great monsters around.” Nevertheless, JCS Chairman Arthur Radford argued that they were vital for the security of U.S. forces in South Korea. Moreover, the Pentagon supported the deployments to offset alleged North Korean violations of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

For the budget-conscious Defense Department and the Bureau of the Budget, the “early introduction of nuclear weapons will enable us to make substantial economies in our financial Korea.” With South Korea still recovering from the war, the U.S. had been underwriting Korean conventional forces, but Budget and Defense concluded that cuts were necessary and that nuclear deployments would be more useful for deterring or blocking North Korean incursions while costing significantly less. While Secretary of State Dulles raised searching questions about the deployments, he was willing to accommodate them if U.S. allies could be persuaded and if the deployments were sufficiently secret; the latter, as far as he was concerned, ruled out the “monster” weapons. Nevertheless, the momentum was too strong to head off and Eisenhower authorized deployments “as appropriate.” The South Koreans refused to make cuts of conventional forces on the scale sought by Washington, and beginning in early 1958, the United States began to deploy the weapons, including the “monsters.”

The new documents indicate that Washington had no interest in nuclear sharing with South Korea, for example, by training special Korean units. Some U.S. military officials in South Korea were interested in providing such training, but they found no support. Moreover, key U.S. allies made it evident that they would not support the deployments if they provided for a South Korean role. Nevertheless, State Department officials believed that President Syngman Rhee would want atomic weapons for his troops if they were available to U.S. units in the South.

State Department qualms about nuclear deployments in South Korea echoed concern about nuclear weapons use during the Korean War. While the United States did not ship nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula at the time, the Truman administration made emergency deployments at storage sites in the Pacific. The U.S. nuclear threat posture notwithstanding, military planners never came up with plausible scenarios for nuclear use, while State Department officials believed that such an outcome would have a disastrous impact on the U.S. global position, including relations with allies. [1]

For most of the Cold War, from 1958 to 1991, the U.S. stored nuclear weapons in South Korea for use in the event that the North attacked the South. Information about the deploymnets for most of those years have largely stayed secret, but significant information on their pre-history has been declassified. What made this Web posting possible is a recent archival release of State Department documents about the State-Defense debate. Further research based on that release led to additional documents in the archives, declassified years ago, that shed unique light on White House decisions to introduce nuclear weapons into South Korea. Also in the open public record is an important Department of Defense history with a short narrative of the policy debate and the timing of the deployments of “nuclear capsules” to South Korea. [2]

Records of NSC meetings concerning nuclear weapons deployments in South Korea have been published in the State Department’s Foreign Relations series but with significant excisions shrouding important elements of the debate. Those materials are included here to provide context but also to compare with the recently declassified documents. Pending declassification requests for the meeting records may produce more information, now that the U.S. government has declassified some of these important State Department archival records.

The United States removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as part of a global repositioning of the U.S. arsenal; the Korean peninsula became nuclear-free until North Korea began to test and produce its own atomic weapons. That development has produced some interest in South Korea, mainly on the right, for access to nuclear weapons, either the re-introduction of U.S. armaments or the development of a national nuclear capability. A major conservative paper, the Chosun lbo, recently called for all of the above, including nuclear sharing, as a way to reduce U.S. defense costs, which are a major issue between Seoul and Washington. Yet such moves could cause greater instability and uncertainty in a region where the future U.S. military presence is unclear and where negotiations have yet to resolve the challenges posed by North Korean nuclear forces.


Document 01

[Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William] Sebald to [Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Robert] Murphy, "Disagreement with Defense on Action with Respect to Paragraph 13(d) of the Korean Armistice Agreement," 5 December 1956, Secret


Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records [RG 59], Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/12-556

State Department official William Sebald reported that the Defense Department wanted to introduce nuclear-capable Honest John missiles and 280 mm artillery to U.S. forces in South Korea, arguing that it would be permissible under a "liberal interpretation of paragraph 13(d) of the Korean Armistice Agreement," which constrained either side from introducing "new weapons into Korea, other than piece-for-piece replacement of equipment." For others at State, the deployments would not be permissible under the armistice agreement; moreover, world tensions made it problematic to introduce weapons systems associated with nuclear missions. In addition, Communist and neutral countries would almost certainly censure the United States as would the "Swiss and Swedes and many of our Allies in Korea."

The proposed introduction of 280 mm nuclear artillery was an important element of the controversy; according to a State Department official "this little beauty must not only be towed by one heavy tractor, but pushed by another: total weight 86 tons; length about a city block; range about 20 miles."

Document 02

[Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs Walter S.] Robertson to the Secretary of State, "Introduction of Atomic Weapons into Korea," 17 January 1957, with attached memorandum from Herman Phleger, 17 January 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/1-1757

Assistant Secretary Walter Robertson restated Sebald’s concerns in the previous document, but allowed that "if it is determined that the security of the United States is imperiled by a failure to introduce these items, that is another matter." Moreover, State Department lawyer Herman Phleger indicated that he did "not maintain that we are forever bound by an armistice agreement when its terms become outmoded and impossible to live with, and where the other side bas already breached it."

Document 03

Record of Meeting held on January 18, 1957 in the Office of the Secretary of State, 3:00 p.m., "Introduction of Atomic Weapons into Korea," prepared by Director of Northeast Asia Affairs, Howard Parsons, 23 January 1957, Secret; excised version in Foreign Relations of the United States


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/1-1857

Deputy Secretary of Defense Reuben Robertson began this discussion by arguing that the United States needed to cut back on military spending in Korea and that the introduction of nuclear-capable systems would help. The proposed cuts would be accomplished by "reducing the size" of South Korean military forces. Furthermore, the North Koreans had been violating the armistice by "throwing out of balance" the comparative effectiveness of forces in the North and the South. State Department representatives conceded that point but they argued that the United States did not have "convincing" evidence that was in a "form" that could be shown to neutrals, allies, and the United Nations. Presumably, it was classified intelligence information that had to be downgraded. The meeting concluded with State-Defense agreement to compile the information "in a form which is considered to be convincing."

Document 04

Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Francis O. Wilcox to Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge, 20 March 1957, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/3-3057

Assistant Secretary Francis Wilcox reported to U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge that the State Department continued to object to the Pentagon’s nuclear deployment plan because of its "far reaching implications not only for the Armistice Agreement but also our relations with our allies in the UNC and our general position both in the UN and the Far East." During the interagency discussions of the National Security Council’s directive to update a statement of policy on South Korea that so that it reviewed the "effect and consequences" of deploying dual-use weapons, Wilcox found that the State Department was “virtually isolated;” none of the other agencies supported its position that nuclear weapons should be introduced "only after taking full account of its effect upon our position" among other considerations..

For a National Security Council discussion scheduled for 4 April, the Department would provide Secretary Dulles "with a comprehensive statement of the reasons why we believe it essential to determine the timing of the introduction of nuclear weapons in the light of various conditions, particularly the development of evidence of Communist violations comparable in nature and extent." In light of the circumstances, Wilcox asked Lodge for the U.S. Mission’s "appraisal of this problem in terms of its effect upon our position in the United Nations."

Document 05

Mr. Robertson to the Secretary, "Introduction of New Weapons into Korea," 26 March 1957, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/3-2657

With Dulles scheduled to visit the Pentagon, Assistant Secretary Robertson wanted him to keep in mind that the Joint Chiefs had yet to provide evidence of North Korean/Communist armistice violations and that as recently as the previous summer the United States had made assurances that "it would continue to abide by [the Armistice’s] terms." According to Robertson, it "would be disastrous to our position with our Allies and in the United Nations if we were to proceed and equip our forces in Korea with nuclear weapons in the absence of demonstrable and relatively comparable Communist actions." Therefore, in discussions at the NSC Planning Board, State Department representatives proposed " essential safeguards" to ensure that "due consideration [is given] to the timing of any introduction of nuclear weapons and the bearing such action will have on other aspects of United States policy, not only in Korea but toward our Allies and in the United Nations."

With Dulles scheduled to meet with Secretary of Defense Wilson and JCS Chairman Radford, Robertson suggested that the secretary raise the risk that the U.S. could be accused of violating the armistice and that he propose a State-Defense working group to study the evidence of violations.

Document 06

U.S. Mission to the United Nations telegram 680 to State Department, 26 March 1957, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 4012, 795B.5/3-2657

Responding to Assistant Secretary Wilcox’s top secret letter, Ambassador Lodge found some of it obscure, but he understood it well enough to make a basic objection: "for us to enlarge armament on our side of Korean armistice line will be difficult thing to defend unless we can prove communists have made same or comparable enlargement on their side." The problem is all the greater "when it is case of enlarging with nuclear weapons." Lodge believed unilateral introduction of nuclear weapons "would be taken by many [delegation], especially those neutralist-inclined, as unwarranted and provocative violation armistice agreement."

Document 07

Memorandum for the Record, "State-Defense Meeting on ROK Armaments," 29 March 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 4012, 795B.56/3-2957

A presentation to top officials highlighted the problem that intelligence on alleged North Korean violations posed for the supporters of nuclear deployments According to a Captain Mott, intelligence that had been collected, such as photographs of North Korean airfields with deployments of MIGs, and information concerning heavy weapons (tanks, artillery) was of such sensitivity that most of it could not be released to the public.

Document 08

Memorandum of Discussion at the 318th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, April 4, 1957, Top Secret, Excised Copy


Source: Document 212, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Korea, Volume XXIII, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993)

Partially released years ago for the Foreign Relations series (and currently under declassification request), this excised NSC meeting record conveys the flavor of the interagency debate on nuclear deployments and President Eisenhower’s role in managing it. Even if the State Department was relatively isolated in the interagency discussions, Dulles had Eisenhower’s ear. Arguing that the case on North Korean violations was not strong, especially because there was no evidence of "Communist introduction of weapons with atomic capabilities," Dulles believed that the "political disadvantages" of introducing Honest Johns and 280 mm artillery were "greater … than the military advantages." The deployments "would cause serious repercussions around the world." While Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Arthur Radford thought "we might as well go the whole hog and introduce the entire list, including the two disputed items," President Eisenhower thought otherwise. He advised caution instructing that the whole matter "be held until we could talk this issue over with some of our reliable allies, particularly our NATO allies."

Document 09

Robert R. Bowie [Director, Policy Planning Staff] to Mr. Robertson, "Modernization of United States Forces in Korea," 15 May 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff Country Files, 1947-1952, box 29, Korea 1957 (3)

Robert Bowie, who was then well known in the State Department for his "epic debates" with John Foster Dulles, strongly objected to the proposed deployments. [3] He saw no evidence that North Korea’s conventional forces had reached levels that needed to be matched with nuclear weapons. Moreover, he argued that nuclear deployments would not enhance South Korea’s security, but could "stimulate an arms race which would make it more difficult to reduce U.S. support costs."

Document 10

Department of State telegram 8073 to U.S. Embassy United Kingdom [et al.], 17 May 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/5-1757

The consultations with allies that Eisenhower sought began on 23 April 1957 with talks with the Australians, British, Canadians and New Zealanders. During follow-up talks with those countries in mid-May, U.S. officials presented their plan on the "timing and method" for introducing "new weapons" into South Korea., beginning with a statement at a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission at the DMZ. Plainly concerned about nuclear deployments, the Australians and New Zealanders wanted an "assurance" that no "dual-capability" weapons be provided to the South Koreas.

Document 11

Memorandum of Conversation, "Introduction of Atomic Weapons into Korea," 20 May 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff Country Files, 1947-1952, box 29, Korea 1957 (3)

As part of the effort to persuade governments belonging to the United Nations Command to accept U.S. proposals to introduce "new weapons" into South Korea, senior U.S. officials, including JCS Chairman Radford, met with French diplomats. The talking points included the assertion that U.S. deployments would compensate for Communist armistice violations that "seriously upset the relative military balance by building up military capability in the area vastly superior to that which [China and North Korea] had at the time of the Armistice." Embassy Counselor Jean Landy asked what types of weapons the United States would be deploying, referring to "recent press reports indicating that major types of atomic weapons would be included." Landy may have worried about what South Korea could be getting because Radford observed that "the United States has no intention of equipping the army of the Republic of Korea with dual-capable weapons."

The French may still have been concerned about nuclear deployments; according to Chargé d’Affaires Jacques Vimont "the world will. also want to know whether the United States intends to go beyond actions which the Communists have taken." Radford replied: "the world would have to trust the United States."

Document 12

Department of State telegram 4652 to U.S. Embassy France [et al.], 20 May 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/5-2057

After meetings with the French as well as Thai and Turkish representatives, the State Department sent a summary telegram. At the sessions, the French, Thais, and Turks indicated that they understood the situation, although the French had yet to respond officially because Chargé d’Affaires Vimont "would want to be assured that U.S. not going beyond Communist actions as to character items to be introduced." Apparently "trust" of the United States, which JCS Chairman Radford had called for, was not quite enough. The record of any follow-up has not yet surfaced.

Document 13

Mr. Parsons to Mr. Robertson, "ROK Reaction and Expectations Should U.S. Forces in Korea be Given Nuclear Weapons," 23 May 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/5-2357

Korea desk officer Howard Parsons warned Robertson that if Washington equipped its forces with nuclear weapons but did not do the same for South Korea it should expect a "serious political problem." The U.S. government had intention to do so, but equipping South Korea with nuclear forces had been considered in a policy paper and some U.S. officers in Korea had raised the possibility of "token" Korean units with a nuclear capability.

If Washington went ahead with nuclear deployments, it would "almost certainly lead to continued and stronger demands on the part of President Rhee and the ROK Government and military for the equipping of ROK forces with weapons of atomic capability." Moreover, it would be "extremely difficult to convince" Korean leaders, especially President Rhee, "that the modernization of United States forces should be accomplished by the reduction of the ROK Army by four divisions."

Document 14

[David G.] Nes to [Howard] Parson, "Consultations with Allies on Modernization of United States Forces in Korea." 10 June 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 2877, 711.5611/6-1057

With all but the Thais heard from, the State Department had enough support from allies to go ahead with nuclear modernization in South Korea. Nevertheless, support was not absolute, for example, the extent of British support at the U.N. depended on "convincing evidence of Communist violations." Moreover, the Australians, the Canadians, and the New Zealanders wanted "assurances" that the U.N. Command would "not increase its strength beyond that necessary to restore the balance." In addition, as noted, several governments wanted assurances that the South Koreans would not acquire dual-use weapons.

Document 15

Memorandum of Discussion at the 326th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, June 13, 1957, Top Secret, Excised Copy


Source: Document 221, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Korea, Volume XXIII, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993)

The debate over the proposed deployments continued with Dulles raising doubts about the 280 mm artillery and Honest John rockets: "He could not understand why in the world it was essential that we be able to haul these great monsters around." Moreover, "sending such weapons to Korea would be resented throughout Asia." While Dulles’ comments and the subsequent discussion are heavily excised, he was talking about the identification in Asia of nuclear weapons with "the hated doctrine of white supremacy." [4] Not objecting to nuclear deployments that could be kept secret from the general public, Dulles hoped that the South Koreans could be persuaded to reduce their armed forces, helping Washington save on military assistance, on the grounds that the U.S. dual-use weapons and U.S. nuclear forces generally would strengthen deterrence against North Korean incursions.

The emphasis on savings was important in view of the thinking of top officials such as Treasury Secretary Humphrey who believed that U.S. nuclear deterrence made it possible to redeploy U.S. forces stationed overseas. Using language that is redolent of recent discussions, he said that "Our allies won’t like it, but they will … have to accept it." Otherwise, the U.S. "financial situation will become altogether hopeless."

During the discussion, Eisenhower, who had "very little confidence in immobile weapons," asked whether the 280 mm gun "really was so clumsy and so immobile a weapon," as had been portrayed. JCS Chairman Radford said that it was not "quite as bad as it had been depicted" and that the U.S. "had five or six such guns in Germany, and they were proving useful." In any event, he argued that the "Number One reason for wanting to introduce the Honest John rockets and the 280 mm. guns for our forces in South Korea, was to provide for the security of these U.S. forces in South Korea."

With final decisions on nuclear weapons systems yet to be made, Eisenhower and the Council directed U.S. officials to announce to the Military Armistice Commission U.S. plans to modernize U.S. forces in South Korea. In addition, U.S. officials were "to negotiate with President Rhee for a substantial reduction in active ROK forces, … in return for converting the three remaining ROK Air Force squadrons to jets and modernizing U.S. forces deployed in Korea." Given the doubts that Howard Parsons had raised in his memorandum (see Document 13), the proposed negotiations were likely to be difficult.

Document 16

State Department circular telegram 983 to United States Embassy Sweden [et al.], 18 June 1957, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 3993, 795.006-1857

A few days after the NSC meeting (Document 15), the State Department alerted embassies of the decision to announce plans to compensate for alleged Communist violations of section 13 (d) of the armistice agreement. In a message to be used for discussions with states participating in the United Nations Command and in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, the State Department spelled out the terms of the announcement and background on prior discussions with allies. With respect to nuclear weapons, the Department instructed embassy officials to tell only the "most trusted officials" that some of the weapons to be deployed were "weapons of dual conventional and nuclear capability but not including primarily nuclear purpose weapons," whatever that meant.

Document 17

Hugh S. Cumming, Jr., Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to the Under Secretary, "Intelligence Note: Initial Reaction to Weapons Modernization in South Korea," 21 June 1957, Official Use Only


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files 1955-1959, box 4012, 795B.56/6-2157

On 21 June 1957, U.S. representatives to the Armistice Commission declared that the United States no longer considered itself bound to observe the article 13 (d) provisions in the armistice to ban imports of new weapons. [5] According to this report, the announcement surprised North Korean representatives, who argued that UN forces "attempting to make South Korea an atomic base and prepare for a new war" and that"US allegations of Communist truce violations were made only to cover up Allied violations."

Document 18

Memorandum of Discussion at the 334th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, August 8, 1957, Top Secret, Excised Copy


Source: Document 239, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Korea, Volume XXIII, Part 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993)

As indicated by this discussion, by early August, U.S. officials had not persuaded Rhee to accept any reductions in South Korean active divisions. According to Dulles, "it was going to be very hard to get him to agree … in the best of circumstances." As far as Dulles was concerned, without such an agreement there would be no point in deploying nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, "a heavy jolt may be necessary because he is a master of evasion." Secretary of Defense Wilson argued that the "best way to provide a jolt …. would be to hold back funds." In the circumstances, the NSC agreed that Eisenhower should consult with Dulles and Wilson on the "timing" of the nuclear deployments, but "depending on Rhee’s willingness to reduce forces."

Suggesting that he was reluctant to take any risks to the U.S. position, Eisenhower argued that even if South Korea had "no military importance" in general war, it was "psychologically and politically of such importance that to lose it would run the risk of the loss of our entire position in the Far East." That made it essential "to carry on in South Korea."

Document 19

William Leonhart, Policy Planning Staff, to Mr. [Gerard C.] Smith, "Nuclear Storage in Korea," 17 October 1957, with Robert Cutler notes, 16 October 1957, attached, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff Country Files, 1947-1952, box 30, Korea TS

The revealing notes by national security assistant Robert Cutler fill in some of the blanks of the June and August 1957 NSC discussions. According to Cutler, during the August meeting, Admiral Radford surprised Eisenhower when he noted the lack of official instructions for storing nuclear weapons in South Korea. Eisenhower believed the authorizing decision had been made in June. Cutler recalled (and Dulles agreed) that "at least by the Council meeting on August 8 it was understood by the President … that nuclear warheads might be stored in Korea as appropriate." It was Cutler’s interpretation that the President would have to specifically authorize such action by the Defense Department, although State Department officials informed Cutler that the Secretary of State would also have to approve. [6]

Document 20

[Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Matters] Philip J. Farley to Mr. Murphy, "Deployment of Nuclear Weapons to U.S. Forces in Korea," 1 November 1957, enclosing letter from Murphy to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Mansfield Sprague, 1 November 1957, Top Secret, with Cover Sheets


Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff Country Files, 1947-1952, box 30, Korea TS

While U.S. defense officials originally linked cuts in South Korean conventional forces (and saving in military aid) to U.S. nuclear deployments in the South, Rhee and his generals resisted cuts in their armed forces. Thus, the specific savings in military assistance sought by the Defense Department failed to materialize, but the plans for nuclear deployments moved forward State Department misgivings notwithstanding. [7]

The State Department expected to be consulted on any specific decisions to store nuclear weapons in South Korea, but senior Defense Department officials were assuming otherwise. To reaffirm the State Department’s role, Farley recommended to Murphy that he sign off on the attached letter to Mansfield Sprague. In that letter, Murphy reminded Sprague that for "specific implementation" of Eisenhower’s instructions, "we understand that further Presidential authorization is required … and that the Secretaries of State and Defense should support their appropriate recommendations to the President for that purpose."

Document 21

Memorandum for Assistant Secretary of Defense (IS) drafted by H. J. Sandri, Far Eastern Desk, International Security Affairs, "Introduction of Honest John and 280 mm Gun BNS into Korea," 15 January 1958, with letter from Irwin to Robertson, 16 January 1958 attached, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: Document 570, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volumes XVII/XVIII Indonesia; Japan; Korea Microfiche Supplement (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994)

With State Department approval, in December 1957 the Defense Department authorized the Army to begin deploying Honest John and 280 mm artillery (see also Document 22). In response to a request from Assistant Secretary of State Robertson for information on the timing of the deployments. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John Irwin informed him that the Honest John missiles and nuclear artillery would be deployed in South Korea by 31 January. A week later, Mansfield Sprague informed Robertson that plans to deploy Matador missiles in South Korea were underway.

Document 22

White House, "Special Staff Note," From Defense, 16 January 1958, Top Secret, Excised Copy


Source: Document 573, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volumes XVII/XVIII Indonesia; Japan; Korea Microfiche Supplement (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994)

This White House document provides background on the final steps in the process of implementing authorizations to deploy nuclear weapons and dual-use systems in South Korea.

Document 23

Mr., Parsons to Mr. Robertson, "British Request for Information Regarding Atomic-Capable Weapons in Korea," 16 May 1958, Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1955-1959, 795B.5611/5-1658

British diplomat Arthur de la Mare, who had been posted in Seoul during the 1930s, asked Parsons "whether atomic warheads are stored in Korea and whether atomic-capable weapons have been given to the Koreans." Parsons gave the standard "neither confirm nor deny" answer, but "provided a few clarifications" not specified in this memorandum.

Document 24

State Department telegram 208589 to U.S. Embassy South Korea, "Press Reporting of Sensitive Information," 20 September 1974, Secret, Mandatory Declassification Review Release


Source: RG 59, Access to Archival Databases, State Department telegrams 1974

The "neither confirm nor deny" approach regarding the stationing of nuclear weapons in Korea continued for decades as exemplified by the State Department’s response to a 20 September 1974 Washington Post article by Don Oberdorfer. Using information from U.S. military sources in South Korea, the article, "U.S. Weighs Risk of Keeping A-Arms in Korea," covered such issues as security arrangements, storage of weapons, and the purposes of the deployment. Worried about Oberdorfer’s access to military sources, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Habib (the previous U.S. ambassador in Seoul) instructed Ambassador Richard Sneider to meet with the Commander U.S. Forces Korea (COMUSK) so that his "command is aware of highly damaging effect of lose talk" about nuclear deployments. In response to journalistic queries Habib recommended: "no comment," "we do not discus nuclear deployments," and "neither confirm nor deny."

Document 25

Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons July 1945 Through September 1977, February 1978, Top Secret, Excised copy, Excerpts


Source: Freedom of Information Act request

An excised table in a Department of Defense history provides the starting years for U.S. nuclear deployments in South Korea. The names of the countries are excised, but in the alphabetical order of the list of non-NATO countries and territories that provided nuclear deployment sites, South Korea or the Republic of Korea would have followed Puerto Rico. Moreover, the deployments of Honest John rockets and 240 mm guns in early 1959 match the South Korean situation.

This report, released by the Defense Department in excised form in 1999, provided the first detailed information about the scope of overseas U.S. nuclear weapons deployments during the Cold War. William Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and this writer used the details to fill in the excised blanks and identify each country where nuclear weapons were deployed. An article in the November-December 1999 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, " Where They Were" and a follow-up, " How Much Did Japan Know" in the January-February 2000 issue, reported on the findings.

Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson receiving a medal from President Eisenhower. Wilson and his deputies along with JCS Chairman Arthur Radford were determined supporters of nuclear deployments in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office).

Walter Spencer Robertson, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 1953-1959, raised doubts about the proposed deployments of nuclear weapons to South Korea. (National Archives Still Picture Division, Record Group 59-SO)

Robert W. Bowie, director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, 1953-1957, wrote a dissenting memorandum on the proposed nuclear deployments. (National Archives Still Picture Division, Record Group 59-SO)

To give a sense of the scale of the 280 mm. nuclear-capable cannon, this shows one being set up for firing by the 39th Field Artillery Battalion at the Grafenwohr Training Area, West Germany, 28 September 1958. (National Archives Still Picture Division, Record Group 111-CS, box 31)

Members of the Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division hoisting the warhead section into place on an Honest John Rocket at the bivouac area near the Imjin River, 110 kilometers northeast of Seoul, during three days of practice training for firing the Honest John. (National Archives Still Picture Division, Record Group 111-CS, box 33)

The U.S. Army deployed nuclear-capable Honest John missiles in Turkey from 1959 until the early 1990s. This photo shows members of the 1st Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment, preparing to fire a missile at Yakima Washington Firing Center during 1967. (Still Picture Division, National Archives, RG 111-CCS, box 69).


[1] . Roger Dingman, “Atomic Diplomacy During the Korean War,” International Security 13 (Winter 1988/89) 50-91; Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 115-155.

[2]. Robert J. Watson, History of the Office of Secretary of Defense, Into the Missile Age, Volume IV, 1956-1960 (Washington, D.C.:Historical Office: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1997), 625-626.

[3] . Richard Immerman, John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 49.

[4] . See Dulles’ comments during Annual Department of Defense Secretaries’ Conference, the next day, at Quantico, Virginia, where he said, among other remarks, that the mass of people in Asia identify “atomic weapon with this white supremacy and its having been used first by the United States against members of the so-called yellow race.” See Document 122, Editorial Note, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, National Security Policy, Volume XIX, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990). See also Mathew Jones’s discussion of Dulles’ remarks in in After Hiroshima: The United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),347-348.

[5]. According to the Defense Department’s announcement of the meeting, “since the signing of the armistice, the Communist side has not reported the introduction of a single combat aircraft into Korea, and yet it is clear beyond dispute that the Communist side now has hundreds of the most modern jet types of combat aircraft based in North Korea.” While not mentioning specific details, Defense argued the information on modern jets as “supported by all types of intelligence information including the evidence of radar trackings, the testimony of defectors, as well as long-range photographs.” See “U.N. Command in Korea Announces Intention to Replace Old Weapons, Department of State Bulletin XXXVII (8 July 1957), 58.

[6] See Jones, After Hiroshima at page 347, which cites this and other related documents in the Policy Planning Staff collection at NARA.

[7] . Watson, Into the Missile Age, 627-628.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Archive FOIA Cable Shows Guantanamo Prosecutors Misleading Defense

Archive FOIA Cable Shows Guantanamo Prosecutors Misleading Defense

Published: Nov 11, 2019

Edited by Lauren Harper

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Judge Rules Against Government, Citing Archive Document from Haspel Case

Related Links

Gina Haspel CIA Torture Cables’ Dates and Times Declassified
October 18, 2018

Gina Haspel CIA Torture Cables Declassified
August 10, 2018

National Security Archive Sues CIA for Gina Haspel Torture Cables
April 27, 2018

Gina Haspel’s CIA Torture File
April 26, 2018

In the News

Judge Rules Prosecutors Misrepresented Evidence From C.I.A. Sites

The New York Times

Nov 8, 2019

Washington, D.C., November 11, 2019 – A military judge presiding over the Guantanamo trial of alleged USS Cole bomber Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri cited a cable released to the National Security Archive as evidence that the system for handling classified CIA evidence at the detention camp’s national security trials is “flawed and unfair to the defense.” The current system allows prosecutors, working with members of the intelligence community, to decide what portions of evidence the defense needs for trial. Prosecutors, as Carol Rosenberg reports for the New York Times, “then redact portions of reports from the C.I.A. black sites or write summaries to substitute for the actual evidence.”

To reach his determination, Judge Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr. compared a December 1, 2002, cable that was released to the Archive last year in response to a FOIA lawsuit to a version of the same cable prosecutors provided al-Nashiri’s defense attorneys. Judge Acosta found “the comparison undermines any contention the redactions are narrowly tailored to a legitimate need to protect national security.”

The cable that was released to the Archive, which was authored under current CIA director Gina Haspel’s command, describes Day 17 of al-Nashiri’s torture session at a black site prison in Thailand. It states "HVTI [redacted, CIA contract psychologist James Mitchell] and linguist [redacted] strode, catlike, into the well-lit confines of the cell at 0902 hrs [redacted], deftly removed the subject’s black hood with a swipe, paused, and in a deep, measured voice said that subject – having ‘calmed down’ after his (staged) run-in with his hulking, heavily muscled guards the previous day – should reveal what subject had done to vex his guards to the point of rage." The cable provided to the defense was more redacted, and even omitted the word “catlike”, prompting Acosta to rule that some of the deletions made in the cables provided to the defense “could fairly be characterized as self-serving and calculated to avoid embarrassment.”

The Archive filed its FOIA request for the Haspel cable cited by Judge Acosta on April 16, 2018, after she was nominated by President Trump to be CIA director. Despite the clear public interest in the documents, the CIA denied the Archive’s request for expedited processing, and the Archive went to court on April 27. The U.S. Senate confirmed Haspel as CIA director on May 17 (by a vote of 54-45) on the basis of a record amassed almost exclusively in closed hearings, with no declassification or public release of information even remotely approaching that of previous CIA nominees.

David Sobel, FOIA expert and former Archive counsel, drafted and filed the initial Archive complaint in federal court; and the Archive’s pro bono counsel Peter Karanjia and Lisa Zycherman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine took on the task of negotiating with the U.S. Attorney’s office over release of the documents.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Archive, CREW, Historians Sue Pompeo, State Department over Failure to Create Records

Archive, CREW, Historians Sue Pompeo, State Department over Failure to Create Records

Published: Nov 5, 2019

by Lauren Harper and Tom Blanton

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Impeachment Inquiry Shows No Notes for June 28 Ukraine Phone Call

Related Suit Seeks Court Review of White House Failure to Document Heads of State Meetings

FRA Complaint filed as of November 5, 2019

Notice of Designation of Related Civil Cases Pending

Ambassador Taylor’s testimony

Washington D.C., November 5, 2019 – The National Security Archive, together with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), sued Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Department of State today for violating the Federal Records Act by failing to create and preserve essential State Department records (see the complaint). The legal team representing the plaintiffs in the case is led by Anne Weismann and Conor Shaw of CREW, and pro bono counsel George Clarke and Mireille Oldak of Baker McKenzie.

Evidence from the House’s impeachment inquiry, including from Ambassador William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine under the Trump administration, and from former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, all speak to a pattern and practice of bypassing official record-keeping procedures at the State Department. In discussing a June 28 State-organized phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Ambassador Taylor testified that, not only did the Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland exclude most of the regular interagency participants from the call, but that “Ambassador Sondland said that he wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelenskyy to the call.” This is a direct violation of the State Department’s obligation under the Federal Records Act to document agency policies, decisions, and essential transactions.

The FRA lawsuit comes on the heels of a related Presidential Records Act case that the Archive, CREW, and SHAFR filed in May 2019 to compel the White House to create and preserve records of the President’s meetings with foreign leaders. The PRA suit was filed after news reports indicated that no such records existed for at least five meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and a meeting with Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

On October 1, after reports that a July 25 telephone call with President Zelenskyy was receiving unorthodox treatment, the plaintiffs filed a motion in federal court asking for a temporary restraining order to compel the White House to preserve records of foreign leader phone calls and meetings with the president. The Justice Department opposed the motion and in the first round of conversation with the judge, refused to provide any assurances that such records were being saved. It took 24 hours for the Justice Department to provide the court a notice of voluntary preservation. As a result, on October 4, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered the White House to preserve all records relating to meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders, as well as all records on White House practices and policies for creating and keeping such records, and in doing so, memorialized in a formal court order the six categories of information the Plaintiffs sought to preserve.

“Sworn testimony by Ambassador Bill Taylor, a Vietnam vet, West Point grad, career diplomat, and top U.S. representative in Ukraine, let Congress know his State Department colleagues ordered no records kept of a key U.S.-Ukraine conversation, right in the middle of a secret hold on U.S. aid to Ukraine,” remarked Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. “This was wrong. The records laws place an obligation on the State Department to document its policies and decisions, and the same goes for the White House.”

"Secretary Pompeo should not be engaging in document-dodging. The Secretary has a legal obligation to keep records of the ‘essential transactions’ of the State Department," said Lauren Harper, the National Security Archive’s director of public policy. "Conversations with foreign heads-of-state have to rank at the top of that list, so our lawsuit seeks to hold the Secretary to the letter of the law."

The documents

FRA Complaint filed as of November 5, 2019


Notice of Designation of Related Civil Cases Pending


RESEARCH DOCUMENT : 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis Recalled

1979 Iran Hostage Crisis Recalled

Published: Nov 4, 2019

Briefing Book #689

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Tehran Embassy Takeover Launched 444-Day Saga with Long-Standing Implications for Iran, United States, and Global Politics.

Documents Show Brzezinski Proposed Considering Replacement of Khomeini or Even Direct Intervention, but Carter Declined.


Iran Hostage Crisis 40th Anniversary Panel Discussion – Webcast Recap

Crowds rush the gate at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 (

An American hostage surrounded by captors, including an individual once thought incorrectly to be Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who would become Iran’s president in 2005. (Ahmedinejad was reportedly among the planners of the takeover but favored targeting the Soviet embassy.) (Wikipedia)

Aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue attempt on April 24-25, 1980 (Wikipedia)

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who led the operation to extract six American diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Tehran, as depicted in the film Argo (Washington Post)

New Year’s eve 1978 in Tehran — Jimmy Carter toasts "the great leadership of the Shah." (Wikipedia

Washington D.C., November 4, 2019 – On November 4, 1979, a group calling itself the Students Following the Line of the Imam stormed the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized control of the compound, and took several dozen American diplomats, Marine guards, and others hostage. Thus began a 444-day ordeal that shocked the world, fundamentally altered the political scene in Iran, and cemented negative perceptions in the West of the country’s Islamic leadership.

Forty years later, the Iran hostage crisis is still critical to understanding the bitter nature of relations between Iran and the United States. It instantly formed a core part of the American narrative about the Islamic Republic as a regime willing to flout international law and universal moral principles, a view that has colored much of U.S. policymaking ever since.

Today, the National Security Archive is posting a small sampling of declassified records that recall that pivotal episode. They include a memo from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter suggesting several hardline actions including replacing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s leader and even overt intervention (see Document 07). Carter was not prepared to take up any of these options but they indicate the level of alarm created by events in Tehran.

The documents are part of the soon-to-be-published U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the JCPOA, 1978-2015, a collection of almost 2,000 documents that is the latest in the “Digital National Security Archive” series through the academic publisher ProQuest.

While many American officials have been tempted to dismiss the clerical regime as barbaric and irrational, Iran’s rulers have long viewed the U.S. government through their own narrative, as a serial violator of other countries’ sovereign rights with a particularly malign interest in Iran. Those Iranian views, which were at the heart of the motivations for the embassy seizure, trace back to the 1953 coup d’état against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which the United States and Great Britain helped to engineer. (See prior postings.) Although the overthrow owed much to the support of a sizable cohort of the population at the time, Washington’s evident desire to manipulate Iran’s internal politics would begin to fester in the collective memory.

The events of 1953 might not have figured so significantly had Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the coup’s main beneficiary, not developed into a despotic ruler whose accretion of power, suppression of political rights and social development, and failure to rein in state and court corruption fostered conditions Iranian society could no longer abide.

Although the Shah’s relationship with his American patrons from Eisenhower to Nixon was complex, much of Iran’s political opposition came to see the United States as not only tolerant of his excesses but actively encouraging him at the expense of the interests of the people of Iran. Mass popular resentment began to grow by the mid-1960s, notably after the violent suppression of demonstrations following public denunciations of the Shah by the emerging cleric Ruhollah Khomeini who the Shah arrested in 1963 and later exiled to Iraq. Among Khomeini’s chief grievances was the charge that the regime was kowtowing to foreign – that is, American – influence.

Conditions continued to deteriorate steadily, accelerated by the economic dislocations and skyrocketing corruption stimulated by the oil boom of the 1970s. Richard Nixon’s decision to rely on Iran as a buffer against Soviet aggression in the Persian Gulf region removed any pressure the Shah felt from previous administrations to nudge the country toward meaningful internal reform. American Embassy officials were instructed to avoid activities that might aggravate the Shah, including seeking contacts with his opposition, which curbed their ability to come to grips with the depths of popular animus against the regime.

By the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, and a year later praised Iran as “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world,“ the country was on the verge of revolution. Despite his expressed interest in human rights, Carter became identified in Iran, particularly in the eyes of the clerical opposition, with the Shah who repeatedly resorted to violence to suppress demonstrations through the end of 1978. On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza fled the country and two weeks later Khomeini returned from years of exile.

Twenty-five years of growing repression under the monarchy, and the belief that Washington was behind the Shah’s excesses, fed into the motivations of the hostage-takers in November 1979. But the return of the charismatic Shiite leader from exile did not mean the future direction of Iranian politics was sealed. Post-revolution Iran witnessed months of deep crisis punctuated by political demonstrations, ethnic and tribal uprisings, bombings, and other unrest. According to the embassy-takers, one of their core concerns was simply to take some dramatic symbolic action to support Khomeini’s position.

A number of events during that period can be counted as proximate causes of the embassy seizure. Among them were expressions of outrage from various quarters in the United States against harsh treatment of Iranian citizens by revolutionary authorities. In Tehran these statements were taken as signs of Washington’s continued intention to interfere in the country’s affairs. Ironically, the Carter administration was hard at work not only at developing a foundation for good relations with the mostly moderate Provisional Government but also at trying to reach out to key religious figures in belated recognition of their political significance. But the great majority of these attempts were rejected, perhaps not surprisingly given that one aim of the revolution had been to eliminate the American presence.

On May 17, 1979, one such expression of opposition to Iranian conduct took the form of a U.S. Senate resolution condemning a string of executions ordered by Iran’s revolutionary courts. The move, mainly symbolic, struck a nerve in Tehran in part because one of the resolution’s sponsors, New York Republican Senator Jacob Javits, was said to be a “Zionist” and to have had ties to the Shah and the previous regime including an apparent financial arrangement between Javits’s wife and the company Iran Air. The vehemence of the reaction, spearheaded by Khomeini himself, flummoxed Washington but the episode came to symbolize the alleged harmful intent of the U.S. which the hostage-takers aimed at fending off.

A much more widely recognized pretext for the November 4 takeover was the Carter administration’s decision to allow the Shah into the United States for medical treatment. Iran experts inside the State Department had warned for months that to do so would create huge problems for U.S. policy and even endanger diplomats in Iran but Carter’s senior advisers one-by-one lined up in favor of admitting the Shah. In retrospect, the reasons evidently included mounting pressure from influential Shah supporters (primarily leading Republicans such as Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and David Rockefeller), the related political costs of being seen to abandon a once-loyal anti-communist ally, and the personal views of Carter. The president clearly understood what was at stake, asking his aides at one key point what they would tell him to do after the embassy was overrun.

The shah eventually arrived in New York on October 22, 1979, but this did not immediately lead to the embassy seizure. The reason may be that by their own account the perpetrators had only begun planning the operation a couple of weeks beforehand. The final event that seems to have prompted the assault came on November 3 when National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a noted hawk when it came to dealing with the Shah’s opposition, met face-to-face with the head of the Provisional Government Mehdi Bazargan on the anniversary of Algeria’s revolution which was being celebrated in Algiers. The meeting was televised and made world headlines, but it also evidently led the Iranian student group to draw the wildly exaggerated conclusion that the United States might be on the verge of another regime-change operation aimed at Iran, along the lines of the 1953 coup. Hoping to stave off any such possibility, they launched their own operation the next day.

The hostage episode was rife with ironies, starting with the Bazargan-Brzezinski meeting. It was actually the chargé d’affaires in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, who would become the most senior American to be taken hostage, who recommended to the Iranian prime minister that he use the occasion in Algiers to meet with senior American officials.

Another paradox was that the United States had neither the capabilities nor the intention to foment another coup in Iran. Despite assumptions by the students and most Iranian officials, the world of 1979 was vastly different from 1953. Jimmy Carter was not Dwight Eisenhower and did not share his inordinate fear of communism (at least not until the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). The United States was furthermore in no position to mount serious hostile action against Iran during the revolution, in part because they knew so little about the situation or the players (even less than they had known about the Shah and his regime) and had virtually no contacts among potential counter-revolutionaries. To be sure, this was not for lack of trying on the part of a wide range of would-be plotters; according to a substantial documentary record Washington was approached by a stream of individuals and groups inside and outside the country promising to overthrow the mullahs but the Americans rejected all entreaties prior the embassy seizure.

There is also no indication in the record that throughout 1979 the great majority of U.S. officials gave serious consideration to anything beyond shoring up ties with anyone inside the Iranian political system who would talk to them. Brzezinski himself is on the record as pressing Carter to consider different kinds of military action but the president and other senior officials including the Joint Chiefs of Staff discarded all such ideas – although, as this posting confirms, ironically the takeover led to a revival of talk over possible military and political reprisals (again rejected).

U.S. intelligence agencies were also nowhere near as formidable as they were reputed to be. The Carter administration, much to the dismay of critics, had substantially cut back on the CIA’s HUMINT capabilities in a deliberate move to counter the public perception of the agency as a rogue elephant. As noted, U.S. capabilities in Iran – even to gather intelligence much less conduct covert operations on the scale of regime change – were already circumscribed. Shortly after the hostage taking, a career CIA officer on Brzezinski’s staff lamented to his boss: “It is supremely ironic that we should stand accused of so much espionage out of our Embassy in Tehran when we have done so little.” (See Document 5)

Beyond the human tragedy experienced by the several dozen Embassy personnel held against their will, the hostage episode had several momentous political consequences, many of which were sharply detrimental to Iran. It instantly cast the regime in the harshest light, increasing its isolation from much of the rest of the world. This in turn made it far too easy for various political actors in the West to dismiss the regime as untrustworthy, not to say barbaric and irrational, thus complicating future efforts to win domestic support, particularly in the United States, for policies that arguably were in the interests of an important regional player. More immediately, the crisis helped precipitate the immensely costly Iran-Iraq War by feeding into Saddam Hussein’s calculation that Iran was a vulnerable target. Later in the war, Western distrust and ill will, arising in part from the takeover, contributed first to reluctance to show support for Iran, despite being the aggrieved party, and later to a readiness to justify engaging in direct fighting with Iranian forces.

The hostage crisis also contributed to the growing public sense of American global impotence in the United States that undoubtedly hurt Carter’s reelection chances and helped bring Ronald Reagan to office, with all of the attendant implications for the country and the international environment. Reagan himself drew lessons from the crisis, vowing never to be placed in the same vulnerable position as Carter – although he too ultimately suffered politically and damaged the country’s standing as a result of the Iran-Contra affair. (The concept of taking hostages adopted by Hezbollah and others in Lebanon was undoubtedly encouraged by the perception of the impact of the Tehran episode.) The crisis even contributed to developments in areas such as military preparedness as one of the main recommendations of the Holloway Report (Document 10) after the failed rescue mission was to build up American special operations capabilities.

Over the coming months, the National Security Archive will post additional e-books drawn from the upcoming ProQuest publication, U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the JCPOA, 1978-2015.


Document 01

U.S. Embassy Baghdad cable to Secretary of State, Top Secret, August 17, 1953


Source: National Archives and Records Administration

The Students Following the Line of the Imam always maintained that a major concern was that the United States would try to foment another coup d’etat similar to the one against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. A debate has sprung up in recent times about whether the CIA and British intelligence in fact played a role in the ultimate overthrow. This cable from the American ambassador in Baghdad, where the Shah had flown after the first coup attempt failed, appears to give irrefutable proof that the U.S. played a major part in the overall process, which would eventually unseat Mosaddeq two days later. (See in particular the ambassador’s admonition to the Shah against ever acknowledging a foreign hand in the operation.) The underlying point in the context of the 1979 embassy seizure is that there is no doubt of the United States’ participation in an attempt to overthrow a sitting prime minister, which formed at least part of the students’ motivation.

Document 02

Bruce Laingen cable to State Department, "Shah’s Desire to Reside in the U.S.," Secret, July 28, 1979


Source: Freedom of Information Act request

A more immediate spark for those who led the embassy takeover was the U.S. decision to admit the shah to the United States for medical treatment. A major worry for American officials was the chances that this would lead to harm befalling U.S. personnel in Iran. This cable from Chargé d’Affairs Bruce Laingen precisely lays out the worst case. He adds certain caveats but his message, amplified by other Department officials and well-known to President Carter, was prescient.

Document 03

Zbigniew Brzezinski memo to President Carter, "The Shah," Secret, October 20, 1979


Source: National Archives and Records Administration

This memo from Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter discusses the question of admitting the Shah. Below the main message is a handwritten note memorializing Carter’s approval of the fateful decision.

Document 04

CIA cable from Tehran to Director, Secret, April 4, 1979


Source: Nest of Spies document volumes

One of the notable outcomes of the embassy takeover was the seizure of a wealth of classified U.S. documentation by the students. American embassy staff did their best to destroy sensitive records, burning and shredding until their captors broke through and stopped them. Entirely unexpectedly, the Iranians were ultimately able to piece back together many of the shredded materials, such as this document, which they then bound into book-length compilations and published – selling them initially at a book stall outside the former embassy compound.

Document 05

Paul Henze memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Thoughts on Iran," Confidential, November 9, 1979


Source: Jimmy Carter Library

Paul Henze was a career CIA official who focused on a variety of issues, including during this period Soviet radio broadcasting and propaganda activity. Brzezinski may have asked him specifically to look at the Iran crisis and come up with an independent assessment. It is of interest in part because it reflects the widespread concern many officials shared during this period and throughout the Cold War over the threat of Soviet intervention.

Document 06

Special Coordination Committee, Summary of Conclusions, "Iran," Top Secret-Sensitive, November 8, 1979


Source: Jimmy Carter Library

Immediately after the hostage taking, the Carter administration’s Special Coordination Committee, a component of the National Security Council, began to meet to deliberate over what actions to take. This example gives an idea of the range of issues the group covered on almost a daily basis for months.

Document 07

Zbigniew Brzezinski memo to President Carter, "Black Room Report," Top Secret, circa November 20, 1979


Source: Jimmy Carter Library

President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made no secret of his preference for tough action against the Shah’s opponents in the lead-up to the revolution. This unusual memo (it is not known what the Black Room was) lays out a series of similarly harsh steps under consideration by an unidentified group of officials that Carter is willing to take under advisement while admonishing his aide to "be extremely cautious."

Document 08

Zbigniew Brzezinski memo to President Carter, "NSC Weekly Report #122," Top Secret, December 21, 1979 (with Carter’s handwritten notes)


Source: Jimmy Carter Library

Brzezinski continued to pursue a hard line on Iran, as exemplified in this memo, part of a weekly series of direct messages where gave freely of his opinions to the president. As with the previous document, he appears anxious for the president at least to consider military action and steps to overthrow Ayatollah Khomeini. Carter’s handwritten notes show he is not opposed to planning for all possible approaches as long as they do not open the U.S. up to international "condemnation." In the end, other than the hostage rescue attempt, his administration did not opt for any of Brzezinski’s more dramatic proposals.

Document 09

CIA Cable to Director, Secret, January 27, 1980 [truncated]



One of the few positive stories to come out of the hostage crisis was the covert extraction of six American diplomats from Iran via the Canadian embassy where the six had fled seeking protection. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and staff earned hero status for their role in secreting the Americans out of the country, which was accomplished with the aid of a cover story and other assistance from the Central Intelligence Agency. This partial cable, heavily excised, conveys some of the information relating to the episode of the "houseguests" which was later popularized in the film Argo.

Document 10

"Final Report of the Special Operations Review Group," Top Secret, July 1980


Source: Freedom of Information Act request

The April 24-25 hostage rescue attempt was perhaps the bleakest moment in Carter’s presidency. After sand storms and other problems led to a decision to abort the mission, two of the helicopters collided and exploded, causing the deaths of eight servicemen at Desert One inside Iran. Long planned, the operation was not surprisingly sharply debated by those in the know, leading at least in part to the resignation of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. While purely hypothetical, there continues to be wide disagreement over whether the plan would have succeeded. The Holloway report, in this case the declassified Top Secret version obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, analyzes the technical aspects of the operation and recommends, among other measures, a ramping up of American special ops capabilities.