Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘Limited’ Nuclear Warrior
Carter's national security adviser helped reshape U.S. plans for World War III
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the U.S. national security adviser to Pres. Jimmy Carter, died on May 26, 2017.
A refugee from Poland, his family fled to Canada via France after the 1939 German invasion, and stayed after the Red Army swept into the country at the end of World War II.
As Carter’s chief in-house adviser on national security, Brzezinski influenced U.S. foreign policy into arming the mujahideen to fight the Soviets, the complete normalization of relations with China, and into launching Operation Eagle Claw—the failed hostage rescue attempt following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Later in life, he was an outspoken and principled opponent of the invasion of Iraq, and a critic of the War on Terror.
Brzezinski also played an instrumental role in altering U.S. nuclear war plans, which remain closely-guarded secrets. Fortunately, declassified documents from the Carter administration have revealed key details. It’s also important to remember that America’s strategy for Armageddon hasn’t changed much since the Cold War. So Brzezinski’s and Carter’s plans are still with us to an extent, and will help guide America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles were they to ever launch.
Brzezinski’s contribution was to work with Carter and military officials to allow for a limited nuclear war with the Soviet Union. A “limited” nuclear war may sound like a contradiction in terms, but until the Carter administration, the U.S. nuclear war strategy was guided by a handful of options aimed at knocking out a combination of military sites, command-and-control centers and Soviet nuclear forces.
That’s the simplified version. In general however, this would have entailed an enormous, pre-planned attack involving hundreds or thousands of nuclear warheads. Worst of all, another possibility was a full-scale “spasm” attack—or full-scale nuclear war and the loss of millions of lives. That was probably the inevitable outcome of the other options, in any case.
Carter, Brzezinski and his chief military adviser, the whip-smart U.S. Army Gen. William Odom, seemed to believe as much. The “very likelihood of all out nuclear war is increased if all out spasm war is the only kind of nuclear war we can fight,” Brzezinski argued.
Above–crewman perform an electrical check on a Minuteman III ballistic missile in 1980. U.S. Air Force photo. At top—Zbigniew Brzezinski with Pres. Jimmy Carter in 1977. National Archives photo
The shift resulted in Presidential Directive 59, or PD-59 for short, which Carter signed on July 25, 1980. PD-59 kept much of the old plans in place, due to bureaucratic resistance centered within the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. But the idea was to give the president additional options and a “high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions.”
Specifically, PD-59 gave the president—and the U.S. military by extension—the choice of targeting the Soviet army in the event of a war with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons while it was “on the move,” according to documents obtained in 2012 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Developments in military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology would make such targeting possible.
This was a “look-shoot-look” war, with a flurry of nuclear weapons hitting select targets on a rapidly-evolving battlefield, before the war quiets down and new targets pop up. But it would be less likely, in theory, to lead to a massive exchange targeting civilian population centers resulting in the end of civilization as we know it, and it would mean the United States meant business—thus contributing to deterrence.
Brzezinski had one close call. Around 2:30 a.m. on June 3, 1980, the national security adviser was asleep in bed when Odom called him, telling him that 220 Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missiles had launched toward the United States. Brzezinski opted not to wake his wife, judging that it would be preferable for her to die in her sleep. Before he could call Carter and advise a nuclear counter-attack, Odom rang again and said it was a false alarm.
The culprit was a defective computer chip inside the Cheyenne Mountain headquarters of North American Air Defense Command.
That was the situation Brzezinski and others wanted to avoid. But PD-59 also included the Soviets’ military industry, nuclear command centers and the “political control system”—i.e. the Soviet leadership—on the potential target list. This raises the obvious question of who precisely the United States would have negotiated with to end a war if the Kremlin’s gerontocracy had been wiped out.
Another problem is that “dropping a nuke on someone is still dropping a nuke on someone,” as Geoff Wilson of the Ploughshares Fund and Will Saetren pointed out. If the other guy has nukes, he’ll fire back. Having “limited” options could also lower the threshold against using them.
Disastrously for the Carter administration, PD-59 leaked and caused a major stir in the press. The knowledge of the plan’s existence is possibly one reason among several why the Soviets developed the partly-automated Perimeter, or “Dead Hand,” nuclear weapons control system, which became operational in 1985. Were the Soviet leadership eliminated in a “limited” decapitation strike, Perimeter would take over and nuke America back to the stone age.
After retiring from the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, Gen.-Col. Varfolomei Korobushin noted that PD-59 would have “been futile” due to a system which would “automatically launch all missiles remaining in our arsenal even if every nuclear command center and all our leaders were destroyed.”
Thirty-seven years after Carter signed the order, important elements of PD-59 remain in place in the United States, which is modernizing its nuclear weapons—and has a new president who wants to expand them. Meanwhile, in Russia, Perimeter is apparently still online.