From MAD to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning

From MAD to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning

From MAD to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning

From MAD to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning


This deathbed memoir by Dr. Paul H. Johnstone, former senior analyst in the Strategic Weapons Evaluation Group (WSEG) in the Pentagon and a co-author of The Pentagon Papers, provides an authoritative analysis of the implications of nuclear war that remain insurmountable today. Indeed, such research has been kept largely secret, with the intention “not to alarm the public” about what was being cooked up.

This is the story of how U.S. strategic planners in the 1950s and 1960s worked their way to the conclusion that nuclear war was unthinkable. It drives home these key understandings:

• That whichever way you look at it -- and this book shows the many ways analysts tried to skirt the problem -- nuclear war means mutual destruction

• That Pentagon planners could accept the possibility of totally destroying another nation, while taking massive destructive losses ourselves, and still conclude that “we would prevail”.

• That the supposedly “scientific answers” provided to a wide range of unanswerable questions are of highly dubious standing.

• That official spheres neglect anything near a comparable effort to understand the “enemy” point of view, rather than to annihilate him, or to use such understanding to make peace.

Dr. Johnstone’s memoirs of twenty years in the Pentagon tell that story succinctly, coolly and objectively. He largely lets the facts speak for themselves, while commenting on the influence of the Cold War spirit of the times and its influence on decision-makers.

Johnstone writes: “Theorizing about nuclear war was a sort of virtuoso exercise in creating an imaginary world wherein all statements must be consistent with each other, but nothing need be consistent with reality because there was no reality to be checked against.”

While remaining highly secret – so much so that Dr. Johnstone himself was denied access to what he had written – these studies had a major impact on official policy. They contributed to a shift from the notion that the United States could inflict “massive retaliation” on its Soviet enemy to recognition that a nuclear exchange would bring about Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

The alarming truth today is that these lessons seem to have been forgotten in Washington, just as United States policy has become as hostile to Russia as it was toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. U.S. foreign policy is pursuing hostile encirclement of two major nuclear powers, Russia and China. Without public debate, apparently without much of any public interest, the United States is preparing to allocate a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal. It is as if all that was once understood about the danger of nuclear war has been forgotten.


For two decades Paul H. Johnstone worked in the upper echelons of US intelligence. For Air Force Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he devised ways of estimating the military capabilities of potential enemies, and ways of estimating the kind of targets and their locations that, if destroyed, would most damage an enemy’s capacity to continue at war. The task of estimating the damage from nuclear war eventually brought the realization of the futility of nuclear warfare.

Johnstone’s work in assessing the survivability of nuclear war is as significant and compelling today as when it was written decades ago. Indeed, it is more significant and more compelling. The atomic bombs that President Truman ordered dropped on two Japanese cities were powerful weapons, but they are popguns compared to the thermo-nuclear weapons of today. Moreover, subsequent American presidents—John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan—worked to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and formulated a war doctrine that relegated nuclear weapons to a retaliatory role. Reagan working with Soviet president Gorbachev removed the threat of nuclear holocaust by ending the Cold War.

Today the situation is far more dangerous than during the Cold War period. From the Soviet collapse in 1991 came the belligerent neoconservative doctrine of US world hegemony. This doctrine has resulted in violations by Washington of critical agreements made with Moscow. The Clinton regime violated the agreement that in exchange for Moscow’s acceptance of the reunification of Germany, NATO would not move one inch to the East and established NATO bases on Russia’s border. The George . . .

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