Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Nuclear "First Strike" policies ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Nuclear "First Strike" policies
Category: Reference, Education and News > Current Events
Asked by: chicobird-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 28 Feb 2003 23:46 PST
Expires: 30 Mar 2003 23:46 PST
Question ID: 169152
What were the differences between the US and Soviet policies regarding
"First Strike" nuclear attacks during the cold war?
Subject: Re: Nuclear "First Strike" policies
Answered By: j_philipp-ga on 01 Mar 2003 01:36 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello Chicobird,

The differences between the US and Soviet policies regarding nuclear
first strike during cold war were little, while there are a lot of
Even when it was held intentionally ambiguous, in general the doctrine
for both sides was to not strike first with nuclear weapons, but to be
ready and able to retaliate in case the other side strikes first.
Early warning systems were implemented for such purpose. The idea was
a balance of power to prevent the other from possibly expecting a gain
out of a first strike. In other words, both powers did everything to
ensure a first strike of the other side would be futile -- and both
powers knew that was the other side's strategy as well. A first strike
would only make "sense" (in strategic terms of winning the war,
morality aside) if all enemy retaliation forces could be destroyed
before a counter attack could be initiated, and chances of that were

However there was a difference between the two powers; the potential
US first strike with nuclear weapons in case the Soviets would have
started attacking Western Europe. And while being a long-running
principle, there is no official no-first-use declaration by the NATO.

I would like to provide you with the most relevant resources compiled
in my research:

"During the Cold War, the threat of a Soviet nuclear response was in
the back of every policy maker's mind when dealing with issues from
Nicaragua to Angola to India. (...)

Consider Western nuclear strategy, particularly during the Cold War.
The United States and NATO never renounced a possible first strike;
indeed, it was explicitly understood that a massive Soviet attack on
Western Europe would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons and,
if necessary, higher levels of nuclear response. Russia, on the other
hand, had long called for a no-first-strike commitment by the West and
in fact adopted that stance in 1997. Russia, with a conventional
weapons advantage, was always more interested in exploiting that
advantage and saw the use of nuclear weapons as undermining it.
Nuclear weapons were the critical equalizer to the superior numbers of
Russian conventional forces.

But to create strategic parity beyond the battlefield, doctrine had to
be married to unpredictability. It was never clear to anyone that the
United States would in fact launch a first strike against the Soviet
Union upon the invasion of Germany. No one knew what the U.S.
president would order at the critical moment. That was precisely the
advantage. The very uncertainty of the American response limited the
Soviets' room for maneuver and imposed severe limits on Moscow's
willingness to take risks."

From Paranoia to Arrogance: Our New Nuclear Policy
"The "first strike" option was never really considered a viable option
by any American president, and nuclear weapons were only to be used if
it was clear that millions of American deaths were an inevitability."

US Nuclear Doctrine and Post-Cold War Force Structure [PDF]
"The first issued Presidential-level nuclear guidance was National
Security Council (NSC)-30, signed by President Truman in the Fall of
1948. While significant in that it reserved nuclear execution
authority for the President, NSC-30 provided little doctrinal
guidance. However, its timing alone, during the Berlin crisis, was
probably a very clear message in and of itself. NSC-68 followed soon
after and codified into written policy the need for the US to rely on
its nuclear arsenal to counter, what it described as, a very
aggressive Soviet Union. NSC-68 called for more robust nuclear forces
to fill a void left by conventional force reductions and officially
"rejected the policy of no first use.""

Delta Green Mailing List (by Michael Layne)
"Suvrov, in his book "Inside the Red Army", suggests that the Cold War
approach of the USSR's policy-makers was slightly different. The US he
likened to the stereotypical cowboy, who answers a punch in the nose
with a punch in the nose, and "reaches for an axe" only after he has
gone through several steps of graduated response, or if the other
fellow brings out an axe.  According to Suvrov, the Russian response
would have been to simply finish the foe -- "grab up the axe". 
However, the sheer destructiveness of what are rightly termed "weapons
of mass destruction" apparently impressed even the old men in the
Kremlin, because the USSR did not "grab up the axe" in the Cuban
Missile Crisis, and in Afganistan.  If even the Soviets, who
apparently did not formally recognize a firewall between conventional
weapons and WMD, didn't use theirs, I would expect the US
policy-makers, with the US tradition of such a firewall, to exercise
at least as much restraint."

Nuclear Strategy
"During the cold war, the nuclear strategies of the United States and
the USSR ranged from straightforward deterrence to the threat of
massive retaliation during the early 1950s, to limited forward
deployment in the late 1950s, to various forms of flexible response in
the 1960s. These have included the options of aiming nuclear weapons
at other nuclear weapons and aiming them at enemy cities. Behind all
of these approaches is the idea that any nuclear war would involve
mutual assured destruction (MAD) for the principals, and possibly for
the world as well. As a result, the United States developed a weapons
arsenal large enough to ensure that enough weapons would survive an
enemy first strike to retaliate effectively. (...)

[Nuclear strategists] proposed various strategies for winning a
nuclear war, including first, managing escalation so that the weaker
nation withdraws before a full exchange occurs; second, staging a
massive first strike that preempts an effective response; third,
launching a surgical first strike that destroys enemy leadership; and
fourth, a technological breakthrough that makes effective strategic
defense possible."

Germany: U.S. Reaffirms Nuclear Doctrine
"The United States says it is not ready to change its nuclear
deterrent doctrine which it believes has helped keep the peace for
more than a half century.

U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen on Monday rejected a
suggestion by the new German government that the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization change course and pledge it would not be the first to use
nuclear weapons in a conflict. (...)

Cohen said: "It is our position that this doctrine is viable. It's
something that is integral to the NATO strategic doctrine. We think it
makes sense, and there's good rationale for keeping it as it is.""

Guardian - Hoon's talk of pre-emptive strikes could be catastrophic,3858,4427842,00.html
"In cold war days Britain, like Nato as a whole, opposed a policy of
no-first-use because we feared superior Warsaw pact conventional
forces might make the nuclear option imperative to save Europe. (...)

A crucial element of the treaty was the 1978 pledge by the US, Britain
and the Soviet Union never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear
states, except when they started a war in alliance with a nuclear

Creating a Cold Peace by Expanding NATO (by Gary Hart and Gordon
Humphrey, 1998)
"Moscow has lately renounced a no-first-strike policy."

Russian Nuclear Doctrine Commandand Control (by Valery Yarynich)
"In the 1960s in the list of commands of the Soviet C3 system there
was an order "Launch at designated time...". In essence, it was an
order for a preemptive strike. But as the Soviet-American contacts
developed, somewhere in the early 1970s, this command gradually
disappeared from the combat orders at command facilities, and then
from the screens of command and control equipment. Of course, it is
impossible to completely exclude the capability for the first nuclear
strike either theoretically or practically. But current operational
plans of the Russian General Staff do not have such an order. (...)

Russia lacks an official unclassified document regulating actions of
political leaders in case of a nuclear conflict."

I hope this helps!

Further references:

The Cold War

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons (by George Lindsey)

Search terms:
"first strike" policy "cold war"
"nuclear strategy" "cold war" "first strike policy"
"nuclear policy" usa ussr "cold war"
"us policy" "ussr policy" nuclear strike
"nuclear doctrine" usa ussr "cold war" history
"no first strike" policy history "cold war"
"russian nuclear doctrine"
chicobird-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $5.00

There are no comments at this time.

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy