The Making of MAD

July 27, 2018

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto/White House

When Robert S. McNamara came to the Pentagon as Secretary of Defense in January 1961, he was appalled by the war plan he had inherited. In the event of an attack it called for launching US nuclear weapons in a single massive flush, which McNamara dismissed as “spasm war.” The new president, John F. Kennedy, wanted more strategic options and a “flexible response.”

McNamara moved within months to a new doctrine called “Counterforce/No Cities,” in which deterrence of nuclear war would rely on a credible US counterforce capability, targeted on the Soviet military power structure. Attack of urban areas—if resorted to at all—was a reserve secondary option. McNamara elaborated on that policy in his “No Cities” speech at Ann Arbor, Mich., in June 1962.

However, McNamara made an amazing U-turn. In February 1965, he announced a radically different strategy called “Assured Destruction,” aimed primarily at Soviet cities. Deterrence would depend on “the capability to destroy the aggressor as a viable society,” causing more than 100 million fatalities.

Assured Destruction did not require strategic superiority, not even parity. According to the computer calculations of the systems analysts on McNamara’s staff—derisively called the “Whiz Kids”—a US force that could hold Soviet urban centers and industrial capacity at risk would be enough to ensure deterrence. That result could be achieved, McNamara said, with 400 nuclear weapons “delivered on the Soviet Union” and “sufficient to destroy over one-third of her population and one-half of her industry.”

Oddly, McNamara’s proclamation in 1965 did not attract much immediate notice or comment. The big military news was from Vietnam, where US aircraft struck targets in North Vietnam for the first time in reprisal for Viet Cong attacks on American bases.

In time, the new strategy became infamous as “Mutual Assured Destruction” or “MAD”—the acronym devised in 1969 by McNamara was later amended with the mutual “M” prefix by critic Donald G. Brennan of the Hudson Institute.

McNamara did not like the pejorative term, but he came to use it himself. “It’s not mad!” he said in an interview in 1997. “Mutual Assured Destruction is the foundation of deterrence.”

Despite its notorious reputation, MAD did not actually amount to that much. McNamara never changed the target list, so MAD did not go into effect in the war plan. McNamara left the Pentagon in 1968. His successors moved away from MAD and eventually returned to counterforce.

In the years that followed, nuclear protesters typically attributed MAD to the armed forces, especially the Air Force, which in fact opposed it. MAD drew its support from the nuclear weapon minimalists who feared that counterforce might provoke the Soviet Union.

McNamara’s turnaround in 1965 is well-documented in lengthy position papers, but the logic of his shifting decisions is difficult to comprehend.

Poet Robert Frost watches McNamara speak with University of Michigan president Harlan Hatcher before the start of commencement exercises in 1962. It was here, in Ann Arbor, that McNamara gave his famous “No Cities” speech. Photo: Bentley Historical Library/University of Michigan


In the aftermath of World War II, the United States realized—even at a time when it had a monopoly on the atomic bomb—that a nuclear war was to be deterred rather than fought. Much of the early conceptual work on deterrence was done at RAND, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., established with the sponsorship of the Air Force.

The official view in the 1950s was that deterrence was best achieved by strategic superiority. Deterrence was the declared basis of the “Massive Retaliation” doctrine adopted by the Eisenhower administration in 1953.There were two basic concepts on how to employ nuclear weapons, initially known as “Counterforce” and “Countercity.”

Counterforce targeted military forces, installations, and assets.

Countercity, which was soon renamed “Countervalue,” targeted the enemy’s economy and population.

Counterforce cost more and required a more capable force. Its great champion was the Air Force. The Navy, seeking to capture the primary strategic mission from the Air Force, proposed a variation on Countervalue called “Finite Deterrence.”

According to the Navy, deterrence could be assured by holding at risk a “finite” list of urban-industrial and command centers in the heart of the Soviet Union. This could be achieved by a force of only 200 Polaris missiles launched from Navy submarines.

The Single Integrated Operational Plan—the nation’s first comprehensive nuclear war plan—was created in 1960, to go into effect in 1961. It called for firing right away the entire nuclear alert force, 1,459 weapons against 654 targets, in accordance with the Strategic Air Command’s “optimum mix.” About 80 percent of the targets were counterforce.

During his first weeks in the Pentagon, McNamara had a briefing on a Navy study called “WSEG-50,” a repackaging of Finite Deterrence that touted the merits of Polaris missiles and submarines. He also heard a presentation from William Kaufmann, a foremost advocate of counterforce and one of a coterie of RAND analysts McNamara had brought in as advisors to the Department of Defense. McNamara was impressed with what Kaufmann had to say.

In February, McNamara visited SAC headquarters for a full rundown on the SIOP by Gen. Thomas S. Power. He was reported to have been “disgusted” with both the SIOP and Power, a blunt hardliner with an acerbic personality. On his return to Washington, he ordered a revision to the SIOP for counterforce options to avoid major cities.

A B-52 armed with four air-launched nuclear missiles in 1961. That year’s SIOP called for firing off the entire alert force in the event of nuclear war. Photo: AFA/USAF


McNamara conveyed his recommendations for change to Kennedy through a series of “draft presidential memos,” or DPMs, that became policy when the president signed off on them. The first such DPM in September 1961 rejected “the extremes of a ‘minimum deterrence’ posture”—as suggested by WSEG-50 and the Navy—as well as the “full first strike” capability of the old SIOP.

“The forces I am recommending have been chosen to provide the United States with the capability, in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, first to strike back against the Soviet bomber bases and missile sites and other installations associated with long-range nuclear forces, in order to reduce Soviet power and limit the damage that can be done to us by vulnerable Soviet follow-on forces, while second, holding in protected reserve forces capable of destroying the Soviet urban society, if necessary, in a controlled and deliberate way,” McNamara said in the DPM.

Of the 1,350-2,200 target options projected by the DPM, only 200 were “urban-industrial aimpoints.” The others were counterforce: bomber bases, nuclear storage and production facilities, submarine bases, and—the largest category—450-1,300 ICBM sites.

The new policy disturbed the Europeans, especially the French, who saw it as “decoupling” of Europe from the extended US nuclear deterrent. To the Europeans, the key to their security was the threat of early escalation to massive retaliation in the event of a Soviet attack.

In his “No Cities” speech at the University of Michigan in 1962, McNamara was even more emphatic about the dangers of minimum deterrence. In focusing on the enemy’s forces instead of the civilian population, he said, “we are giving a possible opponent the strongest imaginable incentive to refrain from striking our own cities.

“Relatively weak national nuclear forces with enemy cities as their targets are not likely to be sufficient to perform even the function of deterrence,” he said, “In the event of war, the use of such a force against the cities of a major nuclear power would be tantamount to suicide, whereas its employment against significant military targets would have a negligible effect on the outcome of the conflict.

“Limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence, and lacking in credibility as a deterrent.”His conviction was not as strong as it sounded. Even before the Ann Arbor speech, McNamara had developed doubts, which were about to spill over into another change.


The Air Force, understandably enough, sought to increase its capabilities to meet the higher requirements of Counterforce/No Cities. However, Kennedy and McNamara did not want to build up the force. They wanted to cut it.

The Skybolt missile for the B-52 bomber had been killed, and the B-70 bomber was downgraded to R&D status. The Air Force’s Minuteman ICBM program was reduced from 2,000 missiles to 1,600, then to 1,000. McNamara would have cut it further if he had been able to get by with it politically.“The Air Force and, by this time, the entire JCS kept up their pressure for more weapons, rationalizing their wish lists with language deliberately modeled on the Ann Arbor speech and in McNamara’s DPMs,” said Fred Kaplan in The Wizards of Armageddon.

“Increasingly, McNamara began to fear that the counterforce strategy presented no logical limit to the size of the arsenal; that as long as targets of potentially military value could be found or so long as the Soviets added more weapons to their own arsenal, someone could always claim that we did not have enough; that his own endorsement of counterforce was promoting an unlimited nuclear arms buildup that he had gone out of his way to suppress,” Kaplan said.

McNamara decided to withdraw from “No Cities” and instructed his staff to no longer cite counterforce as the official strategic concept. The pullback was first seen in a November 1962 DPM.

“We should take all measures that offer a reasonable prospect of effectively limiting damage to ourselves and our allies in the event that deterrence fails and thermonuclear war does occur,” the DPM said. “Such measures include active antibomber and antimissile defenses and civil defenses. Strategic offensive forces can also make an important contribution by striking back against Soviet bomber bases, missile sites, and other vulnerable elements of Soviet follow-on forces.”

Thus counterforce was reduced in McNamara’s mind from the central point of the strategy to an “also” consideration, listed after the defensive measures taken to limit damage.

McNamara was not interested in US strategic superiority. In an interview with his friend and tennis partner, Stewart Alsop, for the Saturday Evening Post, he said that a nuclear exchange was more likely to be limited to military targets “when both sides have a sure second-strike capability. Then you might have a more stable balance of terror.”

A Minuteman missile during an R&D test flight in 1961. Photo: SSgt. Scott Christ/AFA


McNamara turned again to the RAND enclave in the Pentagon for a new look at deterrence. Alain C. Enthoven, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis, and staffer Frank Grinkl designed a computer program to analyze the capabilities actually required to forestall a Soviet attack.

They gave McNamara a cold-blooded answer on how much was enough. “The ability to destroy in retaliation 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of its industrial capacity was sufficient,” Enthoven said, and that could be done with a US force much smaller than the one needed for Counterforce/No Cities.

In a December 1963 DPM, McNamara named this concept “Assured Destruction” and said it would “give us a high degree of confidence that, under all foreseeable conditions, we can deter a calculated deliberate nuclear attack.”In early 1964, McNamara received a report on the combined effects of counterforce and defensive measures to limit damage from Air Force Brig.

Gen. Glenn A. Kent, who was assigned to the Defense Department directorate of Research and Engineering. According to Kent’s studies, civil defense and missile defense could limit US losses in an attack, but the Soviets could offset any such gains at an expense of two-thirds less on additional offensive forces.McNamara committed himself to a strategy of assured destruction in a DPM on Dec. 3, 1964. Damage limitation was a distant second in consideration and counterforce had become a minor planning factor. McNamara reported on the new strategy in a presentation to Congress in February 1965 and thereafter expounded regularly on it.

In a speech in San Francisco in September 1967, McNamara declared that assured destruction was “the cornerstone of our strategic policy” and “the very essence of the whole deterrence concept.”

“Our alert forces alone carry more than 2,200 weapons, each averaging more than the explosive equivalent of one megaton of TNT,” he said. “Four hundred of these delivered on the Soviet Union would be sufficient to destroy over one-third of her population and one-half of her industry.”

That, of course, was precisely the strategy and targeting concept he described at Ann Arbor as dangerous and lacking in credibility.

In McNamara’s last posture statement before leaving office in 1968, he told Congress, “To put it bluntly, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States can now attack the other, even by complete surprise, without suffering massive damage in retaliation. … It is precisely this mutual capability to destroy one another and, conversely, our respective in ability to prevent such destruction, that provides both of us with the strongest possible motive to avoid a strategic nuclear war.”

Strangely, Assured Destruction was “never a US strategic ‘doctrine’ in the military sense of the term,” said McNamara’s biographer, Deborah Shapley. “It was not put into the war plans. McNamara never went back to change the SIOP to allow the president to execute Assured Destruction—a retaliatory strike limited to Soviet cities and industry. Actual targets of US forces remained overwhelmingly programmed for counterforce.” McNamara never made this clear in his pronouncements.


Mutual Assured Destruction soon lost its following, except among academic theorists and antinuclear activists in Congress and elsewhere who warned that any improvement to US strategic forces might incite the Soviet Union to launch a surprise attack.

“The doctrine of ‘assured destruction’ led to the extraordinary conclusion that the vulnerability of our civilian population was an asset reassuring the Soviet Union and guaranteeing its restraint in a crisis,” said Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon administration. “For the first time, a major country saw an advantage in enhancing its own vulnerability.”

Nixon’s first Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, did not directly repudiate the assured destruction concept, but the strategic forces kept using the targeting prescriptions in the SIOP.

“We never targeted a city as such,” said Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, commander in chief of Strategic Air Command from 1974 to 1977. “We had many targets, discrete targets inside a city, the effect of which would be to destroy that city by peripheral effects. As our weapons got better, we could limit that collateral damage very considerably. But Moscow was a lucrative target because that was the heart of the command and control and anybody that thinks the command and control is not part of the military structure doesn’t understand the military structure, and it had to be taken out.”

In 1965, McNamara had opined that “there is no indication that the Soviets are seeking to develop a nuclear force as large as ours.” He guessed wrong. The United States abandoned the goal of strategic superiority but the Soviets did not. The US ICBM force was frozen at 1,054 missiles. The Soviets achieved parity around 1969, then built their force to 1,440 and fielded four new ICBMs with significant gains in capability.

Faced with that relentless challenge, the United States returned to an avowed counterforce doctrine, definitively so in 1980 with the “Countervailing” strategy of the Carter administration. Ironically, the prime architect of that policy was Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, who had been on McNamara’s team in the Pentagon from 1961 onward as director of defense research and engineering and then as Secretary of the Air Force.


Until his death in 2009, McNamara wrote and spoke in defense of MAD. “Today it’s a derogative term, but those that denigrate it don’t understand deterrence,” he said in an appearance on CNN’s “Cold War” series in 1998. “It’s not mad, it’s logical.”

For “MAD is Not Bad” in the New Perspectives Quarterly in 2000, he said, “There is no other basis for stability of deterrence between two nuclear-equipped opponents than the confidence on each side that they have the capability to absorb a first strike from the other side with sufficient weapons surviving to inflict unacceptable damage on the opponent when launching a second strike.”

Writing in Foreign Policy (“Apocalypse Soon”) in 2005, he said that, “for decades US nuclear forces have been sufficiently strong to absorb a first strike and then inflict ‘unacceptable’ damage on an opponent. That has been and (so long as we face a nuclear armed adversary) must continue to be the foundation of our nuclear deterrent.”

However, the official history of the McNamara years published by the Office of the Secretary of Defense quotes a 1986 interview in which McNamara said he did not intend the Ann Arbor speech to reflect “a shift to counterforce doctrine, but rather a statement of policy, which we hoped would influence the Soviets.”

“I never did believe in counterforce per se,” he said. “What I was trying to suggest without labeling it as such was a damage-limiting strategy premised on attacking military targets as opposed to population centers.”

In his Foreign Policy article, he said, “To launch weapons against a nuclear-equipped opponent would be suicidal,” a conviction he claimed to have held from his first days as Secretary of Defense to the end of his tenure. “Although I believe Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson shared my view, it was impossible for any of us to make such statements publicly because they were totally contrary to established NATO policy.”

Taken in sum, the body of McNamara’s statements, writings, and explanations leave open the question of what his core beliefs really were—or, indeed, if he had any.