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1974 U.S. War Game Launched 54 Nuclear Weapons in Iran to “Save” Country from Soviet Invasion, According to Declassified Document in New National Security Archive Publication

December 15, 2015
54 nukes.

A remarkable January 2, 1974, memo highlighted in the Archive’s latest document set showed optimism that “limited use” of nuclear weapons – 54 in the SCYLLA III-73 war game – could be employed for signaling to avoid a broader conflict.

On December 16, 2015, the National Security Archive will publish a new collection of more than 2,000 declassified documents on the nuclear weapons policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations. The collection – almost all of which is being published for the first time – covers a critical period in the nuclear age that had ramifications extending to the post-Cold War world, where nuclear proliferation, arms control, and regional arms races – from the Middle East to South and East Asia – remain at the core of public concerns over global security and peaceful international relations. The new set is a publication of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) with the help of our partners at ProQuest, and builds on the Archive’s earlier ProQuest publication, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955–1968.

The new collection, U.S. Nuclear History, 1969-1976: Weapons, Arms Control, and War Plans in an Age of Strategic Parity, richly documents the White House’s pursuit of a policy of achieving technological advantage over the Soviets, supporting strategic arms limitation talks, and making nuclear use threats more credible by developing limited alternatives to catastrophic nuclear exchanges. The 2,291 documents illuminate decision-making at the White House and the Defense Department, policy inputs from the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), as well as strategic intelligence analyses and reporting provided to the decision-makers. The documents will provide researchers with invaluable information on the missile and bomber deployments that embodied the devastating threats and formed the underpinnings of Cold War deterrence, as well as the war plans that were designed to make good on those threats.

The principal topics and themes documented throughout the collection are:

  • Offensive and Defense Delivery Systems;
  • Nuclear Operations: Exercises and Alerts;
  • Command, Control, and Warning;
  • Alliance Nuclear Relations;
  • Nuclear War Plans;
  • Strategic Intelligence; and
  • Strategic Arms Control.

Major document sources for the set include:

  • the Department of State;
  • White House National Security Staff;
  • the Department of Defense;
  • the Joint Chiefs of Staff;
  • the U.S. SALT Delegation;
  • the former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency;
  • and the Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Libraries.

The following document highlights from the collection contain explicit discussions of the Nixon administration’s madman theory, emerging concerns over the vulnerability of U.S. Minuteman missiles, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s worries about “nuclear affluence,” and war games in which nuclear weapons were used for “signaling.”

Madman Theory


Madmen – Kissinger’s comments on the Nixon administration’s Madman Theory in this August 10, 1972 memo.

A Top Secret August 10, 1972, memo, from Assistant Defense Secretary Gardiner L. Tucker’s files, contains one of the most explicit declassified discussions of the Madman Theory – Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s belief that they could compel “the other side” to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by seeming “crazy” enough to be willing to launch a nuclear strike. Kissinger said: the “President’s strategy has been (in the mid-East crisis, in Vietnam, etc.) to ‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.” Kissinger followed the Madman strategy during the 1973 October War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria in order to deter Soviet intervention in the crisis.

Window of Vulnerability

A Top Secret April 27, 1972, memo from Tucker to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird focuses on Soviet ICBM developments – particularly the possibility that the Soviets were developing a missile with a throw weight that was up to 1 ½ to 2 times greater than their SS-9 missiles. The increased throw weight would give the Soviets a first-strike capability against the US’s Minuteman ICBMs by affording the Soviets two RVs (reentry vehicles) per Minuteman silo, and allowing them to “preempt Minuteman with confidence.” Tucker says, “Nothing in our presently formulated interim offensive limitation proposals would preclude this replacement.” Nitze’s concerns foreshadowed exaggerations during the late 1970s and early 1980s about what was called the “window of vulnerability.”

General Polk living with the concept of "nuclear affluence".

General Polk living with the concept of “nuclear affluence”.

“Nuclear Affluence”

A memorandum of conversation from April 30, 1970, including then-German Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt, the State Department’s Director of Political-Military Affairs, Ronald Spiers, and the American Embassy in Bonn’s Jonathan Dean underscores the pressure to remove US forces from Europe and West German sensitivity about comments made by 7th Army Commander General James H. Polk about U.S. nuclear policy in Europe. During a discussion of US tactical nuclear weapons (point 5), “Schmidt said that he was absolutely opposed to the concept of pre-placing ADM’s (Atomic Demolition Munitions), pre-chambering [advance deployment] of ADM’s, or any related projects. He said he simply would not have them in Germany. He said that if the German public should ever become aware of certain American military attitudes on this subject there would be a major public controversy.” Referring to the US as an affluent society, Schmidt said that General Polk was apparently living with a concept of ‘nuclear affluence’” but Schmidt did not agree with “easy spending” of nuclear weapons.


A remarkable January 2, 1974, memo for Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger recounting the SCYLLA III-73 war game showed optimism that “limited use” of nuclear weapons could be employed for signaling to avoid a broader East-West nuclear conflict. In the SCYLLA III-73 scenario, “In June 1976, Iraqis attempt to seize disputed territory from Kuwait by force. Iran pledges support to Kuwait and invades Iraq. As fall of Baghdad becomes imminent, USSR intervenes. Soviet military elements join Iraqis as two Soviet divisions cross USSR-Iranian border south of [the] Caucasus. US intervention considered vital to save Teheran, but insufficient conventional strength immediately available. US President directs options be prepared for use of tactical nuclear weapons in Iran.” The White House authorized 85 nuclear weapons for use in the scenario and 54 were used. Following the US launch, “Red Team (USSR) response to US nuclear attack and resultant casualties was reasoned and deliberate. Moscow understood US signals/intentions. Recognizing struggle was political — contest for world supremacy — Red reacted for maximum political gain using conventional military force.”

Using nuclear weapons to avoid a broader conflict?

Using nuclear weapons to avoid a broader conflict?

If you don’t already have DNSA, sign up for a free trial today to read these and thousands of other nuclear history documents.


  1. Allan permalink
    December 27, 2015 8:05 pm

    Went for a free trial on ProQuest but the sign-up page says “Note: trials for individual users are not currently available.” There has got to be an easier way to make the documents accessible.

    Also, do you have an index of the document titles?



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