35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Reagan's Nuclear War Briefing Declassified

Published: Dec 22, 2016
Briefing Book #575

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact
William Burr: 202/994-7000 and nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Kremlin Leaders Among Prime Targets in War Plan

President Told Nuclear Exchange Could Kill 80 Million Americans

War Plan Briefing Linked with Nuclear Command Post and Continuity of Government Exercises

Ronald Reagan and Nuclear War: The SIOP Briefing and IVY LEAGUE 82*

On 26 February 1982, one of the most nuclear-averse of Cold War presidents, Ronald Reagan, received his first full briefing on U.S. plans for waging nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Reagan would be told that primary targets for the war plans would be “nuclear threat, conventional threat, and economic/industrial targets,” but also “leadership,” indicating that Soviet political and military leaders and their offices and bomb shelters would be major targets. The detailed outline of the briefing, recently declassified from the files of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David Jones, is published today for the first time by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Reagan received the briefing on the eve of a major Pentagon nuclear command post exercise, IVY LEAGUE 82, which – combined with two other exercises, REX 82 ALPHA and NINE LIVEs – were designed to practice decision-making for U.S. plans to wage nuclear war and to test procedures for preserving continuity of government, including presidential successors, during a world war.

Thomas C. Reed, a national security aide who would serve as “stage manager” for the briefings, wrote that educating President Reagan on the SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) and the RISOP (Red Integrated Strategic Offensive Plan) was “absolutely essential”: The briefings, which would spell out SIOP target priorities and the available nuclear attack options, were a “must for the safety of the country as well as his own.” They would also help Reagan better understand the IVY LEAGUE/NINE LIVES exercises.

Reflecting the Cold War tensions of the time, the briefing outline, originally classified Top Secret, posited possible Soviet acts of aggression, “what the Russians could do to us,” with a possible conflict escalating to nuclear strikes on the United States. According to the briefing, without civil defense a massive Soviet attack could kill 80 million Americans. Whether Washington could quickly respond, Reagan would be told, would depend on the state of “current relocation facilities in the ‘National Arc’ (the alternate Military Command Center, Special Facility [at Mount Weather, VA] and some of your own emergency locations.” Those installations were likely to be targeted. Reagan and his advisers were not yet aware that the Soviets had similar fears of a surprise attack and were searching for intelligence that could warn them of a U.S. attack.

“[H]ow much of our response capability is destroyed” would also determine the “overall issue of when we launch a retaliatory strike.” In the event of a Soviet first strike, the United States could respond with the SIOP’s Major Attack Options (MAOs) which would target combinations of Soviet targets, including nuclear forces, conventional military, industrial complexes, and political controls.

The scenario for the combined IVY LEAGUE 82/NINE LIVES/REX 82 ALPHA exercises remains classified, but declassified information about them is published here for the first time, including:

  • A Joint Staff memorandum that IVY LEAGUE 82 would involve “a nuclear strike ... on targets in North America.” The United States would retaliate with a “simulated execution of appropriate SIOP options.”
  • President Reagan’s invitation to former Secretary of State William P. Rogers to participate in IVY LEAGUE.
  • A review by CIA officials of the IVY LEAGUE and NINE LIVES exercises. According to an unnamed Agency official, NINE LIVES was “a hodgepodge of both realistic and implausible play. The idea of some 30 people somehow managing a global conventional and nuclear conflict, complex foreign relations with innumerable countries, and a nation of 250 million people (although, as one wag pointed out, it became a country of considerably fewer people as the exercise progressed), is – to say the least – daunting.”


Chronology of Reagan Briefings

All of Ronald Reagan’s predecessors, beginning with President John F. Kennedy, had received a SIOP briefing. sometimes early in their presidency. For example, Kennedy received his in September 1961, some months after the very first SIOP had gone into effect. Richard M. Nixon, however, received his in January 1969, only days after the inauguration.[1] As commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces, the president had constitutional authority over nuclear weapons, control of which was exercised through special procedures. These procedures, which a president would learn to use, included the “football” or briefcase, carried by a military assistant that contained the nuclear use options and procedures (including special access codes), and special nuclear launch authorization codes. Moreover, with growing apprehension about the vulnerability of the president to a Soviet surprise attack, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan would have to learn about emergency procedures designed to protect the president and presidential successors during a nuclear war. [2]

The outline of the SIOP/RISOP briefing includes a chronology of Reagan’s education in nuclear command-and-control arrangements during his first year in office. Just before his inauguration, JCS Chairman David Jones discussed with him “our nuclear forces and their relationship to the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SlOP).” Also before the inauguration, a White House military aide, Major John Kline, USMC, provided “an overview of the White House Emergency Plans (WHEP) and described some of the communications procedures that we would use in the event of an attack.”[3]

The attempted assassination and Reagan’s physical recovery may have delayed further briefings, but in mid-November 1981 the president took what amounted to an accelerated course in command-and-control. On 15 November, on his way back from Texas, he flew on the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) and received a briefing by General Philip Gast (J-3) on the National Military Command System (NMCCS).[4] The following day, Major Kline provided him with additional detail concerning the “black bag” (or “suitcase” as the “football” was also known). Finally, on 17 November, Reagan met with JCS Chairman Jones at the National Military Command Center (NMCC) for a briefing on U.S. Strategic Forces and a run-through of a simulated missile attack conference.

As commander-in-chief, the president was (and is) at the apex of civilian control over the military, but in the area of nuclear weapons planning, civilian and presidential authority had eroded over time as war planning and command-and-control arrangements became more complex and more secret, even to civilian officials with a need to know. For example, some of the options that were theoretically available to President Reagan, according to the outline of the briefing, had in fact been dismissed by military leaders. For example, “withholds” (exclusions) of certain target types (e.g., capital cities) were not available and launch-under-attack (LUA) was not an option either; it had become virtually automatic. Both withholds and LUA options had been included in previous presidential directives and guidance from secretaries of defense but, as political scientist Peter Feaver has explained, the tight secrecy surrounding targeting policy hid “serious errors or deviations from national strategy,”[5]



Reagan’s aides did not believe that he knew enough about the SIOP and related procedures in a nuclear crisis, so during February 1982 the new national security adviser, William Clark, made arrangements for the president to receive a fuller briefing. In addition, the dates for a high level nuclear command post exercise, IVY LEAGUE 82, were approaching (1-5 March 1982) and national security officials believed that Reagan needed more information on the SIOP so he could better understand the exercise when he sat in on some of the sessions. Reagan had already been involved to the extent of signing off on a letter to former Secretary of State Rogers to play the role of the U.S. president during IVY LEAGUE. Former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms acted as vice president.

IVY LEAGUE 82 dovetailed with two other secret exercises: NINE LIVES (continuity of the presidency) and REX 82 ALPHA (continuity of government). By combining all three exercises, the Reagan administration sought to test the capability of the U.S. government to maintain basic functions and a legitimate chain of command during a nuclear war. That the IVY LEAGUE scenario envisioned a preemptive attack on Washington, D.C. killing the president provided an opportunity to test the NINE LIVES exercises (begun under President Jimmy Carter), which involved the dispersal of potential presidential successors and key government officials to secret locations during crises. For the Reagan administration, developing a capability to maintain continuity of presidential authority during a nuclear crisis could be as much a “deterrent to nuclear war as building new strategic nuclear weapons systems.” [6]

What Reagan thought about the SIOP briefing and IVY LEAGUE remains unknown. When he came to office, his strong anti-Communism was famous; the same could not be said about his deep feelings, which he had held for years, about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Reagan was personally interested in finding ways to abolish them and to reduce their threat (e.g., through missile defense). He was especially hostile to the notion that he might have to make nuclear use decisions in a crisis; indeed, before he became president top advisers wondered whether he would order nuclear retaliation in response to warning of a Soviet missile strike on the United States. Given Reagan’s antipathy to nuclear weapons, it is possible that SIOP briefings increased his anti-nuclear sentiments.[7]

Whatever Reagan’s personal feelings about the SIOP were, they did not get in the way of his approval of detailed continuity of government arrangements in the event that nuclear war or some other emergency occurred. In September 1982, he signed off on National Security Decision Directive 55: “Enduring Government Leadership.” Still highly classified, the NSDD included the NINE LIVES concept of dispersing and hiding future presidents in order to prevent a nuclear strike on Washington from destabilizing presidential authority.[8]

Sharper understanding at high levels of the grave danger of nuclear war was one consequence of a Defense Department nuclear war game that occurred in mid-1983. In the “Proud Prophet” game, among the lead players were JCS Chairman John W. Vessey and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger. According to Paul Bracken’s account, during the game Vessey and Weinberger followed standard policies constructed for crises; as a U.S.-Soviet conflict escalated, their actions initiated a major nuclear war. “The result was a catastrophe” in which “a half billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation.” Bracken argues that Proud Prophet had a chastening and moderating impact on the Reagan administration’s rhetoric and thinking about nuclear war, but much needs to be learned about the game and its impact. The Product Prophet report remains massively excised and it is unknown even if or when Weinberger briefed Reagan on it.[9]

While Reagan’s security advisers contemplated the risk of a Soviet surprise attack, they were slow to appreciate the extent to which the Soviet leadership had parallel fears about the United States: that Washington would launch a first strike on the Soviet Union. Beginning early in the Reagan administration, Moscow launched Operation RYAN to use its intelligence resources to detect signs of U.S. military preparations. The war scare continued during the course of 1983, and heightened during the fall, especially in connection with NATO military exercises, notably Able Archer 83. The Reagan administration initially dismissed the war scare but took it more seriously later as it began to understand the extent to which some U.S. actions had intensified it. Anxious to steer U.S. policy away from dangerous crises that raised the risk of nuclear conflict, Reagan slowly began to seek détente, which by 1985-1986 was facilitated by the emergence of a willing Soviet partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was through this dialogue that the two sides tried, but failed, to make progress on nuclear abolition, although they succeeded in removing medium-range missiles from deployments of nuclear forces.[10]

No doubt disappointed by his failure to abolish nuclear weapons, Reagan was constrained to carry the nuclear launch codes (“biscuit”) until his last day in office. But on that day, he was anxious to get rid of the authentication card so that particular burden would no longer trouble him. According to Time magazine correspondent Hugh Sidey’s account, Reagan wanted to get rid of the biscuit, but his national security adviser, Lt. General Colin Powell, told him: “You can’t get rid of it yet.” Reagan had to wait until George H. W. Bush was sworn into the presidency before the ex-president could hand it off to a military aide.[11]

More may be learned about ‘IVY LEAGUE 82 as declassification proceeds. Declassification review of numerous Reagan Library documents on IVY LEAGUE 82 has been requested, although only a handful have been produced (Documents 8, 9, and 10 below). Moreover, heavily excised documents from the David Jones files at the National Archives are presently under appeal.

*Thanks to Thomas C. Reed for background information.



Document 1: Report by the J-3 to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Exercise Ivy League, 6 April 1981, Secret

Source: National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (hereinafter RG 218), 1981 Records of the Joint Staff, box 25, 385 (05 May 81) Sec. 1

According to the Joint Staff, IVY LEAGUE 82 was an exercise “to simulate the “execution of SlOP and non-SlOP options,” but also Canadian-U.S. (CANUS) military plans, “logistic procedures, tactical warning, attack assessment, military support to civil defense and WWMCCS [World Wide Military Command and Control System].” This document sheds light on the long lead time for exercises such as IVY LEAGUE 82: the initial planning and scheduling stretched back to the Carter administration, very early 1979 and possibly late 1978 and the exercise was scheduled for early March 1982. “Developing Presidential interest” in the results of the 1980 NINE LIVES continuity-of-government exercise made Joint Staff planners expect the involvement of senior civilian and Pentagon in the IVY LEAGUE 82 exercise.

Document 2: Major General Charles Dyke, Vice Director, Joint Staff, to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE 82,” 18 May 1981, Secret

Source: RG 218, 1981 Records of the Joint Staff, box 25, 385 (05 May 81) Sec. 1

A month later, the Joint Staff informed the secretary of defense about IVY LEAGUE 82, telling him that it was a “selected procedural command post exercise … designed to exercise participants and appropriate plans, evaluate WWMCCS, and test procedures during the nuclear pre-attack and trans-attack periods.” Accompanying the memorandum were draft memoranda to the secretary of state and director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration briefing them on the IVY LEAGUE 82 plan.

According to the memorandum to the secretary of state, IVY LEAGUE 82 will involve “a nuclear strike ... on targets in North America.” The United States would retaliate with a “simulated execution of appropriate SIOP options.” The exercise’s “primary emphasis will be placed on command and control, SIOP execution, and the initial phases of reconstitution and redirection of military forces and civil government.”

Document 3: Note by the Joint Secretariat to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Exercise “Ivy League 82,” enclosing memoranda from the Secretary of Defense, 13 July 1981, Secret

Source: RG 218, 1981 Records of the Joint Staff, box 25, 385 (05 May 81) Sec. 1

In July 1981, Weinberger sent memoranda about IVY LEAGUE 82 to Secretary of State Alexander Haig and FEMA Director Louis O. Giuffrida along with the annexes that had been prepared by the Joint Staff. Weinberger informed Haig that the IVY LEAGUE “exercise play … will require a level of participation beyond that normally furnished by the Department of State.” He therefore asked Haig to provide “appropriate personnel to participate in this important exercise.” Because IVY LEAGUE 82 would occur at the same time as a continuity of government exercise, REX 82 ALPHA, the two activities would “focus on complex issues associated with command, control, and communications, and the initial reconstitution and redirection of military forces and civil government.”

Document 4: Document Processing Record, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE,” 24 August 1981, with attachments, secret, excised copy under appeal

Source: RG 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 30, 385 Exercises

By August 1981, the concepts and the scenario for IVY LEAGUE 82 had been developed. They remain substantially excised from this group of reports, but JCS Chairman Jones liked what he read and approved “the basic concepts.”

Document 5: JCS Chairman David Jones memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE 82,” 29 December 1981, Confidential

Source: Defense Department FOIA Release

With this memorandum, JCS Chairman Jones officially invited Weinberger to participate in IVY LEAGUE 82. He could also take part in a senior players’ briefing on 24 February and Exercise PETITE LEAGUE on 27 February 1982, a forum for decision-makers to “discuss nuclear-related decisions in period of rising tension and general war.”

Document 6: Joint Chiefs of Staff Memorandum for Distribution, “OJCS Transportation, Billeting, Messing and Supply – Exercise “IVY LEAGUE 82,” 25 January 1982, Confidential, Excised Copy

Source: Defense Department FOIA Release

Ivy League participants from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be lodged in a location whose name has been excised from this document. In a likely reference to underground bunkers, the location was warm and humid and “short sleeves are recommended.” That location may have been the High Point Facility at Mount Weather. The participants were also “required to bring their own towels, shower clogs, toilet articles, etc.”

Document 7: Memorandum from Under Secretary of Defense Richard Stilwell to the Secretary of Defense, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE,” 30 January 1982, Secret, Excised copy

Source: Defense Department FOIA Release

In correspondence with Weinberger about the secretary’s participation in IVY LEAGUE 82, JCS Chairman Jones suggested that Weinberger invite President Reagan and Vice President Bush to “observe certain IVY LEAGUE activities.” Some of the recommendations about Reagan and Bush’s involvement are excised but possibly related to the NINE LIVES continuity-of-the-presidency exercise mentioned in Document 10. Stillwell observed that if Reagan and Bush participated, it would “add emphasis and realism to the exercise, and would further educate the NCA [National Command Authority] in potential crisis roles.” Although Reagan had made a verbal commitment to take part in the exercise, Stilwell recommended making “the invitations matters of record.”

Document 8: Memorandum from Thomas C. Reed and Oliver North to William Clark, “Presidential Letter to William P. Rogers on Exercise Participation,” 3 February 1982, Top Secret

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Security Council Executive Secretariat, Subject Files, box 58, Military Exercises (02/01/1982-02/10/1982)

Thomas Reed, who had served as secretary of the Air Force during 1976-1977, had known Clark and Reagan for years and had joined the White House staff to work on nuclear affairs. Oliver North, who would become notorious for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, had responsibilities at the White House for continuity-of-government arrangements (about which he would never testify in public). When White House and Pentagon officials made plans for IVY LEAGUE 82 they asked former Secretary of State William P. Rogers to play the role of the U.S. president and he agreed. Former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms would serve as the surrogate vice president. During the exercise, the White House Situation Room would be the “site for the surrogate NSC meetings.”

Document 9: Thomas C. Reed to Michael Deaver, “President's Participation in March 1-5 Exercises,” 4 February 1982, Top Secret

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Security Council Executive Secretariat, Subject Files, box 56, Military Exercises (01/13/1982-01/27/1982)

By early February, President Reagan was scheduled to observe the IVY LEAGUE 82 state of play in the White House Situation Room on 1 March and to participate in a telephone call on 5 March, the last day of the exercise, when he was at his ranch. What concerned Reed was that Reagan had not had not yet received full briefings on the SIOP, the RISOP, and the White House Emergency Plan (WHEP). The latter concerned arrangements for the emergency evacuation of the president if war broke out. Such briefings were “absolutely essential”: a “must for the safety of the country as well as his own, and because he will understand the March 1-5 exercise better if he has been briefed.” Reed later wrote, that “Given [Reagan’s] personal distaste for the subject, I was impressed with his prompt approval and agreement to participate.”[12]

Document 10: Memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci to President Reagan, “IVY LEAGUE,” 8 February 1982, Secret

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Security Council Executive Secretariat, Subject Files, box 56, Military Exercises (02/01/1982-02/10/1982)

The formal invitation to President Reagan that Stillwell had recommended went out within a few days. After informing him of the schedule for the simultaneous playing of IVY LEAGUE

82, NINE LIVES, and REX 82 ALPHA during 1-5 March 1982, Deputy Secretary Frank Carlucci made a request: that the president give his “support in having appropriate level surrogates play as required in the exercise.” He also made an invitation: because IVY LEAGUE “provides an excellent opportunity for you to observe SIOP execution,” Carlucci asked the president to “observe the SIOP decision process from 1845 to 1915 hours on Thursday, March 4th.” Apparently, Carlucci did not know that Reagan had been scheduled to observe an earlier phase of the exercise on 1 March. Carlucci also invited Vice President Bush to fly in the NEACP during the same part of IVY LEAGUE. According to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, Bush did not participate in that aspect of IVY LEAGUE 82, but the White House arranged for Richard Helms to serve as surrogate vice president for the exercise.[13]

Document 11: Memorandum from Colonel Michael Wheeler, Staff Secretary, National Security Council, to Major General Carl R. Smith, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, “Request for Briefings,” 12 February 1982, with cover memo from Captain Eric McVadon to JCS Chairman Jones, 16 February 1982, Secret

Source: RG 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 16, NSC 2 Feb 82-31 March 82

By the time of this memo, former Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark had recently become national security adviser (in the wake of Richard V. Allen’s resignation), and National Security Council staff secretary Col. Michael Wheeler sought arrangements to bring Clark up to speed on nuclear weapons policy issues. Wheeler asked JCS Chairman Jones for a wide-ranging set of briefings that covered U.S. strategic forces (offensive and defensive), nuclear war plans and their evolution, and a “briefing on how NCA options are presented under crisis conditions.” Wheeler also wanted Clark to receive an explanation of how “tactical warning and attack assessment displays … would support NCA decision making in a crisis.” The briefings would be delivered in the National Military Command and Control Center in the Pentagon. The preferred date was in a week, 19 February.

As Captain Eric McVadon, a member of the JCS Chairman’s Staff Group, observed, what Wheeler was asking for was a “big order on very short notice.” Nevertheless, the briefing was arranged and apparently was highly successful (see next document).

Document 12: William P. Clark to Secretary of Defense Weinberger and JCS Chairman David Jones, “National Defense/Security Briefings,” 23 February 1982, enclosing detailed outline of “Presidential Briefing” on “Nuclear Operations,” Top Secret

Source: RG 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 16, NSC 2 Feb 82-31 March 82

Clark’s satisfaction with the Pentagon briefing on 19 February motivated him to ask Jones and Weinberger for a one-hour SIOP/RISOP briefing for the president, a request that addressed Thomas Reed’s concern about the necessity for such an event. With this memorandum, Clark enclosed a detailed outline/script for the proposed meeting, with the names of Pentagon briefers who had been selected by staffers at the White House Military Office (directed by Edward V. Hickey).

According to the outline, Reagan had received short briefings on the SIOP, the NEACP, and the “suitcase,” but needed more information to “enhance [his] understanding of nuclear operations so he emerges with an integrated picture of our nuclear forces, vulnerabilities and his role in controlling a U.S. response to attack.” The briefing would help him understand “the linkage of the issues” and strengthen his knowledge of the “critical role [he plays] in an attack and response.” It would also provide Reagan with “essential information” needed for understanding the IVY LEAGUE 82 exercise.

Thomas Reed would serve as “stage manager” during the briefing, introducing the briefers and summarizing the issues. In line with Cold War assumptions that the Soviets were the aggressive force in world affairs, in comments prior to the RISOP briefing, Reed would concede that it was impossible to predict how an attack would begin but he mentioned the possibility of a “strike out of the blue,” with Moscow “having decided that time was running against [it] and hoping that a forceful attack on our nerve centers would disable our ability to respond at all.” A Soviet strike could “follow an armed conflict in Poland, Cuba, or at sea;” Soviet “first use of strategic nuclear weapons might follow an escalatory conventional war” that spiraled into tactical nuclear exchanges (the possibility that the U.S. could use nuclear weapons first was blurred here).

Target Categories and Forces

The discussion of SIOP “Targeting Objectives” identifies major target categories, several of which have been central to nuclear planning since early in the Cold War: “nuclear threat, conventional threat, and economic/industrial targets.” A newer category, “leadership,” headed the list; this was consistent with President Jimmy Carter’s PD-59, which included the “political control system” as a target. and President Reagan’s National Security Decision Directive 13 (still classified). For years, war planners had treated military headquarters and structures linked to command-and-control systems as part of the complex of military targets, but the Carter and Reagan administrations significantly raised the priority given to targeting the Soviet political leadership. Key individuals and officials in major political and policymaking bodies would be targeted, but also the lines of communications and facilities through which the leadership maintained control, including protective shelters. U.S. war planners saw such targeting as a particularly harsh threat and as far less subject to moral and political qualms than directly targeting civilian population centers. Leadership targeting involved complex challenges, e.g., could the targets be identified and how could a war be terminated if the leadership had been destroyed. To deal with the latter problem, PD-59 stipulated that target withholds could be created for leadership targets so that they could be avoided if the President so ordered.[14]

The discussion of forces available to strike targets referred to “day-to-day” or “alert forces” or “generated” forces. The “day-to-day” “alert” forces were the missiles and bombers that were on routine ground alert, ready for quick launch, within seconds (Minuteman ICBMS) or minutes (Strategic Air Command bombers). Other forces that were not on alert could be “generated,” that is, prepared so they were ready for combat use.

SIOP Options

The items that followed “SIOP Structure/Options” included a reference to “Building Blocks,” a planning concept that developed during the Carter administration when Defense Department officials tried to find ways to maximize flexibility in the SIOP. Individual targets in the various categories, e.g. a Soviet ICBM base or a bomber base or an industrial complex or factory, could be treated as “building blocks” for constructing smaller or larger attack options. According to guidance signed by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in late 1980, “the building block approach places emphasis on the individual elements, their objective utility, and our ability to employ them separately or in total.” That approach could also be used for improvising attack options during a crisis; according to Brown: using building blocks provides an “ability to design employment plans on short notice in response to the latest and changing circumstances”

For rapid use, presumably under surprise attack conditions, three options were available from the “day-to-day alert posture.” According to the briefing, the options were: 1) Major Attack Options (MAOs), 2) Launch Under Attack Option (LUA), and 3) Optional Withhold Categories. The MAOs were the massive nuclear attacks that had been part of U.S. war plans for years. Although the details are secret, the MAOs apparently involved a choice of strikes involving hundreds of bombers and ICBMs, perhaps over a thousand, on significant target sets, by themselves or in combination, e.g. nuclear forces only, nuclear forces plus conventional forces only, or those forces plus industrial targets in the Soviet bloc

The “Optional Withhold” category referred to the exclusion of specific countries or cities from the attack. For example, if some Eastern European countries, such as Poland or Romania, were not in the war they could be spared from attack. Reagan may have been told something to the effect that cities such as Moscow or leadership could be taken off the target list so Washington could communicate with leaders in Moscow or elsewhere. In the event of war with China, attacks on Beijing could be withheld. Nevertheless, city withholds did not then exist in any meaningful sense. By the early 1980s, and probably earlier, the city withholds were not available because, according to former Defense Department official Frank Miller, the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff had defined a “city” in “such a manner that had the President ordered a strike that included the cities withhold, all of those cities would nevertheless been obliterated.”[15]

In the event the launch of Soviet ICBMs was detected more or less instantly by Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, a Launch Under Attack (LUA) option was putatively available, which would permit immediate retaliation by ICBMs against a predetermined target set. This option, which had become officially available in President Jimmy Carter’s PD 59, was problematic and potentially highly risky because of the danger of erroneous warning intelligence (a problem that had already manifested itself in false NORAD alerts in 1979 and 1980). According to Bruce Blair’s account, LUA began as a selective nuclear option involving only Minutemen ICBMs, but later became a Major Attack Option by including large numbers of bombers, ICBMs and SLBMs. Whether this was the situation by February 1982 remains to be learned.[16]

In spite of what President Reagan may have been told in the briefing, a LUA option was not available to the president. Seeing the LUA option in presidential directives as an intrusion in “a strictly military issue,” the JTPS saw launch on warning as a matter of military discretion, without interference from civilians. It was not until later in the 1980s that President Reagan had a true LUA option.[17]

Smaller SIOP Options

Other SIOP options were available, but their use required the generation of forces in advance. Selective Attack Options (SAOs) were MAO subsets and consisted of targets grouped by function, e.g. nuclear forces, conventional forces, industrial complexes, and command-and-control installations. Basic Attack Options (BAO) were subsets of the SAOs, also structured functionally and presumably even smaller in number. In terms of the “building block” concept BAOs would be aggregated to produce SAOs.

Other options were strikes on China and North Korea, which otherwise were not part of the SIOP. Another specific option was the “Secure Reserve Force”, which involved setting aside a specific number of ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could be used to hold Soviet urban targets hostage for bargaining purposes during a conflict.

That options such as SAOs and BAOs could be discussed was the result of the ongoing search for greater flexibility and more choices by U.S. presidents and their advisers going back to the Kennedy administration and accelerating during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Richard Nixon had decried the horrifyingly destructive SIOP options and Pentagon officials sought to follow through on presidential directives by requesting limited, smaller nuclear strike options that could be used to control escalation during a nuclear crisis. Yet, the truly limited options that presidents and secretaries of defense had had sought did not exist: according to Pentagon strategist Frank Miller, “the implementation of the plans was absolutely inconsistent with the intent of national nuclear policy, as the Soviet leadership would have been unable to determine that a ‘limited U.S. option’ was not a major strategic attack.” Indeed, if the Soviets themselves made a limited attack, the only options available to the President for immediate use were the huge Major Attack Options. Limited options did not become available until the late 1980s after Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger had insisted that smaller-scale attack options be made available.[18]

Execution Capabilities

After the discussion of the SIOP options, the briefer, Colonel Ken Baker from the Joint Staff, would discuss “Execution Capabilities,” which touched upon the problems of “attack warning” and “threat assessment.” Both depended upon high quality and timely information, but “confidence” was especially important for the problem of warning of attack because of the danger of mistaken warning intelligence. A key issue for the President’s SIOP decision and the distribution of the Emergency Action Message [EAM] was “time availability”: warning of an SLBM attack was only a matter of minutes while warning of an ICBM attack was around 25 minutes. Time was fleeting for decision-making, no doubt especially for the undescribed “Surprise Attack Response Procedures [SARP].”

The outline of “Execution Capabilities” elided one issue. The existence of retaliatory SIOP options for retaliatory purposes was clear enough in the briefing outline, but historically the SIOP had included a preemptive option, for use if the intelligence system had provided “strategic warning” of Soviet plans to launch an attack, e.g., political intelligence indicating a launch decision. Yet, as Bruce Blair has noted, the preemptive option had “withered on the vine” because of the great danger of a “terrible miscalculation.” For strategic planners, the preferred alternative to preemption was launch-on-warning despite its own serious risks. Whether the briefing to Reagan even mention a preemptive option remains to be disclosed.[19]

The briefing outline does not mention whether the presentation included any discussion of the effects of nuclear weapons. According to Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire, the U.S. Air Force’s World War II experience had prompted target planners during and after the Cold War to emphasize blast effects when they estimated the destruction caused by nuclear weapons. The resulting “blast frame” of mind minimized the significant devastation caused by other nuclear weapons effects, such as radiation and mass fires. Given the history of targeting methodology, it is quite possible that anything said to Reagan about estimated casualties and destruction would significantly underestimate the physical destructiveness of nuclear forces.

Glossary of Abbreviations in the SIOP/RISOP Briefing Outline

A/C - Aircraft

JSTPS - Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, located at Offutt Air Base (Nebraska), responsible for designing the SIOP.

EAM – Emergency Action Message from the National Command Authority (President, Secretary of Defense) to military commanders ordering the use of nuclear weapons

EMP – Electro-magnetic pulse caused by a high-altitude nuclear explosion that could disrupt and disable the power grid and electronic communications

ICBM -Intercontinental ballistic missile

NCA -National Command Authority (President and Secretary of Defense)

RV - Reentry vehicle on ballistic missile -

SLBM – Submarine launched ballistic missile

Document 13: The Daily Diary of President Ronald Reagan, 26 February 1982, excised copy

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, The President’s Daily Diary

At 2:11 p.m. on 26 February, President Reagan went to the Situation Room for a “special briefing.” The subject is excised from the calendar, but this was very likely the RISOP/SIOP briefing that had been scheduled for that day. How closely the briefing corresponded to the outline that Thomas Reed prepared in advance is a question that may someday be answered.

According to Reed’s account, on the next day, Saturday 27 February, Reagan received a briefing on “how he would get information in times of nuclear crisis, how we would protect him personally, and how he would communicate messages back out to the forces. We described the ways in which the start of nuclear hostilities might appear, the times available for response, and the forces at his disposal for counterattack and/ or withhold.” Reagan’s daily diary does not mention any such meeting on Saturday, but it may have been off the books. In any event, according to Reed, “Reagan absorbed the discussions well. From his questions, we knew he was working to understand the incredible consequences of a nuclear exchange.”[20]

Document 14: The Daily Diary of President Ronald Reagan, 1 March 1982

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, The President’s Daily Diary

On 1 March 1982, the IVY LEAGUE command post exercise began in conjunction with NINE LIVES and. REX 82 ALPHA, Part of the action involved meetings in the White House Situation Room, with William P. Rogers acting as president, while Richard Helms played the role of vice president. While news of the event leaked from “high government officials” to the Wall Street Journal a few weeks later, the details of the exercise, even the scenario, remain classified. According to the Journal, a U.S.-Soviet conflict developed in the context of a deteriorating world situation, with attacks on U.S. forces in South Korea, Southwest Asia, and Europe. The Soviets used chemical weapons in attacks on U.S. forces and a nuclear weapon against a U.S. ship in the Atlantic. The president ordered the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a response to the chemical attack.

Communications on the Hot Line during the exercise failed and on the fourth day the Soviet Union launched a massive 5,000-megaton nuclear attack on the United States, involving a “decapitation strike” on Washington and the “federal command structure.” With President Rogers killed in the White House, Vice President Helms on board the NEACP (whether physically or figuratively is not clear) ordered a SIOP attack on the Soviet Union, presumably involving one of the Major Attack Options. According to a separate, unsourced, account, after Helms gave the order, “there was applause among the players.”[21]

On the first day of IVY LEAGUE, as recorded in the Reagan’s diary, President Reagan visited the participants in the White House Situation room during the afternoon and early evening. According to Reed’s account, in the Situation Room Reagan was given a preview of the scenario involving a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, in which much of the United States “turned into a sea of red.” In his diary, Reagan did not mention the exercise, but only “working on speeches for trip [to the West coast].” [22] His sit-down with former Secretary of State Rogers, however, was photographed for the archives.

On the last day of the exercise, 5 March 1982, Reagan made a conference call to the players, from his ranch, where he told them, “we pray to God that we never have to use the procedures we have tested [but] the nation is better off for what has been done.” [23]

Document 15: Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Fred Iklé to Secretary of Defense and Deputy Secretary of Defense, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE Talking Points -- INFORMATION MEMORANDUM,” 13 March 1982, Top Secret

Source: MDR request to Defense Department

Fred Iklé’s paper and the attached Joint Staff of Staff comments focused on lessons learned from IVY LEAGUE for use in an upcoming “critique conference.” For example, Iklé suggested that the players’ actions during the exercise showed the importance of “advance preparations” for the use of the hotline to Moscow (MOLINK) and other channels to assure better communications with the Soviet leadership. The Joint Chiefs of Staff paper confirmed that IVY LEAGUE was a “no fault exercise” in which basic decisions would not be second-guessed; the “prime focus” was the suitability of “plans, procedures, and policies.”

Document 16: Robert M. Gates, Deputy Director of Intelligence to Executive Director, Central Intelligence Agency, “DDI Participation in NINES LIVES IV and IVY LEAGUE 82 Exercises,” 14 April 1982, enclosing memoranda, including John N. McMahon, Executive Director, Central Intelligence Agency, to Deputy Director for Intelligence, Director, National Intelligence Emergency Planning Staff, and EXDIR/Planning Staff, “IVY LEAGUE 82,” 20 March 1982, and Memorandum for the Record by [Excised], “Thoughts on Participation in Exercise Nine Lives # 4,” 5 April 1982, Secret, excised copy

Source: CIA Research Tool (CREST), National Archives/College Park

The CIA participated in IVY LEAGUE and NINE LIVES and several officials wrote critiques of the exercises. In his remarks at a “lessons learned” meeting at the Pentagon, Executive Director John McMahon commented on the somewhat marginal roles played by CIA and the State Department in the early phases of IVY LEAGUE, suggesting that “in delaying to bring State and CIA participation into the exercise in the early stages, the intelligence during that period was somewhat artificial.” Another problem was the intelligence information overload for the “exercise president”: as the war progressed “the intelligence reporting was extremely heavy and no filter was placed upon the informational flow to the President. As a result, he was inundated with information which should not qualify for his threshold of attention during such a serious situation.”

One criticism of IVY LEAGUE, partly excised, reflected on the poor understanding in some quarters of Soviet thinking. The comment probably had to do with the MOLINK: “the [excised] was used without any appreciation or understanding, and for that matter care, as to what personalities were on the other end answering the message.”

According to the memorandum on NINE LIVES, the purpose was “to test concepts for supporting possible Presidential successors dispersed from Washington during crisis periods.” Finding the “exercise [to be] a hodgepodge of both realistic and implausible play,” the CIA critic observed that one development “that strained credulity was that shortly after a notional massive US-USSR nuclear missile exchange, and with both sides' bomber forces only 3 hours from their targets, the main focus of attention in the command post somehow came to center on how to reconstitute the US Congress!”

The author of the NINE LIVES memorandum was part of a team that supported Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker, one of the designated successors, who was conveyed to a secret location. Apparently, one of the lessons learned from the exercise was that “in the case of most successors, a good deal of educating in the complexities of national security will be required in very short order. Despite service on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, Secretary Schweiker (our successor) had difficulty understanding the JCS SlOP briefing.”

Also included in this package of documents is “The Exercise President’s Schedule” for 4 March 1982, the day in the scenario that the Soviet Union attacked the United States, and a memorandum by CIA Director William Casey asking for a briefing about IVY LEAGUE.

Document 17: Memorandum to Distribution [Chairman, JCS et al.] from Rear Admiral Robert P. Hilton, Jr., Vice Director for Operations, The Joint Staff, “Exercise IVY LEAGUE 82 Detailed Analysis Report,” 21 July 1982, Secret, excised copy (under appeal), excerpt [Executive Summary and Table of Contents]

Source: RG 218, Joint Staff files (accession 218/05/0012), box 25, 385 (5 May 1981) Sec. 1A

Within a few months of IVY LEAGUE 82, the Joint Staff had produced a huge assessment totaling more than 1,100 pages. The Executive Summary as released includes some factual information, e.g., IVY LEAGUE 82 was the “first JCS-sponsored exercise during which such former senior civilian Government officials [such as a former Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence] participated.” Information on the scenario, however, has been thoroughly excised.


[1]. For the first Kennedy SIOP briefing, see Scott D. Sagan, “SIOP-62: The Nuclear War Plan Briefing to President Kennedy,” International Security, 12 987): 22-51. The briefing for Nixon on 27 January 1969 has been partly declassified.

[2]. For a useful recent review of presidential nuclear authority, see Alex Wellerstein, “The President and the Bomb,” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, 18 November 2016.

For concern during the 1970s and early 1980s about the vulnerability of command and control systems and the president, see Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Historical Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Historical Study, A Historical Study of Strategic Connectivity 1950-1981, July 1982. 

[3]. See also the account in Thomas C. Reed, At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War (New York: Random House, 2004), 242.

[4]. Reagan’s flight in the NEACP was the subject of news stories; see “Reagan Flies in ‘Doomsday’ Plane, The Washington Post, 16 November 1981, which reported that the aircraft, which could fly for 72 hours without refueling, was “three-fourths the length of a football field” and “contains six areas for planning and directing military action in times of national emergencies.”

[5]. See analysis of Document 12 below. For the quotation and discussion of “the [legendary] hostility of SAC headquarters to civilian interference,” see Peter Douglas Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 57 and 59-60.

[6]. John J. Fialka, “Nuclear Reaction: U.S. Tests Response to an Atomic Attack,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 March 1982. 

[7]. David Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 29-32; Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and the Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2005). 35.

[8]. Reed, At the Abyss, 245-246.

[9]. Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age:Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics

(New York: Henry Holt, 2012), 88. See also Martin Hellman, “War Games and Nuclear RisK,” 25 November 2012/

[10]. For the war scare, see Nate Jones, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: New Press, 2016), 5-24. For a detailed account of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks, see Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations that Ended the Cold War (CEU Press, 2016).

[11]. Hugh Sidey, “The Gipper Says Goodbye as New Cast Moves Onstage,” Time, 30 January 1989.

[12]. Reed, At the Abyss, 243. In his book, Reed calls the exercise Ivy Leaf instead of IVY LEAGUE, perhaps because of security classification issues associated with pre-publication review.

[13]. E-mail from Simon Staats, George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, 10 November 2016.

[14]. For a detailed assessment of the problem of leadership targeting, see Jeffrey Richelson, “The Dilemmas of Counterpower Targeting,” in Desmond Ball and Jeffrey Richelson, eds., Strategic Nuclear Targeting (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 159-170.

[15]. The quotation is by Frank Miller in his contribution to General Lee Butler’s memoir, Common Cause: A Life at Odds with Convention: Volume II: The Transformative Years (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2016), 9.

[16]. Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1993), 186-187.

[17]. Butler, Common Cause, 11

[18]. Ibid, 10.

[19]. Blair, Logical of Accidental Nuclear War, 170 ff.

[20]. Reed, At the Abyss, 243

[21]. John J. Fialka, “Nuclear Reaction: U.S. Tests Response to an Atomic Attack,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 March 1982. For “applause,” see Thomas B. Allen, “The Evolution of Wargaming: From Chess to Marine Doom,” in T. J. Cornell and T. B. Allen, eds., War and Games (San Francisco: The Boydell Press, 1997), 243.

[22]. Reed, Into the Abyss, 244; Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries Unabridged: Volume 1: January 1981-October 1985 (Harper, 2009), 114.

[23]. Fialka, “Nuclear Reaction: U.S. Tests Response to an Atomic Attack,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 March 1982.