Newly released documents reveal U.S. Cold War nuclear target list

Photo: MGN

Washington (CNN) U.S. plans for nuclear war in 1959 included the “systematic destruction” of major urban centers like East Berlin, Moscow and Beijing — with the populations of those cities among the primary military targets.

The National Archives and Records Administration has released a detailed study produced in 1956 that includes a list of the United States’ targets were nuclear war to break out between the superpowers in three years.

The Strategic Air Command’s study offers new insight into the Cold War planning — and worries that United States warplanes would have to unleash overwhelming destruction in an all-out war with the Soviet Union.

The list was made public as a result of a 2006 records request by William Burr, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive who directs the group’s nuclear history documentation project. It is titled the “SAC (Strategic Air Command) Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959.”

“Their target priorities and nuclear bombing tactics would expose nearby civilians and ‘friendly forces and people’ to high levels of deadly radioactive fallout,” Burr wrote this week in an analysis of the government’s plans.

“Moreover,” Burr wrote, “the authors developed a plan for the ‘systematic destruction’ of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted ‘population’ in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin, and Warsaw.”

The primary aim of the U.S. plan was eliminating Soviet Union air power — which was regarded as key in the event of the Soviets attempting to deploy their own nuclear weapons, since today’s long-range missiles and submarine launchers didn’t yet exist.

There were plans to follow that up with a series of “final blows” delivered by atomic bombs eight times the yield of the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Japan’s Hiroshima — much larger than necessary to destroy specific targets, suggesting that collateral damage was an aim.

The list includes “population” targets. Though the exact targets still aren’t public, that indicates wiping out people, rather than specific industries or military facilities, was one goal.

The top priorities were Moscow and Leningrad. The list includes “designated ground zeroes,” or sites for bombings — with 179 in Moscow and 145 in Leningrad.

The study also calls for the development of a 60 megaton bomb. That would have produced 70 times the explosive yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

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