Declassified Top Secret Documents Show US Planned To Nuke Moscow, Berlin, Beijing

Back in September, we noted that the US was set to send 20 new nuclear bombs to Germany each of which has four times the destructive power of the explosive dropped on Hiroshima.

“[These] new attack options against Russia” constitute “a conscious provocation of [Germany’s] Russian neighbors,” one member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats warned. Sergei Lavrov’s de facto number-two, Maria Zakharova said the move represented an “infringement of Articles 1 and 2 of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 

Just days after the news crossed the wires, Interfax reported that in response, Moscow was set to deploy Iskander ballistic missiles to its enclave of Kaliningrad if the US indeed moved to upgrade its nuclear weapons in Germany.

The tension underscores the fact that even before Russia officially entered the fray in Syria, relations between NATO and Moscow had deteriorated markedly to post-Cold War lows on the back of mutual distrust tied to Crimea and Ukraine. 

Against that rather ominous backdrop, we bring you the Strategic Air Command’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, produced in June 1956 and published Tuesday for the first time by the National Security Archive. 

As Dr. William Burr, the senior analyst who directs the Archive's nuclear history documentation project writes, the document “provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified.”

He continues: “The SAC study includes chilling details. According to its authors,  their target priorities and nuclear bombing tactics would expose nearby civilians and 'friendly forces and people' to high levels of deadly radioactive fallout. Moreover, 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 National Security Archive, which is based at The George Washington University, says it obtained the 800-page study, through the Mandatory Declassification Review process. 

Below, find excerpts from Burr's summary.

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SAC Nuclear Planning for 1959

SAC’s top priority for destruction was Soviet “air power” because of the apparent immediate threat that Soviet bombers posed to the continental United States and to U.S. forces in Europe and East Asia.  The report’s detailed introduction explained that the priority given to Air Power (BRAVO) targets dictated the surface bursting of high-yield thermonuclear weapons to destroy priority targets, including airbases in Eastern Europe.  That tactic would produce large amounts of radioactive fallout compared to bursting weapons in the air.  According to the study, “the requirement to win the Air Battle is paramount to all other considerations.”

The “greatly compressed time factor”—the danger of a speedy Soviet attack and counterattack-- encouraged targeters to require the surface bursting of high-yield nuclear weapons. According to SAC, bursting the weapon in the air would “result in decrease of blast effect.” Detonating the weapon on or close to the ground would maximize blast effects, destroy the target, and disperse irradiated particles which would be picked up by winds and descend far and near.

SAC’s top priority for destruction, the Soviet bloc’s air power, was a complex target system.  Before the Soviet Union  acquired the atomic bomb and significant capability to deliver nuclear weapons at long distances,  SAC’s priority had been the destruction of the Soviet urban-industrial complex, but during the mid-1950s the “greatly compressed time factor” produced a reversal.[3]   In the SAC Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, SAC broadly defined the “Air Power” target: air and missile bases for strategic  and tactical forces, defensive and offensive, but also government and military control centers that would direct the air battle and nuclear weapons storage sites, air industry, atomic industry, and petroleum-oil-lubricants (POL) storage areas.

Given the expansive definition of Air Power, this suggested that targets in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad could be subjected to H-bomb attack because both were rich in air power targets. 

If fighting continued once the air power battle was over, the second phase of the war was to be the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc war-making potential. The “final blows” in the bombing campaign would strike “basic industries”—those industries and economic activities which most contributed to war-making capability.

Moscow, the number one urban target, had around 180 installations slated for destruction; some were in the air power category, but many involved a variety of industrial activities, including factories producing machine tools, cutting tools, oil extraction equipment, and a most vital medicine: penicillin.  Other targets involved significant infrastructural functions: locks and dams, electric power grids, railroad yards, and repair plants for railroad equipment.

What is particularly striking in the SAC study is the role of population targeting.  Moscow and its suburbs, like the Leningrad area, included distinct “population” targets (category 275), not further specified.  So did all the other cities recorded in the two sets of target lists. In other words, people as such, not specific industrial activities, were to be destroyed.

East Germany was the site of major Soviet airbases and East Berlin itself was a target for “systematic destruction.”  A sampling of the SAC airfields list finds more than a few Soviet-operated installations among the top 200, with some not very far from Berlin. Among them were Briesen (number 140), Gross Dolln (Templin) (number 70), Oranienberg (number 95), Welzow (number 96), Werneuchen (Verneuchen) (number 82). 

East Berlin had a priority ranking of 61 in the list of urban-industrial slated for “systematic destruction.”  The SAC study identified 91 DGZs in East Berlin and its suburbs: a wide range of industries and infrastructural activities including electric power, railroad yards, liquid fuel storage, machine tools, and radio and television stations.

Whether China was fighting on the Soviet side or not in a war, SAC treated it as part of the Soviet bloc and listed Chinese airfields and cities in the target lists, including Beijing. Of the list of targets scheduled for “systematic destruction,” Beijing [Peiping in Wade-Giles transliteration] was in the top 20 (number 13) with 23 DGZs.

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So while Berlin may now be set to receive 20 nuclear bombs from Washington, the city was also set to be on the "receiving" end of several nukes five decades ago. Needless to say, the "fallout" for West Berlin would have been disastrous, a fact which was greeted with "shock and awe" (pun fully intended) in Germany this week. Here are some representative tweets:

Here's Spiegel (translated):

Disastrous consequences for West Berlin


The documents show that the end of the fifties the quick elimination of the Soviet Air Force was the most important war aims of the United States. The 1100 Air Force bases in the Eastern bloc should be turned off before the Soviet bombers could take off at all.


Among the main destinations of the 200 US nuclear bombers were numerous military installations in East Germany:

  • The front bomber base the Soviet Air Force in Briesen, south of Berlin
  • The largest Soviet military airfield in the GDR in Great Dölln, north of Berlin
  • The Soviet military airfield in Welzow, south of Berlin
  • The base of the 16th Soviet Air Army in Werneuchen, east of Berlin
  • The Soviet military airfield in Oranienburg, on the outskirts of Berlin

In case of war, these military installations had been bombed with thermonuclear weapons. Large areas in the environment would have been exposed to radioactive radiation.


Remains unclear whether the US Army had calculated the consequences of the nuclear attacks on West Berlin. William Burr doubts: "The atomic bombing of East Berlin and its suburbs have caused among other nuclear-generated firestorms. This would have had disastrous consequences for West Berlin.."

What the documents seem to show, in a nutshell, is that the US was willing to wipe Moscow, Berlin, and Beijing off the face of the earth despite the fact that West Berlin was an ally and regardless of whether Beijing was actually involved in the fight.

Mass civilian casualties were part and parcel of the plan, as was the complete destruction of German and Russian industrial capacity. If this is any indication of what a nuclear standoff between the US and Russia would resemble today, we hope, for humanity's sake, that cooler heads will prevail in what is likely to be a yearslong period of heightened tensions.

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SAC Docs


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