Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A hydrogen bomb at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Devin/cc/flickr)

A hydrogen bomb at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Devin/cc/flickr)

Declassified Cold War Files Show Disturbing Nuclear Targeting of Population Centers

National Archives releases list of potential targets that would achieve 'high levels of damage' for Soviet bloc

Lauren McCauley

A hydrogen bomb at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Devin/cc/flickr)

The National Security Archive on Wednesday for the first time declassified a list of potential Cold War nuclear targets, and the picture is chilling.

Among the industrial infrastructure and military sites that analysts concluded would achieve "high levels of damage" for the Soviet Union is one particularly troubling type of target: "population."

"It’s disturbing, for sure, to see the population centers targeted," William Burr, a nuclear historian and senior analyst at the National Security Archive, told the New York Times.

The SAC [Strategic Air Command] Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 is broken into two lists: "Air Power," referring to airfields and other military sites, and "Systematic Destruction," which referred to targets in urban-industrial areas including "population" targets. The study lists 1,200 cities total, from East Germany to China, with established priorities.

While it was not a final list for military targets, the SAC file shows that analysts "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 archive notes.

In an essay that accompanied the SAC study, Burr writes, "In other words, people as such, not specific industrial activities, were to be destroyed."

Burr notes that such targeting reflects tactical thinking about the impact of bombing raids on civilian morale. 

"In other words, people as such, not specific industrial activities, were to be destroyed."
—William Burr, National Security Archive

Burr cites a 1940 talk given by Major Muir Fairchild to the Air Corps Tactical School in which he argued that an attack on a country’s economic structure "must be to so reduce the morale of the enemy civilian population through fear—of death or injury for themselves or loved ones, [so] that they would prefer our terms of peace to continuing the struggle, and that they would force their government to capitulate."

Despite this, Burr notes, such attacks "were inconsistent with the standards followed by Air Force leaders" and violated norms of engagement, and eventually, international law.

"While they were willing to accept mass civilian casualties as a consequence of attacking military targets, as was the case during the Korea War, they ruled out 'intentional' attacks on civilians," Burr continues. "Moreover, attacks on populations violated international legal norms of the day, which were summarized in the then-unratified Hague rules on aerial warfare (1923). Nevertheless, such targeting rules were not in force until the 1977 agreement on the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention (1949)."

However, Burr notes that the U.S. "has consistently refused to accept claims that the targeting standards of the Additional Protocols apply to the use of nuclear weapons."

According to the Ploughshares Fund, the current U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile is 7,200 weapons—second in the world to Russia, which holds 7,500.

The files were obtained by the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University, through a journalist who filed a Mandatory Declassification Review request to the National Archives and Records Administration for specific files and records of the Strategic Air Command.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Indignation as Michigan Judge Drops Flint Water Charges Against GOP Ex-Gov Snyder

"The people of Flint deserve justice—and it's unacceptable that the people responsible for Flint's water crisis aren't being held accountable," said Food & Water Watch in response to the development.

Brett Wilkins ·


70+ Lawmakers Tell Biden 'You Can and You Must' Provide Rail Workers Paid Sick Leave

"As president, you and your administration have a number of tools at your disposal to make sure rail workers are guaranteed paid sick leave," wrote the lawmakers.

Julia Conley ·


COP15 Biodiversity Summit Highlights 'Deadly' US Attitude Toward the World

"While others play by the rules, the most powerful nation refuses," writes George Monbiot. "If this country were a person, we'd call it a psychopath. As it is not a person, we should call it what it is: a rogue state."

Jessica Corbett ·


Final House Covid Panel Report Exposes 'Reckless' Trump Pandemic Response

The publication accuses top Trump officials of "failed stewardship" and a "persistent pattern of political interference" that undermined the nation's response to a pandemic that has killed more than a million people in the United States.

Brett Wilkins ·


As NYT Staffers Strike, Sanders Calls for 'New Ways to Empower' Workers Battling Industry Giants

"We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists and media workers can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires," said the Vermont progressive.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo