Dropshot: The United States Plan for War with the Soviet Union in 1957

dropshot book coverThis book, edited by Anthony Cave Brown, is startling. The U.S. military had determined in the mid to late 1940s that the only way the United States and its allies could combat an expected massive Soviet military assault in Europe as the Cold War progressed was with a full-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Some military planners believed that the attack should be “preemptive or preventive,” and that the bombers carrying nuclear weapons should be unleashed on Soviet cities and military installations before the Soviets launched what U.S. military planners believed to be the inevitable World War III. Dropshot was prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff led by General Omar Bradley in 1949 with the authority and knowledge of President Harry Truman. The plan listed the date for the outbreak of World War III as January 1, 1957, although that date was arbitrarily selected for planning purposes. The 330 page book is not written for any other purpose but to describe the complex plans to prepare the United States for Armageddon. It educates but does not entertain.

The Editor writes in the Prologue, “Dropshot was promulgated in three volumes of green-colored paper late in 1949. It became public property in 1977 through the United States’ Freedom of Information Act and may now be purchased at the National Archives for fifteen cents a page. This incongruous fact belittles its importance, for at the time nothing could have been more secret.” The editor continues, “Was it folly to make Dropshot public? I have thought extensively about this point, and I am bound to conclude it was folly to release this document. It should have been burned, buried, or preserved in some secret vault, for it cannot endear America to Russia. As will be seen, not only was Dropshot the blueprint for the atomization of Russia, but it provided for occupation by American armies of that vast continent.”“Why, therefore, was Dropshot made public? The Joint Chiefs were not required by law to declassify it?…The question, therefore, becomes a tantalizing one in which several conjectures are possible. The first is that there was no point in keeping it a secret because the Russians already knew about it. This is conceivable; Dropshot was hatched at a time of considerable Soviet intelligence activity…Stalin frequently in 1948 did refer to American war plans, and his representative at the United Nation, Andrei Vishinsky, did allege that America was planning atomic war against Russia over Berlin.” “Is it possible Dropshot was some gigantic blind, that it was created to hide some other relevant plan?”

The editor discusses several disturbing possibilities. One was that the United States might lose World War III faced with the massive Soviet military. At a minimum they expected the Soviet army would succeed in occupying all of Western Europe in twenty days. Britain would probably have been knocked out of the war in sixty days. Expected Communist guerilla warfare in the United States would have “…gravely impaired America’s ability and will to make war.” America could not have defended the cities from air attack, and it would have taken at least two years for America to bring industry and armed forces to a level to enable a military return to Europe.

The editor speculates that the reason for releasing Dropshot was that it was considered to be obsolete in 1977 and “…given the state of weaponry today it is no longer relevant; that we have reached the edge of doomsday; and that therefore Dropshot does not matter.” He continues, “I believe that Dropshot was written because global war seemed likely at the time; indeed it seemed the only kind of war. This thinking was clearly wrong, and it demonstrates how easily global war might arise through miscalculation—for when Korea erupted, the conflict was confined to that peninsula, and while the world was politically involved, it was not militarily involved.”

For those who believed the Soviet Union was an ally during and after World War II, the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Staff prepared a study that expected the Soviets would be an enemy titled Strategic Vulnerability of Russia to a Limited Air Attack published fifty-one days after the surrender of Japan. “In brief, it visualized a limited air attack with atomic bombs on twenty Russian cities in the event that war developed between Russia and America in Europe.” “General Eisenhower, then still Commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in Europe, produced a plan for war with Russia in Europe called Totality. That was late in 1945. But the plan was an incongruous document:  there were few troops, fewer aircraft, and no armies to give it teeth. It was, therefore, hardly worth the paper it was printed on.”

These military plans recognized that the only chance the United States would have if the Soviets unleashed their conventional military might was the U.S. advantage in nuclear weapons. The U.S. planners believed they had two equally unacceptable choices. They could concede defeat and accept that the Soviet Union could impose Communist control on the world. They believed the only other choice was to have and use enough nuclear weapons to drive the Soviets into submission with massive nuclear bombardment.

The planners knew when they prepared the plan that they did not have enough nuclear weapons to support the second alternative, so efforts began to change that. (For those who are not familiar with the history of the Cold War, this is one of the explanations why military planners and government officials determined in 1949 that more nuclear weapon production capacity was needed. They decided to build a place called the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado.)

There are long sections describing plans and capabilities that make for difficult reading. As examples, capabilities of the Soviets and their satellites and their probable courses of action are listed on pages 125-137. Descriptions of the allies and their courses of action are on pages 137-181.

The “Editor’s Epilogue” describes “…a scenario for the opening stages of Dropshot. It begins at four o’clock in the morning on January 1, 1957. An “…armored car of the Third Royal Dragoon Dragoon Guards makes its way along the narrow road…near Fallingsbostel. The corporal of the horse calls the halt when he sees a red-over-green signal light arch over the dark woods that mark the edge of the Soviet zone. The red is followed by a yellow. Mystified the corporal of horse (a position in the British calvary that is equivalent to a sergeant) clambers down…and puts his ear to the ground.” He instantly recognizes that there is a rumble of many tank treads on hard ground. He radios code words to his commander what he has seen and heard. World War III has begun.

One of the fictional messages describing the magnitude of Soviet actions ends with, “Christ!” Western Europe has been attacked by 100 line divisions supported by large numbers of combat air force including long range bombers. A second arm of 13 divisions has hit Scandinavia and 33 divisions are thrusting into Turkey toward the Dardanelles. The Red Flag is hoisted over Paris on January 6 and 92,000 Allied soldiers surrender. By January 12 the Soviets are prepared to invade Great Britain. There are commando, chemical and bacteriological attacks. One-way suicide long range Soviet bombers are shot down south of the Arctic Circle and are found to be carrying two duplicates of the American Mark III (Fat Man) atomic bombs in each plane. American cities begin to be bombed and on January 14 the President authorizes Plan Trojan, the U.S. Air Force component of Dropshot.  Bombers carrying nuclear weapons are launched. Eight atomic bombs are placed on Moscow and Leningrad is atomized.  More bombers carry out the attack detailed in Plan Trojan. In addition to the bombing of Soviet cities it is estimated that within 30 days the Allies will have delivered 180 atomic bombs onto petroleum, electric power, and steel targets along with over 12,000 tons of conventional bombs. In short, as the fictional end of the one message about Soviet actions on January 1, 1957 ended, “Christ!”

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