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Why is "Poodle Blanket" Classified?
Still More Dubious Secrets at the Pentagon

Posted - April 7, 2010

Edited by William Burr - 202/994-7000

President John F. Kennedy and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who presided over the creation of the "Poodle Blanket" contingency plans, confer on  13 June 1962 (Photo from John F. Kennedy Library Web site)

Washington, D.C., April 7, 2010 - In a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Pentagon claims that "Poodle Blanket" contingency plans from 1961 for a possible confrontation over West Berlin (no longer divided) with the Soviet Union (no longer a country) still need to be secret for fear of damage to current U.S. national security, according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

"Keeping information on 'Poodle Blanket' a secret today shows how obsolete the Pentagon's security guidance is," commented William Burr, the Archive's analyst who asked for the documents in 1992 -- making the request one of the oldest still pending in the U.S. government.

In the early 1990s, the State Department's historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States, published a number of documents on "Poodle Blanket" -- including the highest level National Security Action Memorandum 109. The name "Poodle Blanket" came from Kennedy administration officials who used it to describe a series of diplomatic, economic, and military contingency plans, leading up to nuclear war, developed in the event of a confrontation with the Soviet Union over Berlin. That formerly top secret documents on "Poodle Blanket" contingency planning have been declassified for years makes it improbable that declassification of more information would "serious and demonstrably undermine" U.S. foreign relations, as the Pentagon argues.

"Spending taxpayers' money withholding 50 year old documents about long-resolved Cold War conflicts is not only a waste but also damages our national security by undermining the credibility of the system that protects real secrets," said Tom Blanton, director of the Archive.

Today's release follows a previous posting on Pentagon overclassification that highlighted several other cases in which the Department applied stringent guidelines inappropriate for the review of historical documents.

 

Why is "Poodle Blanket" Classified?

On 25 February 2010, the Department of Defense informed the National Security Archive that it had withheld in their entirety six documents relating to the Berlin crisis of the early 1960s. Three of the exempted items concern "Poodle Blanket." These and other documents, all of which are part of the Maxwell Taylor Papers at the National Defense University (Fort McNair), had been requested on 25 November 1992, making it one of the oldest pending FOIA requests in the U.S. government until the Pentagon finally responded. According to the Defense Department's letter, declassification of the documents on "Poodle Blanket" and other matters was not possible because "they would reveal actual U.S. military war plans that remain in effect," "seriously and demonstrably impair relations between the United States and a foreign government," and "seriously and demonstrably undermine ongoing diplomatic activities of the United States." This decision is a glaring example of the inappropriate classification of historical documents and the need for more reasonable guidance for the declassification of historical Defense Department records.

Some readers will ask: what is "Poodle Blanket"? And why would documents about "Poodle Blanket" be classified? The answer to the first question can be found in the history of the protracted U.S.-Soviet tensions over the status of West Berlin. Claiming that it was time for the World War II allies (the Soviet Union, U.S., France, the United Kingdom) to end the occupation of Berlin, the Soviet Union wanted to turn over control of the access routes to their East German allies. Then, East Germany, a state that the West did not recognize, would be able to regulate, even block, Western access to their occupation zones in West Berlin. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the possibility that the Soviet Union and East Germany might cut off Allied access to West Berlin, whose security was an emblem of the U.S. commitment to the Western alliance, was a serious concern. The apprehension that a Berlin crisis might unfold generated reams of contingency plans to address how the U.S. and its allies would respond if the Soviets or East Germany disrupted ground or air access to, or otherwise threatened, the city. With the stake in West Berlin's security so high, the prospect that an access crisis could generate a military confrontation and then general nuclear war was a nightmare for both Cold War statesmen and ordinary citizens. (Note 1)

When the Kennedy administration came to power, its strategists believed that their predecessors in the Eisenhower administration had not developed the conventional military options needed to persuade the Soviets that Washington was willing to risk nuclear war if Moscow or East Germany undertook disruptive action in the Berlin corridors. For the Kennedy team, larger conventional forces and "flexible response" were essential so that the President could wield a more credible military threat than all-out nuclear war. Some military planners in the Pentagon, such as Colonel DeWitt Armstrong (U.S. Army) were already thinking along the same lines when they joined the Pentagon's Office of International Security Affairs (ISA), then led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze. With the situation growing more worrisome in the wake of the Berlin Wall (a contingency for which no plan had been prepared), Armstrong and his ISA associates developed plans outlining possible Soviet and East German actions threatening West Berlin, a range of U.S., Allied, and NATO responses, potential Soviet counter-actions, and an evaluation of the contingency plans. The plans involved so much paper that some wit called them the "Horse Blanket" and the term stuck on. Such extensive documentation would not be useful to policymakers in the throes of a crisis, so the planners produced a less cumbersome "Pony Blanket" of the most likely actions and counter-actions. (Note 2)

Nitze and his ISA colleagues found "Pony Blanket" useful for discussion purposes, but believed that it needed more work. In early October 1961, they developed a "preferred sequence" of actions in a Berlin crisis that ran all the way from political, economic, and covert actions to non-nuclear, massive conventional, military actions and then nuclear weapons use, from "demonstration" shots to general nuclear war (with strategic preemption a live option, although seldom spelled out in the plans). (Note 3) This document was only a few pages long so it was given the informal code name "Poodle Blanket," that was routinely used by Berlin planners at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. On 20 October 1961, President Kennedy sent it to Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Lauris Norstad and "Poodle Blanket" became incorporated into the administration's National Security Action Memoranda series as NSAM 109. Apparently, the "Poodle Blanket" documents at issue in the Archive's FOIA case concern the creation of NSAM 109 during the fall of 1961.

Is it justifiable to keep documents on "Poodle Blanket" classified? Would declassification reveal "war plans still in effect" or "seriously and demonstrably undermine" U.S. diplomacy? Apparently, the U.S. government did not think so years ago when it declassified NSAM 109 and published it in the State Department's historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States (see document 1 below). The State Department also published in the follow-up Berlin Crisis FRUS compilation covering 1962-1963 additional material on "Poodle Blanket"/NSAM 109 politico-military planning, including records of meetings with President Kennedy on the subject and NATO decisions to incorporate the NSAM 109 concepts into its' planning. Years ago, the State Department declassified the text of a briefing for President Kennedy on the contingency plans, drawing on the "Poodle Blanket" concept, which John Ausland, a Foreign Service officer assigned to the Berlin Task Force, delivered on 9 August 1962. (Note 4) The Ausland briefing and the record of the briefing meeting (document 3 and document 4 below) shed light on the debates between the United States and its European allies over what circumstances nuclear weapons use would be appropriate in a Berlin confrontation, with Kennedy and his advisers agreeing on the importance of avoiding "early use" of the weapons.
   
What made it relatively easy for the State Department and other agencies to take those declassification actions in the early 1990s was that when Germany was reunified, the Berlin problem was settled. (Note 5) Berlin was no longer an occupied city and the Western and former Soviet forces departed within a few years. This meant that all of the once highly-secret contingency plans, including the consideration of nuclear weapons options, had been overtaken by events and were moot.  Given the changed circumstances and previous declassification actions, it is difficult to understand why the Department of Defense wants to keep the remaining "Poodle Blanket" documents classified. It is unlikely in the extreme whether any U.S. security interest would be jeopardized by the long-delayed declassification of those documents (now under appeal at the Defense Department). (Note 6)  

 

John C. Ausland, the Foreign Service officer who drafted and presented a briefing on the "Poodle Blanket" contingency planning to President Kennedy on 9  August 1962. (Photo from National Archives Still Picture Division, RG 59, State Department photos)

Read the Documents

Document 1: "Poodle Blanket"
Letter from President Kennedy to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Lauris Norstad, 20 October 1961, enclosing "U.S. Policy on Military Actions in a Berlin Conflict," Top Secret
Source: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis 1961-1962 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1993)

The attachment to Kennedy's letter is the text of what became NSAM 109, which described a "sequence of graduated responses to Soviet/GDR actions in denial of our rights." The actions contemplated would be increasingly serious, from small probes to test Soviet intentions, to non-combatant action (economic embargoes, naval harassment, etc.), and then non-nuclear military action "to display to the Soviets the danger of possibly irreversible escalation." If all else failed, and the "Soviets continue to encroach upon our vital interests," then NSAM 109 projected the use of nuclear weapons, from "selective nuclear attacks" to "general nuclear war."

 

Documents 2A-B: Briefing the President

Document 2A: Memorandum for the Record, "Meeting with the President on Berlin Planning, 1000 hours, 19 July 1962," 19 July 1962

Document 2B: Memorandum from the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Kennedy, "NATO Contingency Planning for Berlin (BERCON/MARCON Plans) and the Conceptual Framework of Poodle Blanket," 20 July 1962
Source: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XV, Berlin Crisis 1962-1963 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1993)

With concern growing that the Soviets and the East Germans might take action that could trigger a crisis, senior Pentagon and State Department representatives gave a briefing to President Kennedy on the series of specific Berlin Contingency (BERCON) and Maritime Contingency (MARCON) plans that had been developed by the SACEUR and SACLANT [Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic] staffs. Apparently, the briefing did not go altogether successfully; according to White House military aide Lawrence Legere, the "president never clearly understood the exact place occupied by the BERCON/MARCON plans in the over-all picture of Berlin contingency planning." If the briefing had used for its starting point, "Poodle Blanket," with which the President was "reasonably familiar," it would "almost surely have led to greater understanding." National security adviser McGeorge Bundy was also dissatisfied because the briefing left unclear the "non-combatant" actions that the West would take following a "blockage of access." Bundy explained to Kennedy what could happen in the way of diplomatic, political, and economic actions before the Allies resorted to force.

 

Document 3: Preparing a New Briefing for the President

Memorandum from John Ausland, Berlin Task Force, to Martin J. Hillenbrand, 2 August 1962, enclosing "Briefing for President on Berlin," Top Secret
Source: FOIA request; also available in U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955-1968 (National Security Archive, 1998)

To give Kennedy a better picture of the Berlin contingency planning, his military aides set up another briefing at the White House. They chose John C. Ausland of the State Department's Berlin Task Force, who had already prepared similar briefings. According to Ausland's later recollections, except for some minor changes, the text presented here is essentially what President Kennedy heard.  Addressing the problems raised by the earlier briefing to the President, Ausland laid out the "sequence of actions" posited by "Poodle Blanket" and showed that if a military confrontation was imminent, the Allies could draw upon the NATO MARCON or BERCON plans as well as plans developed by General Norstad's LIVE OAK group.

 

Documents 4A-C: Kennedy Receives the New Briefing on "Poodle Blanket"

Document 4A: Memorandum from William Y. Smith to the President's Military Representative, "Briefing to the President on Berlin," 9 August 1962
Source: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XV, Berlin Crisis 1962-1963 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1993)

Document 4B: Transcript, Thursday, 9 August 1962, Meeting on Berlin, 10:55 a.m.-12:15 p.m. (See pp. 311-333)
Source: Timothy Naftali, editor, The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises, Volume 1: July 30-August 1962 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), pp. 311-333

Document 4C: Tape recording of Berlin briefing, 9 August 1962
Source: John F. Kennedy Library as presented by the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Meetings tape number 9

Maxwell Taylor's aide, then-Colonel William Y. Smith (currently a member of the National Security Archive's Board of Directors), prepared a record of the meeting where President Kennedy and top advisers listened  to, and discussed, John Ausland's briefing on the contingency plans. Little did Smith know that Kennedy had a tape recording system installed secretly in the Cabinet Room and that the meeting was being taped. With the discovery and eventual declassification of the tapes, the recording of the 9 August 1962 meeting was declassified (with some excisions) and the presidential recordings project at the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs had the meeting transcribed and eventually published.

Links for Smith's memorandum, the tape, as presented by the Miller Center, and the Miller Center's transcript are provided above, so the reader may read and listen simultaneously. The tape is not a model of clarity, but the transcript, the Ausland briefing text, and Smith's memorandum provide a fairly complete picture of who said what and what they said. An interesting element of the discussion is the significant differences between the United States and some of its European allies on the military plans. Besides differences on what degree of military mobilization was necessary, the allies disagreed on the extent to which planning should assume the early use of tactical nuclear weapons. While Kennedy initially dismissed the issue as a "theoretical" one, he was persuaded by Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara that it had practical implications. If Washington agreed with the Europeans then it would have to give up trying to persuade them to build up conventional forces. Moreover, whatever European defense officials said about "early use" as a deterrent, heads of government would have to be convinced whether using nuclear weapons was "justified." In other words, the terrifying decision to use nuclear weapons could not be made quickly: "to reach this decision would require time and some conventional defensive efforts."

 

Documents 5A and B: Getting the Allies on Board

Document 5A: Memorandum from the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Kennedy, "Preferred Sequence of Military Actions in the Berlin Crisis," 10 September 1962

Document 5B: Report by the Military Sub-Group of the Washington Ambassadorial Group, 12 September 1962
Source: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XV, Berlin Crisis 1962-1963 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1993)

Differences between Washington and European capitals over conventional forces and the use of nuclear weapons persisted, as did related disagreements between the Pentagon and General Norstad. "Like the French and Germans, although probably for different reasons [Norstad] tends to favor a selective use of nuclear weapons earlier in the scheme, after less extensive non-nuclear combatant action than the U.S. government … would prefer." An ambassadorial group based in Washington--consisting of U.S. officials, the British, French, and West German ambassadors—tried to paper over the disputes by describing Phase IV in very general language. When nuclear weapons should or could be used in an East-West confrontation would continue to be political dynamite in U.S.-European relations, a dilemma that by its very nature was more easily papered over.

 

Notes

1. For Berlin contingency planning during Eisenhower-Kennedy years, see Sean Maloney, "Berlin Contingency Planning: Prelude to Flexible Response," Journal of Strategic Studies 25 (2002): 99-134. See also Martin J. Hillenbrand, Fragments of Our Time: Memoirs of a Diplomat (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 143-144.

2. For background, see Lawrence Kaplan, Ronald Landa, and Edward Drea, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Volume V The McNamara Ascendancy, 1961-1965 (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of Secretary of Defense, 2006), 162-164, and Paul Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glastnost: At the Center of Decision (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), 202-203.

3. For preemption, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 292-294.  For NSAM 109 planning in context, see David Alan Rosenberg, "Constraining Overkill: Contending Approaches to Nuclear Strategy, 1955-1965."

4. For John Ausland's memoir of the period, see Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Berlin-Cuba Crisis, 1961-1964 (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1996).

5. Years earlier, however, the status of West Berlin, if not the Berlin Wall, had been effectively removed from the sphere of Cold War competition when the France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin (1971).

6. It is worth noting, but a little surprising, that the Pentagon did not consult the State Department when it determined that these documents remain highly sensitive from a foreign relations perspective.  Perhaps if the State Department had been consulted, the Pentagon's declassification review might have reached more reasonable conclusions.