WASHINGTON -- Widely recognized as a military hawk, President Nixon fretted privately over the notion of any no-holds-barred nuclear war, newly released documents from his time at the White House reveal.
Visions of such an all-out war involving nuclear missiles were unpalatable from the first days of Nixon's presidency, starting in 1969 and lasting until the summer of 1974, when he resigned during the Watergate scandal.
Recently declassified papers from that time show that Nixon wanted an alternative to the option of full-scale nuclear war -- a plan for a gentler war, one that could ultimately vanquish the rival Soviet Union while avoiding the worst-case scenario.
The White House papers from this era provided a glimpse behind the scenes at attempts there to find choices other than ''the horror option," as national security adviser Henry Kissinger called the scenarios for all-out atomic war that were in place then.
Qualms about causing so much death were hardly the only motivation. US officials worried that their nuclear threat lacked credibility; it was so awful that adversaries questioned whether Washington would ever use it.
In a 1969 diary entry, Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, recalled the president taking part in an exercise that day aboard the
''It was pretty scary," Haldeman wrote. Nixon asked many questions about ''kill results," his aide said, adding that his boss ''obviously worries about the lightly-tossed-about millions of deaths."
The picture was pieced together by William Burr, a researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, from Nixon-era papers released by the National Archives as well as documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents reveal Kissinger's insight that government budget-crunchers would prefer complete nuclear warfare because it was planned for and would be less expensive than recasting US capabilities to permit limited strikes.
''They believe in assured destruction because it guarantees the smallest expenditure," he told an August 1973 National Security Council meeting. ''To have the only option that of killing 80 million people is the height of immorality."
The papers show Kissinger struggling with a reluctant military and intelligence apparatus to sell them on the idea of limited nuclear strikes. Many doubted the Soviets would settle for a tidy little nuclear war; they feared a conflagration would quickly follow, devouring cities and killing millions.
But until Nixon took up the matter, the only options in the nuclear playbook involved the highest stakes possible and unspeakable death, and that apparently unsettled him even as he engaged North Vietnam in a war that was claiming civilian casualties.
By one official estimate, the United States, even if crippled by unprovoked Soviet missiles, could retaliate with missiles killing 40 percent of the Soviet population, or some 90 million people. Many more would be killed if the United States struck first; that estimate remains classified.
Countless studies flowed from the effort to expand nuclear options to include ''smaller packages." But it was not until 1974, the year Nixon resigned, that he signed a directive setting that process in motion.
Burr said the United States eventually achieved an expanded range of nuclear options, in part because of the development of more accurate missiles and other weapons in years that followed.