Throughout the Cold War, as the nuclear arms race became more frantic, a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union remained a major concern.

With intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and air-dropped bombs, both countries had several options when it came to nuclear warfare.

But the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II made clear the destructive capability of nuclear arms and the danger of a full-blown nuclear conflict.

As a result, U.S. strategists sought ways to use nuclear weapons without triggering an all-out nuclear war.

The Tactical Nuclear Option

Davy Crockett Bomb mini nuke nuclear
An M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle at Aberdeen Proving Ground, March 1961. (U.S. government DOD)

In the 1950s, the U.S. military came up with the tactical nuclear option, using weapons with a lower yield and range than their strategic counterparts.

These weapons would be used on the battlefield or against a military-related target to gain an operational advantage. For example, the Air Force could drop a tactical nuclear bomb on a Soviet division invading Poland to stop its advance without triggering a disproportionate response — such as a nuclear attack on New York City.

There were two types of tactical nuclear munitions: The Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM) had a medium-yield payload and required several troops to carry it. The Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) had a low-yield payload but could be carried by one soldier.

The order to use tactical nuclear weapons would still have to come from both political and military authorities. SADMs were subject to the same command-and-control procedures as other tactical nuclear weapons and were meant to be used only if there were no other means of creating the desired effect.