The 45-year flashpoint between NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the mid- to late twentieth century is misunderstood to this day for one simple reason—it was the first conflict in history that centered about weaponry, not ideology. For this reason, the geopolitical history in textbooks covering the period after 1950 is almost entirely incorrect. All the East-West, Capitalist-vs.-Communist, Freedom-vs.-Tyranny talk should have been recognized as background noise (and largely meaningless). The Cold War was exclusively about this:
Chagan nuclear test – Russia, 1965
Even the dates are wrong. The Berlin Airlift would have been unthinkable had the Soviet blockade begun after 29 August 1949…the day the Союз Советских Социалистических Республик (CCCP, or Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik transliterated from Cyrillic) detonated RDS-1 at Semipalatinsk (is it a coincidence Judgment Day in the Terminator franchise falls 48 years to the day after the first Soviet test)? The doctrine of containment takes on a new light when one considers how Soviet nuclear forces were relatively feeble in 1962…
The Soviet Union had approximately 42 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, no SLBMs, and a long-range bomber force of 160 Bear and Bison bombers that would have had to face a formidable U.S. –Canadian air defense system of fighter interceptors with nuclear air-to-air missiles, BOMARC and Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles. General Gribkov stated that Khrushchev and his military advisers “knew . . . that U.S. strategic nuclear forces outnumbered ours by approximately 17 to 1 in 1962.”
Military superiority, imagined or real, tended to breed hubris:
Robert Kennedy for his part reflected on the president’s discussion with the US military leaders in his memoirs. “Like all meetings of this kind, certain statements were made as accepted truisms which I, at least, thought were of questionable validity. One member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, argued that we could use nuclear weapons, on the basis that our adversaries would use theirs against us in an attack,” he recalled.
“I thought, as I listened, of the many times that I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.”
American military officers wearing four stars in October 1962 were some real gems:
The Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted to President Kennedy that a preemptive surgical strike of Cuba was the only way to respond to the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles in Cuba.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara instead proposed the idea of a US Navy “quarantine” of the island. (US officials avoided using the word “blockade” because it’s an overt act of war.)
The Joint Chiefs “were not at all happy with this,” says Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington. These Pentagon officials “were prepared to go to war if the Soviets had not accepted the withdrawal of the missiles.”
US officials later learned that had the US military invaded Cuba, the Soviets were prepared to launch tactical nuclear weapons at the US, adds Dr. Pastor, who was national security adviser on Latin America in the late ’70s and McNamara’s son-in-law.
Robert Kennedy recalled in his memoirs that “the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimous in railing for immediate military action” and “forcefully presented their view that the blockade would not be effective.”
Note: the blockade was very effective. Perhaps this is something the U.S. Navy, at the very least, should have been aware of in advance? The Kennedy-era JCS were a group of men guilty of depraved indifference, which is astonishing considering the firepower available to these U.S. military commanders. American strategic forces, primarily Strategic Air Command (SAC), would have struck the CCCP with 3,500 thermonuclear weapons with a combined yield of 6,300 megatons had the Cuban Missile Crisis gone nuclear (which it nearly did on 27 October). The results would have turned the U.S. into a pariah state:
My research led to an unexpected outcome. In 1962, because of the disparity of strategic nuclear weapons between the Soviets and Americans, a general nuclear war would have destroyed the Soviet Union and Europe, but only damaged the United States. Canada and the United States had strong fighter defenses, and Soviet missile-carrying submarines were all in port, so the United States would probably only be hit by less than thirty nuclear weapons. That is horrific, but not a civilization killer; in comparison, the Soviets took proportionally a similar number of casualties during World War II. Western Europe would be devastated by numerous shorter-range Soviet missiles and in return, the Soviet Union would be obliterated by over a thousand American nuclear weapons. The American war plan for nuclear war was politically inflexible, not taking into account that a global war might not include all communist nations, so in following the plan, China and other communist nations would also be hit hard by the Americans.
Swedin’s research revealed that a Cuban Missile War would likely have killed 19.7 million Americans in the first day, which reminds me of a black 1960s satire:
George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson was inspired by a real, gruff USAF general…
Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay in particular “strongly argued with the president that a military attack was essential,” according to the Robert Kennedy memoirs.
…well, who do you know. My hatred of Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay from SAC is well established, but I was unaware that McNamara recommended to his warmongering boss that John F. Kennedy should make an example of the treasonous SOB:
President Kennedy ultimately decided on a blockade.
During negotiations with the Soviets, however, Robert Kennedy warned them that “there were indeed people in the Pentagon that would take action if Kennedy did not – that there could be a military coup,” Pastor says, adding that Robert Kennedy “wasn’t bluffing.”
After the crisis, McNamara went to the president and said, “We need to replace LeMay and [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. George Whelan] Anderson. They were both insubordinate, and we need to send a clear message on that,” Pastor says. “Bob McNamara told me this personally.”
The president told McNamara that for political reasons, he could only publicly discipline one person and told McNamara to choose. McNamara picked Anderson, whom Kennedy then nominated to be ambassador to Portugal.
My opinion of JFK has just dropped another notch or two. Kennedy had an obligation, to the American people, to fire rogue military officers demanding nuclear preemptive strikes. Nuclear ambitions and stunning insubordination were amongst the reasons Truman relieved MacArthur of command; LeMay and Anderson probably should have been prosecuted. This especially deserved a court-martial:
[M]ost extraordinarily, the commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen. Thomas Powers, on his own authority, without informing the President or any national security staff member, raised the Defense Condition (DefCon) level to 2—one level short of war—and broadcast his order “in the clear” (uncoded). Obviously trying to intimidate the Soviets, his behavior was confirmation of Gen. Curtis LeMay’s troubling assessment that Powers was mentally “not stable.”
A fair description of General Thomas Power, though that wasn’t “Iron Ass’s” assessment. LeMay described Power approvingly as being sadistic:
LeMay himself, when asked if Power was actually a sadist, he said, “He was. He was sort of an autocratic bastard. But he was the best wing commander I had on Guam [during the Second World War.] He got things done.”
The actions of the real four-star SAC commander were far more frightening than Sterling Hayden’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove. The actual “go code” would have been transmitted in the clear from SAC headquarters at Offutt AFB to bombers on alert (waiting on the ground at SAC bases around the world) and to the B-47s, B-52s and B-58s circling at their fail-safe points. SAC was happy to intimidate the CCCP even in the act of ordering the nation’s destruction. Rogue base commanders couldn’t order a nuclear strike without first finding a way to imitate General Power’s voice, and prevent Offutt from immediately interjecting and overriding the order. However, if the SAC commander himself went rogue…
I used to worry about General Power. I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force. Back in the days before we had real positive control [i.e., PAL locks], SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands, and he knew it.
—General Horace M. Wade, (at that time subordinate of General Power)
Thankfully, men like Horace Wade stood between Power and the microphones at Offutt. Still, nothing prevented USAF command-and-control in general from being Kubrickesque during the missile crisis:
Authorities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California were seemingly oblivious to the crisis. They test-fired a missile without first contacting the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, no one dealing with the crisis appeared to be aware of the scheduled test to assess whether the Soviets might misinterpret the launch as a hostile action.
I always wondered why the Kennedy Administration seemed singularly unable to control the Pentagon. Perhaps it was due to the Kennedy brothers having become overly occupied with their own criminal activities/committing acts of war from January 1961 until October 1962:
Several anti-Castro groups, operating under a CIA program (code-named Mongoose) directed by Robert Kennedy, went about their sabotage activities because no one had thought to cancel their mission, which could have been mistaken for assault preparations.
Whether through divine intervention or Khrushchev finally realizing Kennedy was just crazy enough to go nuclear, no mushroom clouds ascended above Moscow or Washington. But two years later, things again took a turn for the surreal.