Crisis Management, Cold War-style.
Mr. Secretary, I hope you don't have any friends or relations in Albania, because we're just going to have to wipe it out.
1. Command and Control, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Give me the order to do it and I can break up Russia's five A-bomb nests in a week...And when I went up to Christ I think I could explain to Him that I had saved civilization.
Major General Orvil Anderson, from a public speech delivered in September, 1950.
By the late fifties, with Eastern Europe under tight Kremlin control, the Soviets entering into strategic alliance with Communist China, and the explosion of revolutionary fervour across the post-colonial third world, the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff predicted a (near) future in which US military power would succumb to the Communist threat. They had impressed on Eisenhower, as they would on Kennedy, the urgent necessity of an all-out pre-emptive nuclear strike on the whole Sino-Soviet bloc to ensure the future security of the United States, and the survival of Western Capitalism. In 1959, this intense Pentagon pressure coupled with the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958 had convinced an uneasy Eisenhower to grant military commanders predelegative authority to deploy nuclear weapons "when the urgency of time and circumstances does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other persons empowered to act in his stead". When he entered office in 1961, Kennedy was informed by his National Security Affairs assistant that he could face
a situation [...] in which a subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action could start the thermo-nuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you (by failure of communication at either end of the line).
The success of nuclear command and control systems relies on maintaining an appropriate balance between civilian and military control of nuclear weapons. Civilian leaders like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan were haunted by the scenario of a nuclear exchange initiated by mistake, miscalculation, or on the whim of "some dashing lieutenant." The Joint Chiefs, meanwhile, resented Eisenhower's characterisation and maintained that "it is a prerequisite to national security that all possible means of defense be available to the Armed Forces for instant use." A fully centralised system of civilian control (only the White House, or the President himself, could grant permission to use nuclear weapons) decreased the chances of responding to a Soviet "decapitation attack", and rendered the entire US nuclear arsenal virtually useless. Alternatively, a highly delegative system (weapons kept on high alert under the control of field officers) would defend the US from a paralysing Soviet attack, but substantially increase the likely "event" of a general nuclear war. One position undermined the other. Each entailed unendurable risks and created the paradox that every Cold War President had to grapple with: the "always/never dilemma" - an assurance that weapons would always be ready for immediate use, but never used without an authorised command.
By the time Kennedy took office, these theoretical struggles were given the gravest footing in reality as the Cold War entered the era of mutually assured destruction. Both US and Soviet nuclear forces were now invulnerable. Between them, the two superpowers had the capability of blasting Western Civilisation back to prehistory. This knowledge prompted an etiquette of restraint between both powers that was eventually formalised into the concept of detente. For stategists, leaders, politicians, and historians this "balance of terror" was the only way of precluding World War III: the means to extinguish whole countries within hours decreased the probability of it happening. Eric Hobsbawm - who was in his own wedding service during the most dangerous hours of the Cuban missile crisis - stresses that nuclear stasis fermented an atmosphere of sober moderation between the Americans and the Soviets. But this very confidence in stability and restraint - the belief that no leader would risk total annihilation - actually encouraged nuclear blackmail, provocation and posture as a strategic and political tactic. Complacency increased danger.
This confidence proved justified, but at the cost of racking the nerves of generations. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, an entirely unnecessary exercise of this kind, almost plunged the world into an unnecessary war for a few days, and actually frightened even the top decision-makers into rationality for a while.
If, in hindsight, this balance prevented nuclear holocaust, it was a high-risk strategy and, in itself, paradoxical. It amounted to the ultimate system of control, in the sense that no rational decision-making process would ever lead to a suicidal nuclear exchange (as proved the case). And yet nobody could ever actually be in control of such a strategy: as an effective deterrent it relied on luck and contigency, on the avoidance of miscalculation, technical error, sabotage, and maintaining a safe balance of analysis, judgment, reaction and responsibility. Too many chance elements in the mix. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy were caught between Khrushchev - a Soviet leader dangerously prone to nuclear blackmail and "rocket-rattling" - and the aggressively pro-nuke Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon. The fate of the western world hung on the paranoia, bluff and bluster of an American military establishment that favoured pre-emptive nuclear war, and a Soviet administration terrified by this doctrine of pre-emption and determined to counter it.
The Pentagon war plan called for an immediate, unprovoked nuclear strike against targets throughout the Sino-Soviet bloc before the US lost the military initiative. Walt Rostow recalled the presentation put before Kennedy at the Pentagon:
The plan that he inherited was, "Mr. President, you just tell us to go to nuclear war and we'll do the rest." And the plan called for devastating, indiscriminately, China, Russia, Eastern Europe - it was an orgiastic, Wagnerian plan, and he was determined, from that moment, to get the plan changed so he would have total control of it.
The Joint Chiefs claimed that once hostilities broke out, "victory" relied on an immediate and massive bombing campaign, targeting all major cities and military installations. The first US integrated war plan (SIOP-62) presented to Kennedy was totally inflexible: the Joint Chiefs emphasised that any deviation from the plan would result in disaster. Kennedy didn't swallow it.
Despite the understanding that the United States had a large advantage over the Soviets in nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them, it was assumed that a nuclear exchange would bring "virtual incineration" to all of Europe and the United States. Kennedy staff members attending the briefing by the Joint Chiefs remembered how tense the president was listening to Lemnitzer
[General Lyman], who used thirty-eight flip charts sitting on easels to describe targets, the deployment of forces, and the number of weapons available to strike the enemy. There could be no half measures once the war plan was set in motion, Lemnitzer explained. Even if the United States faced altered conditions than those anticipated, he warned that any "rapid rework of the plan" would entail "grave risks." Kennedy sat tapping his front teeth with his thumb and running his hand through his hair, indications to those who knew him well of his irritation with what was being said. Lemnitzer's performance made him "furious." As he left the room, he said to Dean Rusk, "And we call ourselves the human race."
Eisenhower himself had sat through the same flip-chart display years before, and put serious consideration into the possibility of instigating a "preventative" nuclear war, before rejecting this idea on the final basis that
Every single nation, including the United States, that entered into this war as a free nation would come out of it as a dictatorship. That would be the price of survival.
Khrushchev was aware of the hardline opinions spewing out of the Pentagon and the pressure that the Joint Chiefs could put on a Presidential decision, and their power and aggression frightened him. Khrushchev genuinely feared that Eisenhower or Kennedy could be bullied into starting a suicidal nuclear war by Pentagon rhetoric and threats. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev told Kennedy "my role was simpler than yours because there were no people around me who wanted to unleash war." The US establishment was confident in its military superiority: it retained a second-strike capability larger than the USSR's first-strike. The notion of a "winnable" nuclear war had entered public discourse.
Nuclear war theory had percolated far down into the mainstream American political debate in 1960, with the sale of 30,000 copies of Herman Kahn's magisterial study
On Thermonuclear War, which brought concepts like 'counter-force' and 'second-strike' into the general vocabulary. By thinking aloud, Kahn made the idea of such a war thinkable, and argued that such a war would be survivable. There would be much more human tragedy, he acknowledged, but 'the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendents'. The appalled review of Kahn's book in Scientific American commented: 'This is a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it'.
These plans were devised by a potent combination of strategic war-planners - civil servants and academics conducting Pentagon think-tanks and writing in military journals, who viewed nuclear war as equivalent to the war games they devised, and understood megadeath statistics as a strategic balance sheet rather than Society's epitaph - and military Cold Warriors, many of whom were World War II heroes subsequently elevated to senior positions during the formative years of the Cold War. These thick-set, cigar-chomping boys were all rabid anti-communists, advocates of nuclear power and the pre-emptive strike, and unmoved by the moral and material implications of a full-scale general war. At the heart of their pro-war argument was a military paradox typical of Imperial power: you have to destroy in order to save. "The Soviets need to be wiped out before they wipe us out even if this means we'll be wiped out." A death count rising into hundreds of millions, every city vapourised, the sun blocked by smoke, dust and soot, air poisoned by radioactive fall-out: this was a trade-off for victory, statistics on the way to final military supremacy.
The head of Strategic Air Command, General Tommy Powers, was famous for laughing off the effects of nuclear radiation on genetic mutations with the quip: 'Nobody has yet proved to me two heads aren't better than one.' General Powers had little time for the civilian nuclear theorists who talked of counter-force strategies, deliberately avoiding Soviet cities and attacking only their missile bases. 'Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives. The whole idea is to kill the bastards," he shouted at Rand's William Kaufmann during one briefing. 'At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.'
Kaufmann retorted: 'Then you had better make sure that they are a man and a woman.'
Typical of these Cold Warriors was the Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay (above), Kennedy's blunt, bullish Pentagon antagonist. LeMay had formidable military credentials. In the final stages of World War II he he was put in charge of bombing Tokyo. To this end, LeMay devised a mean innovation. He stripped his B29s of guns and loaded them with incendiaries and explosives which he delivered in low-flying, night-time raids (in contrast to the accepted Strategic Air Command tactic of high-altitude bombing in the middle of the day). The tactical switch was devastating: Tokyo lit like a pyre, 100, 000 died in 6 hours, temperatures at ground zero reached 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, canals boiled and metals melted. Despite the barbarity - and illegality - of the attack, LeMay's raid was acclaimed and the airforce adopted his technique wholesale. By 1945, 75% of the bombs dropped on Japan's 63 remaining cities were incendiaries, apart from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which were nuked. After the war, LeMay took charge of the incompetent Strategic Air Force, building from scratch an airforce of unprecedented strength and reach. An American military icon - respected, feared, ridiculed and idolised in equal measure - his path to Air Force Chief of Staff was assured. Once there, he was - even compared to his belligerent colleagues - outspoken, aggressive and hard-hearted. Kennedy considered him typical of his type: unhelpful, absurd, almost inhuman, if effective during conflict. LeMay's own nuclear warplan entailed dropping 80% of the US stockpile in one operation, wiping out 70 Soviet cities in 30 days, killing 2.7million people, and inflicting 4 million additional casualties. Airforce strategists called this plan "killing a nation".
When Robert McNamara took over as Secretary of Defence and advocated General Maxwell Tayler's doctrine of "flexible response" as opposed to "massive retaliation," the stage was set for a final showdown between civilian government and the Pentagon Chiefs of LeMay's stripe. This happened in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 14, B-2 spy planes confirmed the existence of Soviet missiles on Castro's territory. The Pentagon Chiefs called for an immediate and unannounced bombing raid to "take out the missiles" followed by a full scale invasion. Seeing as they had, after all, been trying to provoke Russia into an aggressive confrontation anyway, Cuba provided the perfect opportunity to put their war plan into practice. While Kennedy informed journalists that "our major problem over all, is the survival of our country...without beginning the third and perhaps the last war," Lemay charged that a blockade on Soviet ships to Cuba was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich". Kennedy, for his part, saw the Joint Chiefs' bomb and invade option as flawed and provocative, while not actually ruling out the possibility that a military response would prove necessary. An invasion, he said, would be
tough, hazardous. We've got a lot of equipment, a lot of - thousands of - Americans get killed in Cuba, and I think you're in much more of a mess than you are if you take out these...bases.
Meanwhile, unannounced air strikes would be comparable to "carrying the mark of Cain on your brow for the rest of your life," remarked Kennedy advisor George Ball. Besides which, to begin an invasion or appove air-srikes without prior diplomatic effort would virtually ensure nuclear exchange between the two superpowers, a result Kennedy called "the final failure." For LeMay and his Pentagon colleagues any diplomatic maneuver designed to avoid confrontation was a defeat. But it almost wasn't. The Cuban missile crisis was the most dramatic moment of the Cold War, and the most dangerous. Nuclear war had never been closer. On October 24, Soviet ships ignored the US ultimatum as they made rapid progress towards the quarantine line.
US forces had increased their state of readiness from defence Condition 3 to DEFCON 2, only one level below readiness for general war. Soviet military intelligence had intercepted an order from the Pentagon to the Strategic Air Command to begin a nuclear alert.
B-52s flew into airborne holding patterns and waited for the order to invade Soviet airspace. Nuclear-tipped missiles were in final stages of pre-launch checks. In hindsight the threat seems inflated: it takes an imaginative jump, not a large one, to remember that the outcome, at this moment, seemed inevitable and disastrous. Everybody involved believed that World War III was imminent. Kennedy wondered if he had made a terrible mistake, that his actions had, despite his intentions, brought the world to the point of destruction. An exchange years later underlines the fear those in control felt at this moment:
At a retrospective discussion of the crisis in the Novosti building in Moscow in March 1988, the then US Defence Secretary McNamara spoke of coming up for air from the White House situation room on the Saturday, 27 October. Robert Kennedy would later call it 'Black Saturday'. 'It was a beautiful fall evening, the height of the crisis, and I went up into the open air to look and to smell it, because I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see,' McNamara said. Fyodor Burlatsky, who had been one of Khrushchev's advisors in the crisis, went pale. 'That was when I went and telephoned my wife and told her to drop everything and get out of Moscow. I thought your bombers were on the way,' he said.
John F. Kennedy - An Unfinished Life 1917-1963
Age of Extremes - The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991
The Origins of Military Doctrine and Command and Control Systems
Scott D. Sagan
Khrushchev - The Man and His Era
The Cold War
Part 2: The Reagan Reversal, coming soon.