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Chapter Seven Third World Violence, Nuclear Danger
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Loose Cannon on the Nuclear Decks

Accidents and miscalculations during a crisis could lead to a nuclear disaster that neither side anticipates or wants. In peacetime, Paul Bracken writes, "with so many checks and balances, procedures for authentication of orders, and independent human interventions overlaid onto the control system for strategic weapons, the likelihood of accidental or inadvertent [nuclear] war is very, very low." But "the situation becomes very dangerous … when the [accidental] stresses occur in the midst of a Soviet-American crisis."[3]

In the tension and chaos of an extreme confrontation, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and pilots could ignite a superpower war—and as we showed in Chapter 3, dozens, perhaps hundreds, might be able to actually launch nuclear weapons—no matter what the leaders of either side desired or ordered . As Barry Posen writes, "Conventional war rolls the nuclear dice."[4] So does any conflict or crisis that could escalate to combat between the superpowers.

The Kennedys, for example, had no illusions about their ability to prevent the Cuban missile crisis from careening out of control. In one incident, a Soviet submarine escorting merchant ships approached the U.S. quarantine line around Cuba; a U.S. carrier was under orders to force it to the surface, if necessary with small depth charges. As Robert Kennedy writes, the president wondered: "Was the world on the brink of a holocaust? … President Kennedy had initiated the course of events, but he no longer had control over them."[5]

Admiral Anderson, then chief of naval operations, later called the missile crisis "perhaps the finest opportunity since WWII for the U.S. naval antisubmarine forces to exercise at their trade [and] to perfect their skills." They did so all too well. According to the Department of Defense's "postmortem," the American destroyer Cecil "forced a Soviet submarine to the surface" on October 30. Indeed, the Navy succeeded "in surfacing five or six Soviet Foxtrot-class diesel-attack submarines in or near the quarantine zone," in at least one case reportedly by a depth-charge attack—that is, by fighting between major U.S. and Soviet naval combatants. According to an American admiral, one Soviet sub was crippled, could not submerge, and was forced to steam home on the surface.[6] What if a Soviet sub had been sunk? Or what if a Soviet sub captain, to protect the lives of his crew, had returned fire in self-defense,


sinking a major American vessel and causing many injuries and deaths? Such events can lead to war.

Equally alarming, in the North Atlantic U.S. antisubmarine forces hunted Soviet submarines equipped with nuclear cruise missiles, "which at the time were the principal element of the Soviet strategic nuclear deterrent forces." Attacks on them would have essentially constituted a first strike against the Soviet deterrent. This activity was "much more provocative than anything the President and his advisors had either approved or wanted." As John Steinbruner notes, despite "an extraordinary effort to co-ordinate the actions of the government and to subject those actions to exhaustive deliberation," "the efforts to bring American policy under central direction must be said to have failed."[7]

The Navy ran further risks. An American intelligence vessel steamed "just off the Cuban coast," and two warships, which "had the usual authority to fire at any hostile aircraft that approached them," crept to "within five or six miles of the Cuban coast." The Air Force sent a U-2 reconnaissance plane to the periphery of the Soviet Union on a supposedly routine mission during the crisis. When it "strayed" over Soviet territory, Soviet fighters scrambled to intercept it, and American jets were blithely dispatched to rescue it. On learning of this incident, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reportedly "turned absolutely white, and yelled hysterically, 'This means war with the Soviet Union."' Khrushchev later wrote to Kennedy:

The question is, Mr. President: How should we regard this? What is this, a provocation? One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time we are both experiencing, when everything has been put into combat readiness. Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step; and all the more so since the U.S. Government and Pentagon long ago declared that you are maintaining a continuous nuclear bomber patrol?[8]

Even the CIA got a chance to provoke fighting. Operation Mongoose, the agency's anti-Castro sabotage campaign, actually "ordered teams of covert agents into Cuba in order to support an invasion if it took place." On October 25, near the height of the crisis, the Cuban government foiled a sabotage attempt at the Matahambre copper mine. Amazingly, not until October 30 did the United States suspend Operation Mongoose attacks within Cuba—"once it had accidentally been learned that they were still going on!" But three six-man units were already in Cuba, and on November 8, in the midst of tense negotiations to end the crisis, "a


Cuban covert action sabotage team dispatched from the United States successfully blew up a Cuban industrial facility."[9]

Unanticipated dangers, as we have seen, shadowed other crises as well, often, as in 1962, at sea. Kaplan notes that, "generally speaking, after 1962 superpower military confrontations—at least in terms of the nearness of military units to each other—took place at sea." Blechman and Kaplan observe that the U.S. Navy, using "warships [that] often have nuclear warheads on board … has been the foremost instrument for the United States' political uses of the armed forces: at all times, in all places, and regardless of the specifics of the situation." The respected strategic analyst Desmond Ball points out: "There is probably a greater likelihood of accidental or unauthorized launch of sea-based nuclear weapons [than others], and the constraints on the authorized release of nuclear weapons are possibly more relaxed than those that pertain to land-based systems…. It [is] likely that any major conflict at sea would escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange relatively quickly."[10]

Even in calm times, the danger of accidental nuclear war lurks on and under the seas. Many collisions between Soviet and American warships have occurred, some during games of chicken. "Any one [of them]," Admiral Zumwalt writes, "could lead people to shoot at each other with results that might be by that time impossible to control." Harassment, some forms of which "are difficult to distinguish from preparations for hostilities," is also common, and "countermeasures to these provocations, such as maneuvering away from the threatening vessel, jamming or deceiving the adversary's electronic equipment, or directly harassing the threatening forces, could increase apprehensions on the other side, and thus 'prompt the very preemptive attack that they were meant to avoid.'" Soviet-American agreements have reduced the number and severity of serious incidents at sea, which in the late 1960s exceeded one hundred per year, but "serious collisions continue to occur at a rate of about half a dozen a year."[11]

American submarines on "Holystone" surveillance missions in and near Soviet territorial waters have come close to trouble many times. One "is reported to have collided with an E-class submarine in Vladivostok Harbor in the mid-1960's when photographing the underside of the Soviet vessel." On another occasion, in November 1969, "the U.S.S. Gato is reported to have operated as close as one mile … off the Soviet coast; later on the same patrol the Gato collided with a Soviet submarine 15–25 miles … off the entrance to the White Sea, in the Barents Sea off the northern U.S.S.R." These and other similar collisions—"together


with more than a hundred other Holystone intrusion missions that were probably detected by Soviet forces but that they were unable to locate—could have been the catalyst for a chain of events that might have run from a localized engagement involving the intruding submarine to a full-scale nuclear exchange." Ball adds, "The general orders for Holystone missions reportedly state that, if threatened, the submarines 'have authority to use weapons.'" Incredibly, "in the November 1969 incident, the weapons officer of the Gato prepared to arm a SUBROC (UUM-44A) anti-submarine rocket (which carries a 1–5 kt W55 nuclear warhead) and three smaller nuclear torpedoes, and the submarine was 'maneuvered in preparation for combat.'" Reportedly "only one authentication—either from the ship's captain or her executive officer—was needed to prepare the torpedoes for launching."[12]

During crises, the risk of unplanned nuclear war greatly increases: "Having nuclear weapons close at hand obviously makes it much easier to consider their employment—particularly in situations in which their use might provide the only means of achieving a particular objective or preventing one's own destruction." As Ball notes, "It is difficult to imagine a commander on an ASW [antisubmarine warfare] mission, having exhausted his supply of conventional depth charges and related antisubmarine munitions, not being seriously tempted to break open his cache of nuclear depth-charges." Though the sources of inadvertent nuclear escalation at sea could be reduced to some degree, "others are essentially immutable," and "it would be realistic to expect that any war would have a significant naval component." Therefore "even a conventional conflict should not be joined without national decision-makers having clearly and consciously determined that the purpose served by such action justifies the real risk of an all-out nuclear exchange."[13]

Even if leaders retain effective control over their forces in the midst of conventional violence, they might decide to use nuclear weapons anyway, as irrational as this may sound. Psychopathology cannot be ruled out, especially given the bizarre 1973 record. In peacetime a destabilized leader would probably find it difficult to convince his subordinates to start World War III out of the blue. Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked, "Some people wonder what would happen if I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day, decided I'd had it with the Russians, called the commander of SAC, and said, 'General, go get 'em!' You know what the general would say? 'Screw you, Mr. President.'" Gerald Ford recalls that "in the wake of Nixon's resignation, the newspapers were full of bizarre stories about his conduct in the final days. Some of


them indicated that [then secretary of defense] Schlesinger was so concerned about Nixon's mental stability that he had taken steps to make sure the President couldn't give orders to the Armed Services unilaterally."[14] But in the midst of a tense crisis or war, such checks on an erratic executive may not be so easy to apply. Would the commander of SAC have said, "Screw you, Mr. President," to Nixon in October 1973?

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Chapter Seven Third World Violence, Nuclear Danger
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