Preferred Citation: Schwartz, William A., and Charles Derber, et al The Nuclear Seduction: Why the Arms Race Doesn't Matter--And What Does. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.



If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us!
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Chapter Six
The Real History of the Nuclear Age

Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
—General Omar Bradley

In the early years after World War II, the United States considered using its massive nuclear advantage to reduce the Soviet Union to "a smoking radiating ruin at the end of two hours."[1] But the rapid development of the Soviet existential deterrent in the 1950s made the United States vulnerable to devastating retaliation. Since then, with the nuclear balance of terror firmly in place, a military advantage or disadvantage in the arms race—the main concern of the nuclear debate—has in fact never tempted the superpowers to attack each other and has never caused or even seriously contributed to an actual superpower crisis that threatened war, for the reasons explained in Part I.

American and Soviet leaders have repeatedly and intentionally risked nuclear war, but for a different reason—to back up foreign intervention and the division of the world into superpower-dominated spheres. In the early years, the superpowers clashed several times over the division of Europe. But the Berlin crises of 1958–1959 and 1961 showed that further confrontation on the continent would be far too dangerous. Neither side has provoked a crisis there since, and they probably will not in the future. As Noam Chomsky observes:

Some years ago it was perhaps realistic to suppose that Europe was the "tinderbox," but such a judgment hardly appears accurate today. If war does break out in Europe, it will probably be in reaction to conflicts arising elsewhere. Brutal repression will no doubt continue under Soviet rule, but it is extremely unlikely that it will lead to Western intervention; the day is long past when the U.S. was actively supporting guerrilla armies established by


Hitler in the Carpathian mountains or attempting to carry out coups in Albania, as part of its "rollback strategy." … It is also hardly likely that the U.S.S.R. would intervene within Western domains, even at or near its borders, any more than it has in the past: e.g., when the U.S. was engaged in destroying the former anti-Nazi resistance in Greece in the late 1940's, or backing the restoration of fascism in Greece in 1967, or supporting a ruthless military dictatorship in Turkey since 1980. Nor is it likely that either superpower will launch a military attack in Europe, or that either will attack the other directly.[2]

The restraints of the Cold War in Europe, however, did not apply to the Third World. There, the superpowers have continually used and sponsored enormous violence and, as we describe in this chapter, they have moved toward confrontation many times—in some cases waging tense crises, making nuclear threats, preparing nuclear weapons for use, and even considering whether to cross the nuclear brink.

In most cases, to be sure, the chance that a nuclear war would actually erupt seemed small at the time and still seems small in historical perspective. Even in the most serious crises, neither side has apparently come close to actually launching nuclear weapons or even to intentionally taking actions that could have directly precipitated such a calamity. To this degree leaders have been cautious, and the reason is clear: as we saw in Chapter 4, on both sides they have long recognized that a nuclear war would probably lead only to unimaginable destruction on a worldwide scale.

Nevertheless, a degree of nuclear peril is always present when the superpowers move in the direction of political or military confrontation, and certainly when one side actually prepares nuclear weapons for use or entertains the thought of using them. Each such incident is a nuclear gamble with uncertain odds, a roll of the nuclear dice. Again and again history has shown that no one can predict where crises involving states with massive nuclear-armed military forces will end.

The leaders of the nuclear states, as we will see, have long recognized the potential hazards of their Third World adventures. They have openly acknowledged that their actions could provoke a series of desperate reactions that, combined with unanticipated miscalculations, errors, and foul-ups, could produce a mad slide toward disaster. Today, as we will see, that danger is still real, perhaps more so than in the past. To see it we need only review the real history of the nuclear age—not the oft-told story of the nuclear arms race, but the hidden history of reckless Third World violence, intervention, confrontation, and crisis that has continually


tempted fate since 1950. Our point is not that such adventures pose an enormous risk of nuclear war, but that whether large or small the nuclear danger primarily lies here, as it has for many years.

Much of the danger, as we show, has resulted from error, miscalculation, and leaders' inability fully to understand or control complex, violent crises. But the problem is deeper and more troubling. American, and to a lesser extent Soviet, leaders have on numerous occasions intentionally raised the risk of nuclear catastrophe when they thought that could help them achieve their goals. On the American side, at least, that strategy has been explicit. One of the key U.S. foreign policy planning documents of the postwar era, NSC 68 (enacted in 1950 and declassified in 1975), reveals the American plan to give the Soviet Union "evidence … that we may make any of the critical points [in the world] which we cannot hold the occasion for a global war of annihilation."[3] That is, where diplomatic and conventional military means were inadequate, the United States would use the danger of nuclear war to intimidate the Soviet Union into accepting American designs for various regions of the world. American leaders have repeatedly reaffirmed that intention in word and, much more significantly, have followed the dictate of NSC 68 in deed—providing ample "evidence" that conflict throughout the Third World, if not resolved to American satisfaction, could in fact end up in a global war of annihilation.

Korea, 1950–1953

Referring to the Korean War, U.S. Air Force General Jack J. Catton notes that

General MacArthur and later General Ridgway [had] the atomic capability of a unit of the 43d Wing…. Those were B-50-A's, atomic-capable…. We could have atomic weapons very reliably and very accurately delivered within a period of about sixteen hours. We exercised that capability constantly throughout the war, of course on a simulated (but very realistic) basis…. That capability was there to be used and would be highly effective if our national command authority chose to do so.

The Strategic Air Command was alerted twice early in the war when U.S. ground forces got into trouble at Pusan and Yalu. Truman mentioned the nuclear option at a November 1950 press conference the day after Chinese troops surrounded U.S. marines at the Chosin Reservoir, bringing an alarmed British Prime Minister Atlee "scurrying across the


ocean," in Dean Acheson's words. "Diplomatic hell broke loose … the news conference set off alarm bells abroad about the danger of World War III…. The U.S. chargé in London cabled Washington that British public opinion was 'deeply troubled' that escalation in Korea could ignite 'general atomic war.'"[4]

"In the desperate days of December 1950," writes Richard K. Betts, "General Douglas MacArthur … requested thirty-four [nuclear] bombs for use against retardation targets, invasion forces, and targets of opportunity." Truman wrote in his diary for January 27, 1952, that the "proper approach now would be an ultimatum" that could lead to "all out war" destroying "Moscow, St. Petersburg [Leningrad], Vladivostok, Peking, Shanghai, Port Authur, Dairen, Odessa, Stalingrad, and every manufacturing plant in China and the Soviet Union."[5]

Eisenhower's memoir, Mandate for Change, states that in case of a "major offensive" by the United States, "the war would have to be expanded outside of Korea"—to China—and that "to keep the attack from becoming overly costly … we would have to use atomic weapons…. We would not be limited by any world-wide gentleman's agreement. … we dropped the word, discreetly, of our intention. We felt quite sure it would reach Soviet and Chinese Communist ears." Declassified minutes of the National Security Council meeting of February 11, 1953, reveal that Eisenhower "expressed the view that we should consider the use of tactical atomic weapons on the Kaesong, area…. Secretary Dulles discussed … Soviet success to date in setting atomic weapons apart from all other weapons as being in a special category. It was his opinion that we should try to break down this false distinction." Eisenhower was well aware of the terrible damage that even the primitive Soviet nuclear capabilities of the time could do. His memoirs note that if the United States used nuclear warheads, then there could be "problems … not the least of which would be the possibility of the Soviet Union entering the war. In nuclear warfare the Chinese Communists would have been able to do little. But we knew that the Soviets had atomic weapons in quantity and estimated that they would soon explode a hydrogen device."[6]

"Throughout the spring of 1953," Betts observes, "nuclear use in one form or other dominated the planning" for escalation of the war. "The principal division between the president and his military advisers … was on the range of nuclear options." In "a climactic May 20 meeting," after swearing the National Security Council to secrecy, Eisenhower approved a joint Chiefs of Staff plan. That plan, "as Eisenhower later


wrote, was to mount nuclear strikes against North Korea, Manchuria, and the Chinese coast." Indeed, "the president often went to great lengths in the secrecy of NSC consultations to promote explicit plans for employment of nuclear ordnance." Even after the armistice, the NSC continued its nuclear planning, forseeing "large-scale nuclear strikes against China" if the war reopened. "The principal targets were to be all forward airbases, with Eisenhower personally envisioning one atomic bomb on each field."[7]

Russell Weigley's History of the United States Army claims that 80-millimeter atomic cannons were actually sent to Korea. That report has not been verified, though Dulles announced at a December 7, 1953, meeting that the United States "had already sent the means to the theater for delivering atomic weapons." Eisenhower was later asked why the Chinese had finally settled. He answered, "Danger of an atomic war."[8]

Vietnam, 1954

Soon after the end of the Korean War, the United States again entertained the nuclear option—this time in Vietnam. A Pentagon study group concluded that three tactical nuclear weapons could relieve the French forces besieged at Dien Bien Phu. The Joint Chiefs of Staff thought that if the United States intervened, then atomic weapons should be used "whenever it is to our military advantage."[9]

French Prime Minister Bidault claimed that on two separate occasions in 1954 Dulles actually offered him tactical nuclear weapons—once for use against China, which was supplying the Vietminh, and once to rescue the French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Dulles denied making the offers. Bidault said he declined them. In Richard Nixon's description, Bidault told Dulles that "it would be impossible to predict where the use of nuclear weapons against Red China would end, that it could lead to Russian intervention and a worldwide holocaust." The U.S. Air Force chief of staff, General Nathan Twining, was not afraid:

I still think it would have been a good idea [to have taken] three small tactical A-bombs—it's a fairly isolated area, Dienbienphu—no great town around there, only Communists and their supplies. You could take all day to drop the bomb, make sure you put it in the right place. No opposition. And clear those Commies out of there and the band could play the Marseillaise and the French could march out of Dienbienphu in fine shape. And those Commies would say, "Well, those guys might do this again to us. We'd better be careful."[10]


Quemoy and Matsu, 1954–1955, 1958

An extremely serious Third World nuclear crisis occurred in 1954–1955 during a military conflict between mainland China and Taiwan over the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Occupied by Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist forces as they fled to Taiwan, but always claimed by the People's Republic of China, the islands are, as Eisenhower described, practically within "wading distance" of the mainland.[11] This crisis rehearsed key elements of the Cuban missile crisis and later crises—among them American leaders' willingness to consciously risk nuclear holocaust for minor goals of foreign policy; their efforts to quell the popular fear of nuclear war in order to run these risks; and the role of little more than luck in preventing a lurch toward disaster.

After heavy Chinese shelling of Quemoy and possibly preparations to capture the islands, the United States decided to support Chiang's defense of them, bringing the United States and mainland China to the "edge of war," as Eisenhower acknowledged. As historian Gordon Chang persuasively demonstrates on the basis of newly available documentary evidence, "Eisenhower actually brought the country to the 'nuclear brink,' far closer to war than a distraught public feared in 1955, closer than Eisenhower acknowledged in his own memoirs, and closer than most historians have heretofore even suspected." He "was privately determined to defend the islands, and to use nuclear weapons if necessary."[12]

Details of the documentary record make shocking reading. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Admiral Arthur W. Radford, totally supported U.S. defense of the islands and the use of nuclear weapons in case of a major Chinese assault, as did the rest of the JCS.[13] By February 1955 the JCS ordered the Strategic Air Command to begin, on an "urgent basis," selecting targets for an "enlarged atomic offensive" against China. A memorandum by Secretary of State Dulles on a meeting with Eisenhower on March 6, 1955, records the two men's agreement that "the use of atomic missiles" would he required to defend the islands. On March 10 Dulles told the National Security Council (NSC) that war with China was "a question of time rather than a question of fact" and that he agreed with the military brass that it would rapidly go nuclear.[14]

On March 25 Admiral Robert Carney, chief of naval operations, publicly revealed (apparently without authorization) that he expected war with China by April 15 and that the United States was planning


extensive nuclear attacks. On March 31 General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, provided eerie details in a cable to the head of the Air Force, General Twining, noting that one wing of bombers was already "in pos at Guam" with others on alert in the United States. The bombing plan was "ready for immed execution," he wrote; "target selections have been made, coordinated with other responsible comdrs and asgd to B-36 crew." McGeorge Bundy writes that in addition to nuclear-armed naval and air units in the area, "eight-inch howitzers that could have been supplied with nuclear warheads … were landed at Quemoy."[15]

On March 28 Secretary of State Dulles and his brother, Alan, director of the CIA, met with advisers to plan strategy. After the secretary proposed a "generalized" conventional and nuclear attack on China, "Robert Bowie, head of the Policy Planning Staff, and generally considered one of the administration's more moderate elements toward China, suggested that the United States announce it would 'from time to time' drop nuclear bombs on [Quemoy and Matsu] if they were captured by the Communists." Secretary Dulles thought that this plan would entail a "considerable waste" of valuable weapons and that the United States should not "splurge" its nuclear stockpile.[16]

Shortly after the publication of Chang's study, the Associated Press asked for comment from "a former senior counselor to President Eisenhower," who confirmed that "the President was definitely considering" the use of atomic weapons. The source gave details of a plan to drop several "small" (i.e., Hiroshima-size) atomic bombs on coastal Chinese air bases in the vicinity of Quemoy and Matsu, adding that Eisenhower and his aides understood that civilian casualties from such an attack could number "in the millions." The CIA had estimated that nuclear attacks on airfields and artillery opposite Quemoy would in fact cause twelve to fourteen million civilian casualties.[17]

Although the thought of these millions of potential innocent victims apparently did not bother American leaders, they realized that the populace at home and abroad might respond in horror. Dulles dryly noted at a National Security Council meeting on March 10, 1955, that the "United States and world public opinion must be prepared" for the use of nuclear weapons, and that much had to be done within the "next month or two." Indeed, he wanted to delay what he regarded as a nearly inevitable war with China in order to "create a better public climate for the use of atomic weapons." Admiral Radford "heartily endorsed" this position, although, understandably, "the rest of the NSC was practically


speechless." Dulles was afraid that if public aversion to nuclear arms were allowed to grow, "we might wake up one day and discover that we were inhibited in the use of these weapons by a negative public opinion." As Chang notes, Eisenhower too had long "wanted to change public attitudes about the atomic bomb" and "the widespread public squeamishness about its use." The president stunned the world at a news conference on March 16 by announcing that he saw no reason "why [nuclear weapons] shouldn't be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else." The next day, Vice President Nixon said that "tactical atomic weapons are now conventional and will be used against the targets of any aggressive force." On March 12 Secretary Dulles made the outrageous claim that American scientists had developed "new and powerful weapons of precision" that could "utterly destroy military targets without endangering unrelated civilian centers" and that these might be used in case the Quemoy-Matsu crisis erupted into war with China.[18]

Remarkably, the administration "virtually ignored the Soviet Union's potential responses," despite both superpowers' recent development of hydrogen weapons. Agitated, the British (among others) "feared that American belligerence would lead to world war." In reality, as historian H. W. Brands notes, "American leaders could not tell whether socialist fraternalism extended to a Soviet willingness to go to war over the offshore islands." The Soviet ambassador officially noted the possibility, warning that in case of a U.S.-Chinese war the Soviets would face a "terrible dilemma…. Confronted with a choice between involvement in a war in which they had no direct interest and abandonment of their chief and possible only real ally in [the] world, it is impossible in advance to say which decision would be made." Eisenhower, of course, was well aware of the Soviet "nuclear umbrella" for China, and in November 1954 told the NSC, "When we talk of general war with Communist China, what we mean is general war with the U.S.S.R. also."[19]

Eisenhower resisted the most extreme advice of the military, such as Admiral Radford's suggestion that the United States preemptively bomb mainland air bases to give the Chinese a "bloody nose." Aware of the looming dangers, Eisenhower and Dulles agreed on a new proposal to offer Chiang Kai-shek: if the Nationalists withdrew from Quemoy and Matsu, the United States would blockade hundreds of miles of the mainland Chinese coast to prevent a military buildup that could threaten Taiwan. As Karl Rankin, the U.S. ambassador in Taiwan, understood it, the U.S. Navy would interdict all traffic of "a contraband or war-making


character" and would "lay mine fields which would force coastwise junk traffic to come out where it also could be intercepted and controlled." Dulles even proposed putting nuclear weapons on Taiwan."[20]

Chang relates that

Rankin, who usually favored an aggressive policy toward the Chinese Communists and had supported the idea of a Nationalist blockade of the coast, was aghast. This proposal meant war…. How could the Communists accept a blockade of their coast or the mining of their own territorial waters? Radford agreed with Rankin's characterization of the proposal, adding that it would only be a matter of time before Chinese aircraft attacked American ships. Radford said he had fully informed Eisenhower of this probable outcome.

Chang agrees that "war would certainly have come if [Chiang] had accepted the evacuation-blockade plan."[21]

As Brands observes, that war was avoided "owed as much to luck as to skill, as [Dulles and Eisenhower] privately admitted." To the consternation of the Americans, Chiang, for his own reasons, flatly refused their offer, stating that "soldiers must choose proper places to die. Chinese soldiers consider Quemoy [and] Matsu … proper places for them." Unwittingly, Chiang probably averted a major, potentially nuclear, war by rejecting the reckless U.S. plan. Of course, Chiang's refusal to compromise on the status of Quemoy and Matsu created its own dangers of continued confrontation. But the People's Republic suddenly changed course, proposing negotiations rather than war and effectively ending the crisis. The reasons for this historic decision are unknown.[22]

Dulles later bragged: "Of course we were brought to the verge of war…. If you run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost." Three years later, in 1958, this logic produced a rerun of the Quemoy-Matsu crisis that again brought the United States and China "nearly to war." Again Eisenhower sent a directive to the JCS to prepare for imminent use of nuclear weapons in case of a Chinese attack on the islands, and again the Soviets explicitly threatened to intervene in case of an American attack on China and to respond in kind if the United States used nuclear weapons.[23]

Suez, 1956

During the serious 1956 Suez crisis, after the French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt, Eisenhower again sent Strategic Air Command nuclear bombers to forward bases and U.S. aircraft carriers with nuclear bombers


aboard toward striking range of the Soviet Union. While avoiding provocative military actions, the Soviets pointedly reminded the three attackers that they were vulnerable to "rocket weapons." Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin sent a note to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden warning that "if this war is not stopped it carries the danger of turning into a third world war." The French foreign minister, according to CIA agent Chester Cooper, told the Israelis, "We have no defense against missiles. I suggest that you do not belittle Bulganin's warning." Cooper reports that his British counterparts were "ashen" after hearing the Soviet warning. Eisenhower took the danger seriously, too. He told a White House assistant, "If those fellows start something, we may have to hit 'em—and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket."[24]

Lebanon, 1958

During one more Third World nuclear incident of the Eisenhower years, the 14,000-man American invasion of Lebanon in 1958, nuclear-armed ships patrolled offshore and Eisenhower again "ordered a worldwide military alert of U.S. forces." "Strategic Air Command planes were prepared for takeoff if necessary." According to William Quandt, "nuclear-capable howitzers were even landed in Lebanon," although others claim that nuclear ordnance remained aboard ship.[25] The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan D. Twining, "was ordered to 'be prepared to employ, subject to [Eisenhower's] approval, whatever means might become necessary"' to achieve American objectives. "It seems clear," Quandt writes, "that Eisenhower was referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons, an issue that was discussed several times during the crisis." According to Eisenhower's memoirs, these events again posed a risk of "general war with the Soviet Union," when Soviet nuclear capabilities were even greater than in the previous crises. Egypt's President Nasser requested assistance from Moscow, but Khrushchev told him, "We are not ready for World War III."[26]

Cuba, 1962

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is generally considered the great watershed of the nuclear age and is discussed in detail in Chapter 7. President Kennedy thought the chances of a superpower war were "between one in three and even." "One group, which included the majority of President Kennedy's advisors, believed we should seek to destroy the missiles


by an air attack" even though "such an attack would almost certainly require a follow-up ground invasion that might result in twenty-five thousand U.S. casualties and a corresponding number of Cubans dead or wounded" and even though "it was believed that … the Soviet Union would very likely respond by military action against the flanks or even the center of NATO"—that is, by an all-out East-West- showdown. As it was, President Kennedy chose the less aggressive tactics of quarantining Cuba, forcing "five or six" Soviet submarines to surface, and ultimately coming close to invading Cuba anyway. Like other presidents before and after him, Kennedy knew that public fear of nuclear war could constrain his freedom of action; he kept the entire affair secret until the decision to blockade Cuba, which he could not hide. As Raymond Garthoff, a participant in these events, recalls approvingly, Kennedy wanted to be "free of public pressure … free from external and domestic political pressures." Robert McNamara, then secretary of defense, recalls, "I feared I might never live to see another Saturday night on October 27."[27]

The standard view is that the shock of this crisis led both superpowers to a deep reevaluation of foreign policy and a commitment to avoid further nuclear danger points. Two noted Harvard scholars, for instance, write: "Since that time, both governments have exercised extraordinary caution about all things nuclear, circumventing interests in order to avoid fundamental clashes, cooling conflicts that might erupt."[28]

The historical record does not support such claims. Although both superpowers have certainly exercised some caution and no subsequent crisis has moved so near the brink as the Cuban confrontation, they have repeatedly come far closer to war in the Third World than most people appreciate. In some cases they actively sought confrontation for political purposes. Indeed, recklessness, not "extraordinary caution," may be the real legacy of the Cuban missile crisis, the official post-mortem of which "concluded that the principal error of the president and his advisers was that they had worried too much about the danger of nuclear war."[29]

Middle East, 1967

Only five years after the Cuban shock, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, then secretary of defense Robert McNamara recalls that "once again the superpowers … moved close to confrontation." Indeed, the Soviets used the new hot line for the first time on June 5, the day after


the lightning Israeli attack on Egypt, and again on June 6. Despite this dramatic evidence of Soviet concern and President Johnson's awareness that "the danger implicit in every border incident in the Middle East was not merely war between Israelis and Arabs but an ultimate confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and its NATO allies," the president sent the U.S. Sixth Fleet steaming toward the conflict zone.[30]

There the Sixth Fleet played a naval cat-and-mouse game with Soviet warships in which "the risk of U.S.-Soviet combat was often uncomfortably high." In one instance, on June 8, two Soviet warships "repeatedly intruded into the [American aircraft carrier] America formation, at times on a collision course with U.S. units." A Soviet patrol boat was observed "twisting in and out around the 77,000-ton carrier in dangerous maneuvers, attempting to force her to alter her course." These actions "continued for several hours, despite repeated demands by U.S. commanders that the Soviet ships withdraw."[31]

That same day President Johnson received word that the American intelligence ship Liberty had been attacked in international waters near the war zone, with much loss of life. As Johnson recalls, "For seventy tense minutes we had no idea who was responsible." McNamara "thought the Liberty had been attacked by Soviet forces." Armed American planes rushed toward the scene, while Johnson used the hot line to contact the Soviets. "Fortunately the episode occurred on the fourth day of the war when U.S.-Soviet tension was at a reduced level. Had Liberty been attacked earlier, before the hot line and other diplomatic exchanges had made the superpowers' intentions clear to each other, or later, when the threat of Soviet military intervention in Syria arose, the possibility of a sudden exchange between the superpower fleets might have been greater." One officer on board the Liberty wrote that the American F-4s "might have saved the ship, or they might have initiated the ultimate holocaust." McNamara has since said, "Thank goodness our carrier commanders did not launch immediately against the Soviet ships who were operating in the Mediterranean." As it turned out, the Israelis, not the Soviets, had attacked the American ship (officially an accident, but by some accounts a deliberate attack to make certain that military intelligence from the ship did not reach the Arab states).[32]

Such an accident or miscalculation was not the only possible spark for a world war. Some evidence suggests that in 1967 "Israel possessed at least a handful of nuclear weapons." Moreover, Anthony Wells notes, "As one Soviet writer later stressed, Washington would not have allowed


Israel to be beaten, while in the White House there was concern over 'what Moscow might do if the Arabs were defeated. The Russians had planted stories to the effect that they would not permit Syria to be taken over.'" Amid reports of Israeli advances toward Damascus and bombing of the city, Kosygin again used the hot line, on June 10, in effect threatening, according to McNamara, "If you want war, you will get war." According to Johnson, Premier Kosygin "said a 'very crucial moment' had now arrived. He spoke of the possibility of 'independent decision' by Moscow. He foresaw the risk of a 'grave catastrophe' and stated that unless Israel unconditionally halted operations within the next few hours, the Soviet Union would take 'necessary actions, including military."' Johnson observes that "in an exchange between heads of government, these were serious words: 'very crucial moment,' 'catastrophe,' 'independent decision,' 'military actions.'" On the basis of interviews with key participants, Wells reports:

The [Soviet] threat was taken seriously in Washington. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a key U.S. official involved with the crisis, has stressed that the Soviets were at the limits of tolerance: their hotline talk indicated that, if the Israelis did not desist, Moscow did in fact mean business, in the form of a massive airborne landing or drop. Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, recalls the White House expectation that the Soviets were on the verge of using their Airborne Troops: he and President Johnson "had never assumed any other."[33]

Acutely aware of the unfolding dangers, Johnson tried to get the Israelis to stop advancing on Damascus. According to Moshe Dayan, "Secretary of State Dean Rusk got in touch with our foreign minister, Abba Eban, and our ambassador in Washington and asked them in near panic where we thought we were heading." At the same time, escalating tensions and risking further American engagement in the war zone, Johnson ordered the Sixth Fleet to steam rapidly to the Syrian coast, changing its orders to permit an approach to within fifty miles. Johnson says that his purpose was to send a "message" to the Soviets that "no translator would need to interpret to the Kremlin leadership": "that the United States was prepared to resist Soviet intrusion in the Middle East," even an "intrusion" to defend the capital of an ally from attack by an invading American client. Additional hot-line exchanges continued "throughout the morning."[34]

Fortunately a new cease-fire was soon negotiated, and with the war essentially over the superpower crisis subsided. Rusk's "feeling at the time was one of despair if the cease-fire had not held and the Israelis not halted when they did." McNamara recently agreed that "if the Israeli-Syrian


cease-fire had failed, superpower military intervention in the region would have become a reality." Johnson wrote that "the peace of the world walked a tightrope between June 5 and June 10, 1967." When Algerian leader Houari Boumedienne visited Moscow in 1967 and complained about Soviet caution in the war, Brezhnev replied, "What is your opinion of nuclear war?"[35]

Suez, 1970

In 1970 three separate crises erupted that American leaders believed to pose risks of superpower confrontation. The first was the bloody 1969–1970 War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt along the Suez Canal. In January 1970, after much violence on both sides, "Israeli planes [U.S.-supplied Phantom jets] began to stage a series of lightning attacks against missile sites and other military targets deep in the Egyptian heartland, bombing the very outskirts of Cairo" and in one case killing "70 civilians and wounding many more." Egypt succeeded in getting new Soviet military equipment to deal with the Israeli threat, and "in April Soviet fighter pilots were noted for the first time helping defend Egyptian airspace," a step that William Quandt notes "greatly raised the risk of superpower confrontation." The Soviets also "began to man SAM [antiaircraft] sites, and they began to staff Egyptian army units down to the company level." In a "momentous decision to employ Soviet combat forces on a large scale for the first time outside the Eastern bloc," the Soviets ultimately "deployed large numbers of air defense aircraft and missiles to Egypt and 10–15,000 combat and support personnel to man them." These forces "were clearly prepared to fight a major battle if circumstances had required" and "may have incurred risks that far exceeded any before (or since) in their diplomacy in the Third World." One of these was "a direct confrontation between the superpowers over interests that were important but not vital."[36]

Indeed, Kissinger writes of bluntly drawing a parallel to the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet ambassador, Dobrynin, who could hardly have missed the point given Dobrynin's vital role in that earlier crisis. Far from concluding that this parallel demanded extreme caution, Kissinger decided that the main task was to "face down" the Soviets and "the Arab radicals." Incidentally, Kissinger's biographers, Kalb and Kalb, note that, at this point at least, Kissinger knew "next to nothing" about the Middle Eastern conflicts and that "he often admitted his limitations in this respect."[37]


Golda Meir threatened Nixon in a personal note stating that if the United States did not supply enough weapons to Israel, irrational actions by her government could not be ruled out, and "one cannot overstate the seriousness of the situation that will result." Kissinger believed that dogfights between Soviet and Israeli pilots became "a virtual certainty" by late April, but rejected what he derides in his memoirs as "the political strategy" recommended by the experts. Rather, in late May he told a meeting of the Senior Review Group: "What will discourage the Soviets is fear of confrontation with us. We have to have thought of how to convey that idea to them." By July 1 Prime Minister Meir was telling Nixon that she would soon feel compelled to bomb Soviet air defense installations, a move that Kissinger realized could produce "a direct clash between Israel and the Soviet Union," with obvious international dangers of the highest order.[38]

Although all parties to the conflict evidently made efforts to avoid such a clash, incidents that could have led to an Israeli-Soviet war did occur. On the night of June 29–30, Soviet SA-2 antiaircraft missiles "were moved forward, set up, and fired at dawn against attacking Israeli aircraft," with "two F-4's downed, the first losses of F-4's in combat. The Israelis were to lose two more by the middle of July and a third in the first weeks of August—severe losses given their small inventory and the American refusal to provide replacements." As Alvin Rubinstein observes, "The nearer Soviet crews and pilots drew to the incendiary canal area, the more ominous became the potential for a Soviet-Israeli crisis." Indeed, raising "the possibility that [the Soviets] might commit their own forces to the battle," SA-3 antiaircraft batteries moved to within range of the canal in early July, "presumably still manned by Soviet crews." In addition, "Soviet fighter operations intensified and began to take place … over the northern and southern flanks of the canal front…. Their presence aloft only a few minutes flight time from [the main Israeli-Egyptian combat] area raised the possibility that an air engagement would occur." Finally, on July 30, "Israeli Mirages ambushed a flight of Soviet-piloted MiGs south of Suez City, downing four."[39]

By this time, if not in 1967, Israel had probably developed atomic weapons. Peter Pry's study of the Israeli nuclear program concludes that although definitive information is unavailable, "by or before the early 1970's Israel [had] probably … armed itself with nuclear weapons." He notes that "some CIA analysts seem to believe that Israel had several bombs as early as 1968…. Tahtinen, in The Arab-Israeli Military Balance Today, suggests that Israel had actually built 'five or six' devices of


19 kiloton yield by 1969." Pry adds that CIA director Richard Helms, "speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 7 July 1970 … testified that the Israelis at that time had the means to build an A-bomb."[40] If true, this means that in the tense 1970 conflict two nuclear-armed states were engaged in open combat, as in the Sino-Soviet border clash of 1969. Even ignoring the risk of direct U.S. intervention and superpower confrontation, then, a nuclear war was possible. Fortunately a cease-fire prevented additional Soviet-Israeli combat.

Jordan, 1970

Another crisis was brewing. On September 15 King Hussein "placed Jordan under martial law and replaced his civilian government with generals." Two days later, in what Palestinians remember as the Black September, Hussein's army launched a "massive drive" against the large Palestinian forces then based in Jordan. Meanwhile, a Palestinian faction staged a major hijacking and held hundreds of hostages.[41]

Nixon was aware "that a crisis in the Middle East could lead to a superpower confrontation." He observes in his memoirs that "the potential for a confrontation between the United States and the U.S.S.R. loomed large. If the Soviets were committed to Arab victories, and we were committed to Israeli victories, it did not require much imagination to see how we both might be drawn in even against our wills—and almost certainly against our national interests." But as Seymour Hersh writes, "Nixon was determined to have his crisis and prove his mettle, as John F. Kennedy had in the Cuban missile crisis."[42] He and Kissinger ordered U.S. naval forces to the area.

Amid Israeli and Jordanian reports that Syrian tanks had crossed the Jordanian frontier to help defend the Palestinian fedayeen, more American military forces, notably including the 82d Airborne Division, were alerted on September 19. "Then airborne units in West Germany were moved to airfields, crossing the Autobahn in so conspicuous a fashion that the Russians could not fail to pick up the signals. 'We wanted to get picked up,' Kissinger told us."[43] Large forces of ships, subs, and marines, including several aircraft carriers, moved to the area.

U.S. government specialists on the Middle East were skeptical about the reports of major Syrian intervention. As one of Kissinger's National Security Council aides reports, "We were relying on [information from] the Israelis, who had a vested interest, and Hussein, who was panicked." Andrew Killgore, a U.S. State Department desk officer in charge


of the area at the time, notes that the United States had no direct sources of intelligence: "It was like the dark side of the moon." Killgore told Hersh that while some tanks (some, at least, with Palestinian Liberation Army markings) apparently did cross into Jordan from Syria, "we started getting these reports as if … they were invading in full force." Killgore and the National Security Council aide thought Israel had fabricated the intelligence reports to justify intervening and seizing the strategic Irbid Heights in Jordan. Hersh reports that both Nixon and Egyptian Foreign Minister Riad thought the Israelis were looking for a pretext to attack Syria as well, perhaps decisively. That action would likely have provoked Egypt to move into the Sinai and, Riad thought, into a new Middle East war.[44]

The United States likewise had no firm grounds to believe that the Soviet Union was encouraging a Syrian intervention. A National Security Council aide, observing that the Soviets were probably not involved, recalls: "We always seemed to be dragging the Soviets into crises. It's almost as if the Soviets weren't there, but we were going to discover them anyway." This aide briefed Nixon on events as they unfolded and reports, "I'd walk in and begin to give a specific listing of what'd happened overnight and Nixon would interject, 'Bomb the bastards,' or some other wild remark." Kissinger would then escort the aide out of the room.[45]

The United States and Israel discussed plans for military operations. including air strikes against Syrian forces and even deployment of U.S. ground forces directly into Jordan. Speaking to reporters, Nixon earlier "said that the United States might have to intervene in Jordan if Syria or Iraq threatened Hussein's regime." He "reportedly said that it would not be such a bad thing for the USSR to believe that the United States was capable of 'irrational action."' Quandt reports that "the USSR clearly took the threat of U.S. intervention seriously." Kissinger, according to his memoirs, favored letting Israelis rather than Americans do the fighting, except for rescuing American hostages. But Nixon adamantly supported the direct use of American forces, even as "Soviet warships were beginning to shadow our Sixth Fleet off the coast of Lebanon." According to Kissinger, the dramatic show of American force "appealed to [Nixon's] romantic streak," leading the president to remark, "the main thing is there's nothing better than a little confrontation now and then, a little excitement."[46]

As for where "a little excitement" might have led, Nixon observed in retrospect that "the possibility of a direct U.S.-Soviet confrontation was


uncomfortably high. It was like a ghastly game of dominoes, with a nuclear war waiting at the end." Kissinger evidently took the possibility seriously enough to wonder how the endgame might work out. According to Hersh: "In 1972, citing Jordan as an example of the impotence of American nuclear planning, Kissinger asked senior Pentagon officials to study new options for the use of such weapons…. Kissinger's complaint was that if he was unable effectively to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in such crises, 'we weren't getting our money's worth out of them.'"[47]

Kissinger recalls that his "biggest problem … was to keep [Nixon's] courage from turning into recklessness and the firmness into bravado." His own, more moderate, view was that at the moment of confrontation the national leader "must be prepared to escalate rapidly and brutally to a point where the opponent can no longer afford to experiment." In "his real baptism of fire in a crucial crisis management situation," Kissinger "leaned over large maps, moving toy battleships and aircraft carriers from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, arguing with admirals, expounding on military tactics and then picking up the phone to order the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] to change the deployment of the Sixth Fleet. The World War II sergeant had become all at once a general and an admiral and, during that crisis, a kind of deputy Commander in Chief." One top official explains: "Henry adores power, absolutely adores it. To Henry, diplomacy is nothing without it."[48]

He got his chance to use it. At a New York party the night of September 20, Kissinger conveyed to Rabin and Meir a "critical" request by King Hussein for Israeli intervention against the Syrian tanks. While the Israelis pondered it, "five U.S. divisions, based in West Germany, were put on full, ostentatious alert. The Sixth Fleet was expanded from two to five carrier task forces," though "it was clear that most of Western Europe [notably including Britain, the former great power in the area] opposed American intervention." Nixon "could have gone to the people, as Kennedy had done during the Cuban missile crisis, but he chose, four months after Cambodia, to keep this crisis as muted as possible."[49]

The "diplomatic approach" suggested by Secretary of State Rogers, perhaps with joint superpower efforts to end the crisis, was rejected. Instead, the Soviets were "again told that there would be an acute danger to peace unless the Syrian tanks retreated. No option would be ruled out." The Soviets in turn warned against "all" outside interventions.[50]

Hussein's forces reportedly stopped the Syrian advance. But the danger had not passed. "The Israeli Cabinet reached a decision. If … additional


Syrian tanks moved [into Jordan], with or without the Russians, then Israel would intervene." Rabin told Kissinger that in addition to air strikes, Israel reserved the right to send ground troops into Jordan, and even into Syria itself, if necessary to secure the "political goal" of saving Hussein's regime. But "the Israelis attached a very significant condition that could have involved the United States in a Middle East war." Rabin insisted that the U.S. promise to deter, and if necessary meet with force, any Soviet intervention against the Israeli attack.[51]

The Defense Department expressed the fear that the Soviets would in fact respond to Israeli intervention with air strikes against Israel, a horrifying scenario almost certain to produce an extreme superpower confrontation. (And recall that Israel may have had its own nuclear weapons at the time.) Nixon simply "snorted" and responded, "I don't believe it." On September 21, when a small number of new Syrian tanks reportedly crossed the border, he unilaterally approved Israeli ground actions against the Syrians after being awakened by an early morning phone call from Kissinger and engaging in "a few moments" of discussion.[52]

Even Kissinger, eager for a showdown, was disturbed by this cavalier action. He recalls: "I was not about to let the President run the risk of a major confrontation with the Soviet Union without consulting his senior advisors. An Israeli ground operation could produce a Mideast war." After such a consultation, according to Kissinger, the decision was suspended for debate, which if true could have been a fateful step. Other accounts suggest that Israeli ground actions may indeed have been authorized. Quandt writes, "It appears … that agreement was reached late on September 21 that Israel would be prepared to intervene in Jordan by air and ground if Hussein's position were to deteriorate further." Kissinger reports, in any event, that "our government was united on approving Israeli air attacks."[53]

Most important, in "potentially one of the most critical decisions Nixon had to make," the president gave the Israelis the remarkable assurances that they sought, paving the way for perhaps the most feared of all international events, a direct superpower clash in the Middle East. The significance was not lost on the Kalbs: "Their understanding was stark and historic: Israel would move against Syrian forces in Jordan; and if Egyptian or Soviet forces then moved against Israel, the United States would intervene against both ."

Israeli tanks, in great number, moved toward the Jordan River. The Golan Heights came alive with visible preparation for war. At military airfields throughout Israel jet engines were revved up and missile racks and bomb


bays were loaded. An American aircraft carrier eased to within sixty nautical miles of the Israeli coastline.[54]

The Russians watched.

Just in time, on September 22, reports arrived that Hussein's air force and army had hurt the Syrian tanks badly and sent some retreating home. By the following day the crisis was over, though the timing was so close that Quandt refers to Israeli or American military intervention as a "near thing." Quandt also notes "the virtual unanimity" within the Nixon administration over the goal of preparing for Israeli, American, or joint military intervention despite a clear awareness of the terrible risk involved.[55]

Even without direct intervention, the tension of the crisis could have produced a superpower clash. In his memoir, On Watch, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt describes how "Soviet ships equipped with cruise missiles trailed U.S. carriers around the clock … we … assigned ships armed with rapid fire guns to trail the trailers … to prevent them from preventing us from launching our planes by knocking out most of their cruise missiles before many of them took off."[56] In one case,

a [Soviet] Kynda -class SSM [surface-to-surface missile] cruiser and a Kashin -class SAM [surface-to-air missile] destroyer, probably reacting to low-altitude, high-speed surveillance by three U.S. carrier-based aircraft, went to battle stations, trained their guns on the U.S. destroyer trailing them, ran surface-to-air missiles out on their launchers, and appeared to track the departing U.S. aircraft with their fire control radars. Fortunately, the U.S. destroyer did not respond to these gestures, and no more aircraft were dispatched to the scene.

Despite this warning of the dangers of superpower naval jostling, "the intermingling of Soviet and U.S. forces in postures of high readiness lasted until the end of October, although the crisis began to wind down on September 25."[57]

Nixon, we should add, "did not go to great lengths to communicate with the Soviet leaders," ignoring another supposedly well-learned lesson of the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, though the hot line had been created after the 1962 scare to reduce the nuclear hazards of just this kind of situation, it "was not used during the crisis."[58]

Cuba, 1970

At the height of the Jordanian crisis, H. R. Haldeman writes, Kissinger burst into his office with reconnaissance photographs of the Cuban port


of Cienfuegos. Kissinger announced: "The Cubans are building soccer fields…. These soccer fields could mean war, Bob." When Haldeman asked why, Kissinger answered: "Cubans play baseball . Russians play soccer ." Thus began yet another Soviet-American crisis "with prospects of direct superpower confrontation."[59]

For Kissinger, the soccer fields were evidence of a large Soviet base under construction—one that could repair and refuel nuclear missile submarines, and in a debatable interpretation, might violate the vague, unofficial understandings that ended the Cuban missile crisis. Cubans have played soccer, however, since at least 1924. They compete for the World Cup. Although the Soviets were apparently constructing something, "intelligence experts in the State Department, the CIA, and even the Pentagon saw no tangible evidence of a major installation." But "State Department officials did not realize that Kissinger was eager for a confrontation, whether justified or not."[60]

Nixon had his own interest in Cuba. During his 1960 television debate with John F. Kennedy, he recalls in his memoirs, "Kennedy conveyed the image—to 60 million people—that he was tougher on Castro and communism than I was." As Kissinger notes, "Nixon was determined that no one would ever be able to make this charge again." Kalb and Kalb comment: "Nixon had lost to Kennedy in 1960; he was not going to lose to Kennedy's ghost in 1970."[61]

Nixon's reflections on the 1962 comparison in his memoirs are frighteningly explicit on this point. He criticizes Kennedy for going public with the Soviet nuclear deployments early in the original crisis because doing so allowed "the universal fear of war to put pressure on Kennedy," preventing him from taking more forceful actions. "So instead of dealing with Khrushchev from the position of immense nuclear superiority that we still held in 1962, Kennedy ended up by agreeing to refrain from any anti-Castro activities in return for Khrushchev's removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba"—apparently a humiliating show of weakness, in Nixon's opinion. "In view of what had happened in the 1962 crisis," Nixon writes, "I decided that I … would not deal with the Soviets from anything less than a position of unyielding strength."[62]

At the same time, "for all Nixon knew, [the Jordanian crisis] might trigger a showdown with the Soviet Union." Nevertheless he ordered contingency plans for military actions against Cuba, including the "tailing of Soviet ships." He also sent Kissinger to tell Dobrynin that the United States viewed the sub base "with the utmost gravity"—a clear reference to the White House's willingness to provoke an extreme crisis,


if necessary, remove the base. The Russian turned "ashen" (exactly the word used to describe Dobrynin's reaction on learning of Kennedy's decision to initiate the first Cuban missile crisis eight years before!). Dobrynin "understood the deeper meaning of Kissinger's warning. Not only would progress toward Soviet-American détente be halted, but an updated 'missile crisis' could easily result." Kissinger urged Nixon to "face the Soviets down." He believed that "we were close to … [a] confrontation" with the Soviets.[63]

Nixon reports that he ordered complete secrecy about these events, even as they were beginning to leak out, on the logic that as in 1962 "a serious war scare would sweep the country if the real story of Cienfuegos hit the headlines." Indeed, "some critics were already beginning to suggest that the President was 'manufacturing' confrontations with the Russians merely to demonstrate his machismo." Aware of the dangers, the American people might not approve of Nixon's confrontational actions, especially since (as we explain in Chapter 7) the sub base in question had little military significance. The people were not to know of the possibility, as Nixon candidly writes, of "what would have been known as the Cuban Nuclear Submarine Crisis of 1970 … which, like its predecessor, might have taken us to the brink of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union."[64] For although the general population had been terrified by the close call in 1962, the leadership was determined to continue brinksmanship diplomacy in the nuclear age. Secrecy was the only way to accomplish it.

Kissinger "solemnly warned the Russians that the President would regard the construction of a nuclear submarine base in Cuba as a 'hostile act"'—an interpretation he surely hoped the Soviets would not lend to the numerous American nuclear weapons bases around the periphery of their country. Secretary of State Rogers "was baffled by Kissinger's warning and criticized him for 'engaging in Cold War rhetoric.'… He refused to draw the apocalyptic conclusions about Soviet intentions." Quite correctly, "he did not think a sub base at Cienfuegos would upset the balance of forces in the Caribbean." Tad Szulc reported in the New York Times that U.S. intelligence sources said "they were at a loss" to explain the White House's aggressive actions.[65]

The Soviets quickly promised not to operate nuclear missile submarines out of Cuba. But that did not satisfy the White House, which insisted that not even repair and tending vessels for nuclear subs could operate from Cuban bases. Kissinger told Dobrynin that any servicing of subs in or from Cuban ports would "lead to the most grave situation


between the United States and the Soviet Union"—language uncannily reminiscent of the ultimatums of the original Cuban missile crisis.[66] The Soviets again relented. Had they not, it is clear that Nixon and Kissinger would have taken extreme steps, perhaps any steps, to keep the bases out of Cuba.

India and Pakistan, 1971

A short time after the three 1970 crises, the Indo-Pakistani war provided another opportunity for crisis, this time involving the forces of no fewer than four nuclear-armed states: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China. On March 25, 1971, Pakistani General Yahya Khan

imposed martial rule on East Pakistan, separated from [West Pakistan] by one thousand miles of hostile Indian territory. He was hoping to nullify the results of an election that clearly expressed the desire of the local population—the Bengalis—for political autonomy and, by military means, to put an end to the rebelliousness of the more populous eastern half of Pakistan. The result was a bloodbath. Yahya's soldiers embarked on what the Bengalis and their Indian supporters described as a ruthless campaign of murder, rape, and other atrocities against unarmed civilians in villages and towns throughout East Pakistan. By autumn, over ten million terrified Bengalis had fled across the border to India, which was ill-equipped to handle the flood of refugees.[67]

India threatened to intervene to defend the Bengalis, a predictable action that raised the possibility of a big war with superpower involvement. Meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on November 4, Nixon recalls: "I said that in some respects the situation was similar to that in the Middle East: just as American and Soviet interests were involved there, so Chinese, Soviet, and American interests were at stake in South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. 'It would be impossible to calculate precisely the steps which other great powers might take if India were to initiate hostilities."'[68]

That month "border confrontations—mortaring and shelling, tank engagements, and jet aircraft duels—between Pakistani and Indian troops along the eastern border had become frequent." Finally, on December 3, after "a major [Pakistani] air and ground offensive on Indian military forces stationed along the West Pakistan-India border," Mrs. Gandhi sent troops into East Pakistan, and hostilities also erupted on the border with West Pakistan.[69]


Contrary to "the State Department's best judgment" that India's war aims were limited and that the Soviets and Chinese would keep clear, Kissinger feared that India, egged on by the Russians, would "dismember" Pakistan and deal a strategic blow to the United States. He recalls that Nixon summoned the surprised Soviet minister of agriculture to the Oval Office early in December and told him that "if India moved forces against West Pakistan, the United States would not stand by," adding pointedly that the Soviets had treaty obligations to assist India, and the United States to assist Pakistan. Emphasizing the potential nuclear danger of the crisis, much as Kennedy did in 1962, Nixon says he told the Soviet to convey to Brezhnev "my seriousness in saying that it was incumbent upon the two of us as the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers not to allow our larger interests to become embroiled in the actions of our smaller friends."[70]

Rejecting what he terms the "bland assessment" of the State Department, Nixon, "in a display of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy aimed at India and Russia," sent an aircraft carrier task force toward the Bay of Bengal "to give emphasis to [U.S.] warnings against an attack on West Pakistan" and "to have forces in place in case the Soviet Union pressured China."

The four Soviet ships already in the Bay of Bengal were overshadowed by U.S. Task Force 74 of the Seventh Fleet…. It consisted of the Enterprise, the world's largest attack carrier, with seventy-five nuclear-armed fighter-bombers on board; the amphibious assault carrier Tripoli, carrying a Marine battalion-landing team of 2,000 troops and twenty-five assault helicopters; three guided-missile escorts … four gun destroyers … and a nuclear attack submarine.

As Morton Halperin observes, "Since the [U.S.] fleet was equipped with nuclear weapons, and since it had little effective conventional capability to prevent an Indian invasion, some observers have viewed this action as constituting an implicit nuclear threat." The Soviets, for their part, assembled a naval force that included a minesweeper, a destroyer, a conventional attack submarine, a tank-landing ship augmented by a cruise missile-armed cruiser, and a sub equipped with antiship missiles. Later another Soviet anticarrier naval force was dispatched, amid Soviet guarantees to India that, according to the CIA, "the Soviet Union [would] not allow the [U.S.] Seventh Fleet to intervene" and "would open a diversionary action" in Xinjiang if China (by then a nuclear power) intervened against India.[71]

Beneath the "apparent calm" of the superpower naval comingling "was considerable tension," and "as in earlier confrontations, the conditions


existed for an accidental combat exchange." One fear was that the Indian Navy would make a show of force, which could have been extremely dangerous because Indian Foxtrot-class submarines were, as far as U.S. observers knew, indistinguishable from those that the USSR had already deployed on the scene." Like others before it, this crisis also showed that superpower naval posturing, "once initiated, can take on a life of its own, largely independent of the crisis which started it. The Indo-Pakistani War was over on December 17, but the intense phase of the naval interaction did not begin until December 22, when elements of the first Soviet augmentation group arrived in the vicinity of [the American aircraft carrier] Enterprise . The naval interaction continued until Enterprise left the Indian Ocean on January 8, 1972."[72]

Drawing on its own intelligence as well as U.S. official statements, India also feared that the United States might try to use its warships to evacuate Pakistani soldiers trapped in East Pakistan. This "was cause for grave concern, for it would place India in the position of having to initiate military action against nonbelligerent American forces," leading to the possibility of a much wider crisis in which the Soviet Union might feel pressed to intervene. "To prevent any such peaceful evacuation the Indian Air Force was quickly ordered to destroy all ships in East Pakistani harbors, to keep all East Pakistani airports under constant attack to deter possible helicopter landings," and, more ominously, "to make preparations to sink any Pakistani troop ships attempting to link up with the U.S. task force."[73]

In the Nixon administration's first use of the hot line, the president sternly warned the Soviets, "I cannot emphasize too strongly that time is of the essence to avoid consequences neither of us want." Nixon understood "the danger of a great power confrontation" but accepted Kissinger's analysis: "We don't really have any choice. We can't allow a friend of ours and China's [Pakistan] to get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia's [India]."[74]

Kissinger's memoirs reveal extreme concern over an American suspicion that the Chinese were about to intervene in the war on behalf of Pakistan: "If so, we were on the verge of a possible showdown. For if China moved militarily, the Soviet Union—according to all our information—was committed to use force against China…. Nixon decided—and I fully agreed—that if the Soviet Union threatened China we would not stand idly by." Here is another dramatic war-and-peace decision, this time involving a three-way conflict between nuclear powers, that Nixon made "without informing either his Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense." Nixon then ordered the carrier task force previously


dispatched to steam right into the Bay of Bengal, a dramatic step in the midst of war that led to another use of the hot line. When the Chinese intention not to intervene became clear, the task force was halted and then, after further hot-line discussion, redispatched into the bay. Kissinger claims that the goals were to warn the Soviets "that matters might get out of control on our side too" and to prepare U.S. forces "to back up the Chinese if at the last moment they came in after all." Hall believes that "an [Indian] attack on West Pakistan … would have posed a serious risk of Chinese intervention," noting that China conducted "troop movements along India's northern border and had issued two sharp warnings to New Delhi on the morning of December 16." Nixon concluded later that "we had … once again avoided a major confrontation with the Soviet Union." During secret 1975 grand jury testimony to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, Nixon "shocked the lawyers" by stating—albeit with some exaggeration—that the United States had come "close to nuclear war" in the 1971 crisis. One attorney recalls his claim that "we had threatened to go to nuclear war with the Russians." In his 1985 interview with Time, Nixon said that had the Chinese intervened and the Soviets reacted, he would have used nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.[75]

As Hall observes, the Indian government was confused about the purpose of the U.S. naval task force and failed to grasp that its mission was to deter Indian moves against West Pakistan. "For some four days Indian defense officials pondered the likely purpose of the U.S. task force; apparently they never reached a definitive conclusion…. Few Indian officials seem to have given serious thought during the war to the possibility of a link between the movements of U.S. naval forces and the principal Nixon-Kissinger objective of impressing New Delhi with the dangers of any major military action against West Pakistan." And in the end "Soviet and Indian support for a cease-fire was not the result of U.S. military pressure generated by Task Force 74." Nixon and Kissinger did not acknowledge the failure of their strategy, for as Hall observes, "few political executives can be expected to have both the intellectual detachment and political courage to state publicly that the risks of escalation associated with U.S. military deployment were assumed unnecessarily."[76]

Vietnam, 1968–1972

Unsurprisingly, the Vietnam War, which proceeded throughout the period under discussion, provided many opportunities for superpower


confrontation. One was the 1968 siege of American marines at Khe Sanh, when General Westmoreland wanted a contingency plan for a nuclear strike to save the unit. Westmoreland reflects:

Because the region around Khe Sanh was virtually uninhabited, civilian casualties would be minimal. If Washington officials were so intent on "sending a message" to Hanoi, surely small tactical nuclear weapons would be a way to tell Hanoi something, as two nuclear atomic bombs had spoken convincingly to Japanese officials during World War II and the threat of atomic bombs induced the North Koreans to accept meaningful negotiations during the Korean War. It could be that use of a few small tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam—or even the threat of them—might have quickly brought the war there to an end.[77]

So it might, and much more too.

Morton Halperin notes that "Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968, as Eisenhower had in 1952, with the promise of a secret plan to end the war. It was the same plan: a nuclear threat." Nixon told Time magazine in 1985 that when he took office he considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam.[78]

In 1969, as H. R. Haldeman reports, Nixon threatened the North Vietnamese with massive escalation of the war, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons, if they did not accept his negotiating terms. Haldeman's memoirs describe what must be the most outrageous version of "good cop-bad cop" ever conceived:

We [he and Nixon] were walking along a foggy beach after a long day of speechwriting. He said, "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

The man who "slipped the word" to the North Vietnamese was "a brilliant, impulsive, witty gentleman with an engaging German accent—Henry Kissinger." According to Ellsberg, Robert Morris, who worked with Kissinger on these plans, "reports seeing the actual mission folders, including photographs, for the nuclear targets recommended to the president; one of them was a railhead in North Vietnam a mile and a half from the Chinese border." So much for moderation and prudence after 1962.[79]

Some of Nixon's aides believed the madman theory was more than bluff. Hersh reports Charles Colson's recollection that "one night while sipping Scotch, [NATO ambassador] Bob [Ellsworth] said, 'The Old


Man … [will] drop the bomb before the year is out and that will be the end of the war."' Apparently Kissinger even asked two scientists who had studied nuclear options in Vietnam for President Johnson to review the nuclear target folders. According to Hersh, they were "distressed at the nuclear option" and asked biochemist Paul Doty, a friend of Kissinger's, to discourage it. One of the scientists knew Haldeman and approached him as well. Haldeman said he also opposed the nuclear option "on the simple grounds of election politics." "Using nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War," Hersh observes, "would not help elect Richard Nixon in 1972."[80]

Sometime in October 1969, Hersh writes, "Nixon and Kissinger decided to send a direct military signal to the Soviet Union and its allies…. The Strategic Air Command was ordered to place its nuclear-armed B-52 aircraft on 'combat ready status'—a full alert." Ray B. Sitton, then a Strategic Air Command colonel known in the Pentagon as "Mr. B-52," comments that "the guy on the other side [the Soviet Union] saw what looked like a DefCon I"—the highest possible alert. Even in the darkest days of the Cuban missile crisis, the Strategic Air Command only went as far as Defcon II. The "guy on the other side" wisely declined to respond in kind. The alert "lasted an almost unbelievable twenty-nine days without public knowledge." It finally ended, according to Hersh, only because SAC commanders complained that their B-52s could no longer handle the strain.[81]

Former aides to Kissinger, Hersh adds, recall talk about using nuclear weapons "throughout the Vietnam war." In early 1971, when the South Vietnamese were building up forces to invade Laos, "that possibility was repeatedly raised by the President in his late-night telephone calls to Kissinger." Ross Terrill reports that the Chinese became concerned that Nixon might actually use nuclear weapons at that time and placed forces on alert in the border province of Yunnan. Though Hersh found no direct evidence of an imminent use of nuclear weapons, a CIA official then stationed at the agency's operations center told him that the Air Force had issued a top secret "stand-down" order banning all U.S. operations in and over a certain part of North Vietnam. "It's a standard indicator for a nuclear attack," the CIA official said. "We were talking about it—that if the Soviets had done this on the Chinese border, we'd be scared stiff." CIA officials assumed that a stand-down order meant that they'[d] reached the point of activating" a nuclear weapon.[82]

The United States perhaps tempted fate on other occasions in Vietnam as well—for example, in the lethal bombing in 1972 of four Soviet merchant


ships in Haiphong harbor (officially by accident). Nixon found it "interesting—and important—that [Soviet] protests were kept relatively low-keyed," as they also were when the United States bombed Hanoi, mined Haiphong harbor, and even bombed North Vietnam while Soviet Premier Kosygin was in the country.[83]

Middle East, 1973

The Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 produced several serious nuclear danger points, including the most explicitly nuclear, and most bizarre. superpower confrontation since 1962. The war began on October 6, that year a holy day for both Muslims and Jews, when Egyptian and Syrian units attacked Israeli forces stationed on territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war.[84] Peter Pry writes that "the decision to launch the October War was evidently based on a miscalculation that nearly resulted in a nuclear catastrophe. Israel apparently was prepared to retaliate with atomic force." In 1976 Time magazine reported:

At the start of the 1973 October War … the Egyptians had repulsed the first Israeli counterattacks along the Suez Canal, causing heavy casualties, and Israeli forces on the Golan Heights were retreating in the face of a massive Syrian tank assault. At 10 p.m. on October 8, the Israeli Commander on the northern front, Major General Yitzhak Hoffi, told his superior: "I am not sure that we can hold out much longer." After midnight, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan solemnly warned Premier Golda Meir: "This is the end of the third temple." Mrs. Meir thereupon gave Dayan permission to activate Israel's Doomsday weapons. As each bomb was assembled, it was rushed off to waiting air force units. Before any triggers were set, however, the battle on both fronts turned to Israel's favor.[85]

According to Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel, and Uri Bar-Joseph as well, "It seems that a decision to consider the use of a nuclear threat was made by Israel's top establishment officials. There are indications that Dayan gave an order secretly to put in combat readiness, for the first time, Israeli-made Jericho SS missiles, carrying nuclear warheads, as well as Kfir and Phantom bomber fighters equipped with nuclear devices. Altogether, 13 Israeli-made nuclear weapons were put on alert." Leonard Spector reports that "former and current U.S. officials" he interviewed recently "confirmed that Israel secretly readied nuclear weapons for possible use at this time."[86]

During the fighting, each superpower supplied its allies with military equipment and "alternated between urging a prompt cease-fire and


using delaying tactics to postpone one, depending on the tide of the battle and estimates of the course of further hostilities."[87] BY October 11 the Israelis were pushing deep into Syria, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan publicly said he was going all the way to Damascus.

Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin told Kissinger the obvious: that the USSR "could not be indifferent to threats to Damascus" and that "matters might get out of hand." In his memoirs, Kissinger (who appears to have been in charge, with Nixon distracted by domestic events) reflects at this point on the merits of "intransigence in the face of menace"—even as the Soviets were complaining about Russian casualties in Israeli attacks on civilian targets in Syria and Egypt and on a Soviet merchant ship. Dobrynin brought a message to Kissinger warning: "The Soviet Union will of course take measures which it will deem necessary to defend its ships and other means of transportation."[88] On the very day that Congress passed the War Powers Act, intended to restrict executive authority for unilateral war making, Kissinger told Dobrynin that the United States would intervene militarily if the Soviets did.

Soviet and American warships were, as Kissinger lightly puts it, "milling around" together and, as in previous crises, could have engaged each other through accident or miscalculation. The chief of naval operations, Admiral Zumwalt, later wrote, "I doubt that major units of the U.S. Navy were ever in a tenser situation since World War II ended than the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean was for … [that] week." Though both sides took care to avoid naval violence, potentially dangerous incidents did occur. "There were instances of Soviet ships training their guns on U.S. ships, shining searchlights on U.S. ships at night, firing flares near U.S. patrol aircraft, and maneuvering close to U.S. ships," all of which "caused concern in the U.S. units involved." On October 25 U.S. "aircraft detected two small, high-speed surface craft approaching the [U.S. carrier] Independence task group. The group assumed a defensive posture, but fortunately the craft were identified as Israeli before stronger action became necessary." For the first time in a superpower crisis, Soviet ships also took actions that "had an immediate connection with the war" in progress and thus risked coming under attack by Israeli forces. They evacuated Soviet personnel from Egyptian and Syrian ports, maintained intelligence ships near the war zone, provided protection for the Soviet sealift and airlift of military cargo to Arab states, and evidently even used regular Soviet Navy ships to move some supplies. The Israelis did not challenge Soviet warships, despite their important role in keeping the Arab states equipped to fight. But the


Israelis did bomb a Soviet cultural center in Damascus as well as Soviet transport aircraft in Syria, and they sank a Soviet merchant ship in the port of Tartus, leading the Soviets to warn of "grave consequences for Israel itself."[89]

Kissinger told Alexander Haig that it might soon be time to mount an all-out airlift to Israel "no matter what the risk of confrontation." As cease-fire efforts were breaking down, he told the British, "I think developments now are going to drive us towards a confrontation." He reflects in his memoirs that "once a stalemate had become apparent, either by Soviet design or confusion, we moved decisively, even brutally, to break it." And he remarked to Brent Scowcroft, "Since we are going to be in a confrontation we should go all-out."[90] Ironically, in the midst of the raging Middle Eastern war and tense superpower standoff, and with a major nuclear crisis attributable mostly to Kissinger only days away, the secretary of state was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 16.

The following day Brezhnev informed Washington that he had no interest in a direct showdown. On October 21 in Moscow, Kissinger and Brezhnev negotiated a cease-fire arrangement (the day after the "Saturday Night Massacre" in Washington, when Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest during the Watergate affair). Each superpower then sought the acquiescence of its client—a process that nearly led to disaster.

The Soviets gained Sadat's approval of the plan "only after Brezhnev assured him that, if necessary, the U.S.S.R. would act unilaterally to ensure Israel's observance of the cease-fire." Kissinger flew directly to Israel. "About halfway to Tel Aviv," he writes, "it dawned on me that we were heading into a war zone." Perhaps this insight was mostly of personal significance, or perhaps Kissinger realized that the downing of the U.S. secretary of state's plane might raise the kind of wider danger normally found only in spine-tingling adventure novels. In any case, he decided that "it might be a good idea to arrange some protection by aircraft from the US Sixth Fleet," a "large number" of which escorted him from Cyprus all the way to Tel Aviv. Evidently, he did not consider that this idea might have dangers of its own.[91]

Kissinger secured Israeli acceptance of the cease-fire despite "grumbles about how Egypt's Third Army might have been fully encircled and destroyed in another three days of fighting." In Years of Upheaval he openly admits: "I had indicated that I would understand if there was a


few hours 'slippage' in the cease-fire deadline while I was flying home." That is, he gave the Israelis permission to continue attacking the Third Army after the cease-fire went into effect, violating the solemn assurances he had just given the Soviets. Furthermore, "informed Israeli accounts make clear that Kissinger was even more explicit, commenting, for example, 'Well, in Vietnam the cease-fire didn't go into effect at the exact time that was agreed on.' Moreover, he intentionally scotched efforts to provide U.N. supervision for the cease-fire, knowing that the Israelis had been pressing for more time to destroy the Egyptian Army."[92]

As Israel continued "an offensive of critical significance," the crisis ignited again in a far more ominous way. The Soviets realized that Kissinger had double-crossed them, and they had made a fateful promise to Sadat. Brezhnev complained urgently over the hot line. Sadat took the extraordinary step of requesting American intervention to stop the Israelis, who finally did offer to stop, but only after achieving their objective: cutting off the Third Army and thereby posing "a potential threat to Cairo itself." As Kissinger writes: "Starving the Third Army out would be a slower process than destroying it militarily. But it would lead to the same result and was almost certain to bring about a confrontation with the Soviets. They could not possibly hold still while a cease-fire they had cosponsored was turned into a trap for a client state." Nevertheless, another cease-fire on this basis went into effect on October 24.[93] "

Fighting broke out again almost immediately, including an Israeli attack on an Egyptian naval base in the city of Suez. Sadat repeated his plea for American action to rein in Israel. The Soviets publicly warned Israel of the "gravest consequences" if it did not desist. Later that day, a desperate Sadat requested joint superpower intervention to enforce the cease-fire, an idea that the Soviets said they would bring to the U.N. Security Council. Kissinger writes, "We were determined to resist by force if necessary the introduction of Soviet troops into the Middle East regardless of the pretext under which they arrived"—the "pretext" being a request by President Sadat for both Soviet and U.S. troops to station themselves on sovereign Egyptian territory to enforce a U.N. cease-fire that the United States had helped negotiate and that a U.S. client was flagrantly violating.[94]

By this point Nixon, enmeshed in the Watergate scandals, was evidently under enormous psychological strain and was possibly unstable. "We were," Kissinger writes, "heading into what could have become the gravest foreign policy crisis of the Nixon Presidency—because it involved


a direct confrontation of the superpowers—with a President overwhelmed by his persecution…. [He was] as agitated and emotional as I had ever heard him." Nixon even "expressed the hope that at a briefing scheduled for the next morning I [Kissinger] would tell the Congressional leadership about his central, indispensable role in managing the Mideast crisis. He had already urged me to call some Senators to make this pitch—a symptom of the extremity in which this proud man felt himself." Kissinger quotes him as saying, in reference to his domestic critics: "They are doing it because of their desire to kill the President. And they may succeed. I may physically die."[95]

The White House told Sadat, "Should the two great nuclear powers be called upon to provide forces, it would introduce an extremely dangerous potential for great-power rivalry in the area." Over the telephone, Dobrynin told Kissinger that the Soviets might introduce the U.N. resolution if the nonaligned countries did not. Kissinger writes: "I told him not to push us to the extreme. We would not accept Soviet troops in any guise. Dobrynin replied that in Moscow, 'they have become so angry, they want troops."'[96]

Brezhnev wrote a letter supporting joint intervention to enforce the cease-fire and added, "I will say it straight that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally." Kissinger called the full message "one of the most serious challenges to an American President"; Senator Fulbright called it "urgent"; Senator Jackson called it "brutal, rough."[97]

American intelligence picked up what one analyst terms "ambiguous, but alarming" evidence of Soviet preparations for intervention—possibly to deal with the situation on the Suez, but perhaps simply to save Syria in case the Israelis drove into Damascus as threatened.[98] Reportedly, the Soviets put their air force and all seven of their airborne divisions (totaling only about fifty thousand men) on alert, established an airborne command post, and prepared to move their forces.[99] Seven Soviet amphibious assault vessels and two helicopter carriers arrived in the Mediterranean, putting the Soviet fleet there at the "unprecedented" level of eighty-five ships. American intelligence reportedly noted unusual Soviet activities and communications that appeared to indicate an imminent major operation. By noon on October 24, as Blechman and Hart recount, "a large portion of the Soviet airlift fleet could not be located by U.S. intelligence systems, electronic intercepts indicated that Soviet flight plans for the next day were being changed, and certain


'communications nets' showed a surge in activity, indicating that a major change in Soviet operations could be expected soon."[100]

Journalist Elizabeth Drew calls the following hours "Strangelove Day." Kissinger, evidently in collaboration with Alexander Haig, decided not to wake the president to inform him of Brezhnev's crucial letter. Instead Kissinger called an urgent meeting of the Washington Special Action Group, which in Nixon's absence, ordered American military forces worldwide, both conventional and nuclear, to go to a Defcon III alert—the highest since the Cuban missile crisis—around midnight that night. Defcon V is normal peacetime status, though some forces, such as the Strategic Air Command, were routinely kept at Defcon IV. As Kissinger explains, "Defcon I is war. Defcon II is a condition in which attack is imminent. Defcon III … is in practice the highest state of readiness for essentially peacetime conditions."[101]

Yet "something more was necessary." Sixty B-52 nuclear bombers moved from their Guam base to the United States and joined the Strategic Air Command alert of American strategic nuclear forces to "give the Soviets another indication that we were assembling our forces for a showdown." Several aircraft carriers steamed toward the conflict zone, and the 82d Airborne, with fifteen thousand troops, was ordered to be "ready to move" by 6:00 A.M. the next morning. According to one participant, "we decided to alert everything but the kitchen sink." ("Alaska and Panama were the kitchen sink.") The president of the United States "knew nothing about the alert until it appeared in the morning newspapers."[102]

Following the pattern described above, the White House tried to keep the alert secret, ordering that the Defcon III command be implemented "with minimum public notice." The secrecy had nothing to do with security. The United States wanted the Soviets to become aware of the alert almost immediately. It was the American people the White House wanted to keep in the dark. Officials were afraid of awakening the inconvenient "universal fear" of war that had so bothered Nixon in the 1970 Cuban crisis—afraid, as Blechman and Hart put it, of "engendering a serious public debate in the United States." It is safe to assume that even more "universal fear" would have surfaced had the public known of the ideas Kissinger was entertaining during the crisis, revealed in the remark at this point in his memoirs that "two could play chicken."[103]

In the midst of preparations for war on both sides, Kissinger refused Dobrynin's "repeated" attempts to communicate, again throwing aside


one of the great lessons supposedly learned in 1962: the need for timely superpower contact to avoid misunderstandings during crises. Kissinger also told the Israelis that the United States would not pressure them to return to the cease-fire line originally agreed on—even though the continued Israeli attack on the surrounded Third Army, in clear violation of the U.S.-brokered agreement, was the reason for the nuclear crisis.[104]

Finally, a message to Brezhnev, drafted at the meeting but evidently sent in Nixon's name while the president slept,[105] stated bluntly that "we must view your suggestion of unilateral action as a matter of the gravest concern, involving incalculable consequences." Ironically, the message made an oblique reference to the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, signed that very year, and then ominously repeated: "We could in no event accept unilateral action…. As I stated above, such action would produce incalculable consequences which would be in the interest of neither of our countries and which would end all we have striven so hard to achieve." At noon the next day, Kissinger reemphasized the nuclear danger during a press conference, noting the "very special responsibility" of the superpowers, since "we possess, each of us, nuclear arsenals capable of annihilating humanity. We, both of us, have a special duty to see to it that confrontations are kept within bounds that do not threaten civilized life."[106]

Though it is far from clear that the alert played a major role, the Israelis soon relaxed their attacks on the Third Army, the Egyptians duly withdrew their request for superpower troops, and the Soviets stopped pushing for bilateral superpower intervention. Brezhnev told the White House that he would send in only an observer team. The timing was tight: "One Soviet aircraft touched down at the Cairo West airfield in the early morning hours [of the 25th], but returned home almost immediately. It was as if this aircraft, containing the lead element of the interventionary force, had been caught en route when the Kremlin decided the risk was too great and reversed course."[107]

But the Israelis would not fall back to the original cease-fire line, and, "determined to starve out the Third Army," they blocked food, water, and medical supplies. Kissinger recognized that eventually "what [would] happen [was] another maximum Soviet demand." Yet he promised the Israelis: "You won't be pressured one second before [the starvation of the Third Army] becomes inevitable." Finally, almost two full days after the nuclear alert, Kissinger contacted the Israelis ("on behalf of Nixon. I do not remember checking in advance with the President")


and insisted that they allow humanitarian supplies to reach the trapped Egyptian Army, a step that evidently did not occur for two more days, when a single convoy was given access.[108]

Meanwhile, in a now familiar pattern, superpower naval forces continued aggressive operations against each other in the tense aftermath of the nuclear alert, even after it "became clear that the new cease-fire … would hold." For instance, Soviet anticarrier exercises—"the Soviet Navy's equivalent of training its guns on the U.S. fleet" and "the most intense signal the Soviets had ever transmitted with their naval forces in a crisis"—went on until November 3.[109]

There is no way to know just how close to war the superpowers came that weekend. But plausible scenarios could have led to it. As Blechman and Hart ask:

What if the Soviets had decided to intervene in a more direct way in the war? Or what if the Israelis, fearing that such a direct intervention might occur, chose to attack Soviet transports as they entered the war zone? (Note that Israeli aircraft deliberately provoked a battle with Soviet aircraft in 1970, when Soviet air defense units were deployed in Egypt [during the War of Attrition crisis, discussed earlier].) Or what if the Soviets, believing that the United States would interfere with Soviet transports during their vulnerable landing period, chose to attack the U.S. Sixth Fleet preemptively, perhaps along with Israeli Air Force facilities? What then? Where would the conflict have ended?

As these authors conclude from the 1973 record, "once the threshold of active military involvement is crossed, finding a stopping point becomes far from easy. By raising the specter of nuclear war at the onset of the confrontation, the United States made more difficult the termination of any escalatory process which might have ensued short of the use of nuclear weapons."[110]

In a revealing aftermath to the 1973 crisis, in the spring of 1974, Kissinger reportedly "asked the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] to devise a limited nuclear option that the President might order in the hypothetical case of a Soviet invasion of Iran." Kissinger, as we saw, was frustrated about the lack of a limited nuclear war plan in the 1970 Jordanian crisis. Likewise, he must have wondered what he would have done next in 1973 if, during the massive U.S. nuclear alert, Israel had continued to destroy the Third Army and the Soviets had actually intervened. "The JCS solution was to fire nearly 200 nuclear weapons at military targets, air bases, bivouacs and so forth—in the southern region of the U.S.S.R. near the Iranian border." Not at all pleased, Kissinger responded, "Are


you out of your minds? This is a limited option?" Sent back to the drawing board, the generals returned in a few weeks and suggested the use of three nuclear weapons to destroy two roads leading from the USSR to Iran. This time Kissinger asked, "What kind of nuclear attack is this?" Apparently he judged it a puny act from which Brezhnev would conclude that the president was "chicken."[111]

Cuba, 1979

Though it was far from a full-fledged crisis, the strange 1979 case of the Soviet "combat brigade" in Cuba deserves a brief mention, if only to show how little it can take to cause a potentially dangerous superpower conflict. On August 30 the noted dove Senator Frank Church called a dramatic press conference at his home to announce that American intelligence had observed a brigade of several thousand Soviet troops in Cuba. He said, "The United States cannot permit the island to become a Russian military base 90 miles from our shore," and asked the president to demand "the immediate withdrawal of all Russian combat troops from Cuba." Secretary of State Vance pointed out that the brigade had evidently been in Cuba since at least the mid-1970s and its presence certainly did not violate the 1962 or 1970 Soviet-American agreements on Cuba. But he insisted nonetheless that he would "not be satisfied with maintenance of the status quo." As Garthoff notes, "Vance did not explain why, if the brigade had been there at least since the mid-1970s and did not contravene any bilateral understandings, the status quo should not be satisfactory, but instead constitute a serious concern 'affecting out relations with the Soviet Union."' Indeed, as McGeorge Bundy later reported, in 1963 the United States had actually acquiesced to the presence of Soviet ground forces under the 1962 agreements.[112]

On September 7 President Carter reassured the American people that the little brigade was "not an assault force," since "it [did] not have airlift or sea-going capabilities and [did] not have weapons capable of attacking the United States"—irrelevant facts when a few thousand troops could hardly pose a serious threat to the United States even with all those things. Yet he too added, "This status quo is not acceptable." On September 9 Senator Richard Stone went so far as to suggest that the Soviet brigade was comparable in importance to the original Cuban missile crisis: "By implication he was calling for the same kind of military-political confrontation with the Soviet Union." Senator Church went on to say that the entire Soviet-American relationship was "at


stake." As it turns out, Church had felt personally burned in the 1962 Cuban crisis: on the basis of information from the Kennedy administration he had publicly denied the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.[113] Like Nixon in 1970, Church in 1979 did not conclude from the experience of 1962 that superpower confrontation in Cuba should be avoided; on the contrary, that bad memory made them both want another confrontation in which the United States would act more aggressively than it had in 1962.

Vance pressured the Soviets to get Ambassador Dobrynin, a veteran of the 1962 crisis and many others since, to return to the United States from Moscow, where his parents were on their deathbeds. Unsurprisingly the Soviets refused to remove or reorganize the brigade. Indeed, "the main reaction in Moscow must have been puzzlement, soon to give way to suspicion about the U.S. purpose in stirring up a crisis without cause." On September 25 Carter admitted that the Soviet soldiers posed "no threat to our Nation's security," but he dramatically warned that if the Kremlin did nothing, "we [would] take appropriate action to change the status quo."[114]

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, was upset that Carter had made such a threat and then did not follow through. He writes in his memoir, Power and Principle, "This was the only time that I ever thought seriously of the possibility of resigning." In Cuba, as in certain earlier incidents of the Carter administration, "for the first time since World War II the United States told the Russians … that we take great exception to what they are doing, that there will be negative consequences if they persist in their acts … and then we did nothing about it." He reports that the president "looked quite furious, and told me that he had no intention of going to war over the Soviet brigade in Cuba." Brzezinski comments, "I did not advocate that we go to war, but that we lay it on the line more explicitly in regard to Soviet adventurism around the world"—whatever that means.[115] All this fuss was over a perfectly legal group of Soviet soldiers so small that American intelligence did not notice or report them in Cuba for perhaps seventeen years! Cuba, 1962, 1970, 1979: history can indeed repeat itself—as farce—several times.

Lebanon, 1982–1983

The 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon was much more dangerous than the botched 1979 Cuba affair, and not only for its


tens of thousands of direct victims. The war brought important American and Soviet allies into direct combat, raising the possibility of "a generalized war," as the foreign ministers of the European Community warned. Exceeding Israel's stated war aim of securing a limited "security zone" in southern Lebanon, the Israelis drove once again to within shelling distance of Damascus, suggesting the possibility of a replay of the 1967 crisis. As Noam Chomsky observes, "If Israel's attack on Syrian forces had continued and the fighting escalated a notch or two higher, the USSR might have made some move in defense of its Syrian ally, a step that surely would have brought about a U.S. military response and possibly a superpower confrontation."[116] Indeed, one senior Soviet official "expressed concern that the Mideast fighting may provoke a full-scale confrontation between Israel and Syria, triggering greater Soviet involvement," and it is alleged that "the Russians had threatened to intervene militarily, if the fighting [between Israel and Syria] did not Stop."[117] In a severe provocation to the Soviet Union, the Israelis shelled and "heavily damaged" the Soviet Embassy and later occupied a consulate building on the embassy grounds in Beirut, which are considered sovereign Soviet territory. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle later revealed that Israeli planes killed eleven Soviets who were investigating an Israeli reconnaissance plane shot down in Lebanon.[118] Ambassador Ghassan Tueni of Lebanon was correct when he noted at the United Nations General Assembly session on disarmament in June 1982 that "the war in Lebanon was becoming a danger not to Lebanon alone, but to others as well, and probably to the entire world."[119]

New dangers attended the United States' direct military intervention in the conflict in 1983 with ground troops, a large naval force, and heavy bombing and shelling from the largest conventional guns in the world, the sixteen-inches on the newly reactivated battleship New Jersey . American ships on the scene were equipped to fire nuclear weapons, and some of them probably carried warheads aboard.[120] Before withdrawing, the United States lost several planes and hundreds of marines and could have ended up at war with Syria—or worse, if the Soviets had challenged the American intervention as America had challenged them when they appeared ready to intervene in the Middle East ten years earlier. According to William Ury, a specialist on negotiation and crisis control, "The Soviet description of Berlin in 1958 as a 'smoldering fuse connected to a powder keg' could have applied just as well to Lebanon in 1983."[121]


Afghanistan, 1979–1988

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not produce a serious Soviet-American crisis, but the huge Afghan war posed real dangers that both superpowers greatly intensified through reckless actions. As Selig Harrison writes, "The Afghan case underlines the built-in danger that pursuit of the Reagan Doctrine [of militarily opposing Soviet-supported governments] can lead to a direct Soviet-American confrontation."[122] As the major base for U.S.-sponsored Afghan rebels battling the Soviet occupation and the Afghan puppet government, Pakistan was the ultimate source of thousands of attacks on both Afghan and Soviet forces. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets responded by carrying the war directly into Pakistan, one of the United States' most important client states.

Adding to heavy Soviet-Afghan shelling of Pakistan, jets bearing Afghan Air Force markings strafed and bombed refugee camps, guerrilla bases, and villages within Pakistan hundreds of times, in some cases penetrating thirty or forty miles. Five Afghans who claimed to be defectors from the Afghan Air Force said in September 1988 that Soviet pilots flew such missions because the Soviet Union did not trust Afghan pilots to do so, fearing they might "defect or fail to accomplish their mission." In 1984 Pakistani officials "reported sixty-three such incursions." By early 1987 Pakistan was repeatedly battling the intruding jets with its U.S.-supplied fighters. Pakistan reportedly shot down several planes (in at least one case capturing the Soviet pilot) and in turn lost at least one F-16 to Afghan or Soviet fire.[123] A Soviet-Pakistani war, with terrifying possibilities, could not be ruled out.

Neither could an internal upheaval in unstable Pakistan, which might have tempted either superpower, and perhaps both, to intervene. The U.S.-sponsored rebels' drug dealing and gunrunning (making "Pakistan the world's largest drug supermarket" and fueling ethnic violence), together with the cross-border attacks and tension between Afghan refugees and the Pakistani population, "turned the Northwest Frontier Province into a powder keg which could [have blown] up the regime of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq." In late 1986 an opposition Pakistani politician warned: "You have all the ingredients for a civil war now. We have become another Lebanon."[124]

Alarmed by Pakistan's inability to defend itself against Soviet attacks, Zia, his prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, and then U.S. secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger all publicly mentioned the possibility of having American pilots fly U.S. reconnaissance missions on the explosive


Afghan-Pakistani border—a step that could have led to the first direct combat between Soviet and American forces in the nuclear age. Meanwhile, the rebels and possibly Pakistan itself reportedly launched terrorist attacks against Afghan airliners and other civilian targets in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan, and the Afghans and Soviets apparently ordered hundreds of terrorist bombings in Pakistani cities. The U.S.-sponsored rebels have openly called for rebellion and even "liberation" of Muslim-dominated republics in the Soviet Union (parts of which were seized from Afghanistan by czarist Russia). The rebels have reportedly even attacked Soviet territory . For example, in March 1987 they fired rockets on a rayon factory during a festival, resulting in loss of life—thus violating the most elemental tenet of superpower restraint in the nuclear age: never launching or sponsoring direct attacks on each other.[125] Imagine the response in the United States if guerrillas funded and armed by the KGB attacked Texas from Mexico.

By 1988 the Soviets finally realized that they could not defeat the rebels as long as Pakistan remained a sanctuary for rebel bases and supply. Unwilling to run the risk of a major attack on Pakistan—probably the only way for them to prevail—the Soviets finally decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. But what if they had made the other choice, concluding (as the United States did in Vietnam) that even a risky escalation was preferable to a humiliating retreat? Only Gorbachev's accession to power may have prevented such a decision. If after the failure of the air raids Soviet ground forces had swept into Pakistan to destroy rebel bases and supply lines, Pakistan might well have demanded direct U.S. intervention, leading to an extreme crisis—perhaps, as Laurence Martin warned, even involving Pakistan's longtime enemy India, which has its own reasons (including a territorial dispute in Kashmir) for wanting Pakistan's military damaged or destroyed.[126]

Both the Soviet Union and India, of course, are nuclear armed, and Pakistan apparently is too. As Leonard Spector reports, as early as July 1986 "a series of press stories … citing Reagan Administration sources, stated that Pakistan was considered to have the capacity to build nuclear arms or to be on the verge of having that capability, with one account stating that all that remained was for Pakistan to assemble the components." By early 1987 "it appeared Pakistan had decided to declare itself a nuclear power." In March 1987 Senator John Glenn announced his belief "that all the components and the means for assembling a working nuclear explosive device are in Pakistan's possession." In March 1988 Hedrick Smith wrote in the New York Times Magazine


that Paksitan had enough nuclear materials for four to six nuclear weapons. Smith "made it clear that Pakistan could rapidly deploy nuclear weapons in any future conflict."[127] Thus the Soviet-Pakistani border violence was apparently one of the few instances in history in which nuclear-armed states have fought each other.

If the Afghan war had exploded into Pakistan, one of the countries might have considered a lightning preemptive attack, perhaps nuclear, on India's or Pakistan's suspected nuclear weapons facilities. The United States reportedly has nuclear weapons in Pakistan too. According to Lawrence Lifschultz, at Cambridge University, since 1983 the United States has secretly used Pakistani air bases for operations by P-3 Orion planes equipped to carry B-57 nuclear depth charges. These weapons have an explosive power only slightly less than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Moreover, in "the single largest coordinated [military] construction program undertaken outside the United States since the end of the Vietnam War," huge bases have been constructed in Pakistan to support U.S. forces in case of direct intervention in the region. This construction is "taking place primarily in the sparsely populated province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan," and according to the former chief minister of Baluchistan, "the most significant facility under construction is an enormous air base in the Chagai region, near the Afghan border."[128]

Moreover, "the multiservice U.S. Central Command [i.e., the nuclear-armed Rapid Deployment Force] … has included Pakistan and Afghanistan among the nineteen countries within its "area of responsibility." As Harrison adds:

American capabilities for combat intervention and intelligence surveillance in South Asia have improved dramatically since President Richard Nixon sent the aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in 1971. As the U.S.-Soviet military competition has escalated in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the United States has deployed most of its additional increments of naval strength in the immediate vicinity of Pakistan. An American carrier battle group with nuclear-equipped aircraft usually is on permanent patrol in the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. On the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia alone, the Deployment Force maintains seventeen giant military container ships loaded with enough tanks, rocket launchers, and amphibious armored personnel carriers to enable 12,500 U.S. Marines to fight for thirty days without resupply.

Writing shortly before the Soviet withdrawal, Harrison comments: "The possibility of American military intervention on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has grown steadily as Moscow has deployed more


of its troops near the border, as Washington has stepped up its weapons aid to the resistance, and as the diplomatic stalemate has dragged on…. Worst case scenarios envisage direct 'hot pursuit' by Soviet commandos to destroy base camps in Pakistan." The dangers of such an action—direct Soviet attack on a key American client state—should not be underestimated. Indeed, "should American combat forces come to the aid of Islamabad, some influential U.S. military analysts have even suggested that the United States might have to use tactical nuclear weapons."[129]

The ingredients existed, then, for a conflict involving four nuclear-armed states—five if we include China, which would probably feel a vital stake in any major crisis on the subcontinent. As Spector notes, the "cold peace" between India and Pakistan following the 1971 war "came to an end in 1983, when bilateral relations turned increasingly hostile. An uprising of separatists in Pakistan's Sind Province in August 1983 sparked accusations by Islamabad that India was aiding and encouraging the rebels. Over the following year, New Delhi, in turn, accused Islamabad of fomenting unrest by Sikh nationalists in India's Punjab region and of making incursions into Kashmir, which had led to a series of border clashes." Indeed, in the fall of 1984, around the time the Soviets were conducting air raids into Pakistan, "general war [between India and Pakistan] was considered a distinct possibility." At the end of 1986, "by which point Pakistan had apparently acquired its first stocks of weapons-grade uranium[,] Indo-Pakistani relations deteriorated seriously, and major Indian exercises near the Pakistani border, known as Operation Brass Tacks, led to a series of mobilizations and counter-mobilizations that some feared might lead to war."[130]

With only a few barely noticed exceptions like Harrison, the U.S. press, the mainstream foreign policy intelligentsia, and even the peace movement had little to say about the potential nuclear perils of the U.S. role in Afghanistan—just as they had been largely silent about Lebanon in 1983 and other crises past. Ironically, it was left to the CIA not only to warn of the Afghan danger but also to repeatedly try to forestall it—even, in some cases, by effectively disobeying White House orders. According to the Wall Street Journal, the agency strongly resisted the Reagan administration's State Department-led conversion of Pakistan into a base for the Afghan rebels because, despite the CIA's usual enthusiasm for covert military operations, it was "wary of provoking Soviet retaliation against Pakistan" and even of "precipitating a superpower showdown."[131]


As Harrison explains, "The CIA program during the early years of the war was designed [to avoid] a provocative, overt U.S. role that might prompt Soviet retaliatory pressures against Pakistan." Even after a spring 1985 presidential directive ordered a major expansion of the Pakistani operation, the Journal reports, "the CIA moved cautiously…. It assigned to Pakistan just three officers, none of them paramilitary experts, to manage the secret operation." For defense against deadly Soviet helicopters and planes, the CIA initially provided the rebels with only British-made Blowpipe missiles "because they couldn't be traced to the U.S." When these proved ineffective, Pakistan's General Zia told a U.S. congressional delegation in summer 1985 that the rebels needed the Stinger—a highly effective shoulder-fired U.S. antiaircraft missile. "The CIA station chief in Islamabad … relayed the request to CIA headquarters, but senior agency officials decided to sit on it, intelligence sources say." In fact, "William Casey, the agency's late director … and other high CIA officials delayed for about a year giving the Afghan guerillas the weapon now credited with turning the tide against the Soviets [the Stinger]." The CIA, according to the Journal, even misled the White House in late 1985 by claiming that Pakistan did not want Stinger missiles going to the Afghan rebels. Finally, President Reagan directly ordered the agency to provide Stingers. "But even the president's order wasn't enough to overcome the resistance from the CIA," which delayed for months on the pretext of testing the weapon against new Soviet helicopter defenses. The CIA finally delivered Stingers only in the summer of 1986.[132]

The CIA's fear that the Stingers might provoke the Soviets to make a dangerous move such as attacking Pakistan was well founded, for in the hands of the Muslim guerrillas the weapon proved devastating. According to U.S. Congressman Charles Wilson, "a pair of captured Soviet pilots told Pakistani interrogators that the best defense against the Stinger is to 'read the first two pages of the Koran.'" Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan correspondent for the London Sunday Observer and Independent and a writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reports that "the C.I.A.'s delivery of Stinger missiles … was seen by many Pakistanis as a provocation of the Russians." Indeed, as Harrison reports, some "foot-dragging" Pakistani leaders delayed delivery of the Stingers; they "feared Soviet retaliation." Anwar Khan, a Pakistani scholar of Soviet history, said in April 1987: "The Soviets are attacking [Pakistan] because they want to seal the border and stop the transport of these weapons. They want to get the Stingers."[133]


Astute American officials have long taken seriously the prospect of a crisis on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Perhaps the most graphic reminder of how they think is the remarkable photograph that Zbigniew Brzezinski permitted while he was in Pakistan in 1980: it shows him "at the Khyber Pass with Afghanistan in the background—and in the foreground, in his hand, a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle." Those who doubt that the events described earlier could in fact have provoked a severe crisis should recall this Los Angeles Times report in 1980: "White House and other senior officials dealing with national security" said in a press backgrounder that "if the Soviet Union carried its expansionism into Iran or Pakistan, the United States would have little choice but to oppose it militarily." Such an event, the officials said, "would almost certainly become a nuclear war."[134]


Chapter Seven
Third World Violence, Nuclear Danger

Why work with the Soviets to reduce the store of dynamite and then do nothing about the blasting caps?
—Bernard Avishai and Avner Cohen, Boston Globe

Except for the Cuban missile crisis and possibly one or two other cases, most scholars and commentators deny, explicitly or implicitly, that the incidents we described in Chapter 6 posed notable nuclear dangers. Hence, they imply, the nuclear states can continue to practice violence and destabilization in the Third World without inviting a worldwide disaster. Even those who are well aware of the consequences of a nuclear war and of the relevant history often express such complacency.

McGeorge Bundy, for example, writes that since 1962 the superpowers "have continuously kept a decent distance from the nuclear danger that any confrontation between them must always present…. There are episodes in this period that have been said to have such a color to them, but closely examined they show much more prudence than menace, and on both sides." The only episodes that have such a "color" for Bundy are several occasions during the Vietnam War, the 1969 border conflict between China and the Soviet Union, and the October 1973 crisis in the Middle East. Bundy's close examination of them discovered "great caution on the part of all states possessing nuclear weapons, caution not only with respect to their use, but also with respect to any step that might lead to a level of conflict in which someone else might be tempted to use them." As for all the other incidents that might be thought to have had a "color" of nuclear danger, "caution on the American side has been so visible as not to require detailed study."[1]

Bundy is aware that "the most important thing that the United States


and the Soviet Union can do to stay clear of the 'nuclear tornado' is to see to it that they have no war of any kind with each other" and that "the avoidance of war means the avoidance of all steps that can bring Soviet and American forces into open conflict with one another." Nevertheless, based on his happy reading of the historical record, Bundy quickly adds: "This leaves room for contests in which each of the superpowers supports some other combatant, and even for conflicts in which one side is directly engaged against forces supported by the other, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan." On the front between the two Koreas (with numerous American nuclear weapons deployed in the south), Bundy reassures us, "the situation is not comfortable, but it is stable." As for the rest of the Third World, "the study of nuclear danger can tell us very little about such hard areas for American policymakers as the Middle East or Central America or the Philippines, just as it cannot tell the Politburo how to handle its overextension in Afghanistan and Africa." Bundy likewise finds "no" danger of a nuclear war arising from events in Eastern or Western Europe.[2]

The view that a proper respect for the nuclear danger "leaves room for" widespread superpower adventurism, including outright intervention with massive, nuclear-capable forces (as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan), is perhaps the most dangerous prevailing idea about nuclear war. The historical record, we believe, speaks for itself about the "prudence" and "caution" of the leaders of the nuclear states and about the safety of perpetual violence and intervention in a world peppered with enough nuclear weapons to destroy us all many times over.

To repeat, we do not claim that such actions necessarily made a nuclear war probable in the past or that they will make one probable in the future. We claim only that the nuclear danger is real—far too real for civilized people to accept—and that it lies here rather than in the arms race.

In truth, no one can estimate with any confidence the likelihood of a nuclear war. Given the historical record and the possible finality of a nuclear disaster, it is simply reckless arrogance to assume that there is "no" danger and to act accordingly. The people of the world have not given superpower leaders a license to make that judgment. Even the population of the United States, as we saw, has often been kept in the dark and excluded from any role in judging American actions with potential dangers on a planetary scale. A few considerations may help show that those dangers are in fact real.


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?

Brinksmanship Forever

Even supposedly sane leaders, as we saw, have knowingly risked nuclear war in the Third World, often over even the most trivial stakes. Why? American, and to a lesser extent Soviet, leaders have long regarded Third World crises not as local matters of limited importance but as epic tests or challenges that can affect their nation's global reputation and power for years to come.

As Robert Jervis writes, "Throughout history, and especially for the great powers since 1945, states have often cared about specific issues less for their intrinsic value than for the conclusions they felt others would draw from the way they dealt with them." Leaders have therefore been obsessed with the need to constantly demonstrate "resolve," to project a strong "image," to establish intimidating "precedents," to show a willingness to run risks, even nuclear ones, and, above all, to make others believe that they will go to any lengths to "win" future Third World confrontations. That the local stakes in a crisis may be small makes no difference—because local stakes simply are not the point. Kissinger's memoirs explicitly disparage the "unwillingness to confront seemingly marginal challenges, depicting them as unworthy because they appear not to encapsulate the ultimate showdown."[15]

The classic case is probably Quemoy and Matsu, the two "insignificant specks of land" over which the United States nearly went to nuclear war twice in the 1950s. As Brands observes, "Dulles and Eisenhower recognized that the U.S. was … approaching the brink of nuclear war over strategically trivial islands. However, they appeared to believe that U.S. credibility was on the line, and that if their approach didn't succeed, their entire defense policy might be undermined." Eisenhower expressed concern about the "psychological consequences" of letting the Chinese retake the islands and characterized the matter as a "concrete test" of his administration's resolve.[16]

President Kennedy's real concern during the Cuban missile crisis,


as I. F. Stone wrote in 1966, was prestige. Remarkably, Kennedy's performance has become a model of how to conduct superpower foreign policy in the nuclear age. Richard Ned Lebow notes that Kennedy's "success" in the Cuban crisis "led responsible political analysts to exaggerate the efficacy of … demonstrations of resolve…. Political scientists enshrined the need for resolve at the core of widely-accepted theories of deterrence and compellence."[17]

Nixon writes that during the 1970 War of Attrition crisis, he dictated a memorandum to Kissinger stating that he planned to "stand up" to the Soviet Union in Vietnam, Europe, and the Middle East: "It is a question of all or none…. This is it cold turkey." Later, after Syria intervened in the Black September conflict in Jordan and Kissinger duly "drafted a very stern note and delivered it to the Soviets, " Nixon says he told Kissinger, "They're testing us." The president reportedly told a National Security Council meeting: "There comes a time when the US is going to be tested as to its credibility in the area. The real question will be, will we act? Our action has to be considered in that light…. Is the question really a military one or is it our credibility as a power in that area?" A member of Kissinger's staff professed, "The precedent is what will worry them most of all, and the demonstration that we could and will use our air power and naval presence will cast a shadow over their calculations about how far we might go in support of Israel at a later date in a new crisis, and our international posture generally." Kissinger, according to the Kalb brothers, believed "that the United States would never become 'credible' to the Kremlin, the Middle East or anywhere, for that matter, unless it was prepared to show power—and use it—in defense of its interests." As Quandt concludes, "the United States treated the Jordan crisis as a superpower test of wills."[18]

Referring to the 1970 Cienfuegos crisis, Kissinger writes, "I saw the Soviet move as going beyond its military implications; it was a part of a process of testing underway in different parts of the world." On the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, he comments:

The victim of the attack was an ally—however reluctant many were to admit it—to which we had made several explicit promises concerning precisely this contingency. Clear treaty commitments reinforced by other undertakings dated back to 1959. One could debate the wisdom of these undertakings (and much of our bureaucracy was so eager to forget about them that for a time it proved next to impossible even for the White House to extract copies of the 1962 communications), but we could not ignore them. To do so would have disheartened allies like Iran and Turkey, which sympathized with Pakistan,


had the same commitment from us, and looked to our reaction as a token of American steadiness in potential crises affecting them. High stakes were therefore involved.

That Pakistan was then engaged in a major massacre, which had prompted the "attack," could on this logic be overlooked (especially considering that "allies like Iran and Turkey" were also prone to murdering their own people). Kissinger adds that "a reputation for unreliability was not something we could afford": "We had to act with determination to save larger interests and relationships … if we collapse now the Soviets won't respect us for it; the Chinese will despise us and the other countries will draw their own conclusions." Kissinger writes of ensuring that "the Russians retain their respect for us" and of "establishing an historical record of toughness … [that] might be used later to demonstrate that one's associates had wavered while one stood like a rock in a churning sea." Kissinger even complains about "the majority of informed opinion," which foolishly "sought to judge the confrontation on the subcontinent on the merits of the issues that had produced the crisis," including the fact, which Kissinger grants, that the American ally, Pakistan, "had unquestionably acted unwisely, brutally, and even immorally." After the crisis Nixon told the British prime minister: "The Soviets have tested us to see if they could control events … you have to consider the much bigger stakes in the Middle East and Europe." Nixon writes in his memoirs that "if we failed to help Pakistan, then Iran or any other country within the reach of Soviet influence might begin to question the dependability of American support."[19]

In 1973 the logic of testing and image led directly to the nuclear alert. According to Kissinger, "We could not sit on the sidelines if the Middle East should rage out of control; the world would view it as a collapse of American authority, whatever alibi we put forward." Describing events as they started to become tense, he reflects: "I had learned in Nixon's first term, largely under his tutelage, that once a great nation commits itself, it must prevail…. However ambivalently it has arrived at the point of decision, it must pursue the course on which it is embarked with a determination to succeed. Otherwise it adds a reputation for incompetence to whatever controversy it is bound to incur on the merits of its decision." He agrees with Nixon that "we were now in a test of wills" and that "that's what we [were there] for." Nixon expressed his "grasp of the situation," as Kissinger put it, very simply: "This is bigger than the Middle East. We can't allow a Soviet-supported operation to


succeed against an American-supported operation. If it does, our credibility everywhere is severely shaken."[20]

As Richard Ned Lebow observes, Moscow "has been chary of using its military might as a means of sending signals to the United States." By contrast, American military displays have "become standard operating procedure in times of crisis. When a president confronts a foreign threat, he reaches almost by reflex for a carrier group or a fighter squadron to send to the troubled area," often against the advice of military officers, who prefer to use force only to achieve a concrete objective. "Gunboat diplomacy," Lebow adds, "may be the accepted American way of dealing with adversaries, but it is a dangerous atavism in the late twentieth century. For very little in the way of apparent political return, it raises the risk of war."[21]

Once defined as a historic test of wills, any conflict can quickly become a game of chicken in which neither side will back down. Each may then feel that even a terrible risk is better than defeat and humiliation. To terminate a crisis, a leader may decide to make the ultimate show of resolve, the use of nuclear weapons. Although such nuclear use might be limited at first—perhaps the "demonstration shot" discussed early in the Reagan administration, perhaps the use of several tactical nuclear weapons on a remote battlefield, perhaps the sinking of a single enemy ship with a nuclear warhead—escalation, as we have seen, cannot be fully controlled once the nuclear threshold is crossed. Even if command and control remain intact and even if an accidental or unauthorized catastrophe is avoided, the victim of a nuclear attack might believe that to back down now would be the ultimate signal of susceptibility to nuclear blackmail, leading to a global loss of prestige and power or even to further nuclear attacks. Escalation could easily continue until central control finally disintegrated and all-out nuclear war erupted.

Readying for Armageddon

American and Soviet leaders, as we saw, have already threatened to use nuclear weapons during numerous Third World conflicts, and in some cases the United States has actually put its weapons on alert and readied them for launch. Nuclear threats and alerts carry inherent risks of escalation and, again, could help produce a nuclear disaster that neither side intended.

As Daniel Ellsberg notes, on many occasions "U.S. nuclear weapons


have been used … in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone's head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled. … every president from Truman to Reagan, with the possible exception of Ford, felt compelled to consider or direct serious preparations for possible imminent U.S. initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing, intense, non-nuclear conflict or crisis." A major Brookings Institution study counts nineteen incidents between 1946 and the 1973 Middle Eastern war in which American strategic nuclear forces were actively involved in a political incident "in such context that a nuclear signal of some type could be inferred." These include four cases of "overt and explicit threat": Suez, 1956; Lebanon, 1958; Cuba, 1962; and Sinai, 1973.[22]

The parallel Brookings study of Soviet military activities found that although verbal nuclear threats were common, particularly during the Khrushchev era, "in only one instance were data found confirming that the USSR had actually raised the alert status of forces presumably included in plans for nuclear attack upon the United States, Europe, or China." The stated exception is the Cuban missile crisis, though as Garthoff authoritatively reports, "while Soviet and Warsaw Pact alerts were prominently announced on October 23, they were in fact minimal in impact, mainly involving largely symbolic measures such as cancelling leaves. There were no major redeployments or high-readiness measures of the strategic missile force, air force, army, or navy." Moreover, "no information was discovered that would indicate that the USSR has ever redeployed strategic bomber units during a crisis," unlike the United States, which did so ten times between 1946 and 1973. Even in October 1973, by which time U.S. nuclear superiority had long given way to strategic stalemate, the Soviets did not respond in kind to the American Defcon III alert. The lack of Soviet nuclear alerts in crises is all the more remarkable considering that "the normal [noncrisis] levels of alert of Soviet strategic forces are much lower than those of U.S. strategic forces." The apparent explanation is simply that, unlike American officials in crises, "Soviet leaders may have been very anxious to restrict the risk of accident or unauthorized action." The Soviets, of course, may not be so cautious in the future. As Scott Sagan writes, there was "a dog that didn't bark" in both 1962 and 1973:

Certainly one of the significant reasons why both the 1962 and 1973 crises were resolved short of war is that Moscow quickly backed down rather than escalate the conflict. Especially with respect to predicting what would happen if there was a mutual high level nuclear alert in a future superpower crisis,


therefore, a simple reading of the past could be highly misleading … relative Soviet acquiescence when confronted with American nuclear threats in the past … cannot confidently be expected to be repeated in the future.[23]

As Blechman and Hart write, "one cannot have the ostensible benefit of a nuclear threat without running its risks"—that is, one cannot intimidate an adversary unless the threat truly raises the chance of nuclear war. And threats do raise the risk because there is an enormous pressure to carry them out if their conditions are not met. Otherwise the state gets a reputation for crying wolf. "The result could be disastrous—U.S. policymakers being faced with the choice of admitting the emptiness of the nuclear threat, and thus undermining the credibility of fundamental U.S. commitments, or actually employing nuclear weapons."[24] Thus nuclear war could conceivably break out simply because a superpower leader said it would—much as Kennedy went to the brink to remove Soviet missiles in Cuba largely because he had threatened to do so, and Nixon in turn demanded the removal of the Cuban submarine base in 1970 largely because he believed that Kennedy had implied that this is what the United States would do (see Chapter 8).

Nuclear threats remain a backbone of U.S. foreign policy, and not only with respect to Europe. President Carter, for example, said in his 1980 State of the Union address that "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."[25] The administration made clear that "any means necessary" not only included the use of nuclear weapons but essentially meant nuclear war. As Ellsberg notes, "In the weeks before and after Carter's State of the Union message — the White House almost jammed Washington talk shows and major front pages with authorized leaks, backgrounders, and official spokesmen all carrying the message that the president's commitment … was, at its heart, a threat of possible initiating of tactical nuclear warfare by the United States." A key highly classified Pentagon study of military options in the region was leaked to New York Times correspondent (and later high Reagan administration official) Richard Burt within days. He summarized its conclusion "that the American forces could not stop a Soviet thrust into northern Iran and that the United States should therefore consider using 'tactical' nuclear weapons in any conflict there." In a television appearance that week, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Information William Dyess underlined that the United States refused to rule out the option of initiating


nuclear war, noting dryly: "The Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration in their calculus." In January 1981 departing Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (widely considered unusually progressive and thoughtful) reaffirmed that in the 1980s what will discourage the Soviets from moving on Iran or other parts of the Middle East is "the risk of World War III." In February, during Reagan's first week in office, the new president made clear that he subscribed to this policy. Acknowledging that "we know we couldn't" stop a major Soviet attack with conventional military means, he explained that the policy is "based on the assumption—and I think a correct assumption—the Soviet Union is not ready yet to take on that confrontation which could become World War III."[26]

The Carter Doctrine was more than just words. The so-called Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), a reorganized unit for quick U.S. military intervention abroad, is evidently intended to make the threat plausible. Too small to do much good in a major conventional war, its key feature is probably the potent and little-known nuclear arsenal it would carry to a conflict. As Christopher Paine explains: "The RDF is designed as a 'tripwire'—to signal U.S. determination to escalate to nuclear weapons as much as to cope directly with opposing conventional forces. The RDF can serve as a sort of 'doomsday device' which an opponent dares attack only at risk of triggering a mutually destructive war." It comes complete with a wing of twenty-eight Strategic Air Command B-52H bombers (which, as General Richard Ellis of SAC lamented, cause "a great deal of problems" with allies, since "B-52s seem to have a stigma"). The RDF also carries an immense tactical nuclear arsenal, including nuclear-capable tactical jets, artillery pieces, and howitzers, not to mention the nearly unlimited nuclear firepower available from the U.S. Navy. Ellsberg calls the RDF a "portable Dienbienphu"—a reference to the besieged French base in Vietnam that John Foster Dulles wanted to "save" with three tactical nuclear weapons—whose rescue could serve as a justification for using nuclear weapons anywhere in the world .[27]

Nuclear alerts constitute de facto nuclear threats and so share all their risks. But unlike simple threats, alerts also entail changes in the deployment and operation of nuclear weapons that greatly increase the chances of unintended or uncontrolled use. As Joseph Kruzel observes: "Something is far more likely to go wrong when forces are spring-loaded for action than when they are at rest. An unauthorized or accidental


launching of nuclear weapons à la Dr. Strangelove is more likely in a force at high readiness than in one at low readiness." Scott Sagan—who wrote the Harvard Nuclear Study Group's Living with Nuclear Weapons and subsequently became a Pentagon nuclear planner—agrees that "any decision to place nuclear forces on alert in the future will be an extremely dangerous step" because the predelegation of nuclear launch authority to lower-level commanders during an alert "would produce serious problems with respect to controlling or terminating a nuclear exchange once begun and at least would raise the possibility of accidental war occurring through a warning or assessment failure during a superpower crisis." Indeed, Sagan recognizes that in the future "keeping the alert at the desired level will be extremely difficult, and the degree of further grave escalation uncertain."[28]

Yet, remarkably, he rejects a "no-alerts" policy on the grounds that "the failure to alert nuclear forces in a severe crisis, especially one in which Soviet strategic forces were moving to a higher state of readiness, might attempt the leadership in Moscow to continue escalating the crisis in the belief that the United States was willing to back down"—that is, it would show an unwillingness to compete in risk taking right to the brink, an unacceptable practice if you wish above all else for your state to win each confrontation. Many in government hold this view, though Sagan articulates it with unusual candor. As Lebow, who does not approve of using nuclear alerts for political purposes, notes, "The American defense establishment still conceives of nuclear alerts as an effective means of demonstrating resolve." Indeed, "this was the 'lesson' they learned from the 1962 and 1973 crises."[29]

Where will the Next Great Crisis be?

Almost any local conflict, as we have seen, can become a stage on which each superpower attempts to prove its toughness and resolve to the world and thereby enhance its credibility and power "everywhere," as Nixon put it in 1973.[30] If Quemoy and Matsu could become the unlikely proving ground for superpower prestige in 1954 and 1958, Cuba in 1962 and 1970, and the Indian subcontinent in 1971, who can say where the next great crisis will be?

U.S. officials have repeatedly discussed the option of blockading Nicaragua, an act that, as former U.S. secretary of the Navy John Lehman acknowledges, could lead to a superpower naval conflict. The Navy, Lehman notes, "cannot conceive that a naval conflict which engaged


Soviet forces could be localized"; it would be "instantaneously a global war."[31]

As a coda to the war in Afghanistan or as an extension of their own bitter conflict, India and Pakistan could well go to war again. This time, as Leonard Spector notes, both will almost certainly "have all the essentials needed to manufacture atomic bombs and to deliver them by aircraft during any crisis lasting more than several weeks," and perhaps much faster. In fact, "by 1991, Pakistan could have as many as 15 Hiroshima-sized devices, while India could have produced more than 100." As we noted in Chapter 6, many feared that the two countries neared war amid major military mobilizations in December 1986 and January 1987. Each continues to accuse the other of fomenting ethnic unrest, and either could suffer a major internal conflict, perhaps even a civil war. Spector highlights "the risk of political instability in Pakistan, which could lead to nuclear weapons (or highly enriched uranium) becoming bargaining chips in a struggle for domestic power. Episodes of this kind appear to have occurred during periods of internal unrest in France and China during the 1960s and are not as far-fetched as they may first appear."[32]

In Southeast Asia an American-backed guerrilla coalition dominated by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge continues to battle the Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The involvement of the U.S.-backed regime in Thailand poses particular dangers, such as an escalation of the periodic border and naval skirmishes to a Thai-Vietnamese war into which the superpowers could quickly be drawn. China, also aligned with the United States in these matters, could further internationalize the conflict—for example, by repeating its 1979 invasion of Vietnam—and thereby provoke Soviet involvement.

Elsewhere in Asia, more than 40,000 U.S. troops, "reportedly armed with some 150 tactical nuclear weapons … sit between 480,000 North Korean and 360,000 South Korean soldiers dug in along the DMZ." The U.S. troops constitute "an American nuclear tripwire stretched across the Korean peninsula," where "a second war could likely trigger an American nuclear attack on North Korea." Nuclear-armed Soviet naval forces in the North Pacific watch while enormous political upheaval and government repression continue to rack South Korea even after its nominal transition to democracy. The entire Pacific region, in fact, has become such a vast and unstable arena of nuclear-armed "eyeball-to-eyeball" superpower confrontation that "it is as likely that


World War III could begin in the Pacific as in Europe or the Middle East." For

while Cold War blocs have remained steady in Europe, they have shifted dramatically in the Pacific. Two major land wars and a host of bloody insurrections and heavily armed repressive governments have erupted in less than half a century. Communist, democratic, and nationalist insurgencies, as well as continuing conflicts between nations, will continue to make the region politically turbulent into the foreseeable future, heightening the possibility of superpower intervention. Should their interventions overlap, the superpowers could clash and escalate to nuclear war."[33]

Southern Africa today is a bloody tangle of military conflicts, with Cuban troops defending Angola (and American oil interests) from U.S.-backed guerrillas, Zimbabwe helping Mozambique fend off South African—sponsored Renamo guerrillas, South African forces fighting rebels seeking an independent Namibia, and the antiapartheid struggle continuing within South Africa, which could well explode into civil war. One or more of these could lead to a major regional war in which both superpowers would feel some stake. Is it inconceivable, for example, that a rapidly deterioriating South African government, facing escalating cross-border guerrilla attacks, would expand its periodic attacks on its neighbors into a full-scale conquest of Mozambique or Angola, or even Zimbabwe? Would the Soviets necessarily stand aside, and would the United States sit back if they did not? Potentially dangerous incidents have occurred. On June 5, 1986, South Africa attacked three Soviet ships in the Angolan harbor of Namibe, sinking one of them. How many Americans have even heard of this significant event, much less heard their columnists and leaders condemn the dangers? Meanwhile Cuban soldiers and Soviet advisers in Angola continue to face South African attacks.[34]

For all practical purposes, South Africa has had a nuclear weapons capability for about a decade. As Spector reports, "U.S. analysts now date South Africa's status as a state capable of producing nuclear weapons from 1980–1981." Pretoria may have had as many as "fourteen to twenty-three weapons as of the end of 1987," a significant problem considering South Africa's continual militarism and the seriousness of its internal instability. Spector warns of

the possibility that nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons material produced by South Africa's current regime might … fall into the hands of a radical faction—black or white—which had gained control of the government and


which might then use or threaten to use these nuclear assets to advance extremist objectives. Indeed, should domestic order crumble, governmental authorities could lose control over nuclear weapons or highly enriched uranium, which a non-governmental group might seize to create domestic or international turmoil or possibly sell or take into exile in order to lay the base for a return to power.[35]

The simultaneous presence of Israeli and Syrian forces in Lebanon poses a constant risk of another Arab-Israeli war—all previous instances of which since 1956, as we have seen, have led to actual or threatened superpower intervention and a significant risk of nuclear crisis. The ongoing conflict over Palestinian self-rule, as Bernard Avishai and Avner Cohen point out, "cannot be indefinitely contained to the West Bank and Gaza" and could lead to "a conflagration that not only could engulf Israel and her neighbors, but also has the potential to draw the superpowers into an unprecedented round of nuclear brinksmanship." Others believe that "a new war in the Middle East would probably be interpreted by both sides as something of a final test—like two boxers struggling near the fifteenth round with a feeling that up to this point the match had been a draw…. In a sense, nuclear war could erupt at any time in a fifth round of fighting between Israel and the Arab states because the enemy would be figuratively, if not literally, at the capital gates."[36]

Nuclear weapons will inescapably play at least an off-stage role in any future Middle East conflict. Much evidence suggests that Israel has a substantial and growing nuclear arsenal of "at least fifty to sixty nuclear devices—perhaps, significantly more—some of which are of an advanced design that makes them many times more powerful than the atomic weapons used in World War II." Israel has a big enough arsenal "to use a number of its nuclear weapons tactically, i.e., against military targets, during any conflict with its neighbors, while keeping a number of its weapons in reserve to threaten enemy cities." Israel even has the ability to deliver its warheads by ballistic missile, and not only against Arab states:

Although Israel has never acknowledged the existence of the Jericho II, the missile is undoubtedly seen as a means for strengthening the country's undeclared nuclear force…. More disturbing is Israel's apparent rationale for building a longer-range version of the missile, which seemingly is directed not only at Baghdad, Benghazi, and Riyadh … but also at least in part at the Soviet Union…. Israeli officials have indicated in off-the-record interviews that the missile is intended in part to deter massive Soviet intervention on


behalf of Syria in any future conflict—a scenario that could all too easily escalate into a high-stakes U.S.-Soviet confrontation.[37]

Libya, Iraq, and Iran all appear to have nuclear ambitions, though apparently none will be able to make nuclear weapons in the near future. These states, as well as Egypt and Israel, already have potent strategic capabilities in the form of chemical weapons and have or soon will have ballistic missiles able to deliver them. Israeli planners worry about an Arab chemical attack in a future war and have publicly hinted that they might use nuclear weapons in retaliation, or perhaps even pre-emptively, to destroy Arab chemical warfare capabilities before they can be used against Israeli cities. Israel has already taken many steps to hamper Arab nuclear ambitions, in recent years by bombing an Iraqi nuclear plant and threatening to attack Saudi missiles that could reach Israeli cities. Seeking to forestall a threat to its own cities, the Soviet Union likewise warned Israel not to deploy the Jericho II missile.[38] Unlike the long-stalemated nuclear arms race between the superpowers, the regional nuclear-chemical strategic arms race in the Middle East (as in other volatile regions) poses real dangers.

Gideon Raphael, the former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, writes that Syria's chemical warfare capabilities "could mean that the next war between Syria and Israel will degenerate into a contest between chemical and radiation weapons—with global implications." In 1984 and 1985 the Syrian defense minister stated that the Soviet Union had "guaranteed" that it would provide Damascus with nuclear warheads if Israel used nuclear weapons against Syria in a future war. Though the Soviet Union denied it, "other Soviet officials have reportedly told Western visitors that if Israel were to attack Syria itself—even if only with conventional armaments—Moscow would assist its ally with military force, including tactical nuclear weapons if necessary."[39]

Avishai and Cohen argue that despite Israel's great conventional military superiority,

it is hard to see how an Israeli government would not consider using nuclear weapons to try to end [a war]. A longer, more drawn-out or inclusive regional war would mean thousands of Israeli casualties—a price the Israeli military will not want to pay…. If the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] were to take heavy casualties on the Golan, or if, in the course of war with Syria, the Egyptians were to introduce a large armor force into the Sinai, what good choices would Israeli leaders be left with … particularly if the Syrians surprised


the IDF with chemical weapons carried by its own missiles? …. And who, then, would be in control of Israel's nuclear arsenal? The army? The defense minister himself? The Cabinet as a whole, which has never been involved with matters of nuclear strategy? The tiny coterie of nuclear technocrats shaped by Yuval Neeman—the leader of the ultra—right Tehiya Party?

As Peter Pry observes, "an atomically armed Israel could inadvertently escalate the next Middle Eastern conflict into a global holocaust."[40]

As recent events graphically showed, the Persian Gulf likewise remains a potential nuclear flash point. The danger inherent in the Iraqi invasion of Iran greatly intensified when the United States intervened with a large nuclear-capable armada, ostensibly to protect Kuwaiti merchantmen. "If the United States is forced to retaliate in the event of an Iranian attack" on one of the U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti ships, the New York Times reported, "a number of Congressmen fear that the Russians could side with Iran, resulting in a direct American-Soviet confrontation." This logical concern did not dominate congressional criticism of the U.S. plan to protect Kuwaiti ships, since most discussions focused on American geopolitical interests. American warships, several Soviet merchant vessels, and an Iranian airliner were attacked, the United States fired on Iranian forces several times, and in at least one case, according to the Soviet press, "an Iranian frigate pointed its guns at a Soviet ship and made a hostile pass at a convoy under Soviet naval escort." In the closing stages of the war, the warships of four nuclear states—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France—plied the gulf. Many of these ships were equipped to fire nuclear weapons, and some probably had warheads aboard. The U.S.S. Stark, devastated by an Iraqi jet in the gulf, was unusual in lacking nuclear capabilities. The U.S.S. Vincennes, which shot down the Iranian airliner and engaged in combat with Iranian gunboats, can fire nuclear weapons—a significant fact that neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. news media brought to light during the intense news coverage of the ship's design and capabilities. As Christopher Paine notes, there is a clear American commitment to intervene in the gulf should U.S. interests appear to be threatened; "Soviet concern about developments in Iran, and Moscow's readiness to intervene militarily if necessary to prevent hostile forces from taking control along its southern borders, are matters of record." Consequently "there is a very great risk … of U.S. military intervention leading to confrontation with the Soviet Union which quickly threatens to become nuclear."[41]

We could cite other potential Third World nuclear flash points, and


new ones are sure to erupt. The recent past offers little hope that the worst dangers are behind us. In the last few years every state known or presumed to have nuclear weapons has fought in the Third World: the United States in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, and the Persian Gulf; the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; China in Vietnam; India in Sri Lanka and in clashes with Pakistan; Israel in the 1981 air attack on Iraq, the bombing of Tunis, and frequent ground, sea, and air attacks in Lebanon; Britain in the Falklands/Malvinas; France in Chad and the Pacific; South Africa in Namibia and Angola. Throughout the Third World, regional superpowers and major powers—such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina—already have or could soon have nuclear weapons, and as of this writing three of them (Israel, South Africa, and India) have regular troops fighting outside their borders. Nuclear danger, then, will hang over most future Third World conflicts.


Chapter Eight
What about the Cuban Missile Crisis?

In a Nuclear Age, Nations Must Make War Like Porcupines Make Love—Carefully.
—Sign outside Cuban missile crisis conference room at the U.S. State Department, 1962

At the Brink: Why?

On Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962, top officials of the U.S. government viewed photographs taken by Major Rudolph Anderson, of the Strategic Air Command, from a U-2 spy plane fourteen miles above the island of Cuba. They clearly showed Soviet technicians installing medium-range nuclear missiles. On Sunday morning, October 28, under an ultimatum from President Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet nuclear missiles and bombers from Cuba. Kennedy vowed in return that America would never invade the island.[1]

As Robert Kennedy recalls, those thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis saw "a confrontation between the two giant atomic nations … which brought the world to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind." At the height of the crisis, on Saturday, October 27, Robert Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador: "We had to have a commitment by tomorrow that those [Soviet nuclear weapons] bases would be removed…. If they did not remove those bases, we would remove them…. Perhaps [the Soviet Union] might feel it necessary to take retaliatory action; but before that was over, there would be not only dead Americans but dead Russians as well." A huge invasion force of more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops and over a hundred ships stood ready. The president had even ordered the printing of five million leaflets in Spanish to be dropped over Cuba if the United States invaded.[2]

The United States had been on worldwide nuclear alert, the most urgent ever ordered, for a week. American Atlas and Titan missiles stood


ready for launch. Polaris nuclear missile submarines left port and sailed underwater toward the Soviet Union. The B-52s of the Strategic Air Command took off over the Atlantic with their bomb-bay doors closed—a sign they were carrying full loads of fused nuclear bombs. Every time one bomber landed, another took off immediately to replace it. The total destructive power in the alerted Strategic Air Command forces alone "was over 7000 megatons—higher than the entire American strategic arsenal today."[3] Civil defense officials made frenzied plans to save key officials in case the worst happened.

David Detzer gives a graphic reconstruction: "Deep in the Pentagon's War Room, behind a green door, electronic consoles blink brightly…. Here and there in the room are unobtrusive Klaxon horns. If they should sound, President Kennedy has just signaled Def-Con 1 [Defcon I]. According to plans, one of the individuals in the room will instantly step forward, keys in hand, and unlock several padlocks on a small red box. Inside he will find plastic bags containing the proper coded message being sent at that moment to SAC bases around the world."[4]

In his famous speech of October 22, President Kennedy left no doubt about the risk he was running. He informed a horrified nation of the Soviet missiles in Cuba and said that his "unswerving objective" was "to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere. … action is required—and it is underway; and these actions may only be the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth—but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced." Kennedy thought at the time that the odds of war with the Soviet Union were "somewhere between one out of three and even."[5]

Americans have been led to believe that President Kennedy took this terrible risk to safeguard the physical security of the United States. His stated goal was the removal of "clearly offensive" Soviet nuclear weapons aimed at this country and based ninety miles off our coast. He told the American people that "the purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere" and that "each of these missiles … is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area…. [This] constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas."[6]

As I. F. Stone wrote several years after the crisis, "The public impression


created by the government when the presence of the missiles in Cuba was verified is that they represented a direct threat to America's cities."[7] The removal of that threat is widely considered to be John F. Kennedy's finest hour.

The missile crisis, then, may seem an exception to our argument in this book: the one instance in which a development in the nuclear arms race did destabilize the nuclear standoff and hence invited disaster. But by 1962 existential deterrence was already securely in place. The Cuban missiles in fact posed no new threat to the physical security of the United States and did not significantly change the nuclear balance of power. Kennedy and Khrushchev risked nuclear war over them, as we shall see, for other reasons.

Why the Cuban Missiles Didn't Matter

By 1962 both sides already had enough nuclear weapons to devastate each other. Neither could defend itself against nuclear attack. And neither stood any reasonable chance of disarming the other through a pre-emptive strike. Missiles in Cuba could not make either nation more vulnerable or less vulnerable; both were already totally vulnerable.

Consider the Soviet position first. Despite the Soviets' late start, relative underdevelopment, and losses in World War II, they had rapidly built a formidable nuclear arsenal. As early as 1955 an expert panel advised President Eisenhower that "the Soviet Union already had enough mid-range bombers and bombs of up to one megaton yield … to seriously damage the United States…. [We] would be vulnerable to a devastating and possibly decisive surprise attack." Later that year, after the Soviets had successfully tested a thermonuclear device with an explosive power far greater than the simple weapon that destroyed Hiroshima, "the USSR could seriously damage the United States even if only a few bombers managed to escape destruction and penetrate U.S. defenses."[8]

By the fall of 1962 the Institute for Strategic Studies in London estimated that the communist bloc possessed at least seventy-five intercontinental ballistic missiles, seven hundred medium-range ballistic missiles able to strike Western Europe, two hundred long-range and fourteen hundred medium-range bombers, and submarines able to deliver dozens of nuclear warheads to U.S. cities. More recent evidence suggests that some of those estimates may have been too large; but no matter what the actual numbers, without a doubt the Soviets had enough to decimate


both Europe and the United States, and leaders on both sides knew it. A Soviet general recently said that Moscow had only about twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles at the time, leading to many sensational but inaccurate press reports that the Cuban deployments doubled or tripled the Soviet nuclear threat to the United States. Land-based missiles—no matter what their exact number—were a minor component of the Soviet strategic arsenal at the time compared with bombers and submarine-based missiles. Even if we someday learn that the Soviets had no operable intercontinental missiles in 1962, the strategic significance would be minimal, and so would the implications for our understanding of the missile crisis.[9]

The Soviets had far fewer nuclear forces than the United States, but what they had was sufficient. If the United States could be deterred, these forces would do it. Besides, as the president was reportedly told during the crisis, "the missiles in Cuba represented an inevitable occurrence: narrowing of the missile gap between the United States and U.S.S.R. It simply happened sooner rather than later."[10]

Still, some have suggested, the Soviet deterrent required urgent supplementation because of a growing American ability to pinpoint nuclear weapons bases inside the Soviet Union. Those were the days of "soft" missile and bomber sites; once the U-2s and orbiting satellites found them, they supposedly could be destroyed by a surprise American counterforce attack. After such an attack, the Soviets would theoretically have limited remaining forces, whereas the United States would have a large reserve. The president could then threaten to launch many missiles against Soviet cities for each Soviet weapon thrown at the United States in retaliation. Thus any Soviet counterattack would be suicidal and, according to this argument, would not take place, giving the United States a clean victory. Constructing a larger and less vulnerable ICBM and submarine force at home would be the permanent Soviet solution to this supposed problem, but it would take time. By quickly increasing the Soviet arsenal able to strike America, the argument goes, the Cuban missiles would have made Soviet retaliation more credible in the meantime.[11]

This clever scenario was far from political reality. The Soviets knew that an American president would be most unlikely to risk a nuclear attack on the basis of such a thin strategic theory. Any major counterforce attack would encounter so many uncertainties that the president could never be sure the United States and Europe would escape devastating retaliation. The existing Soviet deterrent sufficed to show any sane


American leader that a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would result in immense damage to the United States as well.

The new missiles in Cuba could not have helped deter an American counterforce attack anyway. They were exposed and unprotected, on an indefensible island close to the U.S. mainland. In any U.S. first strike, the Cuban missiles and bombers would have been destroyed in short order. They would not have been around for the Soviets to use in retaliation and therefore could serve no deterrent function.[12] As Hagan and Bernstein concluded, "If one is considering the kind of ultimate intercontinental warfare that would constitute the last stage of a counterforce war or the first stage of a pre-emptive strike, hardly any conceivable amount of effort directed into Cuba could have tipped the balance in the Soviet Union's favor."[13]

It is even clearer that our own nuclear deterrent was secure and could not have rationally motivated the great risks President Kennedy took during the missile crisis. The United States was at the time so vastly superior to the Soviets in every measure of nuclear capability that there could be no serious thought of the Soviets' gaining an advantage in Cuba. By 1960 the Pentagon had already accumulated so much nuclear firepower and delivery capacity that President Eisenhower was "shocked and angered by the level of overkill envisioned" in the war plan. According to the official history of the Strategic Air Command, over 200 operational ICBMs were deployed on American soil, and over 100 U.S.-controlled missiles able to strike the Soviet Union were based in Britain, Italy, and Turkey. Several thousand strategic bombers could deliver over 500 Hound-Dog long-range air-to-surface nuclear missiles as well as thousands of megatons of nuclear gravity bombs to Soviet territory. Declassified Department of Defense documents show that the Polaris submarine fleet could fire almost 100 nuclear missiles against Soviet society from beneath the oceans. In 1962 the United States had 26,500 nuclear warheads—about the same number that we have today.[14]

No Soviet attack could have disarmed this frightful retaliatory arsenal with or without Cuban missiles and bombers. The Cuban weaponry was far too limited in range, accuracy, and controllability to pose a real threat to our dispersed, multifaceted, and redundant deterrent forces.[15] It is doubtful that any amount or kind of nuclear weapons in Cuba could have seriously threatened the American deterrent, especially the U.S. bomber force, a portion of which was kept safely airborne at all times, and the submarine-based missile force, which remains invulnerable to this day.[16]


In any case the Cuban weapons did not represent a new threat to the United States. It did not matter militarily that they were only ninety miles from our coastline, whereas home-based Soviet forces were thousands of miles away. The few minutes' difference in flight time would not change the result when the weapons landed. It would not even matter if, as some feared, the Cuban missiles opened the way for the Soviets to "surround" us with nuclear weapons emplaced wherever they could find a friendly government. In the missile age, geographical proximity does not count for much. And we were already surrounded at close quarters anyway by missiles on Soviet submarines in our coastal waters.

The U.S. officials who sat around the missile crisis conference table have acknowledged that they did not have self-defense on their minds. They would have a strong personal motive for defending their actions on such an unimpeachable basis. But they did not make this case then, and they have not done so since.

Robert McNamara, then secretary of defense, argued during the crisis that the Cuban missiles were of little consequence to our national defense given the nuclear firepower the Soviet Union could already deliver from its own territory. "A missile is a missile," he said. "It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba." McNamara reportedly felt that the United States could accept the Cuban deployment without fear, even though it narrowed the American numerical advantage in missile power, because its military consequences were "minor": "seven to one missile 'superiority,' one to one missile 'equality,' one to seven missile 'inferiority'—the three positions are identical. What was identical was the unacceptability of the American casualties that could be inflicted from any of the three."[17]

McNamara's deputy secretary of defense, Roswell Gilpatric, concurred in a rare public admission during a national television interview on November 11, 1962. He stated that "the military equation was not altered" by the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. "I don't believe that we were under any greater threat from the Soviet Union's power, taken in totality, after this than before."[18]

Kennedy's presidential counsel during the crisis, Theodore Sorensen, wrote in his biography of the president, "To be sure, these Cuban missiles alone, in view of all the other megatonnage the Soviets were capable of unleashing upon us, did not substantially alter the strategic balance in fact ." In an October 17 memo during the crisis, Sorensen stated that it was "generally agreed that these missiles, even when fully operational,


do not significantly alter the balance of power—i.e., they do not significantly increase the potential megatonnage capable of being unleashed on American soil, even after a surprise American nuclear strike."[19]

McNamara, Gilpatric, Sorensen, and Kennedy's other top advisers at the time, McGeorge Bundy, George Ball, and Dean Rusk, recently reaffirmed that with or without nuclear weapons in Cuba, all understood that "nuclear war, already in 1962, would have been an unexampled catastrophe for both sides; the balance of terror … was in full operation." The president knew this. In a television interview several months after the crisis, he made clear that his concern about the Soviet missiles was "not that they were intending to fire them, because if they were going to get into a nuclear struggle, they have their own missiles in the Soviet Union."[20]

Dominance Ritual

The important thing about the Cuban missiles, President Kennedy said, was that they changed the balance of power "politically." Sorensen confirms that Kennedy "was less concerned about the missiles' military implications than with their effect on the global political balance." As George and Smoke sum it up, the crisis was the grandest "in a series of increasingly ambitious efforts the two superpowers had been making to exploit their strategic armories for politico-diplomatic purposes."[21]

One such purpose, for Khrushchev, was the defense of Cuba. Khrushchev made a speech six weeks after the crisis declaring: "We stationed rockets in Cuba only for the defense of the Cuban Republic…. Cuba needed weapons as a means of containing the aggressors." Khrushchev's memoirs state, "Our goal was … to keep the Americans from invading Cuba, and, to that end, we wanted to make them think twice by confronting them with our missiles."[22]

Until recently, Americans generally dismissed this explanation as self-serving rationalization, but it is probably part of the truth. Almost from the victory of the Cuban Revolution, the United States had menaced Castro. America maintained an unwelcome naval base at Guantánamo and kept a visible military presence around the island. President Eisenhower ordered U.S. security agencies to organize, train, and arm hostile Cuban refugees only fifteen months after the revolution. In 1961 President Kennedy approved the ill-fated CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. Reeling from that humiliation, the Kennedy administration later


formulated Operation Mongoose, a high-level plan that attempted, among other things, the assassination of key Cuban leaders, including Castro. A top CIA agent named Theodore Shackley was assigned to develop a "vulnerability and feasibility study" of the Castro government. In 1962 he organized a massive military operation in Florida budgeted at over fifty million dollars and employing more than three hundred Americans and thousands of Cubans to support paramilitary strikes and assassination attempts inside Cuba. Only a few months before the missile crisis, the Cuban terrorist organization Alpha-66, based in Florida, mounted a speedboat strafing attack on a Cuban hotel near Havana frequented by Soviet military technicians, causing many deaths. Later raids targeted a British and two Cuban cargo ships just north of Cuba. In addition to many other actions, the CIA's Task Force W sabotaged Cuban sugar shipments and other exports. On the day before the missile crisis erupted, the Mongoose group decided to step up its sabotage operations, deciding "that all efforts should be made to develop new and imaginative approaches, with the possibility of getting rid of the Castro regime." Recent evidence shows that the U.S. government was seriously considering a massive outright invasion of Cuba just before the missile crisis.[23]

Around the same time, the U.S. Navy and Marines planned a major training exercise called Phibriglex 62. Four aircraft carriers, twenty destroyers, and fifteen troop carriers with a Marine brigade were to storm a small Puerto Rican island near Cuba. They had orders to overthrow a "fictional" leader named Ortsac, which can also be spelled backward.[24]

The real Castro told a French journalist that after becoming convinced an American invasion might be imminent, he told Khrushchev to "do anything that will convice the Americans that an attack on Cuba is tantamount to an attack on the Soviet Union." The Soviets reportedly replied that "the threat of conventional retaliation might not be enough to persuade America to think twice before invading Cuba."[25]

Thus, Khrushchev may have built the Cuban missiles in part as frontline doomsday weapons (discussed in Chapter 3) to ensure that any attack on Cuba would risk precipitating nuclear war. And Kennedy may have wanted the missiles removed partly to avoid that prospect so that the United States could maintain the option of invading the island. In these respects the Cuban missiles may have mattered—as all such doomsday weapons matter—not because they changed the nuclear balance of power but because they sat in a potential superpower battlefield.

The Cuban deployment perhaps also mattered because, as President


Kennedy remarked, although it could not change the nuclear balance in fact, "it would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality." U.S. intelligence had just exposed as fiction the famous "missile gap" supposedly favoring the Soviets. Khrushchev may have felt that he needed more nuclear hardware, even if militarily inconsequential, to ensure that Soviet foreign policy would not be stymied by an appearance of American nuclear superiority. Building long-range ICBMs at home and at sea was expensive and slow. Placing existing medium-range missiles and bombers in Cuba (what Garthoff terms "ersatz ICBMS") was cheap and fast. George and Smoke argue that Khrushchev wanted the missiles to put him "once more in a position to make use of strategic threats in support of a broad range of foreign policy goals, this time with even greater credibility than when he attempted to exploit American uncertainty over Soviet ICBMs."[26] As we discussed in Chapter 4, building militarily irrelevant weapons to impress others has been a common strategy.

Castro's fate and concerns over hypothetical misperceptions of the nuclear balance of power were linked to far larger stakes in the crisis: the quest for international credibility and prestige that, as we saw in Chapter 7, has frequently driven the superpowers into confrontation both before and after 1962. Khrushchev apparently saw the Cuban missiles as a way to dramatically demonstrate to the world that the Soviet Union would no longer act like a second-rate power but would challenge the United States for an equal role in managing world affairs. A direct challenge in, say, Berlin was too risky; it could easily lead to nuclear war, as the Soviets had learned so well in the prior few years. Khrushchev sought instead a decisive symbolic victory. He appears to have hoped that the Cuban missiles would become operational before they were discovered by U.S. intelligence. Then it would be too late for Kennedy to do much about them. Khrushchev would have showed the world that at his hands the United States was indeed a "paper tiger" (as the Chinese had claimed during the 1954 Quemoy-Matsu crisis), and that now the world truly had two superpowers.

Kennedy, however, was unwilling to give up the overwhelming U.S. dominance in the Cold War. When U.S. intelligence discovered the missiles during construction, he resolved to deny Khrushchev his symbolic victory at any cost. The Cuban missile crisis—not in essence a conflict over any limited prize like Cuba—was but the most titanic of the many symbolic superpower tests of wills that have set the nuclear dice in motion.


Maverick journalist I. F. Stone was one of the first to recognize that "the real stake was prestige. The question was whether, with the whole world looking on, Kennedy would let Khrushchev get away with it. The world's first thermonuclear confrontation turned out to be a kind of or-deal by combat between two men to see which one would back down first."[27]

At that time both men were under great pressure—personal and political—to demonstrate their nations' resolve to prosecute the Cold War ruthlessly. "It was the courage of John F. Kennedy which was in question," Stone alleges; staring down Khrushchev "was the best of therapies for Kennedy's nagging inferiority complex." Congressional elections would be held the following month, and the Republicans were scoring points against Kennedy's "do-nothing" policy about Castro. In the words of Roger Hilsman, "the United States might not be in mortal danger" from the Cuban missiles, "but the administration most certainly was." McNamara said during an October 16, 1962, meeting: "I don't believe it's primarily a military problem. It's primarily a, a domestic political problem." Robert Kennedy told his brother, "If you hadn't acted, you would have been impeached."[28]

Cuba was a sensitive issue for the Americans. It had been a cherished part of the American empire, with long historical, economic, and cultural ties to the mainland. Allowing it to become a Soviet nuclear weapons base seemed the ultimate humiliation. The president was already reeling from what he interpreted as multiple humiliations at the hands of the Soviets. The world, he thought, had seen him bullied by Khrushchev at the Vienna conference the year before. It had seen the United States defeated and embarrassed in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And most important, it had seen Washington back down from confrontation in Berlin the year before.

After an interview with the president, James Wechsler of the New York Post said: "What worried [Kennedy] was that Khrushchev might interpret his reluctance to wage nuclear war [during the Berlin crisis] as a symptom of an American loss of nerve. Some day, he said, the time might come when he would have to run the supreme risk to convince Khrushchev that conciliation did not mean humiliation." In his speech to the nation announcing the discovery of the Cuban missiles, Kennedy left no doubt that the time had come: Khrushchev's "sudden, clandestine decision … cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe."[29]

Indeed, leaders on both sides believed that the symbolic contest over


the Cuban missiles would affect all the other Cold War conflicts of the time. President Kenendy, for example, worried that, if successful, Khrushchev's move would symbolize a grave weakening of American power in its own hemisphere and would thereby undermine U.S. political influence in the entire Latin region. Theodore Sorensen reports the president's view that "missiles on Soviet territory or submarines were very different from missiles in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in their political and psychological effect on Latin America." Herbert Dinerstein notes the American belief that the missiles would further Castro's "aggressive purposes." Roger Hilsman explains the fear that "in Latin America, other potential 'Castros' would be encouraged, American power would be less impressive and American protection less desirable, and some of the Latin American states would move in the Soviet direction even if their governments were not overthrown."[30] The principle of deterrence had less to do with nuclear war in 1962 than the principle of the Monroe Doctrine.

The Cuban test of wills, both sides apparently thought, would also help settle the fate of Berlin, and even of China half a world away. In 1963 Arnold Horelick wrote a Rand Corporation memorandum arguing that Khrushchev was deeply frustrated about his failure to compel "the West to accept a Berlin settlement on Soviet terms" and that he wanted a "breakthrough" to turn the tables. Richard Neustadt and Graham Allison agree that the Cuban missiles "seemed tied to the Soviet plan for action on Berlin."[31]

The superpowers had clashed just one year before, when the Berlin Wall was constructed. President Kennedy estimated the chances of nuclear war then at one in five, and he felt that he had strengthened Khrushchev's hand by backing down from the brink. Robert Kennedy reports his brother's fear that "if we did nothing … the Russians would move on Berlin and in other areas of the world, feeling the U.S. was completely impotent." Some argued that if Kennedy accepted the missiles, the United States "might not be able to persuade the Soviet Union that it was willing to run the risks of nuclear war to preserve Berlin." The president conjectured during the crisis that if he appeared weak on the missiles, "then they [would] start getting ready to squeeze us in Berlin."[32]

Horelick notes that at that time Khrushchev was also preoccupied with the disintegration of communist unity, especially China's increasing independence from Moscow. He argues that "the Chinese Communist attack on Khrushchev centered precisely on the unfavorable trend


in the cold war which the Chinese attributed to Khrushchev's faulty and overcautious leadership." Roger Hilsman adds that from the Soviet perspective "a successful move in Cuba would cut the ground from under the Chinese Communists and go far toward convincing Communists everywhere that Soviet leadership was strong and Soviet methods in dealing with the 'imperialists' effective."[33]

As Richard J. Walton charges: "Kennedy again took the view that the issue was not primarily Cuba but another test of American determination…. Washington could not resist the conviction that any Soviet-American dispute was not limited to the question at hand but represented a fundamental test of American courage." Walton speaks the truth about the missile crisis forthrightly: "Kennedy embarked on a dangerous path with unforeseeable consequences not because of immediate physical danger but because missiles on Cuba 'would have politically changed the balance of power.' He took an unpardonable mortal risk without just cause. He threatened the lives of millions for appearances' sake."[34]

Why Kennedy "Had To" Risk the Lives of Millions

Almost every Western commentator rightly condemns Khrushchev's attempt to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. Though he did not violate international law or do anything the United States had not done when it deployed nuclear weapons on the territory of allies near the Soviet Union, Khrushchev did raise the risk of nuclear war for symbolic political gain.

President Kennedy did the same thing. He may not have rattled the nuclear saber, but he drew it from its sheath, ordering the most urgent nuclear alert in history. Kennedy did not want nuclear war and would not have initiated one hastily. But he was willing to raise its likelihood dramatically. The alert was part of an effort to make the threat of nuclear war part of the Soviet calculation and is in this sense a clear act of nuclear diplomacy.

Some would argue that Kennedy had to alert American nuclear forces simply to ensure that procedures would be taken to protect them from a possible Soviet first strike, such as the dispersal of nonairborne nuclear bombers to over thirty civilian and military airfields. But there was no question that massive amounts of nuclear firepower—particularly in submarines at sea—would survive any Soviet attack even if U.S.


forces stood in their normal peacetime condition. The alert was not a military exigency but a political signal.[35]

Kennedy's speech to the nation on October 22 was not a direct threat to launch nuclear weapons if Khrushchev failed to meet the president's conditions but a more subtle attempt to make America's atomic arsenal count politically in the crisis. Kennedy emphasized, "We will not shrink from that risk [of 'worldwide nuclear war'] at any time it must be faced." He said, "I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities." He referred to "the world" as standing on "the abyss of destruction." And he stated his intention to employ "whatever action is needed."[36]

By demonstrating resolve and making nuclear war more likely if the crisis continued, Kennedy hoped to scare Khrushchev into terminating it. One must seriously doubt whether any "national interests," even physical defense, could make it ethically acceptable to a civilized people to take actions that could result in the killing of innocent millions, including many in other nations with no control over the decisions of the superpowers. But defense was not at stake, and the purely political objectives are undeniably trivial compared with nuclear war. Surely the missile crisis would not have gone down in history as an American triumph if there had actually been a nuclear war over militarily irrelevant weapons in Cuba. That Khrushchev took the first step down that road with an unprincipled provocation would be cold comfort to the American survivors.

Even if one assumes (as we do not) that the president has a right to pursue American political objectives right to the brink of global disaster, and even if the Cuban missiles posed a real threat to those objectives, far more responsible alternatives were available to President Kennedy in 1962. Kennedy could have stood up to Khrushchev without engaging in risky nuclear diplomacy. Instead of invoking nuclear weapons, Kennedy could have explicitly excluded them from any action he might take, even while forcefully demanding the removal of the missiles. This position does not imply weakness or capitulation: no sensible person would fault a statesman for trying to avoid nuclear conflict. By editing his speech, President Kennedy could have said something like the following (remarks from the real speech are in roman type; our suggested interpolations are in italics):

This secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles—in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy—this sudden,


clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil—is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.

But I wish to emphasize, so that there may be no misunderstanding on the part of the Soviet Union, the other nations of the world, or our own brave people, that we shall not be the ones to initiate the use of nuclear weapons over this question . We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth….

… American citizens have become adjusted to living daily on the bull's eye of Soviet missiles located inside the U.S.S.R. or in submarines. In that sense missiles in Cuba add to an already clear and present danger…. They will not panic us into an irrational response. We shall remain resolute in our determination to be responsible keepers of the great nuclear force, even though our adversaries, in their recent actions in Cuba, have shown themselves to be reckless adventurers, and unworthy of this great power .

To leave no doubt that this is the case, and to demonstrate to the world just how different we are from the men who have secretly sent nuclear weapons to Castro, I have ordered that the nuclear forces of the United States shall remain in their normal peacetime status. There will be no alert of these weapons, even as we prepare the rest of our armed forces to do whatever might be necessary in Cuba. Even in their peacetime state, no power on earth can sink our submarines beneath the oceans, destroy our aircraft patrolling overhead, or damage our missiles stored safely underground. I have also ordered that every precaution be taken to ensure that there can be no accidental or unauthorized use of any nuclear devices in our arsenal. I alone can order their use.

But if the Soviet Union should, at this time or ever in the future, threaten this nation's vital interests, there should be no doubt that we will respond with whatever means are necessary. We hope and pray that that time shall never come, and we believe that our strength as a nation and our reputation for decisive action are our best protectors against it. I will not rest until every nuclear weapon is removed from Cuba, and I promise you that this great nation will not make the mistake of taking a step that could rob our children of the future that all Americans have worked so hard to build.[ 37]

Even if President Kennedy had scrupulously disavowed the nuclear option with such a speech, he would not have completely avoided the risk of nuclear disaster. Simply by confronting the Soviets militarily, he ran that risk, because any crisis can escalate out of control. As the preeminent theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, explained two centuries ago: "War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes."[38]

According to Robert Kennedy, he and his brother understood that


"neither side wanted war over Cuba … but it was possible that either side could take a step that—for reasons of 'security' or 'pride' or 'face'—would require a response by the other side, which, in turn, for the same reasons of security, pride, or face, would bring about a counterresponse and eventually an escalation into armed conflict." As Khrushchev told Kennedy in a personal letter during the crisis:

If indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war…. We and you ought not to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.[39]

President Kennedy's most responsible course would have been to emphasize that the Cuban missiles posed no new threat to the United States and to either let the matter rest or seek a diplomatic solution. As Richard Neustadt and Graham Allison ask: "Need Soviet recklessness have been matched in kind? Could Kennedy not have accepted their missiles in Cuba and announced to the world that Russian roulette was a game he would not play?"[40]

To suggest another alternative speech, Kennedy might have calmly reassured the American public about the meaninglessness of the missiles and thus avoided confrontation entirely:

If I thought there was some reason to be concerned about them, I wouldn't be sleeping in this house tonight. They are there, but it is not that much of a change. You are in for a dime or in for a dollar. There has been no essential change in the strategic situation. The numbers don't change much. It is not a significant escalation. This isn't really anything new. I don't think they pose any particular threat at all.

Given that those nuclear missiles were stationed within miles of the U.S. shoreline, many may consider such a statement unfit for a strong, defense-minded, anticommunist administration. They should consult the newspapers of May 22 and May 23, 1984. Those exact words were uttered by President Reagan; his spokesman, Larry Speakes; his national security adviser, Robert McFarlane; and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John W. Vessey, in response to a Soviet buildup of nuclear missile submarines in U.S. coastal waters.[41] These missiles were militarily almost an exact parallel to the ones placed in Cuba twenty-two years before. Like the Cuban missiles, they visibly added to the


nuclear forces aimed at the U.S. mainland. They were based at an immodest distance from America's shores. And they could hit major U.S. cities and military installations on the East Coast in ten minutes' flight time—too fast for meaningful warning.

President Reagan could have reacted to this "threat" much as Kennedy did twenty-two years before. Borrowing Kennedy's stirring words, he could have condemned the Soviet action as a "deliberate provocation" and an "unjustified change in the status quo." He could have called the missiles "clearly offensive" and said that their purpose was "none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere." He could have emphasized that they were "capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area." American warships could have been dispatched to warn off or fight off the rogue subs, and a nuclear alert could have been ordered to underline America's "courage and commitment."[42]

But Mr. Reagan deftly avoided making a crisis by refusing to be provoked, by yawning instead of blustering in response to something that posed no real threat. The nuclear perceptions game can be played several ways. One is to define a marginal Soviet move as unimportant, thereby making it so. Another is to call it a "definite threat to peace," thereby making it one.

Some will insist that nuclear missiles on Cuba are not comparable to those in the surrounding sea—that there is a special symbolic meaning to placing nuclear arms for the first time on land in the Western Hemisphere, a meaning independent of the actual military value of the weapons. Nuclear missiles were, in this view, a profound violation of the American "sphere of influence" in a way that hostile vessels in the ocean cannot be. We are, after all, land creatures. A race of fishes might see the situation differently, but solid earth is where nations seek their influence and draw their spheres.

There is some truth to the theory that the mutual respect of each other's spheres of influence helps prevent superpower confrontation. The best guarantor of peace would be a commitment by both to avoid foreign intervention. But if they are going to be interventionists, each side's clear knowledge of where it can act without fear of confrontation by the other, and where interference could bring on a crisis, at least reduces the probability that they will cross each other.

According to Neustadt and Allison:


It could be argued that, despite the risk inherent in the course of action President Kennedy chose, any other course would have meant greater risk. If, rather than challenging Khrushchev and demanding withdrawal of the missiles, he simply had accepted Khrushchev's move and minimized its importance … the 'rules of the precarious staus quo' … would have been seriously jeopardized…. Kennedy had tried to establish rules that would prevent either nation from miscalculating the other's vital interests and stumbling by misunderstanding into a confrontation from which neither could retreat. If Khrushchev's most serious infraction of these rules were disregarded, the rules would wear away.[43]

Kennedy arguably chose a good moment for enforcing the "rules," picking a spot where the United States had overwhelming conventional military superiority at a time when it still had some semblance of nuclear superiority. Compared, say, to a crisis in Berlin several years later, a confrontation in Cuba seemed a good way to make his point.

There are several problems with this kind of argument—the most sophisticated defense of the confrontive approach. The first is its hypocrisy. The United States had methodically stationed nuclear weapons on the territory of its allies on or near Soviet borders for some time—in Turkey, Italy, and Britain. The Soviets were doing nothing to the United States that it had not already done to them many times over. This fact had to be explained to President Kennedy, who said on October 26, in reference to Khrushchev's stationing of nuclear weapons in Cuba, "It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that'd be goddam dangerous, I would think." "Well, we did, Mr. President," Bundy pointed out (leading Kennedy to respond, "Yeah, but that was five years ago").[44]

Indeed, as the Soviets must have noticed with some bitterness, on the very day Kennedy announced the blockade "the Jupiter [nuclear] missiles in Turkey were turned over to Turkish command."[45] True, the Soviets sent their missiles to Cuba secretly and in violation of explicit assurances that they would not. But deception by itself does not justify a risk of world war and nuclear incineration. It is also true that Turkey, Italy, and Britain did not have the long historical ties to the Soviet Union that Cuba did to the United States. But historical ties do not justify nuclear gamesmanship either. And in any case in 1962 Cuba was no more in America's sphere of influence than Britain was in the Soviets'.

The Soviets had definitively "violated" the U.S. sphere of influence already, if that is how one wishes to see it, four years earlier, when Castro took power and entered into a close politico-military relationship with


them. That is when the United States lost political control of land in the Western Hemisphere, when the USSR gained military bases on land in North America, and when communism got a foothold on land within a hundred miles of our coast. There is no logical reason to see the placement of militarily irrelevant nuclear weapons there as a major shift in the military or political status quo, or to assume that if Kennedy had not defined it as important Khrushchev would have been emboldened to "violate" the U.S. sphere of influence on a regular basis.

Actually, no one could have known with confidence how Khrushchev's missiles or the American confrontation would be symbolically interpreted or what ripple effects they would have. Any symbolic interpretation was hypothetical. The international system is a seething, unpredictable, often chaotic interaction of many parties' actions and perceptions. These are not always consistent and not always rational. The real military and political interests of nations are hard enough to decipher. The symbolic ones are hopelessly complex. The men who ran the missile crisis may have believed that the long-term stabilizing benefits of denying Khrushchev his symbolic victory would counterbalance the short-term risks of both the naval blockade and the nuclear alert. But the short-term risks of confrontation were clear, the long-term benefits utterly hypothetical. To use facile, unprovable speculation to justify the deliberate risking of nuclear war is unconscionable, even if one accepts the legitimacy of endangering the world to advance the goals of the American state.

Things could have turned out differently. Khrushchev, for example, might have felt compelled to call Kennedy's bluff. If Kennedy had then been forced to invade Cuba to make good on his threat, would America definitely have emerged stronger? Is it not possible that the world would have seen the United States as an aggressor, attacking a tiny island to remove Soviet missiles when we had similar missiles on the Soviet border? Robert Kennedy thought so. "A surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one," he said, "could not be undertaken … if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe." During one of the meetings at which an invasion was discussed, he passed a note to his brother saying, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor."[46]

Alternatively, to avoid humiliation in the eyes of the world, Khrushchev might have decided that he had to make another, even bolder, move somewhere else—such as Berlin, where the United States had no conventional military option at all. As Fen Hampson points out, Kennedy's


aggressive actions might in fact have sent "the wrong signal" rather than the one intended: "A naval blockade around Cuba did not prevent the Soviets from doing likewise with their land forces in Berlin. It almost invited it, and their previous behavior provided strong reasons for believing that this would be exactly how the Soviets would respond." Sorensen states: "Blockade was a word so closely associated with Berlin that it almost guaranteed a new Berlin blockade in response."[47]

Similar possibilities were endless. Once Kennedy decided to confront the Soviets, all the theories in the world could not rule out war or even guarantee that the United States would gain substantial political benefits. As Robert Kennedy candidly admitted, "Each one of us [on President Kennedy's advisory committee] was being asked to make a recommendation which would affect the future of all mankind, a recommendation which, if wrong and if accepted, could mean the destruction of the human race."[48]

Kennedy's symbolic stand in 1962 did not lead to war in the short run, but there is good reason to believe that it almost backfired disastrously eight years later in the 1970 "second Cuban missile crisis," recounted in Chapter 6. Even more than the 1962 missiles, the Soviet submarine base at Cienfuegos—the issue of the 1970 crisis—was inconsequential to the overall Soviet nuclear threat. Normally nuclear submarines can be serviced from surface vessels ("tenders") almost as well as from land bases such as the one being constructed in Cuba. Apart from cost-effectiveness and superior recreational facilities for the crew, remote shore facilities mainly decrease the time required for subs to transit to and from their firing stations for refueling and refitting. That increases the number of subs within firing range of the United States at any given time.[49]

But we have already seen how in 1984 the U.S. government stated that it did not care how many Soviet subs patrolled our coastline on station, that considering the overall Soviet nuclear threat more of them did not "pose any particular threat at all."[50] Yet Barry Goldwater interpreted the Soviet base, similar in purpose to American submarine bases elsewhere in the world, as evidence of a "serious Russian bid for world domination." Mike Mansfield was outraged because he thought they violated President Kennedy's statement after the first Cuban crisis that "offensive weapons must be kept out of the Western Hemisphere." They both failed to note that the Soviets already had enough nuclear missiles in the oceans of the Western Hemisphere to dominate or destroy as much as they could ever care to.[51]


According to George Quester, the main reason for the 1970 confrontation may have been nothing more than the need to live up to President Kennedy's symbolic commitment in 1962 to keep Soviet nuclear forces away from Cuba. Even though there were serious questions about the applicability of the 1962 agreement on land-based nuclear missiles to a submarine base that could serve different kinds of vessels, the Nixon administration apparently felt it could not appear to back away from the earlier U.S. demand. As Quester writes, Kennedy's "'victory' thereafter committed the United States to maintaining these winnings, lest it seem to be weakening in comparison with the past. President Nixon might thus have cause to regret the position so handily captured by Kennedy." Indeed, Nixon may have "privately wished that American prestige had never been coupled to the denuclearization of Cuba."[52] How twisted are the webs we weave!

The Soviets backed down in 1970 as they had in 1962, halting construction of the base and forestalling a full-blown crisis.[53] Had they not, we might have found ourselves on the brink again over the presence of weapons that posed no threat. This possibility has been lost in the subsequent rapture over the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis. But it underscores how facile it is to rationalize the great risk Kennedy ran by the argument that it reduced future risks of similar crises.

In fact in May 1972, when a Soviet Golf-II class submarine armed with nuclear ballistic missiles paid a port visit to Cuba, the United States dispensed entirely with diplomatic protests and resorted directly to military action: "U.S. surveillance ships, aided by P-3 patrol aircraft (based at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba), made sonar contact and forced the submarine to surface. Several times at night this was repeated, with the Soviets even firing flares to discourage the P-3 aircraft, and with highspeed maneuvers by the Soviet and American ships; the submarine was repeatedly forced to surface until the Soviet formation was well into the Atlantic." Recall that this was a nuclear ballistic missile submarine . According to Garthoff, "This entire incident was not known to President Nixon, or to Dr. Kissinger, in orchestrating policy then or even long after the event!"[54]

Richard Walton persuasively argues that Kennedy had real, facesaving diplomatic means of quickly resolving the Cuban crisis short of armed confrontation, leading to the same trade-off that was later negotiated under the gun: the removal of the Soviet weapons from Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge never to invade the island. Hampson and others underline that aside from Kennedy's anxieties about his domestic political standing, there is no clear reason why he could not have attempted a


diplomatic agreement with the Soviets before embarking on a perilous and illegal naval blockade, and nearly an outright invasion of Cuba. This is about as far as a critic such as Hampson can go, accepting as he does that "the missiles had to go."[55]

The Soviets explicitly offered another diplomatic opening late in the crisis: the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba in return for the removal of the comparable American Jupiter missiles from Turkey. As Robert Kennedy reports, "The proposal … was not unreasonable and did not amount to a loss to the U.S. or to our NATO allies." The Jupiters were "clearly obsolete," and President Kennedy had tried to remove them unilaterally on several occasions, as recently as August 1962. According to Dean Rusk: "I remember we joked about which way the missiles would fly if they were fired…. I also remember being told that a tourist driving an automobile with a .22 caliber rifle could knock holes in the skins of these missiles." The president "did not want to involve the U.S. and mankind in a catastrophic war over missile sites in Turkey that were antiquated and useless." Nevertheless, he was unwilling to accept the Soviet offer, again not because of any tangible risk it would entail, but because it would appear weak to make concessions "under threat."[56]

He could have chosen otherwise, here as in the other crucial moments of the crisis. As Robert Jervis comments: "The NATO countries and presumably the USSR understood that these weapons had little value and probably knew that the United States was planning to dismantle them. Thus to grant the substance of the Soviet demand was hardly a concession at all." Kennedy's concern was that "others would interpret such a move as an index of the willingness of the United States to retreat under pressure even though the substance of the Soviet demand was almost completely irrelevant. If the Russians had asked the United States to change the color of its postage stamps the problem would have been essentially the same."[57]

Symbol Wars

Jervis's observation about the Jupiters applies to the entire crisis. The substance—the Cuban missiles—was in essence arbitrary, irrelevant. The missiles were only the vehicle of a historic struggle of the titans that would probably have occurred sooner or later over another issue anyway. Khrushchev could have chosen many other ways to try to humiliate Kennedy and improve the Soviet position in the Cold War. Indeed


the Soviets do not speak of the "Cuban missile crisis," as we do, but of the "Carribean crisis" of 1962. For it was not really a crisis of the arms race at all.

Both sides arbitrarily gave militarily irrelevant Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba an epic symbolic significance—Khrushchev by using them to make his break in the Cold War and Kennedy by sternly warning the Soviets the month before the missiles were discovered that the United States would not tolerate nuclear weapons in Cuba. Top U.S. officials have even expressed regret that the United States let itself be drawn into a challenge that would have meant little had Kennedy refused to play Khrushchev's symbolic game. In 1987 Theodore Sorenson openly admitted: "If we had known that the Soviets were putting 40 missiles in Cuba, we might … have drawn the line at 100, and said with great fanfare that we would absolutely not tolerate the presence of more than 100 missiles in Cuba."[58] During the crisis, on October 16, the president explicitly lamented, "Last month I should have said … that we don't care"—thus clearly acknowledging that the physical missiles in Cuba were not the problem, but rather that he endangered millions of lives essentially to follow through on a statement he regretted he had made. So much for Kennedy's "finest hour."

Those who still doubt the arbitrariness of the Kennedy administration's decisions about what was symbolically important enough to risk war over should consider the finale of the crisis. Even after Khrushchev accepted the American demand that all Soviet nuclear delivery systems in Cuba be removed, Kennedy balked over the presence of some elderly Soviet Ilyushin IL-28 light bombers on the island. Although these were not nuclear capable (except in the sense that a commercial airliner is, as Garthoff points out), the United States demanded that they be removed as part of the settlement. The quarantine of Cuba was not lifted until the Soviets agreed; the urgent Strategic Air Command nuclear alert was not canceled until the day after. General Maxwell Taylor and Treasury Secretary Douglass Dillon even urged the bombing of the Cuban airfields where the planes were based. Why all the fuss? Because "the president had publicly committed us to regard the IL-28s as part and parcel of a dangerous offensive arms buildup in Cuba in his quarantine speech of October 22, and that was why the IL-28s as well as the missiles must come out." The United States caused no trouble over more advanced Soviet aircraft in Cuba, notably MiG-21s. For "while the MiG-21s might be just as dangerous in potential, and while both the Ilyushins and the MiGs in fact represented no real threat so long as not armed


with nuclear weapons, nonetheless the United States had committed itself to regard the Ilyushin `bombers' as dangerous, and had not so committed itself with respect to MiG fighter-bombers."[59] In other words, the United States again risked war with the Soviet Union over hardware with no importance other than that which Kennedy arbitrarily gave to it in a speech.

It would be unrealistic to expect that such lunatic actions can be prevented by any technical means, such as controls over weapon deployments. The superpowers can decide to wage a symbolic and psychological contest over almost anything . Even if compelled by worldwide public opinion to sign a START treaty or a nuclear freeze, or even to reduce nuclear forces by 90 percent, either side could make a dangerous move with nuclear weapons. The Soviets could sail a ballistic missile submarine into New York harbor, or the Americans could send one to Vladivostok, in both cases no doubt provoking a terrifying confrontation. The Soviets could put nuclear missiles in Nicaragua, or the United States could put them in Afghanistan, with the same result. The oldest and most decrepit missiles could cause the same crisis as the newest and most powerful ones.

Stopping the arms race could eliminate some possible but unlikely vehicles of a symbolic superpower collision (Star Wars, for example). But it is far more important to discredit the widespread weaponitis that allowed Kennedy to whip the public into a frenzy over meaningless missiles and that might allow a future leader to do the same.

Besides, there are infinite possible pretexts for a symbolic superpower confrontation. The nuclear-armed states, as we have seen, can recklessly commit their prestige to almost anything —whether insignificant Chinese islands, a defeated Egyptian army, or militarily meaningless nuclear missiles. We can perhaps ban new missiles, but we cannot ban Chinese islands, Egyptian armies, and all the other possible objects of future superpower tests of will.

The danger of a recurrence of 1962 will remain so long as the nuclear-armed states believe that a record of recklessness will help them secure worldwide power by violent means. The danger will recede only when concerned citizens organize to make that strategy unworkable—restraining the aggression, intervention, and adventurism that prompts the constant demonstrations of resolve, and preventing leaders from pursuing those demonstrations to the brink of worldwide disaster.


Preferred Citation: Schwartz, William A., and Charles Derber, et al The Nuclear Seduction: Why the Arms Race Doesn't Matter--And What Does. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.