Oct 27 2012

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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

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The Death of Civilization - Almost

 Today is Saturday, October 27th.

October 27th fell on a Saturday 50 years ago today as well.

On this day in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was in its 12th day, perhaps its darkest day.

The revelation that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba – capable of hitting almost anywhere in the United States – had set off an international crisis, resulting in a US naval quarantine of the island and the very likely prospect of US air, naval and ground attack against Cuba to deal with the missile threat. The consequences of such an attack would catalyze a chain reaction around the world of unknown, but frightening consequences.

There was never a higher level of tension between the Superpowers during the Cold War.

In the White House, 50 years ago, they called today, “Black Saturday.”

On this Saturday, a promising, private diplomatic initiative, which would have dismantled the Soviet missile sites in return for a US “no-attack” pledge regarding Cuba fell apart when the Soviets publicly stated that only a swap of US missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba and a no-attack pledge would be sufficient to end the crisis – a complete no-starter for the US, geopolitically.

Compounding the problem, the morning intel from CIA was stark. Though the flow of supplies to Cuba had been disrupted by the Quarantine, five medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) bases in Cuba had become operational. A sixth would become operational on following day. These missiles immediately placed the entire southeastern US at risk, with the outer limits ranging in an arc from DC, through Cincinnati, St. Louis, Dallas and San Antonio.

Longer range missile sites, under construction, would put most of the rest of the US under threat by December.

And on this Saturday, the crisis had drawn its first American blood when a U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba had been shot down, killing the US pilot. At the onset of the crisis on October 15th, this very act had been defined as a “red line” requiring a retaliatory response from the US.

On this Saturday, 50 years ago, the US military was at Defense Readiness Condition 2 (DEFCON-2), bringing US missile and strategic bomber forces to war readiness in final preparation for a general nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis remains the only time in American history that US forces reached this alert status.

After DEFCON 2 ther is only DEFCON 1 – general war, which would trigger the American nuclear war fighting plan, known as SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan). SIOP called for the dispatch of 2,258 missiles and bombers carrying 3,423 nuclear weapons to attack 1,077 targets in the Soviet bloc. The global devastation wrought by such an attack, would be much worse than all the 19th and 20th century’s conflicts combined, and it would have been completed in 24 hours.

This military behemoth, unmatched in history until that time, was now on a hair trigger alert.

At the same time, off the Gulf coast, a huge conventional military buildup was nearing completion with 120,000 combat troops and 1,000 aircraft preparing for an invasion of the Cuba that was set to begin on Monday, October 29th.

On this Saturday, 50 years ago, it remains virtually impossible to comprehend the pressure that President Kennedy was under. The enormous consequence of his every decision. In the history of the presidency, indeed in the history of the country, this was one of the most consequential days. While every president since Truman has known the burden of being Commander in Chief in the nuclear age, only Kennedy faced the the very real prospect of triggering or retaliating in a global armageddon.

And it never looked closer than Black Saturday.

From the beginning of the crisis, Kennedy had attempted to balance the abstract requirement for steadfast American leadership as the indispensable key to American credibility in the Cold War balance of power, against the horrifying reality of what an actual nuclear war would entail.

To understand Kennedy’s nuclear reality, consider contemporary events surrounding the attacks of 9-11.

On a single day, 19 hijackers seized four jumbo jets, using these planes as weapons to destroy two iconic skyscrapers, damage the Pentagon and killed 3,000 Americans. In the aftermath, the stock market dove, the economy sputtered as the American people were traumatized.

Subsequent to the attacks, the US government preoccupation – and public fear – turned the terrifying possibility of “nuclear terrorism” where Al Qaeda or an associated group would detonate a “back pack nuke” – a device with an explosive power of 10-15,000 tons of TNT (10-15 kilotons or a bit less than Hiroshima) in a single, major US city.

Now consider Kennedy’s situation as postulated in an “alternate history” of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In “When Angels Wept” Eric G. Swedin uses the treasure trove of documents, memos and plans declassified by both the US and Russia since the crisis to hypothesize what a general nuclear war would have looked like in that year.

In 1962, while the USSSR had a significant bomber force, it was considered unlikely that more than a fraction of the force would get past NORAD. In addition, the Soviet Union had only a most rudimentary Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force, with just 36 missiles, each carrying a single warhead (compared to 172 deployed by the US). As for the payloads, the Soviets used warheads with much larger yields to compensate for the general unreliability of its missile guidance systems.

Under Swedin’s alternate history, the full Soviet attack hit 29 targets in the continental US, but this including most major cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago.

In this alternate history, Washington, DC is hit with a standard Soviet warhead – 5 megatons (5 million tons of TNT) which creates a fireball two miles in diameter, and destroys most everything out in a circle for up to 15 miles away. That explosion is more than 400 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or the backpack nuke we worry about today.

The human cost of the alternate history attack is 2o million Americans on the first day. A total of 32 million within the first two years, or 16.4% of the US population in 1960. It is so staggeringly large as to be incomprehensible.

With these two examples, you get a sense of the more daunting stakes of Kennedy’s reality, and what was at risk. Even a partial Soviet attack would devestate the United States.

On this Saturday, 50 years ago, Kennedy understood that if he didn’t make good on his threats to take out Soviet missiles in Cuba, the US would face a new, more imminent nuclear threat, would lose credibility globally and open itself up to nuclear blackmail around the globe. Yet, if Kennedy went ahead with the invasion, it is hard to see how such a conflict could have been kept from escalating into global war.

Complicating this dilemma, Kennedy was burdened by his military advisers who were deeply skeptical of his leadership. They have watched in dismay as the Soviets have rushed to use the 12 previous days to bring their nuclear missiles to operational status, while the US engaged in diplomacy and measured military responses such as the Quarantine, to try and resolve the crisis. There was a military consensus that an attack immediately after the missiles had been discovered would have ended the crisis before it began and that every day without an overwhelming attack would make the military situation worse.

And Kennedy was burdened by Congress, particularly some vocal Republicans, who consider his diplomatic efforts to be a show of weakness as they demanded instant military action.

But throughout these 12 days, and despite the criticism and doubts of politicians and military leaders, Kennedy maintained control.

His decision-making not only reflected a desire to understand Soviet motives and intentions from their point of view- and critically to incorporate strategic pauses into US responses that would enable the Russians to consider the implications of their actions – but, valuably for the US, Kennedy demonstrated a profound tolerance for ambiguity.

Said another way, he was skeptical of the certainty of his military leaders and other political advisers.

Would an air attack get all the missiles? What would be the Soviet response if some of their personnel were wounded or killed? Where might the Soviets respond other than Cuba and how would the US respond?

As we would later find out, this tolerance for ambiguity, and determination to question every assumption, served the President, the crisis and the country well.

In 1962, the US  did not know that there were 40,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba, not the 10,000 technicians as reported. The US invasion forces would have faced a fundamentally different tactical situation than had been assumed.

The US  did not know that the Soviets had also deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, providing local commanders with authority to use the weapons if required. A US conventional invasion could have quickly escalated into a nuclear conflict without the Soviet leadership in Moscow making that critical decision.

Andthe US didn’t know that Soviet subs in the waters surrounding Cuba were armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, again with vessel commanders provided launch discretion. At one point, US harassment of a Soviet sub on the Quarantine line – B-59 – had so exercised the sub commander that he ordered preparations for use of his 15 kiloton nuke again the harassing US ships, who, in turn, had no idea the submarine carried nuclear weapons. Only the intervention of other senior officers prevented the use of the device.

As for the actual missiles that would be the target of any air assault, the US misidentified storage depots for nuclear warheads, and would have bombed an empty building if the attacks had gone ahead, while leaving the actual site unscathed.

Kennedy’s judgment and resistance to the easy reassurance of absolutes and categoricals represented the decisive head of a pin upon which the balance of the crisis rested.

In retrospect, even the most aggressive and optimistic US assessments for immediate military action would have ultimately gone awry with what we know today about Soviet/Cuban capabilities/authorities. An attack on that following Monday, the 29th, would most certainly have led to the first use of nuclear weapons since WWII, if not general nuclear war.

50 years ago today, Kennedy cut the deal.

The Soviets would dismantle and ship home the offensive missiles and warheads in return for a US no-invasion pledge.

In an additional side deal, that would remain secret for decades, the US agreed to dismantle the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey, but only after a significant amount of time had passed so that the withdrawal of American missiles would not be publicly seen as a quid pro quo for Soviet missiles in Cuba. The remaining caveat was that the US had to have a Soviet answer within 24 hours, lest the US be forced to take additional action against Cuba.

The Soviets agreed, broadcasting their response publicly on Radio Moscow on Sunday, October 28th, bypassing normal diplomatic channels, to ensure that Kennedy and his aides received the response.

The broadcast came at 9am EST, 20 hours before the planned beginning of US hostilities the next day.

It was that close.

Many historians dismiss Kennedy from the list of “great” US presidents because his domestic agenda was modest and his assassination a year later cut short the potential impact and legacy of a second Kennedy term. But this analysis is too conventional.

For those 13 days, but particularly that day 50 years ago today, Kennedy held the future not only of the American nation, but of civilization itself, in his hands. It is said that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara watched the sun set on October 27th, wondering if he would ever live to see a sunset again.

Kennedy’s deft and determined management of a provocative crisis, instigated by an emotional and impulsive Soviet counterpart, and in opposition to the majority wishes of the US military establishment, is primarily why we are still here today.

For that, Kennedy belongs in the first rank of presidents.

And as we prepare to vote in 10 days, the events a half a century ago represent an important reminder that despite banality of binders, birth control and Big Bird that have so occupied our time this year, that the presidency – and who occupies it – truly still matters.

Remember that when you go into the voting booth.



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