A Final Solution to the Soviet Problem

Montage of submerged submarine launch to the reentry of the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles of a Trident missile

The first concrete, and perhaps most benign, result of the RAND influence in the Kennedy administration was a change in the nation’s general nuclear war plan—called the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).

President Eisenhower had ordered SIOP during the last year of his administration as a response to the uncoordinated proliferation of nuclear weapons in the U.S. Armed Forces. Although it centralized command of all the nuclear weapons—the Navy’s Polaris missiles, and the other nuclear arsenal of the Navy fleet and of the Army units—the SIOP strategy was nothing less than the old Sunday punch of the 1950s. Labeled SIOP-62, for the first year in which it would become operational, the plan contemplated responding to an impending Soviet invasion of Western Europe with a U.S. nuclear force of 1,459 bombs, packing a total of 2,164 megatons—even if the Soviets did not employ any nuclear weapons. They would be directed at 654 targets, military and urban, in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. If the United States fired a preemptive first attack, as was official policy in case of a perceived Soviet threat, then the entire American nuclear arsenal force would be unleashed. That would mean 3,423 nuclear weapons, totaling 7,847 megatons. It was estimated that 285 million Russians and Chinese would die in this holocaust and that perhaps 40 million more would be severely injured.

Nor was that the limit of the carnage. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that another 100 million or more would die in Eastern Europe. Fallout also would claim 100 million lives in neutral countries surrounding the attacks—places like Finland, Austria, and Afghanistan. Ultimately, there could be yet another 100 million deaths in NATO countries, depending on which way the nuclear fallout blew. In total, up to 600 million people—the just and the sinners, the bystanders and the ignorant—would perish because of an automatic response to a perceived threat. Needless to say, no thought was given to the effect such massive bombing would have on the global climate.

Strategic Air Command briefed McNamara on SIOP-62 on February 3, 1961, just two weeks after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. General Thomas White, the Air Force Chief of Staff, led the presentation to McNamara; his deputy secretary, Roswell Gilpatric; and a retinue of other top Department of Defense civilians. The SAC officers had hoped to impress McNamara with their dazzling display of charts, numbers, and statistics, but McNamara was far from pleased with what he saw. He was able not only to comprehend instantly the gist of any presentation but to synthesize, analyze, and compare the given data to previous analyses, and he immediately pointed out the enormous duplication of destruction in the plan, with some targets destined to be hit four to ten times; he also openly criticized the underestimation of Soviet casualties and industrial destruction.

McNamara was particularly aghast when General White, in a semihumorous aside, said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, I hope you don’t have any friends or relations in Albania, because we’re just going to have to wipe it out.” That is, the Albanians, like hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, would be annihilated merely because they happened to live under Communist rule.

McNamara left SAC headquarters determined to change the nation’s nuclear policy. He convinced President Kennedy to forswear initiating a nuclear war. Yet some other kind of plan had to be drawn up in case the nuclear specter became a dreadful eventuality. But what? His answer came a few weeks later, when he received a crucial briefing by RAND analyst William Kaufmann on counter-force, a concept new to McNamara.

Alain Enthoven and Charles Hitch arranged for the talk by Kaufmann on February 10, 1961. A former student of Bernard Brodie’s at Princeton and a colleague of Albert Wohlstetter’s, Kaufmann had elaborated on Brodie’s original concept of a no-cities targeting plan. Essentially, the plan called for delivering nuclear weapons to known Soviet military targets instead of population centers. Kaufmann also built on Wohlstetter’s second-strike concept by proposing a calculated response—the American nuclear counterattack would be carried out in steps, gradually increasing in intensity so as to give the Soviets a chance to halt before further escalation occurred. The briefing was one that Kaufmann had given to the Air Force dozens of times over the previous years, without much consequence. He had prepared charts, tables, and graphics for a four-hour conference, but McNamara grasped the concepts so quickly Kaufmann was done within an hour.

McNamara seized on Kaufmann’s proposal incorporating counterforce and second-strike capability, believing it offered a new way to utilize the nation’s nuclear arsenal by giving the president flexibility in response to Soviet moves. Atop a to-do list of 96 items that came to be known as the 96 Trombones—a conflation of the idea of McNamara’s aides being known as his band, the lyrics to an old operetta song, and the “76 Trombones” number from The Music Man—McNamara ordered his assistants to prepare “a draft memorandum revising the basic national security policies and assumptions, including the assumptions relating to ‘counterforce’ strikes . . .” Their work, with Kaufmann as consultant, would form the basis of the new nuclear policy.

McNamara turned over Project Number 1 of his 96 Trombones to Paul Nitze, who then handed it over to Harry Rowen. Rowen in turn gave it to Daniel Ellsberg, since the former marine was one of a handful of civilians who had closely studied the military’s war plans. Ellsberg saw this as his chance to make the nation’s nuclear response more precise and effective, not to mention more rational, for to him the general nuclear plan in existence seemed ludicrous and insanely murderous, even in the face of Soviet aggression.

Kaufmann’s plan had assumed that the call to pull the nuclear trigger was a considered decision, made at the highest level of government—by the president or the secretary of defense. Ellsberg knew better. In the late 1950s, RAND had loaned Ellsberg to the forces of the Commander in Chief Pacific to study the problems of nuclear control and command. He learned then that in spite of all public declarations to the contrary, Eisenhower had delegated to commanders in major theaters the authority to start a nuclear attack under certain circumstances, such as a communications breakdown with Washington (which happened frequently back then) or the incapacitation of the president (which had occurred twice when Eisenhower suffered heart attacks). Not only that, some of the four-star commanders who had this authority had in turn delegated it to their subordinates, which meant that the capability to order a nuclear attack was much more widespread and susceptible to possible error or abuse than suspected. The nightmare of a deranged local commander calling in a nuclear strike, the basis of so many science-fiction movies and thrillers, was not far from reality after all—especially before Wohlstetter came up with the concept of fail-safe. (All the same, Kennedy later reauthorized this delegation of power, which was reaffirmed by President Johnson in 1964.)

In his draft, Ellsberg repeatedly emphasized that the United States would not hold the people of Russia, China, or Eastern Europe responsible for the actions of their governments. Therefore, the American response in case of war would seek to minimize the number of civilian casualties. The plan called for refraining from indiscriminate attacks on population centers “while retaining U.S. ready residual forces to threaten those targets” if needed. Ellsberg also emphasized the absolute necessity of a continuing command control center for U.S. forces, as well as the need for weapons to be held in reserve for a counterattack, both of which had been omitted in the extant nuclear war plan.

In May of 1961, the month before SIOP-62 was to be adopted as official policy, McNamara sent Ellsberg’s plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the basis of a new operational plan for 1963. Ellsberg meanwhile repeatedly urged the national security leaders in the administration—McGeorge Bundy at the National Security Council, Walt Rostow of the State Department, and Gilpatric—to rewrite the definition of a general war so that a conflict with the Soviet Union did not degenerate into nuclear war. Ellsberg’s efforts met with success, and early in 1962, McNamara made the new counterforce policy public in a speech at the University of Michigan.

This new measure for facing crises would be put to the test soon enough—in fact, within weeks. In the summer of 1961, all of the RAND ideas of counterforce versus massive retaliation faced a real-life challenge when, for a brief interval, the American government gave serious consideration to unleashing preemptively the nation’s nuclear arsenal on the Soviet Union. The springboard was that most contested of cities, Berlin.

An island of American influence in a sea of Communist oppression, the former capital of Germany had been divided into a Communist East and a democratic West after World War II, mirroring the division of Germany. Mass defections from East Germany to West Germany plagued the East German authorities for years. By 1958, two million people had migrated to the West, with close to 10,000 still escaping every month—many of those through Berlin. Stalin had blockaded the city in 1948 to force the U.S. allies out, but after a massive 300-day airlift thwarted his plan, the Soviet Union signed an agreement allowing free access to Berlin. Before Kennedy’s election, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had been making noises about restricting the movement of troops and supplies to Berlin again, under the pretext of signing a final peace treaty with East Germany and making the Communist regime there responsible for all traffic in and out of Berlin—therefore choking the Western-controlled part of the city.

Khrushchev repeated the threat at a June 1961 meeting in Vienna with President Kennedy. At the time, Kennedy was still trying to find his legs politically following the debacle of the Bay of Pigs. Originally authorized by Eisenhower as a CIA undercover operation, the April 1961 invasion had aimed at deposing Fidel Castro’s Communist regime with a force of 1,200 American-trained Cuban exiles. When confronted by superior Cuban forces and a refusal by President Kennedy to provide needed U.S. military support, the exile invaders went down to defeat, giving Castro his first major victory against the United States and a gigantic black eye to the Kennedy administration.

That failure, compounded by Kennedy’s youth and inexperience in world affairs, made the Crimean peasant that lurked within Khrushchev believe the American president was in way over his head. Khrushchev proceeded to lecture Kennedy, warning of war if the United States and its allies did not withdraw from West Berlin by December. Kennedy responded defiantly, “Then there will be war, Mr. Chairman. It’s going to be a very cold winter.”

One thing that did not much concern Kennedy was the size of Khrushchev’s much-vaunted atomic arsenal. Just weeks after the inauguration, the CIA had informed McNamara of the secret U-2 spy plane conclusions: the so-called missile gap favoring the Russians did not exist. When McNamara blurted out at one of his first press conferences that if there was a gap, it was actually in favor of the United States, an immediate scandal ensued. The New York Times ran the story on page one and newspaper editorials across the country excoriated the new administration for its deceit, while in Congress there were calls for McNamara’s resignation and a rerun of the presidential election. McNamara offered to resign but Kennedy refused the offer, telling him, “We all put our foot in our mouth once in a while. Just forget it. It’ll blow over.”

However, while the Kennedy administration knew that the Soviet boasts of nuclear superiority were a Potemkin village, it was painfully aware that Soviet combat strength superiority in East Germany was the real thing. Several Soviet divisions surrounded Berlin, and U.S. military forces there had just enough ammo and provisions to withstand a conventional conflict for eighteen days. If the Russians decided to blockade West Berlin, the plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was for the United States to send a handful of brigades down the autobahn from West Germany to break the Soviet stranglehold. If the Soviets or their Warsaw Pact allies resisted, the next step was the all-out nuclear strike of SIOP-62.

Back in Washington, Kennedy received sharp advice from Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson (Kennedy had appointed career diplomat and Rockefeller Foundation president Dean Rusk to preside over Foggy Bottom). In Acheson’s view, the Berlin crisis was nothing less than an excuse by Russia to test America’s will. If Kennedy backed down on Berlin, the Soviets would feel that they could attack American interests elsewhere with impunity. The United States would be seen as incapable of or unwilling to honor its commitments to other countries, for fear of using its nuclear forces. Acheson suggested that Kennedy order a massive buildup of conventional forces to send a message to the Soviets that America would not be pushed around—although Acheson ruefully acknowledged this move might result in a nuclear war. Secretary of State Rusk, who had accompanied Kennedy to Vienna, seconded his predecessor’s recommendation, and made plans to meet with European foreign ministers and the NATO Permanent Council later that summer.

On July 25, 1961, Kennedy followed Acheson’s advice, asking Congress for a $3.3 billion supplement to the appropriations bill, with half of the money earmarked for an increase in conventional forces; he also upped the Army’s strength from 875,000 to 1,000,000 troops and ordered an array of other measures to augment the nation’s war readiness. To avoid the possibility that a confrontation over Berlin might lead to a nuclear war for which the country would be unprepared, Rowen ordered a contingency memorandum to be drafted, elaborating on the Kaufmann counterforce/no-cities ideas that Ellsberg proposed for SIOP-63.

The memo, written by National Security Adviser Carl Kaysen, offered the new and dismayingly tantalizing possibility of eliminating the Soviet nuclear arsenal altogether. Analysis of photographs taken by reconnaissance satellites had disclosed that the once-feared Soviet missile force was even smaller than anyone had dared to hope. The National Security Council deduced that the Soviets actually had only four land-based operational intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. A preemptive counter-force first strike against Soviet installations would therefore most likely result in the permanent destruction of the Russian nuclear land-based missile threat, at a cost of a few million Soviet lives. The memo warned, however, that if some Soviet bombers and submarine-based missiles survived the attack and the Soviets struck back, from two to fifteen million Americans might die.

The memo inflamed tempers throughout the administration. Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s main speechwriter and chief White House counsel, screamed at Rowen’s assistant, who brought him the memo, “You’re crazy! We shouldn’t let guys like you around here.” A leftist staffer on the National Security Council, Marcus Raskin, who would found the Institute for Policy Studies and go on to renown as a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, asked, “How does this make us any better than those who measured the gas ovens or the engineers who built the tracks for the death trains in Nazi Germany?”

Even Paul Nitze vetoed the proposal. What if all the weapons were not taken out? he asked. What if they were aimed at Washington or New York? Could the country really afford to lose those cities and what they meant to civilization? Moreover, the study recognized that there was no certainty as to the location of all the short- and medium-range Soviet missiles, of which there were hundreds, which could rain down on American allies. The number of European casualties could be in the tens of millions. No, the plan was not acceptable. Besides, the Soviets had already acted in their own inimitable way to bring the crisis under control: in August 1961, they had built the Berlin Wall and effectively halted the mass migration that created the problem.

The crisis gradually defused, thanks in no small part to Kennedy’s tough but flexible posture—a lesson that would serve him well in later negotiations with Khrushchev. In October, after he established direct communications with Kennedy seeking accommodation on the issue, Khrushchev waived his self-imposed deadline on Berlin. To reinforce the need for negotiations, Gilpatric gave a speech in late October 1962 hinting that the United States knew the limits of Soviet missile strength. He cautioned that any enemy move that brought American nuclear retaliatory power into play would constitute a death sentence for the Soviet Union.

Cowed by the American firmness, Khrushchev allowed the movement of troops and supplies into West Berlin to return to normal. Nevertheless, if ever there was a moment when the RAND theories of counterforce could have had their optimum real-life application, it was during the Berlin crisis. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, when the Kennedy administration found Russian SS-4 and SS-5 medium-range nuclear-armed missiles pointed straight at the mainland, there was no thought of a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. True, at one point, there was talk of a U.S. invasion of the island, and a possible air strike on the Cuban nuclear missile sites to disable them beforehand, but even then no one in Kennedy’s inner circle gave serious consideration to the kind of full-fledged nuclear wipeout envisioned by the Kaysen memo. Instead, Kennedy imposed an embargo blocking further Soviet weapon deliveries to the island. After a tense standoff with Khrushchev, Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles, withdrew some obsolete NATO missiles from Turkey so Khrushchev could save face before the Politburo. As in so many RAND war games, nobody in the U.S. government had the gumption, madness, or suicidal urge to pull the nuclear trigger.

Vietnam, however, was another madness altogether.