A Final Solution to the Soviet Problem

By MSW Add a Comment 23 Min Read
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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version