Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy - At the gates of armageddon

President John F. Kennedy may have been perpetrating what one observer called a "pure election fraud," but it is more likely that as a candidate he decried the fictitious and nonexistent missile gap because he agreed with the militant representatives and senators in the Democratic Party who disliked Eisenhower's tightly controlled defense spending. In any event, upon becoming president in January 1961, Kennedy admitted that a gap in nuclear weapons indeed existed, but it was favorable to the United States. At that time the United States possessed at least 200 operational strategic missiles of varying range, while the Soviet Union probably had no more than sixteen. Despite this substantial nuclear advantage in missiles alone, in February 1961 Kennedy requested congressional permission to strengthen America's deterrent forces by accelerating the acquisition of second-generation, solid-propellant, land-based ICBMs and nuclear-powered submarines armed with longer-range Polaris ballistic missiles. In a clear reversal of Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism, Kennedy decided to "develop the force structure necessary to our military requirements without regard to arbitrary or predetermined budget ceilings."

The new president also reversed his predecessor by enlarging the nonnuclear, or conventional, forces of the United States. In the summer of 1961, Kennedy seized on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's bellicosity about the American presence in Berlin to extract from Congress a $3.2 billion supplement to the defense budget. With these funds he increased the armed services by 300,000 men and sent 40,000 more troops to Europe. This deployment underscored Kennedy's commitment to "flexible response," a strategy resting largely on nonnuclear weaponry. He refined the electronic "fail-safe" devices designed to prevent accidental firing of tactical nuclear weapons, discouraged planning that envisioned the use of such weapons, and retarded their technological evolution. These restrictions hampered NATO, which remained numerically inferior to the Red Army, by denying to the alliance the equalizing potential of clean and extremely low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, massive retaliation remained the only real deterrent to a Soviet military thrust into western Europe; and as the Soviets enhanced their ability to devastate the United States in any strategic nuclear exchange, the ghoulish doctrine became increasingly less reassuring to the NATO countries and less credible to the Soviet Union.

One reason for the Soviet nuclear buildup of the 1960s was the ambiguity of American strategy. From the beginning of the Kennedy presidency, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara insisted on maintaining clear strategic nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. With Kennedy's concurrence, McNamara increased the number of American ICBMs from about 200 to 1,000, completed the construction of forty-one submarines carrying 656 Polaris missile launchers, oversaw the development of the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), and kept a large percentage of SAC B-52s in a constant state of alert. Some of these measures, notably the conversion to MIRVs, came late in the decade, but the trend was apparent in 1961. Equally obvious was the possibility that a huge increase in the American stockpile would create a "first strike" capability with which the United States could preemptively attack and destroy the Russian nuclear striking force, thus making Soviet retaliation largely ineffective if not altogether impossible. The Soviets had lived with fears of an American nuclear bombing offensive since 1945, but nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles were virtually impossible to intercept. Kennedy's multiplication of those weapons thus deepened old apprehensions. As if to allay suspicion, on 26 March 1961 the president promised, "Our arms will never be used to strike the first blow in any attack."

Despite Kennedy's reassurance that the United States would not strike first, Khrushchev announced in August 1961 that he was breaking the three-year-old moratorium on nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Worried by the dangers of radioactive fallout, Kennedy at first resorted to underground testing. In April 1962 he resumed atmospheric testing in order to evaluate sophisticated new warheads and to prevent the Soviet Union from scoring a technological breakthrough that would eliminate the American nuclear superiority. Khrushchev then sought a cheap and quick adjustment to the strategic imbalance by placing 900-mile medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba. He also hoped to enhance his fading image as a supporter of overseas communist regimes, especially Fidel Castro's Cuban dictatorship, thereby answering hard-liners in Moscow and Beijing who deplored his efforts to ease tensions with the West. In this manner, rein-vigoration of the strategic arms race in 1961 led to the Cold War's most dangerous nuclear war scare.

On 14 October 1962, American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft photographed the Cuban missile sites while they were still under construction. For one week the Kennedy administration debated its response, finally settling upon a naval "quarantine" of further shipments of offensive missiles. As he announced his decision to the world on 22 October, President Kennedy also warned that if ballistic missiles were launched from Cuba against any country in the Western Hemisphere, the United States would counter with a "full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." While massing troops in Florida for a possible invasion of Cuba, the president insisted that the Soviet Union remove the missiles already on the island. The face-off lasted for another week and was highlighted by an intense debate among the president's most senior advisers over whether to offer a contingent palliative to the Soviet Union: removal of the fifteen American Jupiter IRBMs based in Turkey. Obsolete by the time they became operational in 1962, the Jupiters already "were supposed to be replaced by submarinelaunched Polaris missiles." Moscow nonetheless found their presence on the southern Soviet border extremely provocative and destabilizing. Evan Thomas, a meticulous student of the administration, sums up the situation: "President Kennedy was not inalterably opposed to swapping the Jupiters, but he thought it would be foolish to publicly offer right away to trade them." His brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, therefore privately assured Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that once the Cuban crisis passed, the American missiles would be withdrawn. For the rest of his life, Robert Kennedy feared the political repercussions of his intervention. Dobrynin claimed Robert Kennedy told him that "some day—who knows?—he might run for president, and his prospects could be damaged if this secret deal about the missiles in Turkey were to come out." The dour Robert was as much a political animal as was his glamorous brother.

Khrushchev capitulated and removed the Soviet missiles from Cuba because he feared losing control of the situation. Castro was beseeching the Soviet leader to launch a nuclear attack to stave off an American invasion of Cuba. In Washington, President Kennedy was under equally extreme pressure to take military action. A post-crisis outburst by the air force chief of staff expressed the attitude of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Curtis LeMay, who had masterminded the firebombing of Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shouted at the president: "We lost! We ought to just go in there today and knock 'em off." The president knew better. He had risked Armageddon because he regarded the Russian MRBMs as an unacceptable challenge to American strategic superiority and an immediate danger to the nation's security. The missiles were gone; he had achieved his strategic goal, and not incidentally thwarted Republican critics in a congressional election year. Most Americans probably agreed with him in 1962, but with the passage of time the ultimate gamble seems increasingly less defensible. "In retrospect," the strategic analyst Norman Friedman concluded soon after the Cold War ended, "it is difficult to understand why Soviet weapons in Cuba were worth a global war."

The Cuban missile crisis reverberated throughout the 1960s. The continental European members of NATO were shaken by the unilateral way in which the United States went to the brink of nuclear conflagration without consulting its allies. French President Charles de Gaulle reaffirmed his determination to reduce European economic and military dependence upon the United States. In January 1963 he vetoed British entry into the Common Market on the grounds that British membership would make the association "appear as a colossal Atlantic community under American domination and direction." Simultaneously he rejected Kennedy's plan for a multilateral nuclear force (MLF) as a transparent scheme to give the impression of multinational authority while in fact preserving the American veto over NATO's nuclear strategy. To end France's subservience to the United States, De Gaulle gradually immunized his military units from unquestioning subordination to the NATO command, and he ordered the removal of the alliance's headquarters from French soil as of April 1967. To document great power status in the nuclear age, he forged a French atomic striking force, the force de frappe. Britain at the same time was building its own strategic nuclear arsenal, but because of the special Anglo-American relationship it faced far fewer developmental obstacles. Kennedy simply provided the Royal Navy with Polaris missiles.

The impact of the missile crisis on Soviet-American relations was tragically paradoxical. On the one hand, the humiliating Soviet retreat strengthened the militants in the Kremlin who favored increased defense expenditures. They resolved that in the future the Soviet Union would deal with the United States as a nuclear equal. On the other hand, leaders in both countries were chastened by having faced nuclear annihilation. They installed a Teletype link, or "hot line," between the White House and the Kremlin to minimize misunderstanding during acute crises. Even in the midst of capitulating, on 29 October 1962, Khrushchev set the tone for further accommodation: "We should like to continue the exchange of views on the prohibition of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, general disarmament, and other problems relating to the relaxation of international tension." For some months Kennedy hesitated. Then, on 10 June 1963, in a speech at American University he made a passionate appeal for peace as "the necessary rational end of rational men." Coupled with various Anglo-American diplomatic initiatives, Kennedy's speech broke the impasse in superpower negotiations. Within weeks Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited testing nuclear weapons in outer space, in the atmosphere, or under water. The treaty fell short of Kennedy's original goal for a comprehensive test ban that would have preserved American technological superiority by slowing or preventing improvements to the Soviet arsenal. Nevertheless, the U.S. arms control and disarmament director, William C. Foster, reminded Congress that half a loaf was better than none. With the limited test ban, he said, "improvements in yield-to-weight ratios would come more slowly through laboratory work alone. Some weapons effects phenomena would remain unsettled or undiscovered by both sides.… In general, our present nuclear advantages would last for a considerably longer period." In September the Senate ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 80 to 19.

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