51 years ago today, the Strategic Air Command determined the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis by adopting a war footing and going to Def Con 2. The 22nd was the 51st anniversary of JFK’s speech where he told the world about the Soviet missiles, “...on that imprisoned island.”
As Kennedy recounted the steps to be taken immediately, it was the third one that Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo heard loudest and clearest;
Third: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an ATTACK by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
The next day SAC went to Defense Condition 2.
DefCon 1 is war.
General Thomas S. Power, CINCSAC, Commander in Chief - Strategic Air Command elevated SAC’s alert status to Def Con 2 without telling President Kennedy or his immediate superior officer, the legendary General Curtis E. LeMay. He wasn’t required to.
Power told the Soviets about Def Con 2 at the same time he told his entire Command. He radioed the alert message, not in code but, “in the clear” meaning that anyone listening heard the order in plain English. And, the Soviets were listening.
Only seventeen years after the end of WWII, everyone involved at the highest levels of both governments, the U.S.A and U.S.S.R, were veterans.
Khrushchev was at Stalingrad. The entire leadership of the Soviet Union knew, at the most personal level, the terrible cost of that war. At least half of the 50+ million killed in WWII were Russians.
Kennedy’s experience is well known. Secretary of Defense McNamara was an officer serving Gen. LeMay. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was General Maxwell Taylor. All the Chiefs were WWII commanders with exemplary records.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, architect of the air war strategy that led to victory in both Europe and the Pacific, was well known to the Soviets. They had a psychological profile of LeMay, as both sides did on everyone they could identify in government.
Fourteen years prior, during the tensions of the Berlin Air Lift, a State Department diplomat in contact with the Soviets was asked if he thought Curtis LeMay would actually use the atomic bomb. The American responded;
You’re God damned right he would."
The Soviet diplomat nodded and said, “We think so, too.” It is believed that this was the chief reason the confrontation of the Berlin Airlift didn’t widen.
CINCSAC General Thomas S. Power, was LeMay’s protégé. No less a warrior, Power flew B-24 missions over Africa and Italy. He was involved in the B-29 firebomb destruction of Japan and participated in the atomic tests in the Pacific.
Once, during the Cold War, the RAND Corporation proposed a counterforce strategy which would require SAC to restrain itself from striking Soviet cities in the beginning of a war, Power responded:
Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards."
Knowing what is in the mind of your adversary is imperative in war and international power politics. On the path to war you damn sure want to know what the enemy is planning.
SAC’s logo was a mailed fist holding an olive branch and three lightning bolts. The slogan, at the entrance of every SAC base was; Peace is Our Profession.
You can sum up the Strategic Air Command’s strategy succinctly;
Be so strong there can be no war.
Not to diminish the other services; the Navy ran the Blockade, excuse me, the Quarantine line, and showed resolve when encountering Soviet submarines. The Marines and Army airborne units were ready to jump into Cuba. An Air Force Master Sergeant who was at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida at the time told me nine years after the fact, “We had enough napalm stacked up at Homestead to burn Cuba out of the water.”
When SAC went to Def Con 2 there were 85 B-52s in the air 24/7 carrying between four to six thermonuclear weapons.
The rest were on alert.
1,436 bombers; B-52s, B-47s & B-58 Hustlers were loaded with over 3,100 nuclear weapons.
145 missiles: Atlas, Minuteman and Titan missiles with nuclear warheads were ready to fly.
5 Polaris submarines with a total of 80 SLBMs were at sea.
The Soviets couldn’t compete. They were outnumbered in every category and Khrushchev knew it.
The only weakness could be in resolve. And that is what our potential adversaries need to know, that we have the resolve to use our power.
Throughout recent history, whenever America has laid down the sword, tyrants saw opportunity.
President Ronald Reagan said it best:
Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong."
The peaceful and successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a result of strength and resolve to use that strength. That is a lesson that needs to be understood today.
It's a dangerous world. Perhaps the most dangerous we have seen in generations.
Be so strong there can be no war.
If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a small chance of survival. There may even be a worse case: you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves. – Winston Churchill