I previously noted that some of the “official” versions of who did what on Nov. 22, 1963 are a bit difficult to believe – the Director of the FBI going home at regular time to watch TV for news, the Director of the CIA going to RFK’s home for private conversation rather than to the office, the lack of apparent effort by the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs to establish immediate communications with the new President…..the latter is especially interesting given how much time, money and planning had been in place to ensure National Command level communications with the President.
For example, an Air Force transport carried a communications van along on Presidential trips, it was set up in Dallas. A team of communications specialists was sent with the President to establish a local comm center and maintain channels from AF1 and the trailer to the Secret Service channels and the standard procedure was always to have the President literally within a couple of minutes of an open circuit. And beyond that, we’ve all heard about the military officer carrying the “bomb bag” which contained the SIOP codes for different nuclear responses. As of 1963 only two individuals were designated as “national command authority” with the legal power to select a response and issue the command – the acting President and the Secretary of Defense.
What we do think we know is that at 1:40 pm EST the Pentagon issued an alert based on reports of the attack in Dallas and that by 1:55 the Secretary of Defense had met briefly with the Joint Chiefs and ordered a general information alert transmitted to all commands. However it would not be until 2:15 that a Defcon 3 alert was issued by the Joint Chiefs. Perhaps what is more amazing as their is no record that the Sec of Defense or the Chiefs attempted to get in touch with the President’s party via the communications network set up in Dallas for just that purpose – and that no one in the party used the network for that purpose either. For the first hour to two hours everyone seems to have been largely relying on the AP wire service and national news networks. Even more surprisingly, the Chairmain of the Joint Chiefs told Manchester he had wondered if the bomb bag officer was with Johnson – but apparently had not checked – and indeed the officer had been separated from Johnson’s party for some time, only management with considerable argument to eventually get onto AF1 at Love Field. For his part, although sources at both Parkland and on AF1 reported that Johnson was concerned about a Soviet move and “missiles flying” he appears to have made no effort to get the SIOP code officer near him, to have contacted the National Command Center, the Sec of Defense, etc. Nor did any of President Kennedy’s military aides appear to have asserted themselves in regard to national security protocols. Its actually uncertain whether Johnson had ever been briefed on the SIOP options, release code process etc.
For context in considering all this, recall that this is not much more than a year following the Cuban missile crisis – which certainly established that the Soviet leadership was capable of high risk actions – and came at a time of absolutely total US strategic superiority in both numbers of atomic weapons, numbers of delivery systems and hardened and mobile missile platforms – which the Soviets lacked (and the Soviets clearly realized their relative weakness).
OK, so what does all this mean. First it means that if the assassination of the President had been an act to break the national chain of command it would have been accompanied by a simultaneous missile attack (defense plans assumed that the Soviets would be able to smuggle atomic weapons into DC and other key targets, not to mention using close in sub based missile attacks and bombs covertly placed on freighters on the eastern seaboard). Now perhaps this explains why with everyone still alive after 30 minutes and no missiles on the warning radar, everyone seems to have been relatively casual about communications?
Of course it also means that if it had actually been part of a Soviet first strike (one of desperation based rumors that the US was considering its own first strike based on its short term total superiority – as had been proposed to JFK) then DC and the Command Authority there would have been gone, the new President would have been totally out of touch – and the General Powers at SAC would no doubt have made his own decision for a total SIOP strike not just against Russia but every Communist target in the plan.
Another point of interest is that its quite common within the military to access major actions in after action reports, intended to improve performance. Yet there is no sign that with all the analysis that followed the President’s murder, that anyone in the national command structure made the effort to assess how well the Presidential communications, command structure had really worked – if they did those studies have been well concealed. And over following years, even during the continuing cold war, their are some real questions as to how well any of the Presidents were really prepared and trained for national command (despite what you see in the movies). There is even an interesting incident where in one case the President’s SIOP command codes were misplaced for several months – but that’s another story.