The more historical research I do the more I’m surprised by the reality of the decades I’ve lived through. Perhaps that’s not exactly right, what I’m surprised by is reality as compared to what is often discussed and assumed to have been true about different events and personalities. As an example, the research we did for Shadow Warfare revealed that a career military officer such as President Eisenhower was perhaps the most avid believer in covert operations and CIA regime change activities. Yet President Bush Sr., a former CIA Director, virtually abandoned covert action in pursuit of very overt, conventional military action. Perhaps more consistently, President Eisenhower was much more rigorous in actually defining the legal limits the President as Commander in Chief than President Johnson, who assumed his authority to have no limit and inserted himself into an operational role in military command with no regard for either limits or involvement of experienced military advisers. If you think that’s a little strong, read some of what we currently know about Johnson’s personal command of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam and see what you think the families of those air crews lost in the campaign would have thought if they had known who was defining the missions and rules of engagement.
Researching and writing Surprise Attack has taken me into the same deep waters and the book will challenge a good number the popular images that have evolved over the years. As an example, the Carter Administration actually devoted a great deal of attention to plans and practice for nuclear war fighting on a limited scale. There were assumptions that even with a strategic nuclear parity with the Soviets (emerging only in the 1970’s) that escalation could be controlled and actually managed following an initial nuclear exchange. That attitude set the stage for what emerged as actual Soviet panic early in the Reagan Administration – bringing the world as close as it ever had been to a preemptive Soviet nuclear strike, in the early 1980’s.
In more contemporary terms, today we find Russian Federation military and covert action programs in Eastern Europe forcing a re-invigoration of ground forces in Europe. There is little talk of nuclear weapons from the West, especially given that the huge inventories of tactical nukes once held in NATO service are long gone. In contrast, the Russians seem to be compelled to routinely bring up the nuclear option and tout their renewed focus on nuclear weaponry. Of course from different perspectives it’s all coming about because either NATO provoked Putin or because Obama is “weak” and Putin is taking advantage of him. Such simplistic views are hardly ever correct but sometimes it takes decades to see what is really happening.
As an illustration, you often read that the Cuban missile crisis was partially due to Khrushchev’s view of Kennedy as being “weak” and not willing to escalate confrontations – as somehow illustrated by matters in Berlin. A deeper study of affairs, especially now that we have access to highly secret memoranda and communications reveals a totally different story. I go into it in detail in Surprise Attack but in short, the Kennedy Administration’s first major military confrontation with the Soviets did involve the ultimate risk of either a limited nuclear exchange or of a Soviet surprise attack. In June 1961, during a meeting between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, the Soviet premier threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany. Khrushchev further stated he would end all previous Allied access agreements regarding Berlin. The American’s, British and French responded that no such treaty would abrogate their rights of access to Berlin. In turn Khrushchev issued an ultimate for Western bloc forces to withdraw from the city by the end of 1961.
With a potential crisis developing over Berlin, President Kennedy addressed the nation via television on July 25, stating that he was willing to begin new talks on Berlin, but that while the United States wanted peace, it would not surrender to the Soviets in regard to Berlin. Kennedy also requested an additional $3.25 billion dollars in military spending and called for the addition of six new Army divisions and two new Marine divisions. As the confrontation continued, JFK ordered 148,000 National Guard and Reserve personnel to active duty on August 30. The mobilization included 18 tactical fighter squadrons, 4 tactical reconnaissance squadrons, and 6 tactical air transport squadrons. During November, three more Air National Guard fighter squadrons were mobilized.
From late October into November, eight of the tactical fighter units, with 216 aircraft, moved to Europe in operation Stair Step. Beyond those overt military moves, Kennedy and his staff began a detailed planning process for a series of steps which were to guide the evolving confrontation; the planning was highly secret and was conducted under the code names Poodle Blanket and Pony Blanket. Kennedy’s guidance outlined a series of stages beginning with non-nuclear air action, non-nuclear ground action, worldwide maritime control and blockade – but as a very last resort, first selective “demonstration” nuclear attacks and limited tactical use of nuclear weapons.
JFK was highly focused on directing initial military action towards conventional forces. His intent was to sufficiently increase conventional Western forces to the point that he Soviets would be deterred before any combat began. One of his early problems was that for various reasons, American’s European allies were much more willing to move towards early use of tactical atomic weapons than to rush into conventional force build ups.
With what we know now, it can be argued that President Kennedy, with a full knowledge of American strategic nuclear superiority, carefully leveraged that advantage in a controlled, incremental response to the Berlin crisis. He focused on conventional options, fully knowing that the Soviets were well aware of the extent of their strategic weakness. In turn, Khrushchev was fully aware of the American nuclear advantage – including the numerous tactical atomic weapons available for use in Europe. Most recently a number of historians have come to conclude that the Kennedy Administration viewed Khrushchev’s decision not to force the Berlin issue not only to Kennedy’s wiliness to negotiate but to his full appreciation of the “correlation of forces”. Khrushchev might have felt he had been able to browbeat JFK in their first personal meeting, but Kennedy’s determination to leverage the full weight of American strategic military superiority was a strong dose of reality for the Soviet premier.
His perception of American strength, not weakness would force the premier into his high risk gamble in Cuba…but that of course is another story we only fully understand at this distance from events.