Cuban Missile Crisis Things

by | Jul 26, 2022

This old New Yorker piece about Curtis LeMay has some details about the Missile Crisis that I did not know and want to save here for someday.

So we all already knew that 1: the USSR did already have operational short and medium range missiles in Cuba, but Khrushchev never told the Americans that. And 2 that a Communist Party official on one of the subs prevented the navy officers from launching a nuke at the American fleet enforcing the quarantine. That would have been the end of the world right there. But now so also check this out:

By Presidential order, the United States military went from DefCon (Defense Condition) 5 to DefCon 3 during Kennedy’s Monday-night speech. DefCon 5 was business as usual; DefCon 3 was halfway up the scale. When Kennedy began speaking on national television, at seven o’clock, fifty-four SAC bombers, each carrying as many as four thermonuclear weapons, thundered off from continental bases to join the routine twelve-plane around-the-clock airborne alert. Some of the sixty-six bombers orbited the Mediterranean; others circumnavigated North America; others flew an Arctic route across Greenland, north of Canada, across Alaska, and down the Pacific Coast of North America. One orbited above Thule, Greenland, to observe and report any pre-attack Soviet assault on the crucial United States early-warning radar there. Polaris submarines put to sea. SAC armed the remaining planes of its bomber force, dispersed them to military and civilian airfields, and prepared some hundred and thirty Atlas and Titan ICBMs for firing. Kennedy and Khrushchev began an exchange of belligerent messages. Kennedy had convened an executive committee, or ExComm, of government officials to manage the crisis; opinion in the committee ranged from blockade to air strike to Cuban invasion. The President said afterward that the purpose of the alert was to deter a Soviet military response to whatever Caribbean action the United States decided to carry out: “The airborne alert,” he congratulated SAC, “provided a strategic posture under which every United States force could operate with relative freedom of action.” General Power saw a more threatening purpose, however; from his point of view, “This action by the nation’s primary war deterrent force gave added meaning to the President’s declaration that the U.S. would react to any nuclear missile launched from Cuba with a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union itself.” Kennedy, that is, was thinking regional engagement under a nuclear umbrella; [Thomas] Power and LeMay were thinking global war.

On Wednesday, October 24th, when the naval quarantine took effect, SAC ratcheted from DefCon 3 to DefCon 2—the first and only time it was ever ordered to do so. SAC-alerted nuclear weapons increased to two thousand nine hundred and fifty-two; with a hundred and twelve Polaris SLBMs, their total destructive force exceeded seven thousand megatons. “We got everything we had in the strategic forces . . . counted down and ready and aimed,” General Burchinal said afterward, “and we made damn sure they saw it without anybody saying a word about it.” In fact, Power said several words about it, unauthorized and publicly, when he broadcast in the clear—in English rather than in code—to all SAC wings immediately after the move to DefCon 2 was announced:

This is General Power speaking. I am addressing you for the purpose of reëmphasizing the seriousness of the situation the nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly. . . . Review your plans for further action to insure that there will be no mistakes or confusion.

SAC routinely transmitted DefCon increases as unclassified messages until 1972, and Power was clearly emphasizing control. His broadcast was nevertheless a warning to the Soviets—who Power knew monitored such transmissions—that the United States had gone to full alert and might be planning “further action.” Equally unsanctioned, and potentially catastrophic, notes Sagan, was the launch of an Atlas ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, across the Pacific to the Kwajalein test range, in the Marshall Islands, at 4 a.m. on October 26th, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. SAC had taken over the test missiles at Vandenberg at the time of the DefCon 3 alert, programmed them with Soviet targets, and begun attaching nuclear warheads. The Atlas, which was unarmed, had been scheduled for testing; it was launched on its pre-crisis schedule with SAC concurrence—a deliberate provocation.

When the missile crisis began, the United States’ first squadron of Minuteman I solid-fuel missiles was undergoing testing and certification prior to deployment at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana. SAC, the Air Force Systems Command, and contractor personnel worked non-stop to ready the Minutemen for launch. A declassified history of the missile wing reports that “lack of equipment, both standard and test, required many work-arounds.” The first Minuteman was ready to go on October 26th; five had been made operational by October 30th. But miswiring, wire shorts, and other problems left the missiles capable of being accidentally armed; one had to be shut down and restarted five times, because its guidance and control systems failed, and every Minuteman at Malmstrom had to be taken off alert repeatedly for repairs in the course of the crisis. For safety and control, immediate launch required redundant, coördinated keying by four officers in two physically separate launch-control centers. The Malmstrom work-around overrode that safety system. One officer who controlled the Minutemen during the missile crisis later told Sagan, “We didn’t literally ‘hot wire’ the launch command system—that would be the wrong analogy—but we did have a second key. . . . I could have launched it on my own, if I had wanted to.” An Air Force safety-inspection report noted after the crisis that “possible malfunctions of automated equipment . . . posed serious hazards [including] accidental launch.” Another possibility, which the inspectors did not mention, was unauthorized launch.

According to Sagan, Air Defense Command F-106s armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles scrambled at Volk Field, in Wisconsin, on October 25th, when a launch klaxon went off in the middle of the night. Practice alert drills had been cancelled at DefCon 3, so when the klaxon sounded the interceptor crews assumed that they were going to war. Since they had not been briefed that SAC bombers were aloft, and they did not know SAC airborne-alert routes, there was a real possibility of U.S. missiles attacking U.S. bombers—nuclear friendly fire. The launch klaxon sounding was a mistake: an Air Force guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center had sounded a sabotage alarm that somehow keyed the klaxon at Volk Field. The guard in Duluth had seen someone climbing the base security fence and had fired at the figure. An officer flashing his car lights drove onto the Volk Field runway and managed to stand down the F-106s; on closer inspection, the saboteur in Duluth had turned out to be a bear.

There were other serious command-and-control snafus during the missile crisis as well: a U-2 strayed over Siberia, leading Khrushchev to complain to Kennedy that “an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step”; air-defense interceptors flew fully armed with nuclear rockets from which all safety devices had been removed; United States radar picked up an apparent missile launch from Cuba with a near-Tampa trajectory on Sunday morning, October 28th, which was determined only after predicted impact to have been a computer test tape; the United States Navy tracked Soviet submarines aggressively throughout the world, forcing them to surface, when it had been ordered to do so only in the area of quarantine.

About Scott Horton

Scott Horton is director of the Libertarian Institute, editorial director of Antiwar.com, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He's the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool's Errand:Time to End the War in Afghanistan , editor of the 2019 book The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019 and the 2022 book Hotter Than The Sun: Time to Abolish Nuclear Arms. He’s conducted more than 5,700 interviews since 2003. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, Larisa Alexandrovna Horton.

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