The other day I was telling a friend of mine that I’m surprised the human race is still around. When you look at the Cold-War era, you can’t help but wonder how reason prevailed.
President Eisenhower was consistently using what his vice-president Nixon would later refer to as Madman Diplomacy, threatening Korea, China, and the Soviet Union with nuclear attacks. He later would adopt the same strategy himself in the Vietnam war. Nixon described the tactic to his chief of staff H.R. Halderman,
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
– Richard Nixon’s description of ‘Madman’ Diplomacy
As I mentioned a short while back, I’ve been reading The Untold History Of The United States, the companion book to Oliver Stone’s recent documentary series with the same title. I’d just like to quote directly from the text.
“…under Eisenhower the United States went from having a little more than 1,000 nuclear weapons to approximately 22,000, aimed at 2,500 targets in the Soviet Union. But even the 22,000 figure is misleading. Procurements authorized by Eisenhower continued into the 1960s, making Eisenhower responsible for more than 30,000 nuclear weapons during the Kennedy administration. Between 1959 and 1961, the United States added 19,500 nuclear weapons to its arsenal. The United States was producing new weapons at the rate of 75 per day and doing so at bargain-basement prices. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes notes, “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter-bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank.” Total megatonnage increased sixty-five-fold in five years, reaching 20,491 megatons in 1960. In pure megatonnage, that was the equivalent of 1,360,000 Hiroshima bombs. Although the total megatonnage began to drop in 1961, as 950 10-megaton B36 bombs were retired, the bombs’ destructive capability actually increased as the introduction of ballistic missiles made targeting more accurate. Doubling the accuracy of delivery allows for an eight-fold reduction in yield without sacrificing the bombs’ destructive capability.”
– The Untold History Of The United States
Where were all these missiles and bombs pointed and who was in authority to launch a nuclear attack? Basically, nuclear missiles were aimed at every populated area of the Soviet Union and China, and the scary thing is, literally dozens of different commanders had the authority to launch nuclear strikes on their own! There was a complicated subdelegation which included the commanders of air forces, fleets, and navies. Pilots, submarine commanders, squadron leaders, base commanders, and carrier commanders all had power and authority to launch a nuclear attack. RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg was hired by the Pentagon to analyze the chain of nuclear command and concluded, “It was a doomsday machine on a hair trigger with delegation.”
This all began years earlier with President Harry Truman. As World War II progressed, there were reports that Hitler was working on an atomic bomb. Fearful, we decided to develop one ourselves. Hitler ended up canceling their development in favor of missiles instead, but we continued with the project anyways.
Toward the end of the war, Japan was on the verge of surrender. Truman listened to his advisers and dropped the first atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to avert American causalities, but to send a message to Stalin, “Look at this bomb. Do you see its destructive capabilities? Good. Now do what we say.”
The Kremlin went berserk. How were they going to counter such a weapon? They were forced to make several post-war concessions to the United States and Britain, under constant nuclear black-mail. Truman basically kept flaunting it in their face, “We’ll drop it on you! We’ll drop it on you! You better not try anything!”
Physicists like Robert Oppenheimer were urging Truman to change his foreign policy and stop using the atom bomb as a form of black-mail. He told Truman outright that the problem of atomic weapons was simply an engineering problem and that the Soviets would soon develop their own atom bombs. Truman told Oppenheimer to leave his office and notified his secretary that he never wanted to see that “sissy scientist” ever again.
As expected, a few years later the Soviets developed their own atom bombs, and later hydrogen bombs. Truman was first in denial, not believing the reports. But they were true. Stalin was tired of being black-mailed and told the White House that he was no longer going to be bullied.
From then on there were constant threats and posturing between the two super-powers and the complete annihilation of all life on Earth laid in the hands of a few men.
To get back to our original story, Eisenhower had nuclear weapons aimed at all of China and the Soviet Union. Just one false move and all of human civilization, and likely all life on Earth, would have been wiped out. Quoting from the text again,
“In August 1960, President Eisenhower approved the preparation of a National Strategic Target List and Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The country’s first SIOP detailed a plan to deploy the country’s strategic nuclear forces in a simultaneous strike against the Sino-Soviet bloc within the first twenty-four hours of a war. Its goal was maximum destruction. The targets included Soviet nuclear forces, government control centers, and the urban-industrial base. When briefed on the magnitude and redundancy of destruction, Eisenhower admitted to his naval aide, Captain E.P. Aurand, that it “frightened the devil out of me.” As well it should have. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were subsequently asked to estimate the death toll from such an attack. The numbers were shocking: 325 million dead in the Sovet Union and China, another 100 million in Eastern Europe, a similar number in Western Europe from fallout, and up to another 100 million from fallout in bordering countries including Finland, Sweden, Austria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Japan. Those figures did not include the deaths caused by Soviet nuclear weapons or by U.S. tactical weapons. Nor did they include the then-unknown fact that an attack of this magnitude would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear winter, raising the possibility of extinction. Though horrified by the prospect of millions dying if the SIOP were enacted, Eisenhower passed the plan, unaltered, on to the new administration.”
– The Untold History Of The United States
According to President Kennedy’s biographer Theodore Sorensen, his primary reason for running for president was, “…he thought that Eisenhower-Dulles policy of massive retaliation and all of that was heading the country toward nuclear war. He felt the policy of massive retaliation — in which we supposedly kept the peace by saying if you step one foot over the line in West Berlin or somewhere else, we will respond by annihilating you with nuclear weapons — he felt was mad.”
This nuclear buildup eventually culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis under President Kennedy. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, at the start of the twentieth century the United States got in the business of empire. We had made Cuba into a remote colony to exploit, owned almost exclusively by companies like United Fruit. A revolutionary named Castro lead a Communist uprising to free the people. We ran several failed coup attempts, but Castro sought help from the Soviet Union.
Eventually this all lead to the Soviets sneaking an entire arsenal of nuclear missiles into Cuba. President Kennedy was in a real mess. Noam Chomsky explains the event in this video.
People like to think that this is all in the past, but it’s not. President Bush and now President Obama continue to push Russia and Putin’s not one to mess with. Russia has been ramping up their nuclear program and increasing military expenditures three times.
I don’t have time to fully assess threats of nuclear war at the moment. Suffice it to say, even today there are very real dangers of all out nuclear carnage.