Bombers First Strike Plan
US 1962 War Plan Kills 285 Million
On November 27, 1958, Nikita Khrushchev accused the Western powers of using Berlin as a springboard for intensive espionage, sabotage, and other subversive activities. Because of this, Moscow proposed to end the four-power occupation and convert Berlin to a demilitarized free city.
Khrushchev continued his threats, saying that unless appropriate arrangements were completed within six months, the Soviets and East Germany would conclude a separate peace treaty transferring occupation functions to the East German government. That was seen by Western powers as an attempt to take over not only Berlin but also West Germany by force, if necessary. Eisenhower’s response was that the Western powers would not engage in a massive conventional buildup but would rely on nuclear weapons to resist any changes in Berlin.
It was about that time that Eisenhower set in motion what ultimately became known as the Single Integrated Option Plan (SIOP-62). But even before SIOP-62 became effective in April 1961, Khrushchev, in late February 1961, threatened to terminate the four-power occupation of Berlin by giving control to East Germany over access routes to Berlin. President Kennedy asked Dean Rusk and Lauris Norstad, the United States Commander in Chief of European forces, to give him alternatives. All the alternatives involved escalation dominance, which the Soviets could easily dominate if nuclear weapons were left out of the equation. Kennedy and Khrushchev decided to meet in Vienna from June 3–4 where the Harvard graduate thought he could dominate the peasant. Before Kennedy left for the summit, he received written advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which in pertinent part provided as follows:
In your conversations with Premier Khrushchev . . . be assured that you speak from a position of decisive military superiority in any matter affecting the vital interest of the United States and our allies. . . . It is the considered judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the military forces under your command . . . can achieve decisive military victory in any all-out test of strength with the Sino-Soviet bloc to the extent that the United States will retain the dominant power position in the world. Thus, in your discussions, be assured that you may represent the national interest with confidence and without fear or reservation.
Kennedy failed miserably. Khrushchev insisted that his decision to sign a separate treaty by December was irrevocable. Kennedy replied that it would be a cold winter. Other world leaders and the US military judged Kennedy to be visibly shaken by the beating that Khrushchev had administered. Kennedy set in action a massive buildup of conventional US forces, and the Soviets did likewise. The stage was being set for a showdown.
The military wanted to know if Kennedy had their back. Was the United States willing to resort to general war, if necessary, to maintain the status quo in Berlin? The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was to deliver the following message to Kennedy from the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
The US could prevail if it struck first. If the Soviets struck first, then the degree to which the US would be successful in prevailing would be dependent upon the timeliness of our response. Our strengths are adequate to deter enemy deliberate and rational resort to general war, and if general war eventuates, to permit the United States to survive as a viable nation despite serious losses, and ultimately to prevail and resume progress toward its national objectives.
The Joint Chiefs saw the conventional route as a sure defeat. After thirty days of fighting, the Soviets could concentrate 128 divisions in central Europe, and NATO could muster only fifty divisions in 120 days. The Joint Chiefs raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against purely military targets to underline for the Soviets the determination of the United States and its seriousness of purpose. On September 13,1961, Kennedy started taking a serious look at the massive overkill ingrained in option 1-A of SIOP-62. He didn't like what he saw. Over the next seven weeks he posed serious questions to his staff about the Rowen-Kaysen plan for striking only offensive weapons in the Soviet Union in a preventive surprise attack. Kennedy had thought that Berlin would simmer down after the Soviets and East Germans started erecting the Berlin Wall on August13, 1961 but he would be proven wrong. But first let's look at why Kennedy was at loggerheads with his military and especially Tommy Power the head of SAC and architect of SIOP-62.
SIOP-62 Massive Overkill
The origins of SIOP-62 can be found in Study #2009 of the Net Evaluation Subcommittee (NESC). Before the plan was in final form numerous other committees such as the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS), the National Strategic Targeting and Attack Policy (NSTAP), the National Strategic Target List (NSTL), the Director of Strategic Target Planning (DSTP), and many other committees organized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would provide input including the prestigious Rand Corporation. The RAND Corporation, also known as the Research and Development Corporation, was a think tank funded by the Air Force that employed top scientists from the United States’ highest rated universities and private industry. They created the monster along with General Thomas Power, the CINCSAC, and his staff. But the Rand Corporation had second thoughts when they saw the final product and helped present what would become known as the limited counterforce/no cities option.
RAND, like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, looked into the abyss and pulled back. They saw the horror and were terrified. Power was a great patriot but, like Kurtz, had gone too far. Power told Kennedy's staff that if in the end there were two Americans alive but only one Russian, then we had won.
There were 3,729 targets identified, but since many of these targets were collocated and could be destroyed by a single weapon of sufficiently high yield, the actual number of designated ground zeroes in SIOP62 added up to “only” 1,077. A total of 2,258 delivery vehicles would deliver 3,267 nuclear warheads totaling 7,847 megatons equivalent of explosives to the Sino-Soviet bloc.
The plan would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese in the first 72 hours from blast and thermal radiation effects. Cities the size of Hiroshima where a 12–15 kt blast killed 130,000 or about half the population were targeted with three eighty kt weapons. All cities (except four) with population centers of 50,000 or more were targeted for significant nuclear weapons to be dropped on them. Early on Kennedy sent McNamara to the SAC command at Offutt air base Omaha, Nebraska to get the lay of the land on nuclear weapons.
Secretary of Defense McNamara
"On February 3, 1961, barely two weeks into the Kennedy administration, Robert McNamara, his deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Kilpatric, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Lyman Lemnitzer traveled to SAC headquarters for a briefing on SIOP-62.
McNamara was appalled. He noted that firing four weapons on a single designated ground zero (DGZ) to ensure destruction would produce “fantastic” amounts of fallout that would result in many more casualties than Power’s staff estimated. Then McNamara pointedly verified that Plan 1-A for SIOP-62 with all its 7,847 megatons of weapons was to be launched preemptively in response to an actual or impending Soviet incursion into Western Europe where the Soviets had not employed nuclear weapons. McNamara then asked why Albania was designated for so many weapons when it had separated its country from the Soviet brand of communism. Power’s response was more than McNamara could stand. “Well, Mr. Secretary, I hope you don't have any friends or relations in Albania, because we're just going to have to wipe it out.”
Albania had early warning radar systems that Power wanted to eliminate so the bombers had a better chance of reaching their target. But of course, Power didn't target just the radar systems; he targeted the entire country. McNamara wanted another plan.
Just one week later, on February 10, McNamara met with William Kaufman from the RAND Corporation. Kaufman provided him with a viable alternative that involved “hardening” our minuteman ICBMs in silos and placing more reliance on the Polaris A-2 that was ready for deployment. But more importantly, Kaufmann provided McNamara with the Hitch-Einthoven-Stern paper, which included a counterforce/no cities strategy that grew out of Bernard Brodie’s earlier studies with Andrew Marshall and other RAND staffers. That paper was the precursor to the Harry Rowen–Carl Kaysen first strike plan that would have been preventive and not preemptive. Even before that September 5,1961, thirty-three-page memo was delivered Kennedy was brooding over the Berlin situation and the fact that the military was following Eisenhower's policy of solving the Berlin problem through nuclear weapons deployed in various stages. The National Security Council meeting on July 13 centered on the schism between Kennedy and his military staff. Lyman Lemnitzer backpedaled and told Kennedy not to put too much faith in the report.
Even Acheson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had opposing views. As Schlesinger and the late Henry Kissinger pointed out before Kennedy faced the "nuclear moment of truth", he should be apprised of what nuclear war meant. This NSC meeting also featured the annual Net Evaluation Subcommittee Report. This report contained a memo by Colonel Howard Burris describing a preemptive nuclear attack in 1963 when the advantage in ICBMs would heavily favor the US. James Galbraith in an October 1,1994, article in the American Prospect aptly points out that "...the problem of a stable deterrent in 1961 did not lie in an insufficiency of American missiles. It lay, rather, in the need for the Soviets to develop sufficient effective ICBM (and submarine) forces to deter us. More meetings on July 18 and July 20th preceded Kennedy's address to the nation on July 25th, 1961, where he stated " ... miscommunication could rain down more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history".
This concludes Part I of a five-part blog on what the author believes would have been a viable first strike plan that Kennedy and his staff seriously considered in the fall of 1961. In Part II, I will go through SIOP-62's weapon systems as a necessary background for Part III, which will detail the Rowen-Kaysen no-warning, preventative, out-of-the-blue first strike. The no-warning first strike Rowen-Kaysen Plan was very likely the last chance the United States had to eliminate the Russian threat we now live under. Whether we should have implemented it is an ethical-moral question beyond the scope of this project.
For background, Carl Kaysen was McGeorge Bundy’s first assistant and the Deputy National Security Advisor in the Kennedy Administration from 1961 to 1963. Henry Rowen was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Kennedy Administration.