Defcon 2 during Cuban Missile Crisis - did it help?

During the Cuban Missle Crisis, Strategic Air Command went to Defcon 2 on the order of General Thomas Power (although I’ve seen some sources say the order originated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Defcon 2 is one step below an actual state of war. The order was restricted to SAC, and not the whole of the armed forces, which remained at Defcon 3 throughout the crisis.

Power supposedly had the order transmitted “in the clear”, hoping the Soviets would pick it up and realize we were willing to going to war if necessary.

So I have two questions.

  1. Was this a major factor that influenced the Soviet’s behavior as the crisis continued? I’ve seen some sources that seem to think so, and go so far as to say it was the deciding factor in eventually ending the crisis. But I’m not sure because it wasn’t resolved until a week later.

  2. Was General Power f–ing insane?

I know a few people who were in the Air Force at that time, and Power had the reputation of a psychopath. I’ve seen some quotes on the internet backing this up - there were some people who thought he was actually unstable. And he was supposedly the inspiration for the character General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.

My two questions are related because it would be interesting if the answer to both were yes.

Could a mod please fix my spelling error? Using cut and paste, I managed to misspell “missile” in both the title and first line of the OP. Thanks.

Do you believe it would be insane for the Air Force to think it might have to go to war over/during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

As far as I can tell, it was absolutely clear to anyone that the US would consider deployment of nukes on cuba that were capable of reaching the US (not a long distance at all) to be an act of war. In that light, going to DEFCON 2 was competely appropriate, and doing so “publicly” may have helped reenforce that view.

Keep in mind that the cold war was not named that because the US and the USSR were great friends. To many of the people involved (the citizens and the strategists) it was practially seen as a matter of time until WW3. That’s a global, nuclear war.

Of course not it’s not insane to THINK they might have to go to war. But they did more than think - they shouted it to the Soviets in the manner of a taunt. That certainly doesn’t strike me as a particularly sane move in that situation.

Besides which, the order only applied to SAC. The rest of the U.S. forces were on Defcon 3, and I believe only the president could order that status changed. SAC was not known for its quiet, thoughtful leadership. Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power seem to have wanted nuclear war, IMHO. I’m wondering if Power didn’t act with proper authority, or at least acted in a way contrary to what President Kennedy might have intended.

But again, if that’s true, did it end up helping the situation in the end?

From the text of President John F. Kennedy’s Oct. 22, 1962 speach on the Cuban Crisis:

“Third: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

I suggest you read the whole thing here:

He clearly calls Soviet ambassador Gromyko a liar at least twice. A state of war could have existed at any moment. The actions of General Power were at the instruction of the President, and completely appropiate to the day.

I should add these other 2 quotes from the same speach, before this thread gets moved to great debates:

“I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities; and I trust that in the interests of both the Cuban people and the Soviet technicians at the sites, the hazards to all concerned of continuing this threat will be recognized.”

“and ordered additional military units to be on a standby alert basis.”

It’s one thing for me to tell you I have a gun and am willing to use it. That’s what I think Kennedy was saying in his TV address.

It’s quite another when I draw the gun from my holster, point it at you, and cock it. As I see it, that’s what Power did in bringing SAC to Defcon 2.

If he was following an order from his superiors, which I still haven’t seen proof of, did he follow it in the way it was intended? Or did he deliberately taunt the Soviets? I’ve read at least one account that said it was purely his decision to send the message it in the clear.

Perhaps National Security Action Memorandum #199might clear things up.

In short, it was written authorization by Kennedy to load nuclear weapons on U.S. and NATO aircraft. The memo was dated October 25.

And when did SAC go to Defcon 2? October 25.

Now I am not familiar with the military chain of command or how things are supposed to work, but it seems logical to me, that if I’m sitting at Defcon 3 and I get an order from the president to start loading nuclear weapons on aircraft, I’m going to raise the alert level, whether or not that particular order is issued to me.

I worked for Western Electric back then, maintaining equipment in the main switchboard office in Dallas. We were placed on standby status and put in a large room with a lot of cots. We were not allowed to so much as touch any of the equipment but we were expected to be prepared to perform major overhauls, if we survived the blasts. There were a lot of military communications that went through that office and the telephone guys kept us posted. It was my understanding that the military fully expected to go to war, regardless of the consequences. I still believe the world was on the brink of an all out nucklear war between the US and Russia----there would have been damn few survivors and the particular building we were in was critical for communications. It might well have been zeroed in by the Russians. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the tension I was under for three solid days.

I think part of Kennedy’s strategy was to have some of his aides hint to their peripheral Soviet contacts that he was close to becoming unhinged by all of the stress, and that the only sure way to prevent nuclear war was for the Soviets to back down. IIRC, that was in “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye.” So, Powers was at least as sane as JFK.

I really doubt that Powers was the model for Gen. Ripper. IIRC, the mad general was a common motif back then. Esp. on a movie.


Henry Kissinger wrote at length in The White House Years about Nixon wanting the Soviets to think in 1969-70 that the President was a little bit crazy and capable of anything, the better to encourage them down the road to detente, but in all my reading about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’ve never seen that Kennedy wanted to send that signal. If anything, he wanted the Soviets to think he was absolutely resolute and clear-headed, so that he would respond instantly to any potential escalation.

There were some problems with the military doing just what the President wanted during the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara butted heads with the Chief of Naval Operations (who was subsequently made an ambassador to get him out of the Pentagon) re: the Navy’s over-aggressive procedures during the quarantine of Cuba, and U.S. Air Force jets at bases in the Southeast were still parked, vulnerably, wingtip-to-wingtip, late that October despite JFK’s order that they be more safely deployed. The Air Force also continued photoreconnaissance missions over Cuba at one point despite the President’s order that they stop, IIRC. But the loading of nuclear weapons was appropriate under the circumstances, and I’ve never heard that Kennedy thought his orders to that effect were misconstrued (if he had, heads would’ve rolled, because he was keenly aware of the risk of accidental escalation of hostilities, a la Tuchman’s The Guns of August).

Two books on the subject well worth reading: The Essence of Decision by Graham Allison, and Kennedy’s Wars by Lawrence Freedman.

But it wasn’t a taunt. It was the truth. Kennedy wasn’t screwing around and if they didn’t remove the missiles, we were getting ready to take them out.

Can you imagine if he took a lighter route? We could perhaps be living in the year 2009 which a powerful Soviet Union has nukes in Cuba pointed at every US city on the East Coast. Where is Harry Turtledove to write a novel about this?

Imagining isn’t necessary - we do live in that situation to a large extent. Nowadays, it doesn’t really matter if the nukes are in Cuba or the middle of Siberia because the range of the missiles is such that they can hit most anywhere. And their yield is bigger. Some of this may have changed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but I’m not so sure. I think we continue to have a gun to our collective heads, not much different than in the Cold War.

From that point of view, the U.S. merely achieved a delaying action in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the long term, it may even have hurt us because of our assurances that we would not interfere with Cuba’s sovereignty.

But to return to my original questions… We have responses in this thread claiming Kennedy had no intention of communicating preparations for an imminent war, and that he did and fully approved of the actions taken by SAC.

I’ll make an effort to read the books suggested. But does anyone have anything conclusive beyond speculating on what Kennedy was thinking? My opinion as of now is that General Power possibly exceeded his authority. If he was ordered to stand up to Defcon 2, he almost definitely exceeded the spirit of the order by transmitting it in the clear. I’d be surprised to see evidence that he was specifically ordered to do that.

Kennedy said publicly that we were prepared to go to war over the missiles. That may have been a bluff, but in order to carry out that bluff, you had to at least pretend that you’re getting your military ready for war. Imagine if Country “A” said to Country “B”, if you don’t meet our demands, we will go to war", but then never bothered with mobilization. Country “B” could easily believe Country “A” was bluffing.

The U.S. response to the Cuban missile crisis was finely honed. Kennedy really didn’t want a war, but felt that the U.S. couldn’t live with missiles in Cuba that could hit Washington in as little as 5 minutes. Basically, the Russians could launch the missiles from Cuba even before the U.S. could take any response.

The President and his cabinet spent a lot of time trying to show the Soviets they meant business, but at the same time, not rush into war if one wasn’t necessary. Thus the Cuban blockade instead of a missile strike or actual invasion. Thus a quarantine instead of a full blockade.

Putting our Strategic bombers on Defcon 2 and not the rest of the military. And, making sure the Russians knew that our Strategic Wing was on Defcon 2 was probably part of the careful path we took between all out war and backing down.

If I remember, we secretly agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey in exchange for removing the missiles from Cuba.

This wasn’t so much an agreement as it was already part of our scheduled deployment plan. The PGM-19 ‘Jupiter’ IRBMs deployed in Turkey and Italy in 1961 strictly as a stopgap measure until the SM-65 ‘Atlas’ and SM-68 ‘Titan I’ could be fully deployed. By mid-1963 all planned deployment of these systems was complete and the Jupiter and PGM-17 ‘Thor’ missile deployed in the UK were withdrawn from strategic service, although they were pressed into service or salvaged into families of space launch vehicles (SLV)[sup]*[/sup] The cryogenic fueled Atlas and Titan I were themselves rapidly replaced at that point by the more reliable and capable storable liquid LGM-25C ‘Titan II’ and solid motor LGM-30A/B ‘Minuteman I’, and the modified Atlas went on to become a significant heavy SLV including the manned Project Mercury orbital flights.

So we actually gave up nothing by this ‘concession’ and had we actually understood what was driving Khrushchev to deploy missiles in Cuba (i.e. saving face to hardliners in the Politburo and the military establishment who were perhaps legitimately concerned about the strategic threat the IRBMs represented) we possibly could have resolved the conflict without very nearly coming to blows. As it was, the information we had–that the SS-3 and SS-4 systems being deployed in Cuba were not ready for prime time (true), and that nuclear weapons were not already delivered onto Cuban soil (false)–convinced Kennedy to bluff his way into a blockade and confrontation, which pushed Khrushchev into a corner. Only the advice of Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson, who had been Ambassador to the Soviet Union and knew Khrushchev personally, persuaded Kennedy to respond to a conciliatory message from Khrushchev and not to a later bombastic one (probably drafted under the eyes of military advisers), agreeing to a back-down from positions and the tacit agreements of bilateral removal of missiles. This was probably one if not the key factor in Khrushchev’s later being removed and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev who recanted the economic reforms and political liberalization that occurred under Khrushchev, replacing the former’s progressive openness with the West with passive détente and stagnation.

As for going to Defcon 2 (which we never fully did, owing to C[sup]3[/sup] limitations of the era), it didn’t make a significant difference. The Soviets knew that we’d respond to an attack, and had planned accordingly. Castro (at least after the fact) claims that he advised the Soviet Union to attack with nuclear weapons should an invasion of Cuba by US troops occur, knowing full well that Cuba would have been utterly annihilated. There was no question of willingness to go to war; the only question was who blinked first. You could argue that the US ‘won’ (i.e. we didn’t give up anything material), but we lost the opportunity to defuse Cold War tensions and encourage liberalization in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, so it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory in that sense. Honestly, everybody walked away from the Cuban Missile Crisis alive which was better than any other alternative. The only party that could truly be said to have gained anything was Cuba, who became the avatar of permanent Soviet presence in the Western Hemisphere and received a lion’s share of foreign aid because of this status.


[sup]*[/sup]The Jupiter became the basis for the Juno II liquid SLV (not to be confused with the Juno solid propellant target rocket) and the core of the Saturn I and Saturn IB S-1 first stage, and the Thor mutated into the Thor-Able and Thor-Delta SLV with the addition of the Able (sometimes called Ablestar, later Delta) second stage derived from the failed but innovative Vanguard program, and a variety of solid third stage/kick motors, plus the Thor-Agena and Thrust Augmented Thor. Thor-Delta later became known as just Delta, and was the basis for the Douglas (later McDonnell Douglas, later Boeing) Delta I, II, and III families of vehicles. (The Delta IV uses a completely new Common Booster Core amd RS-68 motor that essentially shares no history with Thor and previous Delta systems.)

Unlikely, since that movie was based on a novel published in 1958, 5 years before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And accurately, too. Gromyko had indeed flat-out lied about this. Stupidly, he had done so even after being called in and asked rather specific questions about it – questions that should have made it clear that the USA had found out about the missiles.

The relevant factor was not range, but warning time. Missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles away, could have reached the US within minutes, way too fast for us to respond. Even back then both sides had missiles that could reach the others’ territory. But if they were launched from far away, we would have a chance to detect them in advance, possibly shoot them down, and certainly retaliate. Note that we had the DEW line across the Arctic to detect an attack as early as possible.

I just wanted to add that according tothis, the U.S. Army in Korea was put on DEFCON 2 earlier this year.

Of course, this is the same news service that revealed aliens deliberately crashed a UFO into the Tunguska meteor in 1908 to save the earth and that the Bilderberg Group ordered the “destruction” of the U.S. dollar to further its goal of taking over the world.

Amazingly, these events happened within just a few days of each other!

Eh, I wonder how stupid this was - the fellow may simply not have had any choice in the matter. If his orders were to deny, deny, deny - how long of a leash were Soviet ambassadors on, back in the day?

Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb has only a passing resemblance to Peter George’s novel, Red Alert (which was not a satire or comedy).

General Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) is clearly heavily drawn from Gen. Curtis ‘Bombs Away’ LeMay, but the influences for Gen. Ripper (played by Hayden Sterling in a brilliant comeback role) and the eponymous nuclear strategist Dr. Strangelove are not so clear. Many personalities are cited as influencing the portrayal of Strangelove, most frequently physicist Edward Teller, rocket pioneer Werner von Braun, and strategist Herman Kahn (from whom Kubrick derived some of his most memorable plot devices and dialogue), but he’s clearly not just one person, and his mannerisms and appearance most resemble Austrian-American urban photojournalist Weegee. Ripper is clearly an amalgam of various conspiracy theorists and anti-Communist pundits whose core paranoia is derived from staunch repression of his own apparently homosexual impulses. (“I don’t avoid women, Mandrake…but I do deny them my essence.”)