Kennedy had already declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch (DEFCON 2), which authorized "NATO aircraft with Turkish pilots ... [or others] ... to take off, fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb," according to the well-informed Harvard University strategic analyst Graham Allison, writing in the major establishment journal Foreign Affairs.
Another candidate is October 26th. That day has been selected as "the most dangerous moment" by B-52 pilot Major Don Clawson, who piloted one of those NATO aircraft and provides a hair-raising description of details of the Chrome Dome (CD) missions during the crisis -- "B-52s on airborne alert" with nuclear weapons "on board and ready to use."
October 26th was the day when "the nation was closest to nuclear war," he writes in his "irreverent anecdotes of an Air Force pilot," Is That Something the Crew Should Know? On that day, Clawson himself was in a good position to set off a likely terminal cataclysm. He concludes, "We were damned lucky we didn't blow up the world -- and no thanks to the political or military leadership of this country."
The errors, confusions, near-accidents, and miscomprehension of the leadership that Clawson reports are startling enough, but nothing like the operative command-and-control rules -- or lack of them. As Clawson recounts his experiences during the 15 24-hour CD missions he flew, the maximum possible, the official commanders "did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue-crew or crew-member from arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons," or even from broadcasting a mission that would have sent off "the entire Airborne Alert force without possibility of recall." Once the crew was airborne carrying thermonuclear weapons, he writes, "it would have been possible to arm and drop them all with no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the systems."
About one-third of the total force was in the air, according to General David Burchinal, director of plans on the Air Staff at Air Force Headquarters. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), technically in charge, appears to have had little control. And according to Clawson's account, the civilian National Command Authority was kept in the dark by SAC, which means that the ExComm "deciders" pondering the fate of the world knew even less. General Burchinal's oral history is no less hair-raising, and reveals even greater contempt for the civilian command. According to him, Russian capitulation was never in doubt. The CD operations were designed to make it crystal clear to the Russians that they were hardly even competing in the military confrontation, and could quickly have been destroyed.
From the ExComm records, Stern concludes that, on October 26th, President Kennedy was "leaning towards military action to eliminate the missiles" in Cuba, to be followed by invasion, according to Pentagon plans. It was evident then that the act might have led to terminal war, a conclusion fortified by much later revelations that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed and that Russian forces were far greater than U.S. intelligence had reported.
As the ExComm meetings were drawing to a close at 6 p.m. on the 26th, a letter arrived from Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, sent directly to President Kennedy. His "message seemed clear," Stern writes: "the missiles would be removed if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba."
The next day, at 10 am, the president again turned on the secret tape. He read aloud a wire service report that had just been handed to him: "Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey" -- Jupiter missiles with nuclear warheads. The report was soon authenticated.
Though received by the committee as an unexpected bolt from the blue, it had actually been anticipated: "we've known this might be coming for a week," Kennedy informed them. To refuse public acquiescence would be difficult, he realized. These were obsolete missiles, already slated for withdrawal, soon to be replaced by far more lethal and effectively invulnerable Polaris submarines. Kennedy recognized that he would be in an "insupportable position if this becomes [Khrushchev's] proposal," both because the Turkish missiles were useless and were being withdrawn anyway, and because "it's gonna -- to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade."
Keeping U.S. Power Unrestrained
The planners therefore faced a serious dilemma. They had in hand two somewhat different proposals from Khrushchev to end the threat of catastrophic war, and each would seem to any "rational man" to be a fair trade. How then to react?
One possibility would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization could survive and to eagerly accept both offers; to announce that the U.S. would adhere to international law and remove any threat to invade Cuba; and to carry forward the withdrawal of the obsolete missiles in Turkey, proceeding as planned to upgrade the nuclear threat against the Soviet Union to a far greater one -- only part, of course, of the global encirclement of Russia. But that was unthinkable.
The basic reason why no such thought could be contemplated was spelled out by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard dean and reputedly the brightest star in the Camelot firmament. The world, he insisted, must come to understand that "[t]he current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba," where missiles were directed against the U.S. A vastly more powerful U.S. missile force trained on the much weaker and more vulnerable Soviet enemy could not possibly be regarded as a threat to peace, because we are Good, as a great many people in the Western hemisphere and beyond could testify -- among numerous others, the victims of the ongoing terrorist war that the U.S. was then waging against Cuba, or those swept up in the "campaign of hatred" in the Arab world that so puzzled Eisenhower, though not the National Security Council, which explained it clearly.
Of course, the idea that the U.S. should be restrained by international law was too ridiculous to merit consideration. As explained recently by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias, "one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers" -- meaning the U.S. -- so that it is "amazingly naÃ¯ve," indeed quite "silly," to suggest that it should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. This was a frank and welcome exposition of operative assumptions, reflexively taken for granted by the ExComm assemblage.
In subsequent colloquy, the president stressed that we would be "in a bad position" if we chose to set off an international conflagration by rejecting proposals that would seem quite reasonable to survivors (if any cared). This "pragmatic" stance was about as far as moral considerations could reach.
In a review of recently released documents on Kennedy-era terror, Harvard University Latin Americanist Jorge DomÃnguez observes, "Only once in these nearly thousand pages of documentation did a U.S. official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to U.S.-government sponsored terrorism": a member of the National Security Council staff suggested that raids that are "haphazard and kill innocents... might mean a bad press in some friendly countries."