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Missile crisis lesson ignored

October 23, 2012
By Lee Gaillard

On that brisk late-October morning in 1962, we clustered in the TIME-LIFE building's 31st-floor conference room to watch black blips inch across a large televised map. The red embargo line slashed vertically through the Atlantic Ocean east of Cuba. The lead blip paused; Walter Cronkite announced that missile-laden Soviet freighters had slowed and turned away. The room exploded in cheers.

Then - silence.

We had paused at the brink. The U.S. had gone to Defense Condition 2, the final stage before nuclear war. Polaris ballistic missile submarines had left port; airborne-alert Strategic Air Command bombers took off with up to four hydrogen bombs apiece; 136 Titan and Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles were fueled, armed with 4-megaton thermonuclear warheads and readied for launch.

It gets worse:

At least three times from 1953 through the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were urged to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union by civilian and military leaders ranging from Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze to retired Air Force Gen. James Doolittle and SAC commander Gen. Thomas Power.

Now, in 1962, behind the scenes, the situation threatened to spin out of control as National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Gen. Curtis LeMay and the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged pre-emptive air strikes against Cuba.

Senators Richard Russell and J. William Fulbright urged outright invasion.

Twenty-seven years later, following the 1989 Missile Crisis Conference in Moscow, subsequently declassified documents revealed chilling information. Our political and military leaders urging pre-emptive strikes and invasion had been totally unaware that:

the Soviets had already made five Cuban ballistic missile launch sites fully operational, their 20 SS-4s ready to hurl megaton-yield warheads at Washington, D.C., and southeastern U.S. cities;

Soviet FROG-7 battlefield nuclear missiles were covering approaches to potential invasion beaches.

"Never before or since," writes historian Donald Kagan in "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace," "has the world been brought so close to nuclear war." It is estimated that in the ensuing Armageddon, more than 100 million people would have perished.

Therefore, a key lesson from 1962: Pre-emptive strikes are immoral and possess potential for military disaster.

Now fast-forward to June of 1981, when, in contravention of Article 2 of the UN Charter, Israel launched its pre-emptive strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor; to 2003, when President George W. Bush, responding to unverified and inappropriate intelligence reports, initiated his pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. (In 2002 he had released a Nuclear Posture Review that also considered pre-emptive nuclear strikes and potential development of new "mini-nukes" for use against deeply buried bunkers - despite U.S. endorsement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) And to Sept. 6, 2007, when Israel struck again - this time destroying a Syrian nuclear reactor hidden in the desert. UN response? Minimal.

What's next? Iran? And with what unintended consequences? If pre-emption still rules, then the Cuban Missile Crisis has taught us absolutely nothing.


Lee Gaillard lives in Saranac Lake. This piece is reprinted, at the author's request, from the Federation of American Scientists' series, "Perspectives on the Cuban Missile Crisis," online at



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