The Missile Crises, Then and Now

Photograph Source: Photo by Maciej Ruminkiewicz

Just weeks after House Leader Nancy Pelosi flew East and rattled the China shop with her bull by announcing that the US would defend Taiwan against an invasion, retired and resigned General David Petraeus warned Moscow that the US would retaliate if the Russians nuked Ukrainians. Pelosi said, “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.” The Biden administration claimed it had not endorsed her trip or her posturing. A Chinese representative responded to the visit and the sword rattling, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Likewise, Petraeus went loose-cannon with his mouth, telling ABC, “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” There is no indication that the Biden administration authorized this belligerent and provocative posture. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded that “retired idiots with generals’ stripes” ought not to attempt to intimidate Moscow with claims that NATO could attack Crimea. “Hypersonic [missiles] are sure to hit targets in Europe and the U.S. much faster.”

Jeesh, Dirty Harry was quick to respond to the unneeded and unwarranted escalation language: Marvelous. I guess the punks felt lucky.

In both cases, such sword-swallowing was unwelcome. And might have even been cowardly. Nancy and David knew that if the Chinese and/or Russians got angry enough in response to “perform a little manslaughter” (to pull a line from Mary Hartman Mary Hartman) Uncle Sam would come to their rescue and retaliate.  Lower the Boom, so to speak. L’absurde! Or in local parlance: Holey Moley.

It all reminds me of Daniel Ellsberg and his many lucid and sobering observations in his recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Coming out of a cinema after watching Dr. Strangelove, the one where Slim Pickens rides a nuke down with eee-haaa!!s, like he was on mechanical bronco in a Houston dive with money on the line, and Ellsberg observes to his buddy, Harry Rowen,

We came out into the afternoon sunlight, dazed by the light and the film, both agreeing that what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary. (We didn’t yet know—nor did SAC—that existing strategic operational plans, whether for first strike or retaliation, constituted a literal Doomsday Machine, as in the film.)

The Doomsday Machine is, like, you fuck with me and I fuck with you. MAD. It can come to no good end. Life ain’t Hollywood. Although, it does seem to be Rigged for some. And you got to beware, as the Bard from Duluth says, that he don’t get you down in the hole that he’s in.

Here we are 60 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Caribbean Event or Big Trouble in Little Havana, or whatever you want to call it. This week begins the much-remembered 35 days of vigilance and terror (16 October – 20 November 1962) that shook the world to the core. And spawned the James Bond franchise, beginning with Dr. No, featuring the day-boo of SPECTRE. Yes, that’s right.  And also, it has me recalling second grade Civil Defense drills under the desk or table or teacher’s legs to escape from the nuclear fallout should the shit hit the fan. Remember, they said: We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. WMD’s are a b*tch.

It’s an anniversary that wouldn’t mean too much to the Z Generation. Sleepy heads who think that The Walking Dead is a comedy series. I mean, I don’t know that — I can’t read their minds — but if their proactivity is any indication, it’s no wonder that the same old ruses out of the same old dog-eared field manuals still work their magic. Speaking of ‘shrooms.

Back to Ellsberg’s Doomsday Machine.  It’s a must-read book.  Ellsberg wanted to put it out before The Pentagon Papers, whose study of the known futility of the Vietnam War went up to, but did not include, the Nixon Administration. Rather, Doomsday starts by Ellsberg alluding to how Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw him as  “The Most Dangerou Man in America,” and, according to Ellsberg, sought to have him neutralized. Yes, that’s right. They were going to kill him, he believed. Pulitzer Prize-winning muckraker Jack Anderson was also scheduled to be liquidated, Charles Colson, Nixon’s Turd Blossom, testified, but Watergate broke and cover-up time ensued. In a March 2022 Washington Post piece, “The Nixon White House plotted to assassinate a journalist 50 years ago,” Mark Feldstein details how Nixon had an enemies list and that Anderson was high up on that list:

The journalist Nixon despised most was crusading columnist Jack Anderson, then the most famous and feared investigative reporter in the country. Anderson had a hand in exposing virtually every Nixon scandal since he first entered politics, and he escalated his attacks once Nixon was president, uncovering Nixon’s deceit in foreign policy, and his political and personal corruption.

Essentially, Chomsky convincingly argues, we elect murderers as presidents — yes, even Jimmy, according to Pravda. I can’t think of a president in my lifetime who was not a murderer, except maybe JFK, who was murdered. They blew his mind out in a car. He hadn’t noticed that the light had changed. We all stood around and stared for 50 years, not sure we saw what we had seen. Chomsky says we’re still at it.

Ellsberg. Delegation of authority. It ain’t just the guy with the “football” who calls the shots. A lot of low-lifes have a pretty good shot of ending us all, too. It’s all in his book. Most recently, the MSM made a big deal about Donald Trump retaining the “football” as he flew away from Washington, unwilling to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration, which he had unsuccessfully attempted to coup on Jan 6, some say, with a posse of clowns and weirdos not up to the snuff. On the other hand, maybe the Red Coats felt the same way about the doofy Minutemen, but look how that turned out, Mad King George.  Ellsberg demonstrates that any number of people can start a nuke war through delegation. In Chapter 3 of his book, Delegation: How Many Fingers on the Button? he notes, “This delegation has been one of our highest national secrets.” No spoilers. Buy, borrow, or, as Abbie put it, Steal This Book.

But also, Ellsberg, who was back in the Cuban Missile Days, a real asshole, by his own “confession,” may have been a key cog in getting the Cuban Crisis going, after he wrote an inflammatory speech (think Petraeus) for Roswell Gilpatrick, Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1961–64, who delivered it to the Business Council in Virginia on October 21, 1961 that for the first time implied that the US might engage the conventional forces of Soviets with nukes, meaning first strike. Ellsberg writes,

What else was I saying in my draft passages for the Gilpatric speech but that if the Soviets blocked our enlarged patrols along the Berlin corridors with some of their armored divisions in the neighborhood, they would have been taking an unacceptable risk of U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against those forces…At the same time, like my closest colleagues, I would have been appalled to achieve this goal by initiating nuclear war on any scale. Yet—without making a deal with Khrushchev to recognize East Germany, something not within my ken—there was never any way to safeguard Berlin from Soviet conventional and nuclear-armed forces in East Germany except to threaten nuclear weapons and express a readiness to escalate to a nuclear first strike. (p. 201)

This is shocking to read. The Soviets responded with their interpretation. Said Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky the next day, “A realistic assessment of the picture would lead one to believe that what the imperialists are planning is a surprise nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. and the socialist countries.”

As Ellsberg writes in Doomsday, “…in October 1961 I had done my part in greasing the skids toward the Cuban missile crisis.” Well, at least he’s contrite. That’s more than you can say for the monsters who were chasing him later because he knew too much about Nixon’s plan to nuke North Vietnam, which, he claims, was thwarted by a nationwide Moratorium against the war on October 15, 1969.

Also, in 1961, after a failed Bay of Pigs invasion, designed to overthrow the Castro government, The US got even more militantly provocative by placing medium range Jupiter nuke missiles in Italy and Turkey. As one regional publication put it:

In 1961, after a failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the United States moved American Jupiter ballistic missiles into Italy and Turkey. This put American missiles within range of Moscow. In response, the Soviets sent nuclear warheads to Cuba. For the first time in the Cold War, both the US and the USSR had a real threat posed against their mainland.

Aye, Caramba! It sounds an awful lot like pressing the advantage, hugely favorable to the US at the time, says Ellsberg.

Ellsberg’s review of the Cuban Missile Crisis is also unique in its insider information regarding strategy and weaponry available.  In a nutshell, he tells us in the chapter The Real Story that had the Cubans shot down one more plane (they’d already downed a U-2 plane and a pilot had died), then WW3 would have begun, orders were standing. Luckily, the Cubans were newbies on anti-aircraft weapons.  But a huge unknown, at the time, was the degree of bad intelligence in the US possession that could have led to a disastrous invasion of the island, which so many folks at the Pentagon were itching to do. Ellsberg writes:

But there was even more that Khrushchev knew and Kennedy didn’t—secrets that Khrushchev had chosen not to reveal at the time and that remained unknown to any Americans (including me) for twenty-five years or more. First, that the number of Soviet troops in Cuba was not seven thousand, as we had at first supposed, or seventeen thousand, as the CIA estimated at the end of the crisis, but forty-two thousand. And second, that along with SAMs and ballistic missiles, they had been secretly equipped with over a hundred tactical nuclear weapons, warheads included.

Missed World World 3 by that much, as Maxwell Smart might have put it.

In addition, the Crisis seems to have revealed just how ineffective the UN was/is.  The League of Nations had proven to be a pointless exercise in futility. Nation-States will aggressively pursue perceived historical and political corrections, especially regarding territorial claims, with force, when they hold an advantage. The UN was meant to be a reinforced barrier to war, and it was essentially laughed away by nuclear powers on the permanent “Security Council,” who decide just about everything on the planet, from systems to resources. The Crisis reminded us that the US still saw itself above international Law. Once again, Ellsberg points out the laws that the US broke while forcing the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba:

-the blockade itself, at the risk of armed conflict with Soviet warships;

-forcing Soviet submarines to surface;

-high-level and low-level reconnaissance flights over Cuba;

-a large-scale airborne alert with significant risk of accidents involving nuclear weapons;

-continuing reconnaissance, even after several planes were fired on and one shot down on Saturday;

-and full preparations (if they were wholly a bluff, they fooled us) for invasion and airstrike.

Only the airborne alert was not illegal, but, says Ellsberg, it was dangerous.

The Cuban Missile Crisis has gone down as a “valuable lesson” to teach the kids coming back up from under their desks and tables.  But We, the People don’t learn so well, it seems — or, more likely, we people are not in charge of our -ocracy after all in any significant way, just as the rich “Founding Fathers” intended, throwing in the Bill of Rights at the last minute. However, it wasn’t the last such crisis, and there is some evidence there have been a few incidents that leaned that way. Shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 ten Allied and Soviet tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie in a situation so tense one American tank driver said a sneeze might have set off WW3.

One plan that Ellsberg alludes to, and is corroborated and expanded on by Jack Anderson, is a 1980 incident at the Afghanistan-Iran border in which the US actively thought the unthinkable again — using nukes against the Russians. Now, it should be noted that Jack Anderson had more than his fair share of enemies because of the habit he had in his columns of providing factual journalism and commentary in a kind “hybrid,” as he called it. But, on August 17, 1980, WaPo decided that Anderson had crossed the line and either confabulated information or risked, in reporting, a national security breach that could have put US military lives, as well as the lives of the hostages held at the Iranian Embassy, at risk. WaPo pulled his column which reported a Carter administration “October Surprise” plan to invade Iran and prevent the Russians from crossing the border.  WaPo excerpts the column,

“A startling, top-secret plan to invade Iran with powerful military force has been prepared for President Carter. The ostensible purpose is to rescue the hostages, but the operation would also exact military retribution. . . . “My decision to expose the president’s secret scheme,” Anderson wrote, was influenced by the fact that The New York Times “sat nervously” on its information about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 when exposure might have averted the disaster.

Most “scurrilous” about Anderson’s report is his accusation regarding Carter’s political intentions, which suggested that Carter was influenced by poll numbers leading up to the November election in which he was working to be re-elected. (Anderson admits he wanted to do anything to prevent Carter from winning re-election.)

Though Anderson was discredited at the time, five years later the NYT admitted that the Iran invasion plan had been real in a piece by Richard Halloran, “How Leaders Think the Unthinkable,” which was alluded to in The Doomsday Machine. Anderson went on to elaborate on the Invasion plan and its aftermath in his book, Peace, War, and Politics(New York, 1999). pp.332-34. The Russians had been intercepting Pentagon correspondence. He writes,

The National Security Agency …intercepted secret Soviet intelligence cables saying that the Soviets had long expected U.S. military action in Iran in the month of October. Beginning in January 1980, the Red Army had shifted half of its troops in Afghanistan to the Iranian border. Twenty-three divisions were lined up and ready to move into Iran. The Soviet cables warning Warsaw Pact allies repeatedly used the phrase “October Coup” …I had to wait nearly a year to find out what had happened to Carter’s October surprise. It was the Soviet cables that had spooked him away from his folly at the last minute…Carter had taken the precaution of asking the Defense Intelligence Agency to assess what Moscow would do if U.S. troops invaded Iran. The DIA concluded that Soviet troops would intervene on the side of Iran.

(In the end it looks like Carter had to fall back on Plan B to boost his poll numbers before the election. He came clean in the October 1976 Playboy issue about the secret “lust in his heart” for women other than Rosalynn. That got him elected the first time. Would he go back to Playboy and confess “Further Lusts of the Heart” surrounded by pink-minked bunnies and featuring lead bunny Gloria Steinem, in a play for women’s votes? No, this time he went with Plan B, which appears to have been a tactic that saw Carter being referred to as The Rock-and-Roll President, a suppressed, desperate idea that finally surfaced a couple of years ago in a documentary by that name that opened with Jimmy listening to Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” on the record player — it was so lame.)

This gets us back to the sword-rattling wonderment that began this piece. The open, unanswered question is whether Russian and China aren’t being goaded into playing Madman or Blind Man’s Bluff. The US seems to love taunting or threatening the Russians.  The Carter Doctrine, designed to protect the Middle East from being hijacked by the Soviets who the US saw as keen on influencing oil flow there, contains explicit cautionary language about the danger of crossing the line in the sand. It’s a doctrine still active today, even though it is now referred to as “the Reagan Corollaryto the Carter Doctrine,” in another humiliation of the peanut farmer from Georgia, who was ousted from office by an actor willing to commit October Surprise treason (the secret deal with the Iranians), as Nixon had done not many years before.

There is a question of whether Biden, advised by his deep state pals in the CIA, goaded Putin to cross a bridge too far, step over the line, meow “here kitty kitty” when he said “a little incursion might be okay.”  I wrote about this back in January just before the invasion. And the Russians appear to enjoy invasions of their own. We, the People drew them into Afghanistan to enjoy a little Vietnam quagmire of their own, and then we brought in bin Laden and al-Qaeda (loosely translated as “the database” or “freebase” or something) to get them out. Then there was the Iran Almost Moment at the border.  Do we want them to use nukes, seeing our advantage, as Petraeus seems to openly suggest? Again, with Ellsberg, even if China is not a belligerent, we intend to nuke them anyway. The US is at war with resistance to its type of capitalism, not with nation-states. We want to kill communism not “chinks,” to channel a civilization Clashist. We’ll need them to buy shit after the war’s over.

A recent NYT piece, “What Are Tactical Nuclear Weapons, And What If Russia Uses Them?” the Times anticipates for readers (listeners) what the unthinkable thoughts that the think-tankers are thinking about a potential hot war with the Russians. They are kind enough to tell us that:

Amid recent nuclear threats from Russia, President Biden calls “the prospect of Armageddon” the highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What’s not mentioned is that the Fucker-in-Chief may have intentionally goaded the Other Fucker-in-Chief into crossing the line that only they can see, as Dylan would say, unhelpfully. We won’t know what’s really happening until some 21st century Ellsberg spills the beans. (Here’s a bonus link to warplanning in media res.)

We do know that Biden isn’t calling daily for compromise or ceasefires or wringing his hands over humanity’s peril ahead. He’s acting like the guy at the swimming pool who called Corn Pop Esther Williams and wondered why the CP (albeit, with some pals) supposedly confronted him in the parking lot across the street from the all-Black housing project and he, “Pop Corn” Biden, stared down the young African-Americans by holding up a length of chain. They put away their rusty rain barrel razors, according to Biden, and said, after he apologized about the Esther Williams crack, that maybe, just maybe we can all get along after all, as Rodney says we must. And there was peace in the valley. And the stars that evening had a luster not seen since the Three Kings on asses arrived with myrrh and incensed frankenstein from the East.

Luckily, Daniel Ellsberg, who started out as the Master of War whose grave Dylan essentially hawks a loogey at with his legendary high-strummed ballad, came to change his ways.  Ellsberg was there when Abbie negotiated a settlement over how high the Pentagon would be levitated, He provided the think-tank explanation for what Abbie was up to:

Levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because removing deference from any of these institutions is very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood instinctively. So they have a press conference, and they’re talking about their plans, in a very straight and measured and re- served way. And when it gets to be Abbie’s turn to speak, he says, “We’re gonna raise the building six feet in the air.” I think that really changed the terms. In the Pentagon it became, “Can he really do that? Six feet!” [Larry Sloman, Steal This Dream, p. 98]

Classic Abbie.  We could use more levity over the black hole suckiness we now find ourselves in.

In the meantime, like John Lennon might have said, “You’d better hide your light away.”

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.