There are more cold war nuclear weapons stories that I want to tell you, before we get to the SIOP and circle back to the insanity that is about to happen, as the US attempts to establish global nuclear hegemony. That sounds dramatic, I know, but people need to understand that the US is preparing to win a nuclear war. The US has always been preparing to win a nuclear war. Most of that stuff about defensive counter-strikes, etc. – that’s all lies.
Claiming “that’s all lies” sounds extreme but it really is the truth. When you start studying the capabilities that the US has built out, and when they built them, it’s the unavoidable conclusion. It doesn’t appear as though it was a consequence of an organized grand strategy, so much as an emergent conspiracy – as the various military branches each sought for an excuse that would allow them to build an arsenal, thereby enlarging their importance and increasing their budgetary allotment – there were some pretty spectacular strategic mistakes that could have resulted in the eradication of humanity. A lot of it was due to good old-fashioned American bloody-mindedness. The US nuclear ‘defense’ apparatus could have been built for a small fraction of what was spent, had its object actually been deterrent instead of global hegemony. The US Government or Department of Defense will never say this, but the ballistic missile submarines are enough of a deterrent to fulfill mutually assured destruction; they are enough.
Really, what was going on where the taxpayers couldn’t hear about it, was a massive battle for budget and importance between the US Air Force and the US Navy, about who got to kill the world. Every president has had to dance around inter-service rivalry, and many of them – including president “Oooh, there is a military-industrial complex!” Eisenhower – mostly ‘resolved’ the rivalry by giving each service its head and let it build a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. Basically, you can picture a group of bratty boys pouting and whining that their brother got a new B.B. gun and now they want one, too. Guns, for everybody! But those characters were not nice people; in fact, they were very scary people, indeed. And, some of them were bloody-minded, murderous, incompetent blockheads.
Curtis LeMay was the commander of US Bomber Command during World War II. He was great at that: he cared just enough about his men to make the whole operation work, but didn’t care one tiny bit about what happened to the Germans. LeMay commanded Bomber Command during the Pacific war, too, and was the commander who oversaw the burning of Tokyo and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima. During the Korean War, LeMay commanded the bomber forces that bombed every target in North Korea, civilian or military, for three years after the North Koreans (who had nothing that could touch US bombers) stopped fighting. One of the things that drives me nuts about American nuclear policy is the occasional discussion along the lines of “should we really have used nuclear weapons on Japan?” because everyone’s approach to the question inevitably presupposes that there was someone commanding the US forces who did not actively want to just kill everyone in Japan that he could. The president might have had some qualms but not Curtis LeMay. In order to ponder whether or not it was a moral decision, you’d have to actually think that it was a question in the first place. LeMay was a profoundly scary person, a fundamentalist christian nihilist death cult-worshipping ultra-nationalist. With nuclear weapons.
And he was pretty stupid and incompetent. He was good at getting bombers into the air against undefended targets, but when the Germans actually were still shooting back, he expended his bomber pilots lives lavishly.
There are lots of stories about LeMay when you study nuclear weapons, but usually the worst aspects of Le May’s character are downplayed. He’s part of that cold war history what’s been whitewashed.
When LeMay was placed in charge of the newly forming Strategic Air Command (who else could the president put in charge? LeMay was like the J. Edgar Hoover of blowing entire countries up) the SAC did a lot to market itself as the great new force that was keeping America safe; it was a huge pile of propaganda. But they did have cool things like great big bombers and a giant castle built under a mountain, etc.
It turned out that LeMay didn’t understand how bombing works, if you’re in the possible position of having an enemy that might be able to fight back. It turned out that LeMay only knew how to successfully prosecute a bombing war against an enemy that was supine.
When SAC began to build out, and the inter-services rivalry began, eventually the problem of nuclear war came to the attention of very intelligent people. There were lots of very intelligent people involved – unfortunately a lot of them at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore Labs (the labs also competed for prestige and budget) – in a previous piece on nuclear weapons I described Jim Walsh, [stderr] another crazed christian ultra-nationalist death-loving nihilist. But Walsh was small potatoes next to LeMay.
The Soviets began to frantically produce a nuclear weapons delivery platform and arsenal for themselves, and smart people like Daniel Ellsberg from RAND Corporation began to think about the problems of starting and stopping nuclear wars, and how to coordinate targeting, etc. Some of the RAND folks looked at the problems inherent in getting the weapons back and forth in time – what if a Soviet strike was inbound, how many bombers could get into the air and far enough away from the exploding remains of the US, and rain deterrent death on the Soviets?
By the way, it was around that time that the RAND folks started asking questions like: “If the Soviets launch a preemptive strike on us, we’re going to all die. Is it a moral decision to make them all die, too? What, the actual fuck, are you guys thinking?” They began to ask questions like “how do you surrender in a nuclear war, anyway, when your command/control structure is gone and everyone is dying? Is there a point to all this?” And, as I’ve described elsewhere, the RAND systems analysts began to realize that the US ‘strategy’, such as it was, made no sense and actually had a great big flaw in it. The flaw was to do with the vulnerability of bombers: RAND systems analysts realized that the Soviets could use ICBM and medium-range ballistic missiles on SAC bases, which were relatively ‘soft’ as targets go. They did some modelling and came to the conclusion that a Soviet first strike could effectively kill the SAC, leaving the US flaming, and supine – and nobody knew how to surrender.
Basically, the RAND guys also did not understand Curtis LeMay, because they didn’t realize that LeMay was completely incapable of worrying about anything other than slaughtering supine, helpless, enemies. From The Wizards of Armageddon here is Curtis LeMay at his best: [am]
Sprague had served on surprise-attack panels before, and knew roughly the time it would take for a Russian bomber to get from the DEW [Distant Early Warning] line to each SAC base in the United States. The bombers could take off with fairly short notice, at least theoretically, and each SAC base was assigned three auxiliary civilian bases where the bombers could land and disperse in the event of a warning. But Sprague also knew that the bombers would only have limited crews, limited fuel loadings, and no atomic weapons on board. The bombs were stored on SAC bases, separated from the planes; they were not protected from the overpressures of blast and it would take some time to load them onto the bombers. In other words, they were highly vulnerable. And there were no atomic bombs on the auxiliary bases. In short, the SAC bombers might get off the ground, but they would have nothing to drop on Russian territory, nothing with which to carry out the national policy of “massive retaliation.”
Looking at the numbers on the big map at SAC headquarters, which showed the time it would take for the bombers to get off the ground fully loaded, Sprague calculated that in nearly instance they exceeded the time it would take for a Russian bomber to fly from the DEW line to the bases. The only exception was the base in Morocco, holding about a dozen SAC bombers. Sprague was geniunely frightened. That exercise in Colorado Springs was no anomaly; the conclusions of Wohlstettler’s R-290 were not theoretical; a surprise Soviet attack might well destroy America’s ability to respond in kind and therefore, once the Soviets acquired the means to launch such an attack, the United States might no longer be able to deter nuclear war and win the war if the Soviets provoked one.
Sprague pointed all this out to LeMay, who calmly responded that this didn’t scare him. He told Sprague that the United States had airplanes flying secret missions over Soviet territory twenty four hours a day, picking up all sorts of intelligence information, mostly communication intelligence from Soviet military radio transmissions. He offered to take Sprague into the office where this data was sent and stored. All those statements the Soviets periodically made about American spy planes penetrating Russian air space were true. We always said the incidents were accidental, but they were not; they were very deliberate.
“If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack,” LeMay continued, “I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.”
Sprague was thunderstruck by the revelation. This was knowledge that only a very, very small number of Americans possessed or knew anything about. Most startling was LeMay’s final bit of news, that he would order a preemptive attack against Soviet air bases.
“But General LeMay,” Sprague said, “that’s not national policy.”
“I don’t care, LeMay replied. “It’s my policy. That’s what I’m going to do.”
“The bombers could take off with fairly short notice, at least theoretically, and each SAC base was assigned three auxiliary civilian bases where the bombers could land and disperse in the event of a warning.” – planning to use human shields, as SAC appears to have done, is a war crime.
The R-290 report was a readiness test conducted by RAND, in which they timed an alert drill and discovered that the SAC bombers were unable to get off the ground in anything close to the time they were supposed to be able to do. Basically, the SAC was a sitting duck.
The battle over budget and inter-service rivalry probably was a greater threat to world destruction than anything the Soviets ever offered. Because the SAC bombers were so vulnerable, they eventually took to keeping a wing of bombers in the air, constantly, armed with the largest hydrogen bombs in the US inventory. (That was the wing that Stanley Kubrick set Doctor Strangelove‘s premise in) Accidents happen: several B-52s and bombs were lost in run of the mill system failures. In 1961, for one example, a B-52 crashed near Goldsboro, North Carolina, carrying 2 3 megaton bombs. The bombs hit the ground so hard that they buried themselves fairly deep in the soil. When they were recovered, it was determined that one was in an armed condition and should have gone off but failed. The Air Force, naturally lied about the incident and classified the whole thing Top Secret. [wik]
Accounts I have read about the budget battles are surreal and terrifying. Literally, things like: Air Force general officers in meetings taunting Navy admirals “Ha! We are going to kill off your Polaris program and you can do nothing to stop us!”