The Cuban Missile Crisis turned 50 this week. If you’re interested in nuclear things you no doubt already know this, given that every organization with a plausible connection to it seems to have done something to commemorate it. It’s kind of amazing, but even after all this time, there are new things to learn — and things we still don’t know.Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at a talk by Stan Norris and David Rosenberg at the Wilson Center. Stan is, you will recall, the author of the great biography of General Groves, and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Nuclear Notebook” series where he and Hans Kristensen give us the definitive estimates for how many nuclear weapons there are in the world at any given time. David has been a major military historian for at least 30 years or so, and has written a number of important articles with awesome titles: “The Origins of Overkill,” “A Smoking Radiating Ruin.”
The talk was on the “Nuclear Order of Battle,” a project Stan has been working on to find out what were the actual nuclear forces available to both the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. (Stan and Hans have an article in the Bulletin which summarizes some of the initial findings, though Stan is working on a much longer piece as well.) David, for his part, talked about the nuclear war planning that was going on at the time. What was the context of the crisis, in terms of thinking about nuclear weapons in the United States? What was American nuclear strategy of the time? How did this contrast with the Soviet side of things?
All of this is a pretty sobering thing to contemplate, obviously. I mean, everybody knows that nuclear war in 1962 would have been, to put it mildly, bad. But thinking through how bad in very concrete terms makes it even more disturbing — it takes it from the realm of “generic existential threat” to images of destroyed American cities.
Both were excellent and said far more than I can summarize justly in such a short space, and the audience questions were great. The audience had a good dollop of DC nukerati in it — among those who asked questions were Bill Burr of the National Security Archive; Svetlana Savranskaya, who just wrote a book about the Soviet side of the Crisis; Irving Lerch of the American Physical Society, who had been involved with some of the on-the-ground planning for invading Cuba back in the day; Chris Pocock, an historian of the U-2 spy plane; and Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was hopping, and both Stan and David were pretty great. The whole thing was taped, and you can watch the video of it online.
The basics were such: At the time of the Crisis, the United States could out-nuke the Soviets by a fairly considerable margin. Depending on how you hash out megatonnage vs. delivery vs. success likelihood and whatnot, the US arguably had an advantage of 17-to-1 over the Soviets, though by my reckoning it was probably more like a 10-to-1 advantage in terms of strategic weapons. In one small but important example of this disparity, in 1962 the Soviet Union had only 42 long-range ICBMs ready to launch. The United States had 182, plus some 500 nukes nestled up along the Soviet border in Italy, Germany, Turkey, and other European sites. The Soviets had maybe 160 bomber-delivered weapons to launch, while the US had around 1,600, plus a technological advantage in bomber technology. Plus the US also had several thousands of other nukes stashed around the globe ready to go, as well.
But the Soviets still could have easily killed tens of millions in the United States and in Europe if it had come to it. 42 ICBMs is still a pretty big number — especially when 6 of them are wearing 3 megaton warheads, and the other 36 are ranging from 3 to 6 megatons. Even if the Soviets were being very conservative about those and launching three per target, that’s still 14 American cities you can scratch off the list, ignoring the fallout. Plus whatever else they threw at us. Which would have been completely devastating. In the face of this fact, our 1o-to-1 “superiority” looks pretty pointless.
As Oppenheimer put it in 1953: “Our twenty-thousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipeline of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth.”
But there’s more. For many years now we’ve known that in a certain sense, Kennedy’s attempt at nuclear “quarantine” failed in Cuba: the Soviets already had moved working nuclear weapons there. This is discussed a bit in Errol Morris’ Fog of War and I’ve always been a little surprised this hasn’t been more talked about. I’d always imagined, though, that the number of Soviet nukes was low. I always imagined four or five. I mean, if they only had 42 ICBMs in the Soviet Union itself, how many nukes could they have put on the island before we noticed? I mean, wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis supposed to be that great example of an Incredible Intelligence Coup in which our super-awesome spy planes tipped us off before things got too awful?
Well, according to Stan, the total number of Soviet nuclear warheads on Cuba was… wait for it… 158. One hundred and fifty eight nukes. On Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Manned by scared Soviet troops and a whole lot of Cubans. Yeah. Let that one sink in. Now, to be fair, most of them were tactical nuclear warheads to be used against U.S. forces in case of invasion (which, by American estimates, would have cost 18,500 American casualties, even if nukes didn’t go flying), and “only” 95 to 100 of those were ready to be used. “Only.” But six to eight SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles were also there, and also at “operational” status. Those SS-4s could have reached as far north as Washington, D.C., with explosive yields of a little over a megaton each.
Imagine that: the major cities of the South and the lower Eastern Seaboard subjected to at least 8 megatons of yield, with no possibility of defense, with fallout going wherever it may. And that’s just the “regional” problem — there’s still those other ICBMs that Soviets had. Oh, and here’s a fun thing: those Soviet nukes had no negative physical protection — no PALs. Moscow vigorously asserted its authority in terms of actual nuclear use in the region, but if it had come down to it, there would have been little they could have done to stop a local commander from using one.
What’s shocking about this is that apparently the Americans had no clue. They knew there might be some tactical nukes in Cuba, but chose to ignore the fact. They didn’t know there were strategic weapons there and ready to go. My question to Stan and David was, why didn’t Khrushchev say, in one of his drunken telegraphs, “guys, you’re too late, you can’t do anything about it?” Their response (augmented as well by Svetlana and Bill Burr) was believable: Khrushchev was too afraid of nuclear war, and the Cuba missile base was really only a fraction of what it was meant to be at that point.
The big point that both Stan and David made was that we really shouldn’t see the danger of the Crisis as being carefully delineated by those famous “13 days.” The period of danger stretched out well into November 1962, and those MRBMs weren’t removed until December 1962. Furthermore, Kennedy and Khrushchev both realized that they only had limited control when it came to preventing all-out nuclear war. The military engines were spinning up, and getting them back to a not-hair-trigger state was a non-trivial thing.
The overall conclusion from both was that the Cuban Missile Crisis was even more dangerous than most people realized at the time, and more dangerous than most people know now. Well, that’s a cheery thought, isn’t it?