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February 26, 2024

Thermonuclear Heads-Up

By Frederick Frankenberg

The White House Conference Room: October 21st, 1961

I looked over a memo that reported the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock's hands to two minutes until midnight. We all sat together around a circular table. We "wise men" -- a term coined by the press for us young educated men in leadership positions -- wore our neat suits with white collars while the Joint Chiefs of Staff dressed in different colored military uniforms with ribbons and braided cords. We waited, with clean-shaven faces and combed hair, for the aids to bring in the satellite pictures taken by the CIA. The utilitarian room with plain wall paper and wooden borders we dwelled in deceived the eyes with its importance.

Max Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat next to the president. "While we are waiting for the briefing, John, I must inform you that our government in South Vietnam is in a struggle from invading guerillas from the North. The first order of business after this crisis is resolved should be a sustained aerial bombardment of the Communist insurgents in the South -- if this doesn't get resolved soon, the contagion will spread to Indonesia and then maybe to Japan. You know if this attitude spreads, it will be like we lost World War II," Max said.

"We can't allow that. Nobody should be taking matters into their own hands and emboldening the rest; I'll authorize your recommendations. We must not consider halting operations until victory has been achieved," Kennedy said.

Curtis Lemay, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the founder of the Strategic Air Command, walked into the conference room with a lit cigar hanging out of his mouth in front of the aids holding the maps. Pilots under his command called him "Bombs Away Lemay" because of his ferocity in conducting the air war over Japan in WWII. He even personally ordered the firebombing of Tokyo, a war crime. The men unrolled the maps on the table in front of the President. Yellow boxes drawn on the large black and white panoramic photo highlighted the scattered missile sites. The President glanced at the picture.

"What would be your course of action, Curtis?" Kennedy said.

I always considered myself the moderating force among Curtis's lust for destruction and Kennedy's hell-bent hunger to flex American muscle around the world to ensure that he remained the leader of the strongest country in history. Kennedy won the election on a platform of continuing the arms race, and the promise of projecting American power to stop the spread of Communism. He portrayed his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, as weak and a danger to America since the Eisenhower administration he took part in did not build more ICBMs. It was believed that the Soviets possessed much more of these weapons than we did. The media and the Kennedy campaign called this situation the "missile gap." Satellite photos taken by the CIA later proved, beyond a doubt, that this shortfall was fictional.

Curtis took the cigar out of his mouth and argued his case: "What you see in the picture is medium range ballistic missiles twenty miles away from Havana. They can send a warhead as far as Maine. The whole East Coast is under threat. Cuba has been lost to the Commies. We can't have a Communist sanctuary on that island. F-4s can target the missile sites first in precision strikes. Our boys in the Keys can succeed where the Bay of Pigs failed. They can reach the beaches in less than two hours. Cuba has been lost, what's next? Chile, Brazil, even Columbia? We should cut the malignant tumor out because it's only going to grow and fester."

"What is your estimate of Soviet preparedness?" Kennedy said.

"I doubt their resolve. They should know we match their ICBMs by a ratio of three to one -- from our most conservative estimates. Their nuclear arsenal and ability to respond conventionally in Europe dwarfs ours." Curtis said.

"We do not have to risk it, we could solve this with direct communication with the Kremlin," I said.

"I know you yourself want to solve this problem with diplomacy, Tommy, but we've got to send the Communists a clear message here; this is an opportunity. We cannot tolerate a communist stronghold with missiles pointed at us," Kennedy said.

"We could mobilize our navy in the area to implement a naval blockade. But before we do so, we should drop the DEFCON level," the erudite man in the rimless eyeglasses, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said.

"A blockade is an act of war. We are always under threat from Soviet ICBMs, what difference could a few missiles on that island make? That's a big risk and our cities are under threat from attack regardless of missiles in Cuba. Can we really afford to risk everything?" I said.

"We could call the blockade something else if we announce it to the world and to the public. What are you thinking, Dean?" Kennedy said.

"We should call it a quarantine. It will be easier to describe it to the public and the world. Search all vessels for nuclear weapons. Contain the threat. The CIA reports that no nuclear warheads made it there," Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, said.

"I think it should be understood by all sides and the world that any naval vessel within twenty nautical miles of Cuba will be inspected for nuclear warheads," McNamara said.

Dog Beach in Key West, Florida: October 23rd, 1961

Pvt. Alexander sure liked to gamble every time he got drunk. No different from any other time, he drank a pint of straight vodka and got out the cards to play poker. As the ranking officer, I had to discourage this at such a time, but always wound up drinking and gambling with him, despite my condemnations. After all, we could fight the Cubans and the Russians better drunk.

The setting sun lit the sky orange as we sat there on soft, sandy Dog Beach, away from the others. He called my bet of five cents and raised me a dime. This hand might have cost me the game. The loser would not only lose his money but would have to smuggle more beer and liquor back to base from the package store. With the camp on high alert, doing a liquor run ran a great risk of disaster. My superiors would have zero tolerance for drunkenness before a possible deployment. Alex and I played a dangerous game. Uncle Sam did not send us down to the Keys to get drunk, play cards, and enjoy the tropical sun.

I never drank as much as or got as drunk as Alex. He opened another pint of vodka and poured it into his canteen as we sat there on the beach playing cards. My A-rations sat in the sun atop a circular handkerchief while I drank from a canteen full of bourbon whiskey. Next to my ham sandwich, the stack of nickels glowed orange in the setting sun. The handkerchief looked like an island in the sea of sand. We played poker over this island in this bleach white ocean. Alex, I, and the rest of the seventy-thousand troops waited for an order to invade the island of Cuba. I held in my hand a pair of deuces. Alex always sat there with a drunken smile on his face regardless of his hand, good or bad. He slurred his words a bit whenever he talked.

"You gonna call?" Alex said. He pointed to my wristwatch. "You can raise me your watch, and I'll take your rations, too." I loved that Timex I had; I would never throw it in the pot.

"I'm thinking ..." I said.

I decided to call his bluff and raise him again by going all-in. He lost his intoxicated grin and folded. He mucked his cards into the deck the wrong way up and I saw his hand; a pair of threes. I played perfectly.

The Operations Compartment of a Russian K-19 Submarine: October 24th, 1961

We all wore our blue Soviet navy fatigues with scruffy unshaven faces. We pushed our ship to its limits below her safe diving depth off the coast of Cuba in the Atlantic. An American destroyer dropped depth charges on us from the sea surface. One shook the submarine so violently, it rattled like an earthquake hit it. My legs shook beneath me and I almost fell to the floor. The explosion made our submarine seem like a piece of sheet metal. The clatter alarmed and angered me. The next one might take us out. We must retaliate, I thought. With an attack by American warships, I believed I could speak with certainty that a war started. However, we had no communication to the surface. To make bad situations worse, the air conditioning stopped working, and we breathed heavily because of the stale air. We needed to surface to mix fresh air in the submarine; the depleted oxygen in the air muddled our decision-making.

Captain Savinsky clenched his fists. He must have felt the same way. We all talked in whispers because loud noises made our submarine susceptible to detection.

"Ivan, there has to be a whole fleet of American warships in our vicinity. We are in international waters" he said.

"We've got to launch the special weapon. War has started," I said.

This torpedo had a nuclear warhead. As the political officer on the ship, my job entailed making sure the crew followed the will of the Party as true Communists. They also needed my approval to launch any such armament along with Valentin Savinsky, the Captain of the Ship, and Vasili Arkhipov, the Flotilla Commander. It would just be myself and Valentin making the decision had Vasili not been with us on the submarine.

"Yes. We must launch the special weapon to take them all out and return to safety." Valentin wiped the perspiration running down his forehead with the back of his hands. "What about Vasili?"

The Flotilla Commander walked in with sweat dripping from his face. "No damage done," Vasili said.

"We need to launch the special weapon, the Americans have fired upon us," Valentin said.

"They did, but we don't know whether this is official." Vasili said.

"I am the political officer and hostilities have commenced. We can take out a whole fleet of American Warships. Lives are at stake," I said.

"Well, I say no," Vasili said.

The Captain turned red. "We have been attacked with depth charges -- war has started," Valentin said, not whispering.

"We have not been in contact with Moscow for a few days, so we don't know that," Vasili said. At that moment, Vasili's sanguine tranquility and cool headedness slowly spread to me and Valentin; we understood Vasili's point.

The Kremlin: October 28th, 1961

We, the leadership of the Soviet Union, sat around a green circular table, resembling one found at a casino floor, in the basement of the Kremlin. Khrushchev wore a black tunic suit while most of us ministers wore our humble black suits and ties. The Marshal of the Soviet Union, General Andrei Grechko and the Minister of Defense, General Rodion Malinosky, wore Soviet military dress uniforms decorated with medals acquired during the Second Great Patriotic War. An oppressive low ceiling above us, made me uncomfortable from the cigarette smoke with no room to float up. We sat inside the undecorated cement room with cracks in the walls. Khrushchev had his vacation in Sochi interrupted to travel here to decide how to handle the situation. We expected to be there a while deciding how to best fight American Imperialism.

"They have the best intelligence service in the world. How could they not know that there are missiles on Cuba, Alexei?" Khrushchev said.

"I don't really have an answer for that, but it only takes one man with a key to launch one of them," I said.

"We could announce it to the world?" Khrushchev said.

"If we let them know, we will have little hope for retaliation in the event of an American first strike. We've got to be careful. Still, they do not have nearly enough there even to take out Florida," Rodion said.

"If the US attacks one of those sites, any soldier in the Strategic Missile Corps could start a nuclear war," Andrei Grechko said.

"This is way too dangerous." I took off my glasses. "With the people crying out for refrigerators and toasters, we can't maintain anything like the arsenal of the United States. We could just cave into their demands," I said.

"If we do that, we'll lose any credibility in Latin America in spreading the revolution. We should try to come to an equal agreement. There are American missiles in Turkey; we can offer to remove the sites in Cuba in exchange for the removal of the medium-range nuclear weapons in there for an American promise that they will not invade Cuba," Rodion said.

The White House: October 28th, 1961

Kennedy paced back and forth in the Oval Office. The birds started chirping. and the sun came up outside. The whole administration, Kennedy included, stayed up the entirety of the night. The President just finished telling me he determined there was a fifty-percent chance of a Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike. Two messages had come in over the telegraph machine back-to-back, one said, "We are prepared to defend our brothers in Cuba to the very end," and another said, "We are tying the knot on a noose that will strangle both of us. Let us come to an agreement and stop pulling on both sides of the rope." The President took my advice and had his aids respond to the diplomatic one. Fifteen minutes later, another aide came inside and informed us of the response.

We all got into the conference room and I read the wire aloud: "We have gone too far down the road to utter annihilation. In exchange for a promise not to invade Cuba and the complete removal of US missile sites in Turkey, we will dismantle the offending missile sites."

A brief silence ensued. I looked to the sleep-deprived president and next to him, McNamara's cheerful tired look caught my eye. "Accept that deal, those sites will be dismantled anyway. Those missiles in Turkey are obsolete and will be replaced with undetectable Polaris submarines," McNamara said.

"So, we're giving the Soviets nothing?" Kennedy said.

"That's exactly what we can do, congratulations!" McNamara said.

"You are going to be celebrated, John! I can see the headlines now: 'JFK saves the country from the Communist threat,' 'A great triumph for the free world!' Even the fringe papers will praise you!" Max Taylor said.

"Cuba will eventually fall back to us by gravity," The President said.

Soviet Submarine Base in Armyansk, Crimea: November 5th, 1961

Our vessel performed well. We escaped the American warships and made it back to the base. I breathed in the cool autumn air, grateful to see land. A commissioned officer approached us at the end of the dock inside. "You must be the political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslenikov. Welcome back, every sailor on this ship is to report to me immediately after writing an individual detailed report about the entire sortie," he said.

"Why do we have to do that?" I said.

"You were discovered by American forces. I am acting on orders from none other than Marshal Grechko himself."

"The whole sortie?"

"Yes, Comrade Grechko got upset when he heard you were detected. You know the defense doctrine of secrecy: in your handbook -- section 24 subsection A."

"Yes, I am aware."

I sulked back to my locker and recounted the entire deployment to myself. Any report that made anyone on the ship look unfavorable could result in a demotion, or worse. I saw Vasili next to me.

"This is terrible. I don't want to lose my life over this," I said.

"It's ok, we did nothing wrong," he said.

"We could be sent to the Gulag ..."

"You should worry about it when it happens, and I doubt it will. Just live in the now."

I changed into my civilian clothes and walked outside. I could see the submarine dock and the fishermen's wharf in the distance. The sun set over the bay. The different hues of the fall foliage had an orange tone to them from the setting sun. The seagulls gathered on the docks made their usual gawking sound. At that moment, everything was all right. I went to the barracks and rested with a peaceful sleep.

Article © Frederick Frankenberg. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-06-28
Image(s) are public domain.
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