Book Review:
'The Bomb' blasts its readers
with unthinkable scenarios

The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of The Cold War

Fred Kaplan, 2020

After reading Daniel Ellsberg's book about U.S. nuclear war planning, The Doomsday Machine (click here to see review), I doubted that I would ever read another book as appalling, scary, horrifying and generally mind boggling on any subject. I was mistaken. Fred Kaplan's recently published book, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of The Cold War contains much of the same material (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis) as Ellsberg's book, but also has important substantive differences and a difference in emphasis. Ellsberg is incisive and ground breaking regarding the widely distributed authority given to military commanders to use nuclear weapons in case of war. It was never been the case that the U.S. President was the only person in government who could order the use of nuclear weapons. Any such rule would have disabled the United States retaliatory capacity if a Soviet bomb killed the President and other top political leaders in the first hours of a nuclear war. There was a dangerous period during the late 1970's and early 1980's when some nuclear war planners ( both in the military and national security appointees) believed that the U.S. could win a nuclear war with the Soviets by (a) a devastating first strike and (b) killing top Soviet leaders at the beginning of the war. Soviet leaders were so concerned with the belief among U.S. war planners that the U.S. could dismantle the Soviet capacity to retaliate by killing a few Soviet leaders that (amazing as it sounds) the Soviets developed an automated means of releasing its nuclear weapons on the U.S. if Moscow was destroyed. In the 1980's, Soviet leaders wanted the American military to understand that any nuclear attack on their country would lead to an all-out attack on the U.S., guided if necessary by a computer program!          


Kaplan, on the other hand, is more interested in the strategy of the U.S. nuclear war plan, SIOP, which for more than 30 years called for use of every nuclear bomb (other than tactical nuclear weapons) in the U.S. arsenal during the initial phase of a nuclear war; and, if possible, to deliver a first strike on the Soviet Union in case of a Russian invasion of Western Europe (not ever remotely likely) or a take over of West Berlin (very possible) given the location of Berlin in East Germany.  Kaplan, like Ellsberg, has much to say regarding the U.S. military's ( especially the Strategic Air Command's) frequent refusals to fully disclose, or even turn over for review, the SIOP, to political leaders, including the Secretary of Defense and Presidential aides. In effect, the U.S. Air Force and SAC operated for more than 30 years (1960-1989) on a 'need to know' basis regarding the SIOP, and, in their view, political leaders (including the President) were not in the loop. According to Kaplan, under persistent pressure from political leaders the U.S. Air Force periodically turned over parts of the SIOP for civilian review;  and after lengthy, often heated discussions signed on to periodic revisions of the SIOP such as a limited nuclear war option.  However, SAC never actually implemented any changes in the SIOP that envisioned limited nuclear war options, which in any case involved attacking the Soviet Union with 1750 nuclear bombs or warheads.  In effect, the Air Force and SAC "played" political leaders for decades to retain control of the SIOP, not as it existed in policy statements approved by Presidents but in documents given to military commanders (and largely hidden from elected officials and their aides) which did not change regardless of the strategic planning exercises which every President from Kennedy through Reagan initiated.  In other words, in regard to nuclear war planning civilian leaders from 1960 (or before) to 1996 when Bush 1 eliminated SAC political leaders did not control the military; it was the other way around in nuclear war planning.


The SIOP had several distinctive features, according to Kaplan: 


  • Optimally, the U.S. would unleash its full nuclear arsenal on the Soviet Union and China regardless of China's role in the run up to war in a first strike. 

  • The SIOP targeted every medium to large scale city in the Soviet Union and a large number of military installations with the goal of utterly destroying the Soviet Union and China and eliminating their capacity for retaliation. 

  • To this end, the SIOP called for dropping thousands of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union, and multiple bombs on each target, with the idea that many bombers and/or ICBM's would not reach their targets. In the early 1960's,  the SIOP directed that 23 hydrogen bombs would be dropped on Moscow, with each of the bombs 50-100 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the 1980's, the SIOP called for 659 nuclear bombs to be dropped within a 50 mile perimeter surrounding Moscow. The SIOP targeted Sheremetyevo Airport, a Russian anti-ballistic missile site on the outskirts of Moscow, with 69 nuclear warhead or bombs.  One of the military targets in the 1980's was a minor Russian Air Force installation in the Arctic at Tiski, a base where Soviet bombers could land after an attack on the U.S. This base was operational for only 6 months per year. The SIOP targeted this Soviet Air base with 17 nuclear bombs, each with a 1.2 megaton warhead. 

  •  By military directive, U.S. war planners were  "prohibited from setting requirements or analyzing whether a certain kind of attack, with a certain number of weapons would be effective" (p.188), in order to suppress internal debate over the SIOP. By the 1980's,  Air Force planners did not even pretend to have a rationale for plans that were patently crazy, and would have likely destroyed civilization and most biological species. 


It is also not true that presidents and other top officials viewed the first use of nuclear weapons as unthinkable. The use of nuclear weapons was considered by U.S. leaders in every major political conflict and some minor ones that few people remember (such as Laos in the early 60's), including Korea, Berlin and Vietnam. Kaplan asserts that the Eisenhower Administration offered the French three tactical nuclear weapons in 1954 at the time of France's war in Indochina. The French declined the offer. The U.S. Army wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam but were stopped by LBJ, a singular instance of civilian control of the military which stands out in this book.   

As horrifying as all of this information is, it is not as revealing as the political calculus around nuclear war planning. From the mid to late 1960's until the late 1980's, it was a commonplace among strategists and foreign policy experts to refer to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as the dilemma created by countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. However, there was a period of maximum danger from about 1958-1963 when the U.S. military and civilian national security experts believed that the U.S. could fight and win a nuclear war due to the inadequate number of Soviet ICBM's. There was a missile gap and it favored the U.S. by a large margin.  This is the strategic planning context for the Cuban Missile crisis. Contrary to what JFK and his brother, Robert Kennedy, stated post crisis regarding the purely symbolic significance of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, this was not how top military advisors and the national security establishment viewed Cuban missile sites.  From their perspective, Soviet missile sites in Cuba changed the nuclear strategic balance in a dramatic way by giving the Soviet Union a credible first strike threat. The Soviets largely lacked the capacity in 1962 to attack the U.S. with ICBM's, but missile sites in Cuba allowed the Soviets to target the U.S. with missiles that lacked the range of ICBM's. Thus the willingness of most of those advising JFK in fall 1962 to invade Cuba, and even launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union to prevent Cuba from becoming a Soviet asset in the nuclear balance of forces.  Furthermore, the U.S. strategic advantage (at least 5-1 in fall 1962 by JFK's estimate and probably much larger) continued after the Cuban missile crisis into 1963, a reality that led to discussions at the top of the U.S. government of launching a first strike on the Soviet Union before the window of opportunity ( so to speak) closed through the Soviet military buildup that occurred after the Soviet Union backed down in Cuba and withdrew its missiles, without making public the U.S. agreement to remove missiles from Turkey.  Soviet leaders were determined to never be humiliated again in the way that occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. By the 1980's Reagan was informed in briefing that the Soviet nuclear war plan envisioned dropping 5300 nuclear bombs or warheads on the U.S..  


The U.S. military and other hawks in the national security establishment did not view the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis as an American triumph, or as an example of JFK's sanity and resolve. From the standpoint of top military planners, allowing the Soviet Union to retain nuclear weapons during the weeks or months required to remove the missiles left the U.S. open to nuclear attack in case of Soviet perfidy, and also forfeited a golden opportunity to invade Cuba and/or destroy the Soviet Union completely and forever. Almost every top official who advised JFK during the Cuban missile crisis pushed hard for a U.S. invasion of Cuba, and some advocated (with conviction) for a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. There were two events which created an imminent possibility of war: (1) when the Cuban shot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane, an event which by prior agreement was supposed to lead to an immediate invasion of Cuba and (2) when a U.S. Navy ship dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear weapons. The submarine's captain and second in command and political officer were authorized to launch their nuclear missiles if attacked, but only if all three men agreed. The political officer would not agree to a missile launch without prior Kremlin approval, though the two Naval officers were ready to do so. This one Soviet political officer is all that stopped a nuclear war that would probably have ended human life through a nuclear winter, a danger not understood at the time. 


Those in the military privy to these discussions and considerations and their civilian allies lost all remaining trust ( already low) in JFK during the Cuban missile crisis, a loss of trust compounded by Kennedy's interest in and support of nuclear disarmament in 1963, a development which may or may not have led to his assassination; but the motivation was clear; in the view of many top military and civilian national security experts, JFK's reelection would have endangered U.S national security. LBJ was a hawk during the Cuban missile crisis, and had very little contact with JFK after the crisis was ended by Soviet capitulation.    


There was one other period of great danger in 1982-83 following Reagan's election and 'evil empire' speech. It appears that Soviet leaders concluded that the U.S. intended to lunch a first strike in 1983 under cover of NATO war games in Europe. Soviet leaders may have believed that their only way of saving some semblance of their country was to launch a first strike on the U.S..  During this dangerous escalation of tension, Soviet radar malfunctioned and indicated that the U.S. had launched hundreds of missiles on the Soviet Union, warheads that would land in half an hour or less. According to Kaplan,  "As it happened, the chief air defense officer on duty, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov figured the radars had to be mistaken and decided, entirely on his own judgment, not to notify his superiors." (p.157). Petrov is another person who may have saved the world from a nuclear war. Similar events occurred on the U.S. side during this same period when a radar malfunction in Omaha, Nebraska  indicated that the U.S. was under nuclear attack. The officer refused to believe what the radar told him.  Kaplan believes Reagan was "completely unaware"  of tensions resulting from his bellicose rhetoric, and was appalled when he was apprised of the situation, at which point the tenor of his rhetoric immediately changed. Kaplan gives Reagan credit for being willing in his second term to take big risks to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Reagan could have -- and almost did- start a nuclear war in 1983;  but his actions were instrumental in nuclear disarmament, thereby greatly reducing the risk of a catastrophic war, according to Kaplan who is not a political partisan.  


Reading The Bomb has strengthened my belief that it's quasi-miraculous that the Cold War did not become a world ending nuclear war. Certainly, if nuclear war had occurred in 1962, Colorado Springs would have been destroyed by the Soviets due to NORAD's location. If the U.S. had invaded Cuba - and the decision to invade if U.S. forces were attacked had been made by the group advising JFK prior to the downing of the U-2 spy plane - Soviet military officers were authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons to repel the U.S. invasion, an occurrence which would likely have led to nuclear war.  In the judgment of war planners at the time, the U.S. would have suffered hundreds of thousands, or perhaps a few million deaths, in a war; but the Soviet Union would have been permanently obliterated. They viewed the exchange of a few million American deaths for total destruction of the Soviet Union as "winning" a nuclear war. In reality, dropping a few hundred nuclear weapons on the Soviets, and the bombs dropped by the Soviets on the U.S., might have led to world's end. It's a very long odds thing that all of us who were living in Colorado Springs in 1962 are alive, able to send and receive emails. 


Normally, I don't use many exclamation marks in writing book reviews,  but in writing this summary I was tempted to use more exclamation marks after almost every sentence. I don't have words to fully describe my reaction to the information in Kaplan's book; "crazy' is too weak a word by far to describe the thinking that has been embodied in U.S. nuclear war planning. This thinking combined with delusional ( 100% percent false)  ideas about the danger of the spread of Communism through a domino effect, and domestic political calculations in the U.S. and Soviet Union, came close to destroying the world in our lifetimes. I don't know how anyone can be optimistic about the future of a species whose thinking about survival, ethical instincts and imagination is as repugnant as the story Kaplan tells suggests. 

© Dee Wilson