By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 9, 2010

17. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 440-480

Book VII: A Spy in Orbit and a Game of Chance, 73. Palm Tree Disguises; 74. Keeping the Military on the Leash; 75. "Use 'em or Lose 'em"; 76. LeMay and Tommy Power as the Wild Cards; 77. Avoiding Götterdämmerung; 78. Buying Time for the Empire to Implode. Epilogue: The Schriever Luck, 79. Johnny von Neumann Finds Faith but Not Peace; 80. "The Slowest Old Trev Has Ever Gone in a Cadillac"; 81. Losing It All and Forgiving a Brother; 82. "Only in America"; 83. A Reunion With Hap
At the end of May 1962, a Soviet delegation had obtained Fidel Castro's permission to place its missiles in Cuba, and between July and October Soviet freighters and passenger ships began moving the missiles and the troops to the island. Forty-one thousand, nine hundred two Soviet officers and men and thirty-six missiles, with launchers and nuclear warheads, had arrived by the time the crisis broke. Khrushchev retained the power to command the launch of the ICBMs, but the military could use any tactical weapons it saw necessary in case of an American invasion. That the transport went undetected can be blamed on the CIA, which was in disarray after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, as well as the grounding of the U-2 spy planes after one had been shot down in China in September. An earlier U-2 had photographed surface-to-air missiles in western Cuba in August. And finally, most people simply didn't believe that the Soviets would be insane enough to put long-range missiles in Cuba.

The Soviets got caught when U-2 flights over Cuba resumed in October. The Joint Chiefs recommended air strikes to take out the missile sights, but Kennedy was concerned about retaliation and ordered a naval blockade. The military still wanted to strike and to follow up with an invasion, and LeMay pulled out the old comparison to Neville Chamberlain. But Kennedy, who had been reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, and didn't want to blunder into World War III, stood firm. No one knew of the tactical nukes in Cuba or that the Soviets were prepared to use them to repel an invasion. This would almost certainly have provoked the United States to use its own tactical weapons, "incinerating much of Cuba and its inhabitants and would-be Russian defenders." It would also have empowered the ultrahawks like LeMay and Thomas Power. Kennedy "raised the alert to DEFCON 2, a single step short of all-out nuclear conflict, on Wednesday, October 24.... All of SAC went to the highest possible state of readiness." The potential was there for the destruction of "the entire Northern Hemisphere."

Khrushchev was, fortunately, not a lunatic, though he realized he had been a fool. He backed down and started negotiating, getting a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba and to remove the missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of the missiles and light bombers. The Americans lifted the naval embargo in November, and the Soviets removed all but a brigade of 3,000 soldiers from Cuba. The missiles in Turkey were slowly removed: The last one left in July 1963, three months after the ones in Italy were removed and only a month before the ones in England.

As it turned out, the most significant effect of the nuclear stalemate was "to help buy the time needed for the Soviet Union to collapse of its own internal contradictions." The Soviet Union, its agriculture crippled by the system of collective farms, was forced to import corn and wheat from the United States. The only exportable products it produced were petroleum and natural gas, most of which went to Eastern Europe to prop up the fractious states it supported there. Where Khrushchev at least attempted to make reforms, Brezhnev was corrupt and cynical; he once told his brother, "All that stuff about Communism is a tall tale for popular consumption. After all, we can't leave the people with no faith." He was also responsible for the disastrous campaign in Afghanistan in 1979. Gorbachev's civil liberties reforms in the 1980s brought about a significant change but he could make no headway in improving the standard of living because of the "sclerotic economic system." Trying to hold the Soviet Union together, he let the Eastern European satellites go their own way in 1989. Boris Yeltsin finally dissolved the Soviet Union.

The nuclear stalemate was dubbed "Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. There was nothing mad about the grim equation. It made perfect sense by enforcing a nuclear peace." The madness lay in allowing the arms race to escalate: "Technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly." On the other hand, the rocket technology made possible the peaceful exploration of space: John Glenn rode an Atlas into orbit in February 1962 and the Titan II made the moon landing possible. The development of communications satellites made a global economy possible and transformed everyday life: "most people who slide their credit cared into the electronic reader on a gas pump or an automated teller machine have no idea their card's validity is being checked via space."
The question became not the quantity and quality of American military power, but whether the leaders of the United States would wield it wisely or foolishly, as the war in Iraq would so aptly illustrate. 
John von Neumann was diagnosed with cancer in 1955, was hospitalized in April 1956 and died in February 1857, age 53. Trevor Gardner, frustrated by the economies of the Eisenhower administration, resigned from his position as assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development in February 1956. He returned to private business and wrote magazine articles denouncing the government's ineptness; these became fuel for the "missile gap" myth. He was regarded as "too controversial" for a government position, and died of a heart attack in September 1963, age 48. John Bruce Medaris found his space program handed over to a civilian agency known as NASA in 1959; he left the Army and became an Episcopal priest. Ed Hall, who never forgave Schriever, did forgive his brother Ted when he learned Ted was a spy.

Schriever became a four-star general in July 1961, but didn't get along with Robert McNamara and decided to retire in August 1966, just before his fifty-sixth birthday. His marriage to Dora went on the rocks in 1968 when he had an affair with another woman. They separated amicably but didn't divorce because Dora was a devout Catholic. In 1986 he met the retired pop singer Joni James, but didn't marry her until 1997, after Dora granted him a divorce. He was 87 and she was 67. In 1998, Falcon Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, a command center for satellites, was renamed Schriever Air Force Base. He died on June 20, 2005, age 94, and was buried in Arlington near Hap Arnold. 

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