Forty years ago this month President John F. Kennedy sat in the Cabinet Room with his top national-security aides and discussed the idea of launching a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. This was no theoretical chat. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to take over West Berlin. War seemed not merely possible but likely. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined that the United States and its European allies could not defend West Berlin with conventional weapons alone. That left nuclear war as the alternative to surrender. During the summer of 1961 a small group of officials in the Pentagon and the White House had worked out a plan for a first strike that would virtually wipe out the Soviets' nuclear arsenal, minimizing the chance of retaliation. The plan was concrete and highly detailed. It spelled out what flight paths the U.S. bombers should take, at what altitudes they should fly, and which targets they should hit with how many of what kinds of nuclear bombs. And it concluded that the mission was feasible—that there was a "fair probability" of success.
The existence of this plan was first revealed in a chapter of my book, The Wizards of Armageddon (1983), but that account relied almost entirely on interviews with former officials. Save for one or two highly circumstantial memoranda, whatever documents may have existed about the plan were locked in the vaults. The first-strike plan was mentioned in a couple of subsequent histories, but it was dismissed as a "back-of-the-envelope" calculation that Kennedy probably never saw.
With the fortieth anniversary of the Berlin crisis approaching, I decided to see if any documents had surfaced in the two decades since my book was published. They had. The first-strike plan, it turns out, was put forth in a coldly analytical thirty-three-page memorandum to General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy's special military adviser. (It was discovered among Taylor's papers at the National Archives and declassified through a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive, a private research organization.) Other documents, including many declassified over the past few years by the Kennedy Library, in Boston, show that the memo was passed on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was discussed at meetings of the National Security Council, and was read—and seriously contemplated—by President Kennedy. The documents, never before described, reveal a new chapter of history.
A dozen years after the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, it is hard to imagine the fear and passion that once surrounded the very word "Berlin." The Berlin crisis of 1961 may be the forgotten crisis in the annals of superpower confrontation—obscured by the Cuban missile crisis, which followed it a year later. Even most citizens who lived through the event remember little about it. Yet the conflict over Berlin brought America and the Soviet Union no less close to war than did the high drama of those "thirteen days" over Cuba. Berlin was the centerpiece of struggle throughout the Cold War. It was where World War II ended in Europe, the Allied armies slamming into one another as they occupied Nazi Germany—the United States, Britain, and France from the west, the Soviet Union from the east, carving out the separate zones of West and East Berlin. Soon afterward Germany itself split into West and East, and the border between the two hardened into the dividing line between Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and free, capitalist Western Europe. West Berlin became an anomaly—a tiny landlocked island, claimed and protected by the Western powers but stuck a hundred miles inside Eastern territory. In 1948 Stalin imposed a blockade, cutting Berlin off from its Western suppliers. The United States responded with an airlift, keeping the zone alive for more than 300 days before access was restored. Ten years later Khrushchev threatened to put West Berlin under East German sovereignty by force, but he backed off after meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower at a Camp David summit. To every Western leader West Berlin shone as a beacon of freedom and a potent symbol of the U.S. commitment to resist Soviet aggression. To succumb to Soviet pressure on Berlin would be to destroy America's credibility worldwide. On this point there were no hawks and doves: all saw it as a fundamental truth.
In 1960, when Jack Kennedy was running for President, he predicted that Berlin would be a "test of our nerve and our will." In January of 1961, two weeks before Kennedy's inauguration, Khrushchev renewed his threat, demanding that the Western powers sever ties to Berlin, and vowing "resolute measures" if they resisted. The young President faced this test of nerve from the moment he took office.
On April 25 Kennedy sent a memo to his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, requesting a report on the status of military planning for a possible crisis over Berlin. McNamara replied on May 5: NATO could not defend West Berlin with conventional weapons alone. Even an airlift "would not succeed in reopening and maintaining air access in the face of determined Soviet opposition." McNamara made plans to reinforce U.S. troops and supplies in West Germany.
In June, Kennedy flew to Vienna to meet with Khrushchev. He hoped the summit would calm tensions, but they only worsened. Kennedy ended the summit famously grumbling, "It will be a cold winter."
Around the same time, Dean Acheson, who had helped to create the NATO military alliance while he was Secretary of State, under Harry Truman, wrote Kennedy a long memo on Berlin, which the President circulated widely. Acheson endorsed McNamara's plan to upgrade conventional forces, but warned that it would do no good unless the Soviets were convinced that any move against Berlin would trigger all-out war between the United States and the USSR—which, by definition in those days, meant nuclear war.
On July 7 Henry Kissinger, then a professor at Harvard and a part-time consultant to the National Security Council, wrote a memo to McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national-security adviser, titled "General War Aspect of Berlin Contingency Planning." Kissinger wrote,
The Acheson report correctly points out that the President must make an early decision about his willingness to risk nuclear war over Berlin ... [However,] before he makes the decision he has to know what is meant by nuclear war. It would therefore seem to me essential that the nature of our nuclear options be defined now.
U.S. military policy at the time called for "massive retaliation" in the event of general war—shooting off all our nuclear weapons against every target in the Soviet Union, China, and parts of Eastern Europe, no matter how limited the cause of the war might be. This single integrated operational plan—or SIOP, as the military called it—was so tightly woven into the logistics and training of the U.S. Strategic Air Command that it would be impossible to launch a smaller-scale nuclear attack even if the President wanted to do so. The problem with this SIOP, in the view of many defense analysts, was that if the United States unleashed the full attack against the USSR, the Soviets would initiate a retaliatory strike once they saw the attack coming, ultimately killing tens of millions of Americans. So what to do? Many feared that a President in crisis would face the choice of "suicide or surrender," "holocaust or humiliation."