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.