December 10, 2007


-EXCERPT: First Chapter of Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski

Nuclear weapons production in America had been ramped up to an industrial, assembly-line scale under the Eisenhower administration. By 1955 the United States had amassed 2,280 atomic and thermonuclear bombs, a tenfold increase from 1951, representing an arsenal nearly twenty times greater than the Soviet stockpile. (As Dulles's doctrine evolved, the number of warheads would jump to 3,500 by late 1957, double to 7,000 by 1959, hit 12,305 by 1961, and top 23,000 two years later.) Meanwhile, billions of dollars were being poured into an armada of heavy long-range bombers to deliver the nuclear payloads. By 1956 the air force bomber fleet had almost doubled in size, and the Strategic Air Command kept a third of its 1,200 B-47 long-range bombers on the runway at all times, fueled and loaded with their nuclear cargo. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping SAC commander, seemed to be on a personal mission to instill fear in Russian hearts. In January 1956, LeMay scrambled almost all his bombers in a simulated nuclear attack. In another exercise, Operation Powerhouse, his planes flew nearly one thousand simultaneous sorties from more than thirty bases around the world to intimidate Moscow. In a few weeks, he would launch yet another exercise called Operation Home Run--reconnaissance versions of his B-47 Stratojets would fly from Thule, Greenland, over the North Pole, and into Siberia to probe for gaps in Soviet radar defenses. The mission would culminate with a squadron of the metallic silver RB-47s, their undersides painted white to reflect the flash of a nuclear blast, flying in attack formation in broad daylight several hundred miles into Soviet territory. The Soviets would have no way of knowing that the bombers were not armed, or that an attack was not imminent. And that would be the point of the exercise: to expose the USSR's defenselessness against a polar attack and to drive home the message that the United States could strike Russia at will. "With a bit of luck, we could have started World War III," LeMay would later reminisce ruefully.

At times LeMay's antics even scared the CIA. "Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the US actually has intentions of military aggression in the near future," warned an ad hoc committee of CIA, State Department, and military intelligence agency representatives. "Recent events may have somewhat strengthened Soviet conviction in this respect."

From their American bases in Greenland, Norway, Germany, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, and Alaska, B-47s could reach just about any target in the Soviet Union, furthering LeMay's well-publicized goal of obliterating 118 of the 134 largest population and industrial centers in the USSR. (LeMay calculated that 77 million casualties could be expected, including 60 million dead.) And he was about to get an even bigger bomber, the intercontinental B-52 Stratofortress, which was just entering into service. The giant plane could carry 70,000 pounds of thermonuclear ordnance over a distance of 8,800 miles at a speed of more than 500 miles an hour. With the B-52, the Americans no longer even needed their staging bases in Europe and Asia to attack Russia. They could do it from the comfort of home without missing more than a meal.

Most distressing for Khrushchev, he had no way of striking back. The biggest Soviet bomber in service, the Tupolev Tu4, was an aging knockoff of the propeller-driven Boeing B-29 with a 2,900-mile range and no midair refueling capacity. It could not effectively reach U.S. soil. The Tu4 would either run out of gas as it approached the American eastern seaboard or crash in the coastal states of New England. In either scenario, planes and pilots would be lost on one-way suicide missions. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, the early prototypes for a pair of bigger bombers, the Mya-4 Bison and Tu95 Bear, which were designed to hit targets deep in U.S. territory, seemed to display similarly suicidal tendencies. Their test flights had been plagued by crashes, and it would be years before they were operational in significant numbers.

The bottom line was that the United States could stage a multipronged attack on the USSR from dozens of points across the globe, while the Soviet Union was hemmed in from all sides and could not retaliate.

We're always bemused by folks' need to deny that we could have changed the Soviet regime with impunity, but recognize that for them to admit this they'd have to reckon with the fact that because it could only endure on our sufferance we bear moral responsibility for its crimes and the awful wastage of the Cold War. The fact that Jack D. Ripper was sane and Stanley Kubrick crazy is too terrible to be easily borne.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2007 4:36 PM

Well done!

"We'll meet again,
Don't know where, don't know when."

We shall never agree on this, but I still applaud the Sun Tzu's acme of excellence of winning without fighting. We held them in the grasp of superior terror until they collapsed in on their own contradictions.

I am just too soft-hearted to countenance thermonuclear war when it is not necessary. It is quite enough to embrace strategic deterrence, which on necessity demands the great Ja-a-a-a-a to megadeath.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 10, 2007 6:08 PM

You can say the we could have "changed the Soviet regime with impunity", but that's not what the book excerpt describes. We could have massacred the Soviet population. That seems a crime on par with anything the Soviets ever did.

Posted by: Brandon at December 10, 2007 7:03 PM

Was it our fault that we got the best of the Peenemunde scientists and Korolev was no match
for Von Braun? This argument was first hashed by
Richard Rhodes, given a light sauteeing by James
Galbraith. So it was LeMay that prompted the Energia boosters that launched Sputnik? This equivalence by Zbig's kid, whose previous effort
was on the 'total surveilance state' America was
becoming is getting tiresome. LeMay was not the most complex of figures; he rose to the top of his profession by organizing the most thorough application of force; when the gauntlet was released; due to Pearl Harbor. One suspects that
General Ripper was modeled more on General Power
than LeMay.

Posted by: narciso at December 10, 2007 9:46 PM

They aren't crimes when we do them. Killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis via sanctions was, you'll recall, the soft option.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2007 12:30 AM


45 million dead babies seems a high price to pay not to nuke Moscow.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2007 12:31 AM

Oj, your comment is crazy.

Posted by: Perry at December 11, 2007 10:05 AM

Crazy? Yes. But when you refuse to accept the responsibilities that go with your power Carradine kills Uncle Ben. It's a lesson even children grasp.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2007 1:29 PM

So we're responsible for other peoples murders, but not our own. That's the crazy part - oh, plus the direct connection between Roe vs Wade and not nuking Moscow - which is also crazy.

Posted by: Brandon at December 11, 2007 2:13 PM

If you don't stop a murderer you indeed become responsible.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2007 4:31 PM

But if you kill a whole bunch of the murderer's potential victims, you are not actually a murderer?

They aren't crimes when we do them.

Posted by: Brandon at December 11, 2007 4:55 PM

No. We mudered Japs and Krauts by the bushelful and pinned medals on each others chests for it. A few Ruskies wouldn't have been noticed.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2007 7:47 PM