Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

When the Pentagon Wanted to Nuke Russia

Posted by M. C. on March 12, 2022

by Douglas Horne

The following is an excerpt from FFF’s book JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated by Douglas P. Horne, who served on the staff of the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s.

On July 20, 1961, at a National Security Council meeting, JFK was compelled to consider the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. This meeting occurred in the context of the escalating Berlin Crisis with the USSR. During this meeting he was briefed on the Single Integrated Operational Plan for general nuclear war, SIOP-62. [The SIOP plans were named after the fiscal year for which they were effective; fiscal year ’62 commenced in July 1961.] This plan represented the philosophy of General Curtis LeMay, promoted throughout the 1950s by SAC, and first implemented as a “SIOP” (a national plan for all the armed services) in 1960 by his chosen successor as SAC’s commander, General Thomas Power. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy later disapprovingly referred to SIOP-62 and its predecessors as “a massive, total, comprehensive, obliterating strategic attack … on everything Red.” It called for the overwhelming destruction of all Communist Bloc nations — both military bases and urban/industrial centers — in the event of war with any one of its members. (Thus, China would have been destroyed in the event of war with the USSR — as well as little Albania.) It allowed for no flexibility once nuclear general war — the use of strategic weapons — began.

A seminal article was written about this meeting in the fall 1994 issue of The American Prospect, co-authored by Heather A. Purcell and James K. Galbraith [the son of JFK’s former ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith], titled: “Did the U.S. Military Plan a Nuclear First Strike for 1963?” Key information in the article was obtained from a memo written for LBJ by his military aide, USAF Colonel Howard Burris, as well as from an oral history interview of Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick in 1970.

Historian James Douglass has written in detail about the meeting in his book JFK and the Unspeakable:

At the July 20, 1961 NSC meeting, General Hickey, chairman of the ‘Net Evaluation Subcommittee’ of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented a plan for a nuclear surprise attack on the Soviet Union “in late 1963, preceded by a period of heightened tensions.” Other presenters of the preemptive strike plan included General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director Allen Dulles. Vice President Johnson’s military aide, Howard Burris, wrote a memorandum of the meeting for Johnson, who was not present. … While the Burris memorandum is valuable in its revelation of the first-strike agenda, it does not mention Kennedy’s ultimate disgust with the entire process. We know that fact from its disclosure in an oral history by Roswell Gilpatric, JFK’s Deputy Secretary of Defense. Gilpatric described the meeting’s abrupt conclusion: “Finally Kennedy got up and walked right out in the middle of it, and that was the end of it.”

Kennedy’s disgusted reaction to this National Security Council meeting was also recorded in books written by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; McGeorge Bundy; and Dean Rusk. None of them, however, identified the first-strike focus of the meeting that prompted the disgust. They describe the meeting in only the most general terms as “the Net Evaluation, an annual doomsday briefing analyzing the chances of nuclear war” (Schlesinger) or as “a formal briefing on the net assessment of a general nuclear war between the two superpowers” (Bundy). However, as much as JFK was appalled by a general nuclear war, his walkout was in response to a more specific evil in his own ranks: U.S. military and CIA leaders were enlisting his support for a plan to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Kennedy didn’t just walk out. He also said what he thought of the entire proceeding. As he led Rusk back to the Oval Office, with what Rusk described as “a strange look on his face,” Kennedy turned and said to his Secretary of State, “And we call ourselves the human race.”

The attitude behind the recommendation at the July 20 NSC meeting to seriously consider launching a pre-emptive first strike in 1963 was that which had been advocated by Curtis LeMay throughout the 1950s. Robert McNamara summarized LeMay’s philosophy in the documentary Fog of War, when he said: “LeMay believed that ultimately we were going to have to confront these people [meaning the Soviet Union] in a conflict with nuclear weapons, and by God, we’d better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future.” At various times during JFK’s Presidency, Dean Acheson (one of the “Wise Old Men” of Washington), Paul Nitze, Roswell Gilpatric, and many others within the policy-making apparatus felt the same way.

This post was written by: Douglas Horne

Douglas Horne served on the staff of the Assassination Records Review Board and is the author of Inside the Assassination Records Review Board.

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