Washington, D.C., April 8, 2021 – The United States and its European allies disagreed over the advisability of using nuclear weapons to signal resolve and deter war if a serious crisis with Moscow over West Berlin broke out, according to a review of declassified records posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive.
During a July 1962 Allied discussion of contingency planning, published today for the first time, a French diplomat argued that nuclear demonstration shots would send a message to the Soviets without triggering “all-out war.” Doing so “would bring to bear in Moscow the idea that their next move may be their last.” A West German official took a similar position.
Suggesting that early nuclear use could amount to a last move, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze demurred, pointing to the terrible risks: the “dangers of preemption will multiply” once “nuclear bargaining” had begun. The Allies would be on “very unpredictable ground when we have gone this far.”
Just weeks after this discussion, Moscow and Washington found themselves on the verge of a dangerous confrontation over missile deployments in Cuba that brought U.S. strategic forces to DEFCON 2, the highest level of force readiness short of a decision to go to war.
The substance of the July 1962 discussion is one of the revelations in today’s publication, the second of a two-part collection documenting U.S. crisis responses during the 1960s and 1970s when U.S. strategic forces were alerted or when strategic bombers and aircraft carrier task forces were used for shows of force.
Such military operations amounted to business as usual for a global power with worldwide security and economic interests and a range of alliance commitments. The collection begins with the Berlin Crisis of 1961-1962 and concludes with the 1976 confrontation with North Korea over a deadly tree-trimming incident at the Demilitarized Zone.
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Crises, Alerts, and DEFCONS, 1961-1976 – Part II
by William Burr
The tensions in East Asia and the Middle East, and elsewhere that led to crises, alerts, and shows of force during the 1950s continued into the 1960s and 1970s. One of them, the Berlin Crisis, vexed two presidents from late 1958 into the early 1960s; while it never broke into open conflict with Moscow, it had worrisome potential to turn into a nuclear conflagration. As the crisis unfolded, the U.S. and its European allies disagreed over whether using nuclear weapons could signal resolve and deter war in a crisis over access to West Berlin. During a discussion of contingency planning published today for the first time, a French diplomat argued that nuclear demonstration shots would send a message to the Soviets without triggering “all-out war.” Doing so “would bring to bear in Moscow the idea that their next move may be their last.” A West German official took a similar position.
Suggesting that early nuclear use could be close to a last move, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze pointed to the terrible risks: the “dangers of preemption will multiply” once “nuclear bargaining” had begun. The Allies would be on “very unpredictable ground when we have gone this far.”
An out-of-control Berlin Crisis was what no one wanted to happen, not least Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. But only weeks after this July 1962 discussion, Moscow and Washington were in a dangerous confrontation over missile deployments in Cuba. This prompted the first major use of the United States’ DEFCON system. During the missile crisis, most U.S. forces were on a higher state of alert, at DEFCON 3, but with the approval of top civilian authorities, U.S. strategic nuclear forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest level of force readiness short of a decision to go to war.
This publication on alerts and DEFCONs, the second of a two-part collection, documents crises during the 1960s and 1970s when U.S. strategic forces were alerted or when strategic bombers and aircraft carrier task forces were used for shows of force. Such military operations amounted to business as usual for a global power with worldwide security and economic interests and a range of alliance commitments. The collection begins with the Berlin Crisis of 1961-1962 and concludes with the 1976 confrontation with North Korea over a deadly tree-trimming incident at the Demilitarized Zone.
The experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis made tangible the grave danger of nuclear confrontations and decreased their frequency. The U.S. has never gone above DEFCON 3 since 1962 and the Missile Crisis was the last such direct U.S.-Soviet military confrontation. The Berlin situation remained a problem, but it never turned into a crisis. Subsequent crises, alerts, and shows of force were over developments in other areas, from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula, some of them involving Soviet clients and allies, but there were no direct confrontations with the Soviet Union – or with China, for that matter. Indeed, after Cuba, SAC worldwide alerts were rare.
After Cuba, the only worldwide DEFCON occurred during the 1973 Middle East tensions, as a show of force to discourage an (unlikely) Soviet intervention. Another nuclear alert was a secret one during October 1969, designed to pressure the Soviet Union to induce North Vietnamese compliance in the peace negotiations. The tactic did not work, but it remains a prime example of Richard Nixon’s questionable use of the madman theory to influence diplomatic outcomes.
Shows of force came into play in confrontations with another player, North Korea, whose highly nationalist regime went far in mounting adventurist attacks on U.S. forces and military personnel. North Korea’s 1968 seizure in international waters of a U.S. spy ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, produced movements of B-52 and aircraft carriers to back U.S. diplomatic moves, but the White House quietly ruled out the actual use of force. One use of the DEFCON system, localized to U.S. forces in South Korea, was called in August 1976 in response to the killing of U.S. Army officers at the DMZ, when they tried to trim a tree that was blocking the line of view. Instead of attacking the Koreans, the White House limited military actions to a higher alert posture and B-52 operations, while U.S. military personnel finished trimming the tree. Whether U.S. shows of force gave any impetus to Pyongyang’s interest in a nuclear weapons capability may be worth considering.
With archives and declassification shut down during the current COVID pandemic, several flash points in which U.S. naval power played a critical role are undocumented here. One is the 1971 South Asia crisis when a U.S. Navy task force steamed into the Bay of Bengal, apparently as a sign of opposition to India during its war with Pakistan. (See Part I of this posting series, Document 3). A study prepared by the Center for Naval Analysis (CAN) on U.S. and Soviet naval diplomacy in that crisis remains to be declassified and released.
The activities of the Sixth Fleet during the Six Day War in the Middle East and the 1970 Jordan Crisis are also covered in the CNA chronology in Part I, Document 3 of this posting. During the Jordan Crisis, Richard Nixon (perhaps looking back at Suez in 1956 and Lebanon in 1958) saw naval deployments and other shows of military force as an important element of the U.S. threat posture, especially if they involved Moscow. As Nixon explained in what was supposed to be an off-the-record press briefing, it was to U.S. advantage if the Soviets believed that he could take "irrational or unpredictable action.” Disclosing a key element of the madman approach that he had taken in October 1969, Nixon declared that “the real possibility of irrational American action is essential to the U.S.-Soviet relationship." Henry Kissinger took a similar approach in October 1973 when he approved a DEFCON 3 posture for U.S. forces in the Middle East War.
Other incidents beyond the scope of this compilation involved another local DEFCON 3 in South Korea (when President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979). Also relevant are the numerous naval deployments (and even bombardments) in the Middle East, such as in Lebanon during 1982 and 1983, when aircraft carriers and other 6th Fleet forces supported Marine Corps units that were deployed for peacekeeping activities and then made a show of force when the Marines barracks were blown up in October 1983.
The well-documented 1983 Able Archer episode does not fit closely with this accounting of alerts and crises in the sense that there was no toe-to-toe confrontation or show of force, such as occurred with the Kremlin, where the prestige of the superpowers was at stake, or with North Korea. Nevertheless, East-West tensions over Euromissiles and the shooting down of KAL 007 in the early 1980s, among other matters, were very serious, although scholars have diverged over the extent of the danger. Especially telling was that during the Able Archer exercise U.S nuclear forces were at ordinary alert levels, an important indication that U.S. military and top civilian authorities did not feel a sense of urgency at the time. Even if it was not a crisis from their standpoint, however, events could have moved that way if, for example, the U.S. European Command had reacted to the alert of Soviet fighter bombers in Poland and East Germany.
Until 9/11, the last worldwide DEFCON had been during the October 1973 War. After the attacks on 11 September 2001, the G.W. Bush administration put U.S. forces on a DEFCON 3 posture. Although documents remain to be declassified on this event, the 9/11 Commission report cites them. Time will tell whether pending declassification requests will lead to the release of documents on this event. Since then, the use of B-52 operations for shows of force and deterrence was decidedly in the playbook of the Trump administration when it authorized displays of strength in the Persian Gulf in 2019 and 2020.
Part I. The Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962
The Berlin problem remained a flash point in U.S.-Soviet relations for years but became a crisis issue after President John F. Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna in June 1961. When the latter issued another six-month deadline for a peace treaty, the Kennedy administration began urgent preparations for the possibility of a confrontation with Moscow. While Kennedy would later push forward on negotiations (partly to sidestep Khrushchev’s December deadline), his initial emphasis was on a build-up of conventional forces – as a deterrent but also for use if fighting broke out. The purpose was to avert or postpone the danger of nuclear weapons use by demonstrating the dangers of an escalating conflict. Yet for the worst case, the U.S. had a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and a new war plan at hand, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).
When the 1961-1962 Berlin Crisis unfolded, SAC was already putting 50 percent of its bomber force on ground alert and was routinely flying nuclear-armed airborne alerts over Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the Mediterranean. There was no moment of sharp crisis that would lead top U.S. officials to order a DEFCON, but there was a sense that such a crisis could unfold, and that Washington and its allies had to be ready for it. The anticipated crisis did not occur, however, although there were unexpected shocking moments, such as the construction of the Berlin Wall, and moments of tension, such as the Checkpoint Charlie tank confrontation.
To prepare for the likely crisis, the Kennedy administration put its emphasis on a conventional, non-nuclear, buildup as a deterrent, in part as a reaction to the Eisenhower administration’s approach. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had discovered, nuclear weapons use had been built into strategy and force structure by both the U.S. and NATO. As he put it, “Neither … are capable of engaging in conflict with the Sino-Soviet bloc in Europe, today, without using nuclear weapons shortly after the start of combat.” Thus, according to JCS plans, if the Soviets or East German blocked a “probe” of 1,200 troops sent to re-open access to West Berlin, the U.S. would launch a nuclear attack, using surface burst weapons (to minimize fallout) on six East German airfields.
To avoid or postpone nuclear use and the danger of escalation, McNamara proposed rewriting an NSC directive so that it stipulated that “it is the policy of the U.S. and its allies to place main reliance on non-nuclear weapons during the early stages of any conflict with the Sino-Soviet bloc.” To make that possible, McNamara posed questions, which he probably put to his aides: for example, how many troops should be assigned to NATO and what proportion of them would come from the U.S.? What supplies would be needed to equip a larger force? What time schedule would be followed to mobilize more troops and supplies? How much should the U.S. spend? And how would the Soviets react?
The questions that McNamara raised in his memorandum (Document 1) found answers in intensive studies conducted by the Defense Department during July 1961, although whether a non-nuclear response was possible remained contested in NATO circles and elsewhere. This declassified State Department history provides a useful overview of the findings of the studies over which McNamara and other agency heads had presided. The goal was a “more effective deterrent,” in large part through a build-up of conventional military forces. That would include a capability, reached by the end of the year, to move six Army divisions to Western Europe. Other measures included increases in naval strength, such as anti-submarine warfare, increases in SAC ground alert (that were already occurring—See Part I, Document 1), and a greater civil defense effort.
Those and other steps toward a more visible deterrent were at the heart of a major speech that President Kennedy delivered over radio and television on 25 July 1961. While there had been discussion of declaring a national emergency, Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk did not want to alarm the public, preferring to keep any announcements on a lower key. Upholding the pledges of the U.S. and its allies to safeguard West Berlin, Kennedy announced plans to supplement the military build-up that had begun earlier in the year with a $3.2 billion request to Congress for increases in active-duty strength for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. That would be enabled by a doubling and tripling of draft calls in the coming months. Moreover, of the funds requested, half would be used for the purchase of non-nuclear munitions and equipment. In addition, the U.S. would delay plans for the retirement of B-47 strategic bombers to increase strategic forces. He also called for increases in civil defenses, thus giving impetus to the fall-out shelter craze of this period.
Kennedy declared that the increases in conventional forces would give him better choices between nuclear holocaust and acquiescence to Soviet demands. While West Berlin’s “freedom” and allied access were not negotiable, Kennedy expressed willingness to negotiate with the Soviets to avoid further tensions. He also acknowledged legitimate Soviet interests in the future of Germany by noting Moscow’s “historical concerns about their security in central and Eastern Europe.”
During the weeks that followed, Washington worked closely with the British, French, and West Germans to win support for its military program but also to discuss contingency plans, economic countermeasures, and the timing of negotiations. The latter proved difficult because French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville opposed the U.S. position to call for a Conference of Foreign Ministers before the convening of the UN General Assembly in September. While Rusk argued that key allies and “friends” would be reluctant to support a build-up and countermeasures if negotiations were not in the works, de Murville argued that calling for negotiations would show that fear of war was at “the bottom of [our] hearts.” Showing weakness, de Murville suggested, would also validate Khrushchev’s assumption that the West would not fight and that it would give in to the Soviet position on Berlin. 
Believing that Khrushchev would never fight over Berlin but fearing that an insufficiently tough policy could lose West Germany, the French could not be persuaded to support negotiations. Thus, the United States and the British would hold talks with the Soviets during the months ahead. The West German government was also strongly critical of U.S. talks with the Soviets and disagreements turned into a mini-crisis when the Germans leaked U.S. negotiating positions in spring 1962.
The crisis that loomed in Germany was not the one that the West feared but one that was symbolized by the thousands of East Germans who were voting with their feet by fleeing West. Many worried that without leaving right away the threatened East German-Soviet treaty would leave them caged in East Germany. Fearing a depopulation of skilled workers and professionals, on 13 August 1961 the East German leadership, with Moscow’s authorization, began putting up a barrier between East and West Berlin, which they later fortified by a Wall. That shocking move, broadly detailed in this Bendix Corporation report, created a serious morale problem in West Germany and West Berlin, which the Kennedy administration tried to alleviate by deploying an Army combat group to West Berlin and by sending Vice President Lyndon Johnson for a visit to the beleaguered city.
While it was pondering the implications of the Wall crisis, the Kennedy administration carried out a variety of naval deterrent moves for the confrontation that it still thought likely. This Bendix report covers some of the naval moves, including the activation of new ASW forces and the deployment of an ASW carrier task force in the North Atlantic, which could be used to harass Soviet submarines in the event of a worsening crisis. In addition, the Sixth Fleet carried out an exercise, CHECKMATE, and put carrier groups on alert status (For more details, see Part I, Document 1, at C-30).
This fascinating memcon demonstrates the gap between President Kennedy and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Lauris Norstad over the early use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of non-nuclear deterrence. Having three roles, as SACEUR, as commander-in-chief U.S. European Command, and as commander of the LIVE OAK contingency planning group, Norstad was a central player in U.S. military policy in Europe. But he was at loggerheads with the Kennedy administration over its support for the use of major conventional forces in a conflict with the Soviets over access to West Berlin. For Norstad, “once major forces were committed, the United States must be in a position to use whatever forces were necessary.” Moreover, deterrence could only mean “readiness to use nuclear weapons.” And the U.S. had to be able to answer a question posed by European officials, including West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer: “do we intend to use our nuclear power if necessary?”
Disagreeing with the White House approach, Norstad contended that the Europeans expected a “nuclear reaction” if the Soviets threw back a conventional LIVE OAK probe. But Kennedy doubted that the “Europeans would wish to go so far so fast.” For Kennedy and McNamara, if nuclear weapons were to be used, it should be as late as possible, only as a true last resort, when there was “no other choice” (if, for example, Soviet forces overwhelmed the Allies in Central Europe). During the discussion, Kennedy spoke of the great risks of violence getting out of control: “as soon as somebody gets killed, the danger of major involvement is very great.”
By approving National Security Action Memorandum 109 in October 1961, Kennedy and his advisers rejected General Norstad’s approach. Embodying flexible response concepts, NSAM 109 described a four-phase “preferred sequence” of military actions, beginning with measures against local challenges to Western access and then to contesting major blockage with intensive diplomatic and other activities, including military mobilization, to persuade the Soviets to back down. The next two phases included military action: expanding conventional ground and air operations in Europe and naval countermeasures worldwide if the Soviets and the East Germans continued to block access. The final step was the use of nuclear weapons. If “substantial non-nuclear pressure” failed to counter Soviet blockage, the first step was "selective nuclear attacks" to demonstrate readiness to use nuclear weapons and then "limited tactical employment" to increase pressure on the Soviets, and finally, if all else failed, general nuclear war.
President Kennedy’s doubts that European leaders would support nuclear use with any degree of alacrity ran against the fact that in talks with U.S. officials, French and West German representatives supported early use in a crisis over access to West Berlin. Differences over what deterrence meant, much less whether more money should be spent on conventional forces, made it difficult for the Kennedy administration to reach agreement with the allies on contingency planning.
Nevertheless, the administration sought British, French, and German support for the NSAM 109 approach, if not on every word, at least as a basis for further planning. Toward that end, after some delay, the military sub-group of the Washington Ambassadorial Group, the U.S.-French-British-West German committee that coordinated diplomatic and military plans, began a review of a U.S. paper that was based on NSAM 109. The sub-group’s discussions covered both Live Oak BERCON (Berlin contingency) and MARCON (maritime contingency) plans for military action and naval-countermeasures under a variety of circumstances.
The conversations within the military sub-group disclosed strong differences of emphasis over the timing of nuclear weapons use and the role of conventional forces. If the Soviets blocked a non-nuclear probe down the Autobahn, West German representative Hans-Georg Wieck supported the BERCON BRAVO plan to use five low-yield nuclear weapons against military targets as a “moment for the political use of nuclears.” French representative Claude Lebel took a similarly tough position by supporting demonstration shots when “we are visibly ready for land operations.” That would send a message to the Soviets without igniting “all-out war.” Lebel later explained that “it would bring to bear in Moscow the idea that their next move may be their last.” The French position, which was coordinated with Bonn, exemplified the view that a lower threshold for nuclear deployment was necessary to persuade the Soviets that the West would fight a nuclear war over access to West Berlin.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze demurred from using nuclear weapons in Phase III by noting that using nuclear weapons for demonstration purposes could mean losing “the opportunity for diplomatic action.” Instead, he argued for throwing in more conventional forces to raise the stakes, an option that worried British diplomat Lord Hood. At another point, Nitze argued that he found it difficult to see how using nuclear weapons could re-open access to West Berlin. It would not be possible to “simply return to non-nuclear operations.” Anticipating that the “dangers of preemption will multiply” once “nuclear bargaining” had begun, the Allies would be on “very unpredictable ground when we have gone this far.”
The gaps in the different allied positions were deep enough that they would have to be papered over in generalities.
During this meeting, the military sub-group reviewed the final draft of the “preferred sequence” paper, with basic differences remaining unsettled. The discussion began with review of the text of paragraph 18 concerning responses to a blockage of air access; for example, the Jack Pine contingency plan would permit hot pursuit of attacking aircraft.
Early in the discussion, Admiral John Marshall Lee observed that he did not want the paper to include certain wording about contingency plans if the “paper were ever to fall under Mr. Khrushchev’s eyes.” He may have taken for granted that Soviet spies were embedded NATO, and they were; the following year the French arrested George Pâques, who had been working in NATO’s International Section for years.
The key issue at this meeting was the wording of Phase IV on nuclear weapons use, which both the French and the German representatives felt was a little “weak.” For example, Hans-Georg Wieck wanted to add a sentence referring to readiness for “general war.” Admiral Lee had favored a “grand finale” with language mentioning a situation “dominated by the nuclear equation,” to which Wieck objected because it had implications that “control [was] no longer possible.” The whole point of the German proposal was that the purpose of demonstrative use was to try to avoid general war.
Lee reminded Wieck that the British had added a phrase at the end of Phase III about the imminence of general war if conventional conflict did not induce Moscow to back down. The discussions could not settle the matter and the wording of Phase IV remained brief and “dominated by the nuclear equation” was still in the text. As State Department official Robert H. Kranich observed at the close of the meeting, the paper would go to NATO Permanent Representatives for their review. The goal would be to “minimize hard confrontations among the four powers” over differences in language. Both the French and the Germans accepted sending the paper as it was – their reservations notwithstanding.
This is the version of the preferred sequence paper that went to the North Atlantic Council on 17 September 1962. The objections to language in Phase IV about “dominated by the nuclear equation” prevailed and a reference to “whatever nuclear actions were taken” was the replacement text. The Council reviewed the paper and accepted it in late October as the basis for further planning if a crisis over Berlin broke out. By then, however, the East-West crisis that had unfolded and was then being settled was over the missiles that the Soviets had secretly deployed in Cuba. The Berlin problem did not go away, but it was no longer the subject of ultimatums and deadlines; instead, negotiations during the Nixon administration would settle it.
Part II. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
For decades, Air Force components sponsored numerous historical studies, some on their role during international crises. This declassified history of Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations gives a full and fine-grained account of its complex role during the U.S.-Soviet confrontation over missile in Cuba. According to the SAC historians, SAC attained an “unprecedented” degree of readiness during the missile crisis: “its forces had not been generated [readied for nuclear strike missions—ed.] since the Lebanon crisis of 1958.”
During the Cuban Crisis, when President Kennedy publicly announced on 22 October 1963 the discovery of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, SAC and other U.S. military forces went on a world-wide DEFCON III alert. Under the criteria directed by the Joint Chief of Staff, that meant that some portions of a command’s assigned forces would “assume an increased readiness posture above that of normal readiness.” Such a posture would mean that “no measures will be taken which could be considered provocative or which might disclose operational plans.” [See Part I, Document 17] For SAC, that involved dispersal of medium bombers and tankers, airborne alert, and preparing more bombers and tankers for ground alert.
A few days later, on 24 October, SAC went to DEFCON 2, the first and only time U.S. forces have gone to that alert level. According to JCS regulations, that meant “a further increase in military force readiness which is less than maximum readiness.” In practice, apparently, the Cuban Missile Crisis DEFCON 2 involved a little extra. According to the SAC history, the “emphasis was on covertly attaining the maximum state of readiness.” Thus, within a day, after the declaration of an “A-Hour” of 1400Z for 24 October 1962 (the base time for readying forces for SIOP execution, within a day), SAC had on alert 1,436 bombers, 145 ICBMs, and about 2,900 nuclear weapons ready for striking Soviet targets (Pages 96-97). Alert forces included B-47s deployed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. While most of the bombers were on ground alert, SAC kept 65 nuclear-armed B-52s in the air at any given moment, the largest air-borne alert in its history. 
At the time of the missile crisis, the ICBM force mainly comprised liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan missiles. The solid-fueled Minutemen ICBMs were in the earliest stages of deployment, and only a handful was available; contractors had to remain at the Minuteman sites to make sure that the missiles remained ready to fire. By 28 October, 4 Minutemen were on alert. SAC bombers and missiles remained on a high state of readiness for weeks, until 21 November when SAC went to DEFCON 3.
Besides conducting nuclear operations, SAC had intelligence assets that were of great importance. Its 4080th Wing flew over 90 U-2 missions over Cuba during October 1962, including the well-known photographic intelligence flights, but also more secretive electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions flown on behalf of the National Security Agency. Some details of the ELINT operations remain classified, but SAC U-2s began flying near Cuba months before the October crisis. This history includes a brief account of the shoot-down by Soviet surface-to-air missiles of the U-2 flown by Major Rudolf Anderson on October 27, 1962. As the SAC historians noted, U.S. radars did not detect this incident in real time because height-finding radars “were being used for more ‘specialized work’” by the National Security Agency (See pages 15-16).
Although the U-2 flight that strayed into Soviet territory from Alaska had dangerous implications, this account does not cover that episode. Besides flying U-2, SAC supported the blockade of Cuba by deploying aircraft to search for Soviet ships in the Atlantic.
This document and the next, both little known, illuminate the degree to which President Kennedy, the White House national security staff, including National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of Defense McNamara, were aware of, or had approved, the DEFCON 2 posture before its implementation. The declassified record indicates real time sharing of information in advance and approval of the DEFCON by civilian authorities.
Once Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay and JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor had agreed that SAC should “generate its forces toward a maximum readiness posture” on 24 October and communicated their order to SAC to “initiate the generation of SAC forces,” copies of that message went to the White House and the Secretary of Defense. The “A” hour was 24 October at 1400Z.
According to notes taken by NSC staffer Michael Forrestal, who was duty officer at the White House Situation Room the night of 23-24 October, the JCS message arrived at 8:30 p.m. After Situation Room officer-in-charge Commander Gerry McCabe advised Forrestal to show the message to the President, Forrestal spoke with Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, who told him that he and Secretary of Defense McNamara had approved it. After Forrestal informed President Kennedy about the communication and what Gilpatric had said, the President approved it.
Forrestal reported to Bundy on other matters, such as the effort to get good photographs from the CIA of the Soviet missiles and of Kennedy’s “ire” over conflicting reports whether Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations Valarian Zorin had denied the presence of the missiles.
Informed by the JCS message from the night before, Commander McCabe told the White House national security staff, with Bundy present, that the DEFCON 2 would go into effect at 10 a.m.
This study of Continental Air Defense Command and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) operations during the missile crisis gives perspective on the implementation of the DEFCON 3 for air defense operations. For CONAD, the DEFCON lasted from 22 October until 27 November 1962. Canadian air defense forces, part of NORAD, went on DEFCON 3 two days later. Key developments were the alert and dispersal of CONAD aircraft, with over 800 placed on five-minute status, and the build-up of air defense forces in Southern Florida. The latter, which began on 17 October soon after the discovery of the Soviet missile deployments in Cuba, initially involved the deployment of 150 interceptors and anti-aircraft missile batteries. If “Cuban/Sino-Soviet” aircraft flew towards Florida, rules of engagement permitted diversion and if that failed “to engage and destroy” aircraft (with non-nuclear weapons) if they flew into U.S. airspace.
This account includes detail on contingency plans for attacks on Cuba, including the destruction of Soviet missile bases. CINCLANT OPLAN 312-62 was a plan for a pre-emptive air strike that was supplemented with an additional for strikes on missile bases in Cuba. If Cuba did not surrender after an air attack, CINCAFLANT [Commander-in-Chief Air Forces Atlantic] OPLAN 315-E, part of an invasion plan, would be carried out. In coordination with landings by Naval and Marine forces, the U.S. Air Force would drop 2 airborne divisions into 6 zones in the Havana area. If the OPLANS were carried out, CONAD’s role was to increase its air defense posture in Florida while the attacks were under way.
The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) did not play a central role in the missile crisis, but it undertook preparatory measures if a worsening situation led to threats to West Berlin. Weeks before the crisis broke, however, USAFE was being pulled into Cuban contingency planning with a request on 6 October to have assigned C-130s “be earmarked for commitment to these plans.” USAFE commanders had no idea what the plans were or that the Joint Chiefs were actively reviewing invasion plans. On 22 October, CINCUSAFE General Truman Landon and his staff learned about the discovery of the Soviet missiles; the next day, he ordered a “discreet increase in the overall combat capability of his forces, which was to be carried out in a gradual and unobtrusive fashion to avoid exacerbating tensions in Europe.” To increase readiness, training operations were cut back among other measures excised from this chronology. Consequently, the number of USAFE fighter interceptors on “short alert” was doubled. On 24 November, USAFE returned to its normal readiness posture.
Part III. The Pueblo Affair
On 23 January 1968 at about 2:10 p.m. (local time), North Korea seized by force the USS Pueblo, a U.S. electronic intelligence collection ship, while it was sailing in international waters, outside of the 12-mile limit (the North Koreans claimed 50 miles). The North Koreans held the 83-person crew (one of whom was killed during the capture) until negotiations secured their release on 23 December 1968. The seizure of the ship, with its highly classified files and equipment, was a tremendous loss for U.S. intelligence. 
Why the North Koreans seized the Pueblo remains a mystery, although some speculate that Kim il-Sung authorized the attack to distract public concern from a variety of domestic economic and political difficulties. Certainly, the incident was just as confounding to North Korea’s communist allies, who saw it as a dangerously unnecessary provocation, as it was to President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers.
That U.S. military personnel were hostages limited the Johnson administration’s options as did the ongoing Vietnam War, with the Tet Offensive breaking out days later. By the morning of 25 January, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had an inventory of Army, Air Force, and Navy assets at hand and those that would be available in a short period, including strategic bombers, attack submarines, reconnaissance aircraft and ground forces. They were also considering a plan (which was never approved) involving another ship used in electronic intelligence missions, the U.S.S. Banner, to demonstrate the U.S.’s right to sail in international waters near North Korea.
That same morning, President Lyndon Johnson held a breakfast meeting with top advisers, including outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. During the discussion, Johnson made it clear that his emphasis would be on negotiations: “Our primary objective is to gain time, to give all concerned an opportunity for reasoning together. It will give the Soviets time to bring influence to bear on North Korea if they will.” At the same time, he wanted to back diplomacy with military readiness. He asked McNamara and JCS Chairman Wheeler to “get the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk [aircraft carrier] moving” and alert the commanders of military units: “Anytime you have a world crisis we must have our tanks loaded, our caps on and our planes ready. Let’s not be accused of being unprepared.” Apparently, there was more discussion of the Banner plan and the possibility of recovering the Pueblo.
After the White House meeting, McNamara met with the Joint Chiefs explaining that President Johnson wanted to “move gradually” diplomatically and militarily, believing that if the U.S. presented a “military ultimatum” it would be more difficult to get the crew released. The JCS meeting record indicated that the U.S. had “contradictory objectives [--] diplomacy and readiness,” (but, for President Johnson, wholly complimentary purposes). In the meantime, McNamara instructed the Chiefs to move the Kitty Hawk into the area along with U.S. Air Force EB-66s and Wild Weasel F-105s used for air defense suppression and providing electronic support for bombing missions. He had not yet made up his mind on the deployment of B-52s but advised them to inform Air Force commanders that they may have to “move,” and to keep “quiet” in the meantime. Other moves were under consideration such as a request to Congress for a resolution of support and authorities to extend tours of services.
The Kitty Hawk did not sail to the area (it remained at Yankee Station), but the Enterprise carrier group was in Korean waters by the end of 24 January, with two other carrier groups, the Yorktown and the Ranger, joining it in a matter of days (See Part I, Document 3).
Wheeler informed the Commander-in-Chief Pacific how “higher authority” was approaching the Pueblo situation and the decisions that had been made on military measures. The latter included a carrier deployment, 0,000 tons of bombs from South East Asia to South Korea, calling up the Air National Guard and other air reserve units, and deploying some nine attack and surveillance submarines to Korean waters. In addition, the Chiefs had requested authority to deploy 26 B-52 bombers to Guam from the United States, along with tanker support.
Wheeler further reported that the Pentagon was also considering military measures against North Korea, although “the range of actions possible is not great.” Besides air strikes or mining of Wosan Harbor, the use of the Banner for another Pueblo-type mission, with Air Force and Navy protection, was under consideration. The Pentagon would also be flying Black Shield reconnaissance, the Lockheed A-2 follow-on for U-2 as well surveillance flights by drone aircraft.
With the Tet offensive in South Vietnam breaking out only days after the Pueblo incident, the White House gave no serious consideration of military action, and certainly not nuclear strikes, against Pyongyang.
The show of force by SAC that Wheeler and others had discussed required presidential authorization, which apparently was received and on 26 February the JCS informed SAC that McNamara had approved the deployment of 26 B-52s with supporting tankers. Under Operation “Port Bow,” between 3 and 7th February 1968, SAC transferred 26 B-52s to U.S. bases in Kadena (Okinawa) and Guam. In addition, the Pentagon drew up a contingency plan, “Fresh Storm,” for non-nuclear strikes against North Korea (See Part I, document 2). Nevertheless, the SAC historians understood that with negotiations over the Pueblo having already begun, the likelihood of implementing the “Fresh Storm” plan was remote.
The 26 bombers were, however, put to use. With the Tet Offensive under way and U.S. commanders in Vietnam wanting more bombing support, the JCS authorized use of the “Port Bow” bombers for bombing runs in Vietnam under the “Arc Light” program. That allowed the doubling of the sortie rate after 7 February.
Abjuring military options, President Johnson supported negotiations that led to the release of the Pueblo crew in December 1968. Only months later, however, a North Korean fighter pilot shot down a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft flying over international waters, with all crew lost. While the White House and the Pentagon considered military options, President Nixon was unwilling to authorize an attack, although his adviser Henry Kissinger thought otherwise. SAC did not move bombers, although a show of force, involving the deployment of four aircraft carriers, did occur (See Part I, Document 3).
Part IV. The October 1969 Secret Alert
For many years, the air, ground, and naval activities that comprised the Joint Chiefs of Staffs “Readiness Test” of October 1969 were one of the barely recognized features of the Nixon administration and certainly one of the most secret elements of its Vietnam strategy. Although Seymour Hersh had written about it in his book on Kissinger, The Price of Power, it was not until the late 1990s that any of the highly secret documents about it began to be declassified and available. It took more declassifications before it became possible to put the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness in the full context of the first year of the Nixon administration.
With respect to the documentary record, one of the first inklings that Nixon and Kissinger had been discussing military moves to expedite the stuck Vietnam negotiations by getting Moscow’s attention was a conversation that Kissinger had with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in early October 1969. While discussing an unspecified aircraft incident and JCS Chairman Wheeler’s recent arrival in Washington, Laos, and whether the dinner for the members of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group should be “stag” (men only), Kissinger asked Laird about a SAC alert. Laird replied that there would be a SAC exercise during the month, possibly a reference to the annual HIGH HEELs activity. When Kissinger asked whether the Soviets would notice it, Laird observed that “They will pick it up. The fact that we are exercising our bombers.”
Kissinger also inquired whether the Pentagon could stage a DEFCON “for a day or so” in October, to which Laird replied that “we can.” That, Kissinger said, the “President will appreciate very much.” As it turned out, the Pentagon rejected a DEFCON format for the alert measures for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it would be relatively noisy and more likely to attract public attention in the United States.
Kissinger’s military aide, then Colonel Alexander M. Haig, made inquiries at the Pentagon about what could be done to produce military signals that Moscow would consider “unusual and significant,” and Laird’s aide, Colonel Robert Pursley sent to the White House a menu of “Significant Military Actions” that included possible actions by the Air Force and the Navy that could begin as early as 13 October.
Kissinger sent the Pursely memo to Nixon with a cover memorandum with his personal recommendation: that the White House approve measures such as communications silence, SAC alert actions, and the dispatch to sea of docked nuclear submarines, among other actions, but not the proposal to increase reconnaissance activities around the Soviet Union (which he probably saw as too provocative). Nixon approved the Kissinger memo the next day and Laird and Wheeler initiated the necessary instructions to the CINCs.
To get Moscow’s attention but not unduly alarm it, the Nixon White House wanted the Pentagon to take as many actions as possible. Consistent with this, JCS Chairman Wheeler asked the CINCs for proposals and after receiving their suggestions, the Joint Staff reviewed them and prepared a master list for top officials. In his memorandum to Laird, Wheeler noted that the proposed actions "would reflect an increase in intensity of signals received by the Soviets." With the involvement of the naval, air, and other forces of eight unified and specified commands, the proposed actions would occur on a world-wide basis, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, ranging from movements of aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and of destroyers in the Gulf of Aden to SAC airborne alert and the surveillance of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong Harbor.
This same document appears in the State Department’s historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States in the volume on national security policy 1969-1972, but there are interesting differences in the sections on Pacific Command and Strategic Air Command. For example: that PACOM would "enhance SIOP Naval Forces at Sea" is excised from the FRUS, while language on keeping MACE missiles on alert is delet4ed from the release to the National Security Archive. A crucial point—that SAC B-52 airborne alert bombers would carry nuclear weapons—was withheld from the FRUS.
This entry from the diary of White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman includes his notes on a conversation with Henry Kissinger. It is one of the few documents that discloses Nixon and Kissinger’s intent when they ordered alert measures in October 1969: to “jar Soviets + NVN [North Vietnam].” The entry was declassified in the mid-90s but too late for publication in the published versions of Haldeman's diaries. Consequently, an important clue about Nixon and Kissinger's thinking about the readiness test languished in relative obscurity for some years.
This chapter excerpt provides a detailed overview of the phases of SAC nuclear operations during the JCS Readiness Test: (1) the initial stand-down and higher ground alert beginning 12 October, (2) the resumption of flying activities on 18 October, (3) the return to stand-down during 25-30 October, and (4) the "Giant Lance" nuclear-armed airborne alert operation during 27-30 October. “Giant Lance” was one of the alert options in the SEAGA program discussed in Part I, Document 1). As noted in this account, the readiness test did not include the SAC ICBM force. Minuteman and Titan II missiles were always on a high state of alert; by contrast, the bomber force could more easily be alerted to make a "show of force."
After reviewing JCS Chairman Wheeler’s instructions to take "discernible" actions to raise the readiness of U.S. forces, the SAC historian noted that the Command received no information about the "origin or purpose" of the readiness test. Nevertheless, SAC officers speculated at the time that it was related to the Vietnam negotiations and to Nixon’s forthcoming speech on 3 November, which had been announced on 13 October, early in the readiness test.
Part V. The October War and the DEFCON Alert
During the Middle East War of October 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, essentially acting on his own authority, with President Nixon temporarily out of action, ordered U.S. forces to go on a DEFCON 3 alert. With Israeli forces, violating a recently imposed cease-fire, having successfully enveloped Egypt’s Third Army on the Sinai, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev worried that Moscow’s Egyptian client was on the verge of defeat. In a hot line message to Nixon, Brezhnev indicted the Israelis for "brazenly" breaking the cease-fire and continuing "to seize new and new territory from Egypt." To resolve the crisis, Brezhnev made a "concrete proposal": "Let us together … urgently dispatch to Egypt the Soviet and American military contingents, to insure the implementation of the decision of the Security Council." Moreover, Brezhnev warned, in a sentence that he added personally, that “if you find it impossible to act jointly with us … we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally." This strong letter, former Soviet insider Victor Israelyan later observed, was an "overreaction" based on Sadat's urgent pleas for help with the Israelis and a pessimistic assessment of the Egyptian military situation. While Brezhnev hoped that he could pressure the Americans to cooperate and restrain Israel, no one in the Politburo intended any military moves in the Middle East or expected a U.S. military reaction to what amounted to a bluff. As Israelyan later remarked, "How wrong was our forecast…!"
The Soviet "overreaction" sparked an American "overreaction." Worried that the Soviets might intervene and misinterpreting a standdown of Moscow's airlift to Egypt as a portent of armed intervention, Kissinger decided it was necessary to "go to the mat." Reinforcing this conviction was concern that with President Nixon’s authority challenged by the ongoing Watergate affair a display of American power was politically necessary. A meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) late in the evening discussed Brezhnev's letter, its implications, and the U.S. response. Whatever the Soviets intended, the participants treated Brezhnev's letter as a significant challenge that required a stern response. NSC staffer William Quandt, who saw Brezhnev's letter as a bluff, later said that "we wanted to teach him a lesson." At 11:41 p.m., Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Thomas Moorer ordered U.S. military commands to raise their alert levels to DEFCON 3 which meant putting nuclear-armed units on the "highest state of peacetime alert." (Nixon, despondent over Watergate and inebriated, had no role in this decision.) While Kissinger had expected the DEFCON to have a low profile and not attract public attention, it had the opposite affect and became a major news story.
This JCS report provides a detailed, hour-by-hour, day-by-day account of the flow of Pentagon decisions and actions concerning the world-wide DEFCON 3, from the moment it was called to the point where SAC and other forces went back to a DEFCON 4 position. It also includes other developments related to the war, such as the status of the 82nd Airborne and deployments of aircraft to Israel.
Besides SAC and air defense forces, tactical air, naval forces, and army units in Western Europe and the 82nd Airborne in the United States were on higher alert. The aircraft carrier groups, the Independence and the Roosevelt, were already in the Mediterranean, as part of the Sixth Fleet, and another carrier, the Kennedy, received orders to enter the Mediterranean (it had been sailing near Gibraltar). The Sixth Fleet stayed on DEFCON 3 until 17 November (See Part I, Document 3).
This SAC history includes details on the Command’s DEFCON 3 operations during the October War. Because they are scattered throughout a very-long history, for ease of use the respective portions on alert operations for bombers and ICBMs during Fiscal Year 1974 are excerpted here along with some of the front matter.
The section on continuity of operations, which discusses the problem of implementing the plan during the DEFCON, has interesting coverage of the airborne command-and-control platform codenamed “Looking Glass” and a succession of command issues. The discussion of bomber alert operations during the DEFCON is scattered over several pages and is heavily excised at crucial points. The highest number of alert B-52s and FB-111s during the DEFCON 3 remains classified, but it was likely in the range of 100 (after the alert ended, on 27 October, the number of B-52s on alert was down to 90). Even though SAC had a force of nearly 400 B-52 bombers, the numbers on ground alert were far lower, for example, 34 in July 1973, 82 in November 1973 and 103 in January 1974. The massive deployments of B-52s for the wars in Southeast Asian wars had a cumulatively detrimental impact on SAC’s ability to generate nuclear-mission capable alert forces. 
By contrast, the short section in the document on alert ICBMs was released relatively intact and shows that before the DEFCON, of the force of 1000 ICBMs, 978 of the 989 of the “required force” for the SIOP mission were on alert, or 98.9 percent. After DEFCON 3 took hold, 995 ICBMs were on alert, or 99.5 percent of the 1000 missile required force. Most of the ICBM force were Minutemen, which were always on high alert, ready for nearly instantaneous launch.
SAC’s role in the October War was varied, although the declassification excisions from this chronology obscure many details. Among SAC missions were the SR-71 photo intelligence flights over the region through the GIANT REACH program, KC-135 tanker support for A-4 and F-4 fighter-bombers provided to Israeli forces, and redeployment of B-52s from the Western Pacific to support SAC units in the United States. The fact that SAC went to a DEFCON 3 position is wholly deleted from this chronology (which has been undergoing a second declassification review).
F. Herzberg, the Second Air Force historian who compiled this chronology, had a two-week deadline, and had to find ways to compensate for the fact that important documents had already been burned or shredded. As with the main SAC chronology, much detail is excised (although a pending declassification request may someday release more material), including information on the DEFCON 3 orders. What was declassified was information on other SAC activities during the October War, including the role of Second Air Force bases and tankers in providing facilities for shipping ordinance to Israel and for supporting the flights of A-4s and F-4s to Israel. One interesting detail is that Second Air Force intelligence reported the alert of Cuban forces on 25 October.
This chronology is also excised (with a request for new review still pending), including the DEFCON 3 order. What is left is details about bomber and tanker sorties, numbers of aircraft on alert, and preparations for a possible GIANT LANCE airborne nuclear alert exercise (which never occurred). The excised passage on the DEFCON [page 3 of the PDF] refers to a Blue Dot message, which was an Emergency War Order (EWO) preparation instruction, covering such issues as DEFCON levels, reaction postures, and command arrangements.
Part VI. The Korean Tree-Trimming Incident
The Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Demilitarized Zone of Korea where North and South Korean forces face each other, at the site of the former village of Panmunjom, has been the scene of violent incidents over the years. But one on 18 August 1976 was especially infamous and gruesome. On that day, members of the Korean Service Corps and their escort of U.S. Army officers and a security team of South Korean and U.S. troops entered the JSA to prune a tree that blocked the line of site from the south. North Korean troops attacked the Korean-U.S. team using axes to kill two U.S. Army officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett.
After the incident, North Korea blamed the U.S., partly on the grounds that instructions by a sentinel not to touch the trees had been disregarded. Why the attack occurred remains a mystery, although there were allegations that Kim il-Sung’s heir-in-waiting, Kim Jong-il, had ordered it on his own, without consulting his father.
The evening of 18 August (Washington time), the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) met and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others discussed the incident, which the CIA assessed as premeditated. They agreed that a DEFCON 3 alert should be declared and to go ahead with a previously cancelled B-52 exercise over South Korea. Kissinger also wanted the tree to be cut down, which the WSAG endorsed at a meeting the next morning, although President Ford ruled out Kissinger’s proposal to bomb the North Korean barracks at the DMZ. Other options were under consideration, but details remain classified.
This SAC history includes a useful account of SAC’s role in the crisis. On 18 August, a DEFCON 3 alert was declared for U.S. forces in South Korea and the JCS, following President’s Fords instructions, staged a show-of-force operation involving the deployment of an F-111 squadron and B-52 sorties. The latter was a major element of the operation, with three B-52s flying three sorties a day over South Korea, practicing bombing runs without using live ammunition. The operation lasted until 8 September, a day after forces in South Korea returned to DEFCON 4. In the meantime, on 21 August, under “Operation Paul Bunyan,” well-protected U.S. Army engineers cut down the tree, with highly noticeable flights of B-52s, fighter-jets, and other military aircraft taking place nearby.
The SAC operations were the most visible element of the U.S. response to the killings, but offshore, the USS Midway carrier battle group stood by. It had sailed from Yokosuka to the area around the Korea Strait and remained there until 8 September 1976.