Preempt or Prevent

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(Host) Exactly fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States was considering not only preemptive war against the Soviet Union, but even more forward-leaning preventive war. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.

(Gilbert) What I read has stuck with me for years – it was so chilling, so amazing. In his book Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes describes how, as early as the late 1940s, high-level civilian and military strategists seriously considered attacking the Soviet Union – then, before it had nuclear weapons. In 1953, when the Soviets were rapidly building their nuclear capability, retired Air Force General James Doolittle chaired a committee that recommended that the Soviet Union be given two years to come to nuclear terms with the U.S., or we’d attack. President Eisenhower quickly rejected this stunning idea.

The issue arose again in spring 1954 when a Joint Chiefs of Staff study group briefed President Eisenhower on a proposal to “deliberately precipitat[e] war with the USSR…before the USSR could achieve a large enough thermonuclear capability to be a real menace to [the] Continental U.S.” However, Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgway told the President he thought the proposal “contrary to every principle upon which our Nation had been founded…and that…it would be abhorrent to the great mass of the American people.” Again, Eisenhower nixed a preventive war.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The CIA estimated that the Soviets would need a month to assemble and deliver all their nuclear weapons. So General Curtis LeMay, commander of our nuclear-armed bombers – the Strategic Air Command – and later Air Force Chief of Staff, was authorized to plan for a preemptive attack if intelligence indicated that the USSR was beginning a first strike.

LeMay did more than that. He used reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union to gather intelligence, but knowing – and apparently hoping – that in doing so he might be provoking war. He reportedly told a flight crew, “[M]aybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.” After retirement he said we’d have been a a lot better off “if we’d got World War III started in those days.”

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Strategic Air Command launched an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile across the Pacific as part of a test scheduled before the crisis. Richard Rhodes calls it “a deliberate provocation [of war],” unsanctioned, and potentially catastrophic.”

There’s no question that the Soviets’ nuclear capacity grew rapidly during those years; no question that its leadership was utterly ruthless. (Mass murderer Joseph Stalin only died in March 1953.) Those were indeed dangerous times, but few today would agree with General LeMay that we’d have been better off had we gotten World War III started back then.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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