The curtain covering behind–the–scenes diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis is just being raised. The geopolitical back and forth between America and the U.S.S.R. and, even more important, what was going on inside the heads of the ultimate decision makers, President John F. Kennedy and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, was key. All this is told in a epochal new book: DEFCON-2 by Norman Polmar and John Gresham. Tom Clancy says this in his review: “Truth is stranger and scarier than fiction. And DEFCON-2 is more gripping, more thrilling, and more terrifying than any novel you will ever read.”
President Kennedy overruled his closest advisors and established a naval blockade to prevent Khrushchev from further strengthening his nuclear forces in Cuba. Tensions grew and grew as Russian ships bore down upon our Navy ships. The survival of the world as we knew it hung in the balance. Literally at the last minute, the lead Russian ship reversed course, leading an observer to say “I think he just blinked.”
The diplomatic initiatives were as dramatic as any the world had ever seen, but in the end, it was America’s force projection that made Khrushchev blink. Our mailed fist was our arsenal of nuclear delivery systems – 2,147 in all. Of these, 1,595 were Strategic Air Command (SAC) aircraft and 639 were B-52s.
This aggregation of power is difficult for the average person to accept as reality. It’s like trying to comprehend the dimensions of the universe of which we are a tiny part.
I intend to write a book or series of articles about one man in one airplane that will put it all in an understandable perspective. Col.Rand Brandt, then a newly minted Air Force First Lieutenant, was copilot of a B-52H. He flew constantly during the missile crisis, and his airplane carried seven (7) thermonuclear weapons, any one of which was tens if not thousands of times more powerful than the bomb America dropped on Hiroshima.
Approximately 60 SAC aircraft were on airborne alert 24/7 throughout the crisis. Each was given specific targets deep inside the U.S.S.R. They would fly toward them, loiter or turn around at a “fail-safe line,” and proceed beyond this point only if ordered to do so by SAC headquarters. Three of First Lieutenant Brandt’s missions lasted 25 hours. Crew members tacitly understood, but seldom discussed, the reality that orders to attack would have been one–way missions. Still, they were proud to wear shoulder patches proclaiming “Peace is Our Profession.”
First Lieutenant Brandt had just passed his twenty-first birthday when he became combat qualified in the B-52. This was only weeks before the missiles were first spotted in Cuba. His training, missions, relationships with fellow crew members and day–to–day living experiences before, during and following the Missile Crisis will make interesting reading.
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