- Historic Sites
From Austerlitz To Moscow
An American Success Story
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
Khrushchev was characteristically swamped with work in 1956 when the French and English attacked Russia’s new Middle East client, Egypt. Heavily engaged in a vast agricultural gamble in the virgin lands and in an anti-Stalinist gamble in the Byzantine corridors of Soviet political power, Khrushchev tried to deal with this neo-Serbian tinderbox in his spare moments. He had a ferocious revolt on his hands in Hungary, another one brewing in Poland, and deeply divided counsel in his own camp about how to deal with the situation. He needed to impress the satellites, the Egyptians, and the rest of the world with the awesome dimensions of Russian power. As soon as it was clear that the French and British would have to halt their attacks for lack of domestic political support, the new Czar Nicholas threatened them with his wonderful new toys-not total mobilization this time, but nuclear rockets. Khrushchev had entered on a career of rocket-rattling that would eventually grow to the size of one hundred megatons in implied orbit over everyone’s head. His menace took no account of the true state of affairs: his country was completely vulnerable to American attack without being in a position to deter it. The rockets and bombers at his disposal posed no serious threat to the United States; the rockets were too small to reach U.S. territory, and the bombers were sitting ducks for an American strike from Europe, North Africa, Turkey, or Pakistan. The most important reality of the Khrushchev years was that the United States was “forward based” and the Soviet Union was not. The only palpable effect of Khrushchev’s threats was to worsen profoundly his nation’s vulnerability over the next seven or eight years. His reckless rocket-rattling created serious anxiety among European political and military leaders. They had no missiles of their own; they felt exposed; they asked the U.S. to restore the balance.
This we did with a vengeance. Four squadrons of Thor intermediate-range missiles with high-yield nuclear warheads were installed in England. (There are fifteen missiles in a squadron.) We went on to place two squadrons of Jupiter missiles in Italy and another in Turkey-a total of 105 silent, swift warheads that could have arrived at Soviet airfields, missile bases, and control centers without a moment’s warning. We poured supersonic nuclearattack planes and fast SAC bombers into Western Europe and North Africa. The military unbalance facing the U.S.S.R. from roughly 1956 to 1965 was hundreds of times worse than it had been when Germany almost swallowed them up in the 1940’s. Khrushchev’s hollow bombast had yielded bitter fruit, yet still he insisted on shaking the tree. When his rocket developers successfully tested a three-stage missile that could reach all the way to the U.S., he saw a way to put even more menace behind his threats-and at minimum cost. He ordered a few dozen of the unwieldy monsters built in existing model shops, and planned to make up for their modest numbers by fitting them with prodigious warheads.
The project cranked along at a deliberate pace. The huge intercontinental missiles had to be loaded with liquid oxygen, and they could hardly stay loaded for any length of time without becoming enshrouded in a mountain of ice. Hence, on receipt of an order to fire, they had to undergo a lengthy process of chilling and adjustment that consumed many hours while they sat out on the open plain like oil derricks wrapped in aluminum foil. Khrushchev had each one installed on its ground-level launch pad as soon as it was built; there were eventually fifty-four in operational status. (The United States kept track of them by flying U-2 surveillance missions over them periodically.) Their warheads were threestage fission-fusion-fission behemoths whose total yield was approximately one hundred megatons. Theoretically, some of them would explode at very high altitudes above the U.S., setting fires over vast areas. The rest would be exploded near the surface to spread radioactive fallout over equally vast areas downwind of ground zero. (This was the motive for John F. Kennedy’s falloutshelter program.)
Khrushchev had made of the Soviet Union a lightning rod for international fears and miscalculations. With the U.S. facing such dreadful peril, no American President could permit the level of international tension to go very high before ordering in the high-speed attack planes, firing off the Thors and Jupiters, or even throwing rocks out of overflying U-2’s if necessary, to destroy those terrible Russian missiles. The world’s fingers had been tightened once more on the triggers of 1914: the nation that struck first might emerge “victorious,” while the nation that waited would be left in ruins.