- Historic Sites
The Pentagon’s 50th … And The Future For America’s Defense
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Hyman Rickover’s nuclear subs, with USS Nautilus in the van, eradicated these limits and introduced the true undersea warship, able to operate in the depths for weeks at a time. Very soon such submarines took on an additional role, as carriers of solid-fuel missiles. They offered the Navy an entirely new mission, the strategic nuclear attack. The missile subs, in turn, would be both highly mobile and virtually undetectable; the entire expanse of the oceans would become a launching ground. And the nuclear submarine would stand alongside the aircraft carrier as a capital ship.
Spurring the fast pace of these programs was the fear that the Soviets were ahead of us—a fear that reached its peak between 1957 and 1959 as Moscow used enormous rockets to launch its first spacecraft. The largest of them, Sputnik III , weighed a hundred times more than the 30-pound packages that America was struggling to place in orbit. Yet the Soviets’ lead, ironically, stemmed from their pre-mature commitment to an obsolescent technology. In their rush to be first, they had committed their resources to building rockets of great size. These behemoths were fine for space but clumsy for military use. The American missiles were much smaller, but that made it possible to build them in large numbers. By 1962 the United States had a clear lead in the missile race, and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, saw only one way out. He would give his medium-range missiles the striking power of long-range versions, by placing them in Cuba.
The ensuing crisis may well have brought the world to within a few hours of nuclear war. Soviet technicians began to work feverishly to make ready their missile bases. A major attack force stood across the Florida Strait, and peace hung on the question of whether Khrushchev would agree to withdraw the missiles. If he rejected those terms, the attack would proceed. A Soviet expeditionary force was already in Cuba, its commander having tactical nuclear weapons and the authority to use them. Moreover, Soviet war-fighting doctrine took the view that in a war with the United States, nuclear escalation was “inevitable” and would feature “maximum” use of such weapons from the very beginning.
“It isn’t the first step that concerns me,” said President John Kennedy, “but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step—and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, returning to the Pentagon on the previous evening, had wondered aloud how many sunsets he would see. Then on the morning of October 28, thirteen days after the crisis began, Radio Moscow announced that “the Soviet government… has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.” The end of the crisis marked a watershed in superpower relations. Arms build-ups would continue, but never again would Moscow mount so reckless a challenge.
Nevertheless, there was recklessness in Washington as well, which came to the fore in Vietnam. To ask how we got into that conflict is somewhat like asking how Rome fell; the answer in both instances is bit by bit and in small steps, with few people having any clear idea of what really was happening.
From the outset we had no strategy for victory. Here was no war against main-force battle units as in Korea, where we had held the line along a front. The war rather was largely one of counterinsurgency, formless and fluid, with the enemy unseen and yet everywhere. Geography offered no opportunity to isolate the battle-field; even in 1968, with half a million Americans in country, the North Vietnamese still were prepared to continue to funnel at least 200,000 men into the South. Nor could we strike too strongly at the North; the memory of Chinese intervention in Korea was all too vivid. So we let the enemy wage a war in his country on his terms.
What was more, we fought that war with a conscript army. America had long rejected such notions as large standing armies and peacetime conscription; yet we had embraced both in the wake of Korea, and with surprisingly little controversy. The draft had become one more of life’s prospects that young people would face; when Elvis Presley got his notice in 1958 and went off to basic training like everyone else, he made this point with particular clarity. But during Vietnam the draft proved a source of vast bitterness and divisiveness.
In the country at large the dominant mood was not “Hell no, we won’t go.” Rather it was “Win or get out.” “!Tie maiority of draftees went stolidly, as had their fathers and older brothers in their day. But on university campuses, particularly the prestigious ones, fear of the draft spurred a hatred for the war and a contempt for the military. Such feelings echoed within the nation’s media, which increasingly came to present the war as failure and folly.