Monday, June 23, 2008

How Aurora Borealis almost destroyed civilization, and how Bobby Kennedy helped to save it.

I vaguely remember reading this tale before, but Richard Holbrooke, in his review of Michael Dobbs's One Minute to Midnight--Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, recounts how, on "Black Saturday" (October 27, 1962), the day of maximum tension in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an American pilot named Chuck Maultsby (no doubt a CIA operative), "confused by the Northern Lights, wander[ed] hundreds of miles into Soviet airspace and somehow escape[d] without triggering a Soviet reaction." That reaction might well have been a full-press thermonuclear attack on the U.S., as Soviet forces were on hair-trigger alert, anticipating a possible U.S. strike in retaliation for their having shot down a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane, just like the one Maultsby was flying, over Cuba earlier that day.

That evening, as Holbrooke recounts, on President Kennedy's direction, Attorney General Robert Kennedy

summoned the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin...and told him that the crisis had reached its moment of truth. ...With the downing of the American U-2 that day, Bobby Kennedy said that the American military, and not only the generals, were demanding that the president "respond to fire with fire." This meeting, coupled with a letter to Khrushchev skillfully drafted by Bobby Kennedy, Ted Sorensen and others, led to the Soviet announcement the next day that the missiles would be removed from Cuba.
So, we have another example of the thermonuclear bullet being dodged, but this time by action instead of inaction, and at the top instead of near the bottom of the chain of command. How many times can we be so lucky?