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Uncovering the Real Dr. Strangeloves

By Daniel Schorr. Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio. / June 23, 1995



'NUKE 'em" is one of those phrases that has entered the English language, spoken usually in jest as a synonym for swatting some irritating pest. That nuclear weapons might actually be used, other than in Dr. Strangelove movies, rarely occurs to people since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in 1953, warned of possible "massive retaliation ... with means and weapons of our own choosing" in case of a Soviet conventional attack, that was generally regarded as hyperbole. Yet, as the documents of the cold war period are declassified, it emerges that, on several occasions when America was in a tight spot, military leaders seriously proposed initiating the use of nuclear weapons, in one case suggesting that it might be done even without presidential authorization.

As extensively reported by Richard Rhodes in The New Yorker, Air Force commander Curtis LeMay and other military leaders proposed a "first strike" in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. President Truman refused. But the Air Force continued working on plans for a massive blow against the Soviet Union with 133 bombs that would wipe out 70 Soviet cities in 30 days.

In 1953, President Eisenhower vetoed an Air Force plan to serve a two-year ultimatum on the Soviet Union to come to terms or else - the "else" being a nuclear attack. Planning papers suggested that, in an emergency, commanders could order an attack without word from the president. And General LeMay sent reconnaissance planes on provocative flights over Soviet territory as though hoping to create such an emergency.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reveals in his memoirs that three different times Adm. Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed using nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese, especially if China intervened. "Their continued willingness to risk a nuclear confrontation appalled me," Mr. McNamara wrote of the Joint Chiefs.

There were other times when the military, with a "use 'em or lose 'em" mentality, proposed a first strike. In 1961 Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer presented to President Kennedy a plan for a massive, unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union to be made in 1963 - the last time, the military figured, the Russians could not retaliate. Kennedy left the meeting saying, "And we call ourselves the human race!"

But the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was the closest we came to seeing nuclear weapons actually used. During the height of the crisis, according to a retired Strategic Air Command officer, nuclear bombers deliberately flew past their usual turnaround points toward the Soviet Union as though inviting a response. LeMay later said, "The Soviet Union could have been obliterated without more than normal expectable SAC losses on our side."

See what you missed? And the United States government still refuses to pledge no first use of nuclear weapons.