A Movie That Actually Understated How Tense the Cuban Missile Crisis Was
In his years at SAC, LeMay’s mind ossified. Used to playing with big hammers for so long, he came to see all problems as big nails. That became clear during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, by which time LeMay had risen to Air Force Chief of Staff. When the crisis erupted, LeMay pushed President Kennedy to adopt a course of action that would have guaranteed WWIII: bomb the Russian missile sites, then invade Cuba. LeMay and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented JFK with two versions: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by LeMay, preferred Oplan 316.
They argued that there was no guarantee that air strikes alone would take out all the missiles, or that some missiles would not be fired at the US. Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, assuming no nukes. Unbeknownst to planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had preauthorized the Soviet commander in Cuba to use tactical nukes at his discretion if he deemed it necessary. As the crisis intensified, Khrushchev withdrew release authority and forbade their use without his express permission. However, whether the modified orders would have been followed, is debatable. In practice, tactical nukes were dispersed throughout Cuba to various Soviet units, under the physical control of officers as low down the chain of command as captains.