As WWII drew to a close, the Soviet military was no longer the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded. By 1945, the Red Army had become a veteran and battle-hardened force, that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Allies had faced.
In a nutshell, Churchill’s generals concluded that it would be ill advised to take on the Soviets. Far from being a pushover, the Red Army when plans were drawn for Operation Unthinkable was dangerous, vicious, and very big. If war broke out, Churchill was advised, it was more likely to end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, rather than getting chased back to the USSR.
16. Churchill Quits Thinking About the Unthinkable
Churchill’s generals greatest argument against taking on the Red Army was to point out that, on her own, Britain stood no chance against the Soviets. The US had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. Standing up for Poland might have been a point of honor for Churchill, but few in the British government, and fewer still in that of the US, thought Poland or Eastern Europe were worth an even greater war against the Soviet Union than the one they had just concluded against Germany.
Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered WWII in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Presented with the preceding, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.
In September of 1950, Douglas MacArthur changed the character of the Korean War with a successful amphibious landing at Inchon. It led to the collapse of North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. MacArthur vigorously – as things turned out, too vigorously – pursued the routed enemy northward up the Korean Peninsula. Despite repeated warnings, MacArthur blithely dismissed mounting evidence that China would directly intervene in the war if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border. He insisted that the Chinese would do nothing.
MacArthur was wrong. Soon after his forces reached the Yalu River marking the border with China, the Chinese began pouring across in the hundreds of thousands, successfully evading detection. They struck in November, 1950, surprising MacArthur and catching him completely off guard. Within weeks, the Chinese had defeated and pushed his demoralized forces out of North Korea and back across the border into South Korea.
With his judgment proven catastrophically wrong, and his forces chased down the Korean Peninsula by the Chinese faster than they had raced up in pursuit of the North Koreans, a humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics. He demanded that China be nuked. MacArthur’s plan was to drop up to 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria on Chinese cities, military concentrations, and communication centers. He sought to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China with a radioactive belt across Manchuria, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.
President Truman, whom MacArthur had assured only weeks earlier that China would do nothing if his forces marched up to its border, balked. Truman was especially wary of MacArthur’s further confident assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if America dropped dozens of nukes on their Chinese ally. When MacArthur publicly contradicted Truman, he was ordered to clear any further statements on the subject with the State Department first. MacArthur violated those orders, and again challenged Truman publicly on the use of atomic weapons. Truman fired him.
America’s biggest problem during the Vietnam War was North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam, and support for the insurgency there. So plans were made to take out North Vietnam with a direct invasion. As described by Harry G. Summers in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, the plan was reminiscent of the Normandy invasion.
It called for landing an airborne division to the north and west of Hanoi to block off the approaches to the Hanoi-Haiphong region. That would be accompanied by a seaborne invasion, with three divisions landed on beaches in the Haiphong area. The Haiphong force would then drive on to Hanoi, and linkup up with the airborne troops there.
12. The Strategic Aim Behind Invading North Vietnam
American planners figured that by capturing and securing the Hanoi-Haiphong area, outside support for North Vietnam would be drastically curtailed. By extension, so would the support for the communist forces in South Vietnam. The two major railroads linking North Vietnam to China would be severed, the country’s main seaport would be in American hands, and the lines of communications to the South would be interdicted.
Starved of Chinese and Soviet arms, munitions, and supplies, and cutoff from a steady infusion of North Vietnamese manpower, planners expected that organized armed resistance in South Vietnam would wane and collapse. While the plan stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese, it was deemed too dangerous because China would likely join the fray.
11. Concerns About Chinese Intervention Kept the US From Invading North Vietnam
The plans for invading North Vietnam were drawn only fifteen years after the Korean War. In that conflict, US and allied forces had pursued the routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would do nothing. That led to the unpleasant surprise of the Chinese jumping in and pushing American forces all the way back to South Korea.
If China directly joined the Vietnam War in response to an American invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII, with the Soviets getting dragged in. Unlike the situation during the Korean War, the US no longer held an overwhelming nuclear superiority: by the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear warheads and the means of delivering them to targets in the US. American interests in Vietnam were deemed not worth the risk, and thus the planned invasion of Hanoi-Haiphong was shelved.
10. Julius Caesar Wanted to Replicate Alexander the Great’s Eastern Conquests
Julius Caesar was a huge fan of Alexander the Great. Early in his career, Caesar wept when he saw a statue of the Macedonian conqueror. Upon being asked why, he replied that Alexander had conquered the world by the time he was 30, while he, Caesar, had passed that age and done nothing of note.
One of Caesar’s grandest ambitions was to conquer the east just like his idol, so after consolidating his power in Rome, he prepared to invade Parthia in 44 BC. It was to be a massive endeavor with the largest force he had ever led: 16 legions and 10,000 cavalry, in addition to support troops. As a preliminary, he planned to first invade and conquer the kingdom of Dacia, roughly modern Romania, which he calculated could be accomplished by the end of 44 BC. The following spring, he would move on to Parthia.
Parthia was no pushover. In 53 BC, a Parthian cavalry force of 10,000 all but annihilated a bigger Roman army of roughly 50,000, led by Caesar’s fellow Triumvir, Crassus. In 38 BC, Mark Antony invaded Parthia with an even larger force than that which Caesar had planned to use, numbering over 100,000 legionaries, 24,000 auxiliaries, and 10,000 cavalry. He met with disaster.
However, neither Crassus nor Mark Antony were in Caesar’s league as generals, while Caesar was an all time military great. And Parthia was vulnerable to a Roman army led by a gifted general. In the 2nd century AD, the emperor Trajan did what Caesar had planned, conquering Dacia, then invading and defeating Parthia, seizing its capital city of Ctesiphon, annexing Mesopotamia, and dictating a highly favorable peace treaty. Caesar might have done the same in the 40s BC, but he never got the opportunity: he was assassinated three days before he was to leave Rome for the Parthian campaign.
8. Alexander the Great’s Plans to Conquer the West
Philip II of Macedon’s lifelong ambition was to conquer Persia, but he was assassinated before he could try. It was left to his son, Alexander the Great, to accomplish his father’s dream. Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, then pushed beyond through Central Asia and into India, before his soldiers finally had enough and refused to march any further.
Thwarted from further conquests in the east, Alexander began planning to conquer the west. Reportedly, the travels of the pioneering Greek geographer Pytheas, in the 4th century BC, were actually a scouting trip and spying mission on behalf of Alexander.
Ancient sources disagree on the details. Some contend that Alexander planned to march westwards from Macedonia to Ilyricum, thence into Italy, before continuing on to Gaul and Hispania. Others claim that he had a more ambitious plan to circumnavigate the Mediterranean by land, marching west from Egypt to conquer Libya, Carthage, Numidia, and Mauretania. He then planned to cross the narrows near the Pillars of Hercules to invade Hispania, then Gaul, before turning east to conquer Italy, and finally back to Macedon. Either route, Italy, and the small but rising Roman Republic therein, were on Alexander’s agenda.
If Alexander had invaded Italy, he probably would have won, and in the process perhaps extinguished the Roman Republic when it was still in its cradle. In addition to being one of history’s greatest conquerors, Alexander had in the elite Macedonian phalanx and Companion Cavalry the world’s best infantry and cavalry at the time. Rome back then was simply not in Alexander the Great’s league (see map above).
6. Alexander’s Macedon Was Significantly More Powerful Than Contemporary Rome
Roman legions bested the Macedonian phalanx in the 2nd century BC’s battles of Cynoscephalae and Pydna. However, in the 4th century BC, the Roman legion had not yet evolved into the ancient world’s best military unit. In Alexander’s day, the legion was still a spear-based force, a mixture of Greek and Samnite influences, more akin to the traditional phalanx of Sparta, albeit more flexible, than it was to the 2nd century sword-based legions that conquered Macedonia.
Two generations after Alexander, the Macedonian-type phalanx proved superior to the Roman legions during the war against Pyrrhus, a competent general but not Alexander’s equal. Fortunately for Rome, it never had to confront Alexander, for he died in Babylon in 323 BC, before he got around to launching his campaign to conquer the west.
5. The Nazi Plot to Wreck New York With Radioactive Sand
In what turned out to be one of his worst decisions, Hitler inexplicably declared war against America on December 11th, 1941. It did not take long after the US was thus brought into the war in Europe for American heavy bombers to join the RAF in raining devastation upon the Third Reich.
The Germans wanted to return the favor, but aside from lacking aerial superiority to go on the offensive, the US homeland, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Nazi-occupied Europe, was too far away. So German scientists set about trying to solve that problem, and one of their proposed solutions was to render New York City uninhabitable by sprinkling radioactive sand all over the Big Apple.
To reach America, German scientist Eugen Sanger proposed a Racketenflugzeug – a rocket airplane. Known as Silbervogel, or Silver Bird, the proposed aircraft was to be propelled at 1200 miles per hour off railroad tracks from a rocket powered sled, then fly to a height of 90 miles. There, at the edge of space, the Silbervogel would use a series of roller-coaster-like “skips”, entering and exiting the upper atmosphere en route to the Big Apple.
Upon reaching its destination, the Silbervogel would detonate a bomb packed with radioactive sand, to devastate New York City with a radiation cloud. It sounds cartoonish, straight out of one of those old time comics, but the theory was actually sound, and it just might have worked. Luckily for NYC, the Nazis were defeated before either the space plane or the villainous plan became a reality.
In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon strongly urged John F. Kennedy to invade Cuba in order to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from the island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were in unanimous agreement that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented the Presidents 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 Air Force general Curtis LeMay, had a clear preference for Oplan 316. They contended that there was no guarantee that air strikes alone would take out all the missiles, or that one or more of the missiles would not be fired at the US. Fortunately for everybody then and now, JFK had the moral backbone to resist getting railroaded into a military solution, and managed to solve the crisis without an invasion.
The Pentagon’s planners expected 18,500 American casualties in the first ten days of an invasion of Cuba, assuming no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to planners, the Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had preauthorized the local Soviet commander to use them 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, physically controlled by officers as low down the chain of command as captains. Soviet forces had drilled in the use of those weapons as part of their defensive plan. In the heat of battle, the custodians of those weapons would have been under intense pressure as they were subjected to overwhelming US aerial strikes, naval bombardment, and ground attacks.
If JFK had accepted the Pentagon’s advice and invaded Cuba, the results could have been horrific. It is not difficult to envision a desperate local Soviet commander in such a scenario, perhaps cutoff from communications with higher authority, resorting to the tactical nukes at hand to save his command, or at least ensure that its demise did not come cheap. The Red Army, with victory in WWII only 17 years in its past, did not lack military pride or an ethos of defiance unto death.
If the Soviets had used nukes in Cuba, the US intended an overwhelming nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to a full blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated both countries and Europe, irradiated the Northern Hemisphere, and set humanity back centuries. Fortunately, JFK resisted the pressure from his generals and admirals, and relying on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading