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