APRIL 30, 1988. Saturday night.
Closeted in my office in the Old Executive Office Building, looking out the window across at the White House and the huge throng standing vigil in Lafayette Park. Folks who decided to wait this out at ground zero, so to speak, rather than to join the ragtag exodus out of our cities.
Many have their gaze fixed at the White House. Peering from a distance at the windows, as if trying to get a glimpse of the future.
The president is holed away, reflecting on the next move he must soon make in this crisis, which has brought us now to the very brink of nuclear war. He's asked several of us to submit our recommendations based on these options:
1) Accept the terms of the cease- fire proposal, Peking's attempt to play peacemaker before it is too late.
2) Conventional military action. Initiate a major air offensive against the recently reinforced Soviet positions inside Yugoslavia. Continue to bring as many troops and supplies across the Atlantic as quickly as possible to bolster NATO's conventional forces in West Germany.
3) Use a very limited number of small nuclear weapons to stop the buildup of Soviet forces by striking road and rail lines at key points in East Germany. Continue to reinforce our position in West Germany as quickly as possible.
4) Use a significant portion of our strategic nuclear arsenal to attack and destroy as many Soviet missiles and bombers as possible before they can be used against our forces and the population of the United States.
I'm throwing these words on paper to double check my thinking, but mostly to ease my nerves. And perhaps, going through this exercise of reviewing the chain of events which got us here may produce some small insight which will help the president at this late hour.
Of course, the crisis we face did not develop overnight. Although the turn to war has been more sudden than any of us dreamed possible, the seeds of the current conflict have been sown over a period of time in a variety of ways.
Our relationship with the Soviet Union has steadily deteriorated since the collapse of detente at the end of the '70s. Our poor relations led first to stalemate and then failure in arms control efforts and a general breakdown of cooperation -- even communication. One measure of this is that it has now been nine years since a president of the United States has met with a general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
Within this context of hostile relations, we and the Soviets have been driven to this brink by our inability to control regional conflicts that have occurred in our immediate spheres of influence, which both superpowers consider vital to their security.
Ever since the collapse of collective leadership in Yugoslavia in 1985 and the subsequent drift into civil war, it has been apparent that an East-West showdown there was possible. Then last year the Soviets sent military advisers to Yugoslavia to support their faction, and NATO countered by covertly shipping arms to the anti- Soviet insurgents. It seemed like the honorable and tough-minded thing to do at the time.
The civil war became increasingly threatening to the Soviets with the military successes of the nationalist, anti-communist faction, which soon gained control of the northwest portion of the country. Still, direct Soviet-American confrontation might have been avoided had it not been for parallel developments in East Germany. The increased civil unrest that had been simmering throughout Eastern Europe during this decade finally began to boil over when the powerful "Unity" trade union -- an offspring of Poland's Solidarity -- began to go beyond its push for economic reforms and demanded greater ties and freedom of association with West Germany.
This was a grave development for the Soviets, something they had probably dreaded since the first anti- Soviet riots in East Germany in 1953. And when East German troops could not control riots that broke out during the spontaneous demonstrations that followed "German Unity Day" on April 1, the Soviets ordered their own army out of barracks to restore order.
But the sight of Soviet patrols in their cities only inflamed the East Germans' passions. Then, ominously, the first small incidents of non-cooperation by units of the East German army began to occur. These were soon to snowball and spark the fighting in the two Germanies.
At the same time, we were experiencing the "Cuban Troop Crisis" in Central America. After years of low- level hostilities, the announcement early this month that the Cubans had sent 5,000 troops to Nicaragua to aid the faltering Sandanista government caught us off guard. The President felt he had to respond by sending U.S. Marines to Honduras to preserve stability in the region. After several small incidents, serious fighting broke out on the 17th between Cubans and Americans. Casualties were heavy on both sides.
The rapid boil of public opinion in this country was remarkable. We had an explosion of anger and fear towards the U.S.S.R. The fact that all this happened in the midst of the presidential primaries hardly helped calm the situation. The president came under a lot of pressure to hang tough.
By the third week of this month, both the president and the general secretary had become less cautious, increasingly "firm." Then the Soviets moved boldly to shore up their position in Yugoslavia. They sent additional "advisers" into the country and began major efforts to cut off supplies to the pro-West faction. The Soviets initiated intensive border patrols and set up a naval "quarantine" of Adriatic ports held by the pro- West faction.
These moves set off a major debate within our inner circle. The president felt that he had to challenge the Soviet effort to seal off Yugoslavia. His response contributed to a chain of events over the past nine days which has propelled us down the slippery slope towards nuclear war.
On April 22, the president ordered the U.S. Navy to "probe" the quarantine, but to avoid direct confrontation with the Soviet navy. This was a grave step, but the president felt he had to do something substantive to react to the Cuban landing in Nicaragua. If the Soviets were going to intervene in our back yard, he reasoned, we had to respond in kind. We informed the Soviets through diplomatic channels of our intention to "maintain peaceful access" to Yugoslavian ports. We assured them that all cargo would be of a non-military, humanitarian nature.
When our task force reached the perimeter of the quarantine just south of Dubrovnik, the Soviets ordered it to turn around. What happened next is unclear. We know the Soviets fired a warning shot, and that a naval battle ensued. After a brief missile exchange, one of our destroyers was sunk and two other ships damaged. Our carrier-based F-14's joined the battle. They sank two Soviet ships and downed five MIGs. Four hundred Americans were killed in the fighting.
Within hours, Tass carried a Soviet condemnation of the probe, blaming us for the onset of hostilities. The statement not only justified Soviet "assistance to the government of Yugoslavia to maintain its legitimate authority," but also claimed that the U.S. was transporting military supplies to Yugoslav insurgents. This assertion was immediately denied by the White House.
Would the President have ordered that naval probe had it not been for the "Cuban troop crisis"? Most of us in the White House doubted it.
Just as the horror that the crisis had turned into a shooting war was beginning to sink in, we learned of a major East German troop rebellion in Schwerin. A unit of East German soldiers had gone to the aid of a civilian mob rioting against Soviet troops. The Soviets were driven out of town, and the rebels took control of 200 square kilometers near the border.
Over the next two days, the 24th and 25th, we got intelligence reports that 150,000 Soviet troops were entering Yugoslavia. Offshore, sporadic naval and air battles continued as the Soviets pulled their fleet back towards the coast.
Word also reached us of considerable Soviet reinforcement of their positions against the East German rebels. In a public warning, the Soviets ordered the Schwerin rebels to "lay down their arms within 24 hours or face the inevitable consequences."
Then on the 25th, a second East German garrison rebelled near Helmstedt. The incident started when Soviet soldiers shot eight East German soldiers trying to cross into West Germany. Soon afterward, 2,000 East German border guards skirmished with Soviet troops. Soviet reinforcements, quickly surrounded the outmanned Helmstedt rebels.
Near Schwerin, the ultimatum to lay down arms expired without compliance. As Soviet troops moved toward the city they met strong resistance from the East Germans. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day. East German forces suffered hundreds of casualties and retreated to a position only one kilometer from the West German border.
The Schwerin and Helmstedt incidents were covered extensively by West German television, and the West German response was immediate and angry. The chancellor warned the Soviets "not to underestimate German solidarity." He reinforced the West German troops at the border near the two battles.
Early on the 26th, the Soviet forces near Schwerin moved against the remaining East German troops. With nowhere else to retreat, the East Germans stormed the border barricades and fled into West Germany.
In pursuit of the East Germans, some of the Soviet troops also crossed the border barriers and entered "no- man's land." While firing at the fleeing East Germans, they also killed eleven West German border guards. Though most Soviet troops remained at the border, several hundred Soviet soldiers pursued the East Germans into West Germany.
Then came a tragic mistake. West German television reporters at the border misinterpreted the Soviet incursion as meaning that the entire force was going to follow, and quickly filed stories that West and East German soldiers were being pursued toward Hamburg by a large Soviet force. Their reports were accompanied by pictures of killed or wounded West German soldiers.
The West German chancellor responded by sending a West German division to aid the trapped border guards near Helmstedt. The West Germans overran the Soviet border patrol and joined the fighting against the Soviets.
From our perspective, the West German chancellor had become a major problem. We wondered if we could control him. Using the hotline, the president assured the Soviets that the U.S. did not encourage the West German incursion at Helmstedt and that we would do everything in our power to restrain the West Germans. After a considerable delay, the Soviets sent a reply that seemed intentionally vague. They seemed to doubt our sincerity.
Meanwhile in Yugoslavia, Soviet reinforcements won their first major victory in the fighting with the anti- communist Yugoslav nationalists, but continued to suffer setbacks in sea and air battles with our forces. The president had decided that the Soviets' massive buildup on land in Yugoslavia would insure their quick victory there if we did nothing; he therefore decided we had to continue to challenge them in the Adriatic. Our planes sank five Soviet ships and damaged three, while also scoring major victories over their air forces.
Senior staff met to review conventional options in Europe. We were not confident that we could hold on in Germany short of nuclear weapons if the Soviets were to turn the incursion into an invasion. It would be at least 10 days before our convoys could cross the Atlantic -- assuming they arrived intact.
We discussed initiating a major air assault against Soviet positions in Yugoslavia. Some argued that unless we took this step, we would be cutting loose our side there.
But this option might force the Soviets over the line in Germany. It might also make them try harder to sink our aircraft carriers. And, if we continue to prevail in the air over the Adriatic, they may think that nuclear-tipped cruise missiles are the only way to accomplish this.
The most ominous sign of that day was the president's order of Defcon (Defense Condition) 2 -- the second- highest alert status, one we've never reached before. The vice president is now out of town for the duration. There was some talk of a presidential evacuation drill, but the idea was canned in favor of more quiet contingency exercises for fear of sending too provocative a signal to Moscow.
On the morning of April 27, the Soviets reinforced their main force near Schwerin with large numbers of armored vehicles and another division of troops from Leipzig. Then, "in response to the blatant aggression by West German forces," according to Tass, the Soviets began to advance into West German territory. They proceeded 15 kilometers before meeting resistance from NATO forces. Casualties were heavy on both sides. The Soviets finally broke through and cut off major roads to Hamburg.
At about the same time, reinforced Soviet troops east of Helmstedt attacked the position being defended by the East and West Germans and overwhelmed them in three hours of fighting. Hundreds of German soldiers were killed and 500 were taken prisoner. The remainder fled in a disorganized retreat across the border into West Germany. They were followed by a large Soviet force led by a column of armored vehicles. Their advance was met by U.S. and West German troops. After several hours, we were forced to retreat to Hannover.
Later in the day, the Soviet general secretary publicly announced that "these movements into West Germany are made necessary by the provocative and belligerent actions of the West German government in seeking to destabilize the legitimate government in East Germany." He also sent a message over the hotline saying that "the Soviet Union has no territorial goals in West Germany, and Soviet troops will proceed no farther than is necessary to stabilize the border."
In the sea war off Yugoslavia, the Soviets continued to be unsuccessful in sinking our aircraft carriers. We have now shot down 30 of their Backfire bombers and 40 MIGs.
The General Secretary's "only for border stability" pledge set off a major debate here. Our inclination was not to trust him. But why would he risk going farther? To settle "the German question" once and for all now that the West German chancellor had been hinting so strongly at reunification? Was that worth the risk? Did they really want a unified Germany, even under their control?
The Soviets know that short of detonating the first nuclear weapon themselves, a West German invasion is the most likely way to start a nuclear war. They'd really have to trust our genuine reluctance to use nuclear weapons. But this was the situation in which we've always said we'd use them. ("Would we send a wrong signal if we didn't use them?" someone asked during our discussions.)
Even if the Russians choose to gamble on our restraint, what about the French, with Soviet troops closing on their border? What do we do if the British act independently?
The history of Soviet caution in avoiding direct confrontation in the past would argue against their risking a nuclear exchange now. The stakes are incredibly high. And the border stability argument makes some sense. They consider Eastern Europe, and particularly East Germany, vital to their security. They may feel the situation in East Germany and Yugoslavia forces them to take the present risks, but that doesn't mean they'll go all the way.
But why, then, are they still moving forward in West Germany? Why are they reinforcing their lines of supply to the East?
Late in the day, we updated a tactical-nukes options paper for the president -- starting with whether the smaller weapons ( cutting155mm artillery shells, neutron bombs, land mines, the little "dial-a-yields," etc.) should be taken out of garrison to augment the Pershing II's, cruises and carrier-based forces. We debated whether this would discourage a Soviet conventional invasion or invite a pre-emptive attack on our bases.
Contingency plans were outlined for tactical nuclear strikes on road and rail lines in East Germany and the Soviet Union. The weapons would slow -- maybe even cripple -- a Soviet invasion of West Germany, though they might kill more Germans than Russians.
We took a major initiative on the 28th by imposing an air and sea quarantine of both Cuba and Nicaragua. The president announced that this action was "necessary to stabilize the situation in the Caribbean Basin," using terminology designed to make clear that this move was in direct retaliation for the Soviet presence in West Germany.
Meanwhile, in the southern Adriatic, our fighter planes sank an aircraft carrier.
In West Germany, the Soviets continued to advance, reaching positions 50 kilometers inside the country in two places.
Late in the day, we received a private message from the Chinese outlining a cease-fire proposal. Both sides would have to:
Pull armies back 75 kilometers from present positions in West Germany to create a DMZ, policed by troops from China, Sweden and Finland.
Pull navies out of the Mediterranean (us to west of Corsica, the Soviets into the Black Sea).
Stop all troop reinforcements into Europe.
In addition, we'd have to lift the quarantine in the Caribbean, and the Soviets would have to make a phased withdrawal out of Yugoslavia.
There is a general consensus that all of our reservations about the plan must be weighed against the imminent danger of a nuclear exchange. But considerable downside arguments have been raised:
The danger of not making conventional reinforcements in Germany, should the Soviets break the agreement.
Soviet ability to resupply their faction in Yugoslavia -- or to crush ours -- before they withdraw.
Possible peril to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia if we pull our navy out of the eastern Mediterranean.
There was also some grumbling about the equal withdrawals in Germany rewarding the Soviets for every mile of their incursion.
The debate may be moot. Opinions vary as to whether the Soviets will go for the plan. Pulling out of Yugoslavia might just be too hard for them to swallow. Even if the proposal didn't come from the Chinese.
Yesterday, the 29th, we had a hard-nosed go-round on the strategic nuclear option. Thank God, a first strike by either side looks almost as crazy as it ever did. Assuming an all- out attack on the opponent's land- based forces, either side would be left with enough surviving weapons to destroy every enemy city down to a population of 15-25,000.
But it's become slightly less crazy, given the destabilizing advent of "first-strike capabilities." Accuracy, combined with the MIRV ratios of weapons to launchers, might encourage a gamble that the opponent will absorb a first strike on their missile silos rather than respond and risk a retaliation on population centers.
It's also less crazy if you're convinced that the opponent is about to launch a first strike. (In this regard, the massive spontaneous evacuations of our cities may be giving a dangerous false signal to the Soviets).
So what should the president do now? Accept the Chinese proposal, despite its obvious risks to our vital interests? Escalate the conventional fighting in Yugoslavia and hope we can hold on in Germany until reinforcements arrive? Use tactical nuclear weapons to slow or stop the Soviet incursion into Germany, just as we've always threatened? Or should he take the ultimate gamble and launch a pre-emptive strategic attack, before the Soviet Union can do so against us?
The wild card, of course, is Soviet intentions. What do they really want? What will they do next? It's frightening how little we know about each other, and that the fate of the earth has been reduced to guesswork.