Recent news from Eastern Europe is very worrisome to say the least. Russia is openly intervening in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and is seeking to add to the Crimean land grab that in engineered not too many months before. Eastern European countries which were formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and it’s puppets now fear that Russia wishes to reestablish that occupation. Under the guise of defending the Russian speaking populations in neighboring countries, a move reminiscent of a certain German leader who claimed that his aggression against countries to the east of him was to protect ethnic Germans in those unfortunate countries, Russia is snatching away Ukrainian territory while threatening many other nations as well. The West is reacting, imposing economic sanctions which at this point are not having any obvious effect on Russia’s behavior, and stirring the NATO apparatus to begin demonstrating a possible military response if Russia follows through on the even more aggressive actions that some in the Russian government are advocating. We seem to be witnessing a resumption of the cold war between the old Soviet Union and the West with unpredictable new Russian rulers with their fingers on a lot of very nasty buttons.
I lived through most of the cold war and can remember many points at which that war could have gone very hot indeed. The Hungarian revolution, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were moments when it could have erupted into a nuclear nightmare whose destructive capability we can scarcely calculate. Those events played out in front of us in the newspapers, on the evening news and in special radio and television broadcasts of presidential addresses, and in the case of the missile crisis we could watch as the Soviet ships bearing missiles for Cuba steamed towards the point at which we had said “this far and no further”. Everyone in the world watched to see if the two giants were going to go at each other with nuclear teeth, and most of the world heaved a sigh of relief when the superpowers were eyeball to eyeball and somebody, thankfully, blinked.
There was another close call however that few people know about. If it has been mentioned in a book I am unaware of it. In fact, the story is so wild that I did not entirely believe it the first time I heard it, but hearing it a second time certainly made me a believer. It is widely known that this event damaged Soviet/U.S. relations for a number of years but few seem to know what a close call it really was. The story is as follows.
In October of 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel that was initially very successful. Both Arab countries were heavily backed by the Soviet Union and flush with military hardware provided in abundance by the Soviets. Caught by surprise, the Israelis were pushed back and seriously threatened with defeat and annihilation until a massive influx of advanced American weapons and the direction of Israel’s defense by extremely competent leadership turned the tide and pushed both of Israel’s adversaries back. The two Arab armies were now threatened with total and humiliating defeat. The Soviets intended to prevent this from happening and prepared to intervene on the Arab armies’ side.
At this particular moment Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was in a heap of political trouble. The Watergate scandal had been brewing for over a year and had shortly before October of 1973 been picking up steam. It seemed as if every day some new piece of testimony or some new revelation was turning up the fire that was slowly cooking the political career and legacy of President Nixon. His presidency was dying daily a death by a thousand cuts, and an opportunity to step up as leader of a nation under attack would seem to him like a political godsend. I was therefore completely unconvinced when on October 25, 1973, President Nixon put the armed forces of the United States, including our nuclear forces, on full alert.
Sure, I thought, rally around the flag. Circle the wagons. Suppress the investigation of presidential wrongdoing in order to focus on the threat of the Hun at the gate. The problem was that there was no visible Hun. The gate looked pretty clear and safe. To our skeptical eyes the Israelis appeared to have things comfortably in hand and were chasing the Arab armies back across the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Most of us didn’t give the alert a second thought, and continued to call for the Presidential scalp without missing a beat.
That is how things stood with me for ten years. Nixon was gone less than a year after the alert was called; a victim of his own paranoia and his attempt to cover up for his loyalists. I had almost forgotten about the incident and had to plumb the depths of my memory when my friend Jeff Blaine brought it up while we were grilling burgers in my back yard one day. Jeff had been one of my closest friends for many years but I had not seem him for quite a while. Jeff was in the Army Security Agency and frequently was posted far from San Diego. He was on leave and visiting family when we made contact, and after several years of separation we were once again standing together nursing a couple of beers and grilling our dinner.
How the conversation arrived at the 1973 event I cannot remember, but my comments on the issue I remember well. “That crook Nixon was just trying to get a little sympathy. I never bought his phony alert for one minute. He was Tricky Dick from the beginning and Tricky Dick until the end. He must’ve thought that we were all idiots to try to feed us that line.” Jeff stood next to the grill, picking at the label on his Budweiser while slowly turning the bottle in his hands. Finally he took a pull on the squat brown bottle and cleared his throat. “Well” he began, “there was more to it than that. We nearly got into a nuclear war at that time.” “You’re shittin’ me” I replied. How do you know a thing like that?”
Jeff proceeded to tell me how he was in Germany in October of 1973 and in addition to coordinating signals for U.S. forces there the agency of which he was part was also privy to a great deal of Soviet signals information as well. The Soviets, according to Jeff, were more deeply committed to their Arab clients than we first believed and were dismayed at seeing their friends’ armies routed and the Egyptian army in particular cut off from its support bases and in danger of collapse. To prevent this the Soviet leaders decided to insert Red Army soldiers into the fight.
Israel was an ally of the U.S. in the same manner as Egypt and Syria were of the U.S.S.R. Nixon was not inlined to allow Soviet soldiers enter the fight, and Nixon let the Soviets know this through the usual back channels. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his military leaders did not care what Richard Nixon thought at that moment and orders were issued to proceed with the operation. Pursuant to those orders, soldiers of the Red Army were gathered and taken to military airfields from where they would be flown to the war zone.
As news of this reached Nixon he acted by putting the American military on full alert. In Germany that meant that the totality of America’s, and presumably NATO’s, military was given orders to prepare to deflect an imminent Russian attack, by offensive tactics if necessary. Tanks were lined up, engines idling, barrels pointed east. In the U.S.S.R. the soldiers boarded their planes and engines were turning; pilots awaiting awaiting orders to taxi and take off. Nixon sent one last message: “Don’t do it. You know I mean what I say.”
The Soviets did indeed know that Richard Nixon meant what he said. There had been dealings between the Soviets and Richard Nixon for many years and they knew well Nixon’s mettle as a cold warrior. The earlier Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at one point said that he had hoped for a Kennedy victory in the 1960 election because he preferred not to have to deal with Richard Nixon. After sober reflection, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and stand down.
I found Jeff’s story hard to believe. Why wasn’t a story this big featured prominently in the newspapers and television news, in a book or a movie? I followed the news media of the day avidly but had heard nothing of this story. Still, Jeff had no reason to make this story up, so I filed it away in my mind as something mildly interesting and never thought of it again.
Until one day in 1994. It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union and I was chatting with a colleague about some of the memorable events of our cold war face-off with the vanquished adversary. I thought that I would surprise Rod with my knowledge of this little-covered confrontation but it turned out that I didn’t surprise him at all; he knew all about this event. Rod, it turned out, had once been in the Navy and in fact had intended to make it a career. That plan was altered irrevocably by the events of October 1973.
Rod was a submariner. He was stationed on a nuclear missile submarine, called a “boomer”, and as the crisis broke out his submarine was ordered to proceed to the Barents Sea, a shallow sea to the north of Russia. It was not uncommon for a boomer to be stationed in that area in a readiness status just in case anything bad ever happened, so Rod thought nothing of it. After spending a couple of days on the bottom, all hands were called to battle stations, which was also not uncommon. This time however the gyroscopes in the nuclear-armed missiles were spinning, indicating that they had active targets, and the hatches to the missile bays were opened.
This was definitely not routine, and although Rod never told me what position he held on that sub, he was a department manager who spoke multiple languages and moved on to a higher position at another hospital shortly after we had our conversation, so I suspect that he wasn’t turning wrenches in the engineering spaces. I am certain that he occupied a position high enough to know exactly what was going on. “I was never so scared in my life” he told me. “I was certain that the order to fire would come and when we returned to the surface there would be nothing there but glowing rubble. I intended to make the Navy a career” Rod continued, “but after that I couldn’t take being a part of it any more. If we were going to blow each other into glowing molecules I wanted it to come as a surprise.”
I was completely stunned by Rod’s revelation I had not any good reason to doubt Jeff’s story, but it was so fantastic that I just filed it away without analyzing it all that much. Now, having heard a guy from a different branch of the American military, ten years later, telling me the same tale, my mind boggled at how close the world had come to the unthinkable. Now, with an expansionist Russia pursuing what appears to be the reestablishment of the old Soviet Empire, it gives me and uncomfortable chill that we might, just might, have to do this thing all over again.