I lost the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuked the world from my couch ... and you can too.
- By Michael PeckMichael Peck is an award-winning writer specializing in defense and national security issues. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers University.
Come closer to the fire, my friend. It will keep the chill of nuclear winter away. Are you hungry? I have some canned food that is not radioactive. I checked it with a Geiger counter myself.
You came here from Washington, D.C.? I have heard rumors of strange creatures living among the ruins. Ground Zero was the White House, and I am told that a peculiar blue light glows from the bottom of the crater.
But people tell many stories. You have traveled a long way, and I will tell you the story you came for. You desire to learn how World War III started? I will teach you with the help of a friend. A board game called Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps you will make better decisions than Kennedy and Khrushchev did.
Help me set up the map. You see the island of Cuba, long and narrow like one of Castro’s cigars, and divided into hundreds of hexagons? There are two players, one controlling the Soviets and Cubans, and the other for the Americans. Let us now place the little cardboard pieces. Now you see the prime cause of the war. Lack of information.
Do you notice that like the game of Stratego, the Cuban and Soviet forces set up face down, so that the Americans only see a hundred or so faceless brown pieces across the map? Each piece might be a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) battery. Or a surface-to-air missile (SAM) unit, or a rather inconsequential Cuban Army battalion. The Americans can only scan a sea of anonymous brown until their reconnaissance aircraft overfly a hexagon and flip the pieces to their revealed side. Until then, they can’t bomb missiles sites that they can’t spot.
How thick the fog of war is, as dense as a mushroom cloud. There are also Soviet convoys that arrive during the course of the game. They have their true nature hidden on the back side unless the American Navy intercepts them. Some carry regular cargo, but others carry intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). And to make the fog truly opaque, the Soviets secretly roll dice to determine when the missiles in Cuba become operational, so the gringos don’t even how much time they have to remove the missiles before they can be fired.
Now we set up the Americans. The game begins October 16 — each turn equals one day — and the United States only has a few air squadrons in south Florida until mobilization is declared. Unlike the Soviet side, the American pieces are always face-up and known.
Would you like some crackers? I found them in a fallout shelter. They are dry but nutritious. Where was I? Ah, yes, now comes the heart of the game. Each side has a deck of event cards that it can choose to play, one per turn. Many cards can only be played at higher alert levels, which span Defense Condition 1 to 5 for the United States, and a state of Peace, Crisis, and War for the Soviets. Each card allows certain actions, and adds or subtracts victory points for the United States or the USSR.
At the start of the game, the Americans start at a relaxed Defcon 5 and the Soviets at Peace. Neither side can attack each other, and America can fly only one reconnaissance mission each turn turn. If only things had remained that way…
Keep your hand away from that green blob on the floor. I swear that I have seen it move at night. Now we begin the game:
It is October 16. It was a Tuesday, I think. I was going to surprise my wife with a … no, best not to think too much of the past. The present is hard enough. But it is the first day of the crisis, and the Americans move first. They change their alert level to Defcon 4, which allows them to play the Increased Reconnaissance card that allows two overflights per day. The reconnaissance aircraft detect some SAM sites, some Mig fighters and Ilyushin bombers, and a medium-range ballistic missile site. The MRBM site is not yet active, but now President Kennedy has proof of Soviet missiles!
The Soviet response is to raise their alert level from Peace to Crisis (as if there wasn’t a crisis already?) — and play a Cuban Mobilization Card to strengthen local forces in case the Americans launch a ground invasion.
October 17. Perhaps some quiet negotiation could have averted tensions at that point. But the Americans order Defcon 3. They play a Low-Level Reconnaissance card to improve the results of their overflights. Another MRBM site is detected, plus more SAMs and a Soviet mechanized regiment.
The Soviets did not play a card that day. Perhaps they thought time was on their side. They would wait out the Americans until the missiles were operational and then be in a much stronger bargaining position.
Have some water. I apologize for the quality. I filter it as best I can, but the black rain gives it the texture of mud.
October 18. Two Soviet cargo ships arrive that day. They were actually carrying food and industrial machinery, but how was Washington to know that? The Americans maintain Defcon 3, but now they play U.S. Army Mobilization. For the next several days, so many troops and aircraft pour into Florida that the state nearly sinks into the ocean. Aircraft are quickly deployed to airbases, and a Marine division is readied to invade Cuba, but it will take several days to prepare Army divisions for an amphibious and airborne assault. One should not be in a hurry to invade another country. These things often don’t end well.
Seeing the U.S. mobilize and fearing an American surprise attack, Moscow orders mobilization of the Warsaw Pact.
October 19. That was a Friday, wasn’t it? We should have been looking forward to the weekend, not war. While its forces mobilize, Washington intensifies paramilitary operations with the Operation Mongoose card, which disrupts Cuban defenses.
Now Moscow crosses the Rubicon. It plays Air Alert card, which allows air defenses to fire on American aircraft. A U-2 spy plane is shot down that day.
October 20. Infuriated by the loss of the U-2, the Americans go to Defcon 2 and declare a naval quarantine of Cuba. A Soviet convoy is stopped and inspected for missiles, but none are discovered.
The Soviets respond by stationing missile-armed submarines off the East coast.
October 21. Washington declares that its aircraft will attack any SAM site that fires on U.S. planes. Perhaps someone forgot to tell the Soviet air defense crews, because they do fire on a U-2, and are bombed for their pains.
But someone also forgot to tell the Americans that Cuba wasn’t the only battleground. Moscow plays the Blockade Berlin card.
Dusk is falling. I have little fuel left for my lantern. We must hurry.
October 22. And so it begins. Four MRBM sites and an IRBM site have been detected so far. The Americans gamble that the nuclear missiles in Cuba will become operational soon. They play the Surgical Strike card, which allows airstrikes against nuclear missile sites. Two MRBM sites and an IRBM location are destroyed by Air Force and Navy aircraft.
But if America can attack their missiles, they can attack ours. The Soviets raise their alert level to War status, and Soviet bombers strike Jupiter missile sites in Turkey.
October 23. There were options, you know. There are always options. Look at the event cards. The Americans could have played gone to the United Nations, pledged not to invade Cuba, agreed not to place any missiles in Turkey. The Soviets could have withdrawn their missiles, or stopped sending convoys. But both sides were drunk on a cocktail of pride and fear. Perhaps the lesson is, don’t drink with your finger on the nuclear button.
That day, the United States went to Defcon 1 and invaded Cuba. Marines and paratroopers landed near Havana. Within hours, the Soviets invaded Western Europe. And then there was only one last card to be played: Initiate Nuclear Warfare. Whether it was America or Russia who first played it doesn’t matter. The results were the same.
Who won the war? Look around you. Do these ruins look like victory?
Go to sleep. You must rest before your long journey home.
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality.| On The Brink |