Dr Strangelove's secrets

Terrifying truths about the Cold War period are leaking out from archives around the world.
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The Independent Culture
When the film Dr Strangelove was released in 1964, the plot - of a mad American air force commander unleasing a nuclear bomber attack on the Soviet Union - was derided by military critics. White House officials and Pentagon Generals alike maintained that no attack could be launched without "civilian authority" the finger of the President on the "button".

Documents declassified last week show that the nuclear holocaust of Kubrick's powerful film satire was indeed possible. Authority to approve a nuclear launch was "predelegated" by the President to the military from the time of Eisenhower. This was in force at the time of the film's release at the height of the Cold War.

According to Bill Burr of the Washington-based National Security Archive, the documents "disclose one of the Cold War's deepest secrets, that during the most dangerous phases of the US-Soviet confrontation during the early Sixties top military commanders had presidentially authorised instructions providing advance authority to use nuclear weapons under specified emergency conditions".

The models for the mad air force generals of Dr Strangelove are widely believed to be the cigar-chomping, ass-kicking Curtis E LeMay and the steely-eyed Thomas Power, who ran America's nuclear bomber force from 1948-57 and 1957-63 respectively. LeMay's predeliction for nuclear weapons became only too clear when he was standing for vice-presidential candidate in 1968, proving too extreme and embarrassing even for his running mate, the noted racist George Wallace. More recently I interviewed several of General "Tommy" Power's deputies, who considered him mentally unstable. General Horace Wade remarked, "I felt he was losing his stability as he aged..."

These new revelations are all part of a wealth of new historical material. Since the fall of the Berlin War, historians have accessed some of the most secret files of the Communist bloc. Once locked up in the deepest vaults, the archives of the "evil empire" have gradually been opened, allowing scholars to examine whether Communist leaders were really intent on world domination. A batch of major new Cold War histories offer some startling revelations:

l The division of Germany was the result of American policies that pushed the Soviets towards creating the "Iron Curtain".

l Stalin did not order the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to launch an attack on South Korea. Nor did he see it as a precursor to a wider Soviet offensive in Europe.

l The Chinese were influential in persuading Krushchev to crack down on the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The Russians had, at one point, been prepared to let Hungary go.

l One contender in the Kremlin battle to replace Stalin, the ruthless secret police chief, Beria, proposed that the Soviets should offer the West a deal on the unification and neutralisation of Germany. This was pivotal in his arrest and execution.

l Had the Americans invaded Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis they would have been met with Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.

l Detente foundered in the late Seventies after Henry Kissinger repeatedly charged the Kremlin with using Cuban surrogates to spread power and influence on Africa and the Third World. New material shows that the Kremlin had little control over the Cubans.

"Now the Cold War is over, its history has become a growth industry," says Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. International conferences abound, and a 24-part Cold War TV series will be transmitted on BBC2 from 12 September.

Blanton says that a post-Cold War generation of international historians are grappling with the "new" Cold War history, "mostly younger scholars clustered round the Cold War History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center - including James Hershberg, Vladislav Zubok, Chen Jian, Kathryn Weathersby, Mark Kramer, Csaba Bekes and Hope Harrison - have pioneered the integration of sources from the "other side" into a nuanced, contextual and truly international version of our recent past".

These two American projects both have well organised websites that allow you to look at fascinating and often chilling original documents of the period. For example the KGB's 1967 annual report to President Brezhnev documents their successes: "During 1967 [the KGB] recruited 218 foreigners, among whom 64 possess operational capacities for work against the US. Reinforcement of agent networks of the intelligence service contributed to obtaining important information on political, military and scientific- technological problems... the KGB carried out operations of clandestine pilfering of secret documents from intelligence services of the enemy. These and other measures resulted in obtaining the codes of seven capitalist countries and in implanting eavesdropping radio devices at 36 installations of interest for Soviet intelligence."

The "enemy" archives disclose a Communist system that appears as bad as anything its worst critics alleged. The full horror of Stalin's purges, genocide and forcible relocations is confirmed. Both Russian and Western experts agree that Stalin's policies before the Second World War cost between 17 and 22 million lives.

Understanding the mind of Stalin is a preoccupation of these historians. While the archives confirms the vile domestic repression of the Soviet State, they also show that Stalin was far from a fiendish global totalitarian strategist. He frequently confused his officials with his contradictory policies.

According to Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, two of the new generation of Russian historians and also authors of Inside the Kremlin's Cold War, the Soviets pursued a "cautious expansionism in those areas that Stalin and his advisers defined as `natural' spheres of influence". There was "no master plan in the Kremlin and Stalin's ambitions had always been severely limited by the terrible devastation of the USSR during World War Two and the existence of the American atomic monopoly."

Of most interest to scholars is the seminal and most terrifying moment of the Cold War, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The new archive material reveals that it was an even more desperate moment than previously realised. The prevailing view has been that it was successful American nuclear brinkmanship which persuaded Krushchev to pull the missiles out of Cuba. In the words of the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

Many Western Cold War warriors still believe Kennedy "lost" the Crisis because he did not invade Cuba. What no one in the West knew until recently was that the Soviet commanders on the island had more Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) than the CIA was aware of, and tactical nuclear weapons that the CIA knew nothing of. Furthermore, the Soviets also had a tactical nuclear arsenal that would have been deployed to stop any US assault, with the danger of massive escalation of the conflict.

Christian Ostermann, the Cold War Project director, says while the new material has been dramatic, some key archives still remain largely closed - this includes the presidential archive and the KGB archive in Moscow. "The Chinese have released very little material so far," he says. Ostermann describes his job as "probably one of the most exciting jobs you can have in this field".

Last November the project organised a remarkable conference in Warsaw examining the Polish crisis of 1980-81, when martial law had been imposed and most of the Solidarity trade union leaders had been arrested. Remarkably, many of the key figures involved from all sides attended, including the then Polish prime minister, General Wojiech Jaruzelski, the Solidarity leader, Zbigniew Bujak, the Russian military commander Marshal Victor Kulikov and the American national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

According to Ostermann, the proceedings were highly dramatic. Jaruzelski has justified martial law and presented himself as a national hero for preventing a Russian military occupation during the crisis. He was confronted by Marshal Kulikov who said that at the time Jaruzelski was in favour of Russian intervention. To provide evidenc,e Kulikov produced the detailed diary of his aide at the time, which documents the meetings between the Polish and Soviets. This diary is to be published in the latest edition of the Cold War Project bulletin (No 11) at the end of September.

NSA's Tom Blanton says that the wealth of new material often does not support the position of one side or the other. "What we are seeing is history that does not come down in simple black-and-white terms on these highly ideological debates." He cites the infamous 1953 spy case in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried for atomic espionage in the United States, found guilty and executed. Left-wingers have always protested their innocence.

"There is now incontrovertible evidence that Julius was guilty of spying," says Blanton. "But it does not support the old right-wing position either, as it is now clear that Ethel was charged to put pressure on her husband. She should have never been executed."

Blanton says it is this kind of definitive information from the archives that is changing the face of Cold War history. "The new generation of scholars are very careful not to plonk themselves down in the old schools, whether orthodox, revisionist or whatever. The questions are also changing. What seem like important questions now will increasingly be seen themselves to be products of the old ideological stances of the Cold War."

Internet websites:

American National Security Archive: www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive

Cold War Project: http://cwihp.si. edu

National Archives: www.nara.gov

CNN-Cold War series interactive Net site: www.com/coldwar

British Public Records Office: www.pro.gov.uk

Institute for Contemporary British History: www.icbh.as.uk