10.45 G.M.T.

Moscow: 1.45 p.m., Washington: 5.45 a.m.

"THERE ARE only two alternatives," General Steele said. He paused and looked round the long table. The president, at the head of the table, was inclining slightly forward to listen. The Secretaries of State and Defence were at his right and left hand respectively, and between them and the service chiefs the intervening seats were occupied by the heads of Atomic Energy Commission, Central Intelligence Agency, Civil Defence, and F.B.I. It was almost, but not quite, a full meeting of the National Security Council. Only two or three members were missing, and they were out of Washington.

"The first of these," Steele went on "seems at this moment to be impossible of fulfilment. It is that the eight forty-third wing be recalled. I am not going to suggest there is not the slightest chance of doing this. We may, by some lucky break, hit on the right letter combinations. But the odds against that, in the time remaining to us, are in the order of a hundred to one. For the moment anyway.

"I use 'the expression `for the moment', because General Keppler has suggested a way in which we might be able to establish personal contact with the commander at Sonoraa contact which so far he has refused to prolong beyond his bald statement that the wing were attacking on his personal orders. I will revert to this suggestion after examining the second of the alternatives."

"One moment," the President broke in. "I think I'd like to hear about it before you pass on to the second alternative."

It so happens the Seventy Fourth Infantry Division are on tactical dispersal training in the immediate vicinity of Sonora. General Keppler has suggested they be ordered to penetrate Sonora Base, to establish contact with the commander and with any other officer who was present when the crews were briefed. Only those officers would know the code group which the commander gave the crews at the briefing."

"Would it be necessary to use force to achieve this, er, penetration?"

Steele glanced at Franklin, who was standing in the group surrounding the table, and motioned him forward. "General Franklin, the commander of SAC, is here, Mr. President. With your permission, he's the best man to answer that question."

The President nodded. "Well, Franklin? Would force be necessary?"

"Most certainly," Franklin said bluntly. "I've been thinking what I'd have done in Quinten's place. I'd know that the attack orders would be monitored, so my first concern would have been to seal off the base. I feel sure Quinten has brought the base to warning red conditions, which means all non-combatants are now below ground, and the defence teams will be in their battle positions. No doubt he has instructed them to fire on anyone or anything that tries to penetrate the base unless he personally orders them not to.

Any force which tried to penetrate would surely come under fire. There would be heavy casualties on both sides."

General Keppler said pleasantly, "Not so many as you may think. With respect to your defence teams, General, they're not infantry.They're airmen and technicians with a smattering of training in the operation of defensive weapons. The seventy-fourth, is one of our Ranger divisions. They'll brush the defence aside without too much trouble."

The President saw Franklin's face slowly darken. In the few weeks he had been President he had already experienced one major inter-service row and three or four minor squabbles. Now the foundations of yet another dispute were being laid for the future. If there was going to be a future, he thought grimly. Before Franklin could reply he intervened.

"How long before they can move in, General Keppler?"

An aide stepped forward and whispered to Keppler. The burly general smiled. "They've got there pretty fast, Mr. President. The second battalion is in position five hundred yards off two sides of the fencing now." He looked at Franklin, grinned, and carefully laid an inch of ash from his cigar in one of the massive glass ashtrays which were ranked down the middle of the table.

The President did not miss the by-play between Keppler and Franklin. He noted it, but it did not engage any large part of his conscious attention. He was considering the situation. Somewhere on that base there must be an officer who knew the code group. Perhaps the commander himself would pull back when he heard what the President had to tell him. Inevitably, there would be casualties. Possibly heavy casualties, though Keppler should know the capabilities of his troops. But the situation was such that casualties must be accepted. The few would have to suffer for the sake of the many. He made his decision.

"Send them in," he said quietly. "I want the minimum in casualties, but they are not to let the necessity of inflicting casualties deter them from taking the commander alive at the earliest possible time. Instruct the battalion commander he is to institute an immediate search for any officers who were present at the briefing."

Keppler turned in his chair. The aide stepped forward, listened, then turned and hurried from the room

"Now, General Steele, the President Said., "Please continue."

The Air Force Chief of Staff began to speak again. "The Joint Chiefs have come to the conclusion that the only course open to us is to follow up Quinten's action. That is the second of the alternatives, It is a fact, Mr. President, that the eight forty-third will probably be able to hit each of the priority one targets. We think, furthermore, they will take out these targets before the Russians are able to get any effective retaliatory force off the ground. Provided the eight forty-third is followed by a sufficiently strong attack, delivered by at least eight wings, the Russians will not be able to retaliate on the American continent at all. We cannot guarantee the integrity of targets in Western Europe, but we think there is a good chance the Russians will be so concerned in fighting off our attack and trying to scrap together resources for a counter they will probably not be able to mount an effective attack on those targets.

"We considered also the possibility of a retaliatory strike by submarines firing guided missiles from off our coasts. The Chief of Naval Operations is satisfied we can defeat this threat. Our main concern in the past has been the huge sea areas we have to cover to guard against attacks on the SAC bases in the South and South-west. But once our main attacks have been delivered, we can afford to abantdon those bases. Our sea defences can then be concentrated on comparatively short and narrow belts of water opposite the East and West coasts. We feel we can then ensure missile from submarines will not hit our coastal and near-coastal cities.

"Our conclusions can be summarised thus. Accepting we cannot recall the bombersof the eight forty-third wing, there is an absolute military necessity to follow up their attack a hard and as fast as we can. Any other course of action will inevitably mean that we lose cities, and take casualties. Not just a few, but millions of them. In anticipation of your decision, ten SAC wings are already heading for their X points. They can put in their attack between two and seven hour after the eight forty-third. Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommend that a full scale attack on Soviet Russia be launched' immediately."

"Concur," Admiral Maclellan said precisely.

"Concur," Keppler growled.

The President stood up abruptly. He paced down the long room to where the semi-circle of chairs faced the big wall maps. He watched as the plotters neatly drew intersecting lines across the tracks of the target-bound bombers. Each little intersection represented another five minute advance towards the target, based on the flight plan estimates. He sighed.

It was so simple. An elementary exercise in military theory, The Joint Chiefs were professionals, and their solution was undoubtedly the right one. He continued to gaze at the central map.

Slowly the officers and civilians who had been sitting at the big table drifted down to group themselves behind him. In a time of national emergency, the President stands at the very apex of the councils of power. Through him must flow the proposals and counter-proposals on all matters affecting the national security. From him must come the ultimate policy decisions. That is the constitution.

He stood silent for a full two minutes in front of the central map. He tried to think himself into the position of his opposite number in the Kremlin. All his life, even when at a comparatively late age he had found himself sucked into the hurly burly of politics, he had read and admired the great Russian novelists. Now he bent the knowledge he had acquired from them of the Russian character into an attempt to solve the one great dilemma with which he was faced. He did not believe the character of a people can change overnight, whatever change of government there might have been. He thought of the Russian peasant; stubborn, obstinate, accustomed to suffering and perhaps even welcoming it. Latent in all the Slavs, he thought, is the urge for self destruction, the mute acceptance of nemesis once nemesis is seen to be at hand.

He turned abruptly to the waiting group. '"Gentlemen," he said, "we're not going to do it." His tone was crisp' and authoritative.

"General Steele."

"Mr. President?"

"Recall the SAC wings. Keep them airborne if you feel it necessary for their safety; but they are not to proceed to their X points without direct authority from me."

Steele turned away abruptly. He moved over to Franklin. "You heard, Keith, he said. "Bring them on back." He dropped his voice a little. "But not too far. Arrange for tankers to meet them not more than four hours from their targets. Prepare them to stay airborne just as long as is necessary. If they get hungry, all right they get hungry. But I want them kept airborne, and I want them kept topped with fuel. I still think they're going to be needed."

"I know they will," Franklin said. It was a definite statement of fact. Like Quinten, Franklin had no great opinion of politicians, especially when they interfered with the weapon he had helped to forge. But Franklin was not a sick man. More important, he had not the same freedom of action Quinten had. He went away to give out the orders. Steele turned back to the group around the President.

The President spoke directly to him. "General Steele, you think my decision is madness," It was phrased as a statement, but everyone in the group took it as a question.

Steele looked at the President. Never in his life had he evaded the truth when asked for his opinion. He did not propose to begin now. He said, "Sir, so far as I can see, it is madness. You have overlooked that if we succeed in recalling the eight forty-third, we can easily recall the other wings. If we do not succeed those wings are going to be necessary. I will go further than that. Not only will they be necessary, they will stand between life and death for millions of people in this country."

The President smiled. "Thank you, General. Let me assure you I have not taken the decision lightly."

Well, Steele thought, they could see. Meanwhile, he could rely on Franklin holding the wings where they could be sent in to their targets with the minimum delay.

The President looked at the map again. He gazed particularly at the heavy brown shading of the Urals. He said, "Get me Moscow. I want to speak to the Marshal himself. No one else will do."

The senior of the two presidential aides said nervously, "Mr. President, it's possible the Marshal will not be available."

"Tell him this," the President said, his words coming slowly and distinctly. "Tell him in an hour and a quarter from now his major cities, including Moscow, will be taken out He'll be available."

"Taken out?" the aide queried.

"Taken out, destroyed, obliterated, phrase it how you like The words don't matter. The cities and the people do." He paused, considering carefully what else there was to be said. "Tell him also," he continued very quietly, "I'm greatly afraid I won't be able to prevent it."

The aide hurried away. The President glanced at his watch. It was five minutes to six, Washington time. He turned briskly to the group. "Now gentlemen, things to be done. NORAD alerted. Steele?"

"it's been done, Mr. President."

"Good, The fleets at sea, Admiral Maclellan?"

"They've been alerted, sir."

"All right. I don't consider there is a need to evacuate the cities yet. Any threat against them won't develop for some time. Maybe," his voice was thoughtful, "for some considerable time, I'll need a complete communications system between this room and Moscow. At least a dozen independent outlets. The Russian Ambassador will be arriving shortly, and I want him brought right in with no unnecessary formalities. Yes, Keppler?"

Keppler, flushed. He did not like bucking authority, but this was madness. Within minutes of entering the War Room the ambassador could not fail to assimilate the most vital of all defence secrets. "The communications system is easy, sir. We already have all the outlets here we need. It's just a question' of hooking them to a radio net." He paused, not too sure just how far he"should go. "About the Russian Ambassador," he began hesitantly.

"He enters on my personal orders." The President's voice was quiet, but firm. "Now I wish to talk to the Joint Chiefs in private.

Individuals broke away from the group and dispersed down the room. At the long table they merged into a group again, as though the table acted as a focal point, bringing them together to converse in low, excited voices. Twenty yards away, the President was talking to the three service officers.

"A few moments ago," he said, "I made a decision you thought was military nonsense. As far as your information and your knowledge goes, I'll agree that it was. But I happen to know a little more than you.

"I'm now forced to let you into a secret which up, to the present has been known only to the President himself and the Secretary of State. It was passed on personally to me by my predecessor when ill health finally forced him to relinquish the Presidency. In my opinion, the knowledge he had to bear contributed directly to the decline in his health, but that is by the way. There are reasons you have not been allowed to have this information. The most important of them is that once you have it, you will see than an all-out attack on Russia is futile. Obviously, that would affect your attitude to your duties, and that would have been fatal, for it would have encouraged the enemy to attack, in the knowledge that though our defences are strong, yet we would hesitate to use our powers of retaliation.

"General Steele, I can see you don't agree. Let me ask you a question. Could you, as Chief of Air Force, order an all out attack on Russia if you knew that attack would inevitably mean the destruction of the United States?"

"Mr. President, the premises are false. If I ordered an all out attack on Russia now; the United States would not be destroyed."

"You're wrong. Not only would the United States be destroyed, but all the rest of the world too. Not spectacularly, and not at once, but quite inevitably. Radio-activity, you will agree, can destroy life just as effectively as blast or heat?"

"In the long run," Steele said. "But the big bombs we're using aren't rigged that way. There's no reason the fallout should exceed that of a small atomic explosion."

"And the Russians' bombs?"

"They don't affect the issue. If this attack goes through and is followed up, those bombs will never be delivered."

"Not on this country, no. But do they need to be delivered here? Now I am going to give you the information which was passed on to me by my predecessor. It is a quite simple idea, but if you look at it carefully you will see it really is the ultimate deterrent. You take a couple of dozen hydrogen devices. They don't need to be bombs, no airplane is going to be called on to carry them. You jacket those devices in cobalt, and you bury them in a convenient mountain range. They can be exploded at the press of a button. All of them. How long would you give human life on this earth after such an explosion?

The President paused, looked at each of the three faces in turn. They were thoughtful, puzzled, perhaps a little frightened as discernment came to them. "The Atomic Energy Commission were given that question as a theoretical exercise. Their answer was this. That all life would cease in the northern hemisphere between eight and fourteen weeks after the explosion. The southern hemisphere would last longer, depending on the time of year. Five months at the minimum, ten at the maximum. There would be no escape from the radioactive cloud. It would enshroud the entire earth, and poison every living organism. It would retain its lethality for hundreds of years. It would mean the end of the world. Literally."

Admiral Maclellan shook his head. "But that would be suicide," he said slowly. "The nation or person who set off such an explosion would die with the rest."

"Exactly," the President said. "But the rest would die. Gentlemen, we have incontestable proof the Russians have buried at least twenty, maybe more, of these devices in the Urals. It is my belief, based on a lifetime's study of the Russian character in particular, and also the behaviour of dictators facing defeat in general, that if they see they are beaten they will not hesitate to fire those devices.

"Have you any doubt Hitler would indeed have brought the world down in flaming ruins if he had had the power to do so when Berlin was under siege? Fortunately, he did not have the power, he could only destroy himself. But notice that he did destroy himself, rather than endure defeat. In every dictatorship which is tottering, there is an urge towards destruction. Of self, if that only is possible. Of the world, if that is. Gentlemen, I am convinced if the eight forty-third wing carry out their mission, and with such success it is obvious to the Russians they have lost, then they will press the button. And if they do, within ten months from now our Earth will be as dead as the Moon.

Back to Main Menu