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Cold War Warriors

The Cold War’s Chaotic Sixties

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret.

The decade of the 1960s was the best and worst of times for the U.S. military. On land, sea, in the air and aerospace. The Soviets were doing all they could to impress us with their emerging military might. At the end of the 1950s they had launched their first ICBM. The U.S. had commissioned its first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus (1954) and the Soviets countered with their 1st nuclear submarine in 1958. The ‘50s ended with the Soviets firing the 1st rocket into earth orbit and also landing another on the moon. Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba. Both NATO and the Communist Warsaw Pact alliances had been created.

The west was doing all it could to keep an eye on the Soviets through aggressive air, space, sea and land based reconnaissance and surveillance programs Meanwhile U.S. submarines were snooping around the major Soviet naval base areas off Murmansk and in the Far East.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had just toured the U.S. (1959) and was talking upbeat with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower about dramatic force reductions and solving the Berlin "problem" which had begun as a Soviet Blockade in1948.

1960 began with plans for a major Four Power Summit in Paris in mid May. Then on May 1st, 1960 … a CIA U-2 aircraft piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over central USSR. Right during the Soviet’s major, May Day Parade in Moscow! Khrushchev himself went ballistic. The high hopes for a major Summit were doomed. Also, Ike would not receive his much desired invitation to tour the USSR. Meanwhile, the Soviet Presidium had approved plans to put long range missiles into Cuba . The Cold War was on a steady downhill course.

By 1961 the U.S. had tried to invade Cuba; Khrushchev had approved a Berlin Wall and the U.S. had begun its deployment of IRBM missiles into Cuba and Italy. The Soviets were conducting thermonuclear weapons tests in the Barents Sea.

In 1962 the U.S. had inaugurated John Kennedy its 35th President; launched its first ICBM and sent John Glenn into space for the US’s first, orbital flight. Also, we had discovered Soviet MRBMs in Cuba which were capable of striking New York and Washington D.C. This led to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which I saw up close and personal as a staff officer at the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Command Headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

We all know how that one ended and I must say things looked pretty bright on Thanksgiving Day 1962. We had stared the Soviets down at sea and avoided World War III. They had blinked. We had beat them! Or so it seemed in November 1962. President Kennedy paid us a special visit in the Spring of 1963 to say "thank you " for our Cuban Missile Crisis work. He brought his Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the entire U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to tour the Navy Headquarters and the Norfolk Naval Base.

After the heady days of post- Cuban Crisis celebrations it was hard to return to normal operations. We knew what it was like to have been at the precipice of nuclear war and survived. How could we go back to business as usual. To monitoring crises in small, banana republic nations like the Dominican Republic and Panama. Frankly – it was boring! For many, their interest shifted to the Western Pacific and Vietnam. Things were happening there. How can I get involved? Go where the real action is.

Then that terrible day – Friday, 22 November, 1963 – when our leader during the Cuban Missile crisis- President John F. Kennedy – was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I remember sitting in that huge room that was our Naval Intelligence Interpretive Unit operations center. Surrounded by large map boards showing the status of Soviet forces worldwide. About 15 officers and sailors sitting in stunned silence while listening to Walter Cronkite and CBS TV confirm that the terrible news was true. It felt like the air had just come out of a room which had so recently been an epicenter of Cold War decision making. Our leader was gone. It couldn’t get any worse than this. Or so it seemed on that terrible Friday - one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the days and years that followed we would experience one "jolt" after another that , in my mind, had a definite effect on our morale and readiness. Maybe it was not the Cold War in the 1964 movie "Dr. Strangeglove", but nevertheless - our Cold War was marching inexorably onward. In its own style and pace – not Hollywood’s. Here are some of th e events that shaped the Turbulent Sixties:

1964 – Tonkin Gulf Incident; Nikita Khrushchev overthrow; China atomic bomb tests; Vietnam buildup & bombing campaign; Beatlemania hits America.

1965 – Watts and Detroit Civil Rights riots; anti Vietnam protests escalate; unmanned Soviet spacecraft land on the moon and Venus;

1966 - Vietnam protests continue to escalate; Black Panther Party organized; unmanned Soviet spacecraft land on the moon and Venus; unmanned U.S. spacecraft lands on Venus

1967 - Egypt prepares to attack Israel; Six Day War; USS Liberty Incident; Johnson – Kosygin Summit; Secretary of Defense McNamara resigns; American spy John Walker begins working with KGB.

1968 - What Tom Brokaw calls "The Most Turbulent Year"; Student anti Vietnam protests; USS Pueblo seized by North Korea; Tet Offensive; Soviet SSBN sinking near Hawaii; Martin Luther King assassination; Poor People’s Campaign (Resurrection City); USS Scorpion sinking (by Soviets ?); American Spy John Walker giving Soviets strategic plans and operations information; Robert F. Kennedy assassination; Soviets Invade Czechoslovakia ; Bloody anti Vietnam riots at Democratic Convention in Chicago.

1969 - Apollo 11 – Man on the Moon; Richard Nixon elected President; Anti Vietnam war protests and bombings; North Korea shoots down Navy aircraft; Rolling Thunder bombing of North Vietnam.

I spent my second tour in the Vietnam Combat Zone on the staff of Commander Attack Carrier Striking Forces, Pacific aboard USS Kitty Hawk in 1968 & 1969. We were in command of all Navy airborne " strike " operations over North and South Vietnam. It was called Operation Rolling Thunder which was a highly coordinated operation with the U.S. 7th Air Force. We were proud of what we were accomplishing. We were shutting down the North Vietnamese logistics system which flowed from the ports such as Hanoi in the north and came southward down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam through Laos and into South Vietnam. We were doing this despite all of the restrictions being placed on us by our own government. This was a war, but it wasn’t .

Soviet ships were bringing war supplies into major ports like Hanoi, but we could not touch them. We could not bomb their ships or their port facilities. Nevertheless, we were winning the war to the point where the North Vietnamese agreed to meet in Paris with a U.S. delegation headed up by National Security Adviser Dr. Henry Kissinger. In 1969, at least, it seemed that every time our operations were working particularly well - we would be told to stop. Rather, to "pause" as Dr. Kissinger tried to gain concessions from our cagey enemy.

When I reported for duty in the Pentagon in late 1969, the atmosphere was quite different from what I had known earlier. Americans had turned decidedly against the military and the war. During the day I worked at the Naval Security Station near American University or the Pentagon and was constantly being hassled or taunted by students, hippies and anti-war activists – just because I was in uniform. I would always change out of uniform before going to my night classes at Georgetown University where I was working towards a Masters degree in Russian.

My professors at Georgetown would warn me about the increasing number of Soviet students who were taking classes at both Georgetown and Columbia University in New York. I can still hear my old Russian Literature professor Dr. Mikhail Krupensky saying "Avoid Viktor Bezumnik. You are a Patriot. We are sure he is a spy. Avoid him." I did. I was also careful to avoid all "Receptions" hosted by the Soviet Embassy set up in our hall located across from the 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown. A classy, and enjoyable way of recruiting American students to work for the USSR against the U.S. Military Industrial establishment.

We may have won the day during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the Russian Bear was fighting back worldwide and would continue to do so for the next twenty years. We were starting to experience "incidents " at sea in a secret war that was going virtually unreported in the Western press. Incidents that involved nuclear weapons- equipped ships, aircraft and submarines The Cold War was getting hotter again.

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