The Politics of Global War: Witching Hour Approaches In Washington DC


CIA Director William Webster placed the phone back in its cradle and looked at the collection of men seated around the oak conference table. He took a deep, measured breath and spoke. “Well, gentlemen, the probability of war breaking out between the Soviet Union and United States in the next eight hours now sits at ninety-five percent. And that’s an official estimate,” he added needlessly.

Webster’s pronouncement brought about a reflective silence. The other five men present in the wood-paneled conference room in the White House Situation Room individually digested the news and came to terms with its meaning.

“It’s always nice to have an official prediction,” National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci pointed out. “Where do you get your odds from, Bill? Moscow or Vegas?”

The comment was made lightly and produced a round of much needed smiles and chuckles. The men around the conference table made up the core of what would soon become President Reagan’s wartime council. Along with Webster, and Carlucci, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe, and US Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch were also present. Secretary of State George Shultz was not. He was in his office at the State Department coordinating a flurry of eleventh-hour diplomatic efforts to derail the war that was approaching the civilized world like a runaway freight train in the night.

Vice President George Bush, who would become a vital member of Reagan’s war council in the coming days and weeks, was not present either. With war so close, continuity of government was becoming a major consideration. Bush and Reagan would remain physically separated from one another until the tensions eased. At the moment, Bush was at his official residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory patiently waiting. Soon enough, he and his wife would be loaded aboard Marine Two and flown out of the city. Evacuation of the VP to a secure location outside of Washington DC was set to take place the moment war became imminent. For the moment, war was considered highly probable, not imminent, so Bush remained in DC.

This was part of the US government’s continuity of government blueprint. There was always a plan ready to go at a moment’s notice. The government had plans devised for every conceivable scenario. War with the Soviet Union was the major one. At the moment, the Central Locator System was maintaining a continuous watch on the president, every official in the line of succession, and a number of other essential government officials. If a nuclear attack against the United States was anticipated, these individuals would be moved immediately to secure locations across the nation. Right now, the protocol for a conventional US-Soviet conflict was somewhat fluid. If the shooting commenced, the VP would be moved at once, followed by Speaker of the House Jim Wright within two hours. The remaining members of the line of succession would remain in Washington unless the president ordered differently.

President Reagan was upstairs in the Executive Residence resting. During the afternoon, some of his aides had urged the president to block out a few hours and replenish himself. Reagan was not a young buck, and the ongoing crisis was taxing him both mentally and physically. Webster and Weinberger were a part of the afternoon’s effort, pointing out to Reagan the high probability of hostilities breaking out in the next day or so. Weinberger was especially insistent about the president getting as much rest as possible now while he could. Reluctantly, Reagan finally agreed. Before going upstairs, he said he would return at 9 PM, then ordered Carlucci and the others to remain in the Situation Room and monitor events taking place in Europe and elsewhere. If something major happened before 9 they were to wake him immediately.

After Webster’s announcement, the discussion in the Situation Room focused on Europe. Specifically, what was happening in West Germany. It was 6:30 in Washington, six hours behind Central European Summer Time. In places like Brussels, and West Berlin it was half past midnight, 9 July, 1987. Every few minutes an aide, or military officer would come into the conference room, handed a report to his or her respective boss, and then left. The flow of information coming into the wood-paneled room was accurate, current, and painted an ominous picture of the global situation at the moment.

“It’s after midnight in Europe,” Carlucci observed. “Pretty soon the witching hour is going to be upon us.”

The CIA Director looked up from the folder he’d been silently reading from. “What do you mean, Frank?”

“If the Russians are set to move today, we’ll know it within the next three or four hours. The first indication we receive will not be tanks with red stars on them crossing the border.”

Webster understood the gist of Carlucci’s explanation, but he was looking for more detailed information. The current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency had held the job for a little over a month. Hardly enough time to acclimate himself to the rigors of running the premier intelligence-gathering agency in the Free World. Taking over in the midst of an escalating global crisis had made the task far more difficult. This was not a time for pride to take over, though. He asked the national security advisor to elaborate.

Carlucci motioned to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The nation’s highest-ranking military officer was better suited to handle the DCI’s request.

“Director,” Crowe started. “At the moment there are thousands of Soviet tanks and combat aircraft ready to go on the other side of the border. When war comes, it will not begin with all of that equipment thundering west at dawn. The Soviets also have hundreds of commandos and KGB agents in place across the NATO countries right now. When the time comes, they’ll go into action and launch attacks on military installations, and headquarters. As well as assassination attempts on political leaders, car bombs going off, and a lot of other unpleasant things. When that happens, we’ll know for certain the balloon is going up.”

Webster followed up Crowe’s explanation with another question. “How ready will our troops be to defend against those attacks?”

“They’ll be as prepared as humanly possible, sir. I’ve talked to General Galvin about this at length.”

“And a little while after those attacks, those Soviet tanks and aircraft we’ve been so worried about will cross the border in force,” Secretary Weinberger put in. “We’re ready for that too. I only wish we’d have a few more days of peace to get more REFORGER units, and Air Force squadrons in position. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

“When the time comes, we’ll have some surprises in store for the Russians,” Admiral Crowe declared with a smile. He turned to the Air Force general sitting beside him. “Isn’t that right, Larry?”

Welch smiled and nodded affirmatively but said nothing. Nobody pressed him on the subject either. One way or another, they’d all find out what those surprises were soon enough.

Next, the talk shifted over to America’s NATO allies and how firm their commitment to the alliance would be after the shooting started. Each man at the table had their own suspicions about one or two specific member-states that might seek out a separate peace in order to avoid prolonged fighting on their soil. Turkey, and Denmark were the two brought up most frequently. There were others as well.

Weinberger and Carlucci started a spirited discussion about the status of Turkey, Greece and the overall status of NATO’s southern region. Twenty minutes into it, a US Navy captain entered the room, and handed the secretary of defense a yellow telex sheet. He read it over, handed it to Admiral Crowe and then addressed the others seated at the table.

“A message from NATO headquarters. General Galvin’s people are reporting a firefight underway outside of a NATO airbase in West Germany. Apparently, a group of infiltrators tried to gain entrance to the base and were stopped by the security forces. The infiltrators are suspected to be either Russian commandos or KGB operatives judging by their weapons, and clothing.”

As Weinberger completed his report, Carlucci looked up at the digital clock. It was 7:23PM Eastern Time, 8 July, 1987 in Washington DC.

In Europe it was 1:23 AM, 9 July, 1987.



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