0100 Zulu (0500 Local)
The Defense Council was huddled together in the secure conference room located on the wing adjacent to the general secretary’s living quarters. It was now beyond first light in Moscow and the Politburo was set to meet at 6:30. In the next ninety minutes some critical decisions had to be made and placed into effect. Romanov couldn’t afford to walk into that meeting without having already ordered retaliation. His opponents on that governing body would identify it as indecision. And like sharks picking up the scent of blood in the water, they would move in immediately for the kill.
Romanov had taken the news of Wunsdorf’s destruction remarkably well, KBG Chairman Victor Chebrikov noted suspiciously. Perhaps the general secretary regarded the NATO strike as an opportunity to end the war on favorable terms. This had been his stated goal, after all. Quite the coincidence, Chebrikov mused.
While the Defense Council members grasped with trying to determine the reason for this seemingly unprovoked attack, Romanov was more focused on what form the Soviet response should take. He was impatient to move forward, other members noticed, and review the four surprisingly detailed and complete counterattack proposals Marshal Akhromeyev had brought. Each contingency appeared custom designed to suit the present situation in Germany and was intended only to retaliate, not escalate.
The foreign minister broached the subject of contacting the US president through the hotline. Romanov dismissed the idea for now. He intended to transmit a communique to Washington minutes before the Soviet retaliation strike was launched. Separately, Foreign Minister Gromyko and the KGB chairman came to the same realization that this was all moving too fast. Pieces were already in place before this meeting even started. Both men had to assume that decisions were already made as well.
Retaliation was a given and required at this point. Neither Gromyko or Chebrikov would dispute the general secretary’s right or need to order a similar nuclear counterattack. Yet separately, both men decided it would not go further unless a follow-on NATO attack materialized.
0140 Zulu (2140 Local)
The rapid polling of every US combatant command around the world had finally been completed. From SAC to USAFE, all nuclear warheads, delivery systems and nuclear-capable aircraft were accounted for. None were missing. The British and French were conducting their own inventory polls as well. But the Pentagon and White House expected there to be nothing less than a full accounting of either nation’s nuclear inventory. When it was learned at the White House that no US nuclear weapons were missing, the horrifying possibility that every man in the Situation Room was silently entertaining for the past sixty minutes now had to be addressed.
Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger swiftly verbalized what the room was thinking. “Well, gentlemen,” he sighed and shook his head. “It appears to be just like we figured. Those crazy bastards in the Kremlin have nuked themselves.”
His counterpart from the State Department, George Shultz expanded on Weinberger’s comment. “This means the Russians are going to hit back. Since we didn’t attack them in the first place, I can’t fathom a situation where we will not respond to that attack. That will undoubtedly bring about a follow-on strike. Romanov has us in a box.” He looked down the table and directly at President Reagan. “Mr.President, this could escalate beyond our control very fast unless we can cool things down in a hurry.”