The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: At daggers drawn

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The Independent Online
For 13 tense days, from Monday 15 October to Sunday 28 October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of the nuclear abyss. Both John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had become locked into positions from which internal political considerations made retreat impossible. 'Withdraw your nuclear missiles from Cuba',

demanded the American president. 'Withdraw yours from Turkey,' retorted the Soviet leader. Under intense pressure from their respective military advisers, each man waited for the other to give in. Yet neither of them fully realised what a dangerous game they were playing until it was nearly too late.

PRESIDENT Kennedy's experts told him at the beginning of the crisis that there were no nuclear warheads in Cuba. This advice was wrong - there were 45 - and was never amended. At no stage did they tell him that the Soviet commander in Cuba was authorised to fire his tactical nuclear missiles without reference to Moscow. They did not know, and the Russians revealed it only 30 years later.

So Kennedy played his hand on the assumption that Nikita Khrushchev was a pragmatic leader and knew that American superiority in strategic missiles - 5,000 to 300 - would compel him to listen to reason. But he did not know that the Soviet military establishment was pushing Khrushchev to the brink.

Early in the crisis, Khrushchev asked his military leaders if they could assure him that calling Kennedy's hand would not result in the death of 500 million human beings. 'They looked at me as if I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor,' he said later. 'The biggest tragedy as they saw it was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness.'

Equally, Khrushchev did not appreciate the pressure that Kennedy was under from his military leaders. From the beginning it was clear to Kennedy that the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba did not actually alter the strategic balance of power. As he put it: 'It doesn't make any difference if you get blown up by a missile flying from the Soviet Union, or one that was 90 miles away.'

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not agree and they grew increasingly disillusioned with what they regarded as Kennedy's weak and conciliatory attitude to the Soviets. They argued for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cuba - 'that's what the Russians would do' - followed by an invasion and occupation. Kennedy and his brother Robert began to consider seriously the likelihood that if the US did not win the confrontation - in whatever manner - Kennedy would be impeached. How to win, or appear to win, without risking a nuclear war?

TWO BOOKS John Kennedy had recently read were still fresh in his mind. One was Fail Safe, a novel about an accident with an American nuclear bomber that causes the destruction of Moscow and New York. The other was The Guns of August, by the historian Barbara Tuchman, which showed how Europe tumbled into war in 1914 through, among other things, complexes of inferiority and grandeur.

So Kennedy decided to accept an early recommendation from his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, that was part political, part military - a blockade of Cuba to prevent delivery of weapons and open surveillance of the island by U-2 aircraft - and he went on national TV on the eighth day of the crisis, Monday 22 October, to announce it in what was, in retrospect, the most alarming address of the nuclear age.

Kennedy accused Khrushchev of lying to him. He said that no nation could tolerate 'such deliberate deception and offensive threats' and warned that the United States would regard any missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union.

As Kennedy was speaking, US forces were placed on Defense Condition 3, a stage of combat readiness three short of actual war. The Strategic Air Command later went to Defense Condition 2. Polaris submarines took up positions from which they could launch nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union and B-52 flights armed with atomic bombs began taking off round the clock. By now a total of 180 warships were in the Caribbean, 100,000 paratroopers and infantry had been alerted and 250,000 men were ready in reserve.

In Moscow, Khrushchev reacted to Kennedy's address by issuing orders to captains of Soviet ships to hold course for Cuban ports. The Soviet Defence Ministry ordered full battle readiness. The missile expert General Boris Surikov recalls: 'I was in an atom bomb-proof bunker deep under a forest just outside Moscow. The bunker was about as big as a cinema and there were about 300 people in it. The commanders sat on a sort of stage with a big transparent screen which was overlaid with a map of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries. It showed all the flights of American B-52s along our borders.'

It was inevitable that in such a state of tension there would be some near misses. A B-52 on patrol near Kamchatka came into Soviet air space. Two Mig-17 fighters were ordered to locate the target and destroy it. General Surikov recalls: 'I watched it all on the screen. I could see two green dots - the Migs - and one red dot - the B-52 - steadily converging. No one in the bunker doubted that if the red dot disappeared off the screen, then it would be the beginning of an atomic war.

'When the dots were only about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart, the two green ones suddenly reversed course. They did not have sufficient fuel left to attack the target. The red dot went on alone and left Soviet territory. You could feel the release of tension in the bunker.'

ON TUESDAY 23 October, 25 Soviet ships were still en route to Cuba, their course and speed unchanged. US warships off the Azores located some Soviet submarines and forced several to surface by dropping small depth charges. At the UN, Michael Polonik, the press officer of the Soviet delegation, talking with a US official, said that the test would come the next day when the first Soviet ship reached the blockade line. Polonik concluded: 'This could well be our last conversation. New York will be blown up tomorrow by Soviet nuclear weapons.'

In Moscow, at the Defence Ministry, the Soviet troops and technicians on Cuba were signed off from the coming year's budget. Colonel Lev Kaperniok told us: 'The conviction was that most of them would not now return from their mission.'

Messages flew back and forth between the leaders, each accusing the other of not understanding his motivation, but nothing concrete emerged until 6pm on Friday 26 October, when the State Department began to receive via the US embassy in Moscow a long and emotional letter from Khrushchev. It made a deep impression on Kennedy as it was so obviously written by the Chairman personally: 'Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die could want an atomic war.' And the letter ended with an offer: Khrushchev would not send further arms to Cuba and would withdraw Soviet troops if Kennedy promised not to invade the island.

Kennedy acted immediately. He got Robert Kennedy to meet secretly at the Soviet embassy with the ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. There he introduced for the first time as part of any settlement the possible removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

But as the last hours of Friday ticked away on these notes of optimism, Fidel Castro became convinced that the United States was about to launch an invasion. At 2am on Saturday he went to see the Soviet ambassador, Alexander Alexeyev, and dictated a long letter to Khrushchev in which the crucial sentence read: 'The Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.'

Alexeyev told us: 'I pressed him on this. I said: 'Do you mean to say that we should be the first ones to strike a nuclear blow against America?' And he said: 'I don't want to say this directly. But under certain circumstances we should forestall them. If the Americans attack Cuba we should wipe them off the face of the earth.' Then he said: 'I think the Americans might well risk a war. Let's go to the bunker.'

Khrushchev read the letter as proposing that the Soviet Union should be the first to launch a nuclear strike and this made him realise that the crisis was escalating out of control. Kennedy, too, was worried that he could lose control. McNamara recalls: 'Nuclear warheads in 1962 did not contain today's electronic device which prevents a local commander from launching a nuclear missile without an OK from the President. Kennedy recognised that if we invaded Cuba the Soviets would probably respond in Europe and that in the face of a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe, local US commanders or troops, rather than be overrun, might take it upon themselves to launch their nuclear warheads.'

THE KENNEDYS later referred to 27 October, the twelfth day of the crisis, as 'Black Saturday'. At 9pm, Radio Moscow began broadcasting a new message from Khrushchev - a hardline demand for the removal of the missiles in Turkey as part of any settlement. At the time, this was attributed to the hawks in the Presidium. However, it now turns out that the new demand was Khrushchev's own, an attempt to build the informal Cuba-for-Turkey proposal into a proper agreement.

At noon, Major Rudolph Anderson, the pilot who had flown one of the U-2 missions that had first detected the Soviet missiles, was shot down over Cuba and killed. The missile that hit him was fired on the orders of local Soviet commanders, but the executive committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), meeting at 4pm, assumed it had been ordered by Moscow deliberately to escalate the crisis.

General Maxwell Taylor reminded the meeting that it had decided four days earlier that if a U-2 were shot down then there would be immediate retaliation: the Air Force had contingency plans to attack early the next morning. To Taylor's disbelief, Kennedy overruled his advisers and called off the plan. 'We won't attack tomorrow,' he said. 'We shall try again.' He felt he was on the brink of a deal with Khrushchev: Soviet missiles out, the US agrees not to attack Cuba and removes its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The problem was how to clinch it without damaging his reputation. The sticking point was the Jupiter missiles.

The other ExComm members did not know of Robert Kennedy's dealings with Dobrynin and for the President to enlighten them now would appear as if he had given in too soon. So he had to make it look as if the demand in Khrushchev's second letter for a Turkey-for-Cuba trade was the first time the idea had come up, then persuade them that it was a reasonable compromise.

Nearly all his advisers argued that such an open trade would split the Nato alliance. The recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was pressed hard - ignore both Khrushchev's letters, initiate the air strike, invade and occupy Cuba.

As the meeting progressed, McGeorge Bundy - not Robert Kennedy, who later claimed credit for it - came up with the idea that the President should simply ignore Khrushchev's demand over the Jupiters and accept his first proposal as set out in his letter of 26 October, thus putting the onus for war or peace on him. Kennedy appeared to accept this and ordered that such a letter to Khrushchev be sent that evening.

But after the meeting, Kennedy added a secret addition - that while there could be no public or explicit deal over the missiles in Turkey, Khrushchev could have his word that they would be removed once the Cuban crisis was resolved. He was so concerned that this deal might leak to the American public or to Nato that only his closest advisers were told of it. Nevertheless, they anticipated a nuclear exchange the next day. McNamara remembers: 'As I went back to the Pentagon it was a beautiful fall evening. I looked at the sunset and I thought I might never live to see another one.'

IN MOSCOW, Khrushchev had gone to his dacha late on Saturday night to try to get some rest. Kennedy's letter was brought to him there the next morning. He immediately called all the members of the Presidium to the dacha to consider a reply. He argued that 'an immediate positive answer be given Kennedy as long as the United States guaranteed that neither it nor its allies would attack Cuba'.

The Presidium agreed and since every minute was precious, it was decided to transmit the response in a broadcast over Radio Moscow. The announcer began reading the letter before Khrushchev and Rodion Malinovsky, the Defence Minister, had finished writing it.

The crucial sentence read: 'The Soviet government, in addition to earlier instructions on the discontinuance of further work on the construction sites, has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you describe as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.'

Kennedy got the news just as he was leaving for Mass. 'Thank God, it's all over,' he said. General Surikov was more lyrical. 'I came out of the bunker to a golden autumn afternoon and I wept unashamedly as I experienced joy such as I had not known since I survived the Great Patriotic War.'

In Cuba, the Soviet forces began to ship the missiles and their warheads back to the Soviet Union. General Gribkov remembers: 'We told the Americans in advance how many missiles would be on what ships. On the open sea, US warships and helicopters approached our freighters so that they could see and count the missiles. For our military it was a public slap in the face.'

A furious Castro had learnt the realities of superpower politics. Khrushchev had not only failed to consult him on the final settlement, but he had been left to learn of it through the announcement on Radio Moscow. He felt betrayed and cursed Khrushchev as 'a son of a bitch, bastard arsehole, a queer without balls'. In Havana earlier this year, Castro revealed the reason for his anger. 'Nikita's readiness to trade his missiles in Cuba for the American missiles in Turkey proves that the defence of Cuba was subordinate to the defence of the Soviet Union. We realised that in the end Cuba was only a bargaining chip. It was a humiliating time.'

The Kennedy administration now set about creating the legend that the resolution of the crisis had been a great victory for America. For this it was essential that the public did not learn of the Turkey- for-Cuba trade and when Dobrynin tried to get the agreement put in writing, Robert Kennedy crushed this immediately.

Next, all copies of the letters and cables between Kennedy and Khrushchev were retrieved and classified top secret. Ten of them remained so until Washington was forced to release them by a court judgment under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year.

What were the lessons? Just one, says Robert McNamara. 'The combination of human fallibility and nuclear warheads carry over an extended period of time the near certainty of a nuclear exchange which will destroy nations and threaten our civilisation. The world must move back to a non-nuclear age and we are not on that course today.'

(Photograph omitted)