The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: The world at death's door

Phillip Knightley,Peter Pringle
Sunday 04 October 1992 23:02

Thirty years ago this month, the Cuban missile crisis raised the spectre of nuclear war. Photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane over western Cuba on 14 October revealed a missile launching ramp under construction. John F Kennedy accused the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, of planning to put nuclear missiles on the island - 100 miles from the American mainland. This was contrary to Khrushchev's assurances that Soviet military aid to the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, was solely for defence against any US invasion. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships (right) carrying the missiles from reaching Cuba, and prepared to invade the island. Khrushchev ordered his ships and their submarine escorts to sail straight through the American fleet and told Soviet forces to resist any US landing. Then, at the last minute, Khrushchev backed down, the Soviet ships reversed course, and within weeks all missile sites on Cuba were demolished. The free world hailed President Kennedy as a hero who, in an eyeball-to- eyeball confrontation with the Communists, had made Khrushchev blink. That, in essence, is the received version of the Cuban missile crisis. The truth is even more terrifying.

THOSE leaders who took part in the Cuban missile crisis who are still alive now agree that at the time they greatly underestimated the danger. The world was actually on the brink of a nuclear holocaust in which the first strikes alone would have wiped out 500 million people.

Robert McNamara, then US Secretary of Defense, now says: 'Events were moving out of control.' Georgi Kornienko, an adviser to Nikita Khrushchev, now says: 'We were closer to nuclear catastrophe than we have ever been before or since.' Fidel Castro, who urged Khrushchev to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States in the middle of negotiations, now says: 'If my position had prevailed, there might have been a terrible war. I was wrong.'

The fact is that all the leaders and their advisers during the missile crisis were guilty of misconstruing the others' beliefs, intentions, determination, military strength and command structures. The crisis developed its own momentum until the danger that all-out nuclear war might be started by a second lieutenant became very real. Our interviews in Washington and Moscow, and information from recently-released archives in both countries, confirm that:

Soviet nuclear missiles had already arrived in Cuba at the time of the crisis. So had some of their warheads. They could have been made ready for firing within hours.

The Soviet commanders in Cuba had permission to fire nuclear missiles at an American invading force without first consulting Moscow.

In 1962, American nuclear missiles in Europe had no safety keys and John Kennedy was seriously worried that a US officer would fire missiles at the Red Army without his permission.

American Minuteman missiles aimed at the Soviet Union during the crisis were later found to have electronic faults which could have caused them to launch themselves.

Both leaders feared that if they did not reach agreement quickly they would lose control of the military, who were eager to make the first strike.

With the seconds to Doomsday ticking away, Kennedy and Khrushchev had to communicate by cable - which took eight to ten hours. The Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, recalls: 'We had to ring up Western Union and a black man on a bicycle would come around.'

THE MYSTERY of the crisis is: why did Khrushchev initiate it? One theory is that the Cuban revolution aroused a powerful sentiment in die-hard Bolshevik leaders. Anastas Mikoyan said: 'We've been waiting all our lives for a country to go Communist without the Red Army. It's happened in Cuba and it makes us feel like boys again.'

Khrushchev's son, Sergei, says that when the Cubans crushed the CIA-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, 'not only the government but the people viewed the Cubans as heroes, being next door to the huge neighbour but having the audacity to disagree with him. We decided that we should give Cuba modern weapons to respond to the next US aggression, which at that time was considered absolutely inevitable.'

But a more convincing explanation is that Khrushchev was only continuing a policy conceived by Stalin: that every opportunity should be taken to shock the Americans into accepting the Soviet Union as an equal in the nuclear age. This is the view of the Soviet military. General Boris Surikov, a missile expert, told us the following story:

'Khrushchev and his Defence Minister, Rodion Malinovsky, were at Khrushchev's estate on the Black Sea. They went for a walk and Malinovsky pointed in the direction of Turkey and said: 'That's where the American rockets are pointing at us. They need only 10 minutes to reach our cities, but our rockets need 25 minutes to reach America.' Khrushchev thought for a while and then said: 'Why don't we instal our rockets in Cuba and point them at the Americans? Then we'll need only 10 minutes, too.'

The best witness on Khrushchev's motives is probably Alexander Alexeyev, the Soviet ambassador in Cuba at the time and a personal friend of Castro. He told us his version in Moscow earlier this year. 'On 14 May 1962 I was called to a meeting of the Defence Council at the Kremlin. Khrushchev said, in effect: 'Comrades, I think it would be a good idea to instal rockets in Cuba. Do it clandestinely. I don't want it known in the US until November (after the mid-term Congressional elections). Alexander Alexeyev, how will Fidel react when we present him with our decision?'

'I said immediately that Fidel would not accept it. I said Fidel's strategy to defend the revolution was based on the growing solidarity of world public opinion for Cuba. Deploying Soviet missiles in Cuba would prejudice this strategy. Khrushchev said: 'Tell him it is to save the Cuban revolution.'

'So I went back to Havana and told Fidel that, and he thought about it and then he said: 'Well, in the interests of strengthening the socialist camp, I agree.' You see, he understood Khrushchev's motivations better than I did. But then Fidel said he wanted the rockets brought in openly. When I told Khrushchev this he said: 'No. Do it like they did to us in Turkey. Confront them with an established fact. The Americans are a pragmatic people. They'll accept it, like we had to in Turkey. Then we'll be able to negotiate with America on a basis of parity.' '

The military plan for stationing the missiles in Cuba was called Operation Anadyr. Devised by General Simeon Ivanov, deputy chief of the Soviet general staff, its details have only recently emerged. It deployed medium- range R-12 missiles (Nato designation SS-4) and long- range R-14 missiles (Nato designation SS-5) in various locations scattered around the island. By the time of the crisis, 36 nuclear warheads were available for these missiles - sufficient to destroy all important American military targets and East Coast cities, along with their inhabitants. To protect these missiles from air attack required two divisions of air defence troops with surface-to-air missiles, and from a sea-borne landing, nine Luna missiles (Nato designation Frog) with a range of 40 miles.

When Khrushchev briefed the man who was to be commander of the Soviet forces in Cuba, General Issa Pliyev, a famous battle-front officer in the Second World War, the question arose over who could order the firing of these missiles. The strategic missiles - those capable of reaching the US - would remain under the control of the commander-in-chief, Khrushchev. But after some thought Khrushchev gave Pliyev permission to employ the nine tactical Luna missiles for the immediate defence of Cuba in the event of a US invasion.

It is tempting to conclude that Khrushchev did not understand the gravity of this decision. No one we spoke to doubts that if the Soviets had fired nuclear missiles at US troops then America would have replied with an attack on the Soviet Union and a full-scale nuclear war would have followed. But Khrushchev announced his decision in the presence of his defence minister, Malinovsky, and one of Malinovsky's aides, General Ivanov, and after discussion with them: so there can be no doubt that the Soviet leader knew exactly what he was doing.

A FLEET of 85 ships was assembled in eight ports in the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Barents Sea. The whole operation was shrouded in secrecy. General Anatoly Gribkov, of the Soviet general staff, recalls: 'Missile ramps were camouflaged with wooden construction so as to resemble parts of the ship's superstructure. The missiles themselves had to be carried on deck because of their size, but we covered them with tarpaulins and surrounded them with lead so as to prevent detection of radioactive emissions by the Americans.'

The first freighter, the Maria Ulianov, arrived in Cuba on 26 July, followed by nine others during the next four days. Weapons and equipment that looked like agricultural goods were unloaded around the clock. Tanks, missiles and special military equipment were unloaded only at night. Soviet troops were sent to their designated areas wearing Cuban army uniforms and all commands were spoken in Spanish.

But it was not possible to keep secret for ever an operation of this size. The use of so many ships from the Soviet merchant fleet meant that there were not enough for normal trade, and the Soviet government had to go to the international charter market to make up the shortfall. In the close-knit shipping world this did not go unnoticed, but the connection with Cuba did not come until August.

In that month Philippe de Vosjoli, the Washington station chief for the French intelligence service, visited Cuba. It was obvious that there were a lot of Russian troops around: the CIA estimated 10,000, but there were actually 43,000. Although they wore civilian clothing in public, most seemed to have chosen identical check shirts. De Vosjoli collected several reports of missiles being unloaded and transported and he passed on this information to the director of the CIA, John McCone.

On 10 August McCone put together de Vosjoli's information, that from the Cuban exile community in the US, and a list of the movements of Soviet cargo ships from the Black and Baltic seas to Cuba. He concluded that Moscow was up to something new and different in Cuba. His senior officers scoffed at the idea: at worst, they said, the Soviets might be building Sam missile sites there. McCone's response was, 'So what are the Sams meant to protect?' And he came up with his own answer - nuclear missiles. Over the objections of his senior officers, he wrote to the Kennedy the same day, voicing his suspicions.

At a National Security Council meeting on 22 August the president brought up McCone's memorandum. Kennedy did not believe that Khrushchev would take such a risk, since the US had 5,000 ballistic missiles to the Soviet Union's 300. But he ordered his defence chiefs to draw up a contingency plan to deal with a situation in which Soviet nuclear missiles were deployed in Cuba.

Meanwhile in Cuba, all was not going well. Attempts to speed up the construction of the launch pads failed because the Soviet troops could not cope with the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Moscow then decided to send an eight-man delegation of senior officers from the Defence Ministry to supervise the work. The deadline for the missiles to be operational was 27 October.

When General Gribkov, who was to lead the delegation, went for his final briefing, Malinovsky repeated Khrushchev's orders about control of the missiles: 'We do not want to unleash an atomic war. That is not in our interests. The missile divisions must only be used with the personal approval of Khrushchev. But the tactical Luna missiles can be used by Pliyev (Soviet commander in Cuba), using his own judgement, in the event of an attack by the US and an imminent landing of troops on the coast.'

The delegation's trip to Cuba could be seen as an omen for the whole of Operation Anadyr. It left Moscow on 14 October on an Aeroflot TU-114 for Havana with a refuelling stop at Dakar in Senegal. Over the Mediterranean one of the aircraft's engines fell off and the group had to start all over again. General Gribkov recalls: 'Over the Mediterranean again, the stewardess instructed us in the use of life-vests in the event of an emergency landing in the sea. But the vests were not under the seats. When we asked the stewardess where they were, she said that they were in the cargo hold.

'On our approach to Havana we were repeatedly circled by US Air Force planes, and one even made a mock attack run. When we landed we found our luggage had gone to London by mistake so we had to go into Havana with only the clothes we were wearing and our briefcases.'

Moscow, meanwhile, was putting out a barrage of lies to mislead the Americans. On 4 September, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Dobrynin, who knew nothing about the missiles, told Robert Kennedy that Khrushchev had asked him to assure the president that he would not place any offensive missiles in Cuba.

Dobrynin repeated this promise to Theodore Sorensen, the president's speech writer, at lunch two days later. In response to these false assurances, Kennedy now made two major mistakes. First, he stepped up plans for an invasion of Cuba. New orders for the pre-positioning of troops, aircraft, ships, and other equipment and supplies were brought to a state of readiness.

These were only contingency plans, and Kennedy later insisted he had no intention of implementing them. But he failed to consider how these preparations would appear to Castro. When the Cuban leader learnt of them from his intelligence service, he naturally concluded that an American invasion was imminent.

Next, at the urging of his brother, Robert, and mainly for domestic political purposes, Kennedy issued a public warning to Khrushchev that if the US ever found 'offensive ground-to-ground missiles' in Cuba then 'the gravest issues would arise': a statement so precise that it was to leave him with no alternative but a full confrontation with the Soviet Union.

On Sunday 14 October the weather was clear enough to allow a U-2 flight over western Cuba. The film was flown to Washington, and on the morning of Monday 15 October a team of CIA experts in a National Photographic Interpretation Centre laboratory, hidden over a car dealer's showroom not far from Capitol Hill, began to examine it. It was late evening when one of the technicians, hunched over a light-box, called his supervisor to look at a photograph of San Cristobal, 100 miles west of Havana. To a non-expert, the photograph appeared to reveal little of significance (Kennedy said later he wondered why the U-2 had taken photographs of a football pitch). But to an expert, the photograph was a revelation.

One of the intelligence prizes which the Soviet defector Oleg Penkovsky had brought to the West was a Soviet military manual dealing with the construction of missile sites. Like all military machines, the Soviet one did things strictly according to the manual.

By comparing pictures of known intercontinental ballistic missile sites in the Soviet Union with Penkovsky's manual, the CIA had been able to identify what its experts called 'the foot-print' for each type of missile site.

The supervisor looked at the San Cristobal photograph and saw the footprint of a medium-range nuclear missile site, probably an SS-3. He said, 'Don't leave this room. We might be sitting on the biggest story of our time.'

McGEORGE BUNDY, the national security adviser, went to the White House the next morning, Tuesday 16 October, and broke the news to the president while he was having breakfast in his bedroom. Kennedy was furious. He told Bundy that Khrushchev 'can't do this to me . . . one way or another, the missiles have to go.'

At 11.50am the president chaired a meeting in the Cabinet room at the White House. Those present, the civilian and military leaders of the US, were to become 'ExComm', the executive committee of the National Security Council. They were to meet - mostly in a windowless conference room at the State Department - almost continuously throughout the crisis.

The dominant feeling at the meeting was shocked surprise. Robert Kennedy later recalled: 'We had been deceived by Khrushchev, but we had also fooled ourselves. The intelligence community, in its national estimate of the future course of events, had advised the president on four occasions that the Russians would not make offensive weapons available to Cuba. The last estimate was dated 19 September and it advised him that, without reservation, the United States Intelligence Board had concluded that the Soviet Union 'would not make Cuba a strategic base'.'

The feeling of the meeting was that some form of action was required and that a surprise air strike against the missiles would be the only course. Listening to the military explain how this could be done, Robert Kennedy passed his brother a note: 'I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.'

(Photograph omitted)

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