1962: An Overview of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Khrushchev’s Risky and Dangerous Gamble: Operation Anadyr
In April of 1962, Nikita Khrushchev met with the Soviet Defense Council at the Pitsunda resort on the Black Sea; during this conference he was informed that the Soviet Union’s armed forces could neither successfully defend the homeland, nor would they be able to respond militarily afterwards, in the event of a nuclear first-strike by the United States on the USSR. The receipt of this bad news was the stimulus that inspired Khrushchev to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The goal was twofold: to serve as a deterrent to a possible U.S. invasion, and to redress the extreme imbalance in strategic (nuclear) weapons, and their delivery systems, that then existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the American government’s propaganda films had consistently painted the Soviet Union as the potential nuclear aggressor throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the reality was that in 1962, the U.S. had a nuclear arsenal that outnumbered the USSR’s by a ratio of 17:1 in terms of warheads alone. America’s ability to deliver nuclear warheads over long distances—far enough to reach our adversary in the Cold War—was even more disadvantageous from the Soviet viewpoint, for their much smaller long-range bomber force—slightly over 100 long-range Soviet bombers (vs. the 715 long-range, and 880 medium-range U.S. bombers)—had no in-flight refueling capability such as that employed by the U.S. Air Force; this made their chances of reaching the United States in the event of a nuclear exchange extremely dubious, since all of the Soviet bombers would have had to land and refuel at vulnerable, well-known, and targeted Arctic bases, before proceeding to their American targets. Furthermore, in October of 1962, the USSR possessed only 26 operational long-range, land-based ICBMs, whereas the United States had already deployed 204 long-range, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the Soviet Union, according to Polmar and Gresham in their book DEFCON-2. In addition, during the Missile Crisis in October the first two generations of rather clumsy and primitive Soviet ballistic missile-firing submarines had temporarily been removed from operational status due to technical problems, whereas the U.S. had 32 SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) available to launch from beneath the sea on two of its new “boomer” Polaris missile submarines. Making the imbalance even more severe, in October of 1962 the U.S. had 91 operational MRBMs and IRBMs (medium-range and intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles) in Britain, Italy, and Turkey which could reach the USSR, whereas none of the many Soviet MRBMs and IRBMs could reach the United States—they could only threaten European targets.
Khrushchev’s plan was to install Soviet medium-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba before November, and to announce their presence after the U.S. mid-term elections early that month. By announcing a fait accompli, the Soviet Union not only intended to prevent any future U.S. invasion of Cuba, but more importantly from the Soviet standpoint, hoped to redress the strategic nuclear weapons imbalance enough to prevent any possibility of a U.S. nuclear first-strike on the Soviet Union. What the American people did not know in 1962, and what the Soviet Union (properly) feared, was that many in the U.S. military leadership, and in the civilian councils of state, had been advocating just such a first-strike on the USSR—a “bolt from the blue” surprise attack—since the early 1950s. This persistent and recurring desire (from the early 1950s through at least 1963) to completely destroy the Soviet Union with a first-strike (“preventive war”) has been well-documented by historian Richard Rhodes in his magnificent 1995 book, Dark Sun. [Once President Eisenhower made it clear early in his first term that the U.S. could not, and would not, employ “preventive war” as a policy, aggressive and insecure Air Force generals like Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power made it clear that in the event of any suspicious or aggressive Soviet moves, they would nevertheless “pre-empt,” i.e., launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike with all weapons available to us before the USSR could get its (presumed) attack off the ground. It was a distinction without much of a difference, and LeMay made it clear to one observer in the late 1950s that he would do so even without presidential authority, if he deemed it prudent and necessary.]
The seed planted in Khrushchev’s mind at Pitsunda in April germinated in May of 1962; his plan was formally presented to the Defense Council in Moscow on May 21, 1962 and approved on May 24th. Castro reluctantly agreed. In January Fidel had publicly rejected the idea of Cuba becoming a military base for another country; although Castro had originally only requested defensive weapons (such as surface-to-air missiles, coastal defense short-range cruise missiles, fighter planes, and armored vehicles), he eventually went along with the scheme to place offensive strategic weapons in Cuba, since they would obviously — once they were in-place and operational — serve as the ultimate insurance against any future U.S. invasion. But Castro argued that the forthcoming deployment should be publicly and openly announced ahead of time, to avoid a crisis situation should the installation of these weapons be prematurely discovered in mid-stream. Castro understood the danger of the sudden lurch to the status quo that would result from a surprise November announcement by Khrushchev, or even worse, from the premature discovery of a clandestine deployment; he therefore preferred a transparent, open process such as the U.S. had employed in placing nuclear missiles in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Turkey. But the Soviet desire for secrecy won out, and Khrushchev assured the Cuban leader that he could rely on the USSR’s global strategic strength to deter an American attack, if the missiles were discovered prematurely and a crisis developed. Khrushchev’s own military told him before the Cuban deployment began that the missiles could be disguised as “palm trees” to hide them from any aerial surveillance. His son, Sergei Khrushchev — who has long been a U.S. citizen, and an academic at Brown University — found this preposterous, but the Soviet Premier stubbornly told his son (who was a missile engineer, and who had attended some of the planning meetings for Operation Anadyr) to shut up. Nikita Khrushchev still thought he could “roll” the Kennedy he had met at Vienna, and was engaging in wishful thinking about the possibility of a successful clandestine deployment.
Why do I say “wishful thinking?” Because the Soviet forces being deployed were massive in scale, and in total numbers. The plan was to deploy a total of 40 ballistic missile launchers, and a total of 60 ballistic missiles — all with powerful nuclear warheads — in various locations throughout Cuba. Specifically, 24 mobile launchers for the R-12 medium-range ballistic missile were successfully deployed, as were a total of 36 of these MRBMs. At the time of the crisis, 16 permanent (fixed) launching pads for the R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missile were under construction; and a total of 24 R-14 IRBMs were scheduled to be landed in Cuba (but never were because of the blockade instituted by JFK during the crisis). Both the R-12 and R-14 missiles carried a one-megaton warhead, and all of the warheads for the 36 R-12 and 24 R-14 missiles had been landed in Cuba by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis began. (The concrete bunkers for the nuclear warheads were under construction as well, and could be seen from the air, but were uncompleted by the time of the Missile Crisis; unknown to the U.S. photo-analysts, the warheads were stored in mobile vans in the interim.) A total of 180 highly effective SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were deployed prior to the nuclear ballistic missiles, to protect the strategic weapons from any potential air assault. A total of some 45,000 Soviet technicians and combat troops were to be deployed (including four motorized rifle regiments, which included 250 armored vehicles). Unknown to the CIA and its photo-reconnaissance wizards during the crisis, the Soviet Union had deployed 102 tactical (or “battlefield”) nuclear weapons to Cuba: 80 of these “battlefield nukes” were mounted on FKR-1 cruise missiles (which were scaled-down, pilotless MiGs); 12 of them were mounted on “Luna” rockets designed to be fired by coastal batteries at approaching ships; six were nuclear bombs (accompanied by 56 IL-28 medium bombers); and four were nuclear mines. The one megaton warheads for the ballistic missiles were 50 times more powerful than the Nagasaki atomic fission bomb dropped on Japan; the 80 warheads for the FKR-1 cruise missiles were of approximately the same yield as the Hiroshima bomb dropped on Japan; and the 12 Luna warheads had much lower yields — but were still sufficient to cause massive casualties at sea among the ships of any invasion fleet. We know today that the range of the 36 MRBMs was 1,300 nautical miles (and was underestimated by us in 1962 at only 1,000 miles). We also know today — and certainly knew nothing about this in 1962 — that when the 102 “battlefield” nuclear weapons were sent to Cuba, their Soviet commanders in Cuba had permission to use them on their own authority, in the event of an American invasion of Cuba. Moscow’s permission was initially required only to fire the strategic weapons — the ballistic missiles with the one megaton warheads.
Operation Anadyr would turn out to be the largest logistic effort of its kind in the history of the Soviet Union, requiring 85 merchant ships to make a total of 184 different trips to Cuba. This massive influx of men and materiel from the Soviet Union into Cuba could hardly be hidden — the only question was, “What was being introduced?” The first cargo ship arrived in Cuba on July 26, 1962 — on Cuba’s independence day. The SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were shipped first; then the combat troops to defend the nuclear missiles began to arrive; then the tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons and delivery systems began to arrive; followed by the 36 MRBMs, and lastly, their formidable one megaton warheads.
CIA Director John McCone, aware of the SA-2 missile deployments (whose distinctive batteries of multiple missile launchers each looked like a six-pointed “Star of David” from the air) from U-2 surveillance photos taken in late August of 1962, made the point that they were being sent to defend something, and he alone at this time correctly predicted that the high-value items they were sent to protect would be strategic nuclear weapons — ballistic missiles. [The Soviet Union had never before based nuclear weapons outside its own soil, explaining why he was the sole voice in high councils at this time predicting such a move.] President Kennedy was inclined to take Khrushchev at his word that only defensive weapons would be introduced to Cuba, and that nothing would be done by the Soviet Union to upset domestic American politics prior to the mid-term elections; but nevertheless, on September 4, 1962 JFK had his Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, issue on his behalf a warning that “the gravest issues would arise” if the Soviet Union sent a “significant offensive capability” to Cuba. One week later, the President himself stated at a press conference:
If at any time the Communist buildup in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security in any way…or if Cuba should ever attempt to export its aggressive purposes by force…or become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.
Ironically, the Kennedy administration limited the number of U-2 flights over Cuba (and restricted their flight paths) between early September and mid-October of 1962, for fear that a U-2 would get shot down by an SA-2 missile, giving rise to an escalation of the already rising tension over the increased Soviet presence on the island. [This was not an unreasonable fear. SA-2s had shot down two U-2 spy planes previously — the Francis Gary Powers flight over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, and later a U-2 flown by a Taiwanese pilot over Red China — and it was widely understood that the U-2 was nearing the end of its useful operational lifespan.] As a result of these flight restrictions, U.S. intelligence missed the initial introduction of the 36 MRBMs into Cuba, and did not discover their presence until the U-2 photographs taken on October 14, 1962 were developed the next day at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in Washington, D.C.
October 16, 1962 — the day President Kennedy was notified about the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba — was a day of serious consternation, and alarm, in Washington, D.C. The world’s two nuclear superpowers were headed toward the most dangerous military confrontation in the history of the world — caused by mutual fear, suspicion, misunderstanding of the each other’s motivations, failure to correctly anticipate each other’s likely reactions to moves by its opponent, and by the very nature of the nuclear age itself. The ability of man to create lethal weapons had far outstripped his ability to moderate or control his own aggression. The intensely territorial nature of the human species; the defense of ideas and ideology as though these belief systems were themselves territory; serious misjudgments about the motivations of our adversaries; and the extremely rapid delivery systems of the modern age — when mixed with nuclear weapons — had created a lethal cocktail that was clearly incompatible with long-term human survival.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: An Overview of the “Thirteen Days”
Because the focus of this essay is necessarily upon the severe friction between John F. Kennedy and the national security establishment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, many of the details of the crisis cannot, therefore, receive the same attention in this venue that they have received in volume V of my book, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, or in other works focusing solely upon the subject. [Among those works I have utilized are The Kennedy Tapes, by Philip Zelikow and Ernest May; Eyeball to Eyeball, by Dino Brugioni; DEFCON-2, by Norman Polmar and John Gresham; and One Minute to Midnight, by Michael Dobbs.] However, it is still necessary to provide the reader with an overview of the major developments during the crisis, to lay the foundation for understanding the context of the major collision between JFK and his Joint Chiefs of Staff that occurred during and immediately after the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An abbreviated timeline of the most noteworthy events follows:
October 14th: A U-2 flight over Cuba photographs many of the 36 MRBMs and their mobile launchers at multiple sites.
October 15th: The CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in Washington, D.C. develops the film and interprets the images; this is the day that the missiles were discovered.
October 16th: President Kennedy is informed, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is defined by historians, begins; this is the first day of the harrowing “thirteen days,” to use Robert F. Kennedy’s later terminology from his book about the event. JFK’s response, in keeping with his management style, is to form the ultimate “ad hoc” committee of all time, dubbed ExComm (for Executive Committee of the National Security Council). ExComm has as members key Cabinet members such as the Secretaries of Defense and State; CIA director John McCone; JFK’s new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor (Lemnitzer had been kicked upstairs to replace Lauris Norstad as military head of NATO); a respected former Secretary of State, Cold War hawk, and frustrated critic of the administration, Dean Acheson; President Kennedy’s brother (U.S. Attorney General and the new head of “Mongoose” following Maxwell Taylor’s promotion to Chairman of the JCS), Robert F. Kennedy; and numerous officials of the Defense and State Departments, including some of State’s foremost Soviet experts. Some officials such as U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and Dean Acheson, attended only intermittently, based upon their schedules, and/or personal inclination. (Stevenson became busy at the United Nations in New York City during the second week of the crisis; and Acheson eventually stopped attending out of frustration, and disgust that his hawkish advice was not being heeded. JFK later threw Acheson a bone and allowed him the honor of taking the U-2 surveillance photos of the missiles in Cuba to France, so that he could personally brief President DeGaulle on the evidence.)
The purpose of ExComm was to provide President Kennedy with the best possible advice from a wide variety of sources and viewpoints; to serve as a brake on any precipitate decisions; and to hammer out a consensus that the government would support, once a response was formulated and adopted. JFK recorded the deliberations of ExComm via his secret audiotaping system, and those recordings have all now been released. The best single scholarly source for them is a three volume set published in 2001, edited by historians Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, and Timothy Naftali, titled: The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, The Great Crises. All of the verbatim quotes of ExComm conversations used in this essay come from that work.
Initial reactions by virtually everyone (except Adlai Stevenson) were that a massive air strike would be necessary to destroy the Soviet missiles; the only initial debate was whether we should only hit the missile sites, or whether we should also attack other sites such as airfields, nuclear storage sites (bunkers), SAM sites, etc. McNamara’s primary concern was the principle that if we did attack by air, we must do so before the MRBMs became operational. As the first week of the crisis progressed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff gravitated quickly toward air strikes on all military targets in Cuba, followed by a massive U.S. invasion as soon as possible thereafter. Even Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s favorite general, supported this position. Commencement of a massive, coordinated air strike (continuing for many days) would have been possible by Monday, October 22nd, and an invasion with 90,000 ground troops could have begun 7 days after that, based on existing contingency plans. Logistic preparations for both an air strike and an invasion began almost immediately, so that those options would be ready if needed. Hundreds of aircraft and tanks, munitions, and many thousands of troops, began moving toward the southeastern United States.
But as these preparations got underway, JFK kept focusing on the reasons for the Soviet deception, and Khrushchev’s bid to so dramatically change the status quo in the Western Hemisphere. Two reasons were obvious: to redress the Soviet Union’s strategic inferiority in long-range nuclear weapons, and to prevent any U.S. invasion of Cuba. But JFK’s overriding concern throughout the crisis became his conviction that ultimately, this was about the future status of Berlin. The clandestine installment of the nuclear missiles in Cuba implied an international surprise move by the USSR, a big announcement about their presence in November, after the mid-term U.S. elections. (This indeed was Khrushchev’s plan.) Both President Kennedy, and his closest advisors, were persuaded that the ultimate goal was to squeeze the U.S. and its NATO allies out of Berlin, using the threat of nuclear blackmail. The Soviet missiles in Cuba would have a very short flight time to U.S. targets, providing only about 5 minutes of warning prior to hitting their targets. Air Force Chief of Staff LeMay understood that this threatened the safety of the bulk of his bomber force, which had been our sole nuclear deterrent throughout the 1950s. The advent of Polaris missile submarines, and the recent deployment of American Minuteman ICBMs in underground silos, had begun to provide additional forces for nuclear deterrence, but LeMay and his beloved Strategic Air Command (SAC) — now headed by his hand-picked protégé, General Thomas Power — felt more threatened by the missiles in Cuba than anyone else in the U.S. military. Nuclear missiles in Cuba were so close that they could hit SAC’s bombers before they could get off the ground — even bombers that were on alert.
Meetings held by the National Security Council back in August had raised the key questions of how to deal with the possibility of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba should CIA director McCone’s fears about Soviet ballistic missiles come true — should the U.S. employ a blockade, air strikes, or air strikes and an invasion? — but no answers were forthcoming to those cogent questions that summer, when U.S. officials were simply contemplating a worst-case scenario. Now that the nightmare was upon them, ExComm had to come up with well thought-out recommendations, and ultimately the President had to decide which response to implement. JFK’s concern as the first week of the crisis wore on was that once certain irrevocable actions were taken by the United States (such as an air strike, and certainly an invasion), the crisis would greatly escalate, and there would then be Soviet countermoves elsewhere on the globe, almost certainly in Berlin. [The U.S. had a strategic and logistical superiority in the Caribbean, but the USSR had this same kind of superiority in Eastern Europe, and around Berlin. If we moved militarily against Cuba, would they move against Berlin in response?] President Kennedy knew that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was intolerable and that they had to go, but he was looking for a way to accomplish that goal which did not necessarily lead to nuclear war by miscalculation, which was always his biggest concern as President.
October 18th: President Kennedy kept a long-standing date with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin in the White House. At that meeting, Gromyko lied to JFK and denied that any offensive weapons were being placed in Cuba. The public still did not know about the missiles, and the Soviets still did not know that we knew.
October 19th: President Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a body to receive their advice, and was severely pressured to adopt massive air strikes and a full invasion as his response to the Missile Crisis. The Chiefs unanimously pressured JFK to bomb and then invade Cuba, and Air Force Chief of Staff LeMay’s exchange with JFK was unusually blunt, rude, and provocative. [Specifics to come later in this essay.]
October 20th – 22nd: It had proven difficult, but by Saturday, October 20th, after four days of back and forth in multiple meetings every day, Bobby Kennedy had built a narrow consensus within ExComm for a blockade as an initial response to the crisis, with an air strike and invasion as future options, of course, if a blockade did not work. President Kennedy terminated a political visit to Illinois on Saturday and flew back to Washington early, feigning a cold as the excuse. While leaning heavily toward the blockade option, JFK met on Sunday with the Commander of the Tactical Air Command, General Walter Sweeney, and directly asked him how effective a massive, surprise air attack could be. (Kennedy pointedly did not invite LeMay to the White House for this meeting.) Sweeney gave Kennedy an honest answer, saying he could only guarantee destroying 90% of the ballistic missiles, and made the point that this did not account for any missiles not yet identified by aerial surveillance. (The aerial surveillance had been dramatically increased on October 16th.) This eventuality would have left several U.S. cities vulnerable to complete annihilation if the Soviets responded by launching a counterstrike with any surviving missiles, with their one megaton warheads. Sweeney’s answer, in all probability, tipped President Kennedy’s mind firmly to the blockade option as the appropriate initial response by the U.S.
JFK met with the hastily recalled Congressional leadership early on the evening of Monday, October 22nd. It was a stormy session, with most of the leadership declaring they were against the blockade option and in favor of military action. President Kennedy then gave his nationally televised address that evening, and the Cuban Missile Crisis then moved into its public phase (lasting from October 23rd through 28th). In his speech, JFK announced the blockade option (a “quarantine” of any offensive weapons headed to Cuba, since a blockade was technically an act of war), and threatened that the launch of any nuclear missile from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere would result in a full- scale nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union by the United States. President Kennedy also moved the American armed forces from DEFCON-5 to DEFCON-3 just prior to the speech. (Defense condition 5 was peacetime employment, and at the other extreme on that scale of readiness, defense condition 1 was “nuclear war.”) JFK’s approach was that imposing a naval quarantine on Cuba would get the Soviet Union’s serious attention, while our ongoing public preparations for airstrikes, and an invasion, continued. [They could no longer be hidden, anyway.] A blockade was designed to allow the USSR time to react and rationally consider what to do next, without being so provocative that it would stimulate an immediate, knee-jerk strike on Berlin by Soviet forces in Eastern Europe.
October 23rd: The United States successfully engineered a 19-0 vote in favor of the Cuban blockade option by the Organization of American States (with Cuba abstaining).
October 24th: On this day the naval “quarantine” of Cuba was initiated. (Its initial boundary was to have been 800 nautical miles from Cuba; JFK reduced it to 500 nm by the time it was implemented; and later in the week its reach was again reduced. These actions were taken by JFK to reduce the risk of armed confrontation at sea with Soviet ships.) Of the 16 Soviet ships headed for the blockade line that day, 2 of them went dead in the water at a dramatic moment, and the other 14 (including the two ships carrying the longer range IRBMs — with a 2,800 nm range vs. the 1,300 nm range for the MRBMs already on the island) reversed course and headed back to their ports of embarkation.
Several dangerous military developments took place that day which could have led to the nuclear war by miscalculation that JFK so feared.
First, there was considerable harassment by the U.S. Navy of the 4 Soviet diesel-electric submarines escorting several of the Soviet ships. Unknown to President Kennedy or to anyone else on the U.S. side that day, on one of these subs, the Captain — stressed-out by a multi-hour barrage of underwater explosive charges from U.S. Navy ships above, designed to get him to surface and give away his position — ordered the one torpedo he had onboard with a nuclear warhead — a relatively small 10 kiloton device — to be loaded into its torpedo tube; he then gave the order to fire the torpedo at the harassing U.S. Navy ships on the surface. Only the bold refusal of the political commissar on this submarine to confirm the order to fire [the Soviets had a two-man consent system in place] prevented the launching of this nuclear torpedo against U.S. warships. If this device (or any other nuclear device) had been fired and detonated, killing U.S. servicemen, any U.S. President (according to Assistant Secretary of State George Ball) would have been required to retaliate with nuclear weapons against the forces of the Soviet Union, somewhere and in some way — and “the balloon would have gone up.”
Second, as revealed by Richard Rhodes in Dark Sun,
At the height of the crisis, according to a retired SAC wing commander, SAC airborne alert bombers deliberately flew past their turnaround points [popularly known as “Fail Safe” points, after the 1964 film of the same name] toward Soviet airspace, an unambiguous threat which Soviet radar operators would certainly have recognized and reported. ”I know what my target was,” the SAC general adds: “Leningrad.” The bombers turned around only when the Soviet freighters carrying missiles to Cuba stopped dead in the Atlantic.
No SAC wing commander would have performed this action on his own authority, since it risked nuclear war. This order could only have come from the head of SAC, General Thomas Power — a man considered a “sadist” by Curtis LeMay himself, and considered unstable by others who worked under him.
Third, concurrent with the implementation of the naval quarantine that morning, on October 24th, General Thomas Power, LeMay’s hand-picked head of the Strategic Air Command, on his own authority, placed all of SAC (all Air Force nuclear bombers and all of our ICBMs) at DEFCON-2. This was only one step away from nuclear war, and he did this without consulting President Kennedy or obtaining his permission. General Power — apparently intent not only upon frightening the Soviet Union into submission, but perhaps equally desirous of stimulating a Soviet response that might have given him an excuse to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack — sent out not only the usual unencrypted SAC telegram to all units, but ALSO sent a follow-on, plain-English voice transmission (both surely monitored by the USSR) announcing the upgrade in posture to DEFCON-2, which dramatically began, “This is General Power… .”
The normal peacetime airborne patrol of fully-armed nuclear bombers, flying just outside the borders of the Soviet Union — named “Chrome Dome” — consisted of 12 B-52 bombers carrying large thermonuclear weapons, usually one 20 megaton bomb and one 10 megaton bomb. When President Kennedy upped the ante from DEFCON-5 to DEFCON-3 on October 22nd, the number of nuclear bombers on constant airborne alert increased from 12 to 54 aircraft. The actions of General Power on October 24th placed 200 bombers in the air at all times throughout the remainder of the crisis, placed 1500 bombers on the ground on constant alert, and placed 145 ICBMs in a “ready to fire” status, according to the 1992 ABC News documentary “The Missiles of October.” Dino Brugioni’s numbers are quite similar, in his book Eyeball to Eyeball: Dino wrote that 1,436 bombers and 134 ICBMs were placed on high alert by Thomas Power, on his own authority.
President Kennedy was furious, for Powers’ actions could have signaled to the USSR that the U.S. was about to launch the long-dreaded first-strike on the USSR; if they had been so persuaded, JFK knew that the Soviets themselves might have pre-empted what they thought was coming with their own first-strike on the United States, or they might have reacted precipitately in Berlin. Fortunately, instead, the Soviet Union grounded its own long-range bomber force throughout the remainder of the Cuban Missile Crisis to ensure that they did not give the U.S. an excuse for a pre-emptive first-strike.
October 25th: On Thursday, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson debated the ill-informed and hung-out-to-dry Soviet Ambassador Zorin on television at the televised U.N. Security Council meeting over the missiles in Cuba. Confronted with Soviet denials and stonewalling, Stevenson and his team produced for public consumption undeniable evidence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba on several large photographic briefing boards prepared for this purpose by the CIA’s NPIC in Washington, D.C.
October 26th: As a symbolic act meant purely to demonstrate that the U.S. blockade had teeth, on Friday, October 26th the U.S. Navy stopped and boarded a harmless Soviet-chartered Lebanese freighter manned by a Greek crew, which was known to be carrying innocuous cargo. The blockade had accomplished its goal of preventing the introduction of any more offensive weapons into Cuba, and stopping this ship was intended as proof that America was not afraid to stop ships on the high seas.
Unfortunately, this was also the date that ExComm informed JFK that the MRBMs in Cuba were probably now operational. (This was a remarkably accurate estimate; the Soviet Commander in Cuba confirmed readiness to fire the 36 MRBMs the next day, on October 27th, by cable.)
Low-level reconnaissance flights, which had been taking place twice per day since Tuesday, were accelerated to once every two hours on Friday to increase the psychological pressure on the Soviet Union, and to provide as much up-to-date information as possible to ExComm and the U.S. military. On this date Castro ordered his anti-aircraft gunners to begin firing on all low-flying U.S. aircraft.
On this date, we now know, the Soviet missile commander, General Prilyev, moved the nuclear warheads for his 36 MRBMs (in their mobile vans) from the nuclear bunker sites (under construction), to the field sites where the mobile launchers and the missiles were located.
October 27th: This was the day recalled by almost everyone in ExComm as “doomsday Saturday,” and seemed to all involved to be the immediate prelude to a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. side had just received two conflicting messages from Moscow about how to resolve the crisis, and did not know which one to accept. Ultimately, President Kennedy decided to respond only to the first one, with the most favorable terms for our side, namely: removal of all the missiles and nuclear weapons in exchange for a no-invasion pledge and (eventual) removal from Turkey (the USSR’s immediate neighbor) of the 15 U.S. IRBMs stationed there. But communications were very slow on both sides, and no response had been received from the USSR by late Saturday night.
In the absence of any commitment from the USSR during the week to remove the missiles in Cuba, the U.S. military had been urging President Kennedy, with increasing force, to commence the 5 to 7 days of preparatory air strikes, and to launch an invasion of Cuba immediately, in the wake of the air strikes. Some accounts indicate that such air strikes would have begun on Monday, October 29th, if the USSR had not capitulated; others say that the air strikes would have begun on Tuesday, October 30th; one JFK advisor (counselor Theodore Sorensen) claimed years later that JFK would have continued to find reasons to delay the decision to go to war, as necessary, until the crisis was resolved.
The problem was, by Saturday, October 27th, the 36 MRBMs were operational, and air strikes alone could have triggered the launching of any missiles not immediately destroyed, and the destruction of several U.S. cities or airbases. (The 1,300 mile range of the MRBMs would have allowed the targeting of New York City, Washington, or SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska.)
Furthermore, on October 27th, Soviet missile troops, egged-on by their Cuban comrades and unable to reach their commander for instructions, decided on their own authority to launch SA-2 missiles and shoot down an American U-2 surveillance flight. This was supposed to trigger automatic retaliatory airstrikes by the U.S. side the next day, but JFK refused to do so, fearing that the chain of escalation, the inevitable strike-counterstrike syndrome, would lead to nuclear conflict. His refusal to launch the previously agreed-upon retaliatory strike greatly angered the Pentagon.
On this same day another American U-2 which was aloft near Siberia, sampling the atmosphere for any evidence of Soviet nuclear testing, got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace, triggering an attempt by several Soviet fighter planes to shoot him down. He eventually made it home to Alaska safely, but JFK and his advisors feared that the Soviets might interpret this incursion of their airspace as the prelude to a U.S. nuclear strike.
On Saturday evening, October 27th, JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, visited the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, acting as a personal emissary of the President in an attempt to resolve the crisis. RFK’s visit was described by author Dino Brugioni, in Eyeball to Eyeball, as follows:
There have been numerous versions of what happened that evening. Khrushchev, in Khrushchev Remembers, reported that Bobby Kennedy had gone to see Dobrynin on an unofficial basis and that Bobby had stated that “the President was in a grave situation and that he was under strong pressure from the military to use force against Cuba. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.” In a speech in 1963, Bobby stated that he had informed Dobrynin that “strong and overwhelming retaliation” would be taken unless the President received immediate notice that the missiles would be withdrawn. Roger Hilsman, in his book, relates that Bobby’s message was that “the United States could wait no longer but would have to proceed toward an agreement and peace if the missiles were withdrawn, or toward strong and overwhelming retaliatory action.” Sorensen, in his book, relates that in addition to delivering a verbal message to Dobrynin, Bobby…told Dobrynin that “the point of escalation was at hand; the United States could proceed toward peace and disarmament;” [or] as the Attorney General later described it, we could take “strong and overwhelming retaliatory action unless the President received immediate notice that the missiles would be withdrawn.” President Kennedy’s letter (a cable sent through official channels) and Dobrynin’s account of the meeting reached Moscow in the early morning hours of October 28th. In several off-the-record discussions with an intelligence officer writing a history of the crisis [Brugioni himself?], Bobby later stated that the ultimatum was direct and final. The United States was prepared to act militarily within 48 hours of Sunday morning. In his book [Thirteen Days], however, Bobby states that he told Dobrynin that “We had to have a commitment by tomorrow that those [offensive missile] bases would be removed. I was not giving them an ultimatum but a statement of fact. He would understand that if they did not remove the bases, we would remove them.”
Alarmed by the turn of events with the two U-2 aircraft, and by all of the intelligence reports from the United States pointing toward an impending invasion of Cuba, on October 27th Moscow withdrew from General Prilyev in Cuba, the previously granted permission to use the 102 tactical nuclear weapons on his own authority, in the event of an invasion. One source says that this permission was first removed orally on October 22nd, after JFK’s televised speech to the nation; but the only written evidence we have of the rescinding of this authority to use the “battlefield nukes” is the military cable sent to Cuba on October 27, 1962. (Author’s postscript: Soviet officers who were part of the Soviet Rocket Forces in Cuba have stated, in subsequent interviews many years later, that they would indeed have used the tactical nuclear weapons anyway, in the event of a U.S. invasion.)
One frightening indicator of the likelihood of impending nuclear catastrophe — involving some of the 102 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba that were completely unknown to the American side in 1962 — was revealed to us in Michael Dobb’s 2008 book One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. Three of the mobile FKR-1 pilotless nuclear cruise missiles had been moved to within 15 miles of the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base on the night of October 26-27, and the Soviet plan was to fire these three cruise missiles at the base in the event of a U.S. invasion. Each cruise missile would have covered the short 15 mile trip in less than 2 minutes, and a Hiroshima-strength warhead would then have been detonated a few hundred feet above the ground for maximum effect. Would the operators of these missiles have obeyed the new countermanding order not to use the “battlefield nukes” in the event of a U.S. invasion? In view of the independent decision made by Soviet soldiers to shoot down the American U-2 on Saturday without permission to do so, the sobering prospects raised by this unanswered question remain almost too frightening to contemplate.
October 28th: The thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end on Sunday, with the public and private assurances of Moscow that the nuclear missiles and their warheads would all be withdrawn from Cuba, in exchange for a no-invasion pledge. (The pledge was later confirmed by the U.S. via the newspapers, and was contingent upon Cuba’s acceptance of independent U.N. inspection and verification of the missiles’ removal — something a furious and humiliated Fidel Castro never agreed to.) The Soviets did not publicly mention the private assurances made by the Kennedy administration to remove the 15 Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a future date, 5 or 6 months in the future; if they had, the U.S. would have denied the arrangement.
It’s time now to set straight and clarify one important point regarding the U.S. pledge to remove missiles from Turkey. First, that contingency was discussed by ExComm on Saturday and agreed to by Dean Rusk, the conservative Secretary of State, providing there was no visible quid pro quo. The Jupiters were obsolete weaponry, and took so long to ready for use and to fire, and were so exposed to attack themselves, that Kennedy had once called them “junk.” He had, in fact, ordered their removal in August of 1962. Nothing had been done by October.
The Turks had agreed to the placement of the Jupiter missiles in their country in 1959. In fact, none of the fifteen missiles had become operational prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis itself, and only 1 out of the 15 Jupiter missiles in Turkey had become operational during the crisis, confirming the unfavorable sobriquet placed upon them by JFK. Eventually, prior to their removal from alert status in April of 1963, only 5 out of the 15 missiles in Turkey had become operational. And President Kennedy did not take them off alert status or have them physically removed, until AFTER Polaris missile submarines, with their 16 nuclear SLBMs, were assigned to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean on a regular basis, to cover the targets originally (theoretically) covered by the Jupiters.
So there was no loss of actual capability here whatsoever, and no strategic advantage given up whatsoever; in fact, the post-Jupiter Polaris presence, close to the coast of Turkey, was much more formidable in every respect. President Kennedy offered Khrushchev the future removal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey not in response to nuclear blackmail, with a gun pointed at his head (as some detractors have claimed), but rather as a meaningless concession by the U.S. which would allow the Soviet Premier to save some face with his own Politburo and military; indeed, this “trade” allowed Khrushchev to say privately to those within the Soviet government, “I have prevented an invasion of Cuba, and I have traded our nuclear missiles in Cuba for the American missiles in Turkey.”
JFK believed in trying to place one’s self in the shoes of one’s adversary, and in not backing your adversary completely into a corner, in order to allow your opponent some flexibility of action. The Turkey missile deal was an example of this. It paid off. It made the bitter pill of the Cuban retreat just a little bit easier to swallow for Nikita Khrushchev.
Dangerous Miscalculations During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Of course, the largest miscalculation during the crisis was by Khrushchev, who failed to understand that such a massive, sudden, and clandestine change in the status quo would inevitably prompt a sharp reaction by the American side, and would never be accepted by the nation that had suffered the relatively recent 1941 “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor; for having missiles so close to the American mainland that there would only be five minutes of warning time after they were launched, seemed an open invitation to another sneak attack, and was truly unacceptable to the American psyche, and the American establishment.
But grievous miscalculations were made on the American side as well, and nearly led to nuclear war through miscalculation.
First, the CIA never found any evidence during the crisis, in its photo-surveillance, that the nuclear warheads for the MRBMs were in Cuba. CIA opinion, expressed to President Kennedy, was that the warheads were probably not yet present. The CIA, we now know, was wrong. McCone’s strong support for bombing and invasion, and perhaps the strong support of others on ExComm for the military solution, was likely encouraged by this false belief that the nuclear warheads were not yet present.
Second, the CIA greatly underestimated the total numbers of Soviet troops in Cuba during the crisis. The Soviets had planned for a total of 45,000 troops to be shipped to the island to protect their nuclear weapons systems; at the time of the crisis, some 42,000 of these troops had arrived. But the CIA grossly underestimated the total numbers of Soviet troops in Cuba — on September 1st the U.S. estimate had been only 5,000 troops, and it was estimated that most of them were technicians and advisors; when combat troops were spotted on October 17th and 18th, the total estimate rose to about 8,000 troops; on October 22nd (the day of JFK’s speech) the estimate had risen to 10,000 Soviet troops; and by October 24th the estimate had risen to 22,000 (still 20,000 short of the true number). The reality of having to confront a total of 42,000 Soviet troops — as well as 75,000 Cuban active duty soldiers, and about 100,000 Cuban militia — with 90,000 American invaders arriving by airborne assault and from the sea, in a country with swampy and mountainous terrain that was 700 miles wide, sounds — in retrospect — rather daunting, given that classic war strategy holds that the army on the offensive needs to outnumber the defending army by 3 or 4 to 1, in order to assure success. Even without the use of nuclear weapons, and even with total air superiority, I believe the U.S. invasion would have encountered severe opposition in places, and would not have been a pushover. It would have been a bloody mess, characterized by the strong resistance of Cuban patriots stubbornly defending their home soil from the “Yanquis,” and the widespread use of napalm by the United States, with all of its negative international and moral consequences. Furthermore, the protracted struggle would almost certainly have degenerated into an unpopular, prolonged military occupation after most of the fighting was over, and as predicted by CIA analyst Sherman Kent in April of 1962, a costly guerilla war in the cities and the countryside would almost certainly have ensued after the initial “victory,” as happened in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion. In short, the “massive invasion” McNamara has spoken of in numerous interviews, consisting of 180,000 combined troops, aircrew and maintenance personnel, and sailors — landing 90,000 Army and Marine Corps combat troops on the ground in Cuba initially — was headed for trouble, more trouble than was probably expected at the time.
Third, CIA photo-analysts had two clues pointing to the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, and missed them both. On August 29th, U.S. surveillance revealed images of two of the mobile launchers for the FKR-1 “Meteor” nuclear-tipped miniature MiG drones, or cruise missiles. When the CIA informed President Kennedy about this on September 13th, they told him (incorrectly) that the mobile launchers were probably associated with a conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) cruise missile. Then on October 27th, the U.S. detected images of one of the “Luna” rockets sitting on its tracked transporter/launcher (remember, there were 12 of these in Cuba, designed to oppose an amphibious invasion with small tactical nuclear warheads); yet, none of the Joint Chiefs or members of ExComm recommended calling off or delaying the imminent invasion of Cuba (as they should have, when confronted with this evidence of what we called “Frog” nuclear cruise missiles in Cuba). The complete ignorance of the U.S. intelligence establishment of the fact that the Soviet Union had deployed 102 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba — “battlefield nukes” — is, in retrospect, the most frightening aspect of the crisis, even more frightening in my view than the presence of the 36 MRBMs. I say this because the prospective invasion of Cuba was imminent by October 28th, and there can be little doubt that the Soviet troops in the field, if faced with a U.S. invasion and imminent defeat, would have used some of these tactical nukes, regardless of the countermand order of October 27th, and thereby commenced nuclear hostilities between the two superpowers. In spite of the sudden change in orders prohibiting their use, I am confident that the “use ‘em or lose ‘em” mind set would have taken over in the heat of battle, and some Soviet unit commander, somewhere on the island (perhaps in Filipinas, close to Guantanamo Bay) would have lit the fuse and commenced nuclear hostilities, and launched one of the “Lunas” at the U.S. fleet, or one of the “Meteors” at Guantanamo Bay, or at a landing zone after U.S. troops were ashore, rather than suffer ignominious defeat by simply surrendering.
Fourth, the most dangerous miscalculation of all was everyone’s ignorance (in 1962) of the concept of “nuclear winter,” what most scientists now acknowledge would be the inevitable result of a full scale nuclear exchange on the earth’s climate. A hypothesis first introduced in the early 1980s, nuclear winter posits that even a limited nuclear conflict (and certainly a large one) would so befoul the earth’s atmosphere with smoke and dust from the massive firestorms around cities produced by strategic nuclear weapons, that the result would be cataclysmic climate change — a significant reduction in the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface, and a resulting lowering of the earth’s temperature for years — causing the loss of most plant life in the absence of sunlight, the resulting failure of agriculture, and the collapse of the food chain. Without even considering the inevitable and poisonous results of nuclear fallout on animal life, the sure result of nuclear winter alone would have been mass starvation. In the event of even a one-sided first-strike on the USSR by the United States, with no significant counterstrike damage to the U.S. at all, nuclear winter was an ensuing certainty. But we didn’t know that in 1962. Among those at high levels in the U.S. national security establishment who advocated a first-strike on the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis were Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric (second only to McNamara); the influential civilian Pentagon hawk Paul Nitze; and the commander of SAC, General Thomas Power.
Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay is strongly suspected of wanting to first-strike the USSR during the Missile Crisis as well, since he hungered to launch a pre-emptive war against the USSR throughout the 1950s. Perhaps the most infamous LeMay quote to emanate from the Cuban Missile Crisis is this one: “The Russian Bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters. Now [that] we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.” LeMay contemptuously referred to Cuba as a “side-show,” and said that the main enemy was Russia. When asked what he would do with Cuba, LeMay told his interlocutor, “Fry it.” Indeed, the Air Force had six B-47 medium bombers standing by during the crisis as a nuclear “counterforce strike” in the event any of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles had been launched. The concept was to blanket the launch sites on the island with 10 and 20 megaton weapons, the largest in our inventory, to prevent any additional launches. It is plausible to conceive of a scenario in which a U.S. invasion force, annihilated by some of the tactical nuclear weapons secretly introduced into Cuba, would be avenged by the use of this nuclear counterforce strike, even if there had been no MRBM launches. Cuba would indeed have been “fried.” And as the authors of DEFCON-2 have written, “In all likelihood these [10 and 20 megaton weapons] would have been the first of thousands of strategic thermonuclear weapons that would detonate around the world in what would have become World War III.”
To Be Continued