October 1962 – the world’s attention is fixed on an island roughly 160km (100 miles) south of the United States. An island that had become a thorn in the side of Uncle Sam and one which now saw itself at the centre of a rapidly escalating crisis that could potentially lead to the very worst-case scenario – a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
While there were certainly instances when the two global superpowers appeared on the brink of conflict, nothing quite compared to the two weeks at the end of October, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This was an incident that sparked real fear – even panic – around the world that World War III was about to erupt. The discovery of Soviet ballistic missiles so close to the United States was seen as an act of brazen aggression on the part of the Kennedy administration and one which it took significant steps to address. This was real-life drama at its most nerve-shredding – was this to be the beginning of the end?
Picking a Side
Considering history is, well, in the past and well and truly finished, it does have a habit of changing over time. What we know today about the Cuban Missile Crisis is very different to what we knew during and shortly after the crisis. Official narratives have changed, on both sides, and it’s only, with the benefit of hindsight, do we really understand what occurred.
After World War II concluded, both nations almost immediately began meddling in other countries’ affairs as a way of brow-beating millions of people into choosing their side. The Soviets openly backed various communist-led revolutions, while the U.S often not so openly supported just about anybody who would oppose the communist even if you were a vicious dictator.
One place where this proxy fighting occurred was Cuba where a band of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro landed on the island in 1953 intending to overthrow the U.S backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista. Things didn’t exactly move quickly and it took five years of gruelling guerilla warfare before Castro and his followers were able to overthrow the regime and assume control.
The Bay of Pigs
This new Communist nation was uncomfortably close for the U.S State Department and the CIA and it didn’t take before plans to overthrow Castro and replace him with a more friendly Cuban began to take hold.
During the Cold War, the United States engaged in many a messy regime change around the world, however, Cuba would quickly become not just a thorn in the side of its neighbouring Goliath, but a full-blown stake through the foot.
It’s not entirely clear just how many assassination plots to kill Fidel Castro there were, but somewhere in the 630 region is thought to be a safe bet. Many of these were wild and wacky, to say the least; exploding cigars, scuba-diving gear infected with tuberculosis and even hiring the Mafia to do their dirty deed.
But this was just the start. A proposed false flag operation known as Operation Northwoods would have seen terrorist attacks, assassinations and much more blamed on Cuba as a way of justifying a U.S invasion of the island. And this is not conspiracy theory ramblings – details of Operation Northwoods were declassified in 1992 and if you’re interested, we’ve already done an entire video on it.
While Operation Northwoods was firmly rejected by President Kennedy, one action that certainly did go-ahead – run more by the CIA than JFK – was the so-called Bay of Pigs invasion that saw the U.S backed Cuban exiles land on the island on 17th April 1961. This proved to be a complete failure when it became clear that the Cuban government knew exactly what was coming and when JFK – who had only just taken office – refused to authorise U.S air support. The two-day fiasco was a humiliation for the United States that many believed led to some serious ramifications down the line.
The Cuban Missile Crisis began when a U.S spy plane photographed Soviet ballistic missiles in the process of being installed on the island on 14th October 1962 – but to really tell this story properly we’ll need to cover some bases first.
When JFK ran for president during the 1960 election, one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy was the so-called ‘missile gap’, which stated unequivocally that the Soviet Union had by that point far surpassed the United States in terms of nuclear capabilities. In fact, that was complete and utter crap and the truth was the United States still held a sizable advantage over their Soviet rivals.
One contentious issue that is still feverishly debated is whether Kennedy knew it to be false or whether certain elements inside the Pentagon gave the campaigning politician inaccurate information which they knew would be passed on to the U.S public as a way of promoting a level of fear regarding the Soviet Union.
We also need to be clear about the supposed threat to the U.S compared to what the United States was doing to the USSR. Well before Soviet missiles arrived in Cuba, U.S Jupiter missiles had been deployed in Turkey and Italy and you can probably bet they were pointed straight at Moscow. In short, the narrative that was quickly spun about the Soviet missiles on Cuba drastically altering the balance of nuclear power was just plain wrong. The United States had more missiles, many of which lay just a stone’s throw from the Soviet Union.
If we look at things from the opposing side, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had publicly stated that the Soviet Union would defend Cuba against U.S aggression in May 1960 and he saw the installation of missile sites on the island as a perfect way to close the real missile gap. It’s now also widely known that Khrushchev saw Kennedy as both too young and too weak and expected the U.S President to “make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree”.
The missiles themselves began arriving on 8th September 1962, with a second delivery on 16th September. In total, Soviet engineers in Cuba were building nine missile sites, six for R-12 medium-range missiles with an effective range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) and three for R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometres (2,800 mi).
The Crisis Begins
When pictures from a US plane travelling over Cuba landed on the desk of President Kennedy on 15th October, it’s fair to say it sparked chaos. But also these were grainy black and white images taken from high-altitude, and despite confirmatory reports coming from inside Cuba, the Kennedy administration couldn’t be certain what they were looking at.
On 15th October, Kennedy gathered the nine members of the Security Council as well as five other advisers to create what would become the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM). Now, normally with these tense Oval Office discussions, we have absolutely no idea about what was said and by whom – but that’s not the case here.
What few knew in the room at the time was that Kennedy had had recording devices installed in the Oval Office in the spring of 1962, said to be in response to several advisors denying their support for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Sounds a little underhanded, to say the least, but apparently numerous Presidents had done the same stretching all the way back to FDR. This meant that we have at least a partial idea of how things played during these dramatic moments.
Unsurprisingly there was a clear split over how to proceed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that an immediate bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion was the only way forward, while JFK, Robert Kennedy and Robert McNamara remained far from convinced.
Six options emerged during these discussions.
- Do nothing – Accept that the true missile gap will have been closed.
- Diplomacy – Attempt to pressure the Soviet Union into removing the missiles.
- Secret approach – Give Castro the option of parting company with the Soviets or face invasion.
- Invasion – Land U.S ground troops in Cuba.
- Airstrike – Attack the missile sites by air.
- Blockade – Use the U.S Navy to blockade the island and prevent further missiles from arriving.
Assessing the Options
None of the proposed options was ideal and in the case of a full-scale invasion, and to a certain degree the airstrikes, potentially incredibly costly in terms of loss of life. Over the next few days, EXCOMM met frequently to assess the options on the table. It soon became clear that the threat towards the United States hadn’t necessarily increased and that the Soviet Union didn’t suddenly hold an advantage because of the Cuban missiles. However, the political advantage that the U.S would hand to the Soviets if they backed down, was deemed to be considerable.
On 18th October, Kennedy met with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, who attempted to assure the President that the weapons in Cuba were there in a strictly defensive capacity – an assurance that changed little in the minds of those now weighing the options.
By 19th October the administration had narrowed its choices to two; a targeted airstrike or a naval blockade. While nothing had been discounted at this point, the idea of a full-scale invasion was placed as a firm last resort. At the time, the U.S estimated there to be roughly 10,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, who presumably would have participated in any conflict – hence sparking a war between the U.S and USSR – along with Cuba.
And it’s here that hindsight really comes into play. In reality, the Americans had vastly underestimated the number of Soviet troops in Cuba – later estimated to be as many as 43,000, alongside roughly 270,000 Cuban troops. On top of that, it later emerged that not all of the missiles in Cuba could have reached the U.S. Nine short-range nuclear-tipped missiles, each with explosive power equivalent to 6 to 12 kilotons of TNT and with a range of less than 144km (90 miles) were also in Cuba. Since these wouldn’t even make it to Key West, it’s perfectly conceivable that they could have been used against an invasion force. When you do the maths, it seems highly likely that a U.S invasion of Cuba would have resulted in a bloodbath, and at that point, with various fingers on Armageddon inducing triggers, it was anybody’s guess what happened next.
By the afternoon of the 21st, Kennedy’s decision had been made and plans for a blockade – or quarantine as it was called because it had a slightly less war-like sound to it – swung into action. This would eventually involve an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, 22 destroyers, and two guided-missile frigates that were tasked with creating two perimeters around Cuba, known as “Walnut” and “Chestnut”. Their role was fairly simple, preventing any ships from passing through without being boarded and checked first.
At 7 pm EST on 22nd October, Kennedy addressed the U.S people to reveal the situation. The entire world now knew what was happening in Cuba and the impending showdown that was about to happen.
What came next was about as well-scripted and gripping as any Hollywood scriptwriter could hope to pen. As the blockade formed around Cuba, there were an estimated 25 Soviet ships on route to the island, as well as many others from around the world. On the 24th, the first Soviet vessel approached the blockade – the moment of truth had arrived. We don’t know too much about the Soviet side of this, but the ships stopped before the point of no return and intercepted messages soon revealed that many had “discontinued” their journey. The world may have breathed a sigh of relief, but things were far from over. There were still numerous nuclear missiles in Cuba that had now been readied for use.
After an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on 25th October, in which Soviet officials refused to answer U.S questions relating to the missiles, Kennedy ordered that the U.S threat level be raised to Defcon 2 – the highest it has ever reached. As far as we know, this was the first time that B-52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert, and B-47 medium bombers were dispersed across the nation and told to be ready within 15 minutes notice.
As the crisis reached its nerve-shredding finale, it’s important to remember that at this point there was no hotline between Washington and Moscow. Messages between the two usually went through official channels, something that slowed communication significantly.
The resolution of the crisis essentially came down to two letters from Nikita Khrushchev. The first, described as emotional, personal and honest, was an offer to remove the missiles in exchange for an agreement not to invade Cuba, something the Kennedy administration saw as an ideal way out of the situation – but things were about to get significantly more complicated.
If there was a single day where the world stepped to the very brink, it was the 27th October 1962 – later referred to as Black Saturday. A day where everything seemed to happen at once.
Firstly, a second letter arrived, much spikier and less friendly, which demanded the removal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey as part of the deal. The apparent Jekyll and Hyde nature of Krushchev left Kennedy in a bind and even raised questions over what might be going on behind the scenes in the Soviet Union.
A few hours later, a U-2 spy plane was shot down while passing over Cuba – killing Major Rudolf Anderson. Confusion reigned over who had ordered the attack – Khrushchev, Castro – or perhaps a rogue commander on the ground (only later was it found to be the latter). Again, just hours later, another U-2 strayed accidentally into Soviet airspace resulting in scrambled MiGs entering the fray, while the U.S launched F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea.
And quite unbelievably, that was not the worst of Black Saturday. Off the coast of Cuba, close to the blockade line, a U.S ship dropped practice depth charges on a Soviet submarine lurking below as a warning to leave the area. What the captain of the U.S ship did not know was that the submarine was armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and had been given orders to use them if the submarine came under fire either from depth charges or surface fire.
With depth charges echoing throughout his submarine, which was too deep to receive radio messages, the captain of the B-59, Valentin Grigorievich Savitsky, believed war had already begun. It had been several days since his last communication with Moscow and for all he knew, World War III was now in full swing. Nuclear launch protocols dictated that both the captain and the political officer agree to a launch and in this case both did. However, in a slice of quite extraordinary fortune, aboard the B-59 was also the commander of the deployed submarine detachment, Vasily Arkhipov, who was also required to agree to a nuclear launch.
For whatever reason, something told him to wait and eventually he persuaded Captain Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. The submarine surfaced amid the U.S blockade and was immediately ordered out of the area and back to the Soviet Union. This incident was summed up well by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an advisor for the Kennedy administration when he said “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” Black Saturday had seen a catalogue of events that could have easily sparked war, but miraculously, as the end of the day neared, a shaky peace remained.
The 27th was not only the pinnacle of the madness but also the end of it. The de-escalation of the crisis came through two avenues; one covert and one open. The Kennedy administration chose to publicly accept the terms of the first Kruchshev letter, while behind the scenes, negotiations had been reached that would see the missiles from Turkey removed. Kennedy didn’t want to look weak so part of the bargain was that the Soviets couldn’t reveal the second part of the agreement.
Air reconnaissance photos taken over the next few days showed that the Soviets were indeed dismantling their missile sites and preparing to remove the missiles. The Cuban Missile Crisis had finally come to an end.
Reputations had been won and lost during the crisis. Kennedy emerged looking more assured and cool-headed, while Kruchshev was vilified as weak and was ousted during a coup just two years later.
In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, both leaders made formal steps to address the situation that had led the two countries to the brink of war. On 30th October, Kruchshev proposed a series of sweeping initiatives including; a non-aggression treaty between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact, a treaty to cease all nuclear weapons testing and even the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Kennedy was said to be far from convinced by the sudden change in attitude but was at the very least willing to go along with discussions. After the nightmarish step towards the precipice, it appeared as if there might be real, substantive progress for long term peace between the U.S and the Soviet Union. A hotline was installed that allowed the leaders of the two superpowers to speak directly, and over the next year, it appeared as if maybe, just maybe, the Cold War was about to come to an end.
But as we know, that’s not what happened. On 22nd November 1963, while travelling through Dallas in an open-top car, President Kennedy was assassinated, and less than a year later, on 14th October 1964, Nikita Krushchev was forced from power. Suddenly the two men who had led the world to the brink of nuclear war, but who had just about kept things together at the vital moment and had after been stepping gingerly towards peace were gone – and the Cold War would drag on for another 25 years.
Nuclear Close Calls: The Cuban Missile Crisis | Atomic Heritage Foundation
The Real Cuban Missile Crisis – The Atlantic
Cuban Missile Crisis – Causes, Timeline & Significance – HISTORY
Cuban Missile Crisis – Wikipedia
A definitive account of the Cuban missile crisis | The Economist
Nuclear Folly by Serhii Plokhy — terrifying truth of Cuban missile crisis | Financial Times (ft.com)