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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Five Decades later, Lessons are Still Being Learned from the Most Dangerous Days in History
Peter Kornbluh
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012

(continued from page 1)

Would a U.S. attack on Cuba killing thousands of Soviet personnel —the CIA estimated 8,000 Soviet troops and technicians on the island when the actual number was 42,000—and many more thousands of Cubans, set off a spiral of superpower aggression leading to the ultimate doomsday scenario? “I don’t believe we have considered the consequences,” as Kennedy’s secret Oval Office taping system captured the concerns expressed by Secretary McNamara. “I don’t know quite what kind of a world we live in after we’ve struck Cuba, and we, we’ve started it… After we’ve launched fifty to a hundred sorties, what kind of world do we live in? How, how do we stop at that point?”

That question plagued the president as he resisted pressure from top aides and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to authorize a week of carpet bombing of Cuba—more than 1,000 sorties were planned for the first two days of airstrikes—followed by a massive invasion. As Kennedy leaned toward the blockade option to buy time to negotiate the withdrawal of the missiles, Air Force General Curtis LeMay accused him of a Munich-style appeasement. The cigar-chomping General—LeMay served as the role model for the unhinged military officer Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, Dr. Strangelove—who had 3,000 missiles under his command, seemed to believe a nuclear war was winnable. If the missiles flew, some 70 million Americans could be killed, President Kennedy pointed out. “You are talking about the destruction of a country.”

At 7pm on October 22, Kennedy went on television to give one of the most dramatic 18-minute speeches in modern times. The U.S. now had “unmistakable evidence” of offensive missile bases on the island of Cuba, he told the nation and the world. “[T]his sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberatively provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country,” the President stated. He announced a “strict quarantine” against ships carrying weapons to Cuba, and demanded that Khrushchev “halt and eliminate” this threat to world peace.

Khrushchev’s first reaction was to issue threats of his own. Yes, he had sent missiles to Cuba, he privately told William Knox, the president of Westinghouse Electric International who happened to be visiting Moscow on October 24. But they were meant to defend the revolution against the threat of future U.S. invasions. If the Americans now attacked Cuba, the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base would “disappear the first day,” he warned, according to Dobbs’ book.

“I’m not interested in the destruction of the world,” he informed Knox, who became the first emissary in the missile crisis. “But if you want us to all meet in Hell, it’s up to you."

During the ensuing six days of the increasingly dangerous superpower showdown, President Kennedy pursued a strategy combining the naval blockade and massive build-up of an invasion force with diplomacy for a political settlement. On October 24, just as Kennedy and his aides awaited the first potentially perilous interception by U.S. destroyers of two Soviet freighters  believed to be carrying weapons approaching the quarantine line, the CIA reported that the ships had stopped or turned around. “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Secretary Rusk told the ExComm—a statement that became the most iconic, if erroneous, representation of the missile crisis. (In fact, as Dobbs proves in One Minute to Midnight, the two ships were hundreds of miles away and, on Khrushchev’s orders, already returning to Russia; this “eyeball” confrontation on the high seas never took place.)

On October 26, a glimmer of hope for a resolution emerged when a Soviet KGB agent meeting with ABC News correspondent John Scali suggested that the Kremlin might consider a non-invasion of Cuba guarantee by Washington as a basis to withdraw the missiles. A private message from Khrushchev to Kennedy arrived the same day stating that it was the constant “threat of armed attack and aggression” against Cuba that had prompted the Soviets to position the missiles there; if the U.S. would give “assurances” of no future invasions of Cuba, “then too, the question of armaments would disappear.”

The next day, however, Khrushchev broadcast a public message on Radio Moscow to Kennedy upping the ante: in return for withdrawing the Cuban missiles, he demanded the U.S. dismantle its battery of 15 medium- range “Jupiter” missiles, each with a nuclear warhead 100 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb, based along Turkey’s frontier with the USSR. Installed during the Eisenhower administration, the Jupiters had become operational in March 1962, perhaps not by coincidence around the same time as Khrushchev had decided to offer Soviet missiles to Cuba.

This demand was one of a series of unexpected events on October 27, known as “Black Saturday,” that dramatically escalated the danger of war. Later that day, without orders from Khrushchev, a Russian anti-aircraft unit shot down a U-2 spy plane that had taken surveillance photos of Soviet and Cuban defensive positions as Cuba prepared for an expected U.S. attack; the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, became the one military casualty of the conflict. Unbeknownst to Kennedy, another U-2 set out on a mission to gather air samples of Soviet nuclear tests from the North Pole and strayed deep into Soviet territory over the Chukot Peninsula, a “provocation,” as the Kremlin interpreted it, that set off alarms that the U.S. was preparing for an attack there; Khrushchev’s anxieties were further increased by a message he received from Fidel Castro arguing that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was eminent, that Russia would be attacked next, and that Khrushchev should consider launching his missiles before Moscow was struck. Finally, in a direct and dramatic military confrontation on the high seas, U.S. naval warships dropped depth charges on a Soviet Foxtrot submarine, unaware that it carried a nuclear tipped torpedo.

Unable to communicate with Moscow, the sub’s captain believed that war had broken out and considered arming and launching the nuclear weapon, rather than surface and surrender.

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