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Brink of war: Fifty years since nuclear crisis

And, indeed, it stretched out over almost two weeks, writes Ron Sutton.


“There’s a medium-range, ballistic-missile launch site and two new military encampments on the southern edge of the Sierra del Rosario in west-central Cuba.”

So begins a briefing by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Arthur Lundahl to United States President John F. Kennedy at the White House on October the 16th, 1962.

And so began what, to date, is the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear war.

Fifty years ago a US spy plane spotted missiles of the former Soviet Union near the mountains of western Cuba, just 150 kilometres south of Florida.

What followed was a harrowing, 13-day stare-down between the world’s two Cold War superpowers to see who would blink first.

“This sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons, for the first time, outside of Soviet soil is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitment are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.”

Half a century after John F. Kennedy’s decision to force a showdown with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis, it remains his defining moment.

But the missile crisis was not a moment in isolation.

It was the culmination of a saga that had begun a year and a half earlier, when the new US president backed a failed invasion of the communist-ruled island by Cuban exiles.

Just months after that disaster at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s south coast, Nikita Khrushchev met John F Kennedy at a summit in Vienna and determined the young president was weak.

The Soviets had concerns at the time that the Americans owned more nuclear missiles and that some US missiles were just 250 kilometres from their own border, in Turkey.

They wanted to change the balance.

When US forces staged a mock invasion of a Caribbean island the next year and called it Operation Ortsac — Fidel Castro spelled backwards — the opportunity came.

But Sergei Khrushchev, who would migrate to the United States nearly 30 years later as the Soviet Union broke up, says his father’s next step was an obligation, too.

“Each great power has its obligation to protect all its allies, (whether) they’re far or close, they’re important or they’re not important, and when Castro, after the Bay of Pigs, declared officially that he had joined the Soviet bloc, he put this obligation onto my father’s shoulders. And through this, Cuba became to the Soviet Union the same as West Berlin to the United States, a useless, small piece of land very deep inside hostile territory. But if you will not protect this small piece of land, you will lose your face. Your allies will not trust you.”

Dr Khrushchev, now a senior researcher in international studies at esteemed Brown University, made his remarks in a recorded interview with the study centre in 2008.

He says his father decided to send missiles to Cuba as a diplomatic signal that the Soviets were serious about protecting Fidel Castro’s government.

But he says his father did not foresee the full US reaction.

“He did not understand at that time that the American mentality is different. For Europeans, Soviets, all their history, (they) had enemies at the gate,* so additional American missiles in Italy or Turkey did not change (things). They only replaced German armies, and the Germans only replaced Napoleon’s armies, or Austro-Hungarian armies or Turkish armies. For Americans, each such threat was a shock. And, here, because it was a psychological crisis, Americans thought it was the end of the world.”

It was close enough to the end of the world that the United States quickly massed more than 100-thousand soldiers in Florida, ready to invade Cuba and the missile site.

To the Americans, there was no doubt the Soviet move was offensive, not defensive.

And secretly recorded tapes would show later that President Kennedy came under heavy pressure from his military leaders to respond offensively.

The air-force chief, General Curtis LeMay, was emphatic.

“If we don’t do anything to Cuba, then they’re going to push on Berlin — and push real hard because they’ve got us on the run.** If we take military action against Cuba, then I think … (Cabinet question: What do you think their reply would be?) I don’t think they’re going to make a reply at all if we tell them the Berlin situation is just like it’s always been, (that) if they make a move, we’re going to fight. I don’t think it changes the Berlin situation at all, except you’ve got to make one more statement on it. So, I see no other solution. A blockade and political action, I see leading into war. Now this is almost as bad as the appeasement of Munich.”

In 1938, Germany, France, Britain and Italy had signed an agreement in Munich allowing Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia in a failed attempt to prevent a war.

But Mr Kennedy resisted the comparison.

After hearing an air strike against the missile site could kill 10- to 20-thousand people, and after another spy plane spotted bombers and missile sites elsewhere, he chose a blockade.

As reconnaissance photos revealed Soviet missiles poised for launch, he ordered US naval ships to blockade the island, then explained his move to the American public.

“To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, where they’re found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, will be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life, as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.”

The possibilities were endless.

What if a Soviet ship tested the blockade? What if the Americans tried to board a Soviet ship? What if the Soviets shot down a spy plane with a missile?

And, simply, what if someone tired of the tension and pushed one button?

That tension was perhaps best summed up in a remark by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk at another meeting.

My God, he said, I think it was very significant that we were here this morning — we passed the one contingency, an immediate, sudden, irrational strike.

One week into the drama, the naval blockade was complete.

Nikita Khrushchev wrote to President Kennedy, calling it an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.

But the United States demanded the Soviets dismantle their missile sites and remove all offensive weapons from Cuba, leaving open the threat of stronger action.

Said Mr Kennedy:

“I have directed the armed forces to prepare for any eventuality. And I trust that, in the interests of both the Cuban people and the Soviet technicians at the sites, the hazards to all concerned of continuing this threat will be recognised.”

On October the 24th, Day 9 of the crisis, Soviet ships reached the blockade line.

But radio orders from Moscow had them stay there in their positions.

The tension continued.

Behind the scenes, records now show numerous scenarios were being studied … How many are likely to die if we do this, how many if we do that?

But even as the showdown stretched on day by day and the Soviets baulked publicly at President Kennedy’s demands, a different story began playing out privately.

The US president’s brother and Attorney-General, Robert Kennedy, had met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin for secret talks.

Finally, on October the 26th, Day 11, Nikita Khrushchev wrote to US officials, offering to remove the missiles if the Americans publicly agreed not to invade Cuba.

The next day, even amid news of a US spy plane being shot down and the pilot killed, the tide finally turned.

The Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles, the United States agreed not to attack Cuba, and the Americans quietly agreed to dismantle their missiles in Turkey and Italy.

On October the 28th, 1962, a deal was announced, the threat of a nuclear war melted away, and Nikita Khrushchev, like the US leaders, could talk of a certain kind of triumph.

“Our people, our party, can be proud of the results of their resolute action in these threatening days. Events have confirmed that the forces which are standing for peace are able to overcome the most dangerous international crises.”