A Navy P-2H reconnaissance plane, the jet/prop hybrid capable of dual use as a bomber, monitors a Soviet freighter with IL-28 bombers on deck during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 22, 1962 President John F. Kennedy took the airways to make a stunning announcement—The Soviet Union (USSR) was installing nuclear armed missiles in Cuba which would be capable of striking targets virtually anywhere in the United States. Those of us alive and aware at the moment knew that this was the most dangerous moment of our lives. The Cuban Missile Crisis passed after a few days of breathless terror around the world. Years later it was discovered that an accidental trigger of nuclear war came even closer than we had imagined.
Tensions between East and West had been building for sometime, particularly over the thorny issue of Cuba. Early in his administration, Kennedy gave the go-ahead to a CIA scheme hatched under his predecessor to invade Fidel Castro’s island with an army of Cuban exiles. Nervous about appearing to violate international law with unprovoked military action, Kennedy had scrapped plans to support the invasion with substantial U.S. air power. Predictably, the small invading force did not excite the predicted public uprising on the island and was quickly defeated. The U.S. was easily publicly identified as the sponsor of the escapade and was publicly humiliated.
Sitting in Moscow Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded that Kennedy was weak, inexperienced, and indecisive. He concluded the time was right to be much more aggressive either in Cuba or in Europe. The Russian high command was also aware that despite Kennedy’s assertion of a Missile Gap in the 1960 election, the Soviets were far behind the U.S. The Russian strategic offense still relied heavily on long range bombers. Only a relative handful of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were operational and capable of striking the U.S. while America had hundreds. In addition American Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) had been based in Britain since 1958. Then in 1961 Kennedy authorized the placement of Jupiter Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) in Italy and on the very border of the USSR in Turkey. The Soviets were clearly more threatened by the US nuclear arsenal than the other way around and were looking for a way to rectify the imbalance.
Meanwhile Castro was convinced that the U.S. was preparing to invade his island—with good reason. There was significant pressure in Congress, particularly the Senate, to take military action against “the Communist toe-hold” in the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy kept up various CIA plots against Castro, including a number of botched assassination ploys and the insertion of a number of agents to prepare for an eventual invasion. He declared an economic boycott of the island in February 1962. Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were actively preparing invasion plans with the bellicose Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay advocating an all-out air strike.
In May, Khrushchev decided that he could defend Cuba, humiliate the U.S. and perhaps even win the withdrawal of the missiles in Italy and Turkey by inserting Russian IRBMs, MRBMs, and Il-28 light bombers with nuclear arms onto the island with the support and approval of the Cuban government. Final plans were approved in early July while Soviet missile experts were already on the ground making preparations. Shipments of missiles and bomber began almost immediately under great secrecy with a strong diplomatic cover of denying any intent of providing offensive weapons to the Cubans.
In September, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of force against Cuba in the event U.S. was threatened in any way. The Soviets countered that any action against Cuba would be an act of war.
The first consignment of Soviet R-12 IRBMs arrived on September 8. More soon followed. In addition R-14 MRBMs were on their way. By the end of the month the CIA was being flooded with reports of missile activity in Cuba by its vast network of agents and spies. These reports were not confirmed because U-2 recognizance flights over Cuba had been suspended since a Nationalist Chinese U-2 had been shot down with a Surface to Air (SAM) over the mainland in August. It was known that the Russians had already deployed SAMs to Cuba. At the end of September, Navy reconnaissance aircraft photographed a Soviet ship with large crates on its deck the size and shape of Il-28 bombers. On October 12 the CIA transferred it U-2s to the Air Force. After the planes were re-painted, the first surveillance flight over the Island in weeks took of on October 14. Among the more than 900 photos shot were a series that clearly showed an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province, in western Cuba.
At 8:30 in the morning of October 17 National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy briefed the President on the finding. That afternoon Kennedy convened the first meeting of what would be designated Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ECNSC) with which he would confer throughout the crisis. It included not only the Joint Chiefs, Secretaries of Defense and State, head of the CIA, and Bundy but also the President’s brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Kennedy’s closest White House aids. Reviewing a range of options, the Joint Chiefs unanimously urged a full scale invasion of Cuba. Kennedy did not agree with their assertion that the Russians would not act because it was within the U.S. sphere of influence. He did not believe that the Soviets would let such a direct challenge go unanswered and that if they did not act in Cuba, would surely do so in vulnerable Berlin. While no decision was reached at the meeting, it was agreed to go ahead and make plans for several options.
On October 18, Kennedy met with the Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Gromyko who denied shipping any offensive weapons. Not wanting to tip his hand that he knew differently, Kennedy only asked Gromyko to relay a stern warning to Moscow.
New information from additional U-2 flyovers revealed at least four bases under construction. The military was placed on high alert, the 1st Armored Division was sent to Georgia, and five Army divisions were alerted for a possible invasion. The Navy was concentrating forces for a full scale blockade of the island and LeMay’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) dispatched nuclear armed intermediate B-47 bombers to Florida and put the fleet of heavy B-52’s into the air.
Options were pared to two operational plans dubbed OPLAN 316 and OPLAN 312. The first was for a heavy air assault and naval bombardment followed a full scale invasion by the Army and Marine Corps. There were significant logistical problems to moving quickly to an invasion, including a critical shortage of amphibious assault capacity and an inability to effectively move enough heavy armor to counter the numerous—and superior—tanks provided by the Soviets to the Cubans. The second plan envisioned an air campaign starting with strikes at the missile facilities and flexible enough to escalate up to and including the use of tactical nuclear weapons or support of an invasion. Just about everyone was convinced that some kind of solution by arms was inevitable.
ECNSC began to consider a full naval blockade as yet another option short of initiating a shooting war. But the State Department pointed out that under international law, a blockade itself was an act of war. Kennedy doubted that the Soviets would press against a blockade, however. While hawks on the council still pressed for military action, Kennedy withheld a final decision. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson presented an opinion that quarantine of offensive weapons only instead of a blanket blockade would fall within acceptable international law, particularly if it were undertaken as part of an international response. The Organization of American States (OAS) had already announced support of some kind of action against Cuba and Argentina and other nations had pledged Naval forces for action at sea. By the afternoon most members of the ECNSC, LeMay notably in dissent, were leaning to the blockade/quarantine action.
The afternoon of October 22 Kennedy met with top Congressional leaders and outlined the blockade action. To his chagrin, he was met with demands for more direct military action and warned that the administration could loose support of Congress if the country looked weak. At the same time the American ambassador to the USSR Foy Kohler, informed the Soviets of intentions to announce and enforce a quarantine. U.S. Allies around the world were also notified before the President took to the American air ways at 7 PM Eastern Standard Time.
Kennedy told the American people that, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Then he outlined his plan:
To halt this offensive buildup, 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 and port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, 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.”
During the speech American armed forces around the globe were placed on Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) 3 status, an elevated state of readiness.
It took the Soviets two days to formally respond with a bellicose telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy calling the naval embargo a pirate action that would lead to war. The cable was publicly released by the TASS news agency.
On October 25 U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council and Zorin refused to admit that his country was indeed sending missiles and bombers to Cuba.
Readiness levels were raised to DEFCON 2 that afternoon for the first time in history, meaning that one eighth of SAC’s heavy bombers were in the air all times for an immediate strike and the rest were to be ready for take off within 15 minutes. After learning from intelligence reports that work was still being done on the missile instillations, Kennedy ordered that bombers designated for use against the Soviet Union itself be loaded with nuclear weapons. Kennedy was becoming convinced that a shooting war was inevitable.
But that same day, as yet unknown to the Americas, the Soviets turned around 24 ships headed for Cuba well ahead of the embargo line. They also initiated back channel negotiations through ABC News reporter John Scali who met Aleksandr Fomin, the KGB (Soviet security and spy service) chief in the U.S. Fromin asked Scali to transmit an informal feeler on whether the U.S. would be willing to reach a diplomatic solution that would trade a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba for a Soviet withdrawal of offensive weapons. The U.S. allowed the Brazilian government to pass word to the Soviets that an invasion would be “unlikely” if the weapons were removed.
Later that day a long, emotional letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy began to come over the wire to the State Department from Moscow. After a delay in translation it was presented to the president. The letter re-confirmed the general offer relayed by Scali, “I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear.”
Castro, on the other hand, was frantic that he was being abandoned by his ally and wrote Khrushchev to launch an immediate attack on the U.S, instead. Revelations years later indicated that this had the effect of convincing the Soviets that Castro was crazy and re-enforced their intention to find a negotiated settlement.
On the morning of October 27 Radio Moscow began broadcasting another proposal from Khrushchev that differed from the one the day before in a significant way. It added the dismantlement of the American missiles in Italy and Turkey to the list of conditions need for the Soviets to withdraw their weapons. The U.S. had already consulted with the Italians and Turks secretly about the possibility of such a deal. The Turks were adamant about keeping the missiles on their soil. The Italians indicated that they were willing to go along. The U.S. had already concluded that the Jupiter missiles had been made obsolete by the growing fleet of U.S. nuclear submarines armed with Polaris missiles. The President felt, however, that the U.S. could not be publicly seen as acceding to Soviet demands. Still, it was determined to continue back channel communication.
Just as a ray of hope for a bloodless conclusion was being seen, a U-2 was shot down by a SAM over Cuba. Kennedy had earlier declared his intention to strike at the SAM sites, which were manned by Soviet troops, should an American plane be shot down. Now he wasn’t sure if it was a mistake. He decided not to take action unless another plane was shot down. Unbeknown the U.S. the Soviet commander of a SAM battery had acted on his own authority and without orders. The Russian command was afraid that further action against the reconnaissance planes would be taken by the Americans as proof that they meant to continue construction. They issued direct orders not to fire on more high altitude over flights. Low level flights, now being done a two hour intervals, however were still subject to anti-aircraft fire from Cuban instillations.
That evening a new response to the Soviet overtures was devised. The U.S. would simply ignore the proposal from the radio broadcast and reply instead to Khrushchev’s first letter. White House Special Counsel and Adviser Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy drafted the response generally accepting the October 26 letter. Although it was nowhere to be written, general assurances would be made that the U.S. would voluntarily withdraw the Turkish and Italian missiles after a withdrawal of all Russian hardware was confirmed.
Some felt that ignoring the second proposal put Khrushchev in an impossible situation with his own security forces and believed that he would reject the offer. Preparations for war continued. Air Force personnel were confined to their bases and told to be ready for action. Target lists were being developed and a hasty replacement government of Cuban exiles was being put together. Messages were sent to NATO and other allies that war seemed imminent.
On October 27 the Navy dropped small practice depth charges on a Soviet submarine operating near the embargo line in an attempt to force it to surface. In an unrelated incident, MiG fighters in the Soviet Far East were scrambled because of a U-2 intrusion into Russian air space and American F-102 fighters were sent up over the Bering Sea. With tensions running so high, any incidents any where in the world could trigger a war.
Finally the two sides agreed on a settlement with the U.S. withdrawal of the Italian and Turkish missiles a secret component. On Monday, October 29 Radio Moscow broadcast Khrushchev’s official statement, “the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as ‘offensive’ and their crating and return to the Soviet Union.” President Kennedy made a public statement welcoming the step toward peace and drafted a private letter re-enforcing the agreement.
Quarantine operations continued until the Soviets demonstrated their commitment to follow through. 42 missiles and their support equipment were loaded onto eight Soviet ships which sailed from Cuba from November 5 through 9. The IL-28 bombers followed in December. The United States honored its commitment not to invade Cuba. It quietly removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy by the following summer. The moment of danger had passed. The world did not blow up—barely.
In 2002 a special meeting of participants from all sides was held in Havana. It was there that the Americans learned for the first time how close things had really been. They learned that for the only time in Soviet history, commanders on the ground had authority to use battlefield nuclear weapons against U.S, Forces on their own without waiting for clearances from Moscow in the event of an invasion—or what looked like might be an invasion. Even worse, the Soviet sub that was attacked with practice depth charges was armed with nuclear torpedoes and under instructions to use them if its hull was breached. The skipper had ordered a torpedo armed and for several desperate minutes thought about using it against one of the Navy ships hounding it. If it had, that would have started the war.