The closest the world has come to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of the United States. U.S. armed forces were at their highest state of readiness. Soviet field commanders in Cuba were authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if invaded by the U.S.
The fate of millions literally hinged upon the ability of two men, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to reach a compromise.
Fifteen years into the cold war, the new American president and the Soviet premier met in Vienna to discuss the east-west confrontation, in particular, the situation in Berlin. They resolved nothing, and Khrushchev left the June 1961 summit thinking Kennedy was a weak president.
The superpowers continued to increase their military strength. The Soviets felt threatened because the U.S. still had more missiles. More importantly, some of those missiles were based in Turkey, just 150 miles from the U.S.S.R. Incirlik (EEN-jeer-leek, &quot;fig orchard&quot;) Air Base is a joint Turkish-American military facility located near Ankara. The U.S. had recently begun to deploy fifteen Jupiter IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missiles) missiles near Izmir , Turkey , which directly threatened the western sections of the Soviet Union.
These increasing tensions would inevitably lead to a showdown, somewhere, sometime. That place was Cuba.
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro was aware of several U.S. attempts to oust him since he had come to power in 1959.
One was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles in 1961.
1961, unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles. On Apr. 17, 1961, about 1,500 Cuban exiles landed in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) with the aim of ousting the Communist regime of Fidel CASTRO. They had been trained in Guatemala by the CIA, supplied with U.S. arms. Most were captured or killed by the Cuban army. The U.S. government was severely criticized for the attack at home and abroad. In December 1962, Cuba traded 1,113 captured rebels for $53 million in food and medicine raised by private donations in the U.S.
When Castro came to power, the U.S. stopped buying Cuban sugar and supplying oil. It also snubbed Castro when he visited the United Nations. Khrushchev, on the other hand, treated him like a friend offering to trade with Cuba. Therefore, Castro turned to the Soviets for protection from a U.S. invasion. The Soviets rushed to aid Castro, seeing an opportunity to make their presence felt closer to the United States.
The crisis began on Monday, October 15, when photos taken by U-2 pilot Richard Heyser revealed SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The U-2 This picture is of the most common high-level recon aircraft used before, during, and after the crisis. The U-2 was the most used recon aircraft in service before being retired for the SR-71 Blackbird. SPECIFICATIONS Wingspan: 80 ft. Length: 49 ft. 7 in. Height: 13 ft. Weight: 15,850 lbs. (17,270 lbs. with external fuel tanks) Armament: None Engine: Pratt & Whitney J57-P-37A of 11,000 lbs. thrust (J75-P-13 of 17,000 lbs. thrust for later models) PERFORMANCE Maximum speed: 494 mph. Cruising speed: 460 mph. Range: 2,220 miles (over 3,000 miles for later models) Ceiling: Above 55,000 ft. (above 70,000 ft. for later models)
Strategic Air Command personnel interpreting reconnaissance photo
SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba
The SS-4 &quot;Sandal&quot; is an intermediate range missile that can destroy targets up to 1000 km from its launch site. This liquid fuelled, relatively vulnerable and inaccurate missile, was first deployed in 1959. This picture was taken by an American operative while it was on parade in Moscow. It is one of only a few known close-up of this missile.
The SS-5 &quot;Skean&quot; followed it in 1961 and has a similar sized warhead but double the range. Some 275 SS-4s remained until 1982 in the Soviet Union's arsenal along with a handful of SS-5s. Both of these missiles can carry a wide variety of warheads including chemical, nuclear, and conventional.
The SS-4 and SS-5 missiles were the primary Soviet missile systems based in Cuba. Together, they had a range capable of reaching most of the continental United States. CIA briefing board for JFK showing range of Soviet MRBMs – Bobby Kennedy on 16 Oct jokingly asked whether the missiles could hit Oxford, Mississippi, where federal marshals had intervened only two weeks earlier, so Oxford was included.
Kennedy was informed of the missiles at breakfast the next day. He convened his 12 most important advisors, known as EX-COMM . Most of them supported an air strike followed by an invasion. However, they weren't aware that Khrushchev, knowing communications between Moscow and Cuba were unreliable, had authorized Soviet field commanders in Cuba to use tactical nuclear missiles if the U.S. invaded. Kennedy wanted to appear tough yet avoid military confrontation. Some advisors recommended a blockade. No matter what action the U.S. took regarding Cuba, EX-COMM expected Khrushchev to retaliate.
To maintain secrecy, Kennedy followed his planned schedule which included campaign trips to Connecticut and the Midwest.
In between trips, a U-2 flight discovered SS-5 missiles, which could reach most of the continental United States.
Friday Oct 18 th – White House photo of Kennedy meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Adrei Gromyko and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin – in which JFK does not reveal he knows about the missiles, and Gromyko asserts that Soviet military assistance to Cuba is purely defensive. JFK told Gromyko the U.S. would not tolerate offensive weapons in Cuba. Gromyko denied the Soviets had anything of the kind on the island.
On Saturday, October 20, Robert Kennedy called the President in Chicago to tell him he must return to the White House to meet with EX-COMM . The President finally agreed. Telling the press he had an &quot;upper respiratory infection,&quot; he returned to Washington.
October 20, 1962--2:30 pm: President Kennedy informs the ExComm that any military action against Cuba would involve the use of atomic weapons. He thus opts for a blockade and schedules his address to the nation for October 22 at 7:00 pm.
On Sunday - Kennedy asked if the Air Force could take out all the missiles. The reply was, &quot;Only the ones we know about.&quot; The President then asked about casualties, both civilian and military. The answer was 10 to 20,000. This influenced Kennedy's decision to forego an air strike and set up a blockade around Cuba. --11:30 am: Although he is committed to the blockade, President Kennedy directs the Tactical Air Command to be ready to carry out an airstrike against Cuban bases any time after the morning of October 22, 1962.
Another U-2 flight discovered bombers being rapidly assembled and cruise missile sites being built on Cuba's northern shore.
The press learned there were offensive weapons in Cuba and questioned Kennedy. The President asked the reporters not to break the news until he informed the American people on network television the next evening. If they denied him the element of surprise, he warned, &quot;I don't know what the Soviets will do.&quot;
The public phase of the crisis began on Monday, October 22. --12:00 noon: SAC initiates a massive alert of its B-52 nuclear bomber force. B-52 flights begin around the clock, with a new bomber taking off each time another lands. For the first time in history, all aircraft are armed with nuclear weapons. When Senate leaders were told about the missiles in Cuba, they called for air strikes, but Kennedy stood firm on his decision for a blockade. The President will address the nation at 7:00pm.
U.S. ships prepared for the quarantine. Marines reinforced the base at Guantanamo Bay. 2:14pm: President Kennedy orders that U.S. Military forces worldwide go to DEFCON-3 -- an increased alert posture -- as of 7:00 pm, the time of his speech to the nation. In his seventeen minute address, Kennedy warns the Soviet government that the United States will &quot;regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union.&quot; -- DEFCON 3 -- ICBM missile crews are alerted and Polaris nuclear submarines in port are dispatched to stations at sea. During the president's speech, twenty-two interceptor aircraft go airborne in the event the Cuban government reacts militarily. Instructions were given to be ready to launch missiles within minutes of the President's speech. In response to Kennedy's speech, Castro mobilized all of Cuba's military forces.
What these papers don’t show - High Altitude Russian Hydrogen Bomb Test at Kapustin Yar
A low level reconnaissance mission brought back stunning pictures of missiles prepared for launch.
Low-level photograph of San Cristobal no. 1 suggesting missile readiness drills.
One of the pilots, William Ecker, commented, &quot;When you can almost see the writing on the side of the missiles, then you really know what you've got.&quot;
The Organization of American States unanimously approved the U.S. decision to quarantine Cuba. By the end of the day, U.S. ships at the quarantine line were prepared to destroy any ship that failed to stop at that line.
USS THOMAS J. GARY
USS Forrestal - supercarrier
Protesters, both for and against the president's actions on Cuba, converge outside the White House gates
Not everyone supported Kennedy’s actions - This peace march was held on October 24, 1962 in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The demonstrators here urged President Kennedy to take a conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union and to steer the nation away from any nuclear confrontation.
At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SAC increases its alert posture to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history.
DEFCON 1 Maximum force readiness - WAR DEFCON 2 Further Increase in force readiness, but less than maximum readiness DEFCON 3 Increase in force readiness above normal readiness DEFCON 4 Normal, increased intelligence and strengthened security measures DEFCON 5 Normal peacetime readiness
Military alert was raised to DEFCON 2, the highest ever in U.S. history. (1 being war); The military could, at a moment's notice, launch an attack on Cuba or the Soviet Union. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviets at the U.N. Stevenson challenged his Soviet counterpart to deny the evidence, reminding him, &quot;You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now.&quot; They refused to answer any questions.
Over the next two weeks, the seriousness of the crisis changed hourly. While no Soviet ships crossed the blockade, 23 Cuban missile sites still became fully operational. A U2 was shot down over Cuba, the pilot killed. Plans were prepared for an invasion of Cuba. Fidel Castro himself went to a Cuban air base and climbed into a MIG, determined to shoot down an American spy plane himself. (No planes came over that day.) A U2 from a base in Alaska accidentally flew over Russia and was chased by Soviet MIGs. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara hears of the incident, he exclaims, &quot;... this means war with the Soviet Union!&quot; President Kennedy calmly says, &quot;There's always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the message.&quot;
EX-COMM received a letter from Khrushchev in reply to Kennedy's speech. The letter clearly was painstakingly written. The Soviets would remove their missiles if Kennedy publicly guaranteed the U.S. would never invade Cuba. Another U-2 flight revealed the Soviets were camouflaging the missiles. The CIA reports that the construction of the missile sites is continuing and accelerating.
A long, rambling letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy makes a offer: removal of the missiles in exchange for lifting the quarantine and a pledge that the U.S. will not invade Cuba.
RFK meets secretly with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin and agrees after a phone call to the president that the removal of US missiles from Turkey is negotiable as part of a comprehensive settlement. Khrushchev receives a cable from Castro urging a nuclear first strike against the US in the event of an invasion of Cuba. US High altitude nuclear test on Johnston Island.
Saturday, October 27. The worst day of the crisis. A U-2 on a routine mission picked the wrong star to navigate by and wandered over Russia. In trouble, the pilot alerted the rescue station which dispatched F-105s. Unknown to the American pilot, the fighters carried nuclear tipped missiles. If the Soviets had interpreted this as a final reconnaissance mission before a nuclear attack, this could have touched off a nuclear war.
Khrushchev's second letter to Kennedy raised the price for removing the missiles. In addition to a public statement about not invading Cuba he also wanted the removal of obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey, is received in Washington. This suggested that hard-liners had pressured Khrushchev. EX-COMM debated how to handle this letter. Robert Kennedy suggested they ignore it and respond only to the first
Another U-2, attempting to get updated pictures of the missile sites, was shot down over Cuba on orders of a Soviet commander on site. The orders had not come from Moscow. This worried Khrushchev. Due to poor communication, similar incidents could occur again, without his consultation. by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile and the pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, is killed. President Kennedy writes to the widow of USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., the U-2 photographic reconnaissance pilot who was shot down on October 27, 1962 while on a flying mission over Cuba.
Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that the Soviets would dismantle their nuclear missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev could have insisted that the U.S. respond to the greater demands in the second letter, but he did not. By backing down, Khrushchev ruined his career but prevented nuclear disaster.
Conclusion Poor communication contributed to the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, there was no direct and immediate link between the American and Soviet leaders. Once the crisis entered its public phase on October 22nd, it took Kennedy and Khrushchev seven days to reach a compromise. They used various written communiques and television and radio speeches to negotiate with one another. This somewhat unreliable and indirect form of communication nearly led to nuclear war. If Khrushchev had not agreed to remove the missiles, the U.S. would have invaded Cuba within days. In that event, the Soviets would have launched their battlefield nuclear weapons. Then Kennedy would have had no choice but to launch U.S. missiles at Cuba or, more likely, the Soviet Union. Realizing how close they had come to disaster, Kennedy and Khrushchev established the &quot;hot line&quot; between the White House and the Kremlin so they could speak directly. Nine months after the crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an agreement to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This marked the beginning of what seemed to be a new willingness to cooperate and communicate. However, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Eleven months later, Premier Khrushchev was removed from office by Communist hard liners. One can't help but wonder what would have happened if these two men had stayed in power. Perhaps the same two people who had brought us so close to nuclear war, changed by that experience, could have brought us far from it.