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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

The Cuban Missile Crisis
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Revisited on the Anniversary

October marked the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, in which the United States and the Soviet Union came chillingly close to nuclear war over the placement of Soviet strategic weapons in Cuba. Continuing their exhaustive, oral history examination of the crisis, the National Security Archive and Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Affairs co-sponsored a conference in Havana October 11-13 that brought together U.S., Soviet, and Cuban officials and scholars.

In this special section, Arms Control Today presents some highlights from that conference. Robert S. McNamara, the secretary of defense to President Kennedy, begins the section with commentary on the decisions made in October 1962 and the implications the crisis has for today. He finishes by posing several outstanding questions about Soviet and Cuban intentions during the crisis. Interestingly, some of those questions were answered at the conference in a subsequent conversation McNamara had with two former Soviet officials. Excerpts from that conversation, which illuminates how little forethought had been given to the U.S. and Soviet actions that precipitated the crisis, are provided here. Finally, ACT has included passages from recently released U.S., Soviet, and Cuban documents that illustrate how events before, during, and after the crisis unfolded for those involved.

The recollections of participants combined with new archival material vividly demonstrate the stakes of the Cuban missile crisis and the importance of current efforts to prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction. As James Blight and Tom Blanton, two of the conference’s organizers, have written, “October 27, 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis peaked, was the most dangerous day in recorded history. As the world confronts a crisis regarding what to do about possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is worthwhile meditating on this nearest miss to nuclear catastrophe, transforming the event into a kind of virtual ‘Hiroshima,’ that leads us to conclude: never again.” Or, as McNamara summed up the lessons of the conference, “We’re damn lucky to be here.”

Skip to: McNamara Commentary, Conversation in Havana, or Recently Released Documents.


Forty Years After 13 Days

Robert S. McNamara

For many years, I considered the Cuban missile crisis to be the best-managed foreign policy crisis of the last half-century. I still believe that President Kennedy’s actions during decisive moments of the crisis helped to prevent a nuclear war. But I now conclude that, however astutely the crisis may have been managed, by the end of those extraordinary 13 days—October 16-October 28, 1962—luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair’s breadth.

We were lucky, but not only lucky. I believe we would not have survived those 13 days had not the president shaped and directed the ways in which his senior advisers confronted the crisis. This began within minutes of the moment on Tuesday morning, October 16, when McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, informed the president that we had photographs of Soviet nuclear missile sites under construction across the island of Cuba. These medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which had been deployed not only secretly but also under an elaborate cloak of deception could, if they became operational, deliver nuclear warheads onto all major East Coast U.S. cities, putting 90 million Americans at risk.

We had not anticipated such an action by the Soviets. In fact, we had been told throughout the summer and early autumn of 1962 by various Soviet officials, including Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, that there were no Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, nor would Moscow deploy any such weapons on the island. Because we were reassured in this way, we failed to formulate and debate in advance of their discovery alternative ways of dealing with the deployment.

The president immediately recognized that we would have to force the Soviets to remove the missiles. He had issued a statement on September 4, indicating that, while he did not expect any missile deployment in Cuba, “the gravest issues will arise” should such a deployment actually occur. The president knew he must act consistent with that statement. He also knew, however, that the initiation of military action to remove the missiles entailed grave risks to all the involved parties: the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, and Cuba. The key question for him, and for those of us who advised him, was therefore: how might we force removal of the missiles without going to war?

Toward that end, President Kennedy made three vitally important decisions during the very first hour after examining the photographic evidence on the morning of October 16:

1. He stated that only a limited number of senior officials would be informed of the missile deployment in Cuba—in the State and Defense Departments, the White House and the Office of the National Security Adviser. There were some 15 of us—the so-called Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or “ExComm”—who would advise him throughout the crisis.

2. The ExComm would be required to radically restrict any information given to their associates, in order to help ensure that neither the press, Congress, nor the general public learned of the situation until the president was prepared to respond to it.

3. The ExComm was directed to assemble immediately, to identify alternative responses to the Soviet threat, and to debate the pros and cons of each of them—without the president present. We were instructed not to bring a recommendation to him until all of his advisers agreed unanimously on the course of action to be taken or until it was clear that we could not agree on a single course of action. He further instructed us to take whatever time might be required to agree on the recommendation.

No subsequent U.S. decisions in the Cuban missile crisis contributed more to the prevention of war than those first three decisions taken by President Kennedy. They shaped and constrained U.S. actions during the days that followed, so that there would be no immediate, knee-jerk, emotional response to the news of the deployment. The president’s early decisions guaranteed it.

At the first meeting of the ExComm on Tuesday October 16, the majority of the president’s civilian and military advisers favored an immediate air attack on Cuba with the objective of destroying the missile sites. A vocal minority, however, put forward other alternatives.

By the end of the week, after several days of debate, the ExComm had agreed to present two alternatives to the president: the first was a naval “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional military equipment to Cuba; the second was an air strike, which almost surely would have been followed by a land and sea invasion by U.S. forces.

The president scheduled a final review of the two alternatives for Sunday, October 21. It was to be held in the oval room in the family quarters of the White House. I recall that meeting vividly. Perhaps 17 or 18 people were present, including several who had served in previous administrations, such as Dean Acheson and Jack McCloy. The president asked General Max Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to present the case for the air strike and possible invasion; and he asked me to present the argument against the attack and for the quarantine.

After the two presentations, the president asked each of us, one-by-one, which course of action we favored. The majority favored the attack.

President Kennedy then turned to General Walter Sweeney, head of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command, who would lead the air strike on Cuba, should the president order that course of action. He asked General Sweeney if he was confident that his forces could destroy all the Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba. The planned attack would have been massive: 1,080 sorties against the Cuban missile sites on the first day alone (more sorties, for example, than were carried out by NATO forces on any single day during the 1999 conflict over Kosovo).

I could have kissed Sweeney for his reply. Sweeney told the president:

“We have the finest air force in the world. If we can’t do the job, nobody can. But can I say there is no chance that one or two missiles and nuclear warheads might still be operational, and can still be fired, after the attack? No, Mr. President, I can’t say that.”

What responsible president would have accepted the risk of even one nuclear warhead exploding over a U.S. city, killing unprecedented numbers of American citizens? After Sweeney’s reply to the president, I felt immediately that whatever action we took would begin with the quarantine. In fact, the quarantine line around Cuba went into effect at 10:00 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, October 24.

By Saturday, October 27, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had still not indicated he would remove the missiles. The ExComm debated all that day as to what course of action to take. At the time, the CIA reported that they did not believe the nuclear warheads for the missiles had been delivered to Cuba. As I recall, they believed that the first shipment of warheads was aboard the ship Poltava, a ship which was to arrive in Cuba within a few days. Our reconnaissance photos were showing that the missile sites were rapidly becoming operational. So, if an attack were to be carried out, it seemed obvious that it should be launched before the missiles became operational and before the warheads arrived. Otherwise, we would risk a Soviet counterattack against the U.S. homeland, should one or more missiles survive the air strike intact.

At about 4:00 p.m. EDT on October 27, General Taylor reported to the president that the Joint Chiefs were now recommending that an air strike be launched Monday morning, October 29, to be followed by an invasion seven days later. The majority of the president’s civilian advisers shared that view.

Late on Friday, October 26, and then again early the next morning, two messages had come in from Khrushchev. The first message was long and rambling and appeared to have been written by a man under tremendous stress. Yet, it was also eloquent, in its depiction of the stark choices before us. Here are some excerpts from that remarkable letter:

Everyone needs peace; both capitalists, if they have not lost their reason, and still more, communists.

War is our enemy and a calamity for all people.

If indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and I know that war ends only when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.

I should like you to agree that one cannot give way to pressures; it is necessary to control them.

If people do not show wisdom, then in the final analysis they will come to a clash, like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination will begin.

If you have not lost your self-control, then Mr. President we and you ought not now to pull on the end of a rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot.

And what that will mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what terrible forces our countries possess. Let us not only relax the forces pulling on the end of the rope; let us take means to untie the knot. We are ready for this.

The message ended with a proposal we could fully accept: if we would guarantee we would not invade Cuba, Khrushchev would remove the missiles from Cuba.

The second message, however, seemed to us at the time to have been drafted by the hard-liners within Khrushchev’s Politburo. Moreover, the message had been given to the press before we received it. This message of Saturday morning, October 27, indicated that the Soviet missiles would remain in Cuba until we withdrew what Khrushchev was now calling our “analogous” Jupiter missiles from Turkey. This greatly complicated the situation, just as time appeared to be running out on making a decision before the missile sites became operational. Turkey, a NATO member, strongly opposed the removal of NATO missiles stationed on its territory, as did many other NATO countries.

It seemed clear to President Kennedy, and to most of the ExComm, that we must respond to the letter that arrived second. It was already public knowledge. And we had received it after the Friday letter I just quoted at length. This was an absolutely critical moment in the crisis. Were we simply to reject Khrushchev’s proposal of the missile trade, we would quickly reduce the options short of war to remove the missiles.

It was at this juncture that Llewellyn (“Tommy”) Thompson, a former ambassador to Moscow who had vast experience with the Soviets, and with Khrushchev personally, suggested that we simply ignore the letter that contained the unacceptable deal and reply to the first. This is where we come in on what may have been the single most important exchange of the entire crisis on the U.S. side and, given the stakes at that supremely dangerous moment, one of the most important discussions of the entire Cold War. I am quoting from The Kennedy Tapes:

President Kennedy: “We’re not going to get these weapons out of Cuba, probably, anyway ... I mean by negotiation ... I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s not going to retreat now that he made that public, Tommy. He’s not going to take them out of Cuba.”

Llewellyn Thompson: “I don’t agree, Mr. President. I think there’s still a chance we can get this line going.”

President Kennedy: “He’ll back down?”

Llewellyn Thompson: “The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say ‘I saved Cuba; I stopped an invasion,’ and he can get away with this, if he wants to, and he’s had a go at this Turkey thing, and that we’ll discuss later.”

President Kennedy: “Alright.”

I still quake when I read those lines. On the one hand, here was the president, with time running out, looking for a way to resolve the crisis peacefully but confused by the dual communications from Khrushchev. On the other was Tommy Thompson, a senior-level foreign service officer but, in terms of rank, one of the lowest-ranking members of the EXCOMM, advising the president. But so great was the president’s belief in Tommy’s expertise—his empathy with Khrushchev and the entire leadership in Moscow—that he put the question to Tommy, then and there, to vote it up or down. And Tommy proved to be exactly right. I thank God we had a president who was determined to find a way out of the crisis short of war and an adviser like Tommy, so full of empathy for our Soviet adversary.

By Saturday, October 27, events were slipping out of the control of Moscow and Washington. For example, a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over eastern Cuba that morning. Khrushchev believed, correctly, that we would interpret this as a deliberate escalation of the confrontation. In reality, the U-2 was shot down, as we now know from the testimony of General Anatoly Gribkov and others, at the urging of the Cubans, with authority given by the field subcommander in Cuba, General Stepan Grechko, contrary to Khrushchev’s orders from Moscow. At about the same time, another U-2 on an air-sampling mission over Alaska, strayed into Soviet air space. We worried that the Soviets might conclude—plausibly but wrongly—that the U-2 was on a mission to photograph Soviet military targets, just prior to an attack on the Soviet homeland.

These events seemed dangerous at the time. But it wasn’t until nearly thirty years afterward that we learned, from General Gribkov’s testimony at a January 1992 conference here in this room in Havana, that the nuclear warheads for both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had already reached Cuba before the quarantine line was established—162 nuclear warheads in all. If the president had gone ahead with the air strike and invasion of Cuba, the invasion forces almost surely would have been met by nuclear fire, requiring a nuclear response from the United States.

At the January 1992 Havana conference, we on the U.S. Side were shocked by this information. And so during that conference, I asked President Castro three questions:

1. Were you aware the nuclear war- heads were in Cuba?

2. If so, would you have recommended their use?

3. If the nuclear weapons had been used, what would have been the outcome for Cuba?

President Castro’s answer sent a chill down my spine. He replied:

Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that ... we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear.... Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons.…

And where would the conflict have ended? The answer, I believe, is: in utter disaster, not only for Cuba, but for the Soviet Union, my own country, and the rest of the world as well.

We must learn as much as we can about nuclear danger in October 1962—about the factors that led to it; about the reasons we escaped the ultimate consequences in the events; about what might have happened but thankfully did not; and about whether, or how, the lessons learned from the missile crisis might assist those of us who are interested in reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe in the 21st century.

To that end, I want to pose thirteen questions that seem to me to require further examination:

1. Effect on the Nuclear Balance. Did the Soviets believe the deployment of medium- and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba significantly changed the military balance between the Warsaw Pact and NATO? If so, why? Did they not recognize that, with respect to the nuclear balance, before the deployment in Cuba, the United States had a clear deterrent capability but not the capacity to accomplish a “disarming first strike?” The deployment of missiles in Cuba did not change this situation.

2. U.S. Response. How did the Soviets and Cubans believe the United States would respond to the installation of the missiles in Cuba?

3. Why Deploy Tactical Nuclear Weapons? Was it to deter a U.S. invasion? If so, how would these weapons act as a deterrent, when in fact we knew nothing about their presence on the island during the crisis? And when did the warheads for the tactical nuclear weapons arrive in Cuba?

4. Use of the Tactical Nuclear Weapons. How did the Soviets plan to use the tactical nuclear weapons, in the event of a U.S. Invasion of the island?

5. The U.S. Response to Soviet Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons. What did the Soviets and Cubans believe the U.S. response would be?

6. The Soviet Response. If the U.S. Response had been, to use President Castro’s expression, to make Cuba “disappear,” would the Soviets have attacked the U.S. mainland—or not—with nuclear weapons launched from Cuba or from the Soviet Union?

7. Soviet Strategy. Had the Soviet leadership thought through, in advance, the answers to questions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6?

8. Nuclear War at Sea. Only last year, nearly 40 years after the events, did I learn on a visit to Moscow that nuclear war at sea was a real possibility in October 1962. I would like to hear from the Soviet submariners what the conditions were like, as we chased their subs around the Atlantic. What were your standing orders, in regard both to the conventionally-tipped torpedoes and those equipped with nuclear warheads? And how close did they come actually to launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at U.S. vessels that were dropping depth charges on them?

9. Out of Control. Did leaders in Moscow and in Havana sense (as we in Washington did) that events were slipping out of control by Saturday, October 27? If so, what events seemed to indicate most persuasively that the leaders were losing control of the situation?

10. Soviet and Cuban Differences. Were there important differences between the Soviets and Cubans—just before, during, and after the crisis? I must admit that, at the time, we who advised President Kennedy did not give much thought to this possibility. But it now occurs to me that these differences may have increased the risk of the crisis spinning into a war, even a nuclear war.

11. The Withdrawal. Why did Khrushchev announce his decision to withdraw the missiles over a public radio transmitter in Moscow?

12. The “Two Messages.” Why did we receive two messages from Khrushchev: on Friday, October 26, and Saturday, October 27? Was the “Friday message” written before (or after) the “Saturday message”?

13. Consequences for Khrushchev. Did Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the missiles, bombers, and tactical nuclear warheads lead to his overthrow? And was he aware of that possibility when he made his decision?

The world is facing another potential war in Iraq. We have a host of potential conflicts ahead of us in the next 50 or 100 years. We should learn from the Cuban missile crisis and the mistakes that many of us made to determine how to reduce the risk of such wars in the future.

Robert S. McNamara was secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968.


A Conversation in Havana

Several former decision-makers met October 12 during the conference in Havana to discuss the role of nuclear weapons in the crisis and the extent of nuclear danger on October 27, the day before Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to a deal whereby the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba; the United States pledged publicly not to invade Cuba; and, in a secret agreement, the United States pledged to remove NATO missiles from Turkey. The conversation was remarkable for its candor regarding how poorly the Americans and Soviets had thought through their actions that led to the crisis.

Participants in the following excerpts from the Havana conversation are Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s secretary of defense; Georgy M. Kornienko, former first deputy foreign minister of the U.S.S.R.; and Nikolai S. Leonov, who was chief of the KGB’s Department of Cuban Affairs for 30 years. McNamara and Kornienko had met once, in 1991; Leonov and McNamara had never met. —Thomas S. Blanton and James G. Blight

A Change in the Strategic Balance?

Kornienko: Mr. McNamara, you have asked, did the deployment in Cuba affect the nuclear balance? Well, Khrushchev thought the missiles would change the nuclear balance, but not significantly. Do you think it altered the balance?

McNamara: No, I don’t. On Tuesday morning, the 16th of October, the day we learned of the missile deployment in Cuba, I said I didn’t believe the missile deployment under way in Cuba changed the nuclear balance between the Soviet Union and the United States—not one bit. But I was in a small minority who believed this.

Kornienko: You could still continue your deployment. You could easily and quickly offset anything we could do in Cuba. Isn’t that right?

McNamara: Absolutely. It was absurd to believe that the missiles in Cuba affected the global nuclear balance. The important factor, one that certainly affected President Kennedy, myself, and others, was that we had been misled. He had been told that there were no nuclear missiles in Cuba and that none would be placed there. Kennedy, acting on the Soviet reassurances, had said on September 4 that, with regard to the Soviet reassurances, “should it be otherwise, the gravest consequences will arise.” Well, it was otherwise, and politically, he had no choice but to respond forcefully.

Kornienko: I agree. We keep coming back to the question of Khrushchev’s deceit. It seems to have been the factor that blocked Kennedy from finding a way out of this without a crisis.

McNamara: Yes.

Kornienko: Now, how did we think you would respond to the deployment? I think that Khrushchev just hoped that Kennedy would, so to say, “swallow some missiles.” Khrushchev believed that Kennedy was a very clever man. Therefore, Kennedy would probably accept Soviet missiles in Cuba, not out of weakness but because of prudence.

McNamara: It seems to me that Khrushchev was hoping that Kennedy would accept the missile deployment in Cuba—and I emphasize “hoping” because I don’t think he thought it through at all. He was somehow counting on being able to surprise Kennedy and the world. It was more like a fantasy than a plan. He didn’t have a fallback in case they were discovered earlier.

Leonov: Of course he had not thought it through. Why? In my opinion, it is because when decisions are made in almost total secrecy, very few people are involved in it. For a long time, only six people in the Soviet leadership knew, and none of their subordinates knew. Therefore, there was little analytical thinking through of those decisions.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

McNamara: Why did the Soviet Union deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba? Here at the Havana conference, General [Anatoly] Gribkov said yesterday that the tactical weapons were only for deterrence. But how could they have been for deterrence when we didn’t even know they were on the island?

Kornienko: This is exactly the problem. They were planning on announcing about the placement of nuclear weapons in November. Then of course, it would not be secret. Then, and only then, could the tactical nuclear weapons deter the U.S. from taking military action against Cuba. In other words, if the Americans discovered the missiles before they became operational and before Khrushchev could make his big announcement, he would be in trouble.

McNamara: I understand that General [Issa] Pliyev initially had the authority to use the tactical nuclear weapons, but that authority was withdrawn on October 27. Tell me, do you believe Pliyev would have used tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an American invasion, even though Moscow had rescinded permission to do so?

Kornienko: It is of course impossible to say with any degree of certainty. But under very difficult circumstances—via your massive planned invasion of Cuba—it is not out of the question that he would have felt it was his duty to give his troops all the weapons he had at his disposal, including the tactical nuclear weapons.

Leonov: I had an opportunity to talk with the commander of coastal defense, which also had tactical nuclear weapons. He said, if he didn’t have orders from Moscow, but if he was in danger of being destroyed by American paratroopers, then of course he would not let his weapons be destroyed. He said of course we all would have died, but that is the way any commander would have responded.

McNamara: Exactly!

“October 27, the Most Dangerous Day”

Leonov: During the missile crisis, the Soviet sailors and soldiers on the island were dressed in Cuban uniforms, even though they had Soviet uniforms with them. On the morning of October 27, they received orders to wear their Soviet uniforms. Why? Because they were told they were preparing for battle, and they wished to die in the uniforms of their own country. This is very important, it seems to me. Not only the Cubans were prepared to fight to the death, but the Soviets as well. This was the situation. They believed they were about to be destroyed, and they wished to behave honorably, as soldiers. Pliyev was a very good soldier, a tough soldier, as he proved in the Second World War. In this situation, it is inconceivable to me that he would have neglected to arm and fire his tactical nuclear weapons! Inconceivable!

McNamara: Of course it may seem logical to use the tactical nuclear weapons, if you feel threatened and have no alternative, due to a massive attack. Yes, from the field commander’s point of view, it is logical. But from the political leadership’s point of view, it seems almost insane, due to the danger of uncontrollable escalation. I mean, where would it lead—the use of tactical nuclear weapons? To nuclear disaster, to the destruction of nations, even large nations like yours and mine.

Leonov: I must express my amazement, that I, a former KGB officer, should find himself in complete agreement with the former American defense secretary.

McNamara: What did the Soviets believe the U.S. Response would be to the use of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons? It seems to me that the Soviet leaders did not think it through in any detail. We had a similar problem. For example, in March of 1961 I went to Germany with Paul Nitze, who was then one of my deputies, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer. I asked the NATO field commanders how they were going to use the tactical nuclear weapons under their command. They said, well, we’ll use them against Warsaw Pact or Soviet troops if they confront us. I asked them what would happen then? They had no answer. They hadn’t thought it through. What about Khrushchev and his colleagues?

Leonov: It was the same with us. I am absolutely convinced they did not think it through. When all of us pass away, then in heaven we will convene a new conference when Khrushchev and Kennedy will also participate. Then we will know the truth. [Laughter.] But I think it is clear—unbelievable as it now seems—that the Soviet leadership just did not have any clear idea of what would happen if they used nuclear weapons in Cuba against attacking U.S. troops.

Kornienko: I just don’t know what the Soviet response would have been if the U.S. had attacked Cuba and destroyed the Cuban leadership, government, and many Cuban and Soviet citizens. I would hope that we would not answer with a nuclear strike. But who knows? It is certainly possible that we would have done so, in the situation you are asking about. Of course, if we had...well...I am unable to summon the words in either Russian or English to describe the terrible result of such actions.

Leonov: It is terrible even to think of what would have happened. Under such conditions an entire group of Soviet forces in Cuba would’ve perished, along with perhaps millions of Cubans. Therefore, if what you describe happened, no Soviet leader would have been able to keep his post without taking some dramatic action in response. The closest target, of course, was in West Berlin. I think we would have seized West Berlin.

McNamara: And we would have responded with nuclear weapons...

Leonov: Yes. I remember vividly October 27, the most dangerous day. Khrushchev, as we know, received a cable from Fidel on the 27th in Moscow (the 26th in Havana), saying that an American attack was imminent within 24-72 hours. Of course, this was shocking. But also arriving at that time was a cable from [Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Aleksander] Alekseev to the head of the KGB which had this phrase: “Fidel said that the probability of attack and invasion is at least 95 percent; and if the Americans attack and invade, you [Khrushchev] should attack the U.S. and wipe them off the face of the earth!” Obviously, things were spinning out of control. Such unprecedented messages, at such a time, meant that we had to find an exit, whatever it may be. And we found it just in time.

McNamara: I conclude from this discussion that we’re damn lucky to be here. We were so close to a nuclear catastrophe.

Leonov: One mistake at the wrong time in October 1962, and all could have been lost. I can hardly believe we are here today, talking about this. It is almost as if some divine intervention occurred to help us save ourselves, but with this proviso: we must never get that close again. Next time, we would not be so lucky, as you put it.

Thomas S. Blanton is executive director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. James G. Blight is professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Affairs.


Excerpts From Recently Declassified Documents

Courtesy of the National Security Archive

The Cuban missile crisis may well have started at the Bay of Pigs, in April 1961, since even after that “perfect failure” Washington continued covert planning and overt military exercises toward military intervention in Cuba. On November 30, 1961, President Kennedy authorized Operation Mongoose, a major new covert action program against the Castro regime; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared multiple plans for Cuba operations up to and including invasion. These are excerpts from a March 9, 1962, report prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlining how it might be possible to develop a pretext for invading Cuba.

… 5. The suggested courses of action appended to Enclosure A are based on the premise that US military intervention will result from a period of heightened US-Cuban tensions which place the United States in the position of suffering justifiable grievances. World opinion, and the United Nations forum should be favorably affected by developing the international image of the Cuban government as rash and irresponsible, and as an alarming and unpredictable threat to the peace of the Western Hemisphere.

6. While the foregoing premise can be utilized at the present time it will continue to hold good only as long as there can be reasonable certainty that US military intervention in Cuba would not directly involve the Soviet Union. There is as yet no bilateral mutual support agreement binding the USSR to the defense of Cuba, Cuba has not yet become a member of the Warsaw Pact, nor have the Soviets established Soviet bases in Cuba in the pattern of US bases in Western Europe. Therefore, since time appears to be an important factor in resolution of the Cuba problem, all projects are suggested within the time frame of the next few months. …

Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A

1. Since it would seem desirable to use legitimate provocation as the basis for US military intervention in Cuba[,] a cover and deception plan…could be executed as an initial effort to provoke Cuban reactions. Harassment plus deceptive actions to convince the Cubans of imminent invasion would be emphasized. Our military posture throughout execution of the plan will allow a rapid change from exercise to intervention if Cuban response justifies.

2. A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo [Cuba, where the United States had a naval base] to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.

a. Incidents to establish a credible attack (not in chronological order):

(1) Start rumors (many). Use clandestine radio.

(2) Land friendly Cubans in uniform “over-the-fence” to stage attack on base.

(3) Capture Cuban (friendly) saboteurs inside the base.

(4) Start riots near the base main gate (friendly Cubans).

(5) Blow up ammunition inside the base; start fires.

(6) Burn aircraft on air base (sabotage).

(7) Lob mortar shells from outside of base into base. Some damage to installations.

(8) Capture assault teams approaching from the sea or vicinity of Guantanamo City.

(9) Capture militia group which storms the base.

(10) Sabotage ship in harbor; large fires—napthalene.

(11) Sink ship near harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock-victims (may be in lieu of (10)).

b. The United States would respond by executing offensive op erations to secure water and power supplies, destroying artil lery and mortar emplacements which threaten the base.

c. Commence large scale United States military operations.

3. A “Remember the Maine ” incident could be arranged in several forms:

a. We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.

b. We could blow up a drone (unmanned) vessel anywhere in the Cuban waters. … The US could follow up with an air/sea rescue operation covered by US fighters to “evacuate” remaining members of the non-existent crew. Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.

4. We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government. …

The trigger for the missile crisis was the massive deployment of Soviet troops, equipment, anti-aircraft weapons, and ballistic missiles to Cuba, which began in July 1962, with the first medium-range ballistic missiles arriving by September 29. The following is a communication from Soviet defense minister Malinovsky on October 5, 1962, sent to the Central Committee outlining what nuclear armaments would be sent to Cuba. The communication notes that this is the second such shipment. The R-14s are intermediate-range missiles that could reach as far as Seattle; the FKR missiles are cruise missiles with a range of about 100 kilometers.

I report:

In accordance with the plan of “Anadyr” measures approved by the CC CPSU Presidium, the second consignment of special ammunition is ready to be sent.

The special ammunition comprises 68 units, including:

-24 warheads for R-14 missiles;
-44 warheads for the FKR missiles loaded (on) the trans- port Aleksandrovsk at the port of Severomorsk.

Three automatic 37 mm guns with 1200 rounds for each have been set up on the transport Aleksandrovsk for defense against ships and aircraft of pirates (SIC).

It has been ordered to open fire at the decision of the captain of the ship only if there is an obvious attempt to seize or sink the transport. …

The crisis began when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane took photographs of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile emplacements in Cuba the morning of October 14. Before the photos were fully processed and analyzed, and before President Kennedy and other senior officials were alerted the morning of October 16, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were already ratcheting up planning for a future invasion of Cuba, as shown in this excerpt from the chiefs’ notes on October 15. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tells the chiefs that there will probably be no military action in the next 30 days but that the United States “does not control events.”

JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] met at 1400; SecDef and DepSecDef [secretary of defense and deputy secretary of defense] joined them at 1430; Discussion of JCS 2304/68, contingency planning for Cuba:

CJCS [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]: If OPLAN [operation plan] 316’s requirement for an airborne assault after five days preparation is to be met, the Marine RCT [regimental combat team] must move from Camp Pendleton to the East Coast.

SecDef: President wants no military action within the next three months, but he can’t be sure as he does not control events. For instance, aerial photos made available this morning show 68 boxes on ships that are not believed to be Il-28s and cannot be identified. However, the probabilities are strongly against military action in the next 30 days.

Discussion of JCS 2304/69, which deals with preparations necessary to execute oplans:

SecDef: I suggest we use [material redacted]. We can’t do what the British and French did over Suez—say we will take action, then do nothing while a long buildup is completed. We can’t do nothing during the 18-day preparatory period for OPLAN 314 while the enemy prepares and world pressure mounts. So I suggest that [material redacted].

As the crisis heated up, all sides prepared for war. The United States had several military options prepared, and Cuba expected that an invasion was imminent. This order from Soviet Defense Minister Malinovsky in Moscow tells the Soviet commander in Cuba, General Issa Pliyev, to prepare to fight the Americans, but not with nuclear means. “Statsenko” refers to the commander of the Soviet missiles in Cuba; “Beloborodov” was in charge of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba. In effect, this order rescinded local Soviet commanders’ understanding that they had authority to use nuclear means if under attack.

In connection with possible landing on Cuba of Americans participating in maneuvers in the Caribbean Sea, undertake urgent measures to increase combat readiness and to repel the enemy by joint efforts of the Cuban army and all Soviet troop units, excluding Statsenko’s weapons and all of Beloborodov’s cargo.

During the crisis Robert Kennedy met secretly several times with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In this exchange, reported October 24 by Dobrynin to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Kennedy accuses the Soviets of having started the crisis through their duplicity, claiming to have no offensive weapons in Cuba while installing nuclear missiles. The first two paragraphs are Dobrynin’s summary of Kennedy’s comments, and the last is Dobrynin’s own observations about the meeting.

…All this led to the fact that the President [John F. Kennedy] believed everything which was said from the Soviet side, and in essence staked on that card his own political fate, having publicly announced to the USA, that the arms deliveries to Cuba carry a purely defensive character, although a number of Republicans have asserted to the contrary. And then the President suddenly receives trustworthy information to the effect that in Cuba, contrary to everything which had been said by the Soviet representatives, including the latest assurances, made very recently by A.A. Gromyko during this meeting with the President, there had appeared Soviet missiles with a range of action which cover almost the entire territory of the USA. Is this weapon really for the defensive purposes about which you, Mr. Ambassador, A.A. Gromyko, the Soviet government and N.S. Khrushchev had spoken?

The President felt himself deceived, and deceived intentionally. He is convinced of that even now. It was for him a great disappointment, or, speaking directly, a heavy blow to everything in which he had believed and which he had strived to preserve in personal relations with the head of the Soviet government: mutual trust in each other’s personal assurances. As a result, the reaction which had found its reflection in the President’s declaration and the extremely serious current events which are connected with it and which can still lead no one knows where.

…Overall, his [Robert F. Kennedy’s] visit left a somewhat strange impression. He had not spoken about the future and paths toward a settlement of the conflict, making instead a “psychological” excursion, as if he was trying to justify the actions of his brother, the President, and put the responsibility for his hasty decision, in the correctness of which they and he, evidently, are not entirely confident, on us.

The most dangerous part of the crisis effectively ended when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced over Soviet radio October 28 that the weapons in Cuba that the United States considered offensive would be dismantled. But the Soviet decision, which had been made without consulting Havana, left the Cubans cold. On October 31, Czechoslovak Ambassador to Cuba Pavlícek sent the following telegram to his foreign ministry giving a glimpse of the mood in Cuba.

Carlos Rafael Rodriguez [president of Cuba’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform] visited me and informed me of the crushing impressions and the situation in which Fidel [Castro] and the government find themselves in with regards to the Cuban people; for Fidel was not at all informed of the order to dismantle nor of the UN inspection, to which he was categorically opposed. At the same time they see no guarantees that could be given to Cuba for they do not trust the USA. Therefore they are focusing their efforts on having Fidel’s 5 Points fulfilled. Explanations that Cuba was not abandoned are spreading in an explosive fashion amongst the population. …

A crushing mood also prevails amongst the Soviet friends. After receiving the order the Soviet personnel absolutely did not understand and cried. Some experts and technicians refused to work further and there were many instances of drunkenness in old Havana. Rodriguez said that they are awaiting the arrival of [Soviet envoy] Mikojan. Despite this, he said that the actions of the Soviet Union will have a catastrophic effect for the USSR’s position, as well as that of the entire socialist camp and Latin America. He sees only a partial salvation of the situation in the form of perfect guarantees, in which he does not believe anyhow. …

Indeed, Castro was infuriated by the Soviet decision and conveyed his concerns in a series of difficult meetings with Soviet envoy Anastas Mikoyan, who stayed in Cuba for three weeks in November 1962 trying to patch up the relationship. In this excerpt from a November 4 meeting with Castro and the top Cuban leadership, Mikoyan tries to frame the Soviet withdrawal and the American pledge not to invade Cuba as a good outcome, indeed as a victory for the U.S.S.R. and Cuba.

On 28 October in the morning…we received reliable reports of preparations for an attack against Cuba…. [The American] plan consisted of two parts. Wishing to free themselves from the threat of a blow from the strategic missiles, they decided to liquidate the launchers in Cuba with the help of conventional warhead missiles and immediately after that land troops on Cuban territory in order to liquidate centers of resistance as soon as possible.

It would have been impossible for us in these circumstances not to repulse the aggression of the USA. This assault would mean an assault upon you and us, as far as in Cuba there were situated Soviet troops and strategic missiles. Inevitably, nuclear war would be unleashed as a result of such a collision. Certainly we would destroy America, our country would be strongly damaged too, but we have a larger territory. Cuba would have been destroyed first. Imperialists would do their best to liquidate Cuba.

The objective of all the measures undertaken by the Soviet Union was the defense of Cuba. … The loss of Cuba would mean a serious blow to the whole socialist camp. And exactly at the moment when we were pondering the question of what to do in the created situation we received the communication from comrade Castro, it was on Sunday, that an aggression against Cuba would be unleashed in the next 24 hours. … It was necessary to use the art of diplomacy. Had we not been successful in this regard there would have been unleashed a war. We had to use diplomatic means.

Kennedy was making statements that he had nothing against the stationing in Cuba of Soviet weapons, even troops, but that placing strategic weapons in Cuba was evidence of preparations for an assault against the USA. Therefore the USA would defend itself. Considering that the missiles had been discovered and were no longer a means of deterrence we decided that for the sake of saving Cuba it was necessary to give an order to dismantle and return the strategic missiles to the Soviet Union and to inform Kennedy of this. You agreed with the withdrawal of strategic missile from Cuba while leaving there all other kinds of armaments. We managed to preserve all the forces and means which are necessary for the defense of the Cuban revolution even without strategic missiles which had been a means of deterrence, but they were discovered and therefore lost their significance. We have enough powerful missiles that can be used from our territory. Since Kennedy agreed with the retaining of Soviet troops in Cuba, the Cubans kept powerful armaments and anti-aircraft missiles, so we consider that he [Kennedy] also made a concession.

The tatement of Kennedy about non-aggression against Cuba on the part of the USA and Latin American countries also represents a concession. If we take into account these reciprocal concessions and all other factors, we will see that a big victory has been gained. Never before have the Americans made such a statement. That is why we decided that the main objective—salvation of Cuba—had been achieved. There would not be an assault against Cuba. There would not be war. We are gaining more favorable positions.

Dismantlement of Soviet missile emplacements in Cuba took place in the several days immediately after Khrushchev’s October 28 announcement, but Soviet Il-28 medium-range bombers and tactical nuclear weapons stayed in Cuba. The latter were unknown to U.S. policymakers, who focused on the Il-28s since they could reach U.S. territory and Khrushchev’s language had covered all “weapons you consider offensive.” By mid-November, under U.S. pressure and in part because of continued frustration with Castro, Khrushchev had decided to withdraw the Il-28s as well as the tactical nukes, an order communicated officially by Defense Minister Malinovsky to General Pliyev November 20.

Missiles with conventional loads for “Luna” and FKR should be left in Cuba. Send 6 nuclear bombs, 12 warheads for “Luna” and 80 warheads for FKR to the Soviet Union on the steamship “Atkarsk”.