Half a century ago, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy squared off in a battle over the balance of world power that came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. How close did we all come to dying?
Last night, Khruschev's son Dr. Sergei Khruschev and experts on Soviet-American relations met at the University of Virginia to discuss those 13 days in October, 1962. Their conclusion? We came really damn close.
"It's like we played a game of Russian Roulette 13 times and won every game," said Professor Timothy McKeown, who explained that analysis of the event afterwards showed that our avoidance of a devastating nuclear battle was actually the less likely outcome.
People alive then will probably never forget what happened, but it's important for the rest of us to remember a moment in history when history as we know it almost ended.
The Photo Gap
The leaders of the Soviet Union in 1962 realized the weakness of their position relative to the United States and believed the quickest end to the Cold War was to find a balance. A missile base in Cuba presented an opportunity to force American to concede that Russia was its equal.
While the decision was made in May 1962, preparations would take months. As Dr. Krhruschev explained last night, the hope was to build the sites quietly and then announce them to the world after November because, as he told his son "During elections, Americans are unpredictable."
Khruschev's claim that Americans did unexpected things during elections would turn out to be correct and, initially, it worked to his benefit.
Fearing what would happen politically if a U2 spy plane crashed before the mid-term elections and remembering the experience of the Gary Powers crash (pictured above), the Kennedy administration ordered the reconnaissance flights halted right as the missiles were being set up.
The C.I.A. provides ample evidence of the photo gap and the political causes. The person tasked with trying to get the flights resumed was recently-appointed conservative Republican John McCone, who had to deal with distrust from within the Kennedy administration.
But photos like this one, showing a Soviet transport ship carrying what appear to be IL-28 jet bombers and other advanced weapons, amongst other intelligence, allowed McCone to persuade the administration to resume flights, which they eventually did.
The first bird up on October 14th caught definitive images of the missile sites being built in San Cristobal, Cuba. The photos would be analyzed and the weapons identified by October 15th, when they were delivered to President Kennedy, starting the clock on the infamous 13 days.
The photo above in August, before flights were halted, shows no significant activity. The photo below shows a different situation and illustrates how poorly-timed the photo gap was.
The 13 Days
Though they didn't call it that at the time, Kennedy and his advisers formed the Executive Committee of the National Security Council on October 16th, or EXCOMM. Their job was to form a response based on the limited information they had.
These included representatives from the State Department, CIA, Treasury, outside advisors like Dean Acheson, and anyone else whose insight or involvement seemed important to the mission at hand: Protecting American interests and avoiding a nuclear holocaust.
These just-released notes from the John F. Kennedy Library show where the players in EXCOMM aligned themselves. The idea of blockading any vessels trying to get into Cuba seemed like the best approach to test the Soviet's resolve and buy time for a negotiation.
While most were in favor of some form of naval quarantine, RFK's note from October 16th shows there was significant support for a strike including NSA Advisor Dean Acheson and John McCone who, with the addition of the (?) and arrow, is shown to eventually move to the blockade idea.
Thankfully, they did not strike immediately. The Cubans had 98 tactical nuclear weapons and could have theoretically wiped out an invading force. What would have happened next is a grim hypothetical exercise.
The Blockade would take place, leading to many of the closest and most dangerous moments in the war as heavily armed U.S. and Soviet faced off in close proximity. At one point, a single vote by a Soviet submarine commander prevented the launch of a tactical nuclear weapon.
On October 22nd, the President addressed the nation, explaining the grave situation and possible consequences while also presenting his plan for a quarantine.
My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead—months in which our patience and our will will be tested—months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.
Not everyone was pleased with the idea of two nuclear-armed nations going at it and, with memories still fresh of WWII and WWI there were demonstrations around the world, including in London.
Complicating matters was the lack of a "red phone" link between the two sides. The blockade, while successful, was realistically too late. As Robert Caro describes in Passage to Power, Vice President Lyndon Johnson described it as "Locking the barn when the horse already escaped."
While negotiations slowly continued through October 23rd and October 26th the build up of missile sites continued unabated, with evidence showing an increase in activity. At the same time, the U.S. mobilized for a possible response and invasion.
On October 26th, Khruschev sent an offer to withdraw all of the bombers and missiles in exchange for an agreement by the U.S. not to invade Cuba.
Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that 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 would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.
As the administration was considering their response, Khruschev announced in Moscow they also demanded the removal of Jupiter rockets from the U.S. NATO ally in Turkey, but Kennedy smarty ignored it and announced his agreement of the initial terms. Khruschev dropped his demands and accepted.
You can see the opening of the letters from both leaders reflect the gravity of the situation.
Ultimately, the U.S. did withdraw the obsolete weapons (Polaris-missile-equipped subs did a much better job protecting Turkey anyways).
It was one of the crowning achievements of Kennedy's administration and reflected a reluctance on both sides to fire the first shot when no one could predict what would happen next.
If you've got images you think capture this moment, or a memory of the event, please put them in Kinja.
Photo Credit: JFK Library/RFK papers, GWU NSA Archive, AP, Getty Images, Hutton Archives