'We lived in dread of war, they told us we'd be dead in less than 30 minutes': How the world survived the Cuban Missile Crisis
In 1961, the US deployed Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles in Türkiye, weapons that could quickly – and with relative ease – reach cities in the western part of the USSR, including its capital, Moscow. In February of the following year, the KGB reported to the Soviet leadership that the Americans were planning an operation to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba.
In response to these unfriendly actions by Washington, Moscow decided to station regular military units, as well as a number of nuclear missiles, on Cuban territory. By October, the confrontation had escalated to the point at which the US was preparing a major invasion of the "island of freedom".
These events came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of dangerous incidents that nearly put the world on the verge of a third world war – one that would almost inevitably have ended in a thermonuclear Armageddon. 1962 was the year when the Cold War reached its pinnacle. Today, exactly 60 years later, we revisit the testimonies of both participants and witnesses of the crisis in order to refresh our memory and re-learn the lessons of one of the most intense and unsettling periods of the 20th century.
From Northwoods to Anadyr
On March 13, 1962, US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara presented the Operation Northwoods plan to President John F. Kennedy. Its key objective was to overthrow the Fidel Castro government by invading Cuba. But the main goal of the campaign, however, was to discredit the Havana government in the eyes of Americans.
The scheme was developed in secret by top officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Lyman Lemnitzer. Kennedy didn’t approve the proposed draft, and Lemnitzer was soon fired. But the Americans continued to develop Cuban false-flag operations.
Later, Nikita Khrushchev told Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko,
We need to deploy a number of nuclear missiles to Cuba. That is the only thing that can save the country…”
Fidel Castro had requested this on several occasions. The Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union supported Khrushchev’s initiative, with only one voice against it, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Anastas Mikoyan. Later, the Armenian politician played an important role in managing the crisis between Moscow and Washington.
On May 28, a Soviet delegation set off for Havana to hold talks with Fidel and Raul Castro and explain Moscow’s proposals. The Cuban politicians took one day to think about the plan and then agreed to the proposed missile deployment.
Cuba was supposed to get two types of ballistic missiles: 24 R-12 missiles (2,000km radius) and 16 R-14 missiles (4,000km radius). The blast yield of those rockets was up to 1.0 megaton. The plan was to move them from Ukraine and the European part of Russia.
By June, Operation Anadyr was ready for implementation. The ships carrying the cargo were to head off to Cuba. But, in order to mislead the Americans, the ships’ staff were instructed that they were going to Chukotka, and they even received fur coats and skis. The US was supposed to think that the USSR was preparing for some action in the north of the country.
A total of 85 ships were selected to carry the troops, and even the captains didn’t know what their final destination was or what type of cargo they were going to transport.
The first vessels arrived in Cuba in early August and, on September 8, the first “shipment” was unloaded, with the second one coming in on September 16.
But the operation led by Marshal of the Soviet Union Ivan Bagramyan had one significant flaw – while the Soviets got away with delivering the missiles to Cuba, hiding them on an island that was under constant surveillance from American U-2 reconnaissance jets proved to be a much harder task.
Despite that, all 40 missiles and supporting equipment were delivered to Cuba by mid-October 1962. Around 40,000 Soviet troops were stationed on the island.
On October 16, Kennedy established a crisis response team that included top officials. Some of them proposed to attack Soviet missiles in Cuba, but the team ended up choosing a different strategy. On October 20, Washington ordered a naval blockade of Cuba.
What’s interesting about it is that a blockade itself is considered aggressive. Article 4 of the UN General Assembly Resolution, where the term “aggression” is defined, states that “the blockade of the ports or coasts of a state by the armed forces of another state” – even without formal declaration of war – is still considered an act of aggression.
So, in order to avoid violating the UN regulations, the US used the term “quarantine.” The goal of which was to block any further military deliveries to Cuba.
According to intelligence provided by a GRU agent in Washington, the US was also beefing up its Guantanamo base (it was a key element of the Operation Northwoods as well), and began to work on increasing the combat readiness of some units. American U-2 jets began patrolling Cuban airspace more often – six times a day as opposed to twice a month.
The USSR considered Washington’s actions “unprecedented and aggressive” and raised the level of alert for its troops. On October 24, Khrushchev addressed Kennedy and wrote,
We will be forced on our part to take the measures we deem necessary and sufficient to defend our rights.”
The confrontation peaked. It became obvious that the USSR and US had raised the stakes to the highest level, and the world could soon face the first direct armed conflict between two nuclear states.
US under panic attack
These days, witness accounts can help us to better understand the general mood at the time.
“There was a lot less agitation here than in the United States. We knew all too well that America is a civilized nation and won’t start a nuclear war that would for sure decimate its own population. In their turn, the Americans considered us a rogue state of some sort. McNamara himself confessed to me afterwards that at the end of the day on the 27th he thought, “Will I see the sunrise tomorrow?” So basically they were shaken more than we were. They were also better informed. The mass media set the alarm bells ringing, and people were stocking bomb shelters,” recalls Russian political analyst and journalist Fyodor Burlatsky.
However, what Burlatsky says rather refers to the mood among the country’s political elite. It wasn’t the same for the ordinary citizens involved in the Cuban missile crisis.
“We lived expecting the war to break out any minute and thinking that military engagement was pretty much unavoidable. But we were ready for it. Our superiors instructed us that in any case we had 30 minutes tops before they take us out after the first strike is launched. But it was enough for our regiment to launch three or four nuclear missiles targeting Florida, USA, so that state would have been taken out within the first 20 minutes. The other Frontline Combat Rocket (FRK) regiment was supposed to strike the American base in Guantanamo,” Soviet Lieutenant Alexander Gorensky, who served in Cuba at the time, said in his interview to Rodina magazine.
Ordinary citizens in the United States were expecting the worst, too.
Marta Maria Darby, who was living with her family in Miami, shared her memories on air speaking to National Public Radio:
“I remember when the announcement happened and my family reacted with: ‘The world is going to end, and it had something to do with Cuba.’ I was seven years old at the time, and it was quite an impression. We sat and thought: ‘Where would they strike first?’ We’ve had this – it was a sort of surreal conversation. I was very afraid. And then the adults in the house started wondering, ‘Well, maybe they'll hit New York first.’ And so I didn’t sleep for days. It was quite frightening.”
Maria Salgado, who also was a minor at the time, living in Cuba, had to say the following:
“I remember family members from out of town coming in and everyone being in our same hometown because, you know, the world was going to end. So you wanted to be near your family, near your loved ones.”
The USSR communicated both through the official and non-official channels that it was not seeking to escalate the situation. Mikoyan confirmed this in his memoirs:
“We don’t want to send our missiles anywhere, we stand for peace and threaten no one. And in order to send the missiles, we don’t even need any submarines in Cuba. We have enough long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles on the Soviet territory. It’s in the interests [of the United States] to increase the global tensions instead of relieving them in order to make the ordinary Americans who are far from the politics predisposed against Cuba and the Soviet Union.”
Junior Sergeant Felix Sukhanovsky recounted in his interview to Rodina:
“We didn’t feel the entire tension associated with the situation, although we did understand that a launch of a single R-12 missile will unleash a hell on Earth. Each megaton of TNT is like 50 Hiroshima bombs packed into one. The Cubans, excited by this power, would tell us, ‘Comrade, comrade, push, push, launch the missile! Let’s give hell to these Americans!’ They were really upset that we wouldn’t use our heavy weapons against the US. But we had no order to do so. We were on standby waiting for it.”
In the meantime, as reporter Michael D. Mosettig recalls on the pages of the PBS NewsHour, panic started to spread in the capital city of the United States:
“As that week spun on, seemingly in increasing danger, there was some talk of a few people here moving their families out of Washington. I knew no one who did, and the thought never crossed my mind, if only for the prosaic reasons that I had to go to work and school. Ever since the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, being a nuclear target was part of the subconscious price that we and our families paid to work and live in the nation’s capital.”
On October 25, 1962, US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson addressed the UN Security Council, confronting the Soviet representative, Valerian Zorin, on whether the Soviets had been honest with regard to the presence of missiles in Cuba. Their dialogue included the following exchange:
AMBASSADOR STEVENSON: “Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles on sites in Cuba? Yes or no?”
Meanwhile, the US Strategic Air Command was ordered to DEFCON-2 by President Kennedy for the first time in the country’s history.
The Soviet spy network was sending back home disturbing secret intelligence about the US Armed Forces being ready to invade Cuba before October 29. The diplomatic collapse seemed almost inevitable.
On October 26, the agent of the Soviet political intelligence Aleхander Fomin (real name Aleхander Feklisov) invited the ABC News correspondent John Scali, who had close ties to the Kennedy family, for dinner at Occidental for a second time (the first meeting was unsuccessful).
President Kennedy knew Scali was going to meet Fomin and asked him to deliver a message:
There’s no time to waste. Kremlin must urgently announce it is ready to unconditionally remove its missiles from Cuba.”
Feklisov described that meeting in his book ‘Spy’s Confession’, which was later published by his daughter.
“Pentagon assured the president it can put an end to Fidel Castro’s regime and Soviet missiles in 48 hours,” Scali said.
“Cuban invasion would free Khrushchev’s hands. The Soviet Union could strike where it would hurt Washington the most.”
As the memoirs suggest, Scali assumed it could be west Berlin and Fomin agreed this wasn’t off the table.
Scali immediately relayed that to the White House and, three hours later, Kennedy asked him to offer Fomin an alternative solution to the crisis. A new meeting was arranged.
“He got straight to the point. He said the ‘supreme authority’ endorsed him to propose the following solution to the Cuban crisis: The USSR dismantles and removes from Cuba its missile launchers under the UN inspection; the US lifts the blockade off the island and publicly pledges not to invade it.”
The Soviet embassy in the US refused to cable this proposal to Moscow, since “The Foreign Ministry did not authorize it to hold such talks,” so Fomin signed the message himself and told the cipher officer to send it.
October 27 was later called Black Saturday. A US U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over Cuba, risking an uncontrolled escalation.
Moscow received a cable from its military attache saying the US could invade Cuba within the next five to seven days.
Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter offering to remove any Soviet weapons from Cuba, which the US “regarded as offensive,” in exchange for the US doing the same in Türkiye.
The Executive Committee called by Kennedy decided on the same day against Türkiye being mentioned on the official track. In his meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Kennedy said there were no obstacles to fulfilling this demand but the US wasn’t going to publicly mention the missiles in Türkiye. There were certain issues connected with this as it was NATO’s decision to deploy those weapons. Still, the US expressed its readiness to “find a solution.”
The next day, on October 28, the situation was critical. The US Navy held military exercises in Florida.
Moscow sent a cable to the US in the afternoon: “The dismantling of the missile bases in Cuba under the international supervision is absolutely possible and would be covered in detail in the First Secretary Khrushchev’s address.” Moscow agreed to keep the issue of removing the American missiles from Türkiye under the radar.
The message was forwarded to President Kennedy on October 29 and, on October 30, he agreed to shut down the US military bases in Türkiye under a pretext entirely unrelated to the events in Cuba.
Nuclear disaster was thus averted. It might be hard to believe at first, but the Cuban Missile Crisis in fact helped to strengthen international stability. Both the Soviet and American governments recognized the need for arms control and for working on mutual trust. That crisis marked the turning point in the Cold War. An antiwar movement started off in the West. However, today, 60 years later, it feels like the world has forgotten the lessons.