Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis: How World War III Nearly Begain

 In Air, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste

Key Point: Historians still debate which side blinked first in the nuclear stand­off.

For 13 ten­sion-filled days in October 1962, the world came closer to nuclear war than it has ever come before or since. People hes­i­tant­ly went about their daily lives, not know­ing if they or their chil­dren would wake up the next morn­ing. In Washington and Moscow, the key play­ers in the unfold­ing drama,
President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, engaged in a dan­ger­ous game of cat and mouse, trying des­per­ate­ly to keep the genie of nuclear war in its bottle before it escaped in a fatal puff of smoke.

At the heart of the matter lay Cuba, the com­mu­nist-con­trolled island 90 miles from the Florida shores. When Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 revolt that ousted cor­rupt leader Fulgencio Batista, the Eisenhower admin­is­tra­tion decid­ed that it was worth a try to coop­er­ate with the beard­ed upstart. Soon, how­ev­er, that policy was dis­card­ed after Castro deemed it more pru­dent to turn to the Soviet Union for mil­i­tary assis­tance. In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tasked the CIA with plan­ning an oper­a­tion that includ­ed “a para­mil­i­tary force out­side of Cuba for future guer­ril­la actions.” That summer, the CIA con­struct­ed a secret train­ing base in Guatemala for Cuban exiles. In other mea­sures designed to desta­bi­lize Cuba, the United States intro­duced eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, slash­ing the amount of sugar import­ed from Cuba and cut­ting all diplo­mat­ic ties between the two coun­tries.

JFK and the JMWAVE

Cuba became a hot topic in the 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Nixon was the point man in the administration’s secret efforts to oust Castro, and on the cam­paign trail Kennedy attacked both Nixon and Eisenhower for not doing enough to oust Castro. Nixon could not fight back, since he needed to pro­tect the secret ini­tia­tives then going on behind the scenes to dis­rupt the Castro regime. When Kennedy won the elec­tion, the plan for the exile inva­sion of Cuba was well on its way to com­ple­tion; the new pres­i­dent reluc­tant­ly agreed to pro­ceed with the inva­sion. It turned out to be a mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal dis­as­ter for Kennedy. The exiles were sound­ly defeat­ed by Castro’s far supe­ri­or mil­i­tary at the ill-starred Bay of Pigs inva­sion, and it took anoth­er year before all the sur­viv­ing pris­on­ers were final­ly released from Cuban jails.

The fail­ure at the Bay of Pigs was a turn­ing point in the Kennedy administration’s atti­tude toward Cuba and the Castro regime. Cuba now became the president’s number one inter­na­tion­al pri­or­i­ty, and the defeat of the CIA-backed rebels only hard­ened policy makers in Washington as to what future steps to take to rid the hemi­sphere of Castro. What fol­lowed was a secret war against Castro, des­ig­nat­ed Operation Mongoose, run entire­ly by the CIA — the largest covert war in the agency’s his­to­ry. The man in charge was the president’s broth­er, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

On August 23, 1962, senior pres­i­den­tial advis­er McGeorge Bundy issued National Security Action Memorandum 181, ordered by JFK, to imple­ment a covert oper­a­tion and pro­pa­gan­da war to topple Castro. The CIA set up head­quar­ters in Miami and dubbed the new oper­a­tion JMWAVE. Working out of an aban­doned site on the University of Miami campus, JMWAVE would become the most elab­o­rate para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tion since the cre­ation of the CIA in 1947. Some 400 CIA agents, sub-agents, and assort­ed hang­ers-on began plot­ting the fall of Fidel Castro. On January 19, 1962, Robert Kennedy held a meet­ing of the top mem­bers of the Mongoose team to plot strat­e­gy, inform­ing them that “a solu­tion to the Cuban prob­lem today car­ries the top pri­or­i­ty in the United States gov­ern­ment — all else is sec­ondary — no time, money, effort, nor man­pow­er is to be spared.”

Operation Anadyr

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev watched with grow­ing alarm the actions the United States was taking toward Cuba. Under his aegis, the Russians poured mil­i­tary and tech­ni­cal advis­ers into Cuba to pre­vent anoth­er U.S.-sponsored inva­sion of the island. In July 1962, a Cuban del­e­ga­tion headed by Raul Castro (Fidel’s broth­er) arrived in Moscow for high-level talks about the ship­ment of mil­i­tary sup­plies to Cuba, includ­ing nuclear mis­siles. During the meet­ings, Raul Castro signed a draft treaty with the Soviets that led to the deploy­ment of Russian mil­i­tary forces to Cuba.

The code­name for the oper­a­tion was Anadyr, named for the river that flowed into the Bering Sea. The Russian gen­er­al staff wanted to fool Western intel­li­gence into think­ing that the oper­a­tion was designed to take place in the far north of the USSR, and troops were given cold-weath­er cloth­ing even though they were des­tined for warm, sunny Cuba. The ini­tial group of Soviet mil­i­tary men arrived by air in Cuba on July 10 and were soon joined by 67 others, who were given cover iden­ti­ties as machine oper­a­tors and irri­ga­tion and agri­cul­tur­al spe­cial­ists.

Over the summer, the first Soviet ships depart­ed from ports along the Black Sea. Nuclear mis­siles were stored in spe­cial­ly con­struct­ed pack­ing crates, and the ships were equipped with metal shields that could pro­tect them from aerial pho­tog­ra­phy. The ships’ cap­tains were given sealed envelopes and were told to open them at a cer­tain point in the Atlantic Ocean. When they reached that des­ti­na­tion, a KGB offi­cer on board each ship was on hand to deter­mine the pre­cise loca­tion. Soon, a total of 85 ships began the long voyage across the sea to Cuba, along with Soviet troops who would man the mis­sile sites. The size of the ongo­ing con­voys did not go unno­ticed. American intel­li­gence assets mon­i­tored the large fleet of mer­chant ships head­ing for Cuba. However, no one in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty knew what the con­voys con­tained or their true pur­pose.

Operation Anadyr con­sist­ed of medium-range R‑12 mis­siles (NATO des­ig­na­tion SS‑4) and long-range R‑14 mis­siles (des­ig­nat­ed by NATO as SS‑5) to be placed at var­i­ous sites around Cuba. In total, 36 nuclear war­heads were on site to be placed on top of the mis­siles as needed. These mis­siles could reach all of the United States with the excep­tion of the Pacific Northwest. The mis­siles in Cuba were under the ulti­mate con­trol of Khrushchev, but he gave General Issa Pilyev, per­mis­sion to use the nine Luna mis­siles for the defense of Cuba if the United States invad­ed the island. The Soviets sta­tioned 43,000 troops in Cuba under the strictest secre­cy. The sol­diers wore civil­ian clothes to blend into the local pop­u­la­tion

Phillippe de Vosjoli’s Warning

In July 1962, Phillippe de Vosjoli, the Washington sta­tion chief for the French intel­li­gence ser­vice, arrived in Cuba. He would later write: “My reports start­ed men­tion­ing the arrival of Soviet ships in Havana and, strange­ly, in Mariel, a small harbor seldom appear­ing on the maps of Cuba. Other ships were land­ing people and cargos in har­bors where the Soviet flag had, until now, been a rarity. Soldiers were report­ed guard­ing a cavern where work was being con­duct­ed secret­ly. Photographs taken by an agent showed that a large hole was drilled through the ceil­ing of the cavern to the pas­ture 50 feet above. This hole had the appear­ance of a large tube, big enough to hold a mis­sile and ori­ent­ed in the direc­tion of the United States.”

After leav­ing Cuba, de Vosjoli returned to Washington, where he met with CIA Director John McCone to brief him on his trip. McCone, a Republican, had replaced Allan Dulles, who was fired after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. McCone had no pre­vi­ous intel­li­gence expe­ri­ence but iron­i­cal­ly had served as chair­man of the Atomic Energy Commission. Following his meet­ing with de Vosjoli, McCone took imme­di­ate steps to coor­di­nate all avail­able intel­li­gence about the Russian ships en route to Cuba. After read­ing all the reports, he came to the con­clu­sion that the Russians were ship­ping strate­gic nuclear mis­siles to Cuba and began alert­ing the other gov­ern­ment depart­ments about his hunch. A National Security Council meet­ing took place on August 22 in which the pres­i­dent was informed of McCone’s thesis. The pres­i­dent did not believe that Khrushchev would be stupid enough to make such a risky move, but he ordered the Defense Department to draw up a con­tin­gency plan to deal with any place­ment of Russian nuclear mis­siles in Cuba.

U‑2 Surveillance Missions Over Cuba

McCone left Washington for his hon­ey­moon that summer. His deputy, General Marshall Carter, served as McCone’s stand-in. A U‑2 sur­veil­lance mis­sion on August 29 showed unmis­tak­able evi­dence of sur­face-to-air (SAM) mill­sile sites that were being built at a fever pitch. The U‑2 also found evi­dence of a cruise mis­sile site in east­ern Cuba and mis­sile patrol boats in var­i­ous Cuban ports.

On Sunday, October 14, a U‑2 took pic­tures over the San Cristobal area, and the pic­tures were devel­oped by the National Photo Interpretation Center the next day. What the ana­lysts found was noth­ing short of sen­sa­tion­al — equip­ment asso­ci­at­ed with Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), mil­i­tary bar­racks, mis­sile shel­ter tents, mis­sile erec­tors, and mis­sile launch­ers. A second site with the same con­fig­u­ra­tion was locat­ed close by. The sit­u­a­tion had changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. The Russians now had mis­siles that could strike the entire United States within min­utes.

National Interest source|articles

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