did world war II serve a higher purpose? Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro – the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Today in history. 49 years ago…
On October 14th, 1962 an American Air Force pilot flew a U-2 plane over Cuba to take a few photographs of life in a Caribbean country controlled by communism. It was a routine mission, during the cold war, to keep a watchful eye on covert activities behind the iron curtain.
The photos turned up a typical day on the white beaches of Cuba – guitars, cigars, and American cars. But one thing didn’t measure up to the others. The cigars were bigger than the cars. As it turned out the Cuban cigars were Soviet R12 ballistic missile launchers. The photographs began a series of events which nearly began a nuclear war.
Russia had begun the build up of nuclear warheads on Cuba, about 90 miles from Florida. The word from the CIA was that the nuclear warheads had not yet been delivered, but they expected 20 to show up on a ship named the Poltava. Unknown to the United states 162 nuclear war heads, and 24 missile launchers, were already present there.
The American surveillance photos discovered three medium range missile sites at San Cristobal. And Russian sailors were believed to be sailing across the sea with several more presents to be presented to Castro.
Originally World War One had a name not a number, “the Great War” was the “war to end all wars“. It was more than a slogan. It was a belief. Those who`lived it said it could never happen again.
Hitler proved this idea to be wrong. The timing of the lesson was either ironic or an act of destiny. The lesson came on the eve of the invention of the Atom Bomb.
World War II began a short 21 years after World War I ended – and it was still a living memory. The memory and the belief were powerful – it couldn’t happen again. British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, acting under this assumption, tried to prevent another war by signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler. This peace treaty came with a gift of land. Chamberlain gave a piece of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without asking permission from the Czechs. But this piece of appeasement provided no peaceful solution.
It turned out to be an appetizer.
As we now know Adolf’s appetite was bigger than the hand that fed him. He wasn’t content with a complimentary one course meal. He wanted the continent and more.
And so he proved that World Wars can begin again, anytime… And in that possibility are the seeds to prevent it – thoughtful contemplation, in the face of great conflicts, must come from both sides…
How long did we wait for that confrontation to come? The countdown to contemplation began on October 16, 1962. And continued for 13 days.
A short 17 years after World War II, In 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev had an argument about nuclear weapons which nearly caused the use of them. America called it the Cuban missile crises. Russia called it the Caribbean Crises. Cuba called it the October Crises.
In the Annual Report from the Secretary of Defense of the United States – July 1, 1962, to June 30, 1963, Robert McNamara said,
Starting in late July 1962, evidence of increased Soviet military assistance to Cuba accumulated. The presence of air defense missiles was confirmed from pictures taken on August 29.
…certain shipping crates noted on September 28 aboard Cuba-bound ships contained medium-range bombers…
…Conclusive proof of the presence of medium-range ballistic missiles did not become available until the analysis of photographs taken on October 14…
THE CUBAN MISSILE CALENDAR (short version believe it or not)
TUESDAY OCTOBER 16th, 1962
With the photographic facts in hand, the Joint Chiefs of Staff held an emergency session.
(Kennedy was the first president to record White House conversations for posterity)
Kennedy, “In the next 24 hours what is it we need to do?”
McNamara, “Mr. President, we need to do two things, it seems to me. First we need to develop a specific strike plan. The second thing we have to do is consider the consequences. I don’t know quite what kind of a world we’ll live in after we’ve struck Cuba. How do we stop at that point? I don’t know the answer to this.”
Interestingly, America had nuclear weapons in Turkey at the time, on the border of Russia - this was no different from Russia putting missiles in Cuba.
Khrushchev said, “In addition to protecting Cuba, our missiles would have equalized what the West likes to call ‘the balance of massive nuclear missiles around the globe.”
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 17th
Project Blue Moon began – the U.S Airforce started low flying photographic reconnaissance of Cuban military buildup areas.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 19th
The preparation for military action began. The U.S. Airforce aircraft arsenal was assessed at 109 fighter planes, 169 attack planes, and 30 patrol planes at 4 different U.S. bases around the Caribbean sea.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 20th
The paper work began. The policy papers for the quarantine proclamation were prepared. They also penned papers to arrange an air strike against the soviet weapons in Cuba. And Kennedy wrote a speech to America which was intended for Russian ears.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 21st
The text of the Presidential speech was sent to the Embassy in Moscow, to be delivered to the Soviet Foreign Office one hour before the President’s public address. Presidential papers were also presented to England, France, Germany, and others Embassies for delivery to heads of state.
MONDAY OCTOBER 22nd
The order went out to all American forces world wide that the United States was at defense condition three. (DEF-CON 3)
Air craft carriers, destroyers, and submarines, were deployed to make a quarantine around Cuba. Kennedy used the word quarantine instead of blockade to prevent it from being interpreted as an act of war.
The senate department gave a background briefing to ambassadors from NATO, SEATO, And CENTO. The Pentagon briefed “friendly” military attaches, and McNamara briefed the press – the aerial photographs were explained: The Russians were doing in Cuba, what the Americans had done in Turkey – put offensive nuclear weapons there. Except that Turkey was never mentioned.
Kennedy made a television appearance to warn the world of the possibility of war, “this Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.
The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D. C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.
Acting, therefore, in the defense of our own security and of the entire Western Hemisphere, and under the authority entrusted to me by the Constitution as endorsed by the Resolution of the Congress, I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately:
First: To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.
Second: I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities; and I trust that in the interest of both the Cuban people and the Soviet technicians at the sites, the hazards to all concerned of continuing this threat will be recognized.
Third: It shall be the policy of this Nation to 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 upon the Soviet Union.
My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out… But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 23rd
Four destroyers were sent to intercept the Poltava with the expectation to meet it on the 24th. The C.I.A. said the Soviet ship had 20 nuclear warheads for delivery to Cuba.
Kennedy, “how long will it take to be ready to invade Cuba?”
McNamara, “seven days.”
Kennedy, “make certain they are ready in every respect on that day”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said, “I remember there being a discussion at home, with my father, about whether or not we (the children) should be moved. There was a bunker under Camp David where there was room for us, but there were two considerations that I remember my father articulating at that time: One was that we shouldn’t be moved because it would cause other people to panic if we were moved out of Washington. And the other one was that if there were a nuclear war none of us would want to be around afterwards anyway.”
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 24th
The Attack Transport, Cambria, reported a disappearing radar contact and a suspicion that they were being followed by a submarine. There were several submarine sightings made by several ships on the same day.
Some, but not all, Soviet ships reversed course away from Cuba. Among them were the primary intercept candidates, Kimovsk and Poltava. These ships were said to contain weapons, based on information from the C.I.A, and the other boats were believed to be trade ships. There was a disagreement and discussion about this. The final decision was to let the trade ships pass through the blockade without being searched.
In the political arena Turkish officials asked for an increase in U. S. military aid to Turkey – They were worried that there would be Soviet pressure to remove missile sites from their country in exchange for withdrawal of Russian missiles in Cuba.
Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy:
Imagine, Mr. President, what if we were to present to you such an ultimatum as you have presented to us by your actions. How would you react to it? I think you would be outraged at such a move on our part. And this we would understand.
Having presented these conditions to us, Mr. President, you have thrown down the gauntlet. Who asked you to do this? By what right have you done this?
You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather issuing an ultimatum, and you are threatening that if we do not obey your orders, you will then use force. Think about what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What does it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean for us to conduct our relations with other countries not by reason, but by yielding to tyranny. You are not appealing to reason; you want to intimidate us. No, Mr. President, I cannot agree to this, and I think that deep inside, you will admit that I am right. I am convinced that if you were in my place you would do the same.”
….then Khrushchev talked about World War III:
When you lay conditions such as these before us, try to put yourself in our situation and consider how the USA would react to such conditions. I have no doubt that if anyone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you – the USA, you would reject such an attempt. And we likewise say – no.
The Soviet government considers the violation of the freedom of navigation in International waters and air space to constitute an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.
…the Soviet government cannot instruct captains of Soviet ships bound for Cuba to observe orders of American naval forces blockading this island. Our instructions to Soviet sailors are to observe strictly the generally accepted standards of navigation in international waters and not retreat one step from them. And, if the American side violates these rights,it must be aware of the responsibility it will bear for this act.
To be sure, we will not remain mere observers of pirate actions by American ships in the open sea. We will then be forced on our part to take those measures we deem necessary and sufficient to defend our rights. To this end we have all that is necessary.
Respectfully, /s/ N. Khrushchev
Kennedy drew a line in the sea and said don’t cross it. Khrushchev said here we come.
What is the best fertilizer for mushroom clouds?
It was a game of poker with the highest bluff. No one wanted a nuclear war except, strangely, Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba.
McNamara told the story of a conversation he had with Castro in Havana in 1992. 30 years after the crises.
McNamara, “Mr. President I have three questions for you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did would you have recommended to Khrushchev, in the face of a U.S. Attack, to use them? And number three: if he had used them what would have happened to Cuba?”
Castro, “Number one: I knew they were there. Number two: I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev, that they be used. Number three: what would have happened to Cuba? It would have been totally destroyed. Mr. McNamara, if you and president Kennedy had been in a similar situation, that’s what you would have done.”
McNamara, “That’s how close we were…”
Why would Castro risk everything to strike America?
The answer is unknown, but McNamara had this to say about Castro and the United States, “unknown to me at the time (1962) we had attempted to assassinate Castro under Eisenhower, under Kennedy, and later under Johnson.”
THURSDAY OCTOBER 25th
The first Soviet ships intercepted were interrogated, then released. None were searched.
Thirty surveillance flights a day were in rotation over Cuba. And the photographs showed that the weapons systems were increasing in size.
Meanwhile in the clear blue seas around the beautiful white sands of the Caribbean island of Cuba…
Based on a review of all information available, the CNO Submarine Contact Evaluation Board estimated that at least four and possibly seven Soviet submarines were sailing subversively in the Southwestern Atlantic.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 26th
The Marucla, a ship flying the Lebanese flag, but chartered by the Soviet Government, was boarded, searched, and released.
Three Soviet ships changed course and returned to their ports of departure.
Photo-reconnaissance revealed continued build-up of missiles in Cuba.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 27th
Several messages had changed hands between Khrushchev and Kennedy. And the tension was increasing. However the American desire to step back from conflict was also increasing as hinted in this report from the Naval Archives: A reconnaissance plane on flight over Cuba went missing and presumed lost. A news report said, that the Cuban Defense Minister said, anti-aircraft guns had fired on what he termed “hostile aircraft.” – But there was no confirmation that the two incidents were related.
If America was looking for a reason to invade Cuba, they had it and didn’t take it.
McNamara said, “President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a president – indeed the primary responsibility of a president – is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.”
McNamara, “On that critical Saturday, October 27th, we had two Khrushchev messages in front of us. One had come in Friday night, and it had been dictated by a man who was either drunk or under tremendous stress. Basically he said, ‘if you’ll guarantee you won’t invade Cuba we’ll take the missiles out. Then before we could respond, we had a second message, dictated by a bunch of hard liners, and it said in effect, ‘if you attack we’re prepared to confront you with masses of military power. So we had, I’ll call it, the soft message and the hard message.
“At the elbow of President Kennedy was Tommy Thompson, a former U.S ambassador to Moscow. He and Jane, his wife, had literally lived with Khrushchev and his wife upon occasion. Thompson said ‘Mr. President, I urge you to respond to the soft message. The President said to Tommy, ‘we can’t do that. It will get us nowhere.’ Tommy said, ‘Mr President , you’re wrong.’
“Now that takes a lot of guts.”
Kennedy, “we’re not going to get these weapons out of Cuba, probably, anyway, by negotiation.”
Thompson, “I don’t agree Mr. President, I think there’s still a chance,”
Kennedy, “that he’ll back down?”
Thompson, “The important thing to Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say, ‘I saved Cuba; I stopped an invasion.’”
McNamara said, “In Thompsons mind was this thought – Khrushchev’s got himself in a hell of a fix. He would then think to himself, My god, if I can get out of this, with a deal, then I can say to the Russian people; ‘Kennedy was going to destroy Castro, and I prevented it.’ – Thompson knowing Khrushchev, as he did, thought ‘Khrushchev will accept that.’ And Thompson was right. That’s what I call empathy.”
SUNDAY OCTOBER 28th, 1962
McNamara said, “Khrushchevs advisors were saying there can be no deal unless you somewhat reduce the pressure on us, when you ask us to reduce the pressure on you.”
At 9:20 a messenger delivered a Russian domestic news report that Khrushchev had ordered the missile sites in Cuba to be dismantled and returned to Russia. Fifteen minutes later, another news report from the same source said that Khrushchev had sent a letter to President Kennedy on the subject. Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan explained the Soviet perspective in a speech at the military council on November 21, 1962:
“ . . . we fully supported N. S. Khrushchev’s initiative; our leadership was fully united during these events. Truth be told, we did a lot of thinking. We were thinking night and day in order not to make a single wrong step, to do everything with cold reason, with an exact calculation of forces. Then we proposed, since the missiles had already been discovered—all of them in the photographs—then they ceased to be a means of deterrence, which is why we brought them here. We did not intend to attack America—not from here, and not from there. These missiles were a means for deterrence, so that they would not attack Cuba. Then Comrade Khrushchev proposed to remove those missiles without weakening Cuban defenses in the military sense. In this case, we would be removing the means of deterrence (but it had already ceased to be that due to the fact that it had been discovered), but in return we are attaining our goal—that Kennedy would announce officially that the American government would not attack Cuba, and that it would prevent its allies in the Western Hemisphere from doing so. In other words, the goal to defend Cuba is being achieved by withdrawing the missiles, which should have been defending it as the means of deterrence; the goal is being achieved by exchanging concessions: we made a concession by taking back the missiles, and they made a concession in that they are willing to officially and solemnly announce, and have already announced, that they would not invade Cuba.”
Russia agreed to withdraw all nuclear weapons from Cuba. And the United Nations was charged with the job of confirming it. In exchange for this America agreed never to invade Cuba.
A secret arrangement was also made: The U.S. would dismantle and remove all intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Europe and Turkey.
Both sides could claim a victory at home.
McNamara said, “in a sense we won. We got the missiles out (of Cuba) without war. My deputy and I, brought the five Joint Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. He said, ‘gentlemen, we won. I don’t want you to ever say it, but you know we won. I know we won.’ And General LeMay said, ‘won? Hell! We lost. We should go in and wipe them out today.’
LeMay’s view was simple. He thought the west and the U.S. in particular, was going to have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and he was absolutely certain of that. Therefore, he believed we should fight it sooner than later, when we had a greater advantage of nuclear power, and it would result in fewer casualties in the United States…
At the time we had a 17 to 1 strategic advantage in nuclear numbers.
We’d done ten times as many tests as they had. We were certain we could retain that advantage if we limited the tests. The chiefs were all opposed. They said, ‘the soviets will cheat. I said, ‘how will they cheat?. They said, ‘they’ll test them behind the moon.’ I said, ‘you’re out of your mind, that’s absurd.’
It’s almost impossible for people today to put themselves back into that period.
In my 7 years as secretary (of defence for the U.S.A) we came within a hairs breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions.
During the Kennedy administration they designed a 100 megaton bomb which was tested in the atmosphere. Cold war? Hell! It was a hot war.”
When a crises happens it can rarely be understood in that moment. Loss and the pain are obvious: not the future. Often it takes time for the meaning to be made clear.-
Did World War one and two prevent World War three? World War I put the perspective on World War II. Which lead to a proper perspective on World War III.
After the nightmare called World War I it seemed impossible to have a second world war - when it “couldn’t happen” the powers that be were not apprehensive enough to prevent it. And, conversely, when World War III was understood to be a real possibility during the Cuban missile crises – they didn’t do it.
One world war was not enough to teach the lesson. It took two to take away the illusion that ‘it could never happen again’. Hitler taught us that a ‘great war’ is always possible. And he taught that lesson at the moment we needed it. The moment we learned to split the atom.
When the Cuban nuclear crises came, this realistic perception of the possibility of global destruction lead to intense contemplation from both sides.
- In a world full of universities, both Kennedy and Khrushchev relied on the good old sensibility called fear. They withdrew for the same reason. Countries with nuclear weapons are safe places to live. No one has sent an army into one.
In the sixties, seventies, and eighties a genuine fear of nuclear war was at the heart of the cold war. That constant tension stood starkly in the wall that divided Berlin. Adults and children in America were constantly aware of the cold conflict and the warm warheads, waiting in the silent silos in the countryside.
But those who want world domination know that nuclear war is counter productive.
Khrushchev, “If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence.”
McNamara, “I want to say, and this is very important, in the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war. Rational individuals. Kennedy was rational. Khrushchev was rational. Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”
Read the full text of the letter Krushchev sent to Kennedy, in the U.S. Library of Congress archives.