60 years ago this month, in October 1962, Americans anxiously heard news for almost two weeks straight about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles away from the U.S. Nuclear War was possible, to some imminent.
In this episode we offer a brief history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, more importantly, a remembrance and reconsideration of the events of October and JFK actions throughout the crisis.
Listen in: https://bit.ly/3fjZRbi
JFK has been praised for his firm resolve, courage, and strength in handling the crisis but the reality is that he was provocative and almost caused a war against Russia. In this episode we’ll start by giving a background on JFK’s aggression toward Cuba, then we’ll offer a brief narrative of the crisis, and finally we’ll discuss how Kennedy continued his subversion against Castro’s government after the Missile Crisis.
JFK was not heroic. His recklessness and need for credibility almost caused a nuclear exchange. The media doesn’t tell you this story. Green and Red does .
Transcript from Episode:
Scott: Welcome to the Green & Red Podcast, I’m co-host Scott Parkin. During a recent private fund-raiser, President Joe Biden was speaking about the threats posed by Vladimir Putin, to Ukraine and all of Europe, and said”For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going” . . . “we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.”
That’s a great starting point since today on Green & Red we’re going to commemorate the 60th anniversary of that event, which took place in the latter half of October 1962, with an entire show about arguably the most grave crisis in the nuclear era, when the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and Present John Kennedy’s response, which has been highly praised for six decades now, actually brought the two countries close to a nuclear exchange.
This incident is already well known and has been written about extensively—what we want to do today is give you a brief description of the crisis, and then, more importantly, discuss President Kennedy’s role in exacerbating and intensifying the danger and also discuss the aftermath of the U.S.-Soviet encounter. Today on Green & Red—the Missiles of October, 60 years ago this month, remembering and re-interpreting . . .
Bob: Hi, I’m co-host Bob Buzzanco excited to be talking about one of the pivotal events not just in cold war history but in modern history . . . . . John Kennedy has been universally praised for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the person most responsible for his public acclaim, the filmmaker Oliver Stone, said it was “the greatest single act of human courage this world has ever witnessed with that much at stake.” That’s not just Hollywood rhetoric—if you do a basic study of the event, most commentators offer high praise to JFK for, in their versions, firmly standing up to the Soviets and simultaneously preventing a nuclear war.
But there’s so much more to the missile crisis than that and today we want to commemorate it with a different narrative. We’ll talk about the actual crisis of course, the so-called 13 Days—but even more we want to discuss the background to the showdown of October 1962, and just as importantly, the aftermath. Much of Kennedy’s public legacy, polished by people like Stone and a cadre of JFK admirers who write books, give talks, and produce movies about him, is based on the idea that he was a man of peace, someone who was moving toward some kind of a détente with the Soviet Union and a thaw with Cuba, and that the missile crisis was almost a Road-to-Damascus experience for him, not provocative nuclear saber-rattling against a much smaller and weaker country which he’d been trying to overthrow since he became president.
So, first, some background. . . As Kennedy was inaugurated, he faced a dilemma in Cuba, where a 1959 Revolution had put Fidel Castro into power. In fact, in his debates with Richard Nixon JFK attacked the Republicans for allowing the establishment of a communist country so close to the U.S. Since 1898 Cuba had been a virtual American economic colony with significant U.S. investment–Americans owned 80 percent of Cuba’s utilities, 90 percent of its mining, 40 percent of its sugar, and had a base at Guantanamo and casinos where tourists could go for entertainment and gambling [an environment accurately depicted in The Godfather, Part II]. The U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Earl Smith, observed in 1960 that “the United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that . . . the American ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba, sometimes even more important than the President. . .” in Louis Perez, The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), 134.
Castro instantly took measures to distance himself from that U.S. control–he instituted land reform measures that took property away from U.S. corporations to give to Cuban peasants, condemned the Platt Amendment, insisted on the return of Gitmo, took on the gangsters and the casinos, and sought actual Cuban independence from the Americans. In 1960, in fact, Castro infuriated the Americans by agreeing to a deal to trade sugar to the Soviet Union in exchange for oil, machinery, and technicians. Trade between Castro and the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe rose from 2 percent to 80 percent that year. Castro’s relationship with the Soviets would cause concern and alarm within the U.S. and later be seen as a cause for military action. But even Ambassador Philip Bonsal later admitted, “Russia came to Castro’s rescue only after the United States had taken steps to overthrow him.” In Thomas Paterson, Contesting Castro. The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution (New York, 1994, 258.
In April 1961, not even 100 days into his presidency, JFK of course authorized an invasion of Cuba at the Bahía de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, an inlet on the southern coast of the island, across from Havana. Castro had vowed “what happened in Guatemala [the 1954 coup against Arbenz] will not happen here.” So, when about 1500 CIA-trained Miami Cubans arrived at the Bay of Pigs on April 17th, 1961, Castro himself led the battle on the beaches, which crushed the American-backed invasion in two days with 114 dead and 1100 captured…..an utter disaster.
In turn, JFK tightened the noose on Cuba even more, with an economic blockade that still exists today, removal of the country from the Organization of American States, and sponsorship of countless assassination attempts on Castro for many years, all of which, of course, failed. The U.S. also began Operation Mongoose, which hoped to ignite a revolt against Castro inside Cuba—and in fact the U.S. had been organizing Cubans in Miami to go back and conduct subversion to overthrow Castro and they had been conducting military maneuvers against the island constantly. The Cuban government believed that the U.S. was all-in on doing whatever it would take to overthrow them. Even the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara later admitted, “if I had been in Moscow or Havana at that time, I would have believed that Americans were preparing for an invasion.” In Pierre Salinger, “Gaps in the Cuban Missile Crisis Story,” New York Times, 5 February 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/05/opinion/gaps-in-the-cuban-missile-crisis-story.html.
Logically then, the Cubans saw Soviet support and eventually missiles as an important way to stop the U.S. from attacking. But in reality any aid from Moscow could not change the balance-of-power in North America at all—the U.S. had a 20,000 to 1600 advantage in nuclear weapons!—yet Kennedy always responded aggressively to any sign of Russian support to Havana, and never more so than when he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.
Against that backdrop, with the U.S. committed to getting rid of Castro and the Soviet Union on board as a Cuban ally after early 1961, the events of October 1962 unfolded……
Scott: Most discussions of the Missile Crisis begin with the mid-October discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba, but the entire episode began earlier. In the spring of 1962, Soviet officials worked out details of an operation with Castro to deploy R-12 missiles (named differently by the U.S.) with a range of about 1200 miles, which meant they could hit as far north as New York City, to Cuba. From July into October the Soviets began to secretly send troops and weapons to Castro, eventually deploying 36 R-12 and 24 launchers along with tactical cruise missiles.
In August the U.S. began to notice something happening in Cuba as U-2 spy planes took photographs of Soviet anti-aircraft sites in Cuba, and CIA director John McCone speculated that Russian military officials were trying to hide a ballistic missile deployment to Havana. At that same time Republican Senator Kenneth Keating of N.Y. publicly accused JFK of allowing a Soviet buildup in Cuba that included nuclear weapons—he didn’t know it at the time, but he was guessing right. The first Soviet missiles weren’t in Cuba yet but Keating’s public words forced JFK to warn the Kremlin that the Soviet missiles in Cuba would raise “the gravest issues.” https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/CMC-60/red-lines-and-regrets
At the same time, JFK and the National Security Council were finalizing NSA Memorandum (NSAM) 181, which laid out planning for an American response to Soviet missiles in Cuba, even though the U.S. did not know that nuclear weapons were going to be deployed there. Policymakers concluded, “In sum, the expectation is that any missiles will have a substantial political and psychological impact, while surface-to-surface missiles would create a condition of great alarm, even in the absence of proof that nuclear warheads were arriving with them.” It also directed military officials to plan to provoke more internal subversion in Cuba which could be followed by U.S. military intervention. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v10/d386 and https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v10/d401
About a month later, during an October 1 meeting b/w McNamara and the Joint Chiefs, the defense secretary discussed possible military action and a against Cuba and told the chiefs, especially the Navy, to be prepared to establish a blockade of Cuba https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/msc_cuba004.asp
Then, on October 4th, 1962, the first Soviet missiles arrived in Cuba, at the port of Mariel, under the command of Soviet Colonel Nikolai Beloborodov. The Soviets saw the missiles as a way to preserve Cuban sovereignty amid the constant American assaults of Cuba since Castro took over. Beloborodov later wrote, “It was clear that in the conditions of the existing balance of forces in conventional arms, which was ten to one against us, there was only one way we could repel a massive assault—by using tactical nuclear weapons against the invaders. In principle, this action would be consistent with international law on the protection of sovereignty and freedom. But that would be the beginning of the end. Only madmen could unleash a nuclear war.” https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/CMC-60/soviet-nuclear-warhead-commander-Beloborodov-memoir
These initial actions by the U.S. and USSR were part of the much longer period of tensions b/w the two sides, as we’ve seen, and just as JFK had been laying the groundwork to eliminate Castro’s regime, the Soviets had been preparing to defend it. In fact, the Cubans and Russians later called the events of late 1962 “The October Crisis” because the US covert war, which had ramped up with Mongoose, produced monthly crises for the Cubans. And throughout the build-up to October the purposes of both sides was clear. For the U.S. it was getting rid of Castro and for the USSR it was defending Cuba.
By mid-October the Americans began receiving reports from its operatives that the Soviets were bringing weapons into Cuba, but they were not specific regarding nuclear missiles. So, on October 9th, Kennedy approved U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba to verify reports that the Soviets were deploying missiles in an “area of concern” in the western part of the island. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/CMC-60/Gilpatric-notes-meeting-with-JFK-on-U-2-flights-Oct-9-1962 Because of sketchy weather, the first U-2 flights weren’t deployed until October 14th…..
October 14th is the date you’ll usually see associated with the “unofficial” beginning of the crisis. On that date U-2 pilots took the first intelligence photographs of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. The U-2 photos revealed medium-range missiles, code-named SS-4 and SS-5 by NATO (the Soviet R-12s), and also ballistic missile facilities. Years later Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei said that his father had sent missiles as diplomatic signal—”don’t invade Cuba. We’re serious.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phpe0DsisbY
Bob: Two days later, on the 16th, JFK had his first meeting to discuss the missiles in Cuba, with an advisory group that would be known at the Ex-Comm, or executive committee. The options laid out that day were to negotiate with Khrushchev and Castro, to quarantine Cuba with a naval blockade, or to conduct air strikes to destroy missile sites, which might provoke a Soviet response elsewhere, perhaps Berlin. Kennedy’s first instincts were to go with the quarantine (and to call it a quarantine since a blockade can be considered an act of war) and he officially decided on that a few days later.
At that October 16th meeting, Kennedy also apparently had some regrets about his August statement that the Soviet missiles would raise the gravest issues because of the intensity of the new danger and according to others at the meeting the president kind of joked “I said we weren’t going to [accept offensive missiles in Cuba] and last month I should have said we’re… well, we don’t care.” https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/CMC-60/red-lines-and-regrets
During that meeting there was also a fascinating exchange between JFK, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson that precisely showed that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were not the threat that the U.S. would claim they were.
JFK: Why does he put these in there though?
Bundy: Soviet-controlled nuclear warheads [of the kind?] . . .
JFK: That’s right, but what is the advantage of that? It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that’d be goddam dangerous, I would think.
Bundy?: Well, we did, Mr. President.
U.A. Johnson?: We did it. We . . .
JFK: Yeah, but that was five years ago.
U.A. Johnson?: . . . did it in England; that’s why we were short.
U.A. Johnson?: We gave England two when we were short of ICBMs.
JFK: Yeah, but that’s, uh . . .
U.A. Johnson?: [Testing?]
JFK: . . . that was during a different period then.
“Off the Record Meeting About Cuba,” 16 October 1962, https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct16/doc3.html
So at the very moment that JFK and the Ex-Comm were planning to ramp up the tension and potentially provoke a military exchange, perhaps nuclear, between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the president knew that America’s own military posture was stronger, that the Soviets were living with medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey right across the Black Sea from the USSR. That mention of the weapons in Turkey would later become critical . . .
JFK also introduced what would be one of the key factors going forward—and this was true in Vietnam too—American credibility. He said, “But when we said we’re not going to, and then they go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing . . . then… I would think that our… risks increase.” Passively accepting the missiles at any point would likely have been untenable politically to JFK. “They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway. After all, this is a political struggle as much as military.” https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/CMC-60/red-lines-and-regrets
So, to be clear, from the very outset, JFK had a clear understanding that the missiles in Cuba had NOT changed the balance of power and did not provide a justifiable reason to risk nuclear war. In 1962, the US had about 160 ICBM and 2500 strategic bombers while the Soviets had 24 ICBM, along with the aforementioned 20,000 to 1600 nuclear weapon dominance. Moscow knew that it was far behind the US and in no position to confront Washington militarily, and JFK knew that as well. But he also knew that the issue was political . . . that in his mind the imperatives of the Cold War demanded a strong American response and flexing of U.S. military might, even if it was provocative and could lead to the gravest consequences.
Decades later, Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei half-seriously said that the U.S. should just have let the rockets sit there in the heat in Cuba; the steel would have rusted, the propellant dissipated; the warheads would have used up all the food service ice Cuba could produce to keep from overheating; and within months, certainly a year, the rockets wouldn’t fire. The Soviets didn’t understand why Kennedy had created such a crisis. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/29114-day-8-october-11-red-lines-and-regrets
That meeting of October 16th began the famed “13 Days” of the Missile Crisis, the subject of a huge number of articles, books, documentaries and movies.
Scott: The 13 days of the crisis (which isn’t really accurate because the crisis, as we’ve seen, preceded the discovery of Soviet missiles and continued into November) were filled with some of the more anxious moments in postwar U.S. history. Rather than offer a detailed daily account of what happened, we’re going to focus on a few really key elements to the crisis—first, JFK’s announcement to the public about the discovery of missiles in Cuba; second, Kennedy’s aggressive military deployments and the U.S. quarantine and confrontations at sea against Soviet vessels; and third, efforts at negotiations and Nikita Khrushchev’s letters to Kennedy eventually leading to a deal involving missiles in Cuba and Turkey. After all that we’ll talk about the aftermath, consequences, and historical memory of the events of October.
First, Kennedy told the Americans about the missiles in Cuba on October 22 and it terrified the country. It was the first nuclear crisis and after 17 years of constant panic and fear-mongering about atomic war, the creation of the national security state, civilian preparedness, and “Duck and Cover” propaganda for every kid in America, and it shook the country unlike anything had in the modern era. Kennedy revealed the presence of the weapons in Cuba, announced a quarantine, and during the speech, sent orders to all US forces worldwide, placing them on Defense Readiness Condition, or DEFCON, 3, which meant the Air Force had to be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.
We’re going to play a couple clips from JFK’s October 22d speech. First, his opening, where he laid out the crisis and pushed responsibility for it onto the USSR and Cuba and charging that Moscow had interfered in Cuba’s “special and historical relationship to the United States,” meaning the Monroe Doctrine.
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.
Upon receiving the first preliminary hard information of this nature last Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., I directed that our surveillance be stepped up. And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action, this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.
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.
Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate range ballistic missiles–capable of traveling more than twice as far–and thus capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru. In addition, jet bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, are now being uncrated and assembled in Cuba, while the necessary air bases are being prepared.
This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base–by the presence of these large, long range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction–constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas, in flagrant and deliberate defiance of the Rio Pact of 1947, the traditions of this Nation and hemisphere, the joint resolution of the 87th Congress, the Charter of the United Nations, and my own public warnings to the Soviets on September 4 and 13. This action also contradicts the repeated assurances of Soviet spokesmen, both publicly and privately delivered, that the arms buildup in Cuba would retain its original defensive character, and that the Soviet Union had no need or desire to station strategic missiles on the territory of any other nation.
The size of this undertaking makes clear that it has been planned for some months. Yet only last month, after I had made clear the distinction between any introduction of ground-to-ground missiles and the existence of defensive antiaircraft missiles, the Soviet Government publicly stated on September 11, and I quote, “the armaments and military equipment sent to Cuba are designed exclusively for defensive purposes,” that, and I quote the Soviet Government, “there is no need for the Soviet Government to shift its weapons . . . for a retaliatory blow to any other country, for instance Cuba,” and that, and I quote their government, “the Soviet Union has so powerful rockets to carry these nuclear warheads that there is no need to search for sites for them beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union.” That statement was false.
Kennedy then described in more detail the U.S. version of the crisis, its origins and its gravity. And then he laid out a list of his responses to the placement of missiles in Cuba
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. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.
Second: I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup. The foreign ministers of the OAS, in their communique of October 6, rejected secrecy in such matters in this hemisphere. Should these offensive military preparations continue, thus increasing the threat to the hemisphere, further action will be justified. 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 in 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.
Fourth: As a necessary military precaution, I have reinforced our base at Guantanamo, evacuated today the dependents of our personnel there, and ordered additional military units to be on a standby alert basis.
Fifth: We are calling tonight for an immediate meeting of the Organ of Consultation under the Organization of American States, to consider this threat to hemispheric security and to invoke articles 6 and 8 of the Rio Treaty in support of all necessary action. The United Nations Charter allows for regional security arrangements–and the nations of this hemisphere decided long ago against the military presence of outside powers. Our other allies around the world have also been alerted.
Sixth: Under the Charter of the United Nations, we are asking tonight that an emergency meeting of the Security Council be convoked without delay to take action against this latest Soviet threat to world peace. Our resolution will call for the prompt dismantling and withdrawal of all offensive weapons in Cuba, under the supervision of U.N. observers, before the quarantine can be lifted.
Seventh and finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction–by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba–by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis–and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions.
This Nation is prepared to present its case against the Soviet threat to peace, and our own proposals for a peaceful world, at any time and in any forum–in the OAS, in the United Nations, or in any other meeting that could be useful–without limiting our freedom of action. We have in the past made strenuous efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. We have proposed the elimination of all arms and military bases in a fair and effective disarmament treaty. We are prepared to discuss new proposals for the removal of tensions on both sides–including the possibility of a genuinely independent Cuba, free to determine its own destiny. We have no wish to war with the Soviet Union–for we are a peaceful people who desire to live in peace with all other peoples. https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/address-during-the-cuban-missile-crisis
The most aggressive part of the response was obviously the quarantine, and that led to near-disaster in the coming days.
As Americans were processing the shocking news that JFK had delivered, the crisis continued with the American quarantine in place and Soviet ships heading toward Cuba. On the 25th, two U.S. ships, the USS Essex and the Gearing, attempted to intercept a Soviet tanker, the Bucharest 500 miles at sea from the Cuban coast but failed to do so . . . and ultimately decided to let it through the blockade after determining it did not contain military material. Intercepted military cables indicated that several Russian ships bound for Cuba were altering their course away from the quarantine line, wary of confronting U.S. forces in the waters. While Kennedy was aggressive, the Soviets remained ever cautious, aware of their significant weakness compared to the Americans. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/620928_621025%20Chronology%201.pdf
Kennedy, however, raised the stakes on the 25th, requesting an emergency meeting of the U.N. to challenge the Soviet ambassador about the missiles and then the next day he raised the readiness level to DEFCON 2, the last step before nuclear weapons would be used, in which all armed forces were required to be ready to deploy and fight within 6 hours . . . and the only confirmed use of that level in U.S. history. B-52 bombers were on continuous airborne alert and other medium bombers were sent to various airfields and prepared to take off on 15 minutes notice. About 180 of the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) bombers were put on alert and almost 150 ICBMs were on ready alert.
Bob: Most ominously, 23 nuclear-armed B-52s were sent to points within striking distance of the USSR. The Soviets, however, were standing down, and the U.S. knew it, as Air Force General and Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations David Burchinal later recalled. While JFK had put in a sea blockade and had 80 percent of SAC’s fleet prepared to strike Cuba or the Soviet Union, “the Russians were so thoroughly stood down, and we knew it. They didn’t make any move,” Burchinal said. They did not increase their alert; they did not increase any flights, or their air defense posture. They didn’t do a thing, they froze in place. We were never further from nuclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further.” In Kohn, R. H.; Harahan, J. P. (1988). “U.S. Strategic Air Power, 1948-1962: Excerpts from an Interview with Generals Curtis E. LeMay, Leon W. Johnson, David A. Burchinal, and Jack J. Catton”. International Security 12 (4): 78–95.
Despite the one-sided war mobilization, and just two days after the Essex and Gearing challenged the Bucharest, the most dire confrontation of the entire crisis occurred. October 27th was the most dangerous day in the postwar era up to September 11th, 2001. An American U-2 accidentally flew into Soviet Air Space, and even more dangerously, another U-2 was shot down over Cuba killing the American pilot and bringing Kennedy to the brink of a military retaliation.
The death of the pilot, Rudolf Anderson, led the military chiefs to call for a massive retaliation, even an invasion of Cuba, leading the Army Chief of Staff Earle Wheeler to worry that “Khrushchev may [let] loose one of his missiles on us.” Later the JCS Chair Maxwell Taylor briefed the other officers on the White House meetings that day and told them that JFK was considering a swap of removing missiles in Turkey if Khruschev did so in Cuba because “The President has a feeling that time is running out.”
As the White House and Chiefs were debating the response to the U-2 shootdown, the American destroyer, Beale, in international waters, unknown to the JCS, confronted a Soviet B-59 submarine and dropped depth charges to force it to surface. The Soviet crew believed that a war had broken out, and a Soviet intelligence officer on the sub, Vadim Orlov, later described how the U.S. ships “surrounded us and started to tighten the circle, practicing attacks and dropping depth charges. They exploded right next to the hull. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.”
The B-59 was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo, which American naval forces did not know, that had about 2/3 of the blast capacity of the bomb used at Hiroshima. Its nearest target would have been an anti-submarine aircraft carrier, the Randolph which had a crew of 3400 sailors and marines, more than the number of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11.
The Soviet sub was prepared to fire back, but the three senior officers on board had to agree unanimously. Two agreed to launch immediately. Vasili Arkhipov did not, and may very well have prevented a nuclear war. Arkhipov wasn’t sure they were under attack and wanted the sub to surface and await orders from Moscow. In addition, the B-59’s batteries were low and its air conditioning was failing—it had been built for the Arctic, not the warm waters of the Sargasso Sea—so the sub surfaced and began its return trip to the USSR without incident. At the very moment JFK had filled the skies with nuclear-armed planes and had gone to DEFCON 2, the Soviet sub officer had the composure to deflate the crisis at sea, perhaps saved the world from nuclear war. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2022-10-03/soviet-submarines-nuclear-torpedoes-cuban-missile-crisis
That did not, however, mean the danger had passed. SAC officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had rigged the launch system on a Minuteman ICBM to give themselves independent launch authority and bypass normal procedures. A tactical missile squadron on Okinawa also received erroneous launch orders for the nuclear cruise missiles but an Air Force captain questioned the order since DEFCON 1 was not in effect. In fact, 3 of the targets in the top secret envelope (like the one opened by Major “King” Kong in Dr. Strangelove) were in China, which had nothing to do with the crisis. Inside Cuba, the Soviet missiles were put on launchers that day and were operational. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book-special-exhibit/russia-programs-cuba-cuban-missile-crisis/2022-10-04/cuban-missile
While the Soviet-American confrontation at sea was developing, the crisis was moving toward its conclusion as the representatives of the USSR and U.S. began to talk to each other and carve out a settlement, which is the 3rd key element we want to talk about……
Scott: Kennedy had made contact immediately with the Soviets as soon as the missiles were photographed, instructing his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to contact the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to express American concern and was told by Dobrynin that there would be no ground-to-ground missiles or offensive weapons put into Cuba and that the USSR wouldn’t disrupt Soviet-American relationships. A couple days later, on the 18th, JFK met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who reiterated that the weapons were for defensive purposes, to prevent an American attack to oust Castro. Kennedy did not tell Gromyko that the U.S. had the U-2 photos of the sites and was aware of the specifics of the missile buildup, and since them supporters of JFK have cited this to show that Gromyko and the Russians were being duplicitous. https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct16/doc3.html,
But the Russian insistence that the missiles were defensive and that they were giving an ally reassurance amid constant American threats to overthrow has generally been discounted, though the Soviets were consistent on that point and didn’t intend to use the missiles to attack the U.S. unless some kind of move was made against the government in Havana. While missiles can surely have offensive or defensive purposes, or both, the Soviets had been steadfast in their intention to protect Cuba, not provoke a war with America.
After Kennedy’s public speech, the sense of alarm had grown dramatically. On October 24th, Khruschev sent a telegram to JFK calling the blockade “an act of aggression” and “outright piracy” that would lead to war and said the USSR had to decline “the despotic demands of the USA.” https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct24/doc2.html Kennedy responded the next day by telling the Soviet leader that the U.S. had been forced to respond that way because he had denied that there were offensive weapons in Cuba and that he hoped that “your government will take necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation.” https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct25/doc1.html The president also decided to confront the Soviets publicly with U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson challenging the Russian representative over the missiles on October 25th.
Stevenson demanded a Soviet response to the American allegations that it had placed offensive missiles in Cuba and told the assembly that he was prepared to wait “until hell freezes over” for the Russians to admit to putting the weapon in a country so close to the U.S.
And of course this was all happening at the same time as American and Soviet ships were contesting each other at sea. The situation was close to warfare.
As conditions in Washington, Moscow and Havana seemed to be spinning out of control, Khrushchev sent another letter to Kennedy the next day, the 26th, telling the president that he would remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. guaranteed it would not invade Cuba. https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct26/doc4.html At the same time Bobby Kennedy met with Dobrynin and told him that the U.S. would be willing to discuss removing American Jupiter missiles from Turkey as part of a negotiated deal. Even as both sides seemed to be looking for a way out of the crisis, the B-59 incident occurred and the U.S. staged a hydrogen bomb test with a B-52 dropping an 800 kiloton bomb over the Pacific.
The pace of events was speeding up and Khruschev at that time also proposed that he would remove the missiles if JFK promised not to invade Cuba AND remove its missiles from Turkey. On the 27th he wrote “You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But… you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us…. I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive…. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States… will remove its analogous means from Turkey… and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made.” https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct27/doc4.html
The Jupiter missiles in Turkey had added another layer to the crisis. The Jupiters were outdated and being phased out anyway, to be replaced by Polaris missiles, so Khruschev’s proposal was reasonable and offered a clear way out of the crisis. Kennedy himself realized the U.S. would be in an “insupportable position” if Khrushchev’s proposal became public because the Jupiters were obsolete and, the president said, “To any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.” Recording of Kennedy meeting, Cuban Missile Crisis: October 26, 1962 & October 27, 1962, (41:42)
It was a fair trade. The Soviet leader had created a simple plan with just two options—the U.S. would promise to not invade Cuba and it would remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Kennedy didn’t want to do that deal, didn’t like either option, even though the U.S. would be giving up nothing substantial in that process—just agreeing not to do something and giving up something it was going to scrap anyway.
But as the National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told JFK, the U.S. could not acquiesce to Khruschev’s plan—“the current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba” he said. Obviously, the U.S. had a vastly superior nuclear arsenal trained on Moscow itself, not to even mention the overwhelming dominance the U.S had over Cuba—it could have obliterated the island in an instant–but that wasn’t the point. Demonstrating power and will, even at the risk of nuclear war, was the point. In Sheldon Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis 149.
Bob: But the events we mentioned earlier on the 27th, the U-2 shootdown, the confrontation between the Beale and the B-59 sub, the itching for war, had forced the White House to take negotiations more seriously. Bobby Kennedy was meeting with Dobrynin at the Department of Justice that evening and warned him that the U.S. was prepared to bomb the Soviet sites in Cuba but offered the potential carrot of a trade of the Jupiters for the SS-4 missiles in Cuba. “Time is of the essence and we shouldn’t miss the chance,” RFK told the Soviet Ambassador. Even then, JFK moved slowly.
Faced with a chance to pull back from the brink on October 27th, Kennedy did not want the world to think he made concessions on the Jupiters, which to him would be a sign of weakness. But Khrushchev took action that next day to end the crisis. In a speech on Radio Moscow the Soviet leader announced that the missiles in Cuba were being dismantled and didn’t demand the Jupiters be removed. Silently, the U.S. had agreed to take the Jupiters out, but they didn’t want the world to know they’d made that deal. Kennedy was aggressive to the bitter end. As McNamara later said, “we were eyeball-to-eyeball, and the other guy blinked.”
Kennedy was in fact so concerned with his credibility and creating the public image that he’d stared down Khrushchev that he and his aides created a cover-up of sorts and refused to admit that there had been a quid pro quo—the SS-4s for the Jupiters—to end the crisis. They made sure that the media and others writing official stories of the incident credited JFK’s strength and resolve as the key factor in forcing the Soviets to blink. They even went so far as to smear Adlai Stevenson, who had confronted the Russians at the U.N. but also urged Kennedy to accept Khrushchev’s deal, by planting stories in the press about him with a source described as an “unadmiring official” quoted as saying “Adlai wanted a Munich. He wanted to trade U.S. bases for Cuban bases. The “unadmiring official?” . . . John F. Kennedy. As it turned out, the president himself had added those lines to a draft of that article, in his own handwriting.
Though the immediate crisis of October 1962 had subsided, the residue of a near-confrontation between nuclear-armed forces and the legacy of JFK’s conduct during the crisis continue to have important meaning. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” has become a short-hand phrase for global conflicts of severe gravity and is invoked to stress how important the stakes are—like the 6-Day War, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Reagan’s wars in Central America, the Gulf War, various middle eastern crises, and of course 9/11, and as Biden just did. At the same time, the general view of JFK has been overwhelmingly positive and he’s held up as an example of strength and resolve in the face of great danger. In fact, in a special CBS news report on the night of October 28th, 1962 the well-regarded journalist Charles Collingwood set the tone for the way JFK would be viewed, saying that the world had come out “from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since World War II” with a “humiliating defeat for Soviet policy.” In Noam Chomsky, “The Week the World Stood Still: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ownership of the World”.
But as we’ve seen, many of Kennedy’s decisions were reckless. The U.S. had an overwhelming advantage in the balance of power against Cuba and Moscow. Of course the presence of nuclear weapons in a country so close to the U.S. would raise concern and demand action, but the possibility of those weapons being used offensively against America prior to Kennedy’s blustering was minimal if not zero. Any nuclear attack would have led to the immediate annihilation of Cuba and immense attacks against the USSR. Kennedy knew that but his credibility and need to assert global power was more important. He was willing to risk nuclear war in order to maintain U.S. hegemony and empire.
But, thanks to Oliver Stone and a cadre of scholars, journalists, and politicians, Kennedy’s actions are seen as heroic and the Missile Crisis is cited as his shining moment, when he not only stood up to the gravest challenge but learned from it and became a global force for peace afterwards. But that, too, isn’t the case . . . .
We want to talk a little about “Post-Missile Crisis Kennedy,” the president who is still praised for his handling of the crisis. The reality, however, is that JFK after October 1962 wasn’t much different than JFK before October 1962. When you peel away the layers of rhetoric and the spectacle of the global crisis, JFK, and American actions globally, were the same. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy believed that success in Vietnam could mitigate the public fallout from the disaster in Cuba, and from that point on the fortunes of those 3d World Revolutions were always linked. Kennedy never received any lessons from the crisis in Cuba that led him to take anything other than a militarist and interventionist approach in Vietnam. And after the Missile Crisis, the U.S. ramped up its commitment in Vietnam. There was no transition to peacemaker.
Yet, one of the key claims by establishment fans of JFK, like Oliver Stone, is that the Cuban Missile Crisis shook Kennedy so much that he was on the path to normalizing relations with Cuba itself. Once again, the record, the archives, the documents tell a very different story. The American-sponsored subversion inside Cuba continued during the Missile Crisis. The subversion had not ended. In fact, on November 8th, as the Pentagon acknowledged that the Soviet missiles in Cuba had been dismantled, a CIA unit dispatched from Miami blew up a Cuban industrial facility and killed 400 workers, not even two weeks after pledging to Khruschev that the U.S. wouldn’t try to overthrow Castro’s government……. Raymond Garthoff, “The Cuban ‘Contras’ Caper,” 25 October, 1987, Washington Post,
Scott: On November 16th the U.S. began an exercise to simulate a full-scale invasion of Cuba at Onslow Beach, North Carolina which included 6 marine battalion landing teams, and overall had over 100,000 army troops, 40,000 marines, and about 15,000 paratroopers ready to fight in Cuba, as well as 550 combat aircraft and over 180 ships available to support an invasion.
A few days after that U.S. representatives met with their Soviet counterparts to finally resolve the issue of 42 Russian aircraft that remained in Cuba with the U.S. aggressively demanding their immediate removal. JFK also renewed high-altitude incursions of Cuban airspace to gather intelligence though low-altitude flights were suspended. At that meeting Bobby Kennedy wrote on an envelope “President reluctant to send in low-level flights…How far can we push K[hrushchev?]” and he threatened Soviet diplomats that the low-level warplanes would begin flying over Cuba again unless all the Russian planes were removed, all while the entire U.S. North American arsenal could be deployed against Havana with 550 combat aircraft on alert to attack Cuba on short notice. Kennedy the so-called peacemaker had not taken his foot off the gas and still posed an existential threat to Castro’s government. https://www.marxists.org/history/cuba/subject/missile-crisis/ch04.htm
In December JFK ended the year in Miami paying public tribute to the Cuban Invasion Brigade and pledging that Cuba would be made “free” with Alliance for Progress and American help. In an April 1963 meeting, JFK made clear he had not given up on removing Castro but insisted it had to be a Miami-Cuban effort and wondered “whether active sabotage was good unless it was of a type that could only come from within Cuba.” See Kennedy remarks in Miami at the Presentation of the Flag of the Cuban Invasion Brigade, 29 December 1962, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-miami-the-presentation-the-flag-the-cuban-invasion-brigade; Memorandum for the File, “Meeting with the President — 5:30–15 Apr 1963 In Palm Beach, Florida,” with attached memorandum for the President on “Donovan Negotiations with Castro,” April 16, 1963 (Document 29). National Security Archive, Kennedy and Cuba: Operation Mongoose, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/cuba/2019-10-03/kennedy-cuba-operation-mongoose
At the same time Bromley Smith, the executive secretary of the NSC, presented an analysis that made it clear that Kennedy had decided to end the “restraint” he had shown on Cuba and was recommitting American assets to the campaign against Castro. “This paper,” Smith began, “presents a covert Harassment/sabotage program targeted against Cuba; included are those sabotage plans which have previously been approved as well as new proposals.” The NSC acknowledged that “while this program will cause a certain amount of economic damage, it will in no sense critically injure the economy or cause the overthrow of Castro.” It could however “create a situation which will delay the consolidation and stabilization of Castro’s revolution” and that was worth the U.S. effort.
Bromley Smith, National Security Council, Draft, “A Covert Harrassment/Sabotage Program against Cuba,” April 16, 1963 (Document 30), Ibid.
And on Castro’s end, despite claims by Stone and others, like journalist Peter Kornbluh, that the Cuban leader was warming up to JFK, he continued to be as wary as possible about the U.S. president. At a reception at the Brazilian embassy in Havana on September 7th, Castro held a spontaneous interview with an AP reporter where he called JFK a “cretin . . . the Batista of his times . . . [and] the most opportunistic president of all time.” He also denounced the continuing American-sponsored raids on Cuban territory and said “we are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. U.S. leaders should think if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.” . https://www.archives.gov/files/research/jfk/releases/104-10088-10035.pdf
Early in November, not two weeks before his death, Kennedy ramped up terrorist operations in Cuba and approved a CIA plan for “destruction operations” against an oil refinery and storage facilities, an electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges and harbor facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships. Memorandum for the Record, “Cuban Operations,” 12 November 1963, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XI, Cuban ,Missile Crisis and Aftermath, https://1997-2001.state.gov/about_state/history/frusXI/376_390.html
In fact, in Kennedy’s last public words about Latin America, in Miami on November 18th Kennedy emphasized the need to aid the region against Castro and said that “my own country is prepared to do this.” He urged states throughout the hemisphere to “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere. . . .”  Remarks by President John F. Kennedy before the Inter-American Press Association at Miami Beach, FL, “The Battle for Progress With Freedom in the Western Hemisphere,” 18 November 1963, The Department of State bulletin., v.49 1963 Oct-Dec. HathiTrust Digital Library, Department of State Bulletin, December 9, 1963, 900–904, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/ssd?id=mdp.39015077199217;page=ssd;view=plaintext;seq=372;num=900
The idea that JFK was so alarmed by the missiles of October 1962 that he became a man of peace is preposterous, and America’s war on Cuba that it had been waging violently beginning in 1898 had not slowed down at all.
The U.S. attempt to oust Castro had not ended and both the U.S. and Cuba were aware that the acrimony, interference, and subversion was continuing. Indeed, on the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a Cuban asset close to Castro, code-named AM/LASH, was in Paris receiving a poison pen from a CIA officer in a ham-handed effort to have Castro killed.
Bob: Kennedy has come into political life as a cold warrior, interventionist, and imperialist, and nothing had changed after the near-cataclysm of October.
Thirty years after the missile crisis, McNamara traveled to Cuba to discuss the events of October 1962 with Castro and others. The defense secretary, hawkish during his time at the Pentagon, seemed chastened by the enormity of the missile crisis all those years later, yet still believed “In a sense, we’d won. We got the missiles out without war. My deputy and I brought the five Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. And he said, ‘Gentlemen, we won. I don’t want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won.’” Errol Morris, director, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.
And remember that Kennedy, at the initial meeting where the U-2 photos were shown to him on October 16th, wished he’d said “well, we don’t care.” From the very outset, JFK knew that those missiles in Cuba, though symbolically powerful, did not threaten the U.S. and did nothing to shift any balance of power between the U.S. and Russia even minimally.
Surely there were officials in Ex-Comm meetings and in the Pentagon who wanted an immediate military retaliation to the discover of the missiles in Cuba. The fact that JFK did not go that far is not a fair basis for praise, as the President himself seemed to later realize that the SS-4s were not the danger he had made them out to be. But during the so-called 13 Days, Kennedy took a hard line, confronted and challenged Khrushchev, established a huge quarantine/blockade, provoked confrontations at sea and struck a Soviet sub, and was reluctant to accept Russia’s deal of removing missiles in Cuba and Turkey and only did so secretly.
In the historical legacy of the Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s fans, and there are so many, do not include in the context of their analysis the long U.S. record of aggression against Cuba, especially from the Bay of Pigs onward and the constant Soviet insistence that the missiles were sent to defend Castro’s government from a U.S. invasion, which even McNamara himself conceded after the fact.
They don’t account for the undeniable fact that the U.S. had immense and overwhelming military strength compared to Cuba obviously but the USSR too—any first-strike from either would have been met with annihilation and all parties involved knew that. Only the U.S., remember, had conducted aggressive actions—most notable in April 1961 but persistently thereafter with its subversive operations not to mention the most intense embargo in world history. And perhaps most importantly, almost no one discussed the continued aggression after the missile crisis.
While his supporters and apologists argue that JFK had seen and been terrified because a nuclear exchange had been so perilously close, the fact is that the president didn’t change his stripes. The subversion continued and the U.S. never accepted the reality of Castro’s government and spend decades trying to overthrow it and continues to this day to oust its successors.
IF JFK’s conduct during the missile crisis—giving priority to credibility over peace, aggressive provocations, using military power, and insisting on winning the political battle at the risk of a war that would kill countless millions—is seen as the blueprint for how to handle crises, then surely it’s inevitable that another such encounter, possibly in the near future, will not end without mushroom clouds…….