By Alex Von Tunzelmann
On the morning of 20 October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent messages to American military commands worldwide, warning that tensions in Cuba—about which they were not specific—might call for military action soon. Trouble could break out anywhere: Turkey, Iran, Berlin. That very morning, trouble did break out in the Himalayas. China launched simultaneous attacks on the Himalayan extremes of India, at Ladakh in the west, and along the McMahon Line in the east. Still in the habit of forgetting about the Sino- Soviet split, the Kennedy administration did wonder whether China was acting in synchrony with the USSR, and if this was to be the great showdown: the all-out world war against communism that they had feared. Fortunately, it was just a coincidence.
At noon Washington time on 22 October, it was announced that President Kennedy would be appearing on television at 7:00 pm to address the nation.
In Moscow, it was early evening. “They’ve probably discovered our missiles,” said Khrushchev to his son, Sergei. But those missiles were defenseless, and could be taken out with an air strike— if the Americans could find them all. Discovery had come too soon. He called an emergency meeting of the Presidium.
“The thing is we were not going to unleash war,” he said, his face flushed, his manner agitated. “We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter the anti- Cuban forces.” At that moment, he realized what a mistake it had been not to listen to Fidel’s pleas, and make public his agreement to arm the Cubans. “They can attack us,” he said, “and we shall respond. This may end up a big war.”
Fidel, too, was preparing for a big war. Just as during the Bay of Pigs, he remained in Havana, and dispatched his three most important commanders to their usual regional posts: Che Guevara to Pinar del Rio, Juan Almeida to Santa Clara, Raúl Castro to Oriente. At 3:50 pm Havana time— 4:50 pm in Washington— he placed the army on combat alert. At 5:35 pm—twenty- five minutes before Kennedy was due to speak— he declared a general combat alarm. All 400,000 of Cuba’s armed combatants were mobilized: 100,000 troops, 170,000 reserves, and the rest militia and People’s Defense units. He also had the support of 43,000 Soviet troops, which the CIA had underestimated as 10,000.
* * *
On the morning of 26 October, Nikita Khrushchev was given a gray folder filled with intelligence reports. As he skimmed through them, one caught his eye. It said that Kennedy was gearing up for a full amphibious invasion of Cuba, and the removal of Fidel Castro. When Khrushchev read it, according to his deputy foreign minister, Vasily Kuznetsov, “he dropped a load in his pants.”
The report was based on a conversation between two American journalists, overheard by a Russian bartender, at the National Press Club in Washington two evenings before. It was wrong; though invasion was an option under consideration, it had not been ordered. But the report prompted Khrushchev to dictate a hurried, emotional letter to Kennedy. In it, he insisted that the missiles had only been intended to defend Cuba—not to launch a first strike against the United States. If Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and withdrew his fleet, this would all be over.
With the arrival of this letter, several of those in Ex-Comm thought they had already won. General LeMay was an exception, grunting that Khrushchev must think “we are a bunch of dumb shits, if we swallow that syrup.”
Khrushchev’s letter had taken twelve hours to reach Kennedy, owing to the laborious process of translation and transmission then required. During those twelve hours, things moved on. The Soviet forces poised to attack Guantánamo Bay had been ordered to move to a new position, just fifteen miles from the base. Cruise missiles, which the local Soviet commanders could fire on their own authority, were maneuvered into their launch positions. Tropical rain had been bucketing down all day. On the other side of the perimeter, thousands of marines sat in their steamy, sodden trenches, unaware of the extraordinary danger that lurked beyond the barbed wire fence.
Less than four hours after dispatching his letter to the American embassy, Khrushchev had received further information that an American attack on Cuba was not imminent after all. Reassured, he composed a second letter, more bullish in tone. “Your rockets are situated in Britain, situated in Italy and are aimed against us,” he wrote. “Your rockets are situated in Turkey. You are worried by Cuba. You say that it worries you because it is a distance of 90 miles by sea from the coast of America, but Turkey is next to us. Our sentries walk up and down and look at each other. Do you consider that you have the right to demand security for your own country and the removal of those weapons which you call offensive and do not acknowledge the same right for us?”
This was such a departure in tone from the previous letter that Mac Bundy would wonder whether Khrushchev might have been overthrown. In fact, it represented only a new confidence among the Soviets. The game was back on.
On the afternoon of 26 October, Fidel Castro met General Issa Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba. Fidel told Pliyev that he had decided to shoot down any American planes they could hit. He did not have access to the Soviets’ surface- to- air missiles; it would have to be done with conventional weapons. “I told them that we had decided to fire against the low-level flights— those were the only ones we could reach,” he remembered.
“These planes were, in effect, training daily on how they could destroy our weapons.” Pliyev told him that the Soviet forces in Cuba were now ready for war. Neither was aware that Khrushchev now did not believe that an invasion was coming. Fidel himself was now convinced that American forces would land within seventy-two hours.
If that was so, Fidel knew Pliyev would strike back. He took the news to the rest of the Cuban leadership. Their meeting lasted until two in the morning. Though no record of that meeting has been released, the indication is that the other Cuban leaders must have been of the same mind as Fidel. On leaving the meeting, he went directly to see Aleksandr Alekseyev, and asked him to help draft in Russian a good- bye letter to Nikita Khrushchev.
Alekseyev provided beer and sausage, while Fidel went through at least ten versions of his letter. Both men were exhausted, and, though Alekseyev’s Spanish was good, it was not perfect. Fidel was trying to phrase an idea both precise and delicate. Translating this into Russian would have been no easy task under any circumstances.
During one draft , Alekseyev asked directly if Fidel really meant what it seemed he did: that the USSR should launch a first nuclear strike against the United States.
“No,” replied Fidel. “I don’t want to say that directly, but under certain circumstances, we must not wait to experience the perfidy of the imperialists, letting them initiate the first strike and deciding that Cuba should be wiped off the face of the earth.”
Fidel wrote that he could see two possibilities in the American response: either air strikes or—less likely, but possible—a full invasion. In the event of a full invasion, he said, Khrushchev must not let concern for Cuba weaken his resolve.
“If . . . the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.
“I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.”
This letter was intended as a declaration of Cuba’s willingness to perform the supreme sacrifice. If the United States invaded, Cuba would be destroyed. But Cuba, Fidel was saying, was prepared to face that. If it happened, Khrushchev should have neither fear nor hesitation. Such a war would escalate, and the only option, as Fidel saw it, was to strike back hard and fast. To save the people of the Soviet Union from being annihilated at the next step, Khrushchev should, if Cuba were invaded, destroy the United States.
It was a shocking letter, and revealing. Fidel’s reluctance to receive the missiles in the first place, and his repeated pleas that the deal be made public, had indicated that he understood the danger he was taking on by accepting Soviet nuclear weapons. Though he had reservations, he had accepted them anyway. He had also accepted the secrecy. By doing so, he had taken a terrible risk on the part of the Cuban people. The leaders of Britain, Turkey, Italy, and other countries who had accepted the missiles of superpowers had put their people on the front line of any potential nuclear war, too— but those leaders had not concealed this fact. When Fidel came to believe, on that dark, tense, drizzly night in Havana, that the hour really had come, and Cuba could be annihilated, he was explicitly prepared to let it happen. Patria o muerte was a proud cry when he made it for himself and for the men and women who willingly signed up to his cause. It took on a very different air when that pride drove him to put 7 million civilians in the line of fire.
Little did Fidel know that Khrushchev did not have the capacity to destroy the United States, except to some extent from Cuba. “The aim was to strengthen him [Khrushchev] morally, because I knew that he had to be suffering greatly, intensely,” Fidel remembered. “I thought I knew him well. I thought I knew what he was thinking and that he must have been at that time very anxious over the situation.”
At twenty minutes to seven in the morning, Havana time, Fidel’s letter went into the laborious transmission system. Alekseyev added a short cable summarizing the Cuban leader’s thoughts as best he could. That cable took an hour to reach Moscow, and the information in it would not be relayed to Khrushchev for almost twelve hours. During those hours, the situation would change dramatically again.
That morning, 27 October, Major Rudolf Anderson climbed into his U-2 in Orlando, Florida, and set out to fly over military sites in Cuba. His mission, specifically, was to fly over the Guantánamo area and photograph Soviet and Cuban positions. The Pentagon and the CIA were unaware that nuclear cruise missiles had just been maneuvered into position within fifteen miles of the American base.
Anderson began filming as he approached Esmeralda, a known surface-to-air missile site halfway down Cuba’s north coast. As usual, the Soviet air defense system in Camagüey was tracking him from the moment he entered Cuban airspace. He continued south-southeast to another site at Manzanillo, and then turned more sharply east over the Sierra Maestra to survey another at Santiago de Cuba. From Santiago, he flew over Guantánamo—almost certainly directly over the cruise missile deployments the Soviets had just finished putting up.
General Stepan Naumovich Grechko was the Soviet air force’s head of military plans in Cuba. “Our guest has been up there for over an hour,” he said to his deputy. “I think we should give the order to shoot [his plane] down, as it is discovering our positions in depth.”
His deputy agreed. If the Americans saw the Soviets preparing to hit Guantánamo, the results could be disastrous. Grechko attempted to telephone General Pliyev, but could not reach him. Major Anderson’s U-2 had already turned back toward Florida, and was approaching Nipe Bay. There were only minutes in which to make the decision.
“Very well,” Grechko said. “Let’s take responsibility ourselves.”
At 10:16 Havana time, he sent an order to Camagüey to use two surface-to-air missiles, and shoot down the U-2.
Three minutes later, Anderson was near the town of Banes, on the north coast of Nipe Bay. Without warning, two missiles zoomed up at him from among the trees. There was an explosion in the sky. Anderson was killed instantly. Smoldering parts of the U-2 crashed down into the forest.
Within the same hour, another American U-2 pilot, Chuck Maultsby, went off course in a surveillance mission from Alaska over the North Pole, and flew three hundred miles into Soviet airspace over the Chukotka Peninsula. Maultsby realized just how badly lost he was when he turned on the radio and heard balalaika music. Soviet jets were scrambled to shoot him down. American fighters had also taken off , trying to guide him back. Maultsby made repeated Mayday calls over open radio asking for directions. Fortunately, he made his way back to Alaska intact, and both the Soviet and American planes returned to their bases.
“There is always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word,” moaned Kennedy.
On the other side, the son of a bitch who hadn’t got the word was General Grechko. “You have been precipitate in shooting the plane down while our negotiations with the U.S. authorities are progressing successfully,” telegraphed an angry Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, Soviet minister of defense. In fact, if Grechko was right that Anderson’s U-2 had photographed cruise missile deployments around Guantánamo, shooting down the plane was a sensible military decision. Had those pictures been seen in Washington, they could well have prompted immediate air strikes or an invasion— and either of those would have killed a lot more people than shooting down one U-2.
Ex- Comm was considering exchanging American missiles in Turkey and Italy for Soviet missiles in Cuba (Kennedy was for it, but Bundy against) when news came through of Major Anderson’s disappearance. In the event of a U-2 being shot down, it had been agreed already that the Pentagon would be authorized to take out a surface- to- air missile site. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were firmly in favor of air strikes on 29 October if the Soviets did not get on with dismantling the missile bases before then, and an invasion as early as 30 October.
“I’m not convinced yet of an invasion, because I think that’s a bit much,” Jack Kennedy replied. But he did order everyone to prepare for that eventuality. In one last attempt at negotiation, he wrote a final letter to Khrushchev. It offered to lift the blockade and pledge not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union removed its missiles. Though no direct reference was made in the note to a swap for the missiles in Turkey or Italy, it did state that “the effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding ‘other armaments,’ as you proposed in your second letter.”
Losing the Turkish and Italian missiles would not, for the United States, represent a great sacrifi ce. They were considered all but obsolete, and Kennedy had considered removing them just two months before. But a host of concerns about looking weak, and making NATO look weak, obliged the president to keep the offer private. Bobby Kennedy was sent to deliver Kennedy’s letter in person to the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. He was to emphasize that the next twenty-four hours were crucial. If the Soviets did not start dismantling their bases, Jack Kennedy’s hand would be forced to further action. Furthermore, Bobby was to say that Jack could not announce the removal of the missiles in Turkey and Italy, owing to pressures inside his administration and the United States’ prestige with its allies. They would nonetheless be removed within “four or five months.”
By eight o’clock that evening, Bobby Kennedy was on his way to the Department of Justice, with his brother’s last offer for peace in his hand.
* * *
A little less than two hours earlier—1:10 am, Moscow time—Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko had telephoned Nikita Khrushchev, and read him a summary of Fidel’s letter.
“He proposed that to prevent destruction of our missile installations, we should immediately strike first, dealing a thermonuclear blow to the United States,” Khrushchev remembered in his memoirs. “When this message was read aloud to us, we sat there in silence, looking at one another for a long time. It became clear at that point that Fidel absolutely did not understand our intentions.”
Despite all of Alekseyev’s careful drafting, Khrushchev did not read the letter as a noble statement of Cuban self-sacrifice, and did not seem to understand that Fidel was advocating a nuclear response only in the event of a full invasion of Cuba. He thought that Fidel wanted him to bang his fist down on the big red button and nuke the United States there and then. Comrade Fidel seemed to have lost his mind— and Comrade Fidel was sitting on an island ninety miles from the United States, on top of a stack of Soviet nuclear weapons with the combined destructive power of four thousand Hiroshimas. As Edwin Martin, undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs, later put it, “Even under Soviet control there was serious risk of irresponsible Cuban initiatives, given the military’s dominance in Cuba.” Soviet troops were outnumbered by Cubans under arms almost ten to one, but that hardly mattered. Fidel, Raúl, and Che were heroes, personal friends, and, above all, comrades to many of the Soviet commanders. They might not need to fight them. The full horror of the situation he had set up finally dawned on the Soviet premier. Khrushchev panicked, and summoned the Presidium to his dacha.
Oleg Troyanovsky, Khrushchev’s special assistant for international affairs, was at the meeting. Fidel’s letter was terrifying enough. Soon afterward, the message from Bobby Kennedy to Anatoly Dobrynin arrived, too. Dobrynin emphasized, said Troyanovsky, that “there were many hotheads in Washington who were demanding an attack against Cuba, and it was quite understandable that it was going to be difficult for the president to keep everything under control.” Furthermore, they had a report that Kennedy was to address the nation again, at 5:00 pm Moscow time. “Everybody agreed that Kennedy intended to declare war, to launch an attack.”
Khrushchev saw that the only option was an immediate withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba. There was no time to consult, or even inform, Fidel. In any case, Khrushchev stated in his memoirs, it had been Fidel’s letter that forced the withdrawal. With Fidel fi xated, as he seemed to be, on a glorious death, Khrushchev could not risk an invasion pushing him over the edge.
At ten o’clock Washington time on the morning of 28 October, Radio Moscow broadcast the news that the Soviet missile sites in Cuba would be dismantled. In the White House, there was euphoria. The crisis was over.
Excerpted from Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbeanby Alex von Tunzelmann.
Copyright © 2011 by Alex von Tunzelmann.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.
ALEX VON TUNZELMANN is the author of Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean and Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.