Gwynne Dyer: The other Cuban Missile Crisis

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16 to 28, 1962), so we’re going to hear a great deal about the weeks when the world almost died. But the past is a foreign country, a place where everything was black and white and men still wore hats, so it’s just scary stories about a long-gone time. Or so it seems.

The outlines of the tale are well known. It was 17 years since the United States had used nuclear weapons on Japan, and the Soviet Union now had them too. Lots of them: the American and Soviet arsenals included some 30,000 nuclear weapons, and not all of them were carried by bombers anymore. Some were mounted on rockets that could reach their targets in the other country in half an hour.

Both Washington and Moscow therefore had some version of a “launch on warning” policy: if you think the other side’s missiles are inbound, launch your own missiles before you lose them. There couldn’t be a more hair-trigger situation than that, you might think—but then things got a lot worse.

At the start of the 1960s Moscow had gained a new Communist ally in Fidel Castro, but the United States kept talking about invading Cuba. So Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev moved some nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba to deter the United States from attacking the island. However, from Cuba the Soviet missiles would be only five minutes away from their American targets. That caused panic in Washington.

Early in October 1962, the first Soviet SS-4 missiles arrived in Cuba, and American U-2 spy planes discovered them almost at once. President John F. Kennedy knew about them by October 16, but he did not go on television and warn the American public of the risk of nuclear war until the 22nd.

He then declared a naval blockade of Cuba, saying that he would stop Soviet ships carrying further missiles from reaching Cuba by force if necessary. That would mean war, and probably nuclear war, but at least the blockade gave the Russians some time to think before the shooting started.

The Soviet leaders were now desperately looking for a way out of the crisis they had created. After a few harrowing days, a deal was done: the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba. The crisis was officially over by October 28, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. It was closest the world ever came to an all-out nuclear war.

Even so, they weren’t really scared enough. They thought that a couple of hundred million people would die in a “nuclear exchange”. At that time, nobody yet knew that detonating so many nuclear warheads would cause a “nuclear winter”: the dust and smoke put into the stratosphere by firestorms in a thousand stricken cities would have blocked out the sunlight for a year or more and resulted in a worldwide famine.

What almost nobody knew until very recently is that the crisis did not really end on October 28. A new book by Sergo Mikoyan, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November, reveals that it continued all the way through November.

U.S. intelligence was unaware that along with the SS-4s, the Soviet Union had also sent more than a hundred shorter-range “tactical” nuclear missiles to Cuba. They weren’t mentioned in the Soviet–U.S. agreement on withdrawing the SS-4s from Cuba, so technically Khrushchev had not promised to remove them.

Fidel Castro was in a rage about having been abandoned by his Soviet allies, so to mollify him, Khrushchev decided to let him keep the tactical missiles. It was crazy: giving Fidel Castro a hundred nuclear weapons was a recipe for a new and even bigger crisis in a year or two. Khrushchev’s deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, who was sent to Cuba to tell Castro the happy news, quickly realized that he must not have them.

The second half of the crisis, invisible to Americans, was Mikoyan’s month-long struggle to pry Castro’s fingers off the hundred tactical nuclear missiles. In the end, he only succeeded by telling Castro that an unpublished (and in fact non-existent) law forbade the transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to a foreign country. In December, they were finally crated up and sent home.

So it all ended happily, in one sense—but the whole world could have ended instead. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary in 1962, said 40 years later, “we were just plain lucky in October 1962—and without that luck most of you would never have been born because the world would have been destroyed instantly or made unlivable in October 1962.”

Then he said the bit that applies to us. “Something like that could happen today, tomorrow, next year. It will happen at some point. That is why we must abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” They are still there, you know, and human beings still make mistakes.

Comments (16) Add New Comment
Telmea Story
How come no one talks about the fact that the whole episode was a response to the US setting up missile bases in Turkey and Italy starting in the late 50's? This was the same country which had just nuked Japanese civilian population. No wonder the Soviets were freaked.
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petr aardvark
As part of the deal, the US did remove the missile bases in Turkey - not mentioned in the article. Another thing that McNamara stated was that decades later he asked Castro if he had them whether or not he would have used the missiles and Castro floored him by saying that they did have them and did want the Russians to use them.

The sub incident as well is worth noting. The US navy spotted a Soviet sub and McNamara suggested they drop some depth charges as a warning - they didn't know however that the Naval commander had no radio contact with Moscow and since the sub was a boomer (nuclear armed) he had the authority to launch if threatened. In the end he did not. So in some sense that Russian Sub commander saved the world.
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shoegazer
Watch"The Fog of War"if you can find it on video.It's compelling to listen to McNamara talk of this time in our history.
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James T.
What happened Mr. Dyer? You only write on safe topics nowadays. You used to write intelligent and great articles on current affairs . I used to look forward to them. Now you produce pretty bland stuff.
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nick9
Telmea - what you fail to mention or realize is that Japan was working on it's own nuclear weapons and that it would have used them. As much as it was unfortunate that the US had to use those weapons, if they hadn't the war would have dragged on indefinitely and caused even more casualties.
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Telmea Story
Yeah, yeah, right nick9. Keep pumping those talking points. The US has and continues to amply demonstrate its psychotic blood thirst mostly in the interest of corporate profiteering. It is incumbent on us all to be as critical as possible about any of the so called facts.
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PR_uno
I don't know if Japan, if they had it would had use the bomb.
But one thing we all agree is the Nazi Germany as did the US
would not have hesitated to use it too.
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Anbake
Now that America has done what Kennedy & Co could only have dreamed about, i.e fractured the Soviet Union and surrounded the rump of it with military bases, we'te all so much safer to-day?
It doesn't work like that in America.
New 'gunslingers' ride into town and we're never safe.
Currently up to bat, the evils of Islamic Jihad, to be followed by the threat of the Yellow Peril.
The current coterie of 'leaders' seem to be working up to a 'real' war, and their level of imagination is only matched by a dwindling ability to do diplomacy.
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Issac Chandler
"Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev moved some nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba to deter the United States..."

The missiles weren't armed, and the Russians hadn't the troops to protect them:

Propaganda and Disinformation:
How the CIA Manufactures History
http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v09/v09p305_Marchetti.html

'Secrecy is maintained not to keep the enemy from knowing what's going on, because the enemy usually does know. Secrecy exists to keep the American public, from knowing what is going on - the real enemy.'
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Trogdor
For the WWII side discussion:
In the European war, there were a few accidental firestorms. British operations research noted that these raids were far more effective at damaging German production. They concluded that the British air raids would be more effective if they added incendiary bombs to the mix and created firestorms regularly. British command decided not to pursue this course because of the excessive damage to the civilian population. Presumably the German analysts made exactly the same observations.

In the USA air raids on Japanese centers, they used incendiary bombs and create firestorms routinely, not by accident. When US command decided whether or not to use the new nuclear weapons, they were not discussing a new level of destruction. They knew these bombs would give them a regular air raid's damage, but with a single plane. It was perhaps not as difficult a decision as we would like to imagine.

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petr aardvark
trogdor - yes the US & Britain both used incendiarys to create firestorms in Tokyo (becuase of the wooden houses- and more died than in Hiroshima) and in Dresden as well. A lot of the thinking behind strategic bombing originated with Giulio Douhet. The idea was to demoralize the population - the Germans tried it with the Blitz, the Americans tried it in Vietnam. It didn't work.

The Japanese did some pretty nasty stuff as well, Nanking where they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians, even having beheading competitions, their treatment of prisoners - including medical experimentation, and biological warfare. When I lived in Japan I went to Hiroshima and they've made shrine out of it. I also went to the Yasukuni military museum. From the displays there, one gets the feeling they were innocently dragged into war by the US. My Japanese friend and I watched TORA TORA TORA on he 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbour and halfway through the movie she turned to me in amazement and said, - you mean Japan started the war? All their high school books dwell on Hiroshima and but try to find a mention of Nanking, or the Korean women that were sent around as prostitutes for the troops.

They also had their versions of internment camps for Westerners.
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Doug Bjorkman
Since I lived in an isolated spot in Bolivia at the relevant time in 62 I was rather disappointed by the deal. Contrary to McNamara's musings not everyone would have died. Just almost everyone. And I might have been King of the World.
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Ernest Payne
If Kennedy had not been idiot the Jupiter missiles into Turkey the incident would not have happened. If Kennedy had not continued the insane Dulles domino theory in Viet Nam and listened to Galbraith and other diplomatic advisers instead of the Pentagon the Vietnam fiasco would probably never ended as it did. As it was the US has run an unsustainable guns AND butter economy since 1953. Think of the cold war as a house of cards. When one card falls sooner or later the other card has to fall.
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Good Troll
Apparently Kennedy was trying to think of a suitable way to get America out of Vietnam before it got more deeply into its conflict. He knew he had to get the U.S. out of there. I understand he told Lester Pearson that. Unfortunately he was assassinated before he could make that happen.
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nick9
Dear Telmea - you are so befuddled! Japan started the war! Maybe before you spout off your ridiculous comments you might want to actually investigate the facts of these situations. The Japanese committed far more atrocities during the war than the US ever did. They needed to be stopped. You probably get all your information from the headlines of newspapers. Maybe you should enroll in a history program or actually devote some time - yes that includes using your brain - to actually investigate the actual facts of what went on in the conflict with Japan and actually what went on behind the scenes. You may very well learn something that you weren't aware of. But then again you may be so caught up in your vitriole and hatred that no amount of sense may penetrate your thick headed muddled brain.
Adios!
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Greg G
@Tragdor "Bomber" Harris specifically pushed for civilian terror bombing in Germany, and the joint RAF/USAAF bombing of Dresden included incendiary as well as HE explosives with the specific intent of creating a firestorm, though you're correct that this type of bombing was more the norm in Japan (the fact that their cities were constructed primarily of wood played into the decision as well).

I agree though, using atom bombs was a no-brainer to the conventional wisdom of the type. The Japanese were extremely hated and portrayed as simian-like subhumans in American propaganda, similar to the dehumanizing of Slavs and Jews by the Nazis.
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