Untold story

Print edition : November 16, 2012

Robert Kennedy. He said one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had argued in favour of a nuclear strike.-AP

On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, new facts explode the myth that the 13 tense days saw an eyeball to eyeball confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR and that the latter blinked first.

ON the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, new facts have emerged about the incident that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust for the first time after the Second World War. The Cuban missile crisis, which started on October 16, lasted 13 days when the world held its breath. Until recently, the nuclear brinkmanship that the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had engaged in was described as an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. What is undisputed is that if the crisis had been allowed to continue, the U.S. would have carried out its threat of invading Cuba and targeting the nuclear missiles there. The Soviet Union would not have had any other option but to retaliate in kind by targeting the U.S. A nuclear holocaust would have followed.

Documents that have since been declassified reveal that Soviet ground commanders stationed in Cuba were authorised to use tactical nuclear weapons in case of an American invasion. On October 27, which is described as the most dangerous day of the crisis, a Soviet submarine commander, under pressure from U.S. warships to surface, wanted to fire a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Luckily for humankind, the commander could not go ahead, as the decision to fire the torpedo required the assent of the three senior-most officers on board. One of the officers had the good sense to dissent. An American pilot has described how he was on airborne alert, ready to fire the nuclear weapons on board his B-52 bomber if he was challenged. As the crisis unfolded, individual commanders on both sides could have set off a nuclear cataclysm.

Making of the myth

Most historians and commentators bought the version put out by the Americans that it was the Soviet side that blinked first and thus brought the crisis to an end. American documents that have been declassified tell a different story though it is clear that it was the Russian side that made the more significant concessions. The widely reported incident of U.S. naval destroyers confronting a nuclear-missile-carrying Soviet ship that was nearing the Cuban coast never happened. American historians and commentators had said that it was the defining moment of the crisis. The then U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, had claimed in his memoirs that we were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence. He thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see.-AP

He was stretching facts by hundreds of miles. The Soviet ship was, in fact, 750 miles (1,200 kilometres) from the blockade lines that the John F. Kennedy administration had imposed on Cuba. Kennedy had imposed a naval quarantinea euphemism for military blockadeon Cuba on October 22, 1962. According to Michael Dobbs, American journalist and the author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in order to avoid a nuclear confrontation, had ordered his missile-carrying naval ships heading for Cuba to turn course and head back to base.

A more serious flashpoint was the shooting down of a U.S. reconnaissance plane over Cuba three days after the Soviet ships had turned back. The American pilot died in the crash and was the only military casualty of the 13-day crisis that shook the world. Both Washington and Moscow were, in fact, keen to avoid an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation and were negotiating furiously to bring an end to the crisis.

Dean Rusk, Secretary of State. He said we were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

There were some hotheads in the Kennedy administration who were willing to contemplate a nuclear strike on Cuba, among them the Pentagons Joint Chiefs of Staff, in case the Soviet Union did not respond immediately to the ultimatum to remove the nuclear missiles from the island. Robert Kennedy, the Presidents younger brother who was also the Attorney General in his administration, wrote in his book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis that one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, argued that we could use nuclear weapons, on the basis that our adversaries would use theirs against us in an attack.

Pierre Salinger, Kennedys Press Secretary, wrote later that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, called for an air attack on Cuba on October 29 to be followed by an invasion. The President was under tremendous pressure. Luckily, Khrushchev announced his decision to withdraw the nuclear missiles on the morning of October 30. Robert Kennedy observed morbidly that if his brother had acceded to the position taken by the U.S. military top brass, and if it was wrong, the advantage was that no one would be around at the end to know. Robert McNamara, then the U.S. Defence Secretary, later said that he thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see.

Castros reading

In the midst of the October crisisthe Cuban description of the eventPresident Fidel Castro wrote a letter to Khrushchev in which he said that the U.S. was poised to launch a full-scale attack on Cuba within the next 24-72 hours. He explained the reasons for reaching such a conclusion. I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out their invasion of Cubaa brutal act in violation of international lawthen that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defence. However harsh and terrible the solution, there should be no other, he wrote in his letter to the Soviet leader.

The coffin of Major Rudolf Anderson Jr, the sole casualty of the crisis, being put on a plane in Havana.-AFP

Khrushchev replied to Castro immediately after the crisis had abated, hinting that the Cuban leader had tried to goad him into war in the midst of the crisis. Castro replied, stating that was not his intention at all. I did not suggest Comrade Khrushchev that in the midst of this crisis the Soviet Union should attack, which is what your letter seems to say; rather, that following an imperialist attack, the USSR should act without vacillation and should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR. Castro admitted that many Cubans felt let down by the Soviet decision to do a deal with Washington without keeping Havana in the loop. I do not see how you can state that we were consulted in the decision you took, he told Khrushchev.

In a speech to the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party in 1968, Castro recalled the extremely tense days of the October crisis. We were in the antechamber of the holocaust and cracking jokesof course we knew that we would be made to play the part of a dead man, but we were determined to play the part. Castro said that he had wanted to inform Washington about the Soviet-Cuban defence agreement and the deployment of the Soviet missiles, but Khrushchev was against the idea. At the same time, the Russian side did not try very hard to conceal their deployment on the island either. U.S. spy planes were constantly monitoring Cuba in those days.

CUBAN LEADER FIDEL CASTRO inspects an artillery unit at an undisclosed place during the missile crisis.-GRANMA/AFP

According to Dobbs, President Kennedy was in fact willing to consider the withdrawal of American forces from Guantanamo Bay, situated on the northern edge of Cuba, as part of the deal to end the crisis. The U.S. has a military base there. Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuba has been demanding the return of its territory that the U.S. had grabbed on the basis of an unequal treaty in 1903. In the end, Moscow agreed to withdraw the nuclear missiles from Cuba after Washington acceded to its demand for the removal of U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey situated along its border. The U.S. also agreed to lift the military blockade of Cuba and pledged not to invade Cuba.

Khrushchev did not bother to consult the Cuban government when the high-stakes, behind-the-scenes negotiations were going on. The medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles were installed in Cuba secretly after the Kennedy administration had put into operation its plan to overthrow the Cuban government.

In November 1961, Kennedy approved Operation Mongoose, a secret plan that would prepare the ground for a full-fledged American military invasion of the island. Kennedy was still recovering from the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1960, when the U.S.-backed invasion force suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Cuban forces. Under Operation Mongoose, raids to sabotage Cubas infrastructure had multiplied. Foreign suppliers were bribed to send faulty goods. In 1962, the U.S. conducted a large-scale military exercise with 40,000 soldiers participating. The stated aim of the exercise, codenamed Ortsac (Castro spelt backwards), was to overthrow a dictator of a Caribbean island.

JUNE 3, 1961: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (left) and U.S. President John F. Kennedy in talks in a Vienna suburb.-AP

Cuba concluded rightly that the only reliable guarantee at the time for the prevention of a full-force American invasion was a strong military deterrent on its soil. Immediately after the Cuban revolution triumphed, the U.S. had started planning the overthrow of the first-ever socialist government in the continent. President Dwight Eisenhower, before demitting office, had started the covert operation to train and finance Cuban exiles to invade the country.

After the Bay of Pigs incident, the Cuban government had tried to build bridges with the U.S. government. Castro had dispatched Che Guevara to hold secret talks with Richard Goodwin, President Kennedys adviser on Latin American affairs. Che told the American that his country would maintain a low profile in Latin America and would desist from forging a strong alliance with the socialist bloc if Washington stopped supporting terrorist attacks launched from Florida and lifted the economic sanctions. Che even offered to compensate American companies that were expropriated after the revolution. Che told Goodwin that Cuba does not intend to have any military or political alliance with anyone unless we are pressed towards it. At the same time he emphasised that the Cuban revolution was irreversible. The American viewed Ches negotiating tactics as a sign of weakness and chose to increase the terror attacks against Cuba. Castro then gave the green signal for the Soviets to place their nuclear missiles on Cuban territory.

AFTER THE BAY OF PIGS INCIDENT, the Cuban government had tried to build bridges with Washington. Castro had dispatched Che Guevara (above) to hold secret talks with Richard Goodwin, President Kennedy's adviser on Latin American affairs.-AP

Although the crisis ended with a negotiated settlement, Washington tried to portray the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis as a great diplomatic and strategic victory. Pierre Salinger wrote in 1988: One thing is clear. Neither side won in the Cuban missile crisis. Rather, two leaders reached an understanding that nuclear war was unthinkable. But future Presidents of the U.S. drew a different conclusion from this landmark episode in contemporary history. They chose to believe that tactics such as imposing red lines and indulging in controlled escalation would help them win wars and score diplomatic victories.

President Lyndon Johnsons controlled escalation in the Vietnam War finally led to Americas military defeat in Vietnam. George W. Bush, in a speech in 2002, praised Kennedy as being the architect of the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare and ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama has so far desisted from openly drawing red lines in the confrontation with Iran but has taken pre-emptive steps akin to war.

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