Fifty years ago, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
On Oct. 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy learned the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear missile sites in Cuba, 90 miles from the coast of Florida.
He was stunned.
The president broke the news to the public six days later.
“This sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo, which cannot be accepted by this country,” he said.
President Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around Cuba and issued an ultimatum to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
“I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine reckless and provocative threat to world peace.”
In other words, remove those missiles. Or else.
So why did Khrushchev risk World War III by putting nuclear missiles in Cuba? A year before, he’d promised President Kennedy he would do no such thing.
“That’s the question that everybody is trying to solve,” said Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russia programs at the National Security Archive, and the editor of a new book, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis. “There’s stunningly little thinking on the Soviet side about what happens if the United States responds in an aggressive way.”
Perhaps because the United States had deployed nuclear missiles in Turkey.
"That was a constant source of humiliation," she said.
So Khrushchev figured he had every right to do the same thing.
“Khrushchev felt that this is giving the Americans a dose of their own medicine,” according to James Hershberg, a professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. “At one point Kennedy reacted to what Khrushchev did, saying ‘It’s as if we started to deploy missiles in Turkey, that would be goddamned dangerous!’ And his adviser McGeorge Bundy said, ‘Well we did, Mr. President.’” Khrushchev’s son, Sergei Khrushchev, a historian at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, said his father didn't understand the difference in mentality of Americans.
“Europeans, Soviets, all their history, had enemies at the gate,” Sergei said.
Russians were used to being threatened.
Sergei Khrushchev says that as leader of the world’s other Superpower, his father also felt an obligation to protect his allies.
“When Castro, after the Bay of Pigs, declared officially that he joined the Soviet bloc, he put this obligation on my father’s shoulders. So Khrushchev decided to send missiles there as a diplomatic signal: Don’t invade Cuba. We are serious," Sergei Khrushchev said.
Savranskaya says in the spring and summer of l962, the Soviets were receiving lots of intelligence that the United States was preparing another invasion.
“Khrushchev doesn’t want to lose Cuba. It’s his most important ally, the ally that’s genuine. Plus, it’s Latin America. The Soviets don’t have real allies in Latin America,” she said. “Cuba is so important for the Soviets.”
The Cubans weren’t just a valuable Cold War ally. They were genuine folk heroes in the Soviet Union.
“The Soviets were in love with the Cuban Revolution,” Savranskaya said. “It was really a love affair. They looked at Cuba and saw their own revolutionary youth. ”
Sergei Khrushchev agreed.
“All the Soviets, from the top to the bottom, wanted to help the Cubans fight against possible American invasion, American aggression,” he said.
Unfortunately, Khrushchev nearly provoked a full-scale U.S. invasion. And here’s where the story gets scary. Cuba was far more armed and dangerous than U.S. officials realized.
Savranskaya says there were 42,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba the U.S. didn’t know about.
The Soviets also had some 180 nuclear warheads in Cuba, Savranskaya says, and the United States thought they had zero.
“What we know now is that, without doubt, if there was an invasion of Cuba by U.S. land forces, there would be a nuclear response, and then the U.S. would have to respond with nuclear weapons," she said.
The crisis reached a boiling point Oct. 27, Hershberg said.
“Clearly, October 27, l962 goes down as the most dangerous day in human history,” he argued.
Savranskaya added that it was especially dangerous because the situation was spiraling out of control.
A Soviet commander in Cuba, acting without authorization from Moscow, shot down a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, killing the American pilot. Another American U-2 accidentally strayed into Soviet territory in the Far East for a couple of hours.
“Also, by Oct. 27, we’ve learned, you had Soviet submarines around the blockade equipped with nuclear torpedoes,” Hershberg said. “In at least one case, and the evidence is still coming in on this, (there were) arguments breaking out as to whether World War III has broken out and they should use their nuclear torpedo or get sunk.”
The next day, Khrushchev went on Radio Moscow with an announcement.
“Premier Khrushchev has sent a message to President Kennedy today," he said. "The Soviet government has ordered the dismantling of weapons in Cuba, as well as their crating and return to the Soviet Union.”
In return, President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba, although he refused to put that in writing. He also agreed to withdraw the U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey — but refused to disclose that.
“It was a compromise on both sides," he said. "Admittedly the Soviets had to undo their major deployment. But to see it as one side giving up isn’t correct.”
Both sides blinked.
Americans thought the crisis was over. President Kennedy made it official by lifting the blockade on Cuba on Nov. 20, after receiving assurances from Khrushchev that he’d withdrawn all of his offensive weapons.
In fact, he hadn’t.
“What we’ve only learned in the last 10 years or so was that the tactical nuclear weapons were still there,” Hershberg said.
Savranskaya says Khrushchev decided to leave these weapons in Cuba.
“For some time in November, which we call the November Crisis, the Soviet position was that they would train the Cubans to use the remaining nuclear weapons, and transfer tactical nuclear weapons to the Cubans, which would have been the most dangerous situation,” she said.
In other words, Cuba almost became a nuclear power.
“Had Kennedy discovered that, after this incredible crisis, this incredible rupture in trust, that Khrushchev was lying again, the pressure to invade, to get rid of the threat permanently, would have been overwhelming,” Hershberg argued.
Khrushchev changed his mind, and secretly withdrew the remaining weapons in December, over the vigorous objections of Fidel Castro.
There are lots of lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis. But here’s what Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told filmmaker Errol Morris in his award winning documentary, The Fog of War.
“At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war," he said. “We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals — Kennedy was rational, Khrushchev was rational, Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”
McNamara argued the major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons would destroy countries.
But, at least 50 years ago, it didn’t.