For 13 agonizing days a half century ago, nuclear Armageddon was only minutes away. American warships and Soviet submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes played out a tense high-seas standoff.
American spy planes had spotted Soviet missiles – capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads and only a few minutes flight time from incinerating U.S. cities – being deployed in Cuba.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had rashly ordered the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of the Communist-controlled Caribbean island a year earlier – made a dramatic televised address: putting the United States on a war footing, announcing a blockade of Cuba and threatening to sink any Soviet ship that crossed a 500-mile “quarantine” line. Hawks in Congress and close to the president called for immediate air strikes.
As the days of excruciating tension played out in October, 1962, the world lurched closer and closer to nuclear war. Another high-flying U.S. spy plane was shot down over Cuba. Both President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly bluffed and threatened; both feared the war would start by accident; both fought off hawks inside their own inner circles; both ultimately backed down.
Never before, or since, has the spectre of thousands of mushroom clouds rising cratered cities and spewing deadly plumes of radioactivity sufficient to send man back to the stone age – or perhaps extinction – been so terrifyingly close. Fifty years on, the Cuban Missile Crisis – a hot showdown in the Cold War era when Canadian schoolchildren learned “duck and cover” as air-raid sirens wailed, seems ancient history. But new, sometimes startling, aspects of the crisis that challenge long-held, and only half-true, versions of the superpower standoff have emerged from historians in Canada and elsewhere.
And there are still lessons to be learned.
UN Secretary-General U Thant : The forgotten player in the crisis
Mostly forgotten, the United Nations untested Secretary-General U Thant played a pivotal role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Half a century later, with the UN regarded almost with contempt by many, including Canada’s outspoken Foreign Minister John Baird, the key role of diplomacy in averting nuclear doomsday has emerged from dusty archives, perhaps as a lesson worth remembering.
“In the historical record, U Thant has largely been written out of the crisis,” says Walter Dorn, who heads the Security and International Affairs department at Canadian Forces College, in Toronto. The Kennedy camp preferred to portray their man as a gutsy Cold Warrior, not a President so unnerved by the hawks in his own camp that he sought mediation by the UN.
Yet at one critical juncture, American diplomats woke U Thant at midnight and begged him to deliver a face-saving solution to the Russians. And long before the term “shuttle” diplomacy was in vogue, the obscure Burmese diplomat who became Secretary-General almost by accident following the death of Dag Hammarskjöld in a Congo plane crash, was defining it.
“Hardly anybody know about what U Thant did … but at one point there were separate teams on the 38th floor of the UN building – a U.S. team and a Soviet team – and U Thant was literally shuttling between the two rooms,” Mr. Dorn said in an interview.
In his paper, just published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mr. Dorn contrasts the bombastic swaggering in the early American versions of the crisis, with the reality of quiet diplomacy. “The popular understanding is that a U.S. show of military force compelled the Russians to back down, or as Secretary of State Dean Rusk euphemistically put it: ‘We went eyeball to eyeball [with the Russians], and… the other fellow just blinked,’” writes Mr. Dorn, adding: “Rusk’s verbal bravado conceals how the Cuban Missile Crisis, much more than a mere contest of wills, was also a mediated settlement.”
U Thant went to Havana, brought back the body of the downed American pilot, calmed Fidel Castro and – months later – after it was all over, was quietly thanked by both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev.
There’s even a minor Canadian postscript among the tales untold. While Canadian military historians (like their American counterparts) tend to portray the crisis as a military showdown and focus on efforts of Canadian warships in hunting Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic, there was also a little-known UN aspect to Canada’s involvement.
Near the end of the crisis, Ottawa offered to paint white some of Canada’s Voodoo fighter-bombers, put UN markings on them and provide them to verify that the Soviets had made good on their promise to pull missiles from Cuba. That mission was turned down.
Risks of brinksmanship
Miscalculation, the grave risks of brinks-manship and the unpredictable behaviour of leaders under stress all remain real and present dangers even as the Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the Cold War ever came to erupting into a full-blown nuclear conflagration that would have turned both the United States and the Soviet Union into wastelands – fades into history.
“It’s not the Cold War anymore, so people don’t go to bed at night fearing they will be incinerated,” says David Welch, the CIGI Chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. But the dangers remain, even as the grim calculus of mutually assured destruction in a world dominated by two superpowers armed with thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles, has been eclipsed.
“There’s still lots of nuclear weapons around and people need to be reminded that we could still have a catastrophe,” said Prof. Welch, a leading expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis and critical leadership issues in moments of confrontation.
While no pair of superpowers are ranged in a nuclear standoff, there are plenty of asymmetrical but no less fraught confrontations, he said in an interview: unpredictable, and now nuclear-armed, North Korea; the looming confrontation between nuclear-armed Israel and Iran over the latter’s murky and controversial nuclear program; the long-standing, and nuclear, India-Pakistan standoff. Even seemingly minor confrontations, like the current one between China-Japan jockeying over tiny islets, can spiral out of control, he said.
It isn’t the nature of the arsenals that poses the gravest risk but rather the dangers of miscalculation and of events spiralling out of control, Prof. Welch said.
As the full truth has slowly emerged about the October, 1962, crisis, the reality is that it wasn’t cold-eyed brinksmanship that averted war, nor a secret deal in which Soviet missiles would be moved from Cuba while American ones would be taken out of Turkey. Luck and fear played major roles over a chaotic – and dangerous – few weeks.
“It was an incredibly messy, dangerous, interaction” Prof. Welch said. “Some of the time [the leaders] didn’t know what their own folks were doing.” Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev, he added, were “scared to death of their own militarys.” War could have started almost by accident as local commanders overreacted, he said.
In a multipolar, unstable 21st-century world, where even non-state actors wield powerful, if unconventional, weapons like fuel-laden jetliners turned into martyr-guided missiles, the most enduring Cuban-crisis lesson may be the overriding need to defuse confrontation.
Fidel Castro: The most dangerous man in the world
Fidel Castro, the fiery, headstrong Communist revolutionary who had ousted the Americans from Cuba and was transforming the Caribbean island into his personal vision of a modern socialist paradise, was – for a few weeks in October, 1962 – the most dangerous man in the world.
“Kennedy thought he had Castro and the Cubans under control, but he didn’t. And Khrushchev thought he had Castro, under control, but, as he would learn to his horror, he didn’t. Cuba was the intervening variable, the ‘X-factor,’ the outlier, the loose cannon that nearly exploded in the faces of the superpowers in October 1962.”
That except from The Armageddon Letters, a dramatic account of the interplay between three powerful leaders, all of whom failed to understand each other, provides a sometimes chilling, new look at the Cuban Missile Crisis
At one point, Mr. Castro, convinced that the confrontation will inevitably end in a massive nuclear confrontation, pressed his Soviet patron to act, actually pushing for a nuclear first-strike.
Written by James Blight and janet Lang, both at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, the account is based on the exchanges of letters and cables among the three leaders, and presents the psychological imperatives that drove them in the midst of the crisis.
The book is part of an ambitious, multimedia effort to reassess the crisis.
“Given his belief in the inevitability of a U.S. invasion, Castro’s focus on Armageddon is not a nightmare, but a kind of dream. After centuries of irrelevance, Cuba. will matter fundamentally to the fate of the human race,” the authors write.
That sort of megalomania seems more dangerous than the nuclear weapons. Mr. Castro emerges as a nightmare, for both the U.S. and Soviet leaders.
For Mr. Kennedy, dogged by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year, looking weak in the face of Communist expansion represents the gravest danger to his presidency. As for the Soviet premier, The Armageddon Letters reveals his darkest moments come when he realizes his Cuban client is out of control.
Mr. Blight and Ms. Lang write: “This is not a normal situation, with both superpowers poised on the brink of nuclear war. [Khrushchev] becomes convinced at that moment that the situation in Cuba is slipping out of control – out of his control and out of Kennedy’s control. If today a Soviet general violated standing orders and shot down an unarmed U.S. spy plane, then perhaps tomorrow the same general, or another general, might violate standing orders and launch a strategic missile at the United States, thus initiating Armageddon.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis Timeline: “The 13 Days”
The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis, spanned from Monday, Oct. 16 until Sunday, Oct. 28. It began when photos take via a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, piloted by Richard Heyser, reveals several SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Tuesday, October 16: After learning of the missiles during breakfast, President Kennedy convenes his Executive Committee (EX-COMM) to consider America's options.
Wednesday, October 17: Amid scheduled campaign trips to Connecticut and the Midwest, President Kennedy meets with and advises Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrie Gromyko, that America will not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gromyko denies the presence of any Soviet weaponry on the island.
Thursday, October 18: After an evening meeting, President Kennedy spends about four minutes recording his personal recollections of discussions that day. He states that throughout EX-COMM’s discussions, most argued for an air strike against Cuba, but says opinions tended to move away from that after discussion of a blockade was brought up.
Friday, October 19: Unwillingly, Kennedy departs Washington for scheduled campaign speeches in the Midwest and West Coast.
Saturday, October 20: Under the public excuse of an "upper respiratory infection," President Kennedy returns to Washington from Chicago after being told by Robert Kennedy of the discovery of additional Soviet missiles in Cuba. Throughout EX-COMM's discussions, they strongly argue for an air strike and invasion of Cuba.
Sunday, October 21: After learning that an air strike against the missile sites could result in 10,000 – 20,000 casualties, and that another U-2 flight discovered bombers and cruise missile sites along Cuba's northern shores, President Kennedy decides on a naval blockade of Cuba. When confronted with questions regarding rumours of offensive weapons in Cuba, Kennedy asks the press not to report the story until after he addresses the American public.
Monday, October 22: Despite being urged by Senate leaders to call for air strikes, President Kennedy addresses the American public and announces his decision to implement a naval blockade only. U.S. military alert is set at DEFCON 3 and Castro mobilizes all of Cuba's military forces. Kennedy sends a letter to Khrushchev.
Tuesday, October 23: By the end of the day, all naval vessels are in place, forming a 500 mile circle around Cuba. Stunning reconnaissance photos reveal that Soviet missiles are poised for launch.
Wednesday, October 24: Soviet ships reach the blockade line, but receive radio orders from Moscow to hold their positions. United States and Soviet warships are literally just a few hundred yards apart, each pointing their weapons at one another. American military forces are instructed to set DEFCON 2 - the highest ever in U.S. history.
Thursday, October 25: U.S. representative Adlai Stevenson confronts the Soviets at a United Nations conference, but the Soviet representative refuses to answer.
Friday, October 26: EX-COMM receives a letter from Khrushchev stating that the Soviets would remove their missiles if President Kennedy publicly guarantees the U.S. will not invade Cuba.
Saturday, October 27: A new letter from Khrushchev arrives, proposing a public trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. missile in Turkey. An American U-2 is shot down over Cuba killing the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson. U-2 accidentally strays into Soviet airspace near Alaska nearly being intercepted by Soviet fighters. Kennedy writes Khrushchev a letter stating that he will make a statement that the U.S. will not invade Cuba if Khrushchev removes the missiles from Cuba.
Sunday, October 28: In a speech aired on Radio Moscow, Khrushchev announces the dismantling of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The crisis is over.