October 22, 1962. Usually my posts are about something that happened, but today’s post is about something that DIDN’T happen. The biggest non-event in the 20th Century almost resulted in the greatest disaster in human history. On this date, John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade to block the Soviet Union from transporting missiles to Cuba, during the Thirteen Days when the Cold War almost went hot.
Suppose you wake up one day with a floating sword hanging above your head, a sword that cannot be removed or destroyed, a constant threat of impending death that follows you around. You eat breakfast, go to work, play with your kids, watch TV – and at all times, that razor-sharp point dangles above you, ready to drop at any time. I would imagine that you would behave differently, you may contemplate your existence more, perhaps you pray more often or spend more time with your family. The sense of impending dread might eventually become overwhelming, even impossible to live with.
Now imagine a different scenario. Suppose you are *born* with this sword above your head. It is always above you, ever since you can remember. You don’t know what it’s like without it. You’ve grown into adulthood with the floating sword, and though you know it’s dangerous, it feels almost…natural, somehow, right? Yes, your life could end at any time if that sword decides to fall, but since you have dealt with it forever, what’s the point of worrying about it?
The thing about this scenario is that it isn’t hypothetical. It’s a real situation that the world has been in since August 6, 1945. Ever since then, the world as we know it has lived with the atomic sword above our heads, the eternal threat of the greatest possible disaster that mankind could ever experience: a nuclear World War III. Terms like “the end of civilization” or “Armageddon” are not far off in describing that experience. But if you’re like me, and you were born in say 1990, you’ve never known a world without the nuclear threat. It’s always been a part of your life. We have walked around with the sword above our heads since we were born.
But it’s still there. And just because you’ve forgotten about it or never think about it doesn’t mean it’s any less sharp or any less deadly.
In the time period that we refer to as the Cold War, however, the world was ruled by men who DID remember a time before the ever-present threat of nuclear war, and the world they remembered was one of constant violence, of maniac dictators and world wars and genocides and abominations. We look back on them, paranoid and aggressive and seemingly insane. These were the people that Dr. Strangelove mocked, the people who acted like a nuclear war was something that could be won, who constantly bellowed that they it was us versus them and we had to be the last ones left standing.
There is, however, something to keep in mind: consider what these people have seen. The two great nuclear powers of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, were paranoid and belligerent and always suspicious of the other – but we’re not in their shoes and we have forgotten that both nations had very good reasons for their beliefs. Both nations had entered World War II as the victims of a massive surprise attack that shocked and traumatized them, and in the USSR’s case had nearly destroyed them. Two nuclear-armed nations, with hundreds if not thousands of missiles pointed at each other, had gained victory in the greatest war in human history only after enduring a sneak attack by an aggressive power, and now they faced the prospect of a surprise attack that could obliterate their cities in hours. Is it any wonder they behaved the way they did?
One of the ultimate problems of the Cold War, of the paranoid national security and military-industrial apparatus that gripped both countries, was the amount of power that both systems had to place on the shoulders of only a few individuals. When these leaders – the President of the United States, the Premier of the Soviet Union, and their staffs – met or engaged, it was almost like the world’s highest-stakes game of chess. These two men had to stare each other down across a globe dominated by their political systems, and know how to project strength while concealing weakness. They had to appear ready for war, while doing their best to avoid it. And they had to deal with the politics of their own nations on top of all of this.
In 1960, the Premier of the Soviet Union was a man named Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev is a fascinating figure, a big man with a peasant face who was as cold and calculating as any world leader has ever been. Again, though, consider what this man has seen. Khrushchev had been in the underground bunkers at Stalingrad, had been the political advisor to the Soviet forces at Kursk, and had been part of the bitter power struggle to seize control after the death of Stalin. This was a man who had stared apocalyptic death in the face on many occasions, and a man who had outsmarted Lavrenty Beria, one of the most ruthless and sadistic political operators in history. Imagine playing chess with THIS man when the world is at stake. Who would sit across the board from Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s? Who would move the pawns around the squares, knowing that the slightest wrong move could result in the destruction of human civilization?
President John F. Kennedy is a near-mythic figure to this day in America, a nebulous archetype of the “good guy” President, the young and charismatic man, that we’ve never really gotten back until maybe Obama. Behind the scenes, though, Kennedy was complex and deeply flawed. His heroic record in World War II as the commander of PT-109, and his boyish charm and photogenic young family, concealed a philandering lifestyle and a deep bevy of connections to his father Joe Kennedy’s nepotistic political machine. Despite his later reputation as a naïve optimist, Kennedy was as Cold Warrior as they came, his decided anti-Communism and aggressive foreign policy concealed by a sheen of idealistic liberalism.
Kennedy had found the need to play up his anti-Communist and national security bona fides during the 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, who was the coldest Cold Warrior you could find this side of Joe McCarthy. Kennedy’s youth and relative inexperience were seen as major handicaps compared to the perceived steadier hand of the Republican Vice President. To combat this, Kennedy conjured up the election issue of the “missile gap,” the claim that America’s nuclear missile strength was badly outmatched by the Soviet arsenal. This claim deliberately stoked American fears over the possible outcome of a nuclear exchange, and the notion that the Soviets would have the decisive advantage terrified many Americans. That sword above their heads never seemed to be closer.
Of course, the missile gap was a myth, though Kennedy could never admit this. The reality was that the United States significantly outnumbered the Soviets by a wide margin in ICBMs. The ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) was the only missile that could be launched from American territory and strike the Soviet Union. The shorter-range missiles that both sides also had during the Cold War could be launched, say, from Moscow to London, but not from Moscow to Washington. The Soviets had plenty of the medium-range missiles, but in 1961 they only had four (FOUR) ICBMs, while the United States had 170. And the margin would only grow worse.
The Soviet Union was well aware of this reality. American first strike capabilities put the USSR at such a disadvantage that Khrushchev was convinced that he had no choice but to act to right the balance. He also believed that Kennedy had played up the “missile gap” and stoked the threat of a Soviet first strike in order to justify a preemptive American attack. Since the situation would only get worse with time, the USSR could not fix the imbalance by just building more ICBMs; instead, they needed to move existing nuclear weapons closer to the United States. And for that, they looked to Cuba.
On the chess board of nuclear diplomacy, Cuba had been the focus of quite a few moves and countermoves recently. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 had caused panic in the United States, since a Communist country was now about 90 miles away from the coast of Florida. When Kennedy entered the White House, he inherited the Bay of Pigs plan, a CIA-funded attempt to land Cuban exiles on Fidel Castro’s doorstep and overwhelm the new Communist government. The Bay of Pigs landing was a colossal failure, and coming only a few months after Kennedy’s election put him on the backfoot when it came to foreign policy.
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was an impetus for both powers to keep their focus on Cuba. Khrushchev was convinced that the United States would make a second stab at invading Cuba, and that he needed to protect allies abroad from American intervention. Since the United States had the upper hand in the nuclear struggle, placing short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba would be an excellent way of levelling the playing field. Castro agreed, wanting to prevent another invasion.
Of course, there was always the issue of what Kennedy would do if he found out. Staring across the global chess board at the American President, Khrushchev had watched his behavior in the Bay of Pigs invasion and had come off unimpressed. He took a gamble that Kennedy’s weak political position would cause him to avoid confrontation and accept the missiles as a fait accompli. Khrushchev had grown even more confident about his ability to intimidate Kennedy after their interactions at the June 1961 Vienna summit. Kennedy was warned multiple times about Khrushchev’s abrasive and bullying behavior, but failed to prepare for the meeting with the Soviet Premier. In Vienna, Khrushchev had overrun and railed against Kennedy, making him look anxious and weak.
At Vienna, Kennedy’s performance was badly hampered by one of his great secrets. The President suffered from myriad health problems including high fevers, stomach pain, and severe back pain. He was taking a cocktail of drugs prescribed by three different doctors including hormones, steroid, enzymes and amphetamines. His behavior varied wildly based on which doctors he was seeing and which drugs he was taking; at Vienna, he exhibited impaired judgment, nervousness, and mood swings. The American public was unaware of the fact that their leader was on these drugs. This was the man whose decisions could determine the fate of human civilization, and one wrong move, one bad decision under the influence of a steroid for his back, could result in nuclear apocalypse.
The Soviet leader came away from Vienna convinced he could push Kennedy around. He described Kennedy as "too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations... too intelligent and too weak…" and not having “the courage to stand up to a serious challenge." He had tried to learn his opponent, and decided he had his answer. Khrushchev looked across the global chess board and smiled. And the swords above their heads dropped a little lower, got a little sharper.
In early 1962, Soviet missile site specialists arrived in Cuba to begin paving the way for the deployment of missiles. By July, construction on the missile sites had begun, concealed and camouflaged by palm trees, while Soviet ships continued to steam towards Cuba carrying “supplies.” Only defensive weapons were being sent to Cuba, the Soviets insisted. Elaborate schemes of denial and deception – including multiple public announcements and a personal promise to Kennedy by Khrushchev that no missiles would be deployed in Cuba – were utilized to keep the transportation and emplacement of the missiles secret.
The United States was not completely fooled. Since early August, the unusual activity in Cuba had alerted the CIA to Soviet activities, and Cuban dissidents passed on information about the construction to their relatives in Florida. Nevertheless, it was unclear what exactly the Soviets were up to, and the United States had no positive information that nuclear missiles were being placed in Cuba. They had no knowledge of the fact that on September 8, 1962, the first shipment of medium-range nukes had already arrived. The missiles in Cuba would allow the USSR to target almost all of the continental United States.
By late September, though, the information was clearer. A growing flow of reports from Cuban dissidents lined up with the antiaircraft defenses being built in certain areas of Cuba, which were constructed in a pattern similar to those the USSR used to protect its known nuclear bases. The CIA decided to employ U-2 spy planes over Cuba, which they had stopped using after a diplomatic incident in 1960. The U-2 missions were authorized on October 9; five days later, on October 14, a flight took 928 pictures of one of the missile sites at San Cristobal. The next day, the CIA positively identified the presence of medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba. It took the information a little while to reach President Kennedy, but he was briefed by CIA chief McGeorge Bundy on the morning of October 16, 1962. This moment is considered the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy convened an executive committee to consider a course of action in response to Khrushchev’s placing of missiles in Cuba. Without telling them, Kennedy taped all of their proceedings, providing a valuable resource for future historians. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the one hand, favored a full-scale invasion of Cuba, believed the Soviets would not stop them. Kennedy was skeptical, and believed that just as he had no choice but to respond to the Soviet missiles, they would have no choice but to respond to an invasion. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara argued that the Soviet missiles barely made a difference, and could not affect the overall strategic balance. But Kennedy was convinced that the missiles in Cuba could not go unchallenged.
What ultimately drove Kennedy to action was not the military threat to the United States, but his own political issues. The United States was days away from the midterm elections, and thanks to the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna Summit, Kennedy was widely viewed as being weak on Communism. Republicans were accusing him of coddling the Soviets on the Senate floor. Kennedy had promised the nation less than a month previously that, if Cuba posed a threat to the United States, he would act. Kennedy’s challenge was to engineer the removal of the missiles from Cuba – without provoking World War III. Though options were considered that ranged from full-on invasion to airstrike to appeasement, Kennedy settled on a blockade to stop Soviet ships from reaching Cuba.
On October 22, 1962, Kennedy made a television broadcast to the nation. He informed his fellow Americans of the presence of missiles, explained his decision to impose the blockade and made it clear that if any missiles launched from Cuba it would be considered an act of war by the Soviet Union, “requiring a full retaliatory response.” Kennedy had thrown down the gauntlet and made a risky move on the global chess board. This was one of those moments were millions of people across the globe suddenly held their breath. Suddenly, without warning, they were at the brink of nuclear war.
The U.S. military was alerted, placed on DEFCON 3 and eventually DEFCON 2 on October 26 – the only confirmed time in history. American aircraft were in the air with fully active nukes in their bomb bays. American troops were mobilizing across the country, preparing for a possible invasion of Cuba. People across the nation watched the television with bated breath, hoarding food and supplies, knowing that at any moment something could go wrong, a finger could move on the trigger. The swords were ON their necks now, cold and sharp. At any moment, one could expect the beginning of the end.
Nerves were stretched tight in the White House throughout the Thirteen Days. Men would sneak home for a few hours of sleep, saying goodbye for possibly the last time to their colleagues and families each time. Kennedy, the linchpin of it all, the man with the weight of human civilization on his shoulders, behaved – well. Surprisingly well. He wasn’t on the same cocktail of drugs that he had been last year, and was much more coherent as a result. If he hadn’t been…who knows.
The crucial moment came on October 24, when Soviet ships challenged the American blockade and…turned around and sailed away. Everyone relaxed about two inches. Kennedy and Khrushchev had stared each other down, and the Soviet leader had blinked after all. But this did not solve the problem of the missiles currently in Cuba, and everyone knew that the crisis was not over. Negotiations continued, and both sides continued to rest their fingers on the trigger, knowing that any incident could cause nuclear apocalypse.
Though historians would try and claim that the threat was never as large as it seemed, some records seem to imply that we were actually closer to war in October 1962 than anyone thought. Kennedy himself privately guessed that the odds were almost 50% that the world was on the verge of nuclear war. The Soviet commander in Cuba had the authorization to launch the missiles without any confirmation from Moscow, and could have done so at the drop of a hat. In 2002, it came to light that an American ship in the blockade had detected and dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear missile; a dispute broke out on the sub as to whether or not they should launch their nuke at the United States. An argument between a few men in a single ship could have changed the course of world history.
Publicly, the biggest crisis came when a U-2 plane was shot down in Cuba on October 27, after Castro had given his soldiers orders to fire on any American plane they saw. Instantly the tension ratcheted back up again, but Kennedy once again decided not to make an overt act and instead continued the secret negotiations with the Soviets. These were hampered by both sides’ overt blustering and aggressive challenges in public, mixed with private assurances and pleas, and further complicated by Khrushchev’s obtuse language and Kennedy’s direct, unvarnished responses. Hell, mistranslations almost caused war.
But they didn’t. On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev announced to the world that he was withdrawing the missiles from Cuba. In reality, he and Kennedy had worked out a secret compromise where Kennedy also withdrew American missiles from Turkey, where they were positioned right on the Soviet border. But Khrushchev had clearly lost this round. He had gambled on Kennedy’s weakness, and had quickly lost control of the situation; too many close calls, Castro’s war-mongering (Castro had wanted the Soviets to launch a first strike), and his awareness of Soviet weakness in the nuclear sphere all played a hand in ending the crisis. By November, the missiles were gone from Cuba; by April 1963, the American missiles were gone from Turkey.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is almost universally agreed to be the world’s nearest miss with nuclear war. In retrospect, it is clear that Kennedy had political as well as diplomatic motives in basically precipitating the crisis, and it worked; he came out of October 1962 stronger than ever, and the Democrats did well in the midterms. On the other hand, the brinkmanship of both powers was over very real and very serious threats they posed to each other. The Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba was an escalation that could not be borne, and the chess game had almost cost both countries their entire existence.
After 1962, safeguards would be put in place to make sure this did not happen again. The Soviets and Americans would eventually agree to missile reduction treaties, and a crisis hotline was created between the White House and the Kremlin. The threat seemed to diminish as time went on, until people could discuss it calmly. We’ve had other scares since then…but they never seemed to loom quite as large.
But should they have? Should we, still? Those swords aren’t gone. They’re still there, above us, waiting for the moment. People don’t think about nuclear war between powers much anymore, but history indicates that it is probably the key danger we should worry about. There are tripwires everywhere, and those who think the threat is gone forget that the chess game is still active. The players are still making their moves, and one wrong move…one unstable person with their finger on the trigger…human beings are fallible, after all.
So far, so good, I suppose. But we are a long way from getting rid of that sword. Seems a little optimistic, to me, that the human story lasts another century without another crisis or two - and it seems optimistic to me that that story will always end happily.