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In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud
Reporters take pictures of President Kennedy behind his desk, after signing the arms embargo against Cuba. Getty 

In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

Biden, Putin, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

· 15 min read

The threat of a nuclear war, absent from our headlines for decades, is in the news again. Putin threatens Ukraine with an atomic strike and Biden tells us we’re closer to Armageddon than any time in the last 60 years. Meanwhile, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace flies to the US to discuss the danger of Russia detonating a nuclear bomb over the Black Sea as a show of destructive strength. A bumper crop of articles have appeared in the world press announcing that this time the nuclear threat could be in earnest. British MP Robert Seely, a long-time Russia expert, reminds us of the country’s first-use policy and warns that “saying Putin is bluffing is no longer serious.”

In the Spectator, historian Mark Galeotti tries to calm nerves by walking us through all the complicated steps the Kremlin would have to take in order to release a nuclear device. But in April, Galeotti was writing about Putin’s RS-28 Sarmat missile—a new super-weapon with a range of 11,000 miles and a maximum load-capacity of 50 megatons (over 2,500 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb), which carries 15 nuclear warheads dispersible to multiple locations. Reportedly, it is due to be operational in December. Meanwhile, in the US, bunker sales are soaring, with one company reporting that, following the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine in February, enquiries regarding shelters had risen from less than 100 a month to over 3,000. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, indolently at grass since the end of the Cold War, are apparently cantering over the horizon towards us once again.

Biden’s reference point for nuclear danger was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and the comparison was apt. Go back exactly 60 years this week and we find a crisis with at least superficial similarities to the one we are experiencing today—two rival camps stonily contemplating one another, one of which had a smaller, less powerful country in its gunsights; a nation led by a charismatic leader in combat fatigues desperately calling for help from the other side. In 1962, however, the war was cold not hot, and the small country was Cuba, a Caribbean island just 90 miles from the United States.

That Cuba was menaced by the US is not in doubt. Since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1958, it had been near the top of America’s “to do” list. The doomed and disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961—in which 1,400 anti-Castro Cubans were encouraged to storm the island, insufficiently supported by the White House, and duly captured and imprisoned by Castro—was only a temporary setback. It was followed by a US economic blockade and the infamous Operation Mongoose, a series of botched US assassination plots against Castro. A communist takeover on America’s doorstep was anathema to the White House. What if other Latin American nations followed suit?

CIA reference photograph of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile in Red Square, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

In May 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, the bombastic and belligerent Soviet “peasant” Premier—a man who had blustered that he would “bury” the West—came up with a plan to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. Though Khrushchev regarded Fidel Castro as “a young horse that hasn’t been broken,” he had a soft spot for his Marxist comrade and wanted to see both the Cuban regime and its leader survive. Cuba, according to Khrushchev’s son Sergei, might have been a “useless small piece of land very far inside hostile territory,” but so was West Berlin for the Americans, he argued, and they certainly defended that with all their might. Failure to protect Cuba would result in an international loss of face.

Sergei’s mention of West Berlin was significant. Russians were enraged by the American presence there, and Kennedy’s 1961 meeting with Khrushchev to discuss it in Vienna had been, the young US president later said, the “roughest thing of my life. … He just beat the hell out of me.” Worse still, earlier in 1962, the US had placed 17 operational nuclear missiles in Turkey, just across the Black Sea from Russia, leaving Premier Khrushchev to splutter furiously from his Sochi summer home. Stationing his own missiles in Cuba would give Khrushchev leverage when he saw Kennedy at the UN General Assembly that November and the subject of Berlin arose.

More to the point, this was all he could do to equalise the East-West balance of nuclear power. Khrushchev had only a fraction of America’s long-range nuclear missiles but plenty of the medium-range variety. The chance to give America “a taste of its own medicine” (or, as he crudely put on another occasion, to throw “a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants”) was too tempting to pass up. Khrushchev simply assumed that Kennedy could do very little about it. Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak,” and the Americans, Khrushchev told poet Robert Frost, were “too liberal to fight.”

The plan also demonstrated Khrushchev’s weakness for adventurism. The Soviet leader could be thoughtful and cunningly astute, but he also had a tendency to lapse into what his disenchanted colleagues later called “hare-brained scheming.” After the war, he had tried to create huge agro-cities in Ukraine, from which milk would be piped to Kyiv cafes. This idea caused Stalin to bang his burning pipe out on Khrushchev’s bald head with the words “It’s hollow.” Following a triumphant visit to America and its farms in 1959, Khrushchev went corn-crazy, demanding every region of Russia coat itself in the crop, even when the climate was unfavourable. Although his colleagues obediently raised their assenting hands in Kremlin meetings, privately they again worried that Khrushchev hadn’t really thought things through. Khrushchev’s Admiral, Nikolai Amelko, said (though not to him) that sending missiles to Cuba was a “crackpot scheme.” Diplomat Oleg Troyanovsky, when told the plan, thought it sounded like “a nightmare” and said he felt all summer as if he were in a car that “had lost its steering.”

Nevertheless, enormous planning went into assembling the deadly hardware. Khrushchev’s biographer, Richard Taubman, has provided an exhaustive list of the goods: 36 medium-range missiles with 24 launchers; 24 intermediate-range missiles with 16 launchers; nuclear warheads for both, of between two and 800 kilotons (the Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons); three surface-to-air missile regiments; two cruise-missile regiments; 33 helicopters; 11 II-28 bombers, six of which were fitted with nuclear bombs; 12 Luna missiles “capable of dropping twelve two-kiloton warheads on invading American troops”; and “a naval squadron of submarines, cruisers and destroyers.” The transports continued, back and forth, over the summer and into October, as reports of their nuclear cargos were—for lack of real evidence—dismissed by the Americans. “Soon,” the Soviet premier confided to Troyanovsky in early autumn, “the storm will break loose.”

A U-2 reconnaissance photograph of Cuba, showing Soviet nuclear missiles, their transports and tents for fueling and maintenance. Wikimedia Commons

And indeed it did on October 16th, when Kennedy was shown photos taken by a U-2 spy-plane that confirmed the existence of nuclear missile bases in Cuba. Amid governmental shock and disbelief, the first question Kennedy’s specially formed Executive Committee (ExComm) asked themselves was "Why?” Why had Khrushchev put them there? What made him think he could behave like this with impunity? National indignation seeped into suggestions for military action in the first few days as the Kennedy government heatedly debated its second question: What should America do about it? Should they bomb the installations, and follow-up with a full-scale invasion of the island, as hardliners—led vociferously by Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force—were urging? Or was there some way around this?

President Kennedy meets in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay and the reconnaissance pilots who found the missile sites in Cuba. Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy was aware from the beginning that an over-reaction might lead to a nuclear exchange. Meanwhile, the hawks—a majority of his cabinet—kept up the pressure. LeMay taunted the president with words like “appeasement” and made loaded, vaguely threatening remarks about how his softly-softly approach would seem like cowardice to the American public. Kennedy was dismayed by this bellicosity, muttering to an aide that “these brass hats have one great advantage. … If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

What Kennedy wanted—and quickly built a consensus to get—was to quarantine Cuba. Khrushchev would be told that any Soviet or Soviet-chartered ships sailing over the quarantine line towards the island would be dealt with ruthlessly. This would allow the Soviets to take considered decisions and negotiate without sparking World War III. The policy itself, however, was a gamble. Should negotiations go on too long, LeMay and his supporters argued, the Soviets might use the time to complete their preparations. And what then? Was a devastating military strike on the installations—almost certainly followed by escalation and retaliation—more or less inevitable? And if it were, perhaps it would be better to carry it out as soon as possible. Even lowering the risks was fraught with danger.

Kennedy and Khrushchev were both tempered by war experiences of their own. Kennedy had served in the US Navy during WWII and knew from bitter experience that when battle was joined, events assumed their own momentum and “the military always screws up everything.” He had also wondered what purpose war served, and whether this was usually thought through at all. The WWII military commanders, he wrote to a then-girlfriend, “had better make mighty sure that all this effort is headed for some definite goal, and that when we reach that goal we may say it was worth it, for if it isn’t, the whole thing will turn to ashes…”

Khrushchev, meanwhile, had lived through the 27 million or so Russian deaths of the Second World War, and the great post-Stalin liberaliser had developed humanist ideals of his own. He had previously served as one of Stalin’s chief purgers and executioners, and came to the job of Soviet president, he said, “elbow deep in blood.” He had a huge burden of guilt to expiate and had begun to worry about his moral legacy. Neither leader was confident he would prevail once the shooting started. Both had their hardliners to contend with and both knew that a fireball, once ignited, would produce greater conflagrations that would be impossible to bring under control. They also had to contend with the unpredictable possibility of human error. “There’s always some sonofabitch,” Kennedy remarked, “who doesn’t get the word.”

So began the 13 most difficult days of Kennedy’s premiership—and almost certainly the 13 most perilous days of the Cold War—when, as Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara put it, “we literally looked down the gun barrel into nuclear war.” Those 13 days can be roughly split into two phases. During the first phase—from October 16th to October 22nd—the American public were kept in the dark and the Cabinet deliberated in secret, without the need to make crowd-pleasing snap decisions. Newspapers that got wind of what was happening were put on their honour not to print the information, and nine ExComm ministers were once bundled into a single car to avoid the alarming sight of them arriving separately. “Otherwise,” warned Kennedy, “we bitch it up.”

The second period, from October 23rd to 28th, began after the decision to quarantine Cuba was taken, much to the hardliners’ disgust. Kennedy now informed the US public of events in a televised speech. This was also the moment at which the Russians realised that the Pentagon had uncovered their plans. This began days of frantic back-and-forth missives between the Russian and American leaders and furious heckling around the ExComm conference table. There are weeks, Lenin once observed, when “decades seem to happen.”

It all culminated on October 27th—“Black Saturday”—when the question of whether or not the world would live to see another day felt as if it was touch-and-go. The state of alert in America that week fluctuated between DEFCON 2 and 3, sending scores of nuclear bombers criss-crossing the country, airborne and primed to receive orders to strike. Kennedy knew that anyone even slightly off-message could provoke an apocalypse.

The Cubans, meanwhile—at least, those not mobilised by Castro—went stolidly about their business. The Russians, drip-fed a diet of news by Pravda and Izvestia, were similarly phlegmatic, for as Khrushchev’s son put it, little could faze them after WWII. But in the US, the reaction approached hysteria. Private bomb-shelters were constructed at breakneck speed. Panic-buying of imperishable foods, toilet roll, torches, batteries, and firearms erupted. Catholic churches did a roaring trade in special prayer services and final confessions. And Kennedy’s ministers, realising that post-apocalyptic measures didn’t include their wives and children, sent their families deep into the American countryside to try and dodge the blast.

As usual, much of what then occurred was clouded by misinformation and hyperbole. The famous baited-breath moment when Soviet ships approached the quarantine line only to turn back at the 11th hour turned out to be a myth. In his fine book One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs subsequently revealed that Dean Rusk’s celebrated remark, “We’re eyeball to eyeball—and the other fellow just blinked” was misleading: the ships were nowhere near the quarantine line and had received their cancellation orders long before.

Other details of the crisis, however, have survived historical scrutiny. The Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, “seemed to age ten years” when informed of the quarantine. It later turned out that he’d been able to deny the missiles’ existence because he knew only as much about them as his opponents. Dobrynin felt ever after, he said, a sense of “moral shock” that he’d been used by Khrushchev as an “involuntary tool of deceit.” United Nations Ambassador Valerian A. Zorin, on the other hand, was rather better informed, and refused to answer Adlai Stevenson’s questions about the rockets’ existence at the UN. “I am not in an American courtroom, sir!” he yelled, only to be met by Stevenson’s cool reply: “I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over.”

Meanwhile, Khrushchev urged his colleagues to stay in the Kremlin round-the-clock to throw foreign journalists or “intelligence agents” off the scent. He slept next to the office wearing his suit, so that he was appropriately dressed to deal with important events as they arose. Tensions were exacerbated because the letters flying back-and-forth between the Russian leader and Kennedy would often take several hours to arrive. Khrushchev kicked off the exchange on Tuesday 23rd with aggressive self-justifications, thundering that the quarantine was a “gross violation … of international norms” and that the Americans’ actions could “lead to catastrophic consequences.” But on Friday 26th, as matters moved perilously forward, he wrote a heartfelt (perhaps drunken) missive that included his oft-quoted words on Cold War peril:

You are threatening us with war. If war should indeed break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that when war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.

If neither side pulled back from the brink, he added, they would “clash like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination [would] begin.” He and Kennedy “ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.”

Kennedy was touched by Khrushchev’s letter, but he realised that the two men remained bound by their helplessness. Both understood that they were not acting alone, that events had developed a logic of their own, and that one false move could unleash almighty consequences. Besides which, could Khrushchev really be trusted? He’d already spent the summer lying through his teeth. Conceivably, his entreaties were tactical and he was merely playing for time. When a second, tougher message arrived the following day demanding the removal of the Turkish missiles in return for a climbdown on Cuba, Kennedy’s suspicions increased.

This grand poker game continued, but it had a necessary cut-off point. White House hardliners were now devising a plan for massive, obliterating air-strikes on Cuba the following Tuesday (1,080 sorties in a day), to be followed by a full-scale invasion of the island the following week. The Soviet Lunar rockets, designed with their tactical nuclear warheads to vaporise an invading army, might yet be deployed, and their use might well be the starting gun for an atomic exchange.

The crisis reached its peak on Saturday, October 27th, as Kennedy contemplated Khrushchev’s two letters. Which of them should he answer? As he deliberated, ground-shaking news reached the White House. Five out of six of the medium-range missile sites in Cuba were now ready to strike, and the last would “probably be fully operational” on Sunday. By midday Sunday, the American Strategic Air Command would be “cocked” and ready to go with 162 missiles and 1,200 aeroplanes bearing a payload of 2,800 nuclear warheads.

Then, into this nail-biting situation came more bad news. The Soviets had shot down a U-2 spy-plane over Cuba, killing its American pilot. It felt, wrote Bobby Kennedy, as if “the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling.” Diplomat Tommy Thompson urged JFK to reply to Khrushchev’s first, conciliatory letter and act as if the second didn’t exist. Khrushchev had got himself in a hell of a fix, Thompson said, and would welcome a way out. Kennedy delivered his message: an undertaking not to invade Cuba if the missiles were quickly removed. As for the Turkish rockets, he would make no commitment in public. But in the months that followed, he decided that they would be quietly removed.

Anxiety was also running high in the Kremlin. The Soviets had been told that Kennedy would make an important speech at 9am on Sunday morning. Would it be the announcement of an imminent attack? Calling an urgent meeting of his ministers, Khrushchev told them there was no time to waste: the deadline for Kennedy’s announcement was fast approaching. Invoking Lenin (a neat touch with the Politburo), he referenced the Bolshevik leader’s Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, when huge swathes of Russian territory were surrendered for the sake of peace. They too, Khrushchev told them, would make their sacrifice. An offer to withdraw from Cuba was quickly drafted and couriered over to Moscow Radio, where it was broadcast to the world before Kennedy could deliver his own statement. The Soviets, it would later transpire, were misinformed about Kennedy’s speech—none had been planned. But now Khrushchev and his ministers had publicly taken the decision to withdraw and the crisis was over.

In America, the news was greeted with widespread jubilation and relief. But how much of the crisis’s resolution was due to Kennedy and Khrushchev and their respective personalities? Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it down to “plain, dumb luck.” Defence Secretary Robert McNamara agreed: “At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close…” Others argued that, far from getting the American people out of the crisis, Kennedy had actually got them into it—who but the President was ultimately responsible for the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, or for authorising Operation Mongoose? Yet for historian Michael Dobbs, it was very much a matter of individuals and their temperaments. “Under similar circumstances another autocrat might have taken the world down in flames with him, as Hitler had, or collapsed, like Stalin in June 1941. But Khrushchev was no Hitler or Stalin.” As for Kennedy, Dobbs points out, he had a rare “knack for looking at problems through the eyes of his adversaries.” This too had played its vital part.

Within two years, Kennedy had been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, a member of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee.” Khrushchev had been deposed by his colleagues for, among other things, bringing his country to the brink of annihilation, and director Stanley Kubrick had made Dr Strangelove, his satirical reimagining of that October’s events. As the mercurial unpredictability of Khrushchev gave way to the stagnation of the Brezhnev years and then the arms-reduction treaties of the Gorbachev era, the Cuban Missile Crisis receded into the past. It became a period piece like bobby socks, drive-in movies, or Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Perhaps the last word on these events should go to Kennedy’s widow Jackie. In a letter sent to Khrushchev after her husband’s death, she wrote:

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big man as by the little ones. While big men know the need for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.

Wise sentiments, but they raise as many questions about the present day as they answer. Are we now ruled by little men or big men? Is there someone in the White House with the flexibility, stubbornness, and empathy to think himself into his enemy’s skin and act accordingly? Is the Kremlin run by a leader with humanitarian urgings or notions of guilt and redemption? Is he a man who fears the bloody-minded clash of ideologies like “blind moles” and believes we should step back from conflict? Is there any basis of goodwill between the two leaders involved? Are there any previous encounters and mutual, personal knowledge which can be built upon? And if Acheson was right, and the peaceful outcome of those 13 days was a case of “plain, dumb luck,” will we be so lucky a second time?

Hegel once wrote that historical events always happen twice, to which Karl Marx famously added, first as tragedy, then as farce. We must all hope, as the nuclear threats from Russia multiply, that the world does not see Marx’s principle fatally inverted. The Cuban Missile Crisis had its moments of black comedy, as Stanley Kubrick noted. If next time it plays out as tragedy, how many of us will be left to laugh?

Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and East European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn, and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

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