Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday celebrations might have been a bit more extravagant if Cuba had emerged from the 1962 missile crisis as the world’s fifth nuclear power.
Everybody loves to talk about the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when America’s Best and Brightest under Jack Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev and his attempt to position strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba.
Revisionist history a.k.a. facts have as usual removed some of the good v. evil gloss slathered on the US by Kennedy hagiographers to reveal the political calculations underlying the confrontation.
It has emerged that Khrushchev was waaaaaaaay on the wrong end of the notorious missile gap, contrary to Kennedy’s claims during the 1960 election, with major shortfalls in operational ICBMs and no strategic submarine capabilities and, indeed, with only 300 strategic nuclear devices overall compared to 1500 for the US. Soviet strategists were appalled by the introduction of US Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles into Turkey and Italy and justifiably anxious about the prospect of a pre-emptive US strike.
Kennedy understood that standing up to the Soviets over Cuba was more a matter of US (and his) credibility and a reflection of US determination over Berlin than an issue of US national security. From the beginning of the crisis, his advisors are unambiguous in their analysis that the missiles in Cuba, when operational, would not effect the strategic balance. Furthermore, the CIA informed Kennedy that the missiles apparently had not yet been armed with their nuclear warheads and the missile sites were not strongly defended and could be seized in a military operation with a minimum of muss and fuss.
In other words, the US saw Khrushchev as way out on a limb that was ripe for sawing off, thanks to the premature exposure of the Soviet missile gambit on Cuba thanks to US intelligence operations.
Missiles in Cuba were intended by Khrushchev as a) a stabilizing strategic riposte to the US missiles in Italy and Turkey and b) a neat way to succor Cuba and bind it into a Soviet alliance by deterring a widely expected US “regime change” style invasion.
Recently, the tape recordings of the Oval Office discussions during the crisis were declassified and, according to Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic, yielded this priceless nugget:
On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”
As for regime change, Soviet expectations were spot on; after the Bay of Pigs debacle the Pentagon was busy with Operation Mongoose planning for Castro’s overthrow. Declassified documents reveal that the US would, as usual, take the high ground by invading only in response to a Cuban outrage, albeit one manufactured by the CIA. One scenario, thanks to an anonymous writer with a strong historical understanding of what had worked in US-Cuban relations:
A “Remember the Maine” incident could be arranged in several forms:
We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.
The most interesting element of denuclearizing Cuba is that the United States didn’t think that the Soviet Union had any operational nuclear weapons capability in Cuba when it decided to go public and issue the ultimatum to Khrushchev.
In a piece I wrote about dead horses in Soviet Ukraine (one of my favorite pieces about a pivotal event in Ukrainian history—must read!) I remarked in passing on the assertion by Victor Marchetti, a CIA whistleblower perhaps little remembered today, but a big deal in the last century:
Marchetti, by the way, claims to have been intimately involved in the intelligence aspects of the Cuban crisis. He alleges that President Kennedy was well aware that the missiles in Cuba were still lacking their warheads and therefore posed no threat to the United States. Nevertheless, Kennedy and his hagiographers, perhaps in order to provide America’s youth with sufficient pretext for a frantic pre-apocalypse f*ckfest, have skated over this aspect of the crisis.
[We didn’t] come as close to war as many think, because Khruschev knew he was caught. His missiles weren’t armed, and he hadn’t the troops to protect them. Kennedy knew this, so he was able to say: “take them out.” And Khruschev had to say yes.
Ah, history. Or, as we say, “Whaddya know?”
Well, at the time Marchetti wrote that in 2001, the USSR had met its demise, rehashing the Cuban Missile Crisis had become a cottage industry and occasion for mutual backpatting by Russian and US national security types who had saved the world, at least certain paleskinned bits of the Northern Hemisphere, from destruction…
…and it was pretty categorically stated that Cuba was loaded to the gunwales with nuclear weapons in October 1962, when the crisis started…
…and Marchetti was defending his initial, less alarmist assessments and dismissing the subsequent revelations as nefarious tag-team U.S.-Russian Federation disinfo…
…so post-1989 revelations do have to be parsed carefully since the Cuban missile crisis is apparently still a useful text for geopolitical jockeying between Russia and the United States…
…but emerging documents and memoirs pretty convincingly support the latter assessments.
162 gadgets is the number bandied about, a mixture of strategic warheads for the medium and intermediate range missiles targeting the US, and 92 tactical nuclear devices for defensive purposes, especially cruise and short range missiles but also including a pair of nuclear mines. As we shall see, Marchetti was right about the strategic warheads that could target the U.S. not being ready for prime time, but the tactical nukes were apparently good to go…
And as for Khrushchev “not having the troops”, that was apparently a pretty major flub by the CIA. There were allegedly forty thousand Soviet troops in Cuba, not the few thousand estimated by Marchetti and the CIA, infiltrated together with shiploads of military equipment under the noses of the CIA and including infantry, anti-aircraft, and other defensive units to protect the core strategic nuclear force.
Soviet forces were commanded by officers whose concept of operational routine was the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, had control over those tactical nuclear weapons, and had authority to use them if the U.S. invaded and communications with Moscow were severed. Plenty of material, in other words, to turn Cuba into a major battlefield, starting with the U.S. base at Guantanamo as a focus of Soviet attentions.
Here’s a photo of the general in charge of Soviet forces in Cuba, Issa Pliyev, wearing the “volunteer” civilian garb he detested, standing with Castro, who is wearing the rarely-seen clunky glasses that, apparently, he detested)…
…and here’s General Pliyev in his full military fig as veteran of Stalingrad, two time Hero of the Soviet Union, seven time Order of Lenin, Hero of the Mongolian People’s Republic, Member, French Legion of Honor, etc. etc.
However, Marchetti is correct in terms of describing US perceptions at the time of the crisis.
The part about the strategic missiles not being operational was something of a lucky guess.
According to the record, even after a U2 flight yielded unambiguous photographic evidence that, indeed, the Soviets had established intermediate and medium-range missile launch facilities in Cuba (built under a crash program involving the labor of hundreds of thousands of Cubans), the CIA didn’t know for sure that the warheads had arrived in Cuba.
Indeed, the photos reveal something that looks more like construction sites than comfy bases of mass destruction (the Soviets apparently cloned their homeland missile facilities in Cuba, making photo analysis of the nature and progress of the projects a bit easier), supporting the inference that the warheads were not yet on site and integrated with the missiles. The CIA conclusion appears to have been that the warheads weren’t in Cuba and if they were, they were off in some warehouse somewhere and the missiles were unarmed. It turns out the CIA was if not completely right, it was not completely wrong; the warheads for the strategic missiles, it transpires, were in Cuba but had not been deployed to the launch sites yet.
Another indication that the strategic missiles were not operational in October 1962 is that Khrushchev was not yet prepared to formally announce their existence.
Apparently, Khrushchev planned to announce the existence of the missiles during a visit to the United States in November 1962, bringing to mind this exchange from Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove:
Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?
—Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.
As for the tactical nuclear weapons, McNamara states that his knees wobbled when he was told about them at a thirtieth anniversary get-together in 1992 between the US, Russia, and Cuba. However, it’s more accurate to state that he had been informed of the possible presence of tactical nukes on Cuba at the time of the crisis, but had simply refused to believe it.
According to the Kennedy tapes, by October 29, 1962 it was known thanks to low altitude surveillance that there were nuclear capable Soviet tactical missiles on Cuba, and US military commanders were asking for permission to use tactical nuclear weapons in the planned invasion: McNamara himself refused. I’m guessing McNamara chose to assume (erroneously) the missiles were not nuclear tipped and this was the version presented to Kennedy.
Therefore, President Kennedy had the certain luxury of gaming his Cuba scenarios on the assumption that Cuba didn’t have any usable nukes yet, the nuclear confrontation would play out only within the parameters of a potential direct nuclear exchange between the US and Russian homelands, and Khrushchev probably wouldn’t escalate to global nuclear war if the U.S. dropped the hammer on Cuba.
The consensus opinion in Washington in October 1962—buttressed by the reports cited by Marchetti that the warheads had probably not arrived and there weren’t a lot of Soviet troops on the island–was to launch massive airstrikes followed by invasion to take out the missiles (and also, though it’s not much discussed in the official hagiography, provide a useful pretext for going into Cuba big and dealing with that pesky Castro problem once and for all). However, according to McNamara, Kennedy was swayed to go for the quarantine* –> ultimatum –> airstrikes + invasion to follow option instead by the general in charge of U.S. Tactical Air Command, who cautioned that maybe a nuclear-armed missile might survive the massive U.S. strike to hit the United States.
In other words, the group opinion was 99% sure everything would go great, but Kennedy wanted 100%.
If the group opinion had prevailed and the US had invaded Cuba and been surprised by 40,000 nuclear-armed Soviet troops, things would have gone south in a hurry (together with McNamara’s knees and career). Which is why expert opinion has started to tilt away from “masterful statesmanship” toward the “lucky accident” interpretation of the crisis.
As it transpired, the most immediate nuclear risk during the crisis didn’t even involve the weapons on Cuba. It was created by the US Navy enthusiastically depth charging a Soviet sub nearing Cuba that was armed with a nuclear torpedo. Unaware that the USN was dropping undercharged “we want you to surface and identify yourself” ashcans and not “we want to sink you” depth bombs and worried that his vessel was about to be destroyed, the Soviet captain decided to dish out his 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo and go down in a blaze of glory. Fortunately, the launch was vetoed by his flotilla commander, who happened to be on the boat. The sub, happily, survived, as did significant swaths of the Soviet Union and US.
Khrushchev eventually obliged Kennedy, climbing down in a nice superpower-to-superpower way, receiving in return a pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba (a pledge honored somewhat in the breach) and a sub voce US undertaking to remove soon-to-be-obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey and maybe Italy (which were subsequently replaced by invulnerable sub-based Polaris missiles).
And that, of course, did not oblige Fidel Castro, who regards Khrushchev as an ass and a wimp.
An ass, because instead of declaring to Kennedy that the missiles were a deterrent and an sovereign Soviet security interest covered by the USSR’s nuclear force when a U2 flight detected initial signs of missile facility construction in August 1962, Khrushchev fudged and called them defensive (with the apparent mental reservation that “defensive” meant “offensive weapons that defend Cuba by virtue of their deterrent function”). This put the Soviet foreign policy establishment on the wrong foot in vigorously and credibly defending the initiative when it turned out in October that there were four dozen strategic missiles in the package capable of reaching most of the continental United States.
And wimp, because Khrushchev backed down in October 1962 and threw Cuba under the bus. Cuba under Castro had irrevocably burned its bridges to the United States by hosting the missiles, and was ready to do that socialist shoulder-to-shoulder thing and risk US annihilation in an attack if the USSR was ready to take out the United States in retaliation. But not to be. Khrushchev caved to the US and removed all the nukes, not just the strategic weapons he had promised Kennedy to remove, but also the tactical nuclear weapons he had promised Castro in the initial agreement would eventually be delivered to Cuban control—and Washington didn’t even know about.**
So instead of getting a powerful, nuke-based alliance with the USSR that would give Castro bargaining leverage against US security and economic coercion—and maybe diplomatic recognition, who knows? The US had extended the courtesy to a number of Soviet proxies with considerably less national legitimacy than Cuba– Cuba was left as a lonely piñata twisting in the wind while the US took whacks at it for over 50 years. President Obama marked the continuation, rather than conclusion, of the effort by going to Cuba for a triumphal visit that was interpreted, especially in the United States, as receiving the Castros’ surrender to the forces of US democracy and capitalism, notwithstanding Raul Castro’s effort to literally spin Obama’s flaccid wrist into a display of equality and popular solidarity.
Here’s how those socialist photops are supposed to look, by the way.
For the Soviet Union, a dismal botch that helped cost Khrushchev his job and, coming on the heels of the China debacle, pretty much put paid to Soviet overseas nuclear junketeering.
What about Cuba? What would have happened if the USSR, instead of putting its own nukes on Cuba, had just given Cuba some nukes? Or, in a strikingly plausible scenario, let Castro keep the tactical nukes after the Soviets withdrew? How would US relations with Cuba and the rest of Latin America evolved?
Looking at the cavalcade of instability in places like Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala engendered by the successful US rollback of socialism after Khrushchev bugged out, Latin America would certainly have been different if Cuba had nukes…and maybe not worse off.
But that’s a possibility the US, for obvious reasons, has no interest in exploring.
*There was no basis under international law for the unilateral US blockade of Cuba in 1962. The legal recourse for the US would have been to obtain a 2/3 vote from the Organization of American States authorizing a blockade against a member state, something that the US wasn’t willing to wait for. The legal end-around was to call it a “quarantine”.
**The report that Khrushchev had decided to let Castro keep the nukes post-crisis, but his envoy, Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, evaluated that Castro (admittedly at that time 32 years old, emotionally vigorous, and under tremendous stress) was too headstrong & irrational, & decided on his own initiative to negotiate their withdrawal is, by the way, false. Mikoyan determined that Khrushchev’s serial mismanagement of the crisis had alienated Castro to the degree that effective co-management of the weapons was impossible. Castro, in desperation, was prepared to inform the world through the UN that, despite the Soviet withdrawal, Cuba still had the nukes and an effective deterrent against US invasion. The decision to notify Castro the tactical weapons were being pulled from Cuba was made in consultation with the Soviet Party Presidium.