Kennedy’s strategy to ‘reverse’ the gap – in reality, aggressively expand America’s strategic advantage over the Soviets even further than it had already been – included what became, according to the preeminent international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz, “the largest strategic and conventional peacetime build-up the world has yet seen…even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and…even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States”.
This included the stationing of more than a hundred Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, the latter within striking range of the Russian capital of Moscow. In May 1962, faced with CIA terrorist campaign Operation Mongoose and the threat of imminent US invasion (following an initial US invasion attempt the previous year i.e. the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco), Cuba’s Fidel Castro requested the stationing of Soviet missiles on the island – just 90 miles away from Florida – as a nuclear deterrent against American aggression.
Recognising this opportunity to strike a deal with Kennedy, who had earlier spurned his offer of a mutual weapons reduction treaty, and get the US missiles out of neighbouring Turkey, Khrushchev granted Cuba’s request the following July.
The following month, while on holiday, Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a classic account of the build-up to World War One. Tuchman had argued that none of the key political figures welcomed war and that, given the chance, they would not have repeated their mistakes that led to conflict.
After the resumption of U2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba in October, pilot Major Richard Heyser took 928 photographs recording the recently station Soviet missiles on the island. The CIA identified the missiles thanks to intelligence provided by double agent Oleg Penkovsky, notifying the State Department on October 15 at 8:30pm.
Following an initial briefing he received from Bundy the following morning, President Kennedy convened his national security council and other key advisors at 6:30pm. Kennedy secretly tape recorded the meetings (the ‘Excomm meetings’), some of which have been subsequently transcribed by the Kennedy Library’s Sheldon Stern. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended a military strike on Cuba to take out the missiles. An invasion was already scheduled, hence (partially) the stationing of the missiles on the island to begin with. But McNamara countered that, seeing as the US already had 5000 strategic warheads compared with the Russians’ 300, the balance of military power was still overwhelmingly in Washington’s favour.
In any event, the JSC’s apocalyptic recommendation held consensus, despite the fact that a diplomatic solution was the elephant in the room during the first Excomm meeting: answering Kennedy’s query about Khrushchev’s possible motive for stationing the missiles in Cuba, Dean Rusk pointed out that it may have something to do with the US Jupiter missiles in neighbouring Turkey, within striking range of Moscow.
On October 18, Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office, the latter explaining the defensive nature of the missiles. Kennedy risked nuclear extinction by failing to offer US withdrawal of its Turkey missiles in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal of its Cuba missiles. The next day, Excomm agreed to a naval blockade of Cuba, to prevent any further Soviet missile shipments thereto.
In a televised address on the 22nd, Kennedy branded Soviet actions “a reckless and provocative threat to world peace”, stripping the crisis of its entire context: his missiles in Turkey, his brother Robert’s CIA terrorist campaign to raise “the terrors of the earth” against the Castro regime, and (as it turns out, justified) Soviet-Cuban fears of imminent US invasion of Cuba.
As Kennedy spoke, US forces were put on DEFCON 3. A quarter of a million US troops were on standby to invade Cuba. Nearly two hundred B47s, all armed with hydrogen bombs, dispersed to civilian airports across the United States. B52s on airborne alert increased more than fivefold, some 65 of them, each armed with thermonuclear warheads and 2-4 Hydrogen bombs, within striking range of the USSR. On October 24, as the naval blockade began, Strategic Air Command was switched to DEFCON 2, the first time in its history.
On October 26, Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev offering to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for US assurances that neither America nor its proxies would attack Cuba. Excomm agreed to the deal, but would respond the next morning after some shuteye. By radio, a frantic Khrushchev offered to publicly withdraw the missiles if the US publicly withdrew its Turkey missiles.
Naturally, the granting of both proposals would have guaranteed a definitive resolution to the most dangerous crisis in world history, pulling humanity back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Within Excomm, the confusion caused by the second letter only intensified calls for an airstrike, which intensified even further after an American U2 was shot down (without Khrushchev’s authorisation) later that day.
Nonetheless, Kennedy only accepted the first offer (US pledge not to attack Cuba, quickly broken as Operation Mongoose resumed, lasting well into the 1970s at the cost of thousands of Cuban lives), insisting instead that the US secretly withdraw the missiles from Turkey, while Russia publicly withdraw its missiles.
Kennedy made this move despite his own guess that nuclear war was 33-50% probable, and having already ordered the withdrawal of the obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey for replacement by far more lethal Polaris submarines. In other words, he risked nuclear extinction of humanity for sheer imperial prestige.
“It is hard to think”, says Noam Chomsky, “of a more horrendous decision in history – and for this, he is still highly praised for his cool courage and statesmanship”. As it happens, Khrushchev had already ordered the missiles’ withdrawal while awaiting a reply from Kennedy, delighted by the latter concession.
Graham Allison’s judgement is even more damning:
Although he appreciated the dangers of his predicament, Kennedy repeatedly made choices he knew actually increased the risk of war, including nuclear war. He chose to confront Khrushchev publicly (rather than try to resolve the issue privately through diplomatic channels); to draw an unambiguous red line requiring the removal of Soviet missiles (rather than leave himself more wiggle room); to threaten air strikes to destroy the missiles (knowing this could trigger Soviet retaliation against Berlin); and finally, on the penultimate day of the crisis, to give Khrushchev a time-limited ultimatum (that, if rejected, would have required the US to fire the first shot). In each of these choices, Kennedy understood that he was raising the risk that further events and choices by others beyond his control could lead to nuclear bombs destroying American cities, including Washington DC (where his family stayed throughout the ordeal.
By far the most dangerous moment in the entire crisis (and, arguably, human history) was when, on the day of Kennedy’s gamble, one of the Soviet Foxtrot submarines approaching Cuba received US warning depth charges, which one of the submarines misinterpreted as an attack. Six hours later, the three commanders, authorised by Soviet protocol to launch a torpedo, made the decision to do so, except one: Visal Arkhipov, “the man who saved the world”.
Thus, Kennedy’s gamble was more like an unwitting 99%. Indeed, without his knowledge, and on the same day as the U2 shoot-down, an Atlas long-range missile test was carried out from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Soviets could have easily misinterpreted this as the first firing shot. Meanwhile, another U2 was tailed by Soviet pilots after straying into Siberian airspace before being safely escorted back to Alaska by atomic-armed US warplanes which, under DEFCON 3, were authorised to shoot down Soviet aircraft. Even this barely scratches the surface of the additional dangers involved.
Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser observes:
Although Khrushchev never planned to move against Berlin during the crisis, the Joint Chiefs had greatly underestimated the strength of the Soviet military force based in Cuba. In addition to strategic weapons, the Soviet Union had almost one hundred tactical nuclear weapons on the island that would have been used by local commanders to repel an American attack. Some were as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Had the likely targets of those weapons – the American fleet offshore the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo – been destroyed, an all-out nuclear war would have been hard to avoid.
At a Senate hearing following the merciful resolution of the crisis, McNamara adamantly denied that the Soviet missile withdrawal from Cuba was traded for the US missile withdrawal from Turkey: “Absolutely not…The Soviet government did raise the issue…[but the] President absolutely refused even to discuss it”. Off the record, officials even concocted that Kennedy had spurned a proposal by his UN ambassador to trade the Soviet missiles in Cuba for NATO missiles in Turkey, Italy and Britain.
Following the resolution of the crisis, a Moscow-Washington hotline was established, as well as the landmark Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear detonations in the atmosphere, ocean and outer space. Nonetheless, over the next five years, US nukes would grow by more than 50% (as would tactical nukes deployed to Europe) from Eisenhower’s 19,000 to a total of 31,255. And the progress in US-Soviet relations would be severely damaged by the reckless brinksmanship of the 1980s Reagan Administration, bringing us once again to the brink of catastrophe.