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The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation between the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union that took place in late 1962. Although the Crisis only lasted for 13 days, tensions had been slowly building between the USSR and the USA, particularly for the previous 17 years, ever since the end of World War Two in 1945.

The Cuban Missile Crisis – Origins and Background

At the end of the War the Allied armies and the Soviet forces had invaded Germany from the West and East respectively, coming face-to-face at the war’s end in Berlin on the 8th of May 1945. In discussions held during the Potsdam Conference in July and August that year, it was agreed that Germany would be divided into occupation zones controlled by the Allies in the west and the Soviets in the north-east.

Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam - Wikimedia Commons
Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam – Wikimedia Commons
Berlin, which lay 100 miles inside the Soviet zone, was also divided up into, effectively, west and east, controlled by the US, UK and France in the west and the USSR in the east. But then the Soviets unexpectedly decided to block access to the western portions of Berlin by road and rail, preventing the Allies from gaining access to ‘their’ zone and pressuring them to vacate the city entirely.

The Berlin Airlift

The population of west Berlin were desperate for food and supplies and the Allies began what became known as the Berlin Airlift, flying in thousands of tons of cargo every day, with planes landing every four minutes.

The Allies reasoned, correctly, that the USSR would not risk war by attacking their aircraft. The Soviets eventually relented and lifted the blockade eleven months later having only earned the scorn of the international community for their actions.

Post-War Germany – a country divided

Germany was dividied into four zones. Berlin, well inside the Soviet Zone, was also sub-divided. Wikimedia Commons.
Germany was divided into four zones. Berlin, well inside the Soviet Zone, was also sub-divided. Wikimedia Commons.
For their part, the Soviets were intent on forcibly creating a Communist/Socialist state in east Germany, quite against the wishes of the local population. The Allies, on the other hand, were planning to establish a West German democratic government and have it in place by 1949.

The seeds of distrust between the West and the USSR, already lingering, had now firmly taken root and relations between the two major power blocs of the 20th century would continue to deteriorate with every passing decade.

In 1947 US President Harry Truman pledged to come to the aid of nations threatened by Soviet expansionism in eastern Europe and elsewhere. This policy was known as the ‘Truman Doctrine’ and is widely recognised as the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans, which finally ended in 1991 with the complete collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile in Cuba…

Meanwhile in Cuba, the US-backed government of the dictator President Batista was overthrown in 1959 by the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his Argentine-born friend, doctor-turned-guerilla Che Guevara. Castro developed strong links with the USSR and in turn Cuba began receiving considerable economic support from the Soviets, including munitions and small arms. This support would continue for decades.

Castro was a Marxist-Leninist nationalist with anti-imperialist leanings who ran Cuba as a socialist state under the rule of a Communist Party. So in Cuba there truly was something for everyone, except perhaps for the rich local and foreign land owners who had thousands of acres of farm land taken by force under Castro’s ‘First Agrarian Reform’ program. The land was then given to thousands of peasants for their own use.

Although Castro denied it, the US feared that Cuba was moving towards becoming a communist state and Soviet satellite. They were concerned that some other central American states might go the same way. The US imposed sanctions on the Cuban government and in January 1962 Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States.

Thousands of Cuba’s citizens did not share Castro’s revolutionary fervour and certainly did not want to live in a quasi-socialist revolutionary republic. Many fled to the United States, some arriving by boat in Florida only a hundred miles away by sea.

Meanwhile in Turkey…

Jupiter IRBM on it`s launch pad. Picture from U.S. Army
Jupiter IRBM on it`s launch pad. Picture from U.S. Army
In 1961/62 the US installed Jupiter intermediate/medium range ballistic nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, almost on the Soviet Union’s ‘doorstep’. The USSR was less than pleased with this development.

In fact they saw it as a provocative act and an immediate threat to the USSR, since the warning time for these missiles would be very short indeed. The Jupiter was an early IRBM and would be obsolete within a few more years, but the threat it posed to the USSR was nevertheless very real and present.

Soviet mistrust was matched by American angst as they contemplated having an ally of the USSR on their doorstep.

The Bay of Pigs

Location of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba - Wikimedia Commons
Location of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba – Wikimedia Commons
The Americans decided to act against Cuba and in 1961, after a year of planning, and with Presidential approval, the CIA conducted an invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

The invasion, which was intended to repeal and replace Castro, was led by Cuban exiles, although some US military were also involved. Unfortunately for the US, it was a complete failure and Castro’s forces prevailed after only 3 days of fighting.

Castro and Khrushchev buddy up

By early 1962 a number of factors had converged.

  • The US and USSR held a deep-seated mistrust of each other
  • The USSR wanted US nuclear missiles removed from Turkey and Italy
  • The US did not want a Communist country on their doorstep and wanted Castro gone
  • Castro was livid about the failed invasion and feared a repeat effort by the Americans
  • The Soviets wanted to show support for their ally Cuba…
  • …and get a foot-hold in Latin America…
  • …and rebalance the nuclear missile ratio between themselves and the USA.

It was in this highly-charged environment that around January 1962 Castro requested that the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev provide nuclear missiles to Cuba to help defend the country against a repeat attack or invasion.

Between January and April the secret deal was negotiated. By April the deal was done and Khrushchev had decided to develop Cuba into a fully-fledged nuclear-armed satellite of the USSR, although he had some reservations about Castro’s temperament.

Rumours of these developments had been rife in Miami’s expatiate community and had been reaching the intelligence community. They were doing everything in their power to attempt to substantiate or dispel these rumours, including twice-monthly U-2 overflights.

Missiles begin arriving

In July – only a few months later – Soviet missile specialists and workers began arriving in Cuba in quantity and construction soon began on numerous missile launch facilities. Now it was game on. The seeds of the Crisis has been sown long ago and now the plants were coming home to roost. Or something like that…

At this stage the general feeling in the Intelligence Community (IC) was that the arms being supplied to Cuba were nothing to be too alarmed about. There was one exception though. John McCone was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and he (almost alone) saw the build-up for what it really was – and where it was headed.

A U-2C mission on August 29 was launched from Edwards Air Force Base. It took numerous photos and detected the construction of eight surface to air missile (SAM)  sites, the first time they had been seen outside the USSR. These were arrayed in a similar fashion to those in the Soviet Union that protected high value targets, including nuclear ICBM silos.

The photos proved that batteries of SA-2 Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) were appearing in Cuba and as McCone said, “Those batteries aren’t there to protect the cane workers”.

The U-2 also spotted a FKR-1 coastal defence cruise missile launcher at Banes and the arrival from the USSR of Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium range jet bombers.

Kennedy was informed of the results of the image analysis on August 31. Despite the preponderance of evidence, McCone’s judgement that this was part of a larger, more sinister plan continued to be discounted.

Kennedy goes public

On September 4, 1962, President Kennedy went public, albeit with a general warning to the USSR about bringing offensive weapons into Cuba.

The following day a further U-2 reconnaissance flight revealed 39 MiG-21 and 18 MiG-15 aircraft at Santa Clara airfield. That mission, flown by Major Richard Heyser, was the catalyst for the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing setting up a U-2 operating location at McCoy AFB in Florida.

These U-2 flights were not without some risk of course. Two years earlier Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 had been shot down over Russia. And Communist Chinese had recently shot down a Taiwan-operated U-2 over the mainland. More recently the Soviets had protested an accidental U-2 overflight of Sakhalin Island.

Chillingly, the Powers and Taiwanese U2s were brought down by the same type of weapon that had now been found in Cuba – the SA-2 Surface to Air Missile (SAM).

Map created by American intelligence showing Surface-to-Air Missile Activity in Cuba, 5 September 1962 - Wikimedia Commons
Map created by American intelligence showing Surface-to-Air Missile Activity in Cuba, 5 September 1962 – Wikimedia Commons
It now seemed possible that the SAM sites were being installed in Cuba for the purpose of protecting short/intermediate range nuclear missiles. And the nuclear missiles might well be the next cab off the rank, so to speak. And sure enough, in early September, ships began arriving in Cuba carrying the first nuclear ballistic missile shipments from the USSR.

The Photo Gap

One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16 - Wikimedia Commons
One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16 – Wikimedia Commons
Shortly after Kennedy’s public warning about the Cuban arms build-up, McCone, who wanted to drastically increase the rate of U-2 flights, went on his honeymoon. In his absence his deputy, who also wanted to increase the U-2 mission tempo, was over-ruled by the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State who feared having an American U-2 shot down.

As a result of flight plan and mission frequency changes, for the next six weeks over-flights of Cuba consisted only of brief flights over the periphery of the country by CIA pilots rather then the USAF drivers.

Two U-2 missions overflew Cuba on September 26 and 29. These were brief in and out flights, but they confirmed previous observations of SAM sites and cruise missile launchers and crates.

In early October CIA director McCone returned from his honeymoon and immediately agitated for a program of intensive CIA U-2 over-flights rather than the patchy, ad-hoc program that had been run over the past month. He got agreement for several, brief flights over western Cuba around coastal areas. They took place in early October but did not yield much additional intelligence. Following that, poor weather set in, concealing the country in cloud for nearly two weeks.

On the 12th of October Kennedy decided that the USAF should operate the U-2 flights rather than the CIA. If the pilots were captured they would be treated as POWs rather than as spies. The USAF took the aircraft that the CIA were operating and painted USAF insignia on them. They preferred the CIA U-2s to their own, as the CIA versions had better Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) and being more powerful, could operate at a higher altitude.

The weather finally cleared on the 14th of October and another flight was finally launched, with further one taking place the following day. After the aircraft returned, the photos were rushed to Washington DC for analysis.

View of a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in 1996 - Wikimedia Commons
View of a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in 1996 – Wikimedia Commons
These images were processed and sure enough, on October 15 US photo interpreters found the evidence that McCone was looking for. The photos were presented to the National Security Advisor on the evening of the 15th, showing three Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) launch sites at San Cristobal, thus precipitating the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The National Security Advisor briefed Kennedy the following morning. McCone was told “That which you and you alone said would happen, has happened.”

Unbeknownst at the time, the first Soviet MRBMs had actually arrived in port a full month earlier. The ‘Photo Gap’ – the six week pause of any meaningful U-2 flights – had allowed the MRBMs to arrive without positive detection by the Americans.

But although the detection of the missiles was somewhat delayed, it nevertheless demonstrated the value of U-2 reconnaissance missions and the value of the intelligence community’s overall suite of information-gathering capabilities including Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).

In short, the IC had done their job by giving Kennedy the information and analysis that he needed to begin charting a course through the crisis.

Day 1 – October 16

The following day, October 16, Kennedy assembled his advisors. This is considered the first of the thirteen days of the crisis.

Kennedy set up a sub-group of the National Security Council. This was known as the Executive Committee, or EXCOMM. The only member of the IC on the Committee was McCone. The group would begin a period of intense and gruelling workdays, each lasting 16 hours or more. The public were unaware of the developing crisis and so the group kept existing social appointments to avoid arousing suspicion.

The analysis of the U-2 photographs relied to some degree on the spy Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military officer, who was able to identify certain features and explain that the missiles would need some time before they would become operational. Penovsky was either a spy or double-agent and was later either shot or cremated alive by the Russians, depending on whose account you believe.

Either way, Kennedy realised that he had a certain period of time to deal with the situation and that he did not need to rush to initiate a large-scale military action against the Cubans or their Soviet visitors.

The situation was serious but in order to be certain of the risk to the US, more flights and higher resolution imagery would both be required. It was decided to schedule six U-2 over-flights for the following day, October 17.

At the same time, in order to get higher resolution photographs, the solution was likely to be a series of low-level, high-speed reconnaissance missions. The US Navy and US Air Force were asked to quickly come up with suitable options.

Day Two – October 17

Military commanders ordered the USAF to begin a rapid increase in air-defence capability in the south east of the USA. Shore-based Navy and Marine fighter squadrons were ordered into the area to assist. The USAF moved two-seater F-101B Voodoos into position. These versions of the Voodoo were armed with nuclear-tipped Genie missiles, designed to disperse formations of attacking bombers.

McDonnell F-101B-110-MC (S/N 58-0312) of the 18th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Chief of Navy sent messages to each Fleet Commander, ordering them to be ready to put to sea within 24 hours, provided their ships had functioning propulsion systems.

The Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet initiated Project Blue Moon, basing F8U-1P Vought Crusaders at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida in preparation for possible low-level reconnaissance missions.

Day Three – October 18

On the 18th of October President Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. He advised him that the US would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Gromyko denied that there were any Soviet missiles were in Cuba, a statement that he almost certainly knew was a lie.

Day Four – October 19

The following day Kennedy continued meetings of EXCOMM, with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A wide range of military options were explored.

Day Five – October 20

By now there was evidence of additional missiles in Cuba. Rather than backing down, it seemed that the pace of construction was actually increasing.

Every political and military option was discussed, ranging from air strikes to invasion of Cuba and even nuclear war with the USSR. But EXCOMM settled on Kennedy’s preferred solution – a blockade of Cuba by the US Navy.

The idea was to, at the very least, prevent the arrival of further weapons and construction workers, issue a deadline for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles and gain some time for the negotiations that would hopefully follow.

The plan for the blockade was refined, reviewed and refined some more.

Day Six – October 21

On October 21 Kennedy ordered that the blockade be put in place as soon as possible. For legal reasons it was called a ‘quarantine’ and not a ‘blockade’. Kennedy passed a message to the Soviets insisting that the missiles be dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union.

Day Seven – October 22

President Kennedy decided that it was time to inform the nation of the situation. in a televised address on the evening of October 22 he announced the blockade quarantine, famously adding a direct threat to the USSR:

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Kennedy addresses the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis on 22nd October 1962 - JFK Library - Public Domain
Kennedy addresses the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis on 22nd October 1962 – JFK Library – Public Domain
The use of “quarantine” legally distinguished this action from a blockade. A blockade was only possible if a state of war existed – and it did not – yet. The use of the term ‘quarantine’ would potentially allow the United States to receive the support of the Organization of American States.

On the same day, the US military went to DEFCON 3 and continued preparation for a strike on Cuba should the blockade fail to achieve it’s aims.

DEFense readiness CONdition is a five-stage system developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to specify an alert state for the entire US military apparatus. It defines specific security, activation and response scenarios.

DEFCON 5 is the lowest level of readiness.
DEFCON 4 means ‘Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures’
DEFCON 3 means ‘Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness.’
DEFCON 2 means ‘Next step to nuclear war’ and;
DEFCON 1 means ‘Nuclear war is imminent’.

Kennedy arranged for a message to be passed to Soviet Premier Khrushchev stating that the US would not permit the Soviet offensive weapons to be based in Cuba. He insisted that they be dismantled, removed and returned to the Soviet Union.

Day Eight – October 23

As hoped, the Organization of American States announced their support for the blockade. With no meaningful response from the Soviets, JFK and McNamara discussed the emerging and very real possibility of a military confrontation with the USSR.

The US Navy’s secret Project Blue Moon had swung into action in very short order and it was clear that the Navy had it’s act together from the get-go. They provided eight camera-ready RF-8A Vought Crusaders. Only 2 or 3 of them were fitted with the new five inch Chicago Aerial Cameras (CACs), with each frame of film having four times the area of the film in the cameras fitted to the remaining Crusaders.

A Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron 63 (VFP-63) RF-8A Crusader aircraft approaches for a landing aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY (CV 41).
The US Air Force, on the other hand, took somewhat longer to assemble a squadron of camera-ready McDonnell RF-101 Voodoos, pilots and support staff, a fact that some Naval aviators are still keen to point out with some satisfaction.

In addition, only the Navy aircraft had the higher-resolution CAC cameras at the time and so the Crusaders were chosen over the Voodoos to obtain the most important photographs. (Later some of the Navy’s supply of these cameras were given to the Air Force to be fitted to the Voodoos.)

A USAF RF-101C McDonnell Voodoo over Vietnam in 1967 - Air Force photo in the public domain
A USAF RF-101C McDonnell Voodoo over Vietnam in 1967 – Air Force photo in the public domain
The cameras shot four frames of film every second, or one for every 70 yards travelled over the target with each image overlapping the next by 50%. This allowed a stereoscopic view of the images to be had later by the photo interpreters.

On this Tuesday morning, pairs of RF-8A Crusaders were therefore the first to embark on their high speed, low level reconnaissance missions over Cuba. They departed from NAS Key West in three flights of two aircraft. These would be the first of 168 Blue Moon missions through the period October 23 to November 16. Several pairs would leave twice a day and each pair was tasked with a different target.

They crossed the Florida Straits in short order and targeted the sites identified by earlier U-2 sorties. Some of the missions involved flights over approaching Soviet ships.  The Crusaders recovered to NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida where the film canisters were unloaded, processed and then rushed to the Pentagon.

In fact the film was flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington DC and from there it was escorted by armed couriers to the CIA’s secret National Photographic Interpretation Center. You know it was secret because the Center was located in a run-down part of DC above a Ford dealership.

An RF8-A Vought Crusader over Cuba at low level. The photo was taken by an accompanying Crusader. Wikimedia Commons
An RF8-A Vought Crusader over Cuba at low level. The photo was taken by an accompanying Crusader. Wikimedia Commons
The typical profile for passes over targets was an altitude of 500′ with speeds ranging between 550 and 600 knots. As results started to come in and the quality of the imagery was revealed, Kennedy ordered the tempo of operations to increase from sorties twice a day to sorties every two hours. These new reconnaissance photos were highly detailed and exactly what Kennedy and EXCOMM needed.

The Air Force assembled RF-101A and RF-101C model McDonnell Voodoos from the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and they also flew their first missions on October 23, originating from Shaw AFB, South Carolina. The Voodoos used six cameras in the nose section – two Fairchild KA-1s were aimed downwards and four KA-2s faced forward, down and to each side.

However it was decided to use the Crusaders for the most critical sorties initially until the Voodoo squadron was deemed fully mission-ready. The Voodoos flew 82 missions that helped to confirm the existence of missiles and later, their dismantling and removal.

An Air Force RF-101C Voodoo flies over a Soviet freighter at Casilda Port, Cuba on 6th November 1962. There are six tarpaulin-covered missiles on the deck.

Day Nine – October 24

Khrushchev replied to Kennedy’s broadcast by calling the blockade an act of aggression and stating that Soviet ships at sea would proceed to Cuba, ignoring the blockade.

Despite this some Soviet ships did turn back from the ‘quarantine’ line. Others were stopped, boarded, inspected and allowed to continue, since they carried no offensive weapons. Reconnaissance flights continued and showed that the Soviet missiles were nearing a state of operational readiness.

The US military went to DEFCON 2, one step away from nuclear war involving the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear ICBMs and nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bombers. Kennedy was starting to suspect that only an attack on Cuba would resolve the situation, but he still wanted to give the process more time.

Soviet ships reaching the blockade line were given orders by the Kremlin to remain in position and to not attempt to pass through. Further reconnaissance by the US confirmed the presence of Soviet MiG-21 fighters in Cuba as well Soviet submarines shadowing the Soviet ships holding position at the quarantine line.

The MiGs were a complicating factor. They could conceivably intercept the Crusader and Voodoo sorties and could also attack targets in nearby Florida.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 fighter - Wikimedia Commons
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 fighter – Wikimedia Commons
One-eighth of Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bombers were now on airborne alert. Twenty-three Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers were effectively flying holding patterns near the borders of the USSR and were loaded with nuclear weapons.

Boeing B-52D with anti-flash white on the underside of the aircraft - Wikimedia Commons
Boeing B-52D with anti-flash white on the underside of the aircraft – Wikimedia Commons

Day Ten – October 25

Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the United Nations, presented the Crusader pictures to a special session of the General Assembly. The Soviets were unmoved and failed to acknowledge what was incontrovertible proof of the presence of the missiles.

The US expected some sort of response from the Soviets but got none. The situation was at a stalemate, but the US indicated that if the USSR did not remove the missiles it would be left with no choice but to invade Cuba, replace the Castro government and remove the missiles themselves.

Accordingly plans were made for an initial airborne attack on Cuba comprising around 500 sorties. These would strike ports, airfields, missile sites and other military targets. It was expected that in the first ten days of any subsequent invasion of Cuba – assuming that nuclear weapons were not used – up to 18,500 US casualties would be the result.

US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson describes the photos in a confrontation at the United Nations on October 25th 1962 - Wikimedia Commons
US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson describes the photos in a confrontation at the United Nations on October 25th 1962 – Wikimedia Commons
It already been decided that if the Soviets responded militarily then the US would proceed with a nuclear strike on the USSR. Whether this was a bluff or the true intention of the USA I don’t know. You can never really know what might have happened in any situation, but we can surmise that we were as close to world war three then, as the world has ever been.

Estimates at the time suggested that within the first minutes of a nuclear attack on the US from Cuba up to 80 million Americans would be dead.

On this fateful day two Crusaders were enroute to photograph a IRBM site under construction in Cuba. They were led by Lt. Cmdr Riley who was accompanied by his wingman Lt. Coffee. Coffee caught a glimpse of a military encampment off the planned track and broke formation to take some photographs.

The photographs revealed a new threat – Soviet tactical nuclear-capable Luna battlefield missiles. The evidence for these missiles, if it had existed earlier, had become lost in an avalanche of imagery, data and other intelligence reports. Battlefield nukes had not been envisioned in the original plans to invade Cuba and they changed the calculus significantly.

It was learned many years later that there were in fact nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba – 80 FKR cuise missiles, 12 warheads for the Luna short range rockets and 6 nuclear bombs for the Il-28 bombers. Even if the ballistic missiles were removed the Soviets had intended that the tactical nukes would remain. They even had plans to train the Cubans in their use.

Day Eleven – October 26

In the afternoon of the 26th a Washington reporter was approached by a Soviet agent who had suggested that an agreement was possible. The Soviets would remove their missiles if the US agreed never to invade Cuba. The reporter, John Scali, advised the White House of the message and they hurriedly attempted to determine the validity of the ‘offer’.

Subsequently President Kennedy and EXCOMM received a letter from Nikita Khrushchev on the evening of the 26th stating that the Soviets would agree to remove their missiles if the US agreed not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev’s letter was rambling and emotional – but apparently sincere – suggesting that he and Kennedy could work together to save the world from nuclear destruction.

“If there is no intention,” he said, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

A number of U.S. experts were convinced that the message from Khrushchev was genuine, and that the offer was authentic. So EXCOMM began considering the offer in detail.

Day Twelve – October 27

However before they could get too far, a second letter arrived from Khrushchev the next day, October 27, stating that the US must also remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. He had expanded the scope of his original demands, thus ramping up the pressure on JFK.

Unfortunately that was just the start of this fateful day which later saw a number of incidents that could each have easily led to all-out war between the USA and the USSR, via Cuba.

In violation of Khrushchev’s orders, a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba, at around noon on the 27th, killing the pilot. Two SA-2s had been fired at the aircraft and one of them exploded behind the fuselage, sending shrapnel into the cockpit and puncturing the pilot’s pressure suit.

Later in the day two RF8U-1P Crusaders were fired upon and one of them was hit. Both returned safely to base. At this stage the US would have been justified in launching some kind of military action in response and indeed preparation for military action was underway.

Still preferring a diplomatic solution, Kennedy passed a warning to the Soviets that any further attacks on US aircraft would trigger the destruction of the missile sites, which would be promptly followed by an invasion. No ifs or buts.

Cuban anti-aircraft gunners fire upon Crusader low level overflights at San Cristobel on 27th October 1962 - Wikimedia Commons
Cuban anti-aircraft gunners fire upon Crusader low level overflights at San Cristobel on 27th October 1962 – Wikimedia Commons
The next major incident on this day involved the Soviet F-class submarine B-59, under the command of Captain Stavitsky. It was one of four Soviet submarines in the vicinity of the quarantine line and, unknown to the Americans, was carrying at least one nuclear tipped T-5 torpedo and had already received orders to fire if it was fired upon.

The US had located the submarine, and in order to force it to the surface were dropping small training depth charges in the vicinity of the submarine. These were only used for practice and contained very little charge. The submarine commander never received messages from the US Navy that practice depth charges only were being used.

The Captain, believing that war had already broken out, wanted to launch the torpedo against one of the nearby American vessels. However there were three senior officers aboard and all three had to unanimously agree before the ‘special weapon’ could be fired.

One of those three was the commander of the entire submarine detachment and he convinced the others not to fire, but instead to surface, communicate with Moscow and await further orders. The submarine was running out of air and would be forced to surface soon anyway.

None of the other three submarines in the flotilla required three senior officers to agree before launching their T-5s and so it was pure luck that it was the B-59 that had been located and not one of the other subs.

The Soviet F-class submarine B-59 was armed with at least one nuclear-tipped torpedo - and nearly used it. It was forced to the surface on the 27th October after numerous sounding depth charges were dropped near it - Wikimedia Commons
The Soviet F-class submarine B-59 was armed with at least one nuclear-tipped torpedo – and nearly used it. It was forced to the surface on the 27th October after numerous sounding depth charges were dropped near it – Wikimedia Commons
After some deliberation EXCOMM decided to ignore the second message they had received from Khrushchev and instead respond to the first one. Later that night Kennedy wrote his reply that suggested a removal of the Soviet missiles under the supervision of the United Nations. He added a guarantee that the US would not invade Cuba.

Kennedy’s brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, secretly met with the Soviet Ambassador to the UN and advised that the US would remove it’s missiles from Turkey soon, but would would not announce this publicly as part of the deal.

On this day, the Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps at it’s most grave state. The United States had a total of 2,952 nuclear weapons mounted on ground-based ICBMs, Polaris submarine-based ICBMs and Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers. Thousands of troops had been moved to Florida and the Navy had 180 ships in the Caribbean.

In the preceding six days 24 MRBM launchers had become operational and other sites were still under construction.

Day Thirteen – October 28

After further tense negotiations an agreement was finally reached. The USSR would dismantle and return their offensive weapons and launch equipment that was present in Cuba. The US suggested that it would not attack or invade Cuba and agreed to secretly remove it’s missiles from Turkey and Italy.

Khrushchev made a speech on Moscow Radio telling the Soviet public that the missiles would be removed. For it’s part, the US maintained the quarantine for a further month after the remove of the missiles.

The aftermath

The Crisis was over, but the full detail of the deal would not be finalised for a further three weeks. Finally the deal was inked, but compliance with the deal would be required. On-site inspections had been reluctantly agreed to by Castro but he later reneged on this undertaking. He also threatened to fire upon any US aircraft flying over Cuba. As a result Kennedy revoked his pledge not to invade Cuba, leaving that option still on the table.

Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 ‘Beagle’ medium-range jet bombers had been shipped to Cuba along with tactical nukes, SA-2 SAMs and the SS-4 MRBMs. The US wanted the Beagles gone as well. The Soviets did not initially agree to remove them and so the quarantine remained in place until they did, finally ending on November 20th.

The Jupiter missiles were removed from Turkey in April the following year.

The strength and resolve showed by JFK enhanced the young president’s reputation. But one year later he would dead, assassinated by a man who had visited Russia when he was 19 years of age and tried to defect there.

To avoid a recurrence of the Crisis, a direct telephone link was installed between the White House and the Kremlin. This became known as the ‘hotline’.

The relationship between Cuba and the USA remained toxic for decades until President Obama made moves to improve relations between the two countries.

Both superpowers reflected on the scale of the arms race they were involved in and just how close the world had come to full-scale nuclear war. A nuclear Test Ban Treaty and other measures were discussed in attempt to moderate the threat that nuclear weapons would pose to future generations.

More Reading

There are many articles about the Crisis on the CIA website and you can also visit the Wikipedia page.

A US Navy Lockheed Neptune flies over a Soviet ship transporting IL-28 airplanes out of Cuba and back to the USSR on the 5th December 1962 - Wikimedia Commons
A US Navy Lockheed Neptune flies over a Soviet ship transporting IL-28 aeroplanes out of Cuba and back to the USSR on the 5th December 1962 – Wikimedia Commons
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