Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis: How World War III Nearly Begain

Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis: How World War III Nearly Begain

The world teetered on the edge of nuclear war while JFK scrambled to reach a face-saving compromise with the Soviet Union.

Key Point: Historians still debate which side blinked first in the nuclear standoff.

For 13 tension-filled days in October 1962, the world came closer to nuclear war than it has ever come before or since. People hesitantly went about their daily lives, not knowing if they or their children would wake up the next morning. In Washington and Moscow, the key players in the unfolding drama,
President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, trying desperately to keep the genie of nuclear war in its bottle before it escaped in a fatal puff of smoke.

At the heart of the matter lay Cuba, the communist-controlled island 90 miles from the Florida shores. When Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 revolt that ousted corrupt leader Fulgencio Batista, the Eisenhower administration decided that it was worth a try to cooperate with the bearded upstart. Soon, however, that policy was discarded after Castro deemed it more prudent to turn to the Soviet Union for military assistance. In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tasked the CIA with planning an operation that included “a paramilitary force outside of Cuba for future guerrilla actions.” That summer, the CIA constructed a secret training base in Guatemala for Cuban exiles. In other measures designed to destabilize Cuba, the United States introduced economic sanctions, slashing the amount of sugar imported from Cuba and cutting all diplomatic ties between the two countries.

JFK and the JMWAVE

Cuba became a hot topic in the 1960 presidential election between Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Nixon was the point man in the administration’s secret efforts to oust Castro, and on the campaign trail Kennedy attacked both Nixon and Eisenhower for not doing enough to oust Castro. Nixon could not fight back, since he needed to protect the secret initiatives then going on behind the scenes to disrupt the Castro regime. When Kennedy won the election, the plan for the exile invasion of Cuba was well on its way to completion; the new president reluctantly agreed to proceed with the invasion. It turned out to be a military and political disaster for Kennedy. The exiles were soundly defeated by Castro’s far superior military at the ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion, and it took another year before all the surviving prisoners were finally released from Cuban jails.

The failure at the Bay of Pigs was a turning point in the Kennedy administration’s attitude toward Cuba and the Castro regime. Cuba now became the president’s number one international priority, and the defeat of the CIA-backed rebels only hardened policy makers in Washington as to what future steps to take to rid the hemisphere of Castro. What followed was a secret war against Castro, designated Operation Mongoose, run entirely by the CIA—the largest covert war in the agency’s history. The man in charge was the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

On August 23, 1962, senior presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy issued National Security Action Memorandum 181, ordered by JFK, to implement a covert operation and propaganda war to topple Castro. The CIA set up headquarters in Miami and dubbed the new operation JMWAVE. Working out of an abandoned site on the University of Miami campus, JMWAVE would become the most elaborate paramilitary operation since the creation of the CIA in 1947. Some 400 CIA agents, sub-agents, and assorted hangers-on began plotting the fall of Fidel Castro. On January 19, 1962, Robert Kennedy held a meeting of the top members of the Mongoose team to plot strategy, informing them that “a solution to the Cuban problem today carries the top priority in the United States government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort, nor manpower is to be spared.”

Operation Anadyr

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev watched with growing alarm the actions the United States was taking toward Cuba. Under his aegis, the Russians poured military and technical advisers into Cuba to prevent another U.S.-sponsored invasion of the island. In July 1962, a Cuban delegation headed by Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) arrived in Moscow for high-level talks about the shipment of military supplies to Cuba, including nuclear missiles. During the meetings, Raul Castro signed a draft treaty with the Soviets that led to the deployment of Russian military forces to Cuba.

The codename for the operation was Anadyr, named for the river that flowed into the Bering Sea. The Russian general staff wanted to fool Western intelligence into thinking that the operation was designed to take place in the far north of the USSR, and troops were given cold-weather clothing even though they were destined for warm, sunny Cuba. The initial group of Soviet military men arrived by air in Cuba on July 10 and were soon joined by 67 others, who were given cover identities as machine operators and irrigation and agricultural specialists.

Over the summer, the first Soviet ships departed from ports along the Black Sea. Nuclear missiles were stored in specially constructed packing crates, and the ships were equipped with metal shields that could protect them from aerial photography. The ships’ captains were given sealed envelopes and were told to open them at a certain point in the Atlantic Ocean. When they reached that destination, a KGB officer on board each ship was on hand to determine the precise location. Soon, a total of 85 ships began the long voyage across the sea to Cuba, along with Soviet troops who would man the missile sites. The size of the ongoing convoys did not go unnoticed. American intelligence assets monitored the large fleet of merchant ships heading for Cuba. However, no one in the intelligence community knew what the convoys contained or their true purpose.

Operation Anadyr consisted of medium-range R-12 missiles (NATO designation SS-4) and long-range R-14 missiles (designated by NATO as SS-5) to be placed at various sites around Cuba. In total, 36 nuclear warheads were on site to be placed on top of the missiles as needed. These missiles could reach all of the United States with the exception of the Pacific Northwest. The missiles in Cuba were under the ultimate control of Khrushchev, but he gave General Issa Pilyev, permission to use the nine Luna missiles for the defense of Cuba if the United States invaded the island. The Soviets stationed 43,000 troops in Cuba under the strictest secrecy. The soldiers wore civilian clothes to blend into the local population

Phillippe de Vosjoli’s Warning

In July 1962, Phillippe de Vosjoli, the Washington station chief for the French intelligence service, arrived in Cuba. He would later write: “My reports started mentioning the arrival of Soviet ships in Havana and, strangely, in Mariel, a small harbor seldom appearing on the maps of Cuba. Other ships were landing people and cargos in harbors where the Soviet flag had, until now, been a rarity. Soldiers were reported guarding a cavern where work was being conducted secretly. Photographs taken by an agent showed that a large hole was drilled through the ceiling of the cavern to the pasture 50 feet above. This hole had the appearance of a large tube, big enough to hold a missile and oriented in the direction of the United States.”

After leaving Cuba, de Vosjoli returned to Washington, where he met with CIA Director John McCone to brief him on his trip. McCone, a Republican, had replaced Allan Dulles, who was fired after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. McCone had no previous intelligence experience but ironically had served as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Following his meeting with de Vosjoli, McCone took immediate steps to coordinate all available intelligence about the Russian ships en route to Cuba. After reading all the reports, he came to the conclusion that the Russians were shipping strategic nuclear missiles to Cuba and began alerting the other government departments about his hunch. A National Security Council meeting took place on August 22 in which the president was informed of McCone’s thesis. The president did not believe that Khrushchev would be stupid enough to make such a risky move, but he ordered the Defense Department to draw up a contingency plan to deal with any placement of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba.

U-2 Surveillance Missions Over Cuba

McCone left Washington for his honeymoon that summer. His deputy, General Marshall Carter, served as McCone’s stand-in. A U-2 surveillance mission on August 29 showed unmistakable evidence of surface-to-air (SAM) millsile sites that were being built at a fever pitch. The U-2 also found evidence of a cruise missile site in eastern Cuba and missile patrol boats in various Cuban ports.

On Sunday, October 14, a U-2 took pictures over the San Cristobal area, and the pictures were developed by the National Photo Interpretation Center the next day. What the analysts found was nothing short of sensational—equipment associated with Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), military barracks, missile shelter tents, missile erectors, and missile launchers. A second site with the same configuration was located close by. The situation had changed dramatically. The Russians now had missiles that could strike the entire United States within minutes.