After the Bay of Pigs, as it became increasingly clear that Cuba would have a close relationship with the Soviet Union, it occurred to Khrushchev that perhaps the Soviet Union could place missiles in Cuba, just as the U.S. had them placed in Turkey. When he raised this possibility with Fidel Castro, the latter suggested that it should be done openly. Cuba and the Soviet Union could sign a mutual defense agreement, which would include placing Soviet missiles in Cuba. The U.S. would have no legal grounds to object, but if it did protest, that could lead to negotiations; negotiations which could result in the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Khrushchev, however, insisted on sending the missiles in secret. The problem was that it was not really feasible. The United States’ U-2s flew overhead frequently. There was no way to get the missiles unloaded at the dock, moved to the launching sites, assembled and readied for firing without being detected.
Raising suspicions even more was the fact that the Soviets, including visiting Foreign Minister Gromyko, kept insisting they only had defensive weapons in Cuba, which the Americans could now see was not true. Kennedy had said all along “the gravest issues would arise” should any missile deployment occur. Despite Soviet denials, it was clear such a deployment had taken place, prompting some action by the United States On October 16, Kennedy convened a group of some 15 or 16 senior advisers, later known as ExComm, to decide what to do. By the end of the week, ExComm had come to two alternatives. The first was a naval quarantine to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional military equipment. The second was an air strike, almost certainly to be followed by an invasion of Cuba.
The debate reached the bottom line when Kennedy asked General Sweeney, head of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command, if his forces could destroy all of the missiles in Cuba. The General responded:
“We have the finest air force in the world. If we can’t do the job, nobody can. But can I say there is no chance that one or two missiles and nuclear warheads might still be operational, and can still be fired, after the attack? No Mr. President, I can’t say that.”
Wisely, the President decided on the naval quarantine, which was announced on Oct. 22 and went into effect on October 24.
On the evening of October 26, President Kennedy received a message from Khrushchev. Long and rambling, it ended with an acceptable proposal if the U.S. would guarantee it would not invade Cuba, Khrushchev would withdraw his missiles from the island.
But, early on the morning of October 27, a second message arrived, which others, probably hardline advisors, had obviously had a hand in drafting, adding the proviso that the U.S. should also withdraw its missiles from Turkey.
Advised by Llewellyn Thompson, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Kennedy decided to ignore the second message and announce his acceptance of the first. The world, he believed, would welcome the fact that the crisis seemed to be over. And it did.
And how fortunate that it did end, as the Joint Chiefs were recommending an air strike on October 29 to be followed shortly thereafter by an all-out invasion. For his part, Fidel Castro had always believed that Cuba would be invaded. And if that happened, he had advised Khrushchev that he should not hesitate to launch missiles. It would be the end of Cuba, but with an invasion, that became inevitable. The whole thing could have ended in a catastrophe, and not just for those immediately involved. As Robert McNamara noted glumly at a conference in 1992: “It would have ended, I believe, in utter disaster, not only for Cuba, but for the Soviet Union, my own country, and the rest of the world.” The world, then, must be eternally grateful to Kennedy and Khrushchev for reaching a sensible solution that avoided the chaos that might have been.
These reflections come from a conference hosted by Wayne Smith and Harry Blaney of the Center for International Policy. For Harry Blaney’s reflections click here Cuban Missile Crisis: Lesson for Today on Nuclear Diplomacy.