Apocalypse averted: how the outbreak of World War III went on the wire

Today marks the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world’s two superpowers were on the brink of nuclear war

We are only one miscalculation of Armageddon. It’s the closest to holocaust and oblivion – the nuclear clock is ticking in its last minute before midnight and total darkness.

It was that day, October 24, 1962, when Soviet cargo ships carrying ballistic missiles, shaded by Russian nuclear submarines, approached the US naval blockade of Cuba.

Violating it, warned President John F. Kennedy, will lead to war. When the ships reach the quarantine line, they stop, having received a radio message from Moscow to stand where they are.

It’s Day 10 of the 13 Days That Rocked the World, the title of the book that Bobby Kennedy, then United States Attorney General, and part of the team plotting from a White House bunker in Washington . This is the most dangerous point of the Cold War, with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev testing the young president for less than 18 months in office and Kennedy determined not to flinch.

The USSR started building missile bases in Cuba, naively thinking that the construction would go unnoticed. But on day one – October 16 – the crisis began when a U-2 spy plane photographed the activity and several Soviet SS-4 nuclear missiles on the ground.

It was a blatant provocation, and only 90 miles from the United States. But thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr called “a combination of tenacity and restraint, will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so incomparably calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world, ”the Soviets blinked at first.

Except that nothing in this last paragraph is true. It was the line the Kennedy administration gave to a gullible media and regurgitated by Americans at its heart, like Bobby, in their memoirs. It took almost 40 years for the truth to come out.

In 1997, secret tapes Kennedy made of meetings with his top advisers – the National Security Council Executive Committee, or ExComm – were discovered. These atomized the American myth of the Cuban missile crisis.

“The missile gap”

Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election by attacking from the right Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate and incumbent vice president. He claimed that the previous administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in favor of the USSR. He knew it was a lie because, as a presidential candidate, he participated in classified briefings.

In fact, the United States possessed more than nine times as many nuclear weapons as the USSR, with missiles, planes and submarines carrying nearly 3,500 warheads. And Khrushchev knew it and exactly where they were. In 1961, Kennedy had deployed Jupiter intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey, right on the border with Russia.

As Khrushchev later told his defense council, “The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn what it is to have enemy missiles pointed at. on you “.

Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba in 1959, sweeping aside the corrupt Batista regime, and attempted to forge relations with the United States, but they were rejected. Russia has become the ally.

Khrushchev was motivated by the belief, the fact, with evidence that the Kennedy administration wanted to destroy the Castro regime.

There had been the catastrophic invasion of the Bay of Pigs, followed by sabotage, paramilitary assaults and assassination attempts – the largest clandestine operation in CIA history.

On the first day of the crisis, secret tapes reveal a strange conversation – ignorant, perhaps cynical or sarcastic – between JFK and his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. Kennedy said, “But why is he putting that in there?” It’s like we suddenly start putting a lot of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that would be damn dangerous, I think. To which Bundy immediately replied, “Well, we did, Mr. President.”

The Soviet threat

KENNEDY knew that missiles in Cuba do not alter the strategic nuclear balance although he claimed in his televised address on October 22 that missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.”

The truth was, as he told ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make a difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was in 90’s. miles away. Geography doesn’t mean much.

On the second day, Special Advocate Theodore Sorensen summed up this meeting in a note to JFK. “It is generally accepted,” he writes, “that these missiles, even fully operational, do not significantly modify the balance of power, that is to say that they do not significantly increase the potential megaton capable of being triggered. on American soil, even after a surprise. American nuclear attack.

Despite this, on the fifth day Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, although he euphemistically called it a quarantine because a blockade is an act of war under international law.

An adviser told ExComm that “our legal problem was that their action was not illegal.”


It was a matter of politics. In a 1987 interview, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it this way: “You have to remember that from the start it was President Kennedy who said it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.

Kennedy, in his presidential run, had restarted the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, claiming that they “helped make the first Caribbean base of communism.”

He had defined Cuba as an important electoral issue and, given the humiliation he suffered during the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a clear and current threat to his rule. While the United States was not in mortal danger, the JFK presidency certainly was.

His close friend, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Ambassador to India under JFK, later said: “Once [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration drove him to take almost any risk to get them out. Including potential nuclear Armageddon.

One more lie

THE healthy solution would have been to trade missiles – those from Cuba for the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey and Italy. Khrushchev made this offer on Day 12 – October 27 – which, according to Kennedy’s account, was vigorously rejected, propagating the myth that, with no way out, the USSR was the only one to back down.

It was another lie. The deal had been accepted, which JFK said he would repeal if the truth came out. It was concluded between Bobby Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, but a formal case was rejected by the American side.

Young Kennedy felt that any letter “could cause irreparable damage to my political career in the future.”

In April 1963, Kennedy quietly withdrew American missiles from Italy and Turkey, keeping his then market share a secret. Seven months later, he is assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson is invested.

About 10,000 American troops were already in Vietnam as “advisers” and LBJ was about to dramatically increase their numbers, send them into battle and create another catastrophic political crisis.

The nuclear clock has returned to five minutes to midnight.

Comments are closed.