In July of 1962, Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel made a trip to Moscow. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet Union began to send weapons and military personnel to Cuba. A year earlier, Cuban exiles had been vanquished by Castros regime in the now infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion. The Soviets justified their exports by claiming that they were to be used as defensive mechanisms from future American attacks. However, the government in the United States was becoming increasingly concerned.
On August 31st, Senator B. Keating rose in the Senate Chamber and claimed that he had evidence that there were 1200 Russian troops in Cuba as well as "concave metal structures supported by tubing" that appeared to be the future site of a "rocket installation". Keating then called on President Kennedy to ask the Organization of American States to send an investigating team to Cuba.
Two days prior to Keatings accusation, an American U-2 spy plane had flown over Cuba and photographed a surface-to-air missile site. This site was dismissed by most of the Presidents advisors as defense strategy, but CIA director John McCone believe that this site was a prelude to surface-to-surface sites, which could be used as offensive weapons. McCones ideas received little thought from the White House, because they were too busy getting ready for the upcoming election.
On September 4th, a secret message was transferred between the Soviet leader and the President of the United States. This message basically stated that the Soviet Union would not attack before the upcoming November elections in America. Later that day, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger released the following White House statement of policy:
All Americans, as well as all of our friends in this Hemisphere, have been concerned over the recent moves of the Soviet Union to bolster the military power of the Castro regime in Cuba. Information has reached this Government in the last four days from a variety of sources which establishes without doubt that the Soviets have provided the Cuban government with a number of anti-aircraft defense missiles with a slant range of twenty-five miles which are similar to early models of our Nike. Along with these missiles, the Soviets are apparently providing the extensive radar and other electronic equipment which is required for their operation. We can also confirm the presence of several Soviet-made torpedo boats carrying ship-to-ship guided missiles having a range of fifteen miles. The number of Soviet military technicians known to be in Cuba or en route approximately 3,500 is consistent with the assistance in setting up and learning to use this equipment. As I stated last week, we shall continue to make information available as fast as it is obtained and properly verified.
There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia, or a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo; of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles, or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise.
The Cuban question must be considered as par of the world-wide challenge posed by Communist threat to peace. It must be dealt with as a part larger of that larger issue as well as in the context of the special relationships which have long characterized the inter-American system.
It continues to be the policy of the United States that the Castro regime will not be allows to export is aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force. It will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary fro taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere. The United States, in conjunction with other Hemisphere countries, will make sure that while increased Cuban armaments will be a heavy burden to the unhappy people of Cuba themselves, they will be nothing more.
Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was the perfect spy for the United States. He was a high ranking Soviet officer in the Soviet Intelligence service. He had access to information about secret weapons, especially missiles. With his help, the United States Government was able to put together a large book on Soviet missiles. This would prove to be a valuable asset in the indentification of the newly arrived Soviet missiles.
On September 20th the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 230, which sanctioned the use of force to end aggression in Cuba. One day later, the Soviet Prime Minister, Andrei Gromyko, told the United Nations that a U.S. attack on Cuba or Cuba-bound ships would mean war.
On September 25th, 1962, Fidel Castro proudly announced that a new fishing port would be built just north of the American-held Gunatanamo Bay base. American intelligence officers were not so sure of the projected ports peaceful purpose. They felt that it could be used as an excellent location for a Soviet submarine base. Three days later, American intelligence officers identified then contents aboard the Soviet ship Kasimov. Using the book which was compiled largely because of Oleg Penkovsky, the intelligence officers determined the contentsm to be IL-28 Beagle bombers, which were capable of carrying nuclear warheads from Cuba to the United States. When this information was relayed to President Kennedy, he ordered another U-2 flight over Cuba to take place on October 9th. However, bad weather delayed the plane until October 14th, when it took pictures over pre-determined areas of Cuba.
At 5:30 p.m. on October 15th, 1962 it began. The film had just come back from the U-2 plane, and it would now be subject to analysis. This is when the intelligence officers identified MRBMs (Middle Range Ballistic Missiles) in Cuba. MRBMs are designed for offensive purposes. From this day on the White House and the Kremlin officials would get little sleep.
To seee a map of possible damage from Cuba's MRBMs, click HERE.
McGeorge Bundy, the assistant to the President for national security told the President on October 16th. The President then immediately ordered the assembly of his most trusted advisors, the ExComm. ExComm was composed of fourteen people who job was to analyze the situation, and offer possible courses of action to the President. In the end, it was the Presidents decision. ExComm began to meet every day at 10:090 in the morning in the up-most secrecy as to not alert the Press. Immediately the team began to consider courses of action. The members of ExComm were contemplating several courses of action. Included among them were:
- No Action. No one was really "for" this course, but it would avoid a possible nuclear confrontation, and it might give some time to the diplomats to find a peaceful situation.
- Diplomacy. Use the full force of international opinion to force to Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba.
- Warning. Send a message to Fidel Castro and warn him of the grave danger he, and Cuba are in.
- Blockade. Use the U.S. Navy to block any offensive missiles from entering Cuban shores.
- Air Strike. Use the U.S. Air Force and attack all known missiles sites with air raids.
- Invasion. Launch a full force invasion of Cuba and overthrow Castro.
They also decided that President Kennedy should keep his regular appearance so that no one would be able to detect the current situation.
On October 17th the Soviet leader Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy assuring him that "under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba." By this time ExComm had already narrowed their recommended course of action down to two events: a blockade or an air strike.
On October 18th the President ordered a build up of arms along the southern border of the United States, just in case war breaks out. No one suspected anything because training exercises had been previously scheduled for that area. The Soviet foreign minister Gromyko visited the President. Gromyko said that the Soviet aid to Cuba was "solely [for] the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba, and to the development of its peaceful democracy. If it were other wise, the Soviet Government would have never become involved in rendering such assistance." While Gromkyo read this, President Kennedy just sat there, knowing that the incriminating photos wre within arms reach. When Gromyko had finished, Kennedy read part of the statement issued September 4th, which warned the Soviet Union that the "gravest of consequences would follow" if offensive missiles were placed in Cuba.
President Kennedy then departed for a previously planned campaign trip the next day. Deliberations with ExComm continued. However, news reached Moscow that highly public American maneuvers in the Caribbean were in preparation for war with Cuba. While Kennedy was in Chicago, he realized that the time for deliberations was drawing to and end, and decided that he would come down with a slight cold on the following day.
On October 21st, ExComm, and President Kennedy decided that a quarantine was the best course of action. The administration called it a quarantine, because the term "blockade" would symbolize war. Then they began the rigorous task of alerting U.S. allies of the White Houses decision. Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State, was sent to inform Charles De Gaulle, the leader of France. When Acheson offered to show De Gaulle the photographs of the missile sites, the French leader brushed them aside and said, "A great country such as yours does not act without evidence. You may tell your President that France will support him". Meanwhile the Press was getting closer and closer to ascertaining the big news that was keeping the White House up at all hours. To keep the media down, President Kennedy himself called the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post and request that they dont extensively talk about the current situation. They both agreed.
On October 22nd, President Kennedy addressed the country about the current situation in Cuba. On this day the Joint Chiefs of Staff also changed the DEFCON level from the usual 5 to DEFCON 3, the lowest it had been since World War II.
The next day the OAS (Organization of American States) agreed to endorse the United States action of quarantine. On the same day the Soviet Union requested a meeting with the United Nations Security Council. President Kennedy signed the official Proclamation of Interdiction with his full name, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, something he rarely did. The Proclamation was set to go into effect at 10:00 a.m. on the following day. Upon hearing this, Khrushchev transmitted a statement on the official Soviet position. The gist of the statement was that the United States action was nothing more than piracy and a violation of international law that could lead to a nuclear war.
On October 24th before the quarantine could go into effect American intelligence officers noticed something strange. Of the nineteen Soviet ships en route to Cuba, sixteen, including five which were suspected of carrying missile cargoes, slowed down or reversed their course. American intelligence officers did not know it at the time, but one of the ships that turned around, the Poltava, was carrying twenty nuclear warheads. At 10:25 in the morning, ExComm learned that some of the ships had turned around. In an optimistic manner, Secretary of State Rusk turned to Secretary McNamara and said, "Were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." Thousands of miles away in Moscow and American businessman received an unexpected summoning. William Knox was the President of Westinghouse International, and he was summoned to meet Nikita Khrushchev. For three hours the Russian leader spoke his mind to Mr. Knox, and then he sent Knox back to the United States to relay the information to President Kennedy. On the same day the U.S. Strategic Air Command changed the DEFCON level from 3 to 2, the highest it has ever been. Diplomatic efforts continued at the United Nations.
On October 25th, Walter Lippmann, a well-respected journalist wrote abut a possible trade-off. The Cuban missiles for the missiles that the Untied States had put in Turkey, which were aimed at Russia. While analysis continued at ExComm, the Cubans continued to build their missile silos. Meanwhile at the United Nations, the Secretary General U. Thant proposed a cease of actions on both sides. This idea was overruled by both the Americans and the Russians.
On October 26th, The United States Navy boarded the Russian ship
Marcula. No illegal contraband was found on the ship, and the Russian captain did not challenge the U.S. Navy. There was also a meeting between John Scali, a well respected ABC news diplomat and Alexander Fomin. At this meeting, Fomin told the diplomat of the situation in Cuba an offered a resolution. The resolution basically consisted of:
- The missile sites in Cuba would be taken down and sent back to Russia
- The Soviets would send no more offensive missiles to Cuba
- The United States would have to pledge not to invade Cuba.
After the meeting, Scali rushed to the State Department to tell of his unusual encounter. ExComm members dismissed this labeling as it was a desperate act by Khrushchev to avoid war. Furthermore, there was no positive indication that this proposal had come from the Soviet leader himself. Meanwhile, back in Moscow the Soviets were also attempting to avoid war at all costs. The Soviet leader sent a message to Kennedy saying:
" If the President of the United States would give their assurance that the United States would itself not take part in an attack upon Cuba and would restrain others from such actions, if you recall your Navy this would change everything.
Let us therefore display statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of your military specialists in Cuba will be obviated."
When ExComm members receive this letter, they began to prepare a positive response. President Kennedy; however, sent his brother on a secret mission. The attorney general went through the back door of the Soviet embassy late that night for the purpose of meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin. At this meeting Robert Kennedy suggested another possible resolution. He intimated at a possible trade. Cuban missiles for Turkish missiles.
The good mood surrounding the aura of the letter from the 26th did not last for long. On the 27th, during an ExComm meeting, another letter from the Soviet leader began to come through. Apparently Khrushchev was facing some pressure from his aids back in Moscow. This new letter was polished, shined, and edited to be exact. A new variable had entered into the equation: Turkey. ExComm members were shocked and did not understand how Khrushchev came up with the idea of a missile trade. Kennedy kept quiet about the covert mission from the previous night. Now the Soviets would only withdraw their missiles from Cuba if the United States would withdraw its missiles from Turkey. For President Kennedy, these deliberations had gone on for too long. While deliberations were occurring, the Cubans were not stopping their work on the sites. Now it was time for action. On this same day a U-2 plane accidentally strayed over the Russian border. Russian aircrafts left to take the plane in, but American fighter jets with nuclear warheads escorted the U-2 back to American territory. Over Cuba an American U-2 plane was shot down by one of the missile sites. The missile was launched by a Russian commander in Cuba, who bypassed getting permission from Moscow. Both of these situations helped heighten the crisis.
President Kennedy sent another letter to Khrushchev accepting the terms which the Soviet leader had proposed in his letter dated the 26th. He publicly ignore the Turkish missile aspect in the letter.
On October 28th, over Radio Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev accpted President Kennedys terms, and the crisis came to an end. For the next month negotiations continued about the details of the removal. The relationship between the Soviets and the Cubans became heated, and Castro sent an emotional message to Khrushchev begging to have nuclear warheads rain down on the United States. Later, Khrushchev said of Castro, "He [Castro] was a young hotheaded man, so he thought we were retreating and capitulating. He did not understand our action was necessary to prevent military confrontation." On November 21st, 1962 President Kennedy ended the quarantine, and the crisis officially ended.
For a picture of a U-2 mission, click HERE.