HAVANA -- The black, sinister-looking Soviet SS-4 intermediate-ranged missile on display at Havana's La Cabana fortress looked old, roughly finished, and rather primitive.
But this missile, and 41 others (including some longer-ranged SS-5's) terrified the United States during the October 1962 missile crisis -- 13 days that shook the world. Each of them could have delivered a one megaton warhead onto America's East Coast cities, starting with Washington D.C. One megaton is a city-buster.
When the Cuban missile crisis erupted 50 years ago this month, I was a student at Washington's Georgetown University Foreign Service School. Cuba was headline news. The Cold War was at its peak.
A CIA-operation to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro's Marxist government had spectacularly failed at the Bay of Pigs. The new, inexperienced U.S. president, John Kennedy, got cold feet in the last minute and called off vital air cover for an invasion by Cuban exiles. Deprived of air cover, most were killed or captured.
The Pentagon urged a full-scale U.S. invasion of Cuba, backed by massive naval and air power. The Kennedy administration wavered.
Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev seized the moment by sneaking 42 medium-ranged missiles and smaller tactical nukes into Cuba, right under the nose of the Americans. When U.S. U-2 spy planes finally spotted the Soviet missile bases all hell broke loose.
U.S. forces went to DEFCON 3, then DEFCON 2 -- the highest readiness stage before all-out war. Six U.S. army and Marine divisions moved to South Florida and Georgia. Nearly 600 U.S. warplanes were poised to attack. On 25 Oct. nuclear weapons were loaded onto U.S. B-47 and B-52 bombers. Seventy five percent of the Strategic Air Command's bombers were airborne or poised to attack the USSR.
Hot-headed Fidel Castro furiously demanded Khrushchev launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. Decades later, Castro admitted this was a terrible mistake. Fortunately, the Soviet leadership said "nyet!" A nuclear exchange in 1962 between the U.S. and USSR would have killed an estimated 100 million people on each side.
As Soviet freighters steamed towards Cuba, the Kennedy White House imposed a naval and air blockade on Cuba. But it was called a "quarantine" since under international law a blockade is an act of war. Today, in the undeclared war against Iran, the favored term is "sanctions."
I watched all this from Washington, knowing the city was the first target for a Soviet nuclear strike. Some wise people left town. Wealthy Latin American families chartered aircrafts to bring their children home. The university chapel was filled with students on their knees, many weeping, and saying Hail Marys.
Looking back, I don't know why my friends and I didn't high tail it out of Washington. I guess we simply could not believe that nuclear Armageddon was at hand. But it was. Soviet and U.S. forces were heading for a collision.
Then, the blustering but crafty Khrushchev offered to take Soviet missiles out of Cuba if the U.S. pledged never to invade the island. Kennedy readily accepted the deal. In a secret codicil, Kennedy agreed to quietly withdraw U.S. nuclear-armed Thor and Jupiter missiles targeted on the USSR from Turkey and Italy.
The deal was done. Washington hailed it as a huge victory for President Kennedy, who became a national hero and icon. This mythology persists in the U.S. today. The American public is still largely unaware of the secret deal.
In the end, the Soviet Union came out ahead. Cuba was saved from a U.S. invasion, which was Moscow's principal strategic goal, along with preserving the Castro regime.
U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy (and likely Britain) threatening the USSR were removed, but the story remained secret for decades. Unaware of it, the Soviet politburo ousted Khrushchev a year later for "reckless, hare-brained schemes" and made the dim Leonid Brezhnev chairman.
Fortunately, the U.S. military was not allowed to invade Cuba: Unknown at the time, Soviet troops there were authorized to use 100 tactical nuclear weapons against any invading force and their bases in South Florida. As Wellington said after Waterloo, "it was a damned near-run thing."
But this "victory" misled America into hubris and over-relying on military action to resolve its future political problems.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012.
Follow Eric Margolis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ericmargolis
Cuban Missile Crisis: Resolution and analysis
Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Who won the Cuban missile crisis is an Interpretations question that the exam boards have asked in the past. When answering this question it is important to remain balanced and to consider how far each side achieved its objectives and also to consider what the consequences of their actions were in the months and years afterwards.
Soviet Aims and Objectives:
The removal of US missiles from Turkey: objective achieved.
The security of Cuba: objective achieved, the US made a promise never to attack Cuba and they have stuck by this promise.
Deployment of missiles close to the United States: you need to weigh up whether it was ever the intention to have missiles permanently based in Cuba. If the Soviet Union DID want this to be the case then they failed to achieve this goal. However if the intention was to use Cuba to gain concessions elsewhere, then they achieved these objectives.
Enhance Khruschev’s reputation within the Soviet Union. If Khruschev was using the deployment of missiles in Cuba to try and enhance his reputation and to placate hard liners within his own party then he failed spectacularly. Following the crisis he saw Soviet – Chinese relations collapse and he was ousted from power in 1964, just 2 years after the crisis.
‘Peaceful Coexistence’ – was a stated aim of Khruschev’s. Despite the fact that the world had been closer to Nuclear War than at any other time the crisis did actually do a lot to reduce the risk of a future Nuclear conflict. Both the US and Soviet Union realised just how easily a situation could get out of hand and result in a world annhialating nuclear conflict. A result of this was the hot-line linking the Kremlin to the White House and the instigation of talks about Nuclear Non Proliferation.
US Aims and Objectives:
Remove threat of Nuclear Missiles in Cuba: Objective achieved. Indeed at the time the world viewed the outcome of the Crisis as a huge victory for Kennedy and believed he had done a fantastic job of standing up to, and beating, the Soviet Union (At the time nobody knew about the agreement to remove missiles from Turkey).
Isolate Cuba and / or remove the Communist regime: This was more of a long term aim of the US Government rather than somethingt that was at the forefront of their minds whilst dealing with the missile crisis. Whilst the outcome of the crisis saw the US promise never to invade Cuba again, thus ensuring the continuation of its Communist Government, the diplomatic actions taken by Khruschev during negotiations led Castro to feel betryaed by the Soviet Union. He had wanted issues such as the continued presence of US troops at Guantanamo Bay to be dealt with: they weren’t mentioned. Cuban-Soviet relations suffered for some time as a result of this.
If both sides had an objective of making their country a safer place, then this was to some degree achieved. Missiles were removed from Cuba by the Soviets and from Turkey by the US. The Balance of Power, did it change at all? If missiles had remained on Cuba then there would have been a considerable shift in the balance of power, or at least the way that it was perceived by the general public. The simple fact of the matter is that the US were so far in front of the Soviets in terms of ICBM’s, their range, speed of deployment and their accuracy that missiles on Cuba would have little military impact: though image and public perception is highly important in politics. Kennedy dealt with the matter very well in public. His demeanor and method of getting his message across made him look very good at dealing with hostile situations. Khruschev however, despite probably achieving most of his objectives, came across as giving in to the Americans.