This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
I’m currently reading Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok. A review of the whole thing will be forthcoming in the not too distant future.
Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.
At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.
Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a "somber, melancholy expression."
Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.
Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:
Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me—do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted ‘Fire!’ that was quite another matter.
There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch!’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.
At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.
I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.
Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.
It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.
Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:
Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.
11 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility”
I remember that well. I was in medical school and we sat around a TV watching Kennedy’s speech that evening.
What is less well known although here is a reference to it, was an incident during Eisenhower’s first term. The US was using RB 47s and overflying the USSR. This was before the U 2. The Russians did not have good radar that could detect high flying aircraft but they didn’t realize it. One day, they installed a new radar system and, when they turned it on for the first time, they saw strange aircraft over several Soviet facilities. They had never seen this before and they called a full alert. The US also called an alert as we were responding to what the Soviets did. The US did not realize that the Russians were seeing the RB 47s for the first time. This was before satellites and we did not have the intercept capability for Soviet communications.
The Wiki article does not mention the alert.
Anyway, nothing happened except we stopped the RB 47 flights and built the U2. I heard about this when I worked at Douglas in 1959. I also heard about the U2 and its capabilities. The Russians could see it but they couldn’t hit it. Gary Powers’ flight was shot down because of a new SAM or because he had engine trouble and was forced to lower altitude. I’ve never heard which it was.
The U-2 was shot down by an S-75 Dvina system, which was also responsible for the U-2 shot down over Cuba during the crisis. Chertok mentioned this system several times in his memoir–can’t remember right off whether he worked on it himself or not.
Then too there was the Soviet Ship that appeared ready to run the blockade – with the Navy having orders to fire –
MK didn’t know that about the RB 47s – there was a similar project immediately after WW2 involving RB 29s although I think they were primarily in the Pacific – several were shot down all unknown by our public
Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, as I was only 11, but I certainly recall concern over the crisis leading to nuclear war by more than a few people.
Kennedy was intent on taking out the Cuban missile systems. That was a no brainer. He had no intention of a first strike on the Soviet Union, but had to be prepared for a retaliatory second strike if they had launched a first strike after an attack on the Cuban targets. The Cuban targets would have been taken out using conventional bombing.
We have never had a first strike doctrine since the Soviet Union went nuclear save the impending loss of Europe to a Soviet Block invasion and this was always vague as to the red line. Since we had a massive advantage over the Soviets and could launch before their first strike impact, the only threat of a massive nuclear exchange was if they decided their Cuban outpost under construction was worth mutual assured destruction. Not only did they decide that it was not, they decided they preferred to save us the trouble of bombing it into dust. Unfortunately Kennedy blinked and gave them a guarantee that we would not support Castro’s overthrow. That’s pretty much the point when the Cuban immigrants cemented their support for the Republican Party. When you think about it, the Soviets and Cuba got a guarantee from us at the cost of trying to move ICBM’s 90 miles from our shores. Even though it did cost them some rubles, that guarantee was priceless. We got nothing in return except saving the cost of using some of our left over WWII ordinance and minimal combat losses from their air defense.
There never was a high risk of the nuclear exchange in my opinion. It was possible based on miscalculation, but the decision makers were in continuous contact and there was vital national security interest only on one side. Ours. They understood that they could never realistically obtain a first strike capability unless they could station a large number of systems so close to us so that we could not launch before impact. They knew that we could interdict most of their boomers and bombers so Cuba was worth the risk. If they had been able to get the missiles installed, we would have lost much of the advantage of our nuclear systems so Europe would have been at much higher risk. If they were banking on Kennedy being predicable, risk averse and open to negotiation on Cuba if they were caught midstream, they were correct.
Vasili Arkiphov and the nuclear torpedo:
Discussion at Neptunus Lex:
I don’t think we have a clear picture of what did or would have happened regarding this incident. I’m not sure of the reliability of the info because it plays so well as sensationalism. Ceertainly an incident was plausable. I find it curious that this Soviet officer continued to serve and rose to admiral given the Soviets would have prefered the sub to have been scuttled rather than surrender to our forces showing their vulnerability. They love plausable deniability.
In Europe we had telegraphed our intent to release tactical nukes if the Soviets used chemical or biological weapons on NATO forces during an invasion, but that we would not use strategic weapons. There was always some discussion as to whether or not our strictly tactical use would result in a Soviet strategic response. We were reasonably confident that it would not. Besides we had no choice since we couldn’t have held under their chemical weapons use. Actually we probably couldn’t have prevailed even then without tactical nukes used on their follow on formation. THe math just didn’t add up. As they said in the service schools, “At some point numbers become quality.” The nuclear torpedo was a tactical weapon. As such, had they launched it, I’m pretty confident we would not have launched a strategic strike, certainly not immediately. We might not even been able to immediately known it was a nuke given the isolation of the target. Once we suspected what had happened, we would have confronted the Soviet leaders. Having no further weapons launched, we would not have launched in all probability. Certainly with nuclear forces, we had reason to expect an accidental isolated launch was possible. McNamara got few things right and his fears are probably right up there with his conviction that if we went into North Viet Nam the Chinese would head south.
Here is an interesting post from someone who was in the area at the time, last post:
Mrs Davis – your memory is fine. i remember too. As close to bend over and kiss your… as we ever got.
David – fascinating history – previously unknown to me – on Vasili
The real problem was Kennedy approving the Bay of Pigs. If had sent in the Marines like he should have. The whole thing wouldn’t have happened. It might of saved his life.
}}} Gary Powers’ flight was shot down because of a new SAM or because he had engine trouble and was forced to lower altitude. I’ve never heard which it was.
Robert Heinlein was touring the USSR when the U2 Incident occurred. He said that Russian TV was showing large remnants of the plane, much larger than he would expect from a plane struck by a missile, so he argued that it was actually some kind of flight malfuction that caused the plane to go down.
I once met a man in an airport, by the name of Richard Bender, owner of a software testing company and was from that era. Benderrbt.com it is. He had a very classy business card, but of course I was easily impressed. To describe what I believe they do, is something like when I ran simulations on the black hawk helicopter state control program, and found some transitions that could result in an incorrect behavior.. This they do on a grand scale. Mr Bender intimated to us at the vino volo in DC airport I think.. That the number of false positives in the detection software was just plain scary, and that more than once the alert for launch procedures were being followed based on who knows what, a bird, a cloud..? Scary! Especially given the mutual alert detection between the two countries… Rather nervous times then I imagine..
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