(This is a rerun, with minor edits, of a post from 2012)
This month marks the 51st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
Last year I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I’m still hoping to get around to reviewing one of these days.
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.
13 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility”
I remember the crisis very well. I was actually more frightened by Neville Shute’s novel, “On the Beach.” I still do not reread that novel although he is my favorite novelist.
I did not have a high opinion of Kennedy and my family was outraged when they learned I had voted for Nixon in 1960. We were very distant relatives.
I recently read Disinformation and the author made a plausible case, almost in passing, that he believed Kennedy was killed by Khrushchev, via the KGB using Oswald as their tool, for that humiliation. It fit into the wider theme of his discussion of the disinformation forces of the USSR, and how they soon afterwards had had everyone pointing at the CIA, LBJ, the mafia, everyone but the obvious culprits. His impressive point was that most people around the world now believe, on no evidence, that the CIA killed Kennedy, yet dismiss Oswald’s obvious connections to the CPUSA and the USSR’s reasons to have Kennedy killed. Success.
As well as a mini history of the use of disinformation by Russia and the USSR – I hadn’t realized that the disinformation forces employed by the USSR were greater in number than the armed forces – he describes how they long ago infiltrated, co-opted, then took command of the western left’s media and propaganda arms. That one finds similar themes and approaches in Soviet propaganda, Hollywood movies, the NYT and government schools is not a coincidence nor an accident.
Epstein’s two books (on Kindle), The JFK Assassination Diary, and his book about Oswald, Legend are both excellent and suggest that Oswald may have had KGB ties but that the Cubans, if anyone, were more likely behind it.
From what I have read, Castro was extremely bitter about the resolution of the crisis, which he viewed as a betrayal by the Russians. Had he had control over the missiles, he would very likely have launched them.
It’s remarkable how many people outside of Cuba still give Castro the benefit of doubt despite all evidence of his wickedness.
It’s not remarkable at all. Espionage and propaganda are Castro’s core competencies. They’re why he’ll probably die in his bed and millions of Cubans will cry as if they’d lost their father. As millions of (living) Russians did when Uncle Joe died.
Yeah, I don’t think it was the Sovs.
Reasons: In the US/USSR game, offing each others leaders was pretty much out of bounds. You know that if we seriously went after a Soviet Premier, they would consider it active war. Surely they would assume the same about us. Assinaation was for third world proxies, not the two kings. If either side were to get credible info that such a thing did occur, things could get extremely ugly, even out of political control ugly, real fast.
And if the Sovs were to do such a thing, do you really think they would use an avowed Marxist who had lived in the Soviet Union for a time after defecting (which obviously did not take)? Surely they would hide their hand better than that, a la Mehemt Agca and JP-II, as, given what I said, the ramifications of getting discovered would be enormous.
And lastly, and most utterly fascinatingly, Wiki the name “Morris Childs”. Long story short, Childs was the number two in the American Communist Party for quite some time, he was the number one courier between Moscow and the CPUSA, he was buddies with Politburo members…. and, oh yeah…. he was an FBI agent. (a rare time we managed to pull off something like that.) There’s a great book about it called ‘Operation SOLO’. Anyhoo, Childs was in Moscow on November 22, 1963. And he reported quite clearly that the Soviets were horrified by the event, frightened in no small measure, and basically flipped out when they heard it was Oswald and knew who he was. And they certainly had not any reason at all to prefer a hardcore anti-communist Texan over JFK. So the Sovs essentially went to the CIA and other US contacts straightaway and said, “whatever you need on this guy (Oswald) that we have, just say the word”. This was duly reported back to DC, and history records that, even with Oswald having defected to the Soviet Union at one point, the US goverment never really thought the Soviets had a hand in it.
My own opinion FWIW? Odds on favortite is that Oswald (and Ruby) were just two nuts, with guns and well-placed. Runner up: The Mafia underworld, furious at Bobby even more than Jack, over what they saw as a betrayal after helping put them in office, only to see RFK’s Justice Dept go literally gangbusters against them. But I just think to much adds up against Soviet involvement…. political reasons, not moral ones.
But check out the ‘Operation SOLO’ story. It’s fascinating, and little known.
If anybody had a hand in Oswald’s actions, it was Cuba. I doubt it was direct but they may have encouraged him. Kennedy had been trying to assassinate Castro and they knew it.
Also, it was later found that there were nuclear tactical warheads in Cuba so a 1962 invasion was probably not a good idea.
I was all set to post about Morris Childs and Operation SOLO, but Andrew X beat me to it, and did a better job of explaining it than I did.
A further point in support of what Morris Childs reported about the Soviet role in the JFK assassination is that Morris Childs understood Russian, courtesy of his immigrant parents, but never let on to the Soviets that he understood Russian. So he would hear the Russians speak among themselves before he heard the translation. During the session where the Soviets discussed the JFK assassination with him, he heard the Russians say among themselves, “What shall we tell the American?” And this time at least, what they discussed among themselves was what the translator told Morris Childs. With the exception of that question, of course.
Why was Morris Childs able to dupe the Soviets? When Morris Childs was in Moscow during the Depression era for training, he made friends with Mikhail Suslov, who later was a long time Politburo member and chief ideologue of the CPSU. So the Soviets always viewed Morris Childs as “one of us,” never suspecting that Childs had become “one of them.”
I also suspect that Castro could have had something to do with the JFK assassination. How would the Cubans have made contact with Oswald? In September 1963, Oswald went to Mexico City in an unsuccessful attempt to get a visa for Cuba. In the process of applying for a visa, Oswald must have given enough life history information to entice the Cubans. When Oswald was back in Dallas, it wouldn’t have been difficult for the Cubans to get in touch. As MikeK points out, the Cuban role could have been as simple as one of encouragement. I doubt that Oswald,a hothead who had already taken a potshot at right-wing General Walker, would have needed much encouragement.
I bought Operation SOLO for a dollar at a used book store. A good investment.
People tend to get caught up in the detail and tend to forget the bigger picture with regard to the Crisis.
The Soviet Unions ballistic missile capability was woefully inadequate at the time, both in quality and quantity. The Sov’s were particularly alarmed when the U.S. placed missile bases in Turkey and wanted them removed. This is why they provoked the crisis.
LeMay knew the poor bargaining position that they were in and wanted to call their bluff, Kennedy thought LeMay mad.
In the end the Sov’s got the missiles out of Turkey by getting the U.S. to back down. The way the Kennedy administration put the spin on it was by painting as the Soviets backing down as a response of the blockade and the threat of war. In reality, the Sov’s backed down after the U.S. agreed to pull the missiles out of Turkey.
The Communists in Russia were very unhappy with Kruschev. Not because he won, but because as a group they were more concerned with their own survival and the survival of Communism. They knew that they had come close, and saw Krushev’s “adventurism” as something that was too risky for their liking.
Khrushchev also became convinced that Kennedy was weak during the Vienna summit. We are seeing a parallel situation now which may well blow up the middle east.
Interesting discussion but I take a different view. From my reading about Krushev he thought Kennedy was a light weight and someone he could bully. This is scary because WWIII could have resulted. Counterfactual history, if Nixon would have won the Presidency in 1960 I don’t think Krushev would have challenged Nixon, i.e. the famous Kitchen debates, etc.
On conspiracy, please read Vincent Buglosi’s 1600 page book on the Kennedy assassination where he refutes all these half-baked theories. Oswald was the lone shooter. The only true conspiracy in the assassination of a President was the Lincoln assassination. Proven with real evidence
Counterfactual history, if Nixon would have won the Presidency in 1960 I don’t think Krushev would have challenged Nixon, i.e. the famous Kitchen debates, etc.
I don’t think many people are going to argue with that.
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