The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility (rerun)

This month marks the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.

Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

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.

12 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility (rerun)”

  1. We were in Munich, scanning International Herald Tribune headlines in English, during this savage interval. Passersby and travelers went on with life, knowing that nothing any private person thought would make the slightest difference.

    Had the U.S. nuclear arsenal not been overwhelmingly superior to Khrushchev’s, it’s not at all sure that this porcine apparatchik would have stood down.

  2. One of the scariest events of the Cuban Missile Crisis did not become publicly known until many years afterwards. A flotilla of 3 Soviet submarines, part of the force challenging the American “quarantine” was–unknown to the US–armed with nuclear torpedoes, 1 10-kiloton weapon per vessel. Aboard submarine B-59 was an officer named Vasili Arkhipov…he was the flotilla commander, although his ability to exercise command over the other 2 vessels was nil when submerged.

    Attempting to force the sub to the surface, US forces pinged it with sonar and dropped practice depth charges. The B-59 had been submerged and out of communication for a long time, CO2 levels were high, and the temperature was almost unbearable. B-59’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, was apparently convinced that war had started and he was under attack. Reportedly, Savitsky had decided to launch the nuclear torpedo rather than going down without a fight.

    Arkhipov disagreed, and blocked the launch. Given the level of tension that existed between the superpowers at the time, the use of a Soviet nuclear weapon would very likely have been catastrophic for the world.

    Summary of the incident here; see also the narrative of an American naval officer on the scene.

    Also a documentary worth watching

  3. I was practicing duck-and-cover in the halls of elementary school in Florida.
    They sold us dogtags so our parents could recognize our charred bodies.

  4. Reminds me of school drills we practiced regularly at the time. Vividly remember them. I was 4th grade. Living in Northern NJ at the time, my parents thought we were target #1. I recall the tension in the air at home.

    The Routine: We’d file down deep into the basement in our bunker-solid elementary school. Line up, and sit against the wall. Pull our knees to our faces. Might have gone on for a year or longer. Don’t recall any discussion by our teacher what or why we were doing this. Almost unspeakable at the time.
    For a great read, related: Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

  5. In August of 1990, on the 45th anniversary of Hiroshima, SF author Harlan Ellison was a guest on Nightline. He had a lot of interesting points to make.

    1) Rather than being an “immoral” weapon, due to its indiscriminate nature, Ellison contended that the Bomb was, in fact, the most MORAL weapon in centuries. Because, being so indiscriminate, it threatened the Powers That Be as severely, and perhaps even more, than the common man. Since it would be the PTB who chose to use, or not use, the weapon, that made it the most moral weapon invented since Kings last rode into battle at the heads of their armies.

    That is, the “Rich Bastards” (my words) who might decide to use the weapon were the ones who would risk the greatest losses, of power, prestige, and wealth.

    2) In support of this, Ellison pointed out that it had then been 45 years (now >70) since the weapon had been invented and used the “once”. This was unprecedented in human history… we don’t just invent a weapon and then not use it ever again.

    An interesting pair of observations, and I personally think he was spot-on with them.

    I will also add — I think that, for all the horror they represent, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki may well have saved humanity. IF we had demurred from using the weapons, with such ghastly, undeniable results that even the hardest would blanch at happening to their homeland, what might have happened in the 50s (when I gather there was an even more dangerous moment threatening war), or during the Cuban Missle Crisis, without those very real images of what the PRIMITIVE weapons managed to do to a city? Suppose all they had were some “field tests” on desert structures, etc., to show for the actual impact of using such a weapon? Would they have been more capable of denying, in their heads, and rationalizing, in their minds, the usage of the much more advanced and destructive weaponry? Would they have truly believed the destruction that would be visited upon themselves without such horrific imagery to drive it home?

    As horrible as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, they may well have been the sacrificial lambs to save humanity from a civilization ending WW III

    Just a thought to consider when someone decries the USA as the only country to ever use nukes, and/or how there were alternatives, so easy to claim in hindsight.

  6. I am slowly getting though a book on the last year of the Pacific war, Downfall. Among interesting things I learned, 17% of all US Pacific casualties were at Okinawa. The closer we got to Japan, the worse it got.

    The casualty ratio for the Pacific was far worse than the ETO.

    The govt, in anticipation of the invasion of Kyushu and then Honshu, ordered up 500,000 purple hearts, of which we are still drawing from the Inventory. An injured serviceman today gets a heart destined for one in 1945-1946 and not needed then. Because of The Bomb.

    The Capitulation of Japan was thought to take as long as November 1946.

  7. Bill, I have an interesting book called, Rising Sun, Victorious.” It is an alternative history about the war in the Pacific and the most interesting part is about the end of the war,

    “Downfall” is excellent and I would also recommend, “Shattered Sword: the untold story of Midway”

    It tells the story of the battle from the Japanese side. A lot of the reason for their loss of the four carriers was poor fire control, which probably contributed to the loss of the Lexington in the Coral Sea.

  8. Japan was never going to win.

    But what would have happened if they didn’t surrender? If the Emperor was either totally divorced from reality, or if the military had seized power to prevent surrender? Would we just have carpet bombed / nuked the place to rubble? I don’t think Americans would have tolerated the sorts of casualties that were predicted based on how hard it was to capture Iwo Jima and Okinawa, if we could just rain death on them. At what point might there have been a serious call that enough was enough?

  9. But what would have happened if they didn’t surrender?

    Patton’s 3rd Army and Otto Weyland’s XIX TAC would’ve run circles around the Japanese and ripped them to shreds with the combined air-ground operations that they perfected in the relief of Bastogne. Nolo contendere. Crap through a goose.

  10. But why would the public have tolerated any more US casualties and not insisted on a “bomb them until the rubble bounces and they beg us to stop” pure aerial approach?

  11. Mike – many people in the Lex Facebook group have also recommended Shattered Sword. I’ll have to put that on my reading list.


    One thing that the author of Downfall pointed out is that the Japanese by 1945 were not hoping for victory. They were hoping to make the attrition so horrendous that the Americans would sue for peace. And by this time, the American public was tiring of the war. The Generals were planning on the Soviets coming in from Siberia and attacking the Japanese in Manchuria.

    Without the Bomb the alternative history – a partitioned Japan with the USSR as Germany? A Japan with the govt left in charge? – it could have been very different.

  12. I vote for the charred wasteland. After Hiroshima/Nagasaki I don’t think an invasion was politically possible. If the use of the A-bomb had been foregone, I suspect that Truman and a number of generals would have found themselves on trial soon after the war, charged with the wanton murder of every casualty. They would have deserved it.

    I could make much the same case for the losses after the liberation of the Philippines. Japan was no longer a threat, the war was simply continuing on its own momentum. The bombing was a mercy that prevented the Japanese from starving themselves to death.

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