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

This month marks the 61st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war. Reflecting on this crisis seems particularly appropriate in our current era, when the threat of nuclear was has again come forward from the background to which it had been hopefully consigned.

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.

9 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility”

  1. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, as seems inevitable, the situation will be in some ways riskier than it was in 1962. The Communists, as atheists-materialists, didn’t have expectations of getting into Paradise following their demise. The situation is the opposite with the Iranian top leadership.

    True, Iran won’t have anywhere near the number of bombs that the Soviet Union, and its delivery means will be shorter-range, at least in the near term. But the probability of some use of nuclear weapons seems like it will become fairly high, even if the casualties are measured in hundreds of thousand rather than tens of millions.

  2. David,
    The Iranians have stated for many years that the only reason they are intent on acquiring nuclear warheads, either homegrown, or purchased, is to smite Israel. As far as casualty count, how many live in Iran? Figure that would be the minimum you could expect.

    Israel now has air-to-air refueling capability, so expect them to at least attempt to thwart Iran’s homebuilt efforts. What would worry me would be them acquiring one or more from an outside source, and trucking or floating said items into Israel.

    Iran, to start with, would cease to exist, but I’m not sure Israel would stop there. THAT possibility should have the other Islamic nations working hard to ensure they don’t overlook any intelligence on the subject. It’s one thing to know, and not care, if a group plans to pull the same sort of thing that Hamas did. However, the potential cost if you turn a blind eye to a nuke being in play is earthshatteringly stupid. Being known as the 3rd glass parking lot to the north is a really stupid epitaph. Even if it has a nice glow-in-the-dark color to it !

  3. These are dangerous times. I would suspect that if Iran is close to getting The Bomb Israel will attack them. I have always thought that the Mossad has intelligence assets throughout the Middle East, but this attack by Hamas mystifies me. How they could have been so blind sided.

    But then look at us with 9/11.

  4. Another aspect of the Cuba that’s relevant today is the value of nukes as a deterrent, but in a way that is different than MAD

    The Soviets were able to secure Cuba as a base for further subversion in the Western Hemisphere The initial deployment of the missiles created an active deterrent while the compromise designed to eliminate that nuclear threat left Cuba a Soviet client. In other words, the Soviet nuclear umbrella allowed other actions, those below the nuclear threshold, to proceed.

    When Iran gets the bomb, its power will increase exponentially not only because it can rain nuclear fire but because having that weapon will protect existing actions. If a nuclear-armed Iran decided to undertake really provocative actions such as concluding a formal treaty of alliance with Lebanon allowing it to establish bases in that country or recognizing Gaza as an independent country and then working to break the blockade or even just supplying precision guidance systems for Hezbollah rockets, Israel would find its options to respond greatly limited.

    Israel is at a point of existential crisis. It was formed to create a safe homeland for Jews, but nearly 75 years later it is still in a state of war with its population still racing to bomb shelters and now when holding events like raves taking into account how far it is from enemy territory, A nuclear-armed Iran will in large part extend its protective umbrella over Hamas and Hezbollah and while Israel can still strike at those proxies its options will be very limited.

    Yes Israel can strike at the Iranian homeland. There have been several cases of assassination and sabotage but those are merely delaying actions. Israeli planes can strike at Iran but not in any sustained way. Alsp Oran is a fairly large country while Israel has no strategic depth. Meanwhile Iran has converted the Shi’ite world into its proxy army and as we have been reminded can hit Israel’s population centers almost at will. That’s not a stable situation.

    The Obama-Biden approach to Iran is to think that it can buy Iran’s strategic partnership by allowing it to become a full-bore regional power with nukes. The problem with that approach is that Iran reaps all the benefits upfront while we only gain from on-going compliance. We all know that once Iran gets those nukes it will stop complying and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

  5. If you do not care about your children, as Iran does through proxy Hamas and perhaps Hezbollah, once you control weapons that can destroy your opposition completely it becomes apparent that is a likely outcome regardless of the consequences. For that reason alone it behooves those who can to object fiercely and to put as many roadblocks as possible into the effort to gain access to weapons of mass destruction. Looking at you, Tony B. (without expectations.)
    From appearances, one can assume that the State Department is staffed by political minions who have difficulty determining which end of a hammer to use.
    Perhaps it is blind political ambition, regardless of the cost in human lives. If I had any influence on Israeli thinking, and an awareness of Iranian activities seeking weapons, a pre-emptive attack could very well be an option that makes sense. Iran should consider also that neighboring states may object strenuously to their proposed actions in re Israel. Perhaps said states should or could get together to influence Iranian intentions. Hope is not a plan.

  6. When Iran gets the bomb, its power will increase exponentially not only because it can rain nuclear fire but because having that weapon will protect existing actions.

    Iran’s sponsorship of the current war may be a function of Iran’s expectation that it will soon have nuclear weapons.

    The best time to have stopped Iran’s nuclear program was years ago. Of course that’s how it always is for democratic countries – they wait until they have no choice. But nowadays the margin for error is less than ever, and waiting until you have no choice may not cut it.

    No doubt the important targets in Iran are deep and hardened. The USA could have solved the problem relatively easily by consistently undermining the Iranian regime. The Iranian people hate the mullahs. But the USA is unfocused and inconsistent, and Israel has been betting on us to solve the problem, so here we are. The solution becomes even more difficult once the Iranians have an inventory of usable nuclear warheads that can be moved and hidden around the country.

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