Cuban Missile Crisis – The Failed Checkmate – Extra History – #1


April, 1962 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is walking near his villa on the Black Sea. He looks across the water. On the far shore is Turkey, where, months before, President Kennedy had stationed nuclear missiles. Their warheads threaten Moscow. And he wonders: “Why then can’t we do the same in Cuba?” And the world slips one minute closer to midnight. Music (Birth of the People) This Cold War series is brought to you by DomiNations. If you want to get your Khrushchev on, check out the link in the description. Remember when we did that Berlin Airlift episode? Well the folks at DomiNations wanted to keep this Cold War party going, so for the next few weeks, we’re gonna talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis. A time when, for thirteen days, two great powers hurtled toward a global suicide pact. And it started with a bluff. Following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Khrushchev had regularly bragged to foreign press about the Soviet missile system. His rockets could hit a fly 8,000 miles away, he said. And Moscow was cranking them out like sausages. In reality though, his intercontinental missiles were super inaccurate and took hours to launch. In the event of a war they’d probably be destroyed while fueling. Meaning that they weren’t much of a deterrent against an American first-strike. These long-range missiles were little more than an empty threat, but Khrushchev did have reliable medium and intermediate-range missiles and if he could station those in Cuba he could credibly threaten the United States, in much the same way NATO had encircled and threatened the Soviet Union. From that position of power he could probably negotiate for Berlin, or demand that Kennedy withdraw his missiles from Turkey. And, as a bonus, the US would never again dare to invade Cuba. But deploying them openly was not an option. Couldn’t risk Kennedy doing something rash. No, Khrushchev would have to sneak them in, and only unveil them once they were operational. It would be a checkmate, provided the secret held. On an undisclosed date in Havana, Fidel Castro sits in his office. The man across from him, traveling undercover as an agricultural engineer, is the head of Soviet rocket forces. And he’s just offered to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro is skeptical. If the Yankees discover a secret deployment, they’ll think that the missiles are intended for a first strike. Besides, Cuba doesn’t need nuclear weapons. And he wants to look like a Soviet ally, not a puppet. Wouldn’t a defense treaty be better? The Russian says: “No, these weapons will counteract imperialist aggression, protecting both nations.” Castro withdraws to confer and then delivers his answer: Cuba will help defend world revolution. Khrushchev will have his Caribbean fortress. On August 25th in Sevastopol, a timber freighter pulls out of port, riding high on the water. Deep in its hold lie medium-range rockets. So long that they have to be propped up against a bulkhead. It’s only one of 85 commercial ships ferrying troops and equipment to Cuba. The luckiest of these soldiers travel on cruise ships, disguised as tourists, but the majority are crammed into sweltering freighters. By early September the missiles begin arriving And they’re not alone; 42,000 Soviet troops come ashore dressed in civilian clothes or Cuban army uniforms. They unload their cargoes by night: helicopters, bombers, patrol boats, anti-aircraft guns, fighter jets, and medium-range ballistic missiles. The work begins. On October 16th at 11:50 a.m. in the Oval Office, President Kennedy and a handful of advisers sit at the briefing table, looking at blown-up photos from a U-2 spy plane. A CIA analyst lays it out. These are medium-range missiles with a range of 1174 miles. If one launches it can hit Washington in 13 minutes Kennedy is furious at Khrushchev’s betrayal. The midterms are coming up and his political rivals have made the Soviet buildup in Cuba a campaign issue. They accuse him of letting the Soviets install missile platforms 90 miles from Florida. Privately, Khrushchev had told Kennedy that the build-up was defensive meant to avoid another American invasion and that it wouldn’t include missiles. With this assurance in hand Kennedy had drawn a red line pledging to take action if the soviet station’s nuclear weapons in Cuba. He had made that pledge thinking that he’d never have to go through with it. “When will they be operational?”, Kennedy asks. The analyst replies: “Once the warheads are attached? Within hours.” The Defense Secretary cuts in: “If there’s gonna be an airstrike it must happen before the missiles are operational. But there is evidence that the warheads aren’t on site yet.” He thinks that Kennedy still has time to plan. But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs disagrees “Most of the rocket infrastructure is already in place.” He thinks that the President should either order an airstrike or maybe an airstrike followed by an invasion. “We are certainly going to do option one”, says Kennedy. We’re gonna take out those missiles. They reconvene that night. At 6:30 p.m. in the White House, gathered around in the Cabinet Room our 14 men. Nine from the National Security Council, and five other key experts. It’s the first meeting of what will be known, as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Or EXCOMM. Kennedy secretly turns on a tape recorder preserving the meeting. The Joint Chiefs state their unanimous position: An air strike on the missile sites won’t work. Khrushchev could just send more missiles to replace the destroyed ones, and Soviet bombers in Cuba could still hit Florida. They recommend 800 sorties destroying all Soviet power on the island, followed by an invasion. Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, the Attorney General, loves this plan because he hates Castro. But the others point out that air strikes are never a hundred percent effective. Some Russian missiles might survive it and launch a counter strike. And, of course, if Soviet soldiers are manning the missiles, killing them in an airstrike could lead to war. The Secretary of State asks whether doing nothing is an option? After all those missiles don’t really change the strategic balance. Is getting nuked from Cuba of any different than getting nuked from Russia? Kennedy agrees, it isn’t. But he had pledged to take action, and if he reneges, Khrushchev might see it as weakness and start sending missiles to hot spots everywhere. So three plans are developed. First: Diplomacy. Low chance of success but low risk of war, also. Second: Instituting a naval blockade to stop any more weapons from coming in and calling for the missiles removal. Publicly warn that any offensive move against the US would lead to a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Third: An air strike with an optional invasion. EXCOMM goes back-and-forth debating possible outcomes, but Kennedy keeps coming back to Khrushchev’s thinking. Why would he do this? It would be like the US putting missiles in Turkey. “We did”, points out the National Security Adviser. On October 17th at 12:00 p.m. in the Caribbean, 40 US warships plunge toward a tiny island. The Marines inside check their weapons. Soon, they’ll storm ashore and remove the island’s dictator. It’s just an exercise. One that was scheduled before the crisis. But in Washington, EXCOMM is still discussing whether they’ll do this for real. On October 19th at 9:45 a.m. in the White House the new intelligence reports are ominous. Fresh U2 photos show two medium-range missiles are now operational. The Soviets are also building several launch sites for intermediate range missiles that can hit almost all of the continental US. Those missiles aren’t ready yet, but the decision window is closing. In the last several days discussions in EXCOMM have increasingly turned away from the air strike invasion option. Even Bobby has come around on that one. The blockade at least leaves room to negotiate. But the Joint Chiefs still push for war. Kennedy expresses his biggest concern: If he attacks Cuba, Khrushchev will attack Berlin and that’ll leave only one alternative: A nuclear strike. The Air Force chief of staff pushes back. If it came to it, they could wipe out the Soviets. Besides a blockade will communicate weakness. He compares it to Nazi appeasement, which is a shot at Kennedy’s father who once advocated negotiating with Hitler. But Kennedy knows that winning a nuclear war might still mean millions of American deaths. The general responds that the Air Force will be ready for an attack in two days if ordered. “These brass hats have one advantage”, Kennedy says after the meeting, “If we listen to them, none of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong.” He needs to make a decision. On October 20th at 9am in Cuba, the 79th Missile Regiment gathers around a political officer. He stands on a mound of dirt brought from the Soviet Union, a reminder that these men are here to defend their homeland. He makes an announcement. Their eight medium-range missiles are combat ready. “We may die martyrs”, he says, “but we won’t abandon Cuba to the imperialists!” His troops applaud. On October 22nd at 10pm in the Kremlin, Khrushchev has received intelligence reports of unusual activity all over the US. Congressmen are apparently boarding Air Force jets back to Washington. Naval maneuvers are happening in the Caribbean. And civilians are evacuating Guantanamo Bay. Kennedy is scheduled to broadcast a television address at 2:00 a.m., Moscow time. The US Embassy has told him to expect a communication an hour before. Khrushchev calls a meeting of the Presidium, the highest Committee of the Communist Party. “The missiles have been discovered,” he says. “An invasion of Cuba is imminent.” He runs through his options, from announcing a mutual defense pact with Cuba over the radio to transferring the missiles to Cuban control and letting them defend their own country. “The best course,” he says, “is to disallow Soviet troops from using the long-range missiles, but permit them to use their short-range tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an invasion.” His Defense Minister, Malinovsky, cuts in. “Putting that decision in the hands of commanders might accidentally precipitate a conflict.” He suggests waiting for Kennedy’s message. It arrives an hour before Kennedy’s broadcast. Not an invasion, but an ultimatum. There will be no war tonight, but also no sleep. Because there are 14 Soviet freighters inbound for Cuba right now. One carries nuclear warheads three times more powerful than all the bombs ever dropped in history. And it is heading toward an American blockade. This episode was brought to you by DomiNations. Click the link in the description to play the game for free. Music (Extra History Theme)

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