This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 16 to 28, 1962), so we’re going to hear a great deal about the weeks when the world almost died. But the past is a foreign country, a place where everything was in black and white and men still wore hats, so it’s just scary stories about a long-gone time. Or so it seems.
The outlines of the tale are well known. Soviet Premier Khrushchev moved Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962, to deter the United States from attacking the island — but from Cuba the Soviet missiles would be only five minutes away from their targets in the United States. That was intolerable to the US military, and on Oct. 22 President John Kennedy went on television and warned the American public of the risk of nuclear war.
He then declared a naval blockade of Cuba, saying that he would stop Soviet ships carrying further missiles from reaching Cuba by force if necessary. That would mean war, almost certainly nuclear war, but at least the blockade gave the Russians time to think.
The Soviet leaders were now terrified by the potential consequences of their own actions, and looking for a way out of the crisis. So after a few harrowing days a deal was done in which the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba. The crisis was officially over by Oct. 28.
There is something missing from this narrative, however. The crisis did not really end on Oct. 28. A new book by Sergo Mikoyan, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November, reveals that it extended all the way through November.
US intelligence was unaware that along with the SS-4s, the Soviet Union sent more than 100 shorter-range “tactical” nuclear missiles to Cuba. Fidel Castro was in a rage about having been abandoned by his Soviet allies, so to mollify him Khrushchev decided to let him keep the tactical missiles. But giving Fidel Castro a hundred nuclear weapons was a recipe for a new and even bigger crisis in a year or two, and Khrushchev’s deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, who was sent to Cuba to tell Castro the news, quickly realized that it was madness.
The second half of the crisis, invisible to the Americans, was a month-long struggle by Mikoyan to pry Castro’s fingers off the hundred tactical nuclear missiles. In the end, he only succeeded by telling Castro that an unpublished (and in fact nonexistent) law forbade the transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to a foreign country. In December, they were finally crated up and sent home.
So it all ended happily — but the whole world could have ended instead. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary in 1962, said 40 years later, “we were just plain lucky in October 1962 — and without that luck most of you would never have been born because the world would have been destroyed instantly or made unlivable in October 1962.”
Then he said the bit that applies to us: “Something like that could happen today, tomorrow, next year. It will happen at some point. That is why we must abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.”
They are still there, you know, and human beings still make mistakes.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Please let us know if you would like to see this column published regularly in the Rimbey Review. Email firstname.lastname@example.org