In October of 1962, the World was on the brink of World War III. While some Americans were aware of heightened tensions between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, few knew about the day-by-day events that took place from 16 October to 28 October.
To recognize the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I will provide a daily account under the Kennedy Administration. Each day I will add to this original blog and post updates to my History Dame social media, so follow along as we go back to 1962.
I could not complete this particular project alone. So I want to thank my dear friend, Brett, who served as a primary source for this diary. He is my go-to guru on military history, Cold War, and the Space Race.
16 October, 1962. Day 1
Morning in Washington D.C.
National Security Advisor MacGeorge Bundy informs President Kennedy that photos from a U2 recon aircraft taken two days before had shown Soviet SS4 intermediate-range missiles deployed in western Cuba.
The missiles can deliver nuclear explosives to half the continental U.S. in a third of the time of missiles launched from Asia. This upsets the balance of nuclear deterrence.
Kennedy immediately called his cabinet, which gathered in late afternoon to discuss the information and decide on a course of action.
At the meeting's end, Kennedy asks the group to provide options for responding in the next few days. No missile launch sites are thought to be completed yet. Therefore, the plan is not to disclose the U.S. discovery of the missile launch sites under construction until a response is decided upon, and the President will not deviate from his planned schedule.
What will follow in the next two weeks is the world dancing on the edge of World War III
Photo credit: Smithsonian--Kennedy with the pilots who discovered the missiles.
17 October, 1962. Day 2
Kennedy meets with his entire cabinet. He directed his brother Robert Kennedy, Attorney General, to form a group within the cabinet to provide options--called the Executive Committee or Excomm. It consisted of 12 members, including Robert Kennedy, Sec of State, Sec of Defense, and CIA director.
After meeting the previous evening, the group has no consensus for a response but leans toward airstrikes to destroy the launch sites and missiles. However, Army Chief of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, advises the President that airstrikes cannot guarantee the destruction of all areas and there may be undiscovered sites, thus necessitating a follow-on invasion by U.S. forces. Kennedy was inclined to that view but realized it could trigger a general war under the US-NATO alliance.
Kennedy ordered all preparations for air strikes and mobilization of the Marine Corps and Army Airborne units for invasion within the next seven days. He also orders an increase in high-altitude and low-altitude surveillance to gather accurate intel on the number of sites under construction.
He will keep his schedule of tomorrow's long-planned meeting with the Soviet Ambassador and a campaign trip to Chicago in the next two days to maintain cover on the American discovery of the missiles until a response can be made--especially air strikes.
Construction of 40 sites is well underway, and some are nearly complete. All have some anti-aircraft defenses-- Soviet SAMs have been installed. 4000 Soviet technicians work day and night.
Moscow: Khrushchev ordered the missiles to be installed as soon as possible.
His objective is to protect Cuba from further attacks by the U.S. and close the missile gap which the Soviet Union has been badly trailing.
18 October, 1962. Day 3
President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The meeting had been planned long before the U2 photos disclosed nuclear mission deployments in Cuba. They discussed Kennedy's warning in early September that grave consequences would follow if offensive Soviet missiles were placed in Cuba.
U.S. intelligence had been monitoring Soviet activities all summer, indicating deployment of Soviet personnel and equipment, indicating at least the installation of surface-to-air missile sites. However, Gromyko assures Kennedy that aid to Cuba is purely defensive and that no offensive weapons are involved.
Meanwhile the Excomm
reports to Kennedy that only two options exist for removing the missiles--airstrikes followed by invasion or blockade. The blockade will not remove the missiles per se. Still, it can delay the ability to complete their installation, thereby buying time for diplomatic pressure from the world to get the Soviets to remove them.
Kennedy asks Excomm for a detailed analysis of the procedure for following either option.
Kennedy planned to meet with the cabinet and the joint chiefs to finalize a course of action when he returned from a campaign trip to Ohio and Illinois in the next two days.
19 October, 1962. Day 4
Robert Kennedy splits the Excomm into 2 working groups, one to examine a blockade option and the other the military options, working with the Chiefs of Staff as they form operational scenarios.
Opposition is voiced to the blockade-John McCone, director of the CIA, amongst the committee members who are doubtful of its efficacy.
If all logistics have been already delivered, taking time to blockade may only spur the Soviets to quickly finish the installations and thus immediately gain the leverage of nuclear strikes before the US takes action.
It is not clear from intelligence sources whether the intermediate range R-14s or the range SS4s are operational and armed.
Air Force One:
Kennedy flies to campaign stops in Ohio and Illinois for the upcoming congressional elections next month. His administration had been announcing all summer that Cuba did not pose a threat to the security of the US and was not a base for Soviet offensive weapons.
Once it becomes publicly known about the missiles, that policy propaganda will be in tatters, as might then be the hopes of the Democratic party of holding their majorities in both houses.
20 October, 1962. Day 5
In a phone call from his brother Bobby, Kennedy is informed that the Excomm is ready to meet with the President after having developed a possible plan for using blockade and diplomacy.
There is still opposition to that option, especially from the DoD Chief of Staff. So Bobby feels the President should immediately return to discuss all scenarios with the Cabinet and the Chiefs. Kennedy agrees, but cutting his planned itinerary short might raise suspicions.
To maintain cover that the campaign trip is not being terminated because of a national emergency, he returns on the ostensible story that he has developed a severe cold.
His press secretary, Pierre Salinger, is still in the dark about the true nature of his return and is told to tell the press the head-cold storyline.
Photo Source: JFK Library
21 October, 1962. Day 6
Kennedy meets with the Excomm and Joints Chiefs. Everyone agrees that some response must be had; the political balance of power shift to the Soviets would be dramatic. So the two options are airstrikes against the issue sites or blockade.
The Air Force leadership could not guarantee better than knocking out 80% of known missile sites. A follow on an invasion of some sort would almost be a necessity.
A total blockade would be recognized as an act of war; instead, Kennedy elected a limited blockade--called a quarantine, which would be acceptable to the OAS-the Organization of American States.
The quarantine would only stop shipments of supplies necessary for the operation of the nuclear missiles. Plans for airstrikes and invasion would remain at the ready if required to carry out.
Kennedy will announce the quarantine on national television and radio tomorrow evening.
LeMay, U.S. Air Force Chief, who was harking on invasion, told Kennedy, "You're in a real fix, Mr. President." Kennedy responded, " Well, General, if you haven't noticed, you're in it with me."
22 October, 1962. Day 7
US Ambassador, Foy Kohler, delivered Khrushchev a letter from Kennedy advising of the quarantine that would go into effect the following day and that the US demanded the removal of the missiles.
US representatives advise the heads of the NATO states of the quarantine.
The head of the Organization of American States (OAS) is also informed of the American quarantine to which the US will be asking the OAS to ratify under the Rio Treaty of Mutual protection of the Americans from any aggressor nation, i.e., Cuba.
Kennedy meets with Congressional leaders to advise of the situation and the US response. However, Senator Richard Russel of Alabama does not believe the President has acted strongly enough and demands an attack on Cuba.
Kennedy reminds Russel that if any missiles were operative, the entire state of Alabama would be in their range, and his entire constituency would be wiped out in the first 30 seconds of war.
Kennedy then briefly confers with Eisenhower, with whom he had been calling to gain advice on Khrushchev's possible response.
At 7 pm EST, Kennedy's 18-minute speech is broadcast to a shocked nation.
He advises of the "unmistakable" evidence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba and that the US Navy is imposing a quarantine until the missiles are removed.
The speech chillingly warns that "any missile launched from Cuba on any nation in the western hemisphere will be considered an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response by the United States upon the Soviet Union."
The world now holds its breath.
23 October, 1962. Day 8
Khrushchev is stunned by the American response. His view is that the deployment of the R14s and SS4s, and 5s should not be a surprise given the U.S. intermediate-range Jupiter Missiles located in Turkey.
He meets with the Politburo, and they are not pleased. However, Khrushchev had promised that little reaction would come from Kennedy after discovering the missiles, given his weakness in international affairs and the upcoming fall elections.
Khrushchev works on a reply to Kennedy's letter.
New York City
An emergency session of the U.N. Security Council is being organized to deal with the Cuban crisis. Kennedy has his envoys also scheduled a session of the Organization of American States to ratify the quarantine under the Rio Treaty of Mutual defense of the nations of the western hemisphere.
Cuba is not a member.
800 miles N.E. of Havana
The heavy cruiser USS Newport News, the designated flagship of the blockade fleet, approaches its station on the newly designated blockade line, which has gone into effect. Over 500 attack aircraft in Florida stand ready in support.
40,000 Soviet troops work feverishly to complete the installations. Unbeknownst to the Americans, a handful of sites are already operational.
24 October, 1962. Day 9
Washington from DC
Kennedy and Excomm reviewed Khrushchev's response letter. In it, Khruschev advises that the U.S.'s "outright privacy would lead to war."
Late in the evening, a second telegram arrives in which Khrushchev states that rationally speaking, the Soviet Union cannot accede to the "despotic demands of the USA." The Soviet Union, says Khrushchev, views the blockade as an act of war, and Soviet ships will be instructed to ignore it.
Kennedy sent former Sec of State Dean Acheson to meet French President Charles de Gaulle to assure de Gaulle of American intelligence and inform him of US intentions.
de Gaulle agrees the US had a right to defend her interest and agrees with the intelligence, though he may not have agreed with the response. Nevertheless, he supports the US.
New York City
World reaction to the US blockade has some doubting whether the Soviets have actually placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. They wonder if the crisis is contrived by the US in another attempt to oust Castro.
Kennedy sent Adli Stevenson to the UN Security Council meeting to confront the Soviet ambassador about whether the Soviets denied ballistic missiles in Cuba.
US intelligence suggests the Soviet merchant ship Bucharest will be the first ship to hit the blockade line by mid-morning tomorrow. Among the US naval ships joining the blockade is the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy, named after the President's brother, a naval aviator killed in Europe during the Second World War.
Kennedy and his advisors hoped that the Cold War against Communism would not turn into a hot war like the one against Fascism that claimed his brother's life.
25 October, 1962. Day 10
New York City
The UN Security Council has convened to debate the crisis. U.S representative Adlai Stevenson confronts Society Ambassador Zorin about the missiles. Zorin refuses to respond, advising Stevenson he will get his answer in the course and is not in a court where Stevenson is acting like a prosecutor. Stevenson replies that they were in a court of world opinion, and he was prepared to "wait for your answer till hell freezes over." Stevenson then has blown-up photos on display to reveal the missiles lying on the ground next to constructed launch sites.
Public doubt of Kennedy's claim vaporizes. Zorin seems surprised and unprepared to respond.
The Atlantic 800 miles NNE of Cuba
The Bucharest crosses the blockade line past two destroyers that are racing to its area to intercept. However, they are called off when it is decided the ship was likely not carrying missile-related supplies.
Rio de Janeiro:
Uruguay, the last holdout vote of the Organization of American States, votes in favor of the blockade. It is now a unanimous vote of the 14 OAS member states of Latin America. As a result, naval ships from some of those nations will join the blockade.
Kennedy is advised there is no indication of a slowdown or stoppage of missile installation.
Defcon 3 is ordered, and tactical aircraft are armed with nuclear bombs. 14 Soviet supply ships at the end of the day are reported to have stopped heading to Cuba and have reversed course. So naturally, excomm members are ecstatic and relieved.
The relief would be short-lived. The ships are ordered to wait until Soviet subs arrive to escort them through. To buy more time to resolve the crisis, Kennedy called the line constricted and had the Soviets told precisely where the new picket line commences.
The B-59, a Soviet diesel submarine and the flag vessel of the sub-flotilla, receives orders to escort the supply ships heading to Cuba. If fired upon, its charges are to fire back.
They are armed with nuclear explosives. One torpedo would destroy an entire U.S. task force of ships.
26 October, 1962. Day 11
Kennedy is leaning toward invasion, despondent that the blockade is not going to cause Khrushchev to remove the missiles. Sec of State, DoD Sec, and brother Bobby persuade him to wait a little longer.
Castro demands Russia launch a pre-emptive missile strike against the US. He is convinced an invasion is coming.
At a meeting in a DC diner, ABC White House reporter John Scali meets with Aleksandr Fomin--KGB station chief in Washington. Fomin advises that he has been asked by Politburo to pass on a settlement proposal. War is imminent.
To avoid such war, Scali is asked to pass on to the State Dept the following thought--in exchange for the missile withdrawals, the U.S. would pledge not to invade Cuba in the future.
The President is intrigued at the settlement notion though some in Excomm think it is a ruse to buy more time. Late that eve, a telegram comes from Khrushchev.--it is emotional and direct. It says that the Soviet Union and the U.S. should not pull on the ends of a rope with a knot in the middle. Doing so only draws the knot tighter, reaching a point where it cannot be untied and will only be broken by cutting it,
Kennedy was never in favor of removing Castro by invasion anyway. He advises Scali to meet with Fomin and tell Fomin that the U.S. is receptive to the proposal.
For the first time during the crisis, there is genuine hope of a positive resolution.
That hope will be shattered in the confusing and wild sequence of events that will unfold the next day at 50,000 feet in the air over the Bering sea, 70,000 feet in the air over Cuba, 400 feet below the surface of the Caribbean sea, and, most of all, in the teletype machines of the State Dept.
27 October, 1962. Day 12
11 miles above the Earth at the Bering Straight
Nearly all of the Strategic Air Command's 1,400 Bomber force being on continual alert since the chiefs raised the alert status (with 23 nuclear-armed B-52s continually airborne just below the Arctic circle on the North American side) constant weather reports were needed. A U2 spy plane modified to gather high-altitude weather has drifted very close to Soviet airspace with engine trouble. Soviet Mig Fighters based at Wrangel Island take off to intercept. This may be the prelude to the American attack.
The U2 spots them on its radar, and American F102s armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles are launched to intercept the Bering Sea intercepts. But, before the MIGs came within firing range of their missiles, the U2 limps across the international date line on the Alaskan side, gliding downward after the engine flame out.
The pilot can land safely.
The fighters from both nations withdraw.
When Kennedy is told of the incident, he explodes. "Oh goddamnit!" he is heard on the tape, "There's always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the message." Orders had previously been issued for no recon flights to be made into Soviet airspace while the missile crisis was deepening.
McCoy Air Force Base Florida, 9 am
Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson prepares to lift off in his U2 high-altitude spy plane, modified for airborne refueling. The U2 can fly as high as 70,000 feet, above any known Soviet fighter jet's altitude capability. Anderson is tasked today with obtaining updated aerial photos of the known missile sites in Cuba. A highly decorated and experienced pilot, Anderson's mission on October 14 confirmed the existence of the Soviet intermediate-range missiles.
Washington DC 9 am
Radio Moscow broadcasts a message from the Soviet government proposing the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of American Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
Excomm and Kennedy are puzzled and begin a long discussion about its meaning and the U.S. response.
Washington DC 11 am
The teletype machine at State begins clacking another message from Khrushchev.
15 miles above the island of Cuba 12 pm
Major Anderson is snapping away a reel of photos of the missile sites. a Soviet-made surface-to-air is suddenly flying toward his craft. Soviet radar later confirmed that it appeared the U2 made deft maneuvers to avoid one missile fired but one exploded near the craft. A piece of shrapnel punctures Anderson's air tube, and Anderson immediately passes out from the lack of air pressure. His plane tumbles out of the sky and falls into the forest near Banes, Cuba.
Caribbean Sea 600 miles NNE of Cuba
The diesel sub-B-29 is submerged, operating on battery, and carries a 15-kiloton nuclear explosive in a torpedo. The destroyer USS Beale raves to intercept. Its sonar detects a Soviet sub.
The Beale's Captain must prevent the sub from interfering. Therefore,he will use "signal" depth charges-small explosives with the force of a hand grenade--to communicate that the sub is to surface for identification.
Suddenly the sharp sound of depth charges, clearly from the destroyer, is heard. Savitsky is convinced they are under attack. He orders the nuclear torpedo to be ready to fire.
To fire a nuclear torpedo requires the concurrence of the political officer, the executive officer, and the Captain. The Captain and the political officer are ready to fire the torpedo, thinking they are under attack. However, they are running out of air as they have been running underwater for some time. Fire or surface?
Washington DC 4 pm
News of the U2 downing is given to Kennedy.
28 October, 1962. Day 13
Americans listen to the Radio Moscow broadcast confirming an accord has been reached between the Superpowers, that in exchange for the American pledge not to invade Cuba or assist others in doing so, the Soviet Union will agree to withdraw its intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles. Excomm receives a telegram from Khrushchev confirming the accord.
The Soviet missiles (and the nuclear surface-to-air missiles installed, which the Americans did not know about) will be removed by the end of November. The Jupiter missiles--made obsolete by the U.S. sub-launched Polaris missile--are gone by the following spring.
In the aftermath of the crisis, the two powers agreed to install a hotline telephone to enable the leaders to communicate immediately. However, two years later, Khrushchev, partly because of his reckless policy of employing missiles in Cuba, is removed from power by the Politburo. Leonard Brezhnev becomes Party Secretary.
Shortly after the end of the crisis, the body of Major Rudolf Anderson, the only fatality of the crisis, was returned for burial in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. He was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award for valor. The wreckage of his U2 remains on display in museums throughout Cuba.
Vasily Arkhipov, the man, now credited with saving the world from possible nuclear destruction, became a Fleet Admiral in the Soviet Navy and commander of the Soviet Naval Academy.
President John F Kennedy, himself becoming a fatality of the Cold War the following year, articulated the meaning of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the continuing struggle of humankind and its nuclear arms in a speech at American University in the summer of 1963: "What kind of peace do we seek? First, of course, is talking about genuine peace. The type of peace that makes life worth living. Peace not just in our time but for all time. In the final analysis, we all share the most basic common traits: We all live on the same small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And, we are all mortal".