Thirteen Days That Shook the World and Nearly Ended It
by Eric Margolis: On
to Timbuktu! A New Jolly Little War We Can’t Find on a Map
The black, sinister-looking Soviet SS-4 intermediate-ranged missile
on display at Havana’s La Cabana fortress looks old, roughly finished,
and rather primitive.
But this missile,
and 41 others (including some longer-ranged SS-5’s) terrified the
United States during the October 1962 missile crisis – 13 days that
shook the world. Each of them could have delivered a one megaton
warhead onto America’s East Coast cities, starting with Washington
DC. One megaton is a city-buster.
When the Cuban
missile crisis erupted 50 years ago this month, I was a student
at Washington’s Georgetown University Foreign Service School. Cuba
was headline news. The Cold War was at its peak.
to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro’s Marxist government had
spectacularly failed at the Bay of Pigs. The new, inexperienced
US president, John Kennedy, got cold feet on the last minute and
called off vital air cover for an invasion by Cuban exiles. Deprived
of air cover, most were killed or captured. Kennedy should have
either call off the amphibious operation or provided it air cover.
then urged a full-scale US invasion of Cuba, backed by massive naval
and air power. The Kennedy administration wavered.
Nikita Khrushchev seized the moment by sneaking 42 medium-ranged
missiles and smaller tactical nukes into Cuba, right under the nose
of the Americans. He gambled the Soviet nuclear-armed missiles would
forestall a US invasion of Cuba, which Moscow intended to use as
a base to expand its influence in Latin America.
When US U-2
spy planes finally spotted the Soviet missile bases all hell broke
US forces went
to DEFCON 3, then DEFCON 2 – the highest readiness stage before
all-out war. Six US army and Marine divisions moved to South Florida
and Georgia. Nearly 600 US warplanes were poised to attack.
On 25 Oct.
nuclear weapons were loaded onto US B-47 and B-52 bombers. Seventy
five percent of the Strategic Air Command’s bombers were airborne
or poised to attack the USSR. Curiously, the Soviets did not go
to maximum readiness.
In an act of
madness, Fidel Castro furiously demanded Khrushchev launch a pre-emptive
nuclear strike on the US. Decades later, Castro admitted this was
a terrible mistake. Fortunately, the Soviet leadership said "nyet!"
A nuclear exchange in 1962 between the US and USSR would have killed
an estimated 100 million people on each side.
As Soviet freighters
steamed towards Cuba, the Kennedy White House imposed a naval and
air blockade on Cuba. But it was called a "quarantine"
since under international law, a blockade is an act of war. Today,
in Washington’s undeclared war against Iran, the favored term is
I watched all
this from Washington, knowing the city was the first target for
a Soviet nuclear strike. Some wise people left town. Wealthy Latin
American families chartered aircraft to bring their children home.
The university chapel was filled with students on their knees, many
weeping, and saying ‘Hail Mary’s."
I don’t know why my friends and I didn’t high tail it out of Washington.
I guess we simply could not believe that nuclear Armageddon was
really at hand. But it was. Soviet and US forces were heading for
A US U-2 was
shot down over Cuba by a Soviet-manned SA-2 anti-aircraft missile
battery. A Soviet sub heading for Cuba was detected by US warships,
prevented from snorkeling, and forced to surface when it ran out
of air. Its captain came within two minutes of firing a torpedo
with a nuclear warhead at the US warships hunting him.
This was too
much even for the blustering but crafty Khrushchev. He offered to
take Soviet missiles out of Cuba if the US pledged never to invade
the island. Kennedy readily accepted the deal. In a secret codicil,
Kennedy agreed to quietly withdraw US nuclear-armed Thor and Jupiter
missiles targeted on the USSR from Turkey and Italy.
The deal was
done. Washington hailed it as a huge victory for President Kennedy
who became a national hero and icon. This mythology persists in
the US today. The American public is still largely unaware of the
In the end,
the Soviet Union came out ahead in the crisis. Cuba was saved from
a US invasion, which was Moscow’s principal strategic goal, along
with preserving the Castro regime, which remains to this day.
in Turkey and Italy (and likely Britain) threatening the USSR were
removed but the story remained secret for decades.
of it, the Soviet politburo ousted Khruschev a year later for "reckless,
hare-brained schemes" and made the plodding Leonid Brezhnev
chairman. He lead the USSR directly into economic collapse by wildly
over-spending on arms to keep up with the Americans and their wealthy
allies, and by failing to renew the USSR’s industrial and agricultural
the US military was not allowed to invade Cuba: Unknown at the time,
Soviet troops there were authorized to use 100 tactical nuclear
weapons against any invading force and their bases in South Florida.
As Wellington said after Waterloo, "it was a damned near-run
But this "victory"
misled America into hubris and over-relying on military action to
resolve its future political problems.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2012 Eric Margolis
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