Thirteen Days That Shook the World – and Nearly Ended It

by Eric Margolis

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HAVANA – 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.

A CIA-operation 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.

The Pentagon then urged a full-scale US invasion of Cuba, backed by massive naval and air power. The Kennedy administration wavered.

Soviet Chairman 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 loose.

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 "sanctions."

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 u2018Hail Mary's."

Looking back, 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 collision.

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 secret deal.

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.

US missiles in Turkey and Italy (and likely Britain) threatening the USSR were removed but the story remained secret for decades.

Unaware 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 base.

Fortunately, 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 thing."

But this "victory" misled America into hubris and over-relying on military action to resolve its future political problems.