Ready for Another Game of Russian Roulette?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the U.S. moves nuclear forces closer and closer to the border of Russia, and as our corporate media bang their war drums louder and louder, does anyone remember the Cuban missile crisis?

In June of 1961, just three months after the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was defeated,  the United States began the deployment of fifteen Jupiter nuclear missiles to Turkey, which shared a border with the Soviet Union. Each missile, armed with a W49 1.4 megaton thermonuclear warhead, was equivalent to 175 Hiroshima bombs. With their fifteen-hundred-mile range, the missiles were capable of annihilating Moscow, Leningrad, and every major city and base in the Russian heartland. Each missile could incinerate Moscow in just sixteen minutes from launch, thus wildly raising the possibility of thermonuclear war caused by technological accident, human error, miscommunication, or preemptive attack.

We didn’t hear about the Jupiter missiles and of course we didn’t hear anything about Operation Mongoose, the top-secret plan launched on November 1, 1961, to overthrow the government of Cuba through a systematic campaign of sabotage, coastal raids, assassinations, subversion leading to CIA-sponsored guerrilla warfare, and an eventual invasion by the U.S. military. The armed raids and sabotage succeeded in killing many Cubans and damaging the economy, which was hit much harder by the economic embargo announced in February. However, the assassination plots were foiled, and all attempts to develop an internal opposition failed. Many of the CIA agents and Cuban exiles who infiltrated the island by sea and air were captured, and quite a few of them talked, even on Cuban radio, about the plans for a new U.S. invasion, which was planned for October. Cuba requested military help from the Soviet Union, which by July was sending troops, air defense missiles, battlefield nuclear weapons, and medium-range ballistic missiles equivalent to the U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

At 7 p.m. eastern time on Monday, October 22, 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered the most terrifying presidential message of my lifetime. Declaring that the Soviet Union had created a “clear and present danger” by placing in Cuba “large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction” “capable of striking Washington, D.C.,” he announced that U.S. ships would immediatly impose a “strict quarantine,” a transparent euphemism for a blockade, on the island. Knowing that the American people knew nothing about the recent and ongoing U.S. deployment of the Jupiter ballistic missiles capable of striking all the cities of the Russian heartland, he stated, “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any . . . change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.” And knowing the American people knew nothing about Operation Mongoose and its previously planned invasion of Cuba in October, the president stated over and over again that these Soviet missiles were “offensive threats” with no defensive purpose. Here was his most frightening sentence: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth—but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”

On Friday Jane wrote a long letter to her family:

Oct. 26, 1962

Dear Family,

Marie, your letter from the east helped rouse me from a state of paralysis in which I have been suspended since Kennedy’s speech on Monday. . . . Bo, I am glad your orders so far are not changed. . . .I had figured Bill must be in the blockade. . . .

Thursday night Bruce was one of three faculty who spoke on this crisis. Dr. Leppert, a nuclear physicist (he watched the effects of nuclear blasts in Nevada) and Dr. Holman of the medical school were the two other speakers.  There was a large audience.  The discussion afterwards was intelligent and constructive.  But part of the time there I felt like crying because all their hope and desire for reason is, in effect upon those in power, like the vaguest ripple of a breeze.  When we once sent a telegram urging no resumption of nuclear testing, we received in return a very brisk, official pamphlet on how to prepare for a nuclear attack. . . .

Tuesday in the middle of the night Karen appeared at our bed and said through tears, “I’ve been having a nightmare about an atomic bomb.”  We had been being careful about our words around them, but the radio had been on constantly. . . .  Tuesday I had periods of wishing I weren’t pregnant, but I keep telling myself that instead of bringing one more person into the shadow of nuclear war, I’ll be bringing one more person up to hate hate, respect respect, and love love.

Until I recently read her letter, I had forgotten my talk. According to the Stanford Daily, I had explained how Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba violated international law and asked the audience to judge it on “pragmatic, ideological, and ethical” grounds. That all sounds embarrassingly tame and bookish. Jane obviously would have done better.

The recipients of Jane’s letter included her sister Marie and her husband Bo Sims, a Marine lieutenant colonel stationed at the Pentagon, and her sister Bobbie and her husband Bill Morgan, the captain of a destroyer.  Back in 1956, Bill has cut our wedding cake with his ceremonial Navy sword. Although he and I rarely agreed about anything—except the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of 1964—I always figured that he was probably a good, albeit gung-ho, naval officer, fair to his crew and responsible about his duty. Only in 2017 did I discover that the destroyer under Bill’s command was the USS Cony, one of the U.S. warships searching the Cuban coast for surviving invaders the Bay of Pigs the year before.  The day after Jane was writing her letter, Bill was indeed carrying out his orders professionally and efficiently. On October 27, the Cony discovered and then tracked for four hours the Soviet diesel-electric submarine B-59 out in the North Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles from Cuba.

The Cony was one of eight destroyers and an aircraft carrier hunting for Soviet submarines that might be heading for Cuba. They were under orders to force any such sub to surface by bombarding it with “signaling depth charges,” designed to cause explosions powerful enough to rock the sub, while also pounding it with ultra-high-amplitude sound waves from the destroyer’s sonar dome.

Meanwhile, the B-59’s last orders from Moscow were not to cross Kennedy’s “quarantine line”—500 miles from Cuba–but to hold its position in the Sargasso Sea. After that, it received no communication from the Soviet Union for several days. It had been monitoring Miami radio stations that were broadcasting the increasingly ominous news. When the sub-hunting fleet of U.S. ships and planes arrived, the submarine was forced to run deep, making it lose all communication with the outside world, and to run silent, relying on battery power. The batteries were close to depleted, the air conditioning had broken down, and water, food, and oxygen were running low when the Cony began its hours of bombardment with the depth charges and high-amplitude sonar blasts. Other destroyers joined in an ongoing barrage of hand grenades and depth charges.

The Soviet officers were unaware of the existence of “signaling depth charges,” and international law has no provision allowing one warship to bombard another with small explosives unless they are in a state of war. Since the B-59 was hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic, not within the blockade area and not heading toward Cuba, its crew and officers logically deduced that war had started. If so, it was their duty to attack. The officers knew that with one weapon on board, they could destroy the entire sub-hunting fleet of destroyers and the aircraft carrier that had been pursuing them—along with themselves.

Neither Bill Morgan nor anyone else in the U.S. Navy or government was aware that the B-59 was armed with a T-5 nuclear torpedo, approximately equivalent in explosive force to the Hiroshima bomb. If the sub fired its T-5, it would plunge the world into nuclear holocaust.

One nuclear weapon fired from any of the American or Russian subs still prowling the oceans would do the same today, decades after the end of the Cold War. Hardly anyone in America then or now is aware of the command-and-control protocol on nuclear-armed submarines. In order to deter an opponent’s “decapitating” first strike, which would wipe out all the nation’s leaders with the authority to launch a nuclear retaliation, the three top officers of a nuclear-armed sub have the authority and ability to launch a nuclear attack under certain circumstances. On October 27, 1962, the Soviet command-and-control protocol for launching nuclear torpedoes was even riskier: only the sub’s captain and its political officer had to agree.

On the B-59, Captain Valentin Savitsky and his political officer realized that it was now or never. Their choice was either to surface—which was equivalent to surrender while they, perhaps alone, had the ability to launch a significant counterattack—or to fire their nuclear torpedo. They decided to attack and readied to aim for the aircraft carrier at the core of the submarine-hunting fleet.

Only one man stood in the way of a nuclear Armageddon, and he was on board the B-59 by chance. He was Vasili Arkhipov, the commander of the four-submarine Soviet flotilla, who vetoed the attack, leaving Captain Savitsky with no alternative but to surface.

“This week’s events have brought home,” Jane had written in her letter a day earlier, how few people have any say “about nuclear war before it may be brought down upon their heads by the handful of people who decide man’s fate.” Even that handful of people in the White House and Pentagon didn’t know about those nuclear torpedoes. And that handful of people in the Kremlin didn’t know that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had been itching for an excuse to launch a full-scale thermonuclear attack on the Soviet Union and that now, led by the “mad”—President Kennedy’s word—ravings of my ex-boss Curtis LeMay, these dogs of war were demanding to be let off their leashes.

The Missile Crisis ended with the USSR removing all “offensive” weapons from Cuba in return for a public U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey within several months. Years after the Jupiter missiles were withdrawn, we were told that they were “obsolete,” a term still used in almost all accounts of the crisis. But if the Jupiter missiles in Turkey were obsolete, then so were the equivalent Soviet missiles in Cuba. In reality, the problem with both deployments was not obsolescence but reckless brinkmanship, initiated by the United States. Fortunately, Moscow and Washington ended up mutually recognizing that neither was willing to live with a gun that close to its head.

What may have looked to the public like a Soviet capitulation turned out to be a successful, desperate, and potentially fatal gamble by the Soviet Union. They won a tit-for-tat removal of the land-based missiles within sixteen minutes of incinerating either Moscow or Washington, with a bonus of stopping the imminent invasion of Cuba and possibly future invasions as well, all without having to commit to the future defense of Cuba.

Behind the scenes, Kennedy now had to deal with the shrieking hawks, furious at the president both for missing the golden opportunity to annihilate the Soviet Union and for an ignominious surrender of America’s exceptional right to invade Cuba and to station nuclear weapons wherever it pleased.

Alarmed by how close we had come to nuclear apocalypse, Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev set up a telephone hot line to enable direct communication, developed a personal relationship to ease tensions, and succeeded in August 1963 in banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, under water, or in space. The president inspired many of us with an eloquent June 1963 American University commencement address about the world’s crucial need for an enduring peace. He even urged “every thoughtful citizen” who desired peace to “begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward peace, toward the Soviet Union,” which he extolled for its heroic World War II sacrifices. But then of course he went on to claim: “The Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today.”  Since today Russia is as capitalist as Saudi Arabia, Australia, and United States, what is “the primary cause of world tension today?”

President Kennedy’s final remarks began with this statement: “The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.”  So it must have been Vietnam that started a war with the United States.

Adapted from Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War