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“The next attack followed on October 8, 1962, when commandos landed on the Cuban coast and attacked a Russian base at Isabella de Sagua, in Las Villas Province, capturing arms and flags, and killing 20 Russian soldiers.”
The Russians had every right to defend not only Cubans but themselves.
In Ignacio Ramonet’s book with Fidel, My Life: Fidel Castro, the comandante said: “The world was on the verge of a thermonuclear war as a consequence of the United States’ aggressive, brutal policy against Cuba. A plan [Operation Mongoose], approved about 10 months after the disastrous defeat they suffered in Girón and about eight months before the crisis broke out, to invade the island with the direct use of that country’s naval, air and land forces.” (p 271, in English version).
Fidel and other Cuban leaders discussed with key Soviet persons what to do. The Cubans wanted to release a public statement that in the event of such an attack on Cuba, the Soviets would consider such to be an attack on it and respond accordingly. The Soviets declined and instead proposed placing defensive nuclear missiles, initially 42 medium-range rockets, on Cuban soil.
The Cuban leadership eventually accepted this proposal but initially Fidel’s view was that the Soviets saw this situation as an opportunity “to obtain an improvement in the balance of power between the USSR and the United States. I confess I was none too happy about the presence of those weapons in Cuba, given our interest in avoiding the image of Cuba as a Soviet base.” (p. 272)
In the Spanish edition of the biography, (pg. 249-50), Fidel said that an additional 192 strategic projectiles were installed in Cuba. While all the missiles were defensive, Fidel said, in the sense that they were to protect Cuba against an aggressive invasion from the U.S., strategic missiles could also be considered offensive. The terminology of defense-offense is important in the world of politics as the U.S. considers that no State it cannot like has the “right” to have offensive weapons that could be used against the U.S.—the exception of Russia and China had to be accepted, because they are big guys who might do as much damage to the U.S. as it could do against them.
An important US American expert on the matter of how these missiles were viewed by the Russian leadership is most relevant here. Sheldon Stern is a former historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library He published a book based on his study of the extensive tapes of the EXCOMM (executive committee) meetings (declassified in the late 1990s) in which Kennedy and a circle of advisors debated what to do during those 13 days. (1)
“Khrushchev’s original explanation for shipping missiles to Cuba had been fundamentally true: the Soviet leader had never intended these weapons as a threat to the security of the United States, but rather considered their deployment a defensive move to protect his Cuban allies from American attacks and as a desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality in the nuclear balance of power,” Stern concluded from his study.
This American patriot and Kennedy supporter with actual proof in his hands makes the same observation of the Russians intentions as does Fidel Castro. Forty years after the crisis, Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defense secretary at the time of CMC, also conceded that Cubans were justified in fearing an attack from his government’s military.
“If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so too.” “We as a superpower did not look through to the ends of our actions. That was a real weakness.” (2)
On October 15, 1962, a group of CIA analysts assigned to review aerial photographs of Cuba identify several newly established Soviet medium-range ballistic missile installations. These U.S. spy planes had been flying over Cuba at least since August. A Soviet colonel in information services, Oleg Penkovsky, had given the U.S. exact coordinates of the missiles.
President John F. Kennedy is briefed the next morning, setting in motion a crisis that brought the world frighteningly close to nuclear war. Over the next 13 tense days, the crisis deepened and people around the world feared the real possibility of a horrific worldwide conflict. In the U.S. people practice hiding in shelters at homes, work places and schools.
October 18, President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. He doesn’t say he knows they are installing missiles. The Russians say their military assistance to Cuba is purely defensive.
October 22, President John F. Kennedy addresses the people over television and radio: the U.S. is setting up a naval quarantine (blockade) against Cuba. The president also says the U.S. would wreak "a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union" if any nuclear missile is fired on any nation in this hemisphere.
October 23, President Kennedy signs a proclamation enacting the U.S. arms quarantine against Cuba. U.S. Navy deploys an armada of 200 combat surface ships with 40,000 sailors in an arc 500 sea miles north of Havana, that is, in international water. That is, in itself, a violation of UN laws. It never entered in EXCOMM talks the necessity of getting UN approval. Eight of the ships were aircraft carriers with, at least, 50-60 aircraft. (This is Fidel’s figures. The Soviet “After Action Report” states there were four aircraft carriers.)
In addition, 579 combat aircraft were on alert at Florida bases. The Yankees said they had the right to stop any ship, board it and check for “offensive weapons” that may be on their way to Cuba. They could then either confiscate the weapons or force the ship to turn back.
In response, Fidel Castro appears on television to alert and mobilize the people. He then commands anti-aircraft batteries to shoot down U.S. aircraft that overfly the country, fearing that they could be the vanguard of an invasion.
Fidel later told Ramonet: “We thought that conflict was inevitable. And we were determined to take that risk. It never occurred to us to give in to the adversary’s threats.”
The same day, Women Strike for Peace activists carry signs—“No War” “Dead Men Can’t Negotiate”—as they picket outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City where the U.N. Security Council considers the Cuban missile crisis.
Khrushchev’s orders his missile-carrying ships to turn back. Sixteen (or 20, depending on sources) missile-carrying ships did turn back. Khrushchev exempted those few ships already close to Cuba, mainly the four submarines in Brigade-69.
October 25, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin during an emergency session of the U. N. Security Council. He displays reconnaissance photographs and challenges Zorin to deny that the Soviet Union had introduced offensive missiles in Cuba. Zorin does not say ''yes'' or ''no,'' but indicates to the other Council members that the charge was not to be believed. Zorin retorts, ''I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and therefore do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor puts questions. In due course, sir, you will have your reply.''
Stating that Zorin was ''in the courtroom of world opinion,'' Stevenson replies: ''I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that's your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.''
At that, the tension in the Council chamber dissolved in laughter and Zorin joins in.
October 26, Fidel sends a cable to Khrushchev. The interpretation of the exchange of cables between them is still being debated.
“I consider aggression to be almost imminent—within the next 24-72 hours.” Fidel then presents two variants of attacks. The first is only an air attack to destroy the missiles. In the second variant, total invasion of Cuba with the intention of occupation. He stated:
“The dangers of this aggressive policy for humanity are so great that after such an event the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists might carry out a nuclear first strike against it”. If they invade Cuba, “that would be the moment to eliminate that danger for ever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However hard and terrible the solution might be, there is no other.”
In Khrushchev’s October 30 reply, he interpreted Fidel’s cable as proposing that the USSR “carry out a nuclear first strike against the enemy territory.”
In Fidel’s cable the next day, he wrote: “I was not unaware when I wrote that the words of my letter might be misinterpreted by you…I did not suggest to you, Comrade Khrushchev, that the USSR become the aggressor, because that would be worse than wrong, it would be immoral and unworthy of me…I did not suggest to you that the USSR attack in the midst of the crisis, as it seems from your letter you think, but rather that after the imperialist attack [against Cuba], the USSR act without hesitation and never commit the error of allowing the enemy to strike you first with nuclear weapons.” (See Ramonet pgs. 278-84. See also footnote 3)
October 27, “Black Saturday”, the day that the world came closest to a nuclear world war, started with Soviet-Cuban defense forces firing a surface-to-air missile at a USAF reconnaissance U-2 flying over Cuba. The plane crashed and the pilot died. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urge Kennedy to bomb the SAM missile site but the president fears it would escalate into a global war.
When I was a U.S. Air Force radar operator in Japan (1956-7), we had orders that if any Soviet aircraft of any type flew over “our” territory in Japan, it was to be shot down. Because I was a flight tracker, I knew of at least two U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that flew from our area over Soviet territory daily. We airmen were told at weekly intelligence briefings that we flew many flights over Soviet territory. The Soviets never shot any down. I never heard anyone speak about the double morality of this. Finally, on May 1, 1960, the Soviets did shoot down one CIA spy plane, a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers. At first President Eisenhower denied its military intention, but once the Soviets presented the unharmed captured pilot and spy technology equipment from the plane the embarrassed president admitted U.S. intentions.
Later on October 27, another U-2 spy plane went missing off Alaska and strayed into Soviet territory. An intrusion into Soviet airspace at the height of a nuclear showdown between the two superpowers was a dangerously provocative act. The mission was to collect radioactive samples from the Soviet nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya but, apparently, without entering Soviet space.
“As he crossed into Soviet airspace, [allegedly without knowing it] at least six Soviet interceptor jets took off from two different airfields in Chukotka. Their mission was to shoot the intruder down,” wrote Michael Dobbs, Washington Post reporter and author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Knopf, N.Y, 2008).
“The Soviets had scrambled MiG fighters to intercept the missing U-2, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was scrambling American fighters in response. The Soviets might well perceive the U-2 incursion as a harbinger of an American nuclear attack.”
The U-2 pilot eventually realized he was inside Soviet territory, and turned back to Alaska. By now SAC (General Curtis LeMay’s favorite force) had scrambled two F-102 fighter-interceptors to provide protection. With the heightened alert, these aircraft were now loaded with nuclear-tipped Falcon air-to-air missiles. One F-102 could wipe out an entire fleet of incoming Soviet bombers. “In theory, nuclear weapons were to be used only on the authority of the president. In practice, an F-102 pilot had the physical ability to fire a missile by pushing a few buttons on his control panel. Because he was alone in the cockpit, no one could override such a decision,” wrote Dobbs.
While the U-2 pilot was lost over the Chukotka Peninsula, Soviet troops were targeting their missiles on the U.S. naval base, waiting for an order from Moscow that fortunately never came. The pilot landed in Alaska with nearly no fuel remaining.
On the same day, the USS Randolph aircraft carrier and 14 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships tracking the Soviet submarines fired upon three of the four—B-36, Captain Aleksei F. Dubivko; B-130, Captain Nikolai A. Shumkov; B-59, Captain Valentin S. Savitzky. The Brigade-69 chief commander, Captain Vasili Arkhipov, was on this ship. The B-4, captained by Ryurik Ketov, was not fired upon because it was not seen by U.S. forces when it surfaced to recharge its batteries. U.S. aviators did discover its existence at some point but it was able to evade pursuit and attack.
The other subs had been discovered days before because when they had to surface to recharge their accumulator batteries, a technological necessity for these diesel vessels, they were seen. Now, on this fateful day, several ASW destroyers were dropping depth charges that hit three of the subs doing damage, including to radio systems, which made communication impossible. It felt to the men in the sweltering hot subs that a war had begun. Their choices were to either fire their missiles or surface. They chose to surface and were fired upon by several aircraft flying 20-100 meters over them. Nevertheless, they were able to turn around and head home.
“Although firing live ammunition at a submarine was strictly prohibited, having been a member of an ASW squadron flight crew, I have no trouble believing Ketov’s account” [referring to Captain Ryurik Ketov’s subsequent report], wrote Martin Sherwin, who had been a junior officer attached to Patrol Squadron 31, an ASW squadron out of San Diego, California. (4)
The captains had averted a battle that could have resulted in a nuclear world war—the subject of the next chapter.
Despite this achievement the drama of nuclear war tension continued. That night, Robert Kennedy met with Russian Ambassador Dobrynin. He told him that Khrushchev had to conform to U.S. dictates, because if not, on Monday, (Oct. 29) the U.S. would bomb Cuba. RFK said that if his brother did not invade, the U.S. military might well overthrow him in a coup, take power and invade Cuba.
Robert Kennedy recalls: “We had to have a commitment by tomorrow that those bases would be removed…if they did not remove those bases, we would remove them.”
In Dobrynin’s cable to the Soviet Foreign Ministry he said that he asked RFK: “How would the USA have reacted if foreign planes appeared over its territory?”
RFK purportedly replied: “We have a resolution of the Organization of American States that gives us the right to such over flights.”
Dobrynin replied: “I told him that the Soviet Union, like all peace-loving countries, resolutely rejects such a ‘right’ or, to be more exact, this kind of true lawlessness, when people who don’t like the social-political situation in a country try to impose their will on it…The OAS resolution is a direct violation of the UN Charter…and you, as the Attorney general of the USA, the highest legal entity, should certainly know that.” (5)
October 28 morning, Khrushchev announces the missiles would be withdrawn. But in a private message to Kennedy he expressed alarm at the U.S. over-flight: “One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time we are both experiencing when everything has been put into combat readiness. Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step?”
Author Dobbs wrote: “Khrushchev’s climb down averted the threat of nuclear exchange.”
Over the following weeks, U.S. forces monitored the departure of missiles aboard eight Soviet ships, and the crisis was averted.
On the same day Khrushchev announced that he would withdraw missiles from Cuba and shut down the Soviet base, he instructed Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan to fly to Cuba and talk to his friend, Fidel Castro: to assure him that JFK promised not to invade his country; to smooth over his anger with Moscow’s failure to consult him on the JFK negotiations; urge him not to shoot at U.S. spy planes flying over the country; settle the issue of tactical warheads and removal of the strategic weapons. Anastas took his son, Sergo, with him as his secretary.
Five decades later, Sergo Mikoyan wrote a book about this mission with the assistance of researcher/translator Svetlana Savranskaya—The Soviet-Cuba Missile Crisis (Woodrow Wilson Press-Stanford University Press, 2012. It is partly based upon Mikoyan’s Russian language 2006 book, Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis).
Juan O. Tamayo wrote a review of the book, “The untold story
of the Cuban Missile Crisis”, in the Miami Herald, October 15,
“The Cuban Missile Crisis had just ended, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to President John F. Kennedy on Oct. 28 1962 that he was withdrawing his strategic nuclear weapons from the island. But nearly 100 smaller Soviet nuclear warheads were also in Cuba, unknown to the U.S. government at the time and for decades into the future.
“Fidel Castro wanted desperately to keep them. Had Castro prevailed, Cuba would have become a nuclear power. And if Kennedy had known that Khrushchev had all but lied on Oct. 28, the hawks in Washington might have won their push for an all-out U.S. invasion of the island.” http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24738718.html
Sergo Mikoyan’s tale starts with the withdrawal from Cuba of what Kennedy called “offensive weapons”—Soviet R-14 and R-12 missiles with nuclear warheads and ranges of up to 1,550 miles, and medium-range IL-28 bombers, aged but still capable of carrying nuclear bombs.”
“What Khrushchev did not reveal was that 98 tactical nuclear warheads also had been deployed in Cuba for the Luna and FKR-1 missiles, both coastal defense weapons deployed essentially to destroy a possible U.S. invasion armada.”
In the July 1962 agreement between Khrushchev and Castro, “the deployment of all the nuclear weapons to the Caribbean island had included a promise that Cuban troops would control the tactical warheads after receiving training.”
Although Mikoyan felt friendship and comradeship with Fidel, his judgment about Cuba keeping tactical nukes for self-defense under the Fidel’s hands changed. He now saw Fidel as too “hotheaded”. Mikoyan reported to Khrushchev that he had never seen him “so distraught and irate.”
When Mikoyan spoke of removing all the nuclear weapons, Castro shot
back. “What do you think we are—a zero on the left, a dirty
“Mikoyan understood then that the Cuban tail was quite capable of wagging the Soviet dog,” Savranskaya wrote in a postscript to the book. “What became clear to Mikoyan is that the Soviets could not really control their Cuban ally.”
“The issue of the tactical warheads came to a boil on the night of Nov. 22, when Mikoyan met for more than three hours with Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and three other senior Cuban government officials at the Presidential Palace in Havana.
“’Is it true that all the tactical nuclear weapons are already removed?’ Castro is quoted as asking Mikoyan…Mikoyan replies that Moscow ‘has not given any promise regarding the removal’ of the tactical weapons. ‘The Americans do not have any information that they are in Cuba.’”
“Later in the notes, Castro returns to the tactical weapons, asking, ‘Doesn’t the Soviet Union transfer nuclear weapons to other countries?’ Mikoyan replies that there is ‘a law prohibiting the transfer of any nuclear weapons, including the tactical ones, to anybody. We never transferred it to anyone, and we did not intend to transfer it.’”
“Castro insists. ‘Would it be possible to leave the tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba in Soviet hands, without transferring them to the Cubans?’ Mikoyan says no, because the 42,000 Soviet troops in Cuba were technically only “advisers.”
And there the matter was closed. Sergo is still uncertain if there was such a law as his father told Fidel, but his decision was not to leave any nuclear weapons in Cuban hands.
In my view, it was not only a big power question of control over a small ally. It was a much larger ethical concern of preserving world peace at all costs. World peace takes precedence over justice and communist ideology!
The capitalists and their “democratic” governments do not think this way. We know that neither Kennedy nor any future U.S. president left Cuba in peace. Sabotage, assassination attempts, even chemical-biological warfare (chapter six) continued to challenge the Cuban people’s existence and patience. The Kennedy administration allowed CIA-controlled exile groups to continue their murderous sabotage. One can read the following on Alpha 66’s website. http://cuban-exile.com/doc_351-375/doc0358.html
“The next attack followed on October 8, 1962, when commandos landed on the Cuban coast and attacked a Russian base at Isabella de Sagua, in Las Villas Province, capturing arms and flags, and killing 20 Russian soldiers.
On October 19, 1962, it was announced that Alpha 66 and II Frente Nacional del Escambray had united to further the war against Communism in Cuba. Under the command of Cmdte Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, the next attack was carried out at Juan Francisco Beach in Las Villas Province December 4, 1962. The next and most important attack came on March 17, 1963, when the commandos entered the harbor of Isabella de Sagua and sank the Russian ship Lvov at the dock, by gunfire.”
While Kennedy may not have known about these actions, at least in advance, he didn’t rescind orders to subvert Cuba.
The 1,113 terrorists captured at the Bay of Pigs had been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Many of them were comrades with the terrorists who continued sabotaging Cuba even after the end of the CMC. Had the Cuban government been primarily motivated by revenge and punishment, it would have kept the captured terrorists in prison for the full term. But on December 24, just two months after the end of the missile crisis, they were flown to Miami, and even before the full ransom of $53 million in food and medicines, and $2.9 million in cash had arrived in Cuba.
Chomsky wrote: “Kennedy officially renewed the terrorist operations after the crisis ebbed. Ten days before his assassination he approved a CIA plan for ‘destruction operations’ by U.S. proxy forces ‘against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbor facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships.’”
Nevertheless, Fidel had praise and respect for Kennedy, whom he saw as having to make concessions to madmen generals and CIA officials. (See Ramonet and my chapter six).
Thirteen Days, the 2000 film by Roger Donaldson is basically an homage to the Kennedy brothers for being the world’s saviors in October. No wonder given that one of its sources was RFK’s book published posthumously, in 1969, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I know personally how the Cuban leadership still felt about Kennedy when I worked for government media in 1987-96. The chief editor of its main newspaper, “Granma”, told me that they felt there would have been positive changes in U.S. relations towards Cuba, perhaps a lifting of the embargo and even the return of its naval base, had Kennedy lived and won a second term. That possible scenario was what mainly motivated his US American assassins to “take him out”.
As I see it, and as the record truly shows, the Soviet leadership and their submarine captains are the world’s saviors.
1. See: The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality Stanford University Press, 2012.
2. As reported in the Boston Globe, October 13, 2002, “Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis, Forum.” The forum was organized by the Cuban government and the private National Security Archive at the George Washington University, Washington DC. Other participants at the forum, who had been involved in the crisis, included General Anatoly Gribkov, Sergo Mikoyan and an officer on submarine B-59, Vadim Orlov. Besides McNamara from the U.S. were JFK counsel Theodore Sorensen, JFK aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger, embassy political officer in Havana Wayne Smith, CIA officer Raymond L. Garthoff, watch commander on the USS Beale destroyer Captain John Peterson, and Navy pilot Captain William Ecker. Fidel Castro led a large delegation of Cuban leaders and participants in the crisis.
3. The Atlantic magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewed Fidel Castro in September 2010, “Castro: ‘No one has been slandered more than the Jews” https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/castro-no-one-has-been-slandered-more-than-the-jews/62566/ )
As an aside, Goldberg asked Fidel: "At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?" He answered: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it all."
4. See his article, “The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited: Nuclear Deterrence? Good Luck!”
https://cornerstone.gmu.edu/articles/4198 Sherwin is now a university history professor.
5. See: Anatomy of a Controversy: The Cold War International History Project Bulletin. http://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/moment.htm
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