As the Cuban missile crisis unfolded in October 1962, President John F Kennedy found himself wondering why Nikita Khrushchev would gamble with putting nuclear missiles into Cuba. The Soviet leader felt he had justification enough. There were American missiles in Turkey and Italy; US bases dotted the globe; and Castro was a friend and ally under threat from the US.
Surely the USSR had the right to place a few missiles in Cuba? He records in his memoirs that during a visit to Bulgaria in May 1962:
“[O]ne thought kept hammering away at my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba?”
“[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them.”
It was a gamble, and most observers argue that Khrushchev lost. In his memoirs, Khrushchev claims that the outcome of the missile crisis was a “triumph of Soviet foreign policy and a personal triumph”, but few, even on the Soviet side, have seen it that way. Khrushchev’s then foreign minister, the dour Andrei Gromyko, in his scanty memoir account of the Cuban events praises Kennedy (“a statesman of outstanding intelligence and integrity”), but is silent on Khrushchev.
While the crisis is historically the “Cuban” crisis, Cuba was perhaps a subsidiary consideration for Khrushchev, as Castro later noted – ruefully – in conversation with Soviet emissary Anastas Mikoyan:
“Besides serving the interests of Cuba, they served the interests of the socialist camp as a whole, and we evidently agreed with that.”
Thus, nuclear-capable missiles were supplied to Castro, when, possibly, a substantial conventional force might have served to defend the island and alarm the US less. Shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba in secret was, in fact, Khrushchev’s dangerous quick fix – militarily and psychological – for a substantial strategic imbalance between the superpowers. Of course, the defence of Cuba by deterrence remained a part of the equation.
Too often forgotten is that Kennedy, using mercenaries, had tried, and failed, to remove Castro at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. The US had then continued a vicious and extensive campaign of overt and covert aggression against Cuba, encompassing harassment, sabotage, economic and political warfare, plans to destroy the sugar crop and to assassinate Castro. Kennedy – and, possibly even more, his brother Robert – wanted to see Castro finished.
The secrecy essential to Khrushchev’s plan was breached when a U-2 overflight of Cuba spotted the missiles on 14 October. Kennedy had the aerial photographs on his desk on 16 October, initiating “13 days” of an “eyeball to eyeball” crisis, which ended on 28 October. In fact, the crisis was shorter and arguably less dangerous than often portrayed. Kennedy instituted a naval blockade of Cuba on 24 October, but Soviet ships were instructed not to breach it. And Soviet records show that on 25 October, the leadership was already considering dismantling the missiles in return for “pledges not to touch Cuba”.
Khrushchev clearly wanted a way out, fast. He had no intention of using his missiles, and looked anxious rather than dangerous. Some of the genuinely dangerous scenarios were actually raised in Kennedy’s crisis management group where, from the outset, there were calls for air strikes on Cuba and/or military invasion. The outline of a settlement – Khrushchev renouncing his missiles, Kennedy pledging not to invade Cuba – was dispatched from Moscow to Washington as early as 26 October. The next day, Khrushchev added a demand for the US to remove its missiles from Turkey by way of a trade, a proposal that Kennedy did not resist (as long as it was kept secret) since it was almost certainly discussed in his brother Bobby’s secret “back channel” meetings with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin.
Castro, ignored during these Soviet-American exchanges and furious, commented that while Khrushchev had extracted a no-invasion pledge from Kennedy and an agreement on Turkish missiles, he had, in effect, offered up Cuban sovereignty to the US – since Kennedy was now empowered to rule on what weaponry Cuba could acquire.
And Khrushchev’s “triumph” in Cuba did not stop his comrades removing their impetuous leader from power almost exactly two years later.