October 19, 2012

Horse 1382 - The Cuban Missile Crisis' Unsung Hero

Fifty years ago this month, whilst John, Paul, George but not Ringo (he was bad) sang "Love Me Do" , JFK and Nikita Khrushchev were busy letting each other know that love was certainly not the order of the day. After JFK had ordered nuclear capabilities in Turkey and had failed spectacularly with the "Bay of Pigs" invasion, Khrushchev had arranged with Fidel Castro to host nuclear missile launching silos and platforms in Cuba. On 16th October 1962, a U2 spy plane had taken surveillance photographs which showed that Khrushchev had the ability to strike the East Coast of the United States with nuclear missiles.
I don't know precisely how close either JFK or Khrushchev got to "pressing the button" but I do know that the unsung hero which averted nuclear war was a piece of technology which has changed the world perhaps more often and with more force than any other weapon ever unleashed... a letter.

Both JFK and Khrushchev had underneath their fingers, the power to exterminate life on this planet. The famous Red Telephone which connected the White House to the Kremlin had not even been set up by October '62 and so this form of communication wasn't yet an option. In fact the famous "hot line" which was in reality an actual Red Telephone for most of its existence, wouldn't even be installed until after the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line" which was signed on June 20, 1963.
Even after it was installed as a result of the missile crisis,  it is still doubtful whether in all the years of its operation whether it was used for anything beyond making calls to test if it worked and to give instructions for a series of chess games.

The US State Department has released all sorts of exchanges between Kennedy and Khrushchev and they make for fascinating reading. A quick look at some excerpts from these letters and telegrams is in order, and a link is provided here:

“If we can come now to the conclusion of an agreement on cessation of all nuclear weapon tests we will make good for the peoples of our countries and for the peoples of the entire world.
We prefer to conclude now a treaty on cessation of all nuclear weapon tests. But if the Western powers are not yet prepared for that even taking into account the suggestions put forward at the Pugwash conference we, as I have already told you, are ready in this case also to make a step toward the Western powers and to conclude at this time a treaty on cessation of nuclear weapon tests in three environments: in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water.”
- 56. Message From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, Moscow, September 28, 1962.

If we read something like this, it paints a very very different picture to what we might expect. Khrushchev appears far more conciliatory than the press in the west would suggest. This is a man who after making cuts to conventional weapons budgets, though for a while that he could achieve the same ends through missiles. I think that by September of 1962, Khrushchev was only too aware of the abject hell that could be unleashed by the push of "the button". It was hard enough to manage domestic policy and agriculture without having to worry about the threat of the nuclear boogeyman.

Obviously Khrushchev would say one thing and do another. Whilst he appears on one hand to want to agree on the cessation of nuclear weapon tests, he still wanted to rattle the sabre and show that if he wanted to, he could still in theory push "the  button". Whilst the above statements were being made, R-12 Dvina missiles were being delivered to Cuba.

"If ... we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves; we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ."
- Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós, to the UN General Assembly, October 7, 1962.

If Cuba openly declared that it had "inevitable weapons", then it must have got them from somewhere. The US started flying U-2 spy planes to find them and on October 14, 1962, it found them.

"DEAR MR. CHAIRMAN: A copy of the statement I am making tonight concerning developments in Cuba and the reaction of my Government thereto has been handed to your Ambassador in Washington. In view of the gravity of the developments to which I refer, I want you to know immediately and accurately the position of my Government in this matter.
It was in order to avoid any incorrect assessment on the part of your Government with respect to Cuba that I publicly stated that if certain developments in Cuba took place, the United States would do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.
Moreover, the Congress adopted a resolution expressing its support of this declared policy. Despite this, the rapid development of long-range missile bases and other offensive weapons systems in Cuba has proceeded. I must tell you that the United States is determined that this threat to the security of this hemisphere be removed. At the same time, I wish to point out that the action we are taking is the minimum necessary to remove the threat to the security of the nations of this hemisphere. The fact of this minimum response should not be taken as a basis, however, for any misjudgment on your part."
- 60. Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev, Washington, October 22, 1962.

From Cuba, the R-12 Dvina missiles could in theory strike Washington D.C., New York City, Mexico City, The Panama Canal etc. Khrushchev stated on the 23rd that they "are destined exclusively for defensive purposes" and had openly admitted that they shipping missiles to Cuba. Kennedy issued a shipping quarantine order on the 23rd:

"I hope that you will issue immediately the necessary instructions to your ships to observe the terms of the quarantine, the basis of which was established by the vote of the Organization of American States this afternoon, and which will go into effect at 1400 hours Greenwich time October twenty-four.
Sincerely, JFK."
-62. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union, Washington, October 23, 1962, 6:51 p.m

Naturally as you'd expect, Khrushchev told Kennedy to go away.
"Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you--the United States--you would reject such an attempt. And we also say--no.

The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island."
- 63. Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, Moscow, October 24, 1962.

The key letter in the exchange whilst they were flying forth and back was from Khrushchev on the 26th:
"This indicates that we are normal people, that we correctly understand and correctly evaluate the situation. Consequently, how can we permit the incorrect actions which you ascribe to us? Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this. We, however, want to live and do not at all want to destroy your country. We want something quite different: To compete with your country on a peaceful basis. We quarrel with you, we have differences on ideological questions. But our view of the world consists in this, that ideological questions, as well as economic problems, should be solved not by military means, they must be solved on the basis of peaceful competition, i.e., as this is understood in capitalist society, on the basis of competition. We have proceeded and are proceeding from the fact that the peaceful co-existence of the two different social-political systems, now existing in the world, is necessary, that it is necessary to assure a stable peace. That is the sort of principle we hold."
- 65. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State, Moscow, October 26, 1962, 7 p.m.

"If you did this as the first step towards the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.
Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this."
- 65. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State, Moscow, October 26, 1962, 7 p.m.

I really don't know how close the USA and the USSR came to all out nuclear war and I shudder to think what would have happened if it ever came to be (would I even be here to write this at all?) but the letters which literally flew back and forth did their part in making sure it never did. These letters are the unsung heroes of the Cold War, saving more lives than possibly both World Wars combined.

The pen is not only mightier than the sword but mightier than even two arsenals of nuclear weapons.


I can though guess how close the military got. On October 26, 1962, the USS Beale dropped depth charges on a Soviet Foxtrot submarine names "B-59" armed with a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo and which was running out of air because the air-conditioning system had failed. The three officers on board Valentin Savitsky, Ivan Maslennikov and Vasili Arkhipov had the authorisation to fire their nuclear torpedos if all three of them came to a concensus. Valentin said "yes", Ivan said "yes" but Vasili Arkhipov said "no" and his protestation caused B-59 to surface for air.
Vasili Arkhipov, a man who practically no-one has ever heard of, probably made the single most important decision of anyone in the entire of the 20th Century.

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