Michael KreponAnother Book on the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit in June, 1961.

Quotes of the week:

“He just beat the hell out of me.” – John F. Kennedy after his summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna

“It was as if you were sitting in an iron barrel that was being beaten with a sledgehammer.” – Lt. Vadim Orlov, recalling the effect of “practice” depth charges to the B-59 Foxtrot submarine carrying a nuclear-armed torpedo

“Perhaps war has already started up above… We’ll hit them with everything we’ve got! We’ll die and drown… but we won’t disgrace the fleet.” – Captain Valentin Savitsky on board the B-59

“Prepare the equipment for firing!” – Anatoly Lonenko, the officer responsible for the torpedo launchers relaying Savitsky’s order on board the B-59


Seriously, is another book on the Cuban missile crisis really needed?

Yes, most definitely. Let me begin to count the ways.

First, some crucial stories need to be remembered and passed along. Every generation can benefit from a retelling of the most harrowing crisis of the nuclear era, at least so far. Crucial lessons will have to be relearned if they are not remembered.

Second, we learn with the passage of time that early accounts weren’t entirely true, and that later accounts were still missing crucial details. We learn more with new archival research.

And third, previous English language accounts have skimped on contemporaneous and subsequent Russian perspectives of these harrowing events. Serhii Plokhy has partially addressed this grave deficiency by rooting about in the Archives of the Security Service and the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine. Until another generation of readers can benefit from the opening of the Soviet archives, Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis will do just fine.

The follies Plokhy recounts result from the inability of Washington and Moscow to read each other correctly and to anticipate each other’s moves. Consequently, in Plokhy’s view, both leaders “marched from one mistake to another.” He adds,

They were caused by a variety of factors, from ideological hubris and overriding political agendas to misreading the other side’s geostrategic objectives and intentions, poor judgment often due to the lack of good intelligence and cultural misunderstandings.

This problem didn’t begin or end with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Every pairing of leaders in Washington and Moscow constitutes an odd couple. Miscalculation always lurks around the corner. Most pairings don’t foresee serious bumps in the road or don’t seize new opportunities when they appear. The biggest exception to this rule is, of course, the pairing of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. George H.W. Bush also seized opportunities with his improbable partners, Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

These were rare exceptions. Most of the time, we consider it a success when the bumps are well managed. Occasionally, the bumps turn into slow train wrecks (apologies for the mixed metaphor) as when George W. Bush championed NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s push back followed in due course. It continues to this day.

Still, nothing compares to Khrushchev’s cosmic roll of the dice to place missiles and warheads in Cuba to find a “quick solution” to growing strategic inferiority and to protect Cuba from another U.S. invasion. After all, the United States placed intermediate-range missiles in Turkey and Italy, and Moscow didn’t kick up a fuss. So what could possibly go wrong? Why would Kennedy make a big deal about this?

Khrushchev completely misjudged Kennedy’s reaction and the vice he put himself into when his deployments were uncovered by the photo-reconnaissance missions that Secretary of State Dean Rusk had previously halted. (Rusk wanted to avoid incidents; Khrushchev, among other delusions, had hoped that the palm trees would provide adequate cover.) The young President who demonstrated terrible judgment in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and in his personal life – the same man who Khrushchev bullied when they met in Vienna — turned out to have superlative judgment when it mattered most.

Even so, Kennedy and Khrushchev could easily have lost control of events, and both men knew it. The Soviet shoot down of a U-2 over Cuba (against standing orders) and aggressive U.S. naval tactics enforcing the quarantine provided ample proof that leaders were barely in charge. What saved the planet from nuclear warfare, as Plokhy convincingly argues, was Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s mutual fear of mushroom clouds.

As is usually the case, intelligence failures preceded and accompanied this crisis. The U.S. intelligence community didn’t anticipate the forward deployment of Soviet missiles, assuming that deployments were “essentially defensive” in nature. (The outlier here was the CIA Director, John McCone.) Khrushchev had other ideas, believing that the best defense was a threatening offense.

Langley also assessed an upper boundary of perhaps 10,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, when the reality was four times that number. Nor did the U.S. intelligence community anticipate that nuclear warheads were already in Cuba to accompany the missiles, and that tactical nuclear warheads were also deployed to counter a U.S. invasion. The last shipment of these warheads arrived just before the deadline imposed by the quarantine.

Khrushchev had no idea what he was getting into, and only one of his leadership colleagues – Anastas Mikoyan – offered strong cautionary advice. Soviet troops suffered mightily during this misadventure as they and their equipment weren’t well suited for a tropical deployment.

This was especially true for Soviet diesel submarines. They were easy prey for U.S. antisubmarine warfare capabilities, noisy and ill-suited for a trans-Atlantic deployment, given their periodic need to recharge their batteries by rising to the surface.

Plokhy provides the most detailed account we have so far about the B-59, the Foxtrot sub whose top three officers made a compact to vote on whether or not to fire their nuclear tipped torpedo in extremis. The target would have been the USS Cony. Given the ten-kiloton punch of its warhead, much of the Randolph carrier task force of which the Cony was a part would have been damaged as a result. Then all hell would have broken loose. During the crisis, up to seventy-two B-52s, armed for Armageddon, were flying “Chrome Dome” missions at all times, awaiting targets and orders to attack them within the Soviet Union.

Soviet Captain Vasilii Arkhipov, the group commander of the four Foxtrots approaching Cuba, has long been heralded as the wise soul who vetoed the first use of nuclear weapons. A new hero emerges from Plokhy’s story – Gary Slaughter — a twenty-three-year-old Navy ensign aboard the Cony.

Besides Arkhipov, the other two votes that counted aboard the B-59 when it came to firing their nuclear-armed torpedo belonged to the sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, who was of equal rank to Arkhipov, and the officer in charge of political correctness, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov. Plokhy does not confirm the vote but provides vivid context to it.

The B-59 had twenty-two torpedoes on board; only one was carrying a nuclear warhead. The submarine was not difficult to track. Its survivability was compromised by its noisy turbines, powered by three diesel engines and three electric motors. When its batteries were running low, the B-59 had to surface.

The sub’s crew was operating under extreme pressure and in extreme heat, with some compartments as high as forty-five to fifty degrees Celsius. The B-59 was subject to repeated sonar pings that sounded like a death sentence, as well as blasts from hand grenades and what the US Navy considered to be “practice” depth charges. The depth charges didn’t feel like practice to the men aboard the B-59.

Before surfacing to recharge his sub’s batteries, Savitsky ordered the nuclear-armed torpedo to be readied for firing. When the B-59 rose to the surface and its crew scrambled on deck soaking in sweat to breathe fresh air, it was surrounded by three destroyers. The nearest was the Cony.

Savitsky and Arkhipov were on the bridge, within sight of Slaughter, the Cony’s communications officer. U.S aircraft were flying above the B-59, illuminating it with searchlights, firing tracers, and dropping flares. At this point, Savitsky lost his composure, concluding that his sub was under attack. He ordered an emergency dive, determined to fire his ten-kiloton rejoinder. Arkhipov remained on the bridge long enough to see Slaughter’s message of apology, delivered in code by searchlight. Arkhipov relayed this message to Savitsky, who regained his senses and ordered the B-59’s torpedo doors closed.

Kennedy kept his cool and changed his mind about authorizing military strikes on Cuban soil. Khrushchev was highly agitated at points during the crisis but drank the poisoned chalice he poured for himself. Fidel Castro gave him no cover or help extricating Soviet missiles, warheads, and IL-28 bombers.

Columnist Walter Lippmann publicly suggested a way out of the crisis – by trading off Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey during the Eisenhower administration, and Kennedy seized on it, with the proviso that this be kept secret. He also publicly pledged not to invade Cuba if Soviet missiles were withdrawn. Khrushchev had to honor the secret part of the trade because saving face by going public with the removal of the Jupiters might have prompted Kennedy to renege on his promise.

Serious crises can generate arms racing as well as arms control. The Cuban missile crisis prompted both. An arms race ensued as the Kremlin badly needed to catch up and as Kennedy approved plans to stay ahead. Chastened by their rendezvous with Armageddon, Kennedy and Khrushchev also agreed to stop atmospheric nuclear testing, the first-ever treaty governing nuclear weapons between the superpowers.

More serious crises would lie ahead, along with more arms racing and extraordinary arms control treaties.

Pin It on Pinterest