ON Oct. 26-27, 1962, human civilization came close to being destroyed. Schoolchildren were ordered into shelters; supermarket shelves were emptied of soup cans and bottled water. It was the most perilous moment of the Cuban missile crisis, and of the cold war. But the danger of Armageddon did not begin, as legend has it, when the United States learned that Soviet missiles had reached Cuba’s shores earlier that month.
Rather, it was driven by Fidel Castro’s fears and insecurities after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and by the failures of President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to take him seriously. With Soviet missiles stationed on the island and America poised to attack, Cuba 50 years ago was far more dangerous than Iran or North Korea is today. But the 1962 crisis shows that a small, determined revolutionary state, backed into a corner and convinced of its inevitable demise, can bring the world to the brink of catastrophe.
Fifty years after the superpowers were poised to annihilate each other over nuclear missiles sent to Cuba, the myth prevails that President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down by threatening to unleash nuclear war.
It took three decades after October 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of a cataclysm, before documents were declassified that disclosed the back-channel diplomacy and compromise that led to peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. But even today, hard-liners cling to the narrative that taking a tough, inflexible stance with adversaries is the path to diplomatic triumph.
That misguided interpretation hampers diplomacy today, say veterans of the perilous Cold War standoff and the historians who study it. The notion that threatening military action can force an opponent's surrender has created dangerously unrealistic expectations, they say, in high-stakes conflicts like the U.S.-led challenge of Iran's purported quest to build nuclear weapons.
Kennedy didn't stare down Khrushchev with vows to bomb Cuban missile sites, although that was the tactic pushed by his military advisors, recently revealed history of the crisis shows. The president sent his brother, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to secretly negotiate with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In the strictest of confidence, RFK offered withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin pulling out the nuclear arms it had deployed to Fidel Castro's island.
"The secrecy that accompanied the resolution of the most dangerous crisis in foreign policy history has distorted the whole process of conflict resolution and diplomacy," said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "The takeaway from the crisis was that might makes right and that you can force your opponents to back down with a strong, forceful stance."
Documents released sporadically over the last 20 years show that the crisis was resolved through compromise, not coercion, said Kornbluh, who curates the U.S.-Cuba history documents, including 2,500 pages from RFK's private papers posted to the archive website just last week.
R. Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service now teaching diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees applications for the Iran dispute from the real story of the missile crisis resolution.
The fundamental breakthrough in the confrontation occurred "because Kennedy finally decided, against the wishes of most of his advisors, that rather than risk nuclear war he was going to make a compromise with Khrushchev," Burns said. He pointed to the confidential offer to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Europe, a turning point still "not well understood -- people think Khrushchev backed down."
In the real world, Burns said, "it is exceedingly rare that we get everything we want in an international discussion. To get something of value, you have to give up something."
Burns sees the outlines of a negotiated agreement with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, a plan he believes would be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans once the presidential election is over and the campaign rhetoric that rejects compromise dies down. In exchange for Iran's submitting its nuclear facilities to regular international inspections, Burns said, U.S. and other Western leaders could recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to the levels needed in civilian arenas, such as energy production and medicine.
Lessons learned in the U.S.-led wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan also argue for exhausting every diplomatic option before engaging in armed conflict, Burns said.
"Sometimes it's necessary to use military force -- I'm not a pacifist," said the retired diplomat, who was an undersecretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. "But more often than not, you have to put your faith in diplomacy. We have the time and space to negotiate with Iran."
Differentiating between national interests and those of allies is an even more important lesson gleaned from the missile crisis, said Robert Pastor, an American University professor of international relations and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.
"Fidel Castro actually urged Khrushchev to attack the United States because he felt American imperialism would try to destroy both Cuba and the socialist world," said Pastor, who credits Khrushchev with wisely rejecting Castro's adventurism in favor of peace. Pastor sees a similar danger of Israel provoking war with Iran, confronting Washington with the need to decide between trying to restrain Israel or fighting a new Middle East war.
Sergei N. Khrushchev, the late premier's son who is now a U.S. citizen and international affairs analyst at Brown University, has been campaigning for a correction of the Cuban missile history at anniversary events this week.
"Khrushchev didn’t like Kennedy any more than President Obama likes [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said in an interview. "But he realized you have to speak to them anyway if you want to resolve problems. We say we will never negotiate with our enemies, only with our friends. But that's not negotiating, that's having a party."
But a half-century of hindsight suggests the real winner of the crisis was the one figure who was famously left out of the negotiations: Fidel Castro. Of all the main actors in the gut-wrenching drama, only Castro gave nothing to get something in return.
Which is ironic, given that Castro was also the only one who wasn’t pleased by the Oct. 27, 1962 agreement that brought a peaceful end to the crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev were relieved; Castro was fuming mad.
The then-36-year-old comandante was incensed that Khrushchev had negotiated with Washington behind his back and agreed to withdraw the missiles without consulting him. After the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, Castro wanted the weapons as a deterrent to keep the United States from attempting another intervention on the island.
Instead, the Kennedy-Khrushchev deal left Cuba with a verbal guarantee from the White House that the US would not invade — a promise Castro viewed as worthless at the time.
But the Americans kept their word. While Castro would continue to face CIA assassination plots, covert attacks and five decades of US economic sanctions, the US Marines never stormed the beaches of Varadero and the 82nd Airborne Division never landed on the Havana Malecon.
Even once the missiles were gone, their short-lived deployment on the island had given Cuba the lasting security it was looking for in the first place.
The resolution of the missile crisis would also end up helping Castro consolidate his Cuban Revolution, thanks to the generous financial and military aid that Moscow sent to smooth things over with the young Cuban leader.
“As a result of the crisis, Fidel took the upper hand with the Soviets,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and professor of international relations at the University of Havana. “In 1963-64 he traveled to the Soviet Union and got very good deals.”
US Navy Admiral George Anderson – flouting orders from the Kennedy White House – issues instructions to his Caribbean flotilla to fire at the Soviet subs if they approach Cuba.
Only a handful of the Soviet sailors on board the submarines know their vessels carry a nuclear torpedo – each equal to the bombs that wiped out Hiroshima. Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command on board B-59, is one of the officers privy to this knowledge.
The gravity of the situation can be measured from the fact that the submarine crews –do not require Moscow’s permission to unleash Armageddon if they think they are under attack.
The US Navy ships locate B-59 near Cuba and start dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. A few days earlier, messages conveying the US Navy’s “Submarine Surfacing and Identification Procedures” were transmitted to Moscow. However, the submarines are out of radio contact and the instructions cannot be passed on to them.
Out of contact from Moscow for days, the crew of B-29, under the command of Captain Valentin Savitsky, fears war has started. As Vadim Orlov, the submarine's radio intelligence officer, narrates to Russian journalist Alexander Mozgovoi in the book Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartet, “The Americans encircled us and began dropping grenades that were exploding right next to us. It felt like sitting in a metal barrel with someone hitting it with a sledgehammer. The crew was in shock.”
The bombardment goes on for several hours and some sailors lose consciousness as oxygen runs low and temperatures inside the submarine soar above 122 degrees F. Hot and sweaty inside their claustrophobia inducing vessel, with drinking water rationed to just one glass per sailor a day, the crew is “under terrible pressure at the moment, both psychologically and physically'' according to Mozgovoi.
After an especially strong explosion shakes the submarine, Savitsky becomes furious and orders his weapons officer to arm the nuclear-tipped torpedo. “There may be a war raging up there and we are trapped here turning somersaults,” Savitsky says. “We are going to hit them hard. We shall die ourselves, sink them all but not stain the navy's honour.”
But procedure requires Arkhipov and the political officer Ivan Maslennikov sign off too. A heated argument follows as Arkhipov vetoes the launch. His contention is total war cannot be unleashed without complete information. (It would have been madness to allow the launch, he later told his wife Olga.) As Noam Chomsky writes in Hegemony or Survival, if the torpedo had launched, a devastating response would have been a near certainty, leading to total war.
Arkhipov eventually persuades his colleagues to surface the submarine and wait for further orders from Moscow.
While the Americans surfaced the Murmansk quartet, some Soviet submarines may have escaped US detection altogether. Says the National Security Archive, “While the four Soviet Foxtrot submarines did not have combat orders, the Soviet Navy sent two submarines, B-75 and B-88, to the Caribbean and the Pacific respectively, with specific combat orders.”
B-75, a Zulu class diesel submarine, commanded by Captain Nikolai Natnenkov, carried two nuclear torpedoes. “It left Russian waters at the end of September with instructions to defend Soviet transport ships en route to Cuba with any weapons if the ships came under attack.”
A day after the Arkhipov affair, another submarine, B-88, left a base in Kamchatka peninsula, with orders to sail to Pearl Harbour and attack the base if the crisis escalated into war.
Commanded by Captain Konstatin Kireev, B-88 arrived near Pearl Harbour on November 10. There is no evidence the American spotted any of these ships.
Under these circumstances which the American leadership and military were clueless about, nuclear war was a near certainty and it was purely Arkhipov’s courage – literally under fire – that saved the world.
Despite being at the epicentre of the crisis, Arkhipov's role remained under wraps for a full 40 years. In 2002 in a conference held in Havana, Cuba, organiser professor Thomas Blanton of the Washington-based National Security Archive said, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
The Russian sailor remained in the navy, rising to command first submarines and then submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975, when he became head of the Kirov Naval Academy, and rose to vice admiral in 1981. He died in 1998, at the age of 72.