At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the United States had decisive nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. This country had more than 400 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) compared to 78 ICBMs in the Soviet arsenal. The huge strategic advantage also included the sophisticated Polaris submarines with a devastating nuclear punch and the overwhelming striking power of some 1,300 bombers with nuclear ordinance, as opposed to less than 200 belonging to the Soviets.
Moreover, in the early 1960’s the delivery time from the launching site to the target was a crucial factor. It took approximately 30 minutes for the Soviet missiles to reach the United States. This was enough time for the Americans to retaliate with a devastating counter-strike, which was an essential deterrence for peace. From Cuba, the Soviet missiles would have been able to destroy most of the U.S. military and urban centers in 7-10 minutes.
Another important factor was that the missile accuracy significantly increased with the proximity of the target, making the Marxist island of Cuba the perfect choice to greatly improve Soviet nuclear capacity.
Yuri Pavlov, former head of the Soviet Latin America’s Foreign Ministry and responsible for Soviet-Cuban relations, wrote in 1994: “The Soviet leadership decided to use the island in order to bring a substantial part of the United States territory within range of Soviet medium range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Khrushchev, who initiated this idea, hoped that it would help to address the imbalance (in) strategic nuclear force.”
Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to Washington and a decisive figure with Robert Kennedy in finding a solution to the crisis, stated, in his memoirs published in 1995, that Khrushchev’s motives for the missiles deployment in Cuba was strategic. He wrote: “The move was part of a broader geopolitical strategy to achieve greater parity with the United States.”
A principal factor in the Kremlin’s decision to introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba was the Bay of Pigs disaster, where John Kennedy was perceived as a weak, indecisive president who would cave in under pressure. The next move was to get Fidel Castro’s cooperation. The messenger was Ambassador Aleksandr Alexeyev, a veteran KGB agent and close associate of Raúl Castro.
Fidel Castro welcomed the idea of nuclear missiles in Cuba. In his meeting with Aleksandr, the Marxist dictator stated: “That is a very risky move . . . but if making such a decision is indispensable for the Socialist bloc, I think I am in favor of placing the missiles in our island. This way we will be able to be the first victims of the encounter against imperialism.” With Castro’s endorsement, the secret shipment and deployment was on.
But on Oct. 14, a U.S. aircraft (U-2) took photos that provided Washington with the first hard evidence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Two days later, President Kennedy was informed. For the next five days, in absolute secrecy, the president and close advisors analyzed the available options. At the end it was decided to confront, head-on, the Soviet challenge.
On Oct. 22 at 7 p.m., President Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised speech disclosing that Soviet nuclear missiles were in Cuba, announcing a strict quarantine of all offensive weapons being shipped to the island and warning Moscow that if they were not immediately withdrawn, the United States was ready to remove them by force.
Dobrynin knew that the Kremlin was caught empty handed by the forceful American reaction.
In his memoirs he said, “The fatal miscalculation was made by Khrushchev himself. He did not anticipate that his adventurous thrust would be discovered in time for Kennedy to organize a sharp reaction, including a direct confrontation.”
It was in this critical moment that Fidel Castro’s apocalyptic behavior became evident. He wrote to Khrushchev, calling on the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack against the United States.
On Oct. 27, a U-2 plane was shot down over the island and its pilot killed. The U.S. military began the final stage of a massive deployment for the attack on Castro’s Cuba. Late that night, Robert Kennedy met with Dobrynin and went straight to the point. The president demanded the immediate withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba. Otherwise the United States would do it by force.
At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28, the Soviet leadership sent an urgent message to Dobrynin in Washington indicating that Khrushchev had accepted the president’s demands. To avoid any delays, the news was broadcasted on Radio Moscow. The agreement also included a secret covenant for the gradual dismantling of the obsolete American missiles in Turkey and a pledge not to invade Cuba. During the negotiations, Castro was ignored and consequently felt humiliated.
But who won? Kennedy was murdered a year later by a pro-Castro assassin. Khrushchev was sacked as prime minister within two years and Castro has remained as Cuba’s bloody tyrant for over half a century. You decide.
Pedro Roig is senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, historian, attorney and author of the book “The Death of a Dream: A History of Cuba.” He is a veteran of Brigade 2506.