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Secret nukes: the untold story of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis had just ended, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to President John F. Kennedy on Oct. 28 1962 that he was withdrawing his strategic nuclear weapons from the island.

But nearly 100 smaller Soviet nuclear warheads were also in Cuba, unknown to the U.S. government at the time and for decades into the future.

Fidel Castro wanted desperately to keep them.

Had Castro prevailed, Cuba would have become a nuclear power. And if Kennedy had known that Khrushchev had all but lied on Oct. 28, the hawks in Washington might have won their push for an all-out U.S. invasion of the island.

Instead, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, sensing that the “hothead” Castro could not be trusted with any nuclear weapons, got them out of Cuba after telling him that Soviet law did not permit the transfer of nuclear weapons to other countries.

“It is a pity. And when are you going to repeal that law?” Castro asked Mikoyan during a tense meeting on Nov. 22, 1962, according to a new book by his son, Sergo Mikoyan, and researcher Svetlana Savranskaya.

It’s been 50 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, Oct. 16-28, when the world came closer than ever to a U.S.–Soviet nuclear war and nightmarish terms like Armageddon and “mutually assured destruction” — MAD — became almost real.

Research in recent years has shown the crisis impacted a broader swath of the world than previously known, said James Hershberg, editor of the book series published by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Moscow’s concessions to Kennedy likely pushed North Korea to launch its own search for nuclear weapons, one study showed. Another argued that it led North Vietnam to step up its armed campaign against the south.

But Sergo Mikoyan’s book, The Soviet-Cuba Missile Crisis, focuses on the crisis in Havana in November of 1962, as his father jawboned with Castro to clean up the loose ends of the Cuban Missile Crisis

“The headline here is just how close Cuba came to being a nuclear power,” said Hershberg, whose book series includes the Mikoyan work.

The book includes 50 Soviet government and Mikoyan family documents, including official notes from the Mikoyan-Castro talks. Sergo Mikoyan died in 2010 and Savranskaya, a researcher at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, completed the book.

The tale essentially starts after Khrushchev tells Kennedy Oct. 28 that he will withdraw from Cuba the “weapons which you call offensive” — Soviet R-14 and R-12 missiles with nuclear warheads and ranges of up to 1,550 miles, and medium-range IL-28 bombers, aged but still capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

What Khrushchev did not reveal was that 98 tactical nuclear warheads also had been deployed in Cuba for the Luna and FKR-1 missiles, both coastal defense weapons deployed essentially to destroy a possible U.S. invasion armada.

In the weeks leading up to the Missile Crisis there had been conversations between U.S. and Soviet officials about the Soviet Union sending Cuba weapons so that it could defend itself, according to documents released Thursday from the archives of Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general and an advisor to his brother.

But with the United States apparently unaware such weapons had nuclear capabilities, the tense exchanges between the two Cold War powers centered on the removal of weapons “capable of offensive war,’’ not the weapons that could be used to repel a possible U.S. invasion.

On Oct. 20, 1962, a surprise U.S. air strike to take out the strategic missiles — an option that some advisors thought would ultimately lead to a full-scale invasion — was still under discussion, according to the RFK papers. But President Kennedy had reservations about the potential loss of thousands of lives — including those at U.S. missile sites in Turkey and Italy if the Soviets chose to retaliate, and an Oct. 22 memo about the drawbacks of a surprise air strike also noted it might be perceived “as a Pearl Harbor in reverse” and spark retaliatory strikes by local “Soviet” commanders of the Cuban missiles.

So even though the United States public breathed a sigh of relief that the Missile Crisis was over on Oct. 28, Khrushchev ordered Anastas Mikoyan — the No. 2 in the Soviet hierarchy, its top foreign troubleshooter and a Castro friend since 1960 — to Havana in the first days of November for a critical assignment that would last three weeks and included multiple objectives:

• Assure Castro that JFK had promised he would not invade Cuba;

• Smooth his anger over Moscow’s failure to consult him on the negotiations with JFK;

• Push him to accept inspections to confirm the removal of the strategic weapons;

• Urge him not to shoot at U.S. spy planes overflying the island;

• Settle the issue of the tactical warheads;

What’s more, the Soviet-Cuba oral agreement in the summer of 1962 for the deployment of all the nuclear weapons to the Caribbean island had included a promise that Cuban troops would control the tactical warheads after receiving training.

Castro was indeed fuming. Moscow’s withdrawal of its missiles would leave him without any real deterrence against a U.S. attack, just 18 months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and amid at least one confirmed CIA plot to assassinate him.

The Soviet ambassador in Havana reported that he had never seen the Cuban leader “so distraught and irate.” And when Mikoyan pushed too hard on one issue, Castro shot back, “What do you think we are. A zero on the left? A dirty rag?”

Initially, Mikoyan and the Soviet military favored allowing Castro to keep the tactical nukes for self-defense, according to the younger Mikoyan.

But on Oct. 27, Castro sent Khrushchev a cable all but urging a preemptive nuclear strike on U.S. targets. And on Nov. 19 he ordered his U.N. ambassador, Carlo Lechuga, to announce that the tactical warheads were in Cuba. That order was quickly recalled.

“Mikoyan understood then that the Cuban tail was quite capable of wagging the Soviet dog,” Savranskaya wrote in a postscript to the book. “What became clear to Mikoyan is that the Soviets could not really control their Cuban ally.”

The issue of the tactical warheads came to a boil on the night of Nov. 22, when Mikoyan met for more than three hours with Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and three other senior Cuban government officials at the Presidential Palace in Havana.

“Is it true that all the tactical nuclear weapons are already removed?” Castro is quoted as asking Mikoyan in notes of the meeting taken by the Soviet delegation. Mikoyan replies that Moscow “has not given any promise regarding the removal” of the tactical weapons. “The Americans do not have any information that they are in Cuba.”

Castro pressed on. “So then the weapons are here? And no assurances were given regarding their withdrawal?” Mikoyan replies, “Not about the weapons.”

Castro says, “Therefore then the weapons are here.”

Later in the notes, Castro returns to the tactical weapons, asking, “Doesn’t the Soviet Union transfer nuclear weapons to other countries?” Mikoyan replies that there is “a law prohibiting the transfer of any nuclear weapons, including the tactical ones, to anybody. We never transferred it to anyone, and we did not intent to transfer it.”

Castro insists. “Would it be possible to leave the tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba in Soviet hands, without transferring them to the Cubans?” Mikoyan says no, because the 42,000 Soviet troops in Cuba were technically only “advisers.”

Minutes latter Castro again returned the tactical nuclear weapons. “So you have a law that prohibits transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to other countries? It is a pity. And when are you going to repeal that law?” he is quoted as saying in the notes.

Mikoyan dodges the question. “We will see,” he says.

Sergo Mikoyan, who accompanied his father during the first few days of the Cuba mission, wrote in the book that it’s not clear whether such a law really existed. Perhaps it was a secret policy of the Soviet leadership, perhaps a convenient lie.

The younger Mikoyan argues that the “old men” who ruled the Kremlin in the early 1960s essentially saw in Cuba a young and virile socialist revolution that needed Moscow’s support.

The “romantic” Khrushchev sent nuclear weapons to defend Havana from U.S. attacks and did not fully realize the risks, he noted. Moscow’s military was more pragmatic, and the Cuba deployment doubled the number of Soviet missiles that could hit U.S. territory.

But by the time Mikoyan wound up his mission to Havana, the book noted, Moscow viewed Cuban leaders as “hotheads who were preparing their country to die in the fire of a nuclear confrontation with the United States in the name of world socialism.”

Published jointly by the Woodrow Wilson Press and Stanford University Press, the book is based partly on Sergo Mikoyan’s Russian-language book Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, published in 2006.

Anastas Mikoyan’s wife of 43 years, Ashkhen Lazaranova, died during the first days of his three-week mission to Havana, but he stayed on the Caribbean island until he had completed his tasks and left on Nov. 26.

A few days later, Mikoyan met with presidential advisor John J. McCloy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson and Charles W. Yost, Stevenson’s deputy, to discuss the details of the agreement ending the Missile Crisis. A summary of that conversation notes that Mikoyan was “clearly influenced by commitments to Castro to make a strong case on Castro’s behalf; he also seems to be motivated by the burden that Cuba represents to the USSR.”

Mikoyan died in 1978 at age of 82 of natural causes.

Sergo Mikoyan, who served as personal secretary to his father, was one of Moscow’s top Latin America specialists and served as editor of the journal Latin America, published by the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

The U.S. government knew in 1962 of the deployment of the Luna missiles and suspected they carried nuclear warheads, but would not learn the full details of the tactical weapons until a conference in Havana in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, attended by U.S., Soviet and Cuban delegations.

That’s when Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov, army chief of operations during the missile crisis, revealed that Moscow had deployed nine nuclear tipped Luna in Cuba to be used against any U.S. invasion force.

“The United States had no idea the warheads had made it to the island — missiles without warheads aren’t so dangerous,’’ said Philip Brenner, an American University professor who attended the conference.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who also attended the meeting, was so taken aback, said Brenner, that he “had to hold on to a table to steady himself after he learned that.’’

But Gribkov, like Khrushchev, was not telling the full truth. In fact, there were 80 nuclear tipped FKR-1 cruise missiles, 12 nuclear warheads of the Lunas, also known as FROG missiles, and six nuclear bombs for the IL-28s.

Sergo Mikoyan wrote that all the tactical warheads left Cuba Dec. 1, 1962,on the cargo ship Arkhangelsk and arrived Dec. 20 in the Soviet port of Severomorsk.

Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this story.