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  • October 27, 1962.

  • Two world superpowers, equipped with over 4,000 nuclear warheads in total, are flirting

  • with a dangerous escalation of what had so far been a Cold War, one fought without direct

  • confrontation.

  • Both the US and USSR have placed missiles in third countries close to each others'

  • borders, pointed directly at enemy soil.

  • In this critical moment, two events happen on the same day.

  • An American U-2 reconnaissance plane is shot down over Cuba, where the Soviet missile bases

  • have been built up, and Kennedy is urged to retaliate militarily directly against the

  • Soviets.

  • Meanwhile, American warships drop depth charges to force a Soviet B-59 submarine to surface.

  • The submarine's officers are unaware they are violating a US naval blockade, and interpret

  • the maneuvers of the US warships as an act of war.

  • What the Americans don't know is that the Soviet submarine being threatened is carrying

  • a nuclear-tipped torpedo

  • Had two men made different decisions, that could easily have been the day the world exploded

  • into nuclear war.

  • Why didn't it?

  • To understand the actions taken in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's crucial

  • to take a quick look back a couple of years at US, Cuban, and Soviet relations.

  • Since the Monroe Doctrine, the US had increasingly asserted its power and influence over the

  • Western Hemisphere.

  • With the Soviet bloc a declared ideological enemy, the US was especially vigilant about

  • communism penetrating the West.

  • This sphere of influence would be tested in 1959, when young revolutionary Fidel Castro

  • took power in Cuba after waging a guerilla war against US-backed military dictator Fulgencio

  • Batista.

  • He quickly converted the nation to communism, further angering US politicians who were engaged

  • in a political conflict and arms race with the most powerful communist nation of all

  • at the time.

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, the US President at the time, deemed Castro's administration

  • in Cuba unacceptable.

  • Initially, his idea was simple: the CIA would train 1,400 Cuban exiles in the US, sympathetic

  • to the old government and angry at Castro, to invade Cuba and win the country back.

  • The plan was hatched under Eisenhower in 1960.

  • By the time it was ready, the charismatic John F. Kennedy was President of the US.

  • Kennedy had second - and third and fourth - thoughts about the planned invasion.

  • The strategy of sending in Cuban exiles had come about to 1) make it seem it wasn't

  • a US government invasion of Cuba and 2) to keep the invading group small and clandestine,

  • so they could infiltrate the island nation and win the support of even more anti-Castro

  • Cubans.

  • Kennedy worried that the group was too small to be militarily effective, and too large

  • to keep secret.

  • However, on April 17, 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion was launched.

  • The result was embarrassing.

  • The US government had severely underestimated Castro's forces and severely overestimated

  • Cuban nostalgia for a US puppet government on the island.

  • Within 24 hours, the US-trained Cuban exiles had been defeated, and Kennedy's administration

  • was humiliated.

  • Nevertheless, the effort to dismantle Castro's regime continued with foiled assassination

  • attempts throughout the year.

  • Even though many top US officials advised Kennedy that Cuba wasn't much of a threat

  • to the US at all, Kennedy had told voters he would be tough on communism, and in politics,

  • appearances matter most.

  • Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted to assist the newly formed Communist government

  • in Cuba against US interference, while also looking for a possible bargaining chip to

  • gain influence in West Berlin.

  • As he said, “we had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference

  • in the Caribbean.

  • But what exactly?

  • The logical answer was missiles”.

  • In addition, USSR and US nuclear capabilities were vastly different at this time, and Khruschev

  • sought to bridge the gap.

  • Physicist Pavel Podvig pointed out that Soviet bomberscould deliver about 270 nuclear

  • weapons to US territory”, while the US had thousands of warheads and almost 2,000 missile

  • delivery systems; 1,576 Strategic Air Command bombers, 183 Atlas and Titan ICBMs, 144 Polaris

  • missiles on nuclear submarines, and ten Minuteman ICBMs.

  • The Soviets, in contrast, had good medium-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range

  • ballistic missiles, though relatively unreliable ICBMs, aka intercontinental ballistic missiles.

  • Placing weapons in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, would give the USSR a more reliable

  • attack system against the US.

  • After all, the US had already placed Jupiter missiles in Turkey pointed at the USSR, so

  • Khrushchev figured missiles in Cuba would be an effective response.

  • From July to October of 1962, the Soviets started secretly transporting troops and equipment

  • to Cuba.

  • Though the operation was hardly a secret from Cuban civilians - 41,902 soldiers were deployed

  • unconvincingly disguised asagricultural specialists”, while at one point Marshal

  • Sergey Biryuzov suggested disguising the missiles as palm trees - the CIA wouldn't discover

  • the nuclear plot until October, as it had withdrawn most of its presence after the Bay

  • of Pigs.

  • Though the US had noticed a Soviet military buildup in Cuba, it was on October 14, 1962

  • that U-2 spy plane pilot Major Richard Heyser photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic

  • missile being assembled.

  • This started the clock on one of the most tense, harrowing periods in US history.

  • The next day, Kennedy sees the photos and calls his closest advisors to a meeting in

  • order to discuss US options.

  • He forms a group called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EXCOMM

  • for short, consisting of five close advisors and nine members of the National Security

  • Council.

  • Suggestions thrown out in the meeting are all over the map, ranging from a stern warning

  • to the Soviet Union and Cuba, to an air strike and outright invasion of the island.

  • Kennedy, ignoring his hawkish Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflecting on humiliating previous

  • interventions in Cuba and rightly considering that a direct attack and invasion may lead

  • to disaster, chooses another path.

  • He decides the US will conduct a naval blockade of the island, although he calls it a “quarantine

  • instead.

  • Why a quarantine?

  • Because a blockade is technically an act of war, and this one word difference would actually

  • further escalate the situation.

  • JFK dictates a letter to Khrushchev announcing that the US will not permit Soviet shipments

  • of weapons to Cuba.

  • The President further demands that the Soviet Union dismantle the current Cuban missile

  • bases and return all weapons to Moscow.

  • That night, Kennedy makes a serious public announcement regarding the crisis to the US

  • public.

  • On national television, he says, “it shall be the policy of this nation to regard any

  • nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an

  • attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon

  • the Soviet Union”.

  • The same day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff upgrades the US' military readiness status to DEFCON

  • 3; not full readiness yet, but increased vigilance with the Air Force ready to mobilize within

  • 15 minutes.

  • While Kennedy is taking this bold, powerful stance in front of the American people, another

  • discussion entirely is taking place behind closed doors in EXCOMM meetings.

  • Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen, articulating the views of the EXCOMM board, writes the

  • following memo regarding the Soviet missiles in Cuba: “It is generally agreed that these

  • missiles, even when fully operational, do not significantly alter the balance of power—i.e.,

  • they do not significantly increase the potential megatonnage capable of being unleashed on

  • American soil, even after a surprise American nuclear strike.”

  • The Soviets already had missiles capable of attacking the US from longer distances.

  • Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara points out the obvious in EXCOMM meetings: “A missile

  • is a missile.

  • It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union

  • or Cuba.”

  • The fact that the longer-range missiles were somewhat more unreliable didn't mean much

  • in the long run.

  • The US is a pretty big target to hit.

  • However, the Kennedy administration knows that optics are important, and after the humiliating

  • events of the last two years in Cuba, the US cannot afford to look weak in the face

  • of an aggressive Soviet act.

  • Meanwhile, halfway across the world, Khrushchev receives Kennedy's letter and sees his television

  • appearance announcing the quarantine.

  • On October 24, Khrushchev comes back with a response of his own.

  • The Soviet leader calls a spade a spade, or rather, a blockade a blockade, and dubs it

  • anact of aggressionon the part of the US.

  • However, even while Khrushchev publicly condemns the US's actions, he is unwilling to have

  • weapon-carrying ships breach the US quarantine line.

  • Soviet ships are turned back by the US, except for a few carrying no weapons.

  • The tensions between the two Cold War superpowers are being felt all around the world.

  • China starts publicly announcing its support of Cuba, while the citizens of West Berlin

  • fear their freedom will end up trampled in any Soviet-US conflict.

  • Though Khrushchev is unwilling to breach the quarantine line, more US spy planes inform

  • Kennedy that the Soviets' missile site on Cuba is still being worked on and almost ready.

  • Seeing that his calls to dismantle the site have gone unheeded, Kennedy and his administration

  • upgrade the readiness status of Strategic Air Command to DEFCON 2.

  • DEFCON 1, the highest level of military readiness- including its nuclear forces-, has in fact

  • never been called for in US history.

  • So the upgrade to DEFCON 2, meaning war is imminent, underscores the grave nature of

  • the crisis.

  • On October 26, Kennedy starts seriously considering the option of a US invasion in Cuba and a

  • direct strike on the missile site.

  • Predicting that this will cause global mayhem, he wants to give his diplomatic option more

  • time to work, while facing extreme pressure from both Congress and EXCOMM to take military

  • action.

  • That same evening, around 2 AM Moscow time, Khrushchev sends a long, emotional message

  • to Kennedy, in which he details his fears of the current situation resulting in nuclear

  • apocalypse.

  • In a private, heartfelt letter to the US President, the Soviet leader writes, “If there is no

  • intention 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.”

  • Khrushchev promises to remove the missiles in exchange for a simple US assurance that

  • they will not invade Cuba.

  • However, the next day on October 27, Khrushchev, apparently over whatever dark night of the

  • soul caused him to reach out to Kennedy the night before, goes back on his conciliatory

  • stance.

  • In a much more harshly worded, and unfortunately, public letter, he indicates any deal must

  • include the removal of US Jupiter missiles from Turkey in order to be accepted by the

  • USSR.

  • Furthermore, another military action forces the US closer than ever to war with the USSR.

  • Soviets tracking an American U-2 spy plane conducting a reconnaissance mission over Cuba

  • become increasingly concerned the US will learn too much as the pilot spends well over

  • an hour near secret locations of Soviet nuclear weapons.

  • Even though only the commanding general is supposed to authorize a surface to air missile

  • launch, he is nowhere to be found.

  • Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko gives the order to shoot the plane down instead.

  • Two missiles are fired; one of them manages to find its target, bringing down the plane

  • and killing US pilot Rudolf Anderson.

  • A hush falls over Kennedy's meeting with his team as the killing of Anderson reaches

  • their ears.

  • Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze remarks, “They've fired the first shot”.

  • To everyone in the room, war now seems inevitable.

  • In Moscow, Khrushchev hears of the attack and starts to realize the situation is quickly

  • careening out of control.

  • As he would state later in life, the Soviet premier had mostly wanted to make the USlearn

  • just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we'd be doing nothing more

  • than giving them a little of their own medicine”.

  • It was never his intention to come so close to nuclear war, a possibility which now seems

  • increasingly likely, and is about to become an even closer call.

  • At the same time the two leaders are deciding their next move, there is a problem at the

  • quarantine line.

  • The US Navy is dropping a series of signaling depth charges close to a Soviet B-59 submarine

  • to force it to surface.

  • Unbeknownst to them, the submarine is equipped with a nuclear-tipped torpedo, one that it

  • has orders to use if the submarine is fired on.

  • Unfortunately, the submarine has been too deep in the ocean for too long to know the

  • current status of the crisis.

  • Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky assumes the charges being dropped on the B-59 are

  • an attack, and that the US and USSR are already at war.

  • He makes the decision to launch the torpedo.

  • However, all three officers on board need to sign off on the decision to launch a nuclear

  • weapon from the submarine.

  • One man, Vasili Arkhipov, holds out, believing the situation might be a misunderstanding;

  • the torpedo remains unlaunched, and a nuclear strike is, once again, very narrowly averted.

  • Back in D.C., with news of the U-2 plane being shot down all over the White House, Kennedy's

  • advisers are clamoring for revenge.

  • They urge Kennedy to launch a retaliatory attack the next morning.

  • Kennedy, however, correctly suspects that Khrushchev did not authorize this air strike

  • against a US plane.

  • He is still hesitant to take military action.

  • As he explains to the advisers directing him towards war, “it isn't the first step

  • that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth or fifth step and we don't

  • go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so”.

  • At this point, the US administration makes a risky move.

  • Kennedy decides to ignore Khrushchev's second, angrier letter, as promising to withdraw missiles

  • from Turkey would show US weakness and risk NATO alliances.

  • The President decides to respond only to the first letter instead.

  • Ignoring the existence of an official enemy demand in a crisis is definitely a bold move,

  • but one that Kennedy feels will pay off.

  • JFK also realizes that to preserve US status and alliances, he has little other choice

  • at this point.

  • Little do the EXCOMM members know that JFK has also been secretly playing another hand

  • this whole time.

  • Perhaps to be expected from such a tight-knit family, JFK keeps his younger brother, Robert

  • F. Kennedy, just 36 years old at the time, as his most trusted advisor.

  • As the missile crisis is escalating, RFK is functioning as the President's de facto

  • chief of staff.

  • Unbeknownst to the rest of the EXCOMM members, while the team publicly drafts JFK's response

  • to Khrushchev - a promise not to attack Cuba in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles

  • - JFK has sent his younger brother on a mission.

  • Robert F. Kennedy secretly meets with Soviet Ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin.

  • He informs the ambassador that the US will, in fact, remove their Jupiter missiles from

  • Turkey, and that they were planning to do so anyway.

  • However, he emphasizes the fact that for the sake of optics and alliances, this removal

  • cannot be part of any public deal between the US and the Soviet Union.

  • Dobrynin conveys the message to Khrushchev, who is already fearful of an imminent war

  • between the two nuclear superpowers.

  • Upon hearing the US will accept the Soviets' demands, even in secret, the Soviet premier