When the sun rose over the Eastern Time Zone on Oct. 27, 1962, the events that would almost cause a nuclear war that day were already happening. Maj. Rudolf Anderson, a U-2 pilot from the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), was launching on an overflight mission over Cuba. In Alaska, another 4080th U-2 piloted by Maj. Chuck Maultsby, was headed to the North Pole to take air samples to monitor Soviet nuclear tests. And in the Caribbean Sea, an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) group was hounding the submarines of the Soviet 69th Torpedo Submarine Brigade in a vicious “hold down” engagement designed to drive the boats to the surface. Before the end of what became known as “Black Saturday,” they would combine to drive the Soviet Union and United States (U.S.) to within seconds of multiple nuclear weapons releases, and global nuclear war.
When the EXCOM meeting convened that Saturday, the participants were shocked to find another settlement offer letter from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, which had arrived overnight. Worded more toughly than the “first note,” the “second note” had the added demand that the U.S. withdraw their SM-78 Jupiter ballistic missiles based in Turkey. The EXCOM meeting discussion that morning went distinctly “sideways,” with the participants openly angry at the sudden additional Soviet demand to reach a settlement. Some EXCOM members even suggested the possibility of an overnight coup by Kremlin hardliners against Khrushchev. Ironically, what had in fact happened was that the “second message” had actually been sent first, but was delayed in being received in Washington, D.C. This confusion was swept aside at midday, when news about the U-2 missions of Majors Anderson and Maultsby came in.
Anderson’s U-2 mission had begun normally, as he coasted in from the north near the Port of Banes in eastern Cuba. On the ground though, Soviet leaders were monitoring his flight, and believed it to be in preparation for the airstrikes they were expecting shortly. They ordered the V-75/SA-2 Guideline Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) site at Banes to fire, and Anderson’s U-2 was destroyed, the major probably killed instantly. Immediately, the U.S. military and intelligence leadership wanted to retaliate and destroy the Banes SAM site, though the president and other EXCOM members wanted to confirm the facts of what had happened. At the same time, they were also assessing what had been reported to them about Chuck Maultsby’s U-2 air-sampling mission to the North Pole.
Maultsby’s flight to the top of the world had gone wrong when he was disoriented by the Aurora Borealis (“The Northern Lights”), and it was during his flight home that he nearly help started World War III. Navigation at extreme latitudes can go wrong easily, since every direction is south, and Maultsby accidently tracked west of his planned route home and into eastern Siberia. Realizing his error, Maultsby turned east, back toward Alaska. However, the Soviet Far Eastern Military Command launched a pair of MG-19 Farmer interceptors to shoot down the intruding spy plane. In response, the Alaska Air Defense Command launched a pair of F-102 Delta Dagger interceptors to protect Maultsby’s U-2. Aboard each F-102 were 3 or 4 GAR-11/AIM-26 Falcon air-to-air missiles (AAMs), at least one of which on each aircraft was armed with a W54 nuclear warhead(equal to about 250 tons of TNT). The F-102s were within seconds of launching a salvo of the nuclear-tipped AAMs when word arrived that the U-2 had re-entered U.S. airspace, and the MiG-19s had turned for home.
When Kennedy received word of what had happened during Maultsby’s U-2 mission, he was both angry and worried. He was angry that the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had continued to fly reconnaissance missions close to the borders of the Soviet Union after having unilaterally raised their alert level to Defense Condition Two (DEFCON-2). However, what was really concerning the president and his closest advisers was that events appeared to be spinning out of control due to the high alert levels and the close proximity of U.S./Allied and Soviet military forces. Across the globe, from Siberia to Berlin to the Caribbean Sea, American and Soviet forces were “bumping” into each other, with deadly consequences. Realizing that his options for a settlement with the Soviets were running out, and seeing the physical exhaustion and fatigue of his senior advisers, Kennedy went to the one member of his inner circle he knew he could trust: his brother Bobby.
Attorney General Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy was not only President Kennedy’s top law enforcement officer, but also his defacto consigliore, and in addition was running several back channel contacts with the Soviets. One of these was Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, with whom Bobby had developed a close friendship and more than a little trust. With that in mind, President Kennedy decided to send Bobby to meet with Dobrynin for one last try at negotiating a peaceful end of the crisis.
As Kennedy and the White House staff prepared Bobby for his meeting that evening, the last and potentially worst events of “Black Saturday” were playing out in the tropical waters of the Sargasso Sea northeast of Cuba. There, three Soviet Project 641/Foxtrot-class diesel-electric boats of the 69th Torpedo Submarine Brigade were being “held down” by destroyers and ASW aircraft. This included use of so-called “practice depth charges” (PDGs – hand grenades wrapped with toilet paper to make them explode at a specific depth), and extremely aggressive ship handling by the U.S. destroyers. Eventually, all three of the boats of the 69th (one had turned back to the USSR due to mechanical problems) were forced to surface, but one of them almost started World War III in the process. The exhausted captain of the B-59, believing that actual depth charges were being used against his boat, in frustration loaded his nuclear torpedo (a Type 53 armed with a 15 to 20 KT warhead), and prepared to launch it at the USS Essex (CVS 9). Thankfully, other officers aboard B-59 persuaded him to cancel the launch, but there is little doubt that the sinking of U.S. warships by a nuclear weapon would have led to a full retaliatory nuclear strike on the USSR.
The meeting between Bobby Kennedy and Dobrynin that evening took place in the attorney general’s office in the Justice Department Building. Kennedy quickly laid out the situation to Dobrynin, including the fact that American airstrikes on Cuba, followed by an invasion, would begin in just over 36 hours if a settlement was not reached and agreed to by both sides. Kennedy then indicated a U.S. willingness to settle the crisis based upon the various diplomatic notes and back-channel exchanges of the past few days. When Dobrynin brought up the U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey, Kennedy indicated that those weapons could be removed in 4 to 5 months, as long as the Soviets did not link it to the Soviet missile withdrawal from Cuba. Realizing that there was little time to act, Dobrynin cabled Kennedy’s offer directly to Khrushchev, who received it in the early hours of Sunday, Oct. 28, Moscow time. Appreciating that Kennedy’s settlement offer was probably the best deal the Soviets would get, and after conferring with his senior advisors, he ordered a positive response to be transmitted on the English language overseas service of Radio Moscow, to avoid any cable delivery problems like those on Oct. 26. So when people across the globe rose to see if the sun had come up that morning, they did so to the news that the “hot” part of the Cuban Missile Crisis apparently over.
Despite President Kennedy ordering a stand down of the air and invasion forces until the withdrawal of the Soviet ballistic missiles could be verified, the DEFCON-2 alert was continued until mid-November. Meanwhile, the Soviets crated up their R-12/SS-4 Sandal ballistic missiles, loaded them as deck cargo and sailed home with American reconnaissance planes tracking them the entire way. Overall, the withdrawal of the Anadyr force from Cuba proceeded with little public drama, though the U.S. had to press the USSR on removing the Il-28 Beagle bombers due to their capability to deliver nuclear weapons. Khrushchev had his own “mini-crisis” Fidel Castro, when the Cuban leaded demanded that the Soviets leave behind their stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, which they refused to do. In the end, the Soviets left behind most of the conventionally armed weapons, like the V-75/SA-2 SAMs and MiG-21 interceptors, along with elements of one of the four Motor Rife Regiments they had deployed to Cuba.
The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis are many, though sadly only a few resulted in positive, long-term results. Some of them are:
• Communications – Nothing created more uncertainty and confusion during the crisis than the absence of secure, instant communications between the White House and the Kremlin. From this failure came the first “hot line” in 1963, a secure teletype/text system, and an upgraded version that remains in place today.
• Relationships – Personal U.S./Kremlin relations have historically driven the level of tension between the two nations. Kennedy and Khrushchev met only once at the volatile Vienna Summit in 1961. The Cold War saw long periods with little or no personal contact between U.S. and Soviet leaders, usually increasing tensions and causing a crisis.
• Nuclear Weapons Security – At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, neither side had anything more than personnel monitoring to prevent the accidental or unauthorized deployment or firing of nuclear-armed weapons. The two near-releases on Oct. 27 badly shook leaders on both sides of the crisis, resulting in Permissive Action Links, known as PALS, along with better procedures to ensure such incidents never happened again.
• Proximity/Fear/Fatigue – The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the first round-the-clock confrontations, and neither side anticipated the consequences of keeping men on high alert for weeks at a time, often in close proximity to enemy forces. The “bumping” by U.S. and Soviet armed forces on Oct. 27 was a natural result of these conditions, even among members of Kennedy and Khrushchev’s senior advisors, and in the end drove the need for a quick settlement on “Black Saturday” before someone made a really big mistake.
In the end, perhaps the greatest effect of the Cuban Missile Crisis on all the participants was the palpable terror it generated. Unfortunately, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev were able to do much with the lessons of the crisis, because less than two years later both were gone from the world scene. What we do have left of their duel in 1962 are words from President Kennedy’s 1963 Speech at American University:
“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”