Defense Media Network

The Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: Roots of the Confrontation

Part 1 of a series on the anniversary of the 1962 confrontation

The 20th century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War thankfully never went “hot,” erupting into armed conflict. While there were numerous cases of “bumping” and proxy “brushfire” wars, going to the brink of World War III only happened on three occasions.

The first, in 1948, resulted from Premier Joseph Stalin’s ground and water transportation blockade of Berlin. The response by the Western Allies was a massive aerial resupply of the surrounded city that we know today as the Berlin Airlift.

It was the second such confrontation, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, that came closest to an actual nuclear exchange and the start of World War III.

The last, the “War Scare of 1983,” was the result of escalating paranoia by a string of dying Soviet leaders that NATO was planning to conduct a first strike with theater nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles as part of a command post exercise known as Able Archer in November of that year. For days the Soviet strategic missile forces stood on high alert, awaiting the word that NATO missiles were on the way, before they finally stood down.

It was the second such confrontation, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, that came closest to an actual nuclear exchange and the start of World War III.

Jupiter Missile

A Jupiter missile emplacement showing ground support equipment. The bottom third of the missile is encased in a “flower petal shelter” consisting of wedge-shaped metal panels allowing the crews to service the missiles in all weather circumstances. The stationing of nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey motivated Khruschev to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. U.S. Army photo

Occurring over the summer and fall of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis at several points came within minutes of nuclear weapons being launched. Had such a release occurred, there is little doubt that World War III would have erupted, engulfing the planet in a global nuclear conflict.

The origins of the Caribbean crisis in 1962 were many, almost all of them emanating from the mind of Soviet Premier, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. A survivor of the paranoid circle of confidants that had surrounded Josef Stalin until his death in 1953, Khrushchev was an odd and ruthless combination of strongman, reformer, family patriarch and technocrat. By the spring of 1962, he also was a national leader walking a high wire without benefit of a safety net. A master of bombast and aggressive confrontation, Khrushchev had spent five years from 1956 to 1961 going from crisis to crisis, usually winning concessions from Western powers by stopping just short of war. By 1962, he was a living incarnation of the Communist “Boogey Man” in the minds of Western citizens and observers.

However, by late 1961 Khrushchev was a man with a variety of emerging problems. The biggest of these was that all his confrontational bombast was based on a lie. While Khruschev claimed to have factories that were turning out nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, “like sausages,” in fact by late 1961 a series of catastrophic accidents had brought the Soviet strategic missile programs to a dead halt.

A pad explosion in 1960 had destroyed the prototype of a second-generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with storable fuel, the R-16 (known under the NATO codename as SS-7 “Saddler”), as well as killing most of the test crew and the head of Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. It would take until late 1962 for the R-16 program to recover, leaving only four first generation R-7 (SS-6 “Sapwood”) ICBMs able to strike the continental U.S.

The following year another disaster struck the USSR’s SRF program when their first nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), K-19 (Project 658/”Hotel”-class), suffered a catastrophic cooling loop failure, wrecking the reactor plant and killing eight crewmen. Troubled throughout her construction and operational career, post-accident examinations showed K-19 had serious and systematic welding flaws in the reactor piping, eventually requiring inspection, refitting, and/or replacement of the power plants on all classes of Soviet nuclear submarines. With less than 100 modern bombers, the bottom line was that the USSR would be completely overwhelmed by the U.S. strategic missile and bomber forces for 3 to 5 years unless something could be done to increase the number of deliverable warheads again continental U.S. targets.

K-19

Reactor problems aboard the Soviet submarine K-19 required all Soviet submarines to undergo refitting and/or replacing of their power plants. U.S. Navy photo

Meanwhile, Khrushchev had to face the reality that the U.S. and its Allies around the globe were ringing the USSR with a cordon of nuclear-armed ships, submarines, bases, and listening/monitoring posts, effectively containing the Soviet Union within its borders. Perhaps most personally upsetting to the Soviet Leader were a new set of launch sites for 45 SM-76/PGM-19 Jupiter Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) in Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev, who had a dacha (vacation home) on the Black Sea, was said to have looked out over the water toward Turkey, and said, “I can see them….”

Nikita Khrushchev also faced the problem that his façade of strategic missile superiority was coming to an end. Despite the end of the CIA’s U-2 overflight program in 1960, when a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down Francis Gary Powers over the USSR, the truth of Khrushchev’s Maskirovka (Re: “Strategic Deception”) was rapidly falling apart.

Perhaps most personally upsetting to the Soviet Leader were a new set of launch sites for 45 SM-76/PGM-19 Jupiter Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) in Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev, who had a dacha (vacation home) on the Black Sea, was said to have looked out over the water toward Turkey, and said, “I can see them….”

Beginning in 1960, American photo reconnaissance satellites began to image the Soviet heartland, and quickly found the USSR’s only ICBM base (with only 4 R-7/SS-6 launch pads) at Plesetsk in Northern Russia. By the end of 1961, the United States and all would know that the USSR was nothing more than a “paper bear” militarily. Khrushchev would play one last card in his strategic deception, an enormous test of a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb prototype called “Tsar Bomba” on Oct. 30, 1961. Designed by a team that included future dissident Andrei Sakharov, the prototype Tsar Bomba was designed to deliver a yield of 50 megatons, but actually produced around 55 to 60 megatons over the test range at Novaya Zemlya. It was the largest man-made explosion in history, but Tsar Bomba was primarily a propaganda tool, with little practical worth as a deliverable strategic weapon. And with that, Khrushchev’s strategic missile Maskirovka died a quiet death at the end of 1961.

The reality was soon clear to all the world leaders of that era that until the middle of the 1960s, when the Soviet’s second-generation strategic missile systems came online, the USSR would be vulnerable to nuclear attack or coercion from the United States.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...