Sunday 21 January 2018

The 13 days when Castro brought the world to the brink of nuclear war

Castro in 1962. Photo: AP/Press Association Images
Castro in 1962. Photo: AP/Press Association Images

Robert McCrum

I have no memories of the Cuban missile crisis, that moment in October 1962 when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. As an avid nine-year-old reader of newspapers there was, suddenly and inexplicably, no news at home. My parents, I subsequently learned, were so concerned about the prospect of World War III that - for the only time in my childhood - they censored the news.

Our house fell eerily quiet. Even the radio, which usually prattled away in the background, was silent. I do not remember asking about this sudden blackout, but it would have been a pointless question: no one was talking, and everyone was holding their breath.

In the grown-up world, the crisis kicked off on October 15, when US reconnaissance photographs identified, unequivocally, the deployment of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles just 150km from the American mainland. This was perhaps the first moment of most severe international jeopardy. President Kennedy's opening gambit was deliberately low-key - a naval blockade, not airstrikes.

The situation was all the more fraught because the state department, which never thought the USSR would make such a move, had no plan of action. Kennedy was on his own, with support from advisers such as his brother Robert. For the moment, however, the Americans were refusing to blink.

On the evening of October 22, JFK addressed the American people and declared that "any nuclear missile launched from Fidel Castro's Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere" would be deemed "as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union".

As the stakes went up, a feverish international response stoked dark fears of war. Mao's China declared its support for the Cubans; the Pope appealed to "all governments" to do all in their power "to save the peace".

JFK addresses the US people, warning them of the unprecedented closeness of nuclear war
JFK addresses the US people, warning them of the unprecedented closeness of nuclear war

On October 26, as the crisis deepened, the US raised the readiness level of its forces to Defcon 2. For a unique moment in US history, its B-52 bombers were put on "continuous airborne alert", with several other bombing units made ready to take off, fully armed, at 15 minutes' notice.

Behind the scenes in the White House and in the Kremlin, there were scenes of extraordinary tension. On the evening of October 26, the state department received a long and highly emotional letter personally written by Khrushchev to JFK.

Meanwhile, in Washington the debate about how to curb the Soviet-Cuban alliance raged on. To bomb or not to bomb? From Havana, Che Guevara fanned the flames, declaring that "direct aggression against Cuba would mean nuclear war".

In hindsight, the moment of greatest jeopardy came on October 27 - "Black Saturday" - when the US informed its allies that "the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the western hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary".

Missile crisis headlines
Missile crisis headlines

Simultaneously, a US U-2 spy plane made an accidental, unauthorised, 90-minute overflight of the Soviet Union's far eastern coast, to which the Soviets responded by scrambling MiG fighters. In response, the Americans launched F-102 fighters over the Bering Sea, armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles. More breath-holding.

Castro never missed a rhetorical opportunity to assail his American enemies. On October 27, he sent Khrushchev an "Armageddon Letter" in which he appeared to urge the use of nuclear force in the event of an attack on Cuba.

Throughout this cliff-hanger, a convoy of Soviet freighters, bound for Cuba, became the symbol of the US-USSR stand-off. For as long as they steamed towards the US blockade, the outcome was uncertain. On October 28, after intense covert negotiations, with several trade-offs, Kennedy and Khrushchev reached a deal. By the end of October the convoy had turned back. The Cuban missile crisis was over.

Later, in the 1980s, there would be a number of cold war scares, some of them arguably more serious than that of 1962. But those 13 days in October remain, in the popular imagination, the moment the planet perhaps came closest to a nuclear apocalypse.


Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in World News