Thirty minutes to Armageddon

By Tom Masters

In the second part of his account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Tom Masters reveals what the Russians were really thinking as they brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe

MY FIRST MEETING with Nikita Khrushchev’s daughter Rada is anti-climactic. It’s difficult to imagine anyone less like her bombastic and coarse father. Rada Nikitychna is a quiet and modest woman who is not used to being the centre of attention. We meet at the offices of Science and Life, the Moscow periodical where she has worked as an editor for more than four decades. Her knowledge of high policy during the Sixties was minimal, she says. “I told him things about my life rather than ask about his when we saw each other on Sundays,” she explains. “I did that to relax him, as everyone else asked him questions about politics.”

I hoped to find some clues to his behaviour during the Cuban missile crisis, and some insight into the man who brought the world to the brink of Armageddon. Back at her flat on Moscow’s fashionable Tverskaya Street, she shows me family snaps with the Eisenhowers and the Castros. Khrushchev was sociable but rarely shared his feelings. “I think it had a lot to do with growing up under Stalin — those times were severe. He was a reserved and controlled man, he didn’t discuss his feelings with people, even his family.” Despite her husband being Editor of the daily Izvestia newspaper and in Khrushchev’s inner circle, Rada knew nothing about the Cuban missile crisis as it happened.

However, what she can convincingly elucidate is Khrushchev’s intentions in placing missiles in Cuba. Her emphasis lies on the deep scars that Khrushchev, along with every adult in the Soviet Union, bore from the Second World War. “He was a general at Stalingrad and lived through the war. It was a huge period of suffering and he would never have allowed war to happen again — of that I am sure.”

Whatever Khrushchev’s intentions, by October 22, 1962, a nuclear time bomb largely of his creation was threatening to kill tens of millions of people. Both the Soviet and American governments were largely hostages of fortune, mutual incomprehension of the other’s motives and the ambitions of their equally bloated militaries. “The Americans failed to understand that the Soviets were not belligerent,” concurs Khrushchev’s adviser and speechwriter Fyodor Burlatsky. “The Soviet Government simply held a longstanding belief that negotiations with the Americans were best held from a position of strength. The Soviet leadership had lived through the Second World War — they had seen the deaths of 20 to 30 million Russians. Nuclear war was not an option for them.”

Khrushchev’s dilemma played into the hands of those who disliked the “potato politician” — his nickname referring to his rural background in Ukraine — including Leonid Brezhnev, the man who would oust and replace him as general secretary two years later.

Perhaps the closest surviving colleague of Khrushchev is his adviser Oleg Troyanovsky. He says: “Little by little, people who were in the know began to get agitated, and those in high- enough positions to speak freely without fear of being slapped down said that it was up to Comrade Khrushchev to clear up the mess.”

Troyanovsky, understanding the significance of Cuba to the American psyche, had tried and failed to convince Khrushchev that the Kennedy Administration would never allow the island to become a Soviet military base.Having been told of the Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba on October 16, Kennedy gave an historic address to the American people at 7pm on October 22, announcing that a naval blockade would come into force at 10am on October 24. Calls from the President to leading newspaper editors meant that the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba had gone unreported, and the announcement of the blockade came as a surprise — nowhere more so than in the Kremlin. “At this point I felt the breath of nuclear war, because Kennedy gave his speech very brutally,” Burlatsky recalls. “His speech contained many exaggerations: Khrushchev had no plans to strike against the United States, even at the back of his mind.”

The Kennedy announcement appeared to thwart Khrushchev’s plans of reaching full military readiness in Cuba before the Americans realised what was going on. However, still determined, the Soviet leader sent messages to all ships heading towards the Caribbean to maintain course, despite a blockade that would be implemented within two days. “It was like a thief being caught red-handed,” Burlatsky says.

Troyanovsky recalls that in the Kremlin “a couple of days after Kennedy’s announcement the tension began to mount. First there was a realisation that the remaining boats would be cut off by the blockade and, secondly, a media furore had begun all over the world.”

Staff at the Soviet Embassy in Washington had been kept in the dark about Operation Anadyr, as the Soviet Union called the Cuba build-up. Georgi Kornienko, First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy, recalls the evening that Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin was called to see the (US) Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, just an hour before Kennedy made his speech. “Rusk gave him a copy of the President’s speech. Thus we found out that there were Soviet missiles on Cuba . . . Khrushchev probably decided not to tell Dobrynin so that his denials on the matter would sound all the more sincere and natural. It was an idiotic situation.”

With the Americans forming an enormous armada to cut off the remaining Soviet ships approaching Cuba, the threat of a direct conflict was suddenly very near. On Kennedy’s orders — and against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocated an immediate air strike on Cuba in a desperate attempt to knock out Soviet nuclear installations — the US naval blockade went into effect. Some 19 Soviet ships had been heading for Cuba, but before the blockade went into effect 16 had altered course and were returning to the Soviet Union. Only a tanker, the Bucharest, and two military vessels, the Gagarin and the Komiles, were still heading for Cuba at the time of the blockade’s implementation.

The half hour that followed marked the peak of Cold War tensions, with the Pentagon chomping at the bit to go into action against the Soviet Union, and the Russians under orders to return fire if attacked by US forces. Had shots been exchanged, a chain reaction leading to nuclear war would have been all but inevitable.

Not only were there three Soviet ships continuing towards the line, but four submarines with nuclear warheads were with them. Albert Chebrasov was aboard one of them, the Buki-130. “The main purpose of the trip was a show of strength... we found out about the American blockade from the commander, who said there was a fleet of American boats standing in our path, but that we were going to keep heading towards Cuba and carry out our mission to the end...we were determined to defend Cuba from American aggression.”

The USS Essex moved to intercept the oncoming ships and submarines: panic reigned in the White House, unsure of how events would unfold. At 10.25am, after the most dangerous half hour of the 20th century, the CIA director, John McCone, received an intelligence report announcing that the Soviet boats appeared to have stopped dead in the water. “We’re eyeball to eyeball,” Dean Rusk famously remarked, “and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

The Russians had lost their nerve. But several Soviet ships had already made the final delivery of medium range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads to Cuba. They would soon be fully operational, and the White House was faced with another deadline: getting them out of Cuba at all costs before this could happen.

Kennedy and Khrushchev realised by October 25 that some form of compromise needed to be sought. “I could see that by now Khrushchev was really feeling the pressure. He said to me privately ‘In a couple of days the storm will really start,’ and I replied ‘I hope the boat won’t overturn’,” Troyanovsky recalls.

The communication difficulties between the two leaders meant that diplomats, spies and in some cases extraneous third parties were used as sounding boards for possible solutions. Khrushchev spent three hours in discussion with William Knox, a US businessman in Moscow. Despite having no links to the Kennedy Administration, Knox was entrusted with Khrushchev’s worst fears and asked to pass them on to Kennedy. Moreover, the unusual friendship between the Soviet intelligence officer Georgi Bolshakov and the US Attorney-General, Robert Kennedy, proved to be key, paving the way for the American nuclear presence in Turkey to enter the bargaining equation.Robert Kennedy made it known to Bolshakov that the US Jupiter missiles in Turkey, the threat that had so preoccupied Khrushchev and in part inspired the decision to place nuclear weapons on Cuba, were out of date and that their removal was possible in return for a Soviet withdrawal from Cuba.

Sounding out the idea through Bolshakov, Bobby Kennedy finally spoke to the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin about the possibility. As these negotiations continued, Khrushchev’s first letter outlining a possible resolution to the crisis arrived at the State Department. The badly structured, rambling proposal in essence suggested that the Soviets would withdraw missiles and personnel from Cuba in return for an American guarantee not to invade Cuba. However, Khrushchev wrote a second letter to Kennedy, with an additional demand that Jupiter missiles be removed from Turkey. “It was a question of timing and the fact that the bargaining process was ongoing,” says Burlatsky.

The second letter caused confusion in the White House Situation Room, and fears that a hard-line military faction had ousted Khrushchev. The Soviet leadership had been equally worried about a military coup in Washington, due to Kennedy’s dovish stance compared to that of the Joint Chiefs.

All hell was about to break loose that morning, however, in the most unexpected way. Suddenly the focus was placed firmly back on Cuba. At 10.21am, an American U2 spy plane making its daily reconnaissance flight over Cuba was shot down by Soviet forces on the island. “Khrushchev was very upset about it as the soldiers had been acting alone,” says Troyanovsky, who spent the day with the Soviet leader. “His reaction was that if the military were capable of shooting down a plane, perhaps they would start launching missiles too.” The U2 shooting forced Khrushchev to retake the initiative. “I took a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that Kennedy would be addressing the nation later that day,” says Troyanovsky. “Something had to be done immediately. Khrushchev dictated a letter to Kennedy then and there.” Meanwhile, Kennedy decided that the USAF would not retaliate unless American aircraft were fired on a second time. He had prevented nuclear engagement by the closest of margins: had the USAF bombed Soviet missile sites in Cuba, the chain reaction would have been almost inevitable.

That afternoon Kennedy and his Executive Committee, in an exemplary piece of ad hoc diplomacy, agreed simply to ignore the second letter from Khrushchev, and respond only to the first. Select members of the group also approved Bobby Kennedy’s assuring Dobrynin in private that US missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey as soon as possible.

The Cuban missile crisis came to an end the following morning when a statement by Khrushchev was read live on Radio Moscow, accepting the compromise resolution. The secret deal by Bobby Kennedy and Dobrynin remained so for decades. When Bobby’s diaries were published posthumously, all references to the deal were edited out, as the superpower relationship was still enormously sensitive. Both sides kept their side of the deal — and a non-invasion pledge still stands for Castro’s Cuba today.

While the relief at the White House was enormous, Castro flew into a rage, feeling thoroughly betrayed by Khrushchev.

The scathing Chinese evaluation of events — “adventurism followed by capitulation” — has long remained the verdict on the Soviet behaviour, belying the fact that they achieved far more than many 20th-century historians would ever give them credit for.

Tom Masters is associate producer of Cuba: The Other Side of Armageddon for BBC Four.