A Halloween to Remember: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile Crisis -- a two-week period 35 years ago when the world came within moments of having no more moments. To read a day-by-day, often hour-by-hour account of the entire Cuban Missile Crisis, including recently declassified transcripts and audio of crisis meetings, photographic evidence, and people and events, you should refer to The National Security Archive at the University of Chicago. It is both fascinating and truly scary.
Happy Halloween! Signed, Nikita.
But, its Halloween and I really should tell you something scary. U.S. Government has been Halloween scary at least twice in history. Once on the morning of December 7, 1941. The other, at 7:00 pm on October 24, 1962 when President Kennedy told America that the Russians had Medium Range Ballistic Nuclear missiles and nuclear bombers in Cuba, all pointed at us.
I missed Peal Harbor. But I was almost 13 when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke. How scary was it? That evening, after the Presidents address, my parents moved my bed into their bedroom and told me they wanted me to sleep with them that night. When I asked why, my Father said, Because, this may be the last night we ever spend alive together. Boo!
What Fallout Shelter?
Unlike about 70% of the families in our town, we didnt have a bomb shelter. My Dad, being a republican, thus a realist, knew that a 10-foot long section of 6-foot diameter galvanized iron drainage pipe buried 2 feet under loose Texas dirt offered lousy protection against a thermonuclear device detonated only 90 miles up the highway in Houston - home of NASA, over a million people, and prime target of Russian missile aimers everywhere. Not to mention Bergstrom AFB, just 80 miles to our west, where the B52s, already at DEFCON-3 were loaded with nukes and departing hourly from Gate 666.
Things had been getting sort of scary for at least a year before October 24. In school, they had made us practice crawling under our sturdy little plywood chairs and crossing our hands over the backs of our necks. I guess it was better to go to Glory with your head attached to the rest of you.
Our teachers didnt help much, either. Like the one who told us, "If anybody in this world is crazy enough to ever use the A-bomb, its those Russians." (Not a history teacher.)
Few buildings in town had basements, but those that did had been stocked by Civil Defense with canned food, water, and medical supplies adequate for about 2-weeks of "survival."
While all that intricate planning and practice seems so futile, knowing what we do now about the survivability of nuclear war, it served a very useful purpose. It gave us hope and a feelings of participation and contribution, which might just have been enough to prevent all-out panic at the time.
But, was the Missile Crisis all that bad? Did we really come that close to atomic war? It was, and we did.
A Brief Chronology of the Worst of the Cuban Missile Crisis
The crisis actually transpired over more than two months from early October of 1962 through February, 1963. To read a complete and completely chilling hour-by-hour chronology go to the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Here are excerpts of what youll find there:
October 16, 1962 - 8:45 am: President Kennedy is told that the CIA has "hard photographic evidence" of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. He selects 14 advisors from the National Security Council. The group becomes known as the ExComm.
October 16, 1962--11:50 am: The ExComm discusses alternatives. Some favor a blockade of Cuba, but most prefer some sort of military action. Robert Kennedy passes this note to his brother, the President, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor."
October 16, 1962: Soviet Premier Khrushchev tells U.S. Ambassador, Foy Kohler, that the USSR is helping the Cubans build a fishing port and has no military interests in Cuba.
October 17, 1962: U2 flights identify the first of three Soviet SS-5 missile sites. The SS-5s have ranges of up to 2,200 nautical miles. The military estimates that as many as 32 medium range missiles could be made operational in under a week.
October 18, 1962--11:00 am: The ExComm starts to deliberate the moral acceptability of air strikes against the Cuban bases. Robert Kennedy fears that strikes would be viewed by the world as, "Pearl Harbor in reverse." He continues to stress that the U.S. has missiles in Turkey.
October 18, 1962 -- 5:00 pm: Andrei Gromyko meets with President Kennedy and assures him that Soviet military actions in Cuba are purely defensive. Kennedy decides not to tell Gromyko that the U.S. knows about the missiles.
October 19, 1962: President Kennedy prepares two speeches; one about air-strikes, the other about a blockade. The ExComm now favors a blockade. President Kennedy abandons the air-strike speech. The press begins to publish reports of missiles in Cuba. The reports are denied by the Defense Department.
October 20, 1962--2:30 pm: President Kennedy informs the ExComm that any military action against Cuba would involve the use of atomic weapons. He thus opts for a blockade and schedules his address to the nation for October 22 at 7:00 pm.
October 21, 1962--11:30 am: Although he is committed to the blockade, President Kennedy directs the Tactical Air Command to be ready to carry out an airstrike against Cuban bases any time after the morning of October 22, 1962.
October 22, 1962--12:00 noon: SAC initiates a massive alert of its B-52 nuclear bomber force. B-52 flights begin around the clock, with a new bomber taking off each time another lands. For the first time in history, all aircraft are armed with nuclear weapons.
U.S. B52 Long Range Bomber
October 22, 1962 -- 2:14pm: President Kennedy orders that U.S. Military forces worldwide go to DEFCON-3 -- an increased alert posture -- as of 7:00 pm, the time of his speech to the nation.
October 22, 1962--7:00 pm: President Kennedy, in a 17-minute televised speech, informs the nation of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. he states that as one of his "initial steps," a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment" is being put into effect. Kennedy warns the Soviet government that the United States will "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 against the Soviet Union." U.S. military forces worldwide, with the exception of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), are placed on DEFCON 3. ICBM missile crews are alerted and Polaris nuclear submarines in port are dispatched to stations at sea. During the president's speech, twenty-two interceptor aircraft go airborne in the event the Cuban government reacts militarily.
October 22, 1962--7:30 pm: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, speaking to a meeting of all foreign ambassadors in Washington, tells the group, "I would not be candid and I would not be fair with you if I did not say that we are in as grave a crisis as mankind has been in."
October 23, 1962--8:00 am: In a letter to President Kennedy, Chairman Khrushchev reaffirms his contention that Soviet military actions in Cuba are defensive and concludes, "I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace."
October 23, 1962--5:40 pm: Fidel Castro places Cubas 270,000-man military on its highest state of alert.
October 23, 1962--7:06 pm: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504 formally declaring the blockade of Cuban sea ports. Orders are issued to begin enforcing the blockade at 10:00 am the next morning.
October 23, 1962--8:35 pm: Fidel Castro, in a 90 minute speech, tells the Cuban people that Cuba will never disarm while the United States persists in its policy of aggression and hostility. He refuses to allow outside inspection of Cuban territory warning that any inspectors had, "better come ready for combat."
October 23, 1962: Results of a Gallup pole show that 84 percent of the U.S. public favor the blockade while only 4 percent oppose it. At the same time, roughly one out of every five Americans believe the quarantine will lead to World War III.
October 24, 1962: At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SAC increases its alert posture to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history.
October 24, 1962--10:00 am: Two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, are within a few miles of the line. Naval intelligence then reports that a Soviet submarine has moved into position between the two ships. At 10:25A.M., a new intelligence message arrives indicating that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water. Dean Rusk leans over to McGeorge Bundy and says, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked."
"Okay, Who blinked?"
Over the next two weeks, the seriousness of the crisis changed hourly. While no Soviet ships crossed the blockade, 23 Cuban missile sites still became fully operational. A U2 was shot down over Cuba, the pilot killed. Plans were prepared for an invasion of Cuba. Fidel Castro himself went to a Cuban air base and climbed into a MIG, determined to shoot down an American spy plane himself. (No planes came over that day.) A U2 from a base in Alaska accidentally flew over Russia and was chased by Soviet MIGs. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara hears of the incident, he exclaims, "... this means war with the Soviet Union!" President Kennedy calmly says, "There's always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the message."
Finally, although Castro remained strongly opposed, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle and remove all missiles from Cuba.
By Thanksgiving of 1962, we had backed off from the edge far enough to eat turkey in the dining room instead of survival biscuits in the bomb shelters, and thanks was truly given.
Thirty-five years later, we rarely notice jets passing overhead, but in the Fall of 1962, you looked up at every one, praying that it had wings.
So, for this Halloween, lets think about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Go to the National Security Archive and read the entire transcript. Read it to your kids or with someone who remembers it. Get scared. Scared that, someday, we might stop being scared.
Related Web Links:
Security Archives - Cuban Missile Crisis
George Washington University presents recently declassified documents in a straightforward, hour-by-hour manner.
Photographic Evidence of Soviet Nuclear Missiles in Cuba
Nice full-page views from our U2s that convinced the CIA that trouble was brewing. From National Security Archives.
of People and Events
The players and places of the Cuban crisis. From National Security Archives.
14 Days in October: The Cuban Missile Crisis
From the ThinkQuest Team 11046, this site presents the crisis in a military scenario fashion. From the Crisis Center to the Debriefing Room, you get a real taste of the tension and complexity of those terrible14 days in October 1962. Great photos and a 10-minute RealAudio narration add punctuation.
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