Humanity came within hours of extinction 58 years ago this week. But so much of the the Cuban Missile Crisis played out behind closed doors that it was decades before the true, terrifying scale of the danger came to light.
The drama began on the morning of Tuesday, October 16. John F. Kennedy, America’s charming, charismatic president, was told that USAF U2 spy planes had photographed Soviet-made nuclear missiles on station in Cuba – a little more than 100 miles from the US coast.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had pledged to only supply Cuba with defensive weaponry.
But, with a range of some 1,200 miles, the Cuban missiles were poised to obliterate almost every major US city.
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In an exchange that remained secret for many years, Kennedy discussed his options with a group of hand-picked advisers, saying: “If we allow their missiles to remain, they have offended our prestige, and are in a position to pressure us.
“On the other hand, if we attack the missiles or invade Cuba it gives them a clear line to take Berlin.”
Regaining the western half of the old German capital had been a Russian priority for many years. Kennedy was reluctant to sacrifice that mall but highly significant Cold War asset. But, he said, Khrushchev’s actions had left him with only one remaining option: “which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative.”
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Many of Kennedy’s military advisers advocated action. An invasion of Cuba was the favoured option of Army Chief of Staff Earle Wheeler and he pushed hard for an order to attack.
Kennedy argued that a blockade of Cuba was the more proportionate action – and years later he was vindicated: if American troops had landed on Cuban soil in 1962 they would have met not the 10,000 Soviet troops the CIA predicted but fully four times that many.
Worse, the beachhead would have been incinerated by Castro’s secret arsenal of small “battlefield” nukes that, again, the CIA had not discovered.
“These brass hats have one great advantage in their favour,” Kennedy confided to aide Dave Powers at the time: “If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”
Even Kennedy’s decision to blockade rather than invade led to the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.
On October 27, the B-59, one of four Soviet Foxtrot-class submarines bound for Cuba, was surrounded by a US Navy task force.
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One of the 12 US ships, the USS Beale, began dropping several small “practice” depth charges near the B-59 in a bid to make the sub’s captain bring his boat to the surface.
Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer onboard the B-59, later wrote: "They exploded right next to the hull, it felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.
“We thought—that’s it—the end.”
The submarine’s captain, Vitali Savitsky, hadn’t been able to contact Moscow for several days. His orders were clear. If war broke out he was authorised to launch the B-59's ten kiloton nuclear torpedo.
Savitsky ordered his crew to prepare a firing solution on the USS Randolph, the Essex-class aircraft carrier leading the task force.
The Americans were entirely unaware that the Soviets had such a weapon. It was only in 2002, that retired Soviet navy Commander, Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, held a press conference revealing the subs had been armed with nuclear torpedoes and that Arkhipov had managed to persuade Savitsky not to use them.
There can be no doubt that if Savitsky had given the order to fire, it would have sparked a nuclear exchange that would have left large swathes of America and the Soviet Union uninhabitable for centuries. Western Europe would have been left a radioactive wasteland. Millions, perhaps tens of millions, would have died.
But Savitsky required the agreement of all three senior officers aboard.
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His second-in-command, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, blocked the order to fire and in doing so undoubtedly saved most of, if not all of, humanity.
The B-59 surfaced and was allowed to sail back to Russia
Max Tegmark, the president of the Boston-based Future of Life Institute, later called Arkhipov “arguably the most important person in modern history.”
Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defence during the period, said in 2002: "We came very close" to total nuclear destruction, "closer than we knew at the time.”
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., key Kennedy advisor who later became an historian, added: ”This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”
The following day, October 28, 1962, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles. The crisis was over. But it wouldn’t be for many years that the wider world knew just how dangerous that week had been.
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