Cuban Missile Crisis: 13 days on the brink of nuclear war
WASHINGTON — The first time President John F Kennedy looked at the photographs, on October 16, 1962, he thought they looked like a "football field."
However, his intelligence personnel quickly opened his eyes: the CIA was sure the photos showed ramps for SS-4, Russian mid-range missiles with nuclear capacity.
And they were on Cuba, just 90 miles off the US mainland, in a position to potentially destroy many of the United States' cities, including Washington, in a matter of minutes.
The clock was approaching midday on that October Tuesday when Kennedy and the executive committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) went through the pictures taken on October 15 by one of the U2 spy planes that periodically flew over Cuba.
From then until late on October 27, every minute and every hour ticked down the path of history. The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis — 13 days of potential nuclear terror — marked the most dangerous moments of the Cold War, as the world stood on the brink of atomic holocaust.
"Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces," Kennedy said later.
"Both sides showed that if the desire to avoid war is strong enough, even the most pressing dispute can be solved by compromise," Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote on the issue.
But those wise-sounding assessments were hindsight, long after the fact.
In the thick of it, amidst all the messages, maneuvers, threats, commands and gestures that were made at a dizzying pace, experts agree that any one misstep could have, by itself, triggered nuclear war.
In the early days, until Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22, the crisis unraveled with a degree of secrecy that would be striking today, in the age of social networks and omnipresent cameras. Later, it became known that the ExComm then evaluated two options: an air raid or a maritime blockade.
Journalist Michael Dobbs describes just how close they came to the military option in his book One Minute to Midnight, one of the most detailed and best documented accounts of the event.
Almost until the last minute, Kennedy handled two drafts of his address to the nation. The one that was virtually discarded and was according to Dobbs to "remain locked away in the files for four decades," started like this:
"With a heavy heart ... I have ordered ... military operations, with conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba."
Eventually, Kennedy opted for maritime blockade. However, that hardly prevented a series of potential triggers for a thermonuclear war from happening over the following days.
"The most dangerous moment in human history," as Kennedy's close aide, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr, put it, came on October 27, 1962.
That "Black Saturday" started with Cuban forces bringing down a U2 plane and thus causing the death of US pilot Rudolf Anderson. Khrushchev was very annoyed, as he showed a day later in an exchange of messages with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Fortunately, Kennedy opted not to hit back. He was dismissing the voices of several generals who were hoping for a fight, as Kennedy's brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy was to tell Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin later.
Almost at the same time, a Soviet B59 submarine that had lost contact with Moscow had to resurface due to a grenade that a US destroyer lobbed into Cuban waters. Its captain, Valentin Savitsky, wanted to launch the nuclear rocket it was carrying, but Soviet commander Vassily Arkhipov, who was also on board the submarine, vetoed that decision and convinced him to resurface.
Decades later, Thomas Blanton, director of the US National Security Archive, would call Arkhipov the man who "saved the world."
A private message from Kennedy to Khrushchev, saying he was willing to remove the Jupiter missiles the United States had deployed in Turkey, managed to defuse the crisis late on October 27.
Without making that detail public, and to the great anger of a Castro who felt pushed aside in the negotiations, Khrushchev announced a day later that he had accepted the US offer not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet Union's removing its missiles from the island.
In his memoirs, Khrushchev wrote that "the episode ended in a triumph of common sense." But even within his closest circle, people believed that they had come too close to the abyss.
"One mistake at the wrong time in October 1962, and all could have been lost," said KGB official Nikolay Leonov.
"We must never get that close again. Next time, we would not be so lucky."