Khrushchev on the Cuban Missile Crisis
It was Saturday evening, October 27, 1962, the day the world came very close to destruction. The crisis was not over. Soviet ships had not yet tried to run the United States (U.S.) naval blockade, but the missiles were still on Cuban soil. In Cuba, work continued on the missile sites to make them operational. The situation could either be resolved soon, or events could get out of hand and people would die. That afternoon, a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane had been shot down by mistake. “The Soviet leader had given orders not to shoot down any U-2 surveillance planes. A local Soviet commander violated those orders on October 27 when he downed Major Rudolph’s Anderson’s U-2 with a surface-to-air missile. Soviet officials seem to have understood this could have brought retaliatory strikes and perhaps even a U.S. invasion.”
The Soviet position seemed to be hardening with the arrival of a letter Saturday morning from Khrushchev demanding that the U.S. remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a condition of Soviet removal of the missiles in Cuba. “The letter struck U.S. officials as an ominous hardening of the Soviet position from the previous day’s letter from Khrushchev, which had omitted any mention of American missiles in Turkey but had instead implied that Washington’s pledge not to invade Cuba would be sufficient to obviate the need for Soviet nuclear protection of Castro’s revolution.”
The seeds of this crisis go back several years. In 1953, Stalin died and there was a struggle for leadership of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev prevailed, becoming party leader on September 7 of that year, and on December 7th of that year he had his main rival, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria, executed. Khrushchev’s leadership marked a crucial transition for the Soviet Union. He pursued a course of reform and shocked delegates to the 20th Party Congress on February 23, 1956 by making what became known in the West as his “secret speech” denouncing the cult of Stalin, and accusing him of crimes committed during the Great Purges. He declared, “it is impossible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism — Leninism to elevate one person and transform him into a superman with supernatural characteristics akin to those of a God.”
This alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the Party, but he managed to defeat what he termed the Anti-Party Group after they failed in a bid to oust him from the party leadership in 1957. The speech was typical Khrushchev, shrewd and reckless at the same time. “While it enabled him to tar his domestic rivals as Stalinists, its acknowledgement of many roads to socialism was a direct incitement to anti-Communist rebellion in Poland.”
In the summer of 1956, he had to go to Warsaw to personally oversee a crackdown in order to save his own skin.
On March 27, 1958, Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union and established himself as head of both the state and the party. He began a reform of the economy, stressing the production of consumer goods over heavy industry. His view of the West as a rival rather than an evil entity alienated China’s leadership and led to the Sino-Soviet split in 1960.
Khrushchev was regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as a boorish, uncivilized peasant, with a reputation for interrupting speakers to insult them. He once interrupted British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during a speech at the United Nations (UN) The Politburo accused him once of hare-brained scheming – referring to his erratic policy. This was the leader of the Soviet Union as major changes were occuring in Cuba.
Following a six-year battle that ended with the toppling of Cuban dictator General Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba. The following year, in February, Soviet Deputy First Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba with the intent of moving Cuba away from economic dependence upon the U.S. This was not the first contact between Cuba and the Soviet Union. In April 1959, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and an admitted communist, contacted Moscow with a request for military advisors to help him consolidate his hold over the Cuban military.
Several months after the visit by Mikoyan, on May 7, 1960, Cuba and the Soviet Union officially established diplomatic relations. The United States responded to this on July 8, by suspending the Cuban sugar quota, cutting off about 80% of Cuba’s exports to the U.S. On August 28, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, who in turn, countered by nationalizing about one billion dollars of U.S. investments in Cuba on October 8. In September 1960, the first Soviet military assistance arrived on Cuban soil. It consisted of everything from small arms to anti-aircraft batteries. Soviet military advisors also accompanied these arms.
By the end of 1960, relations between the United States and Cuba had seriously deteriorated. On December 19, Cuba and the Soviet Union issued a joint announcement that Cuba would hereafter align itself with the domestic and foreign policies of the Soviet Union and committed itself to solidarity with the Sino-Soviet bloc. On January 2, 1961, Khrushchev told a gathering at the Cuban Embassy in Moscow, “alarming news is coming from Cuba at present, news that the most aggressive American monopolists are preparing a direct attack on Cuba. What is more, they are trying to present the case as though rocket bases are being set up or are already established in Cuba. It is well know that this is a foul slander. There is no Soviet military base in Cuba.”
The next day, the United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations, the U.S. turning over the handling of its affairs to Switzerland and Cuba to Czechoslovakia. It was in this environment that President John F. Kennedy took office. He was inaugurated on January 20, 1960.
On April 17-18, 1960, President Kennedy suffered a major foreign policy defeat after the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion failed. Of the 1,400 anti-Cuban emigres, 1,189 were captured and 114 killed. By coincidence, April 17 was Khrushchev’s birthday. The next day, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent a memo to his brother saying, “if we don’t want Russia to set up missile bases in Cuba, we had better decide now what we are willing to do to stop it.”
He identified three possible courses of action: (1) sending U.S. troops into Cuba, a proposal, “you have already rejected for good and sufficient reasons (although this might have to be reconsidered);”
(2) placing a strict naval blockade around Cuba; or (3) calling on the Organization of American States (OAS) to prohibit the shipment to Cuba of arms from any outside source. He also wrote that, “something forceful and determined must be done. The time has come for a showdown for in a year or two the situation will be vastly worse.”
It was a statement that would turn out to be very prophetic.
Khrushchev’s response to the Bay of Pigs invasion was predictable. In a message to Kennedy after the outcome was assured, he said, “aggressive bandit actions cannot save your system. In the historic process every people decides and will decide the fate of its country itself.”
He also confided in his son that he thought Kennedy was indecisive. He had assumed that the U.S. would land American troops after the initial invasion began to run into trouble, using Marines, and bombing the island with their own planes to ensure an exile victory.
Khrushchev decided that Kennedy had been seriously weakened by the failed invasion and decided it was time to meet with him. On May 12, he accepted a long-standing invitation to meet with Kennedy and talks were scheduled for June 3-4 in Vienna. It is very possible that the seeds of the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later were sown here. Khrushchev certainly believed that the Bay of Pigs had weakened Kennedy enough that he could take the bold step of placing offensive weapons in Cuba.
At the summit in Vienna, Khrushchev took a hard tack with Kennedy. Kennedy later told the press that Khrushchev’s demands had made the prospects for war very real. Khrushchev himself was pleased with the outcome and told associates later that he felt Kennedy was someone he could bully. “He concluded that Kennedy was a mere ‘boy’ and he was therefore thinking about ‘what we can do in our interest and at the same time subject Kennedy to a test of strength.'”
He told his aides that Kennedy had wishy-washy behavior saying, “I know for certain that Kennedy doesn’t have a strong backbone, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.'”
But if Kennedy displayed weakness toward Khrushchev, he was showing strength toward Castro. On November 30, 1961, he authorized “Operation Mongoose,” a major covert action aimed at overthrowing the Castro government. It was placed under the guidance of his brother, Robert. It would eventually have an annual budget of over $50 million and take the efforts of 400 CIA operatives and over 2,000 Cuban exiles.
In late April 1962, while Khrushchev was vacationing at his dacha in the Crimea, he went for a walk along the beach one morning with Marshall Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet Defense Minister. “Malinovsky pointed a finger out across the Black Sea. Even as they spoke, the general declared, U.S. nuclear missiles were across the water in Turkey, capable of destroying all Russia’s southern cities. ‘Why do the Americans have such a possibility?.’ Malinovsky asked. ‘They have surrounded us with bases on all sides, and we have no possibility or right to do the same'”
Just days before, U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey had become operational. From this moment forward, Khrushchev began to move forward with the idea of placing missiles in Cuba. Although he may have been toying with the idea before this, certainly Malinovsky’s complaint had much to do with fixing the plan in his mind. Castro later claimed that he had requested Soviet missiles as early as February of that year, but with the U.S. military practicing for an invasion of Cuba, and the Jupiters operational and manned, Khrushchev had to be alarmed.
According to later Soviet sources, the chairman kept coming back to three imperatives: 1) he had to end the double standard whereby America could place missiles on Russia’s perimeter but not Russia on America’s; 2) he had somehow to magnify the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear striking power which, as Defense Secretary McNamara had boasted, lagged far behind America’s; and 3) he had to deter an American invasion of Cuba.
After his return to Moscow Khrushchev approached Deputy First Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan with the idea of placing offensive missiles in Cuba. Mikoyan did not approve, fearing that the United States would react with anger when they found out. Khrushchev thought the plan had merit, however, and asked a group of his closest advisors, including General Malinovsky and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to evaluate the idea. The result was an agreement to send a mission to Cuba to find out if Castro would accept the missiles.
On May 30, 1962, after conferring with his advisors, Castro informed the visiting Soviet delegation, in Cuba ostensibly to study irrigation problems, that Cuba would accept the deployment of nuclear weapons, as a means to deter a U.S. invasion. After a visit to Moscow by Raul Castro in early July, Soviet cargo ships begin moving out of the Black Sea for Cuba with false papers. The Soviet military had independently decided on the composition of the forces to be deployed. They proposed a force of twenty-four medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) launchers and sixteen intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) launchers. Each of the launchers would be equipped with two missiles (one serving as a spare) and a nuclear warhead. A large contingent of Soviet combat forces would also be sent, including four elite combat regiments with twenty-four advanced SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, forty-two MIG-21 interceptors, forty-two IL-28 bombers, twelve Komar-class missile boats and coastal defense cruise missiles.
But in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s plan was encountering some concerns. The Soviet Union’s chief military representative in Cuba, Major General A.A. Dementyev, raised the issue of American U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba with Malinovsky. “It will be impossible to hide these missiles from American U-2s,’ Dementyev warned the Soviet Defense Minister.”
By the beginning of July, even Khrushchev was beginning to have concerns about keeping the secret. On July 7, 1962, he reported to a group of eight of his military advisors, “it is impossible to move these forces to Cuba secretly'”
It is possible that Khrushchev’s sudden pessimism was the result of Dementyev’s return to Moscow, but regardless, Khrushchev decided to intervene personally in the plan. He ordered that defense against U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft be given a priority. Although the initial plan called for the nuclear missiles to be set up first, he changed this so that, “the antiaircraft missiles, the fabled SA-2s, go up first so that American spy planes could be shot out of the skies before they detected the early construction of the ballistic missile sites.”
Clearly the situation had changed for American intelligence flights. “In retrospect, Admiral Nikolai N. Amelko insisted a secret missile deployment was impossible: ‘The missiles were visible when they were brought down rivers to Odessa to be loaded on ships. Everybody in Odessa was talking about missiles being sent overseas. They were also visible when they were unloaded and transported to their Cuban bases.'”
On August 10, 1962, the CIA sent a memo to President Kennedy stating the belief that Soviet MRBM’s are on their way to Cuba, based on the reports of the cargo ships from the Balck and Baltic seas. CIA Director John McCone was the author of the memo and he sent it over the objections of subordinates who believed that he has no hard evidence to back up his suspicions. He was not in an enviable position. He was, “taking the position that there were Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba and the whole Kennedy administration was opposing me, all Democrats. Here I was the sole Republican with a different view. I had a devil of a time trying to persuade the President and his brother.”
President Kennedy called a meeting on August 23, 1962 to discuss McCone’s concerns about Soviet missiles in Cuba. Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara argued against Cone’s interpretations of the data. Kennedy ended the meeting by ordering a contingency plan be drawn up to deal with a situation in which Soviet missiles were to be deployed in Cuba. The order was formalized in National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 181. Kennedy directed that additional actions and studies be undertaken, “in light of the evidence of new bloc activity in Cuba.”
Papers were to be developed to consider the pros and cons of a statement warning against the deployment of any nuclear weapons in Cuba, the psychological, military and political effects of a deployment, and the options that could be employed to eliminate the threat. Kennedy also requested that the defense department look at options to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Following a high-altitude U-2 surveillance flight, conclusive evidence was provided that showed the existence of SA-2 missile sites at eight different locations in Cuba. Further reconnaissance flights also positively identified coastal defense cruise missile installations. The same day, in a news conference, President Kennedy denied that there are SAM’s or Soviet troops and downplayed any plans to invade Cuba. Two days later, he was informed that the August 29th mission discovered SAMs in Cuba and the same day United States Senator Kenneth Keating told the Senate that there was evidence of rocket installations in Cuba.
During the first week of September, 12,000 elite Soviet combat troops disembarked in Cuba, including armor, although this would not be known to U.S. intelligence for many more weeks. On September 4, 1962, in a press conference, President Kennedy reversed his earlier statements, admitting that the Soviets had troops and SAMs in Cuba. However, he qualified this by saying, “there is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia; of a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo; of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability. Were it otherwise the gravest issues would arise.”
On the seventh, Soviet Ambassador Dobtrynin assured the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, that only defensive weapons were being supplied to Cuba. Apparently believing Soviet denials, Kennedy on the thirteenth of September, in a news conference, again assured the American people that the Soviet technical and military personnel did not constitute a serious threat but did warn that if Cuba “should ever attempt to export its aggressive purposes by force … Or become an offensive military base of significant capability for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.'”
The first week in September, Khrushchev was vacationing at his dacha at Petsamo, in the Georgian Republic. During this time, he was visited by Robert Frost, the poet and Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall. At one point he asked to speak to Udall about Cuba, saying, “Here is an area that could really lead to some unexpected consequences. Castro hasn’t much modern military equipment, so he asked us to supply some. But only for defense. However, if you attack Cuba, that would create an entirely different situation. And it is unthinkable, of course, that a tiny nation like Cuba would ever attack the United States.'”
Meanwhile on Cuba, the Poltava, a Soviet cargo ship, docked at the port of Marial. U.S. intelligence reported what appears to be unloading of MRBMs during September 15-17 and the movement of a convoy of at least eight MRBMs to San Cristobal, where the first missile site was to be constructed. Intelligence also reports that Castro’s private pilot, after a night of drinking, boasted that, “we will fight to the death and perhaps we can win because we have everything, including atomic weapons.'”
In the United States, a Senate resolution on Cuba sanctioned the use of force if necessary to curb Cuban aggression. The house also approved an appropriations bill on September 20, 1962. The next day, speaking to the UN General Assembly, Gromyko charged that the U.S. was whipping up war hysteria and threatening to invade Cuba. He warned that any U.S. attack on Cuba or Cuba-bound ships would mean war. But events were moving quickly and the U.S. military was moving forward. On September 27, General Curtis LeMay approved a plan for a tactical air attack that would precede an amphibious landing on Cuban soil. The date for all preparations to be completed was October 20. During the first week in October, the U.S. further increased its military readiness position.
On October 13, 1962, State Department Ambassador-at-Large, Chester Bowles spoke with Dobrynin. He informed Dobrynin that the United States had credible evidence indicating that the there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Dobrynin repeatedly denied that the Soviet Union had any intention of placing any such weapons in Cuba. Amazingly, he had not been informed of the missile deployment by the Kremlin.
The next day, in the early morning, a U-2 aircraft flying over western Cuba from south to north obtained the first photographs containing hard evidence of MRBM sites in Cuba. It was the first flight since authority for the flights had been transferred from the CIA to the Air Force. The thirteen days were about to begin. The next day analysis by the CIA established the main components of a Soviet MRBM in a field near San Cristobal. That evening, key Kennedy administration officials were given the news. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy decided not to wake the President and waited until morning to brief him. He later justified this on the basis that it was not possible to prepare the presentation that quickly and out of fears that a meeting that night would jeopardize secrecy.
At 8:45 AM on October 16, McGeorge Bundy informed the President that they had the evidence that Soviet MRBMs were in Cuba. Kennedy called an 11:45 meeting and the group that was to be known as ExComm was established. During meetings that day, ExComm discussed various options, including approaching Khrushchev. The same day in Moscow, Khrushchev, during a three-hour conversation with U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, reassured Kohler that the Soviet Union was helping to build a fishing port for the Cubans that would be entirely nonmilitary. He again insisted that all Soviet activity in Cuba was defensive and criticized U.S. bases in Turkey and Italy.
On Wednesday, October 17, in spite of scheduled campaign trips to Connecticut and the Midwest, President Kennedy met with and advised Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko that America would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gromyko again denied the presence of any Soviet weaponry on the island. Also on this day, Georgi Bolshakov, a past back channel for communications between U.S. And Soviet leaders, relayed a message from Khrushchev to Robert Kennedy that the arms being sent to Cuba were intended only for defensive purposes. Again, Bolshakov was also in the dark about the Kremlin’s true actions.
On the eighteenth of October, the thought in the ExComm’s morning meetings was starting to crystallize in favor of a naval blockade, however this consensus started to break down. The Attorney General directed his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach to prepare a brief establishing the basis for a blockade. Also on this day, intelligence reports indicated that the MRBMs could probably be launched within eighteen hours. During the next three days, discussions continued in ExComm until on Sunday, October 21, when the President decided on a naval blockade. He had been told by his military advisors that an air strike could result in ten to twenty thousand casualties. More cruise missiles sites, along with bombers, were discovered along Cuba’s north shore.
At 6 PM on October 22, 1962, one hour before the President was to go on national television and tell the American public about the missiles in Cuba, Dean Rusk met with Dobrynin. Still in the dark about the missiles, Dobrynin was shocked when Rusk hands him an advance copy of the President’s speech. At about the same time, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Kohler delivered a letter to the Kremlin along with the text of the speech. Also that evening, the State Department received a letter from British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan warning the President that Khrushchev, “may try to escort his ships into the Caribbean and force you to attack them. This ‘fire-first’ dilemma has always worried us and we have always hoped to impale the Russians on this horn. We must be ready for retaliatory action against Berlin [as well as for] pressure on the weaker parts of the Free World defense system.'”
At 7 PM that evening, President Kennedy addressed the nation and laid out the evidence that Soviet missiles were in Cuba. At the end of the speech he outlined the action he was authorizing. First was the strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba. Second was increased surveillance of Cuba and thirdly, and probably the most far-reaching, that any attack on the United States from Cuba would be considered as an attack on the U.S. from the Soviet Union, requiring a full retaliatory response. He also announced that he was reinforcing the base at Guantanamo, calling for a meeting of the Organization of American States, and invoking the UN charter to call for a meeting of the Security Council. He called upon Khrushchev to “halt and eliminate a reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. He has a an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction — by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory.'”
In Moscow, Khrushchev’s response was anger. He had been discovered, and the entire world was privy to his secret. “Denouncing ‘the naval blockade as banditry, the folly of degenerate imperialism,’ he issued orders to captains of Soviet ships as they were approaching the blockade zone to ignore it and to hold course for the Cuban ports.”
At their present speed, the Soviet ships would reach the blockade zone two days later, at about 10 AM, and the U.S. ships were under orders to fire on them if necessary.
The next morning TASS began transmitting the official Soviet statement and Ambassador Kohler was called to the Kremlin and presented with a copy Khrushchev’s response to Kennedy.
I must say frankly that the measures indicated in your statement constitute a serious threat to peace and to the security of peoples. We confirm that the armaments now in Cuba, regardless of the classification to which they belong, are destined exclusively for defensive purposes, in order to secure Cuban republic from attack of Aggressor.
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.
He also places all Warsaw pact forces on high alert.
By the next day, October 24, there are indications that Khrushchev might be backing down. Sixteen of the nineteen freighters bound for Cuba reversed course and were turning around. Only the tanker Bucharest continued toward the quarantine zone. However, he sent a mixed measure during an interview with American business William Knox, at Khrushchev’s request. He stated that he will eventually give orders to sink a U.S. vessel if Soviet ships were stopped. Later that night, the State Department received a letter from Khrushchev calling the blockade an act of aggression and saying, “If you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, then you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the U.S.A.”
Over the next two days, no incidents occur and it appeared that the Soviets are not attempting to run the blockade. On Thursday afternoon, the 25th, Ambassador Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Zorin at the UN, in a famous speech in which he promised that he is prepared to wait for the Russian’s answer “until hell freezes over.” In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev called a meeting of the Presidium to discuss the latest letter from Kennedy. Contrary to their expectations, Khrushchev took a moderate approach to the crisis, saying he wanted to order the remaining ships headed for Cuba to turn back. “Khrushchev was now convinced that the Soviet Union could not keep ballistic missiles in Cuba without going to war, and he wanted the rest of the Presidium to understand that Moscow would have to find another way to protect Fidel Castro.”
He had apparently already come to the realization that the missiles would have to be removed. It was just a question of getting the best deal possible. Khrushchev appeared to have arrived at the realization that the inferior Soviet naval forces could not fight a battle in the Caribbean. He had tried to achieve equality with the U.S. And failed. The assembled leaders voted to approve the plan. Because the change in strategy was such an extreme reversal, “only the leadership of the Communist Party had a right to pass judgment.”
The next day, the 26th, another letter from Khrushchev arrived in which he essentially proposed that the U.S. agree to a pledge not to invade Cuba in exchange foe a Soviet pledge for no more missiles in Cuba. There was no mention of removing the existing missiles. It caught the U.S. off guard. At 1 PM in the afternoon of the 26th, John Scali, State Department correspondent for ABC News, had lunch with Aleksandr Fomin, Soviet embassy public affairs counselor, during which Scali was asked to contact his high level friends in the administration to determine whether the U.S. would be interested in a solution to the problem. Fomin proposed that the Soviet Union would agree to dismantle bases in Cuba in return for a pledge by the United States not to attack Cuba. The message was later relayed to the White House and caused confusion because it was at odds with Khrushchev’s last message. That night, Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin met at the Soviet embassy and the concept of trading removal of missiles in Turkey for removal of missiles in Cuba was discussed.
Meanwhile, messages moving between Havana and Moscow caused the situation to escalate. Castro, believing that the U.S. was posed to attack, cabled his concerns to Khrushchev. Khrushchev misunderstood and believed that the invasion was going to take place within a few hours, and in return sent a cable back to Castro, saying that the Soviet Union would defend them. Castro misinterpreted the message thinking Khrushchev intended to preempt an American invasion with a nuclear strike. As a result, Castro ordered Cuban antiaircraft gunners to open fire on any U.S. plane violating Cuban airspace, contrary to Khrushchev wishes. Khrushchev knew, and Kennedy did not, that, “the Soviets had deployed tactical nuclear missiles to Cuba. These battlefield weapons, intended for use against an invading army, had warheads nearly size the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Had a local Soviet commander fired one of these, it would have been the start of a general nuclear war. This was Khrushchev’s fear.”
So here we were on the brink. On the night of the 27th Robert Kennedy met again with Dobrynin at the Soviet embassy. Although there are conflicting accounts of this meeting, it seems clear that Kennedy proposed a trade of missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba, with the understanding that removal of the missiles in Turkey cannot be announced for six months. He further demanded that the quid pro quo be kept secret, as the White House would deny the existence of any such deal. As Kennedy returned to the White House, he knew that the end to this crisis rested with Khrushchev.
The next morning saw two new developments. At 6 AM, the CIA reported that Soviet technicians had succeeded in making all twenty-four sites in Cuba operational. This bad news was overcome by a message three hours later from Khrushchev effectively ending the crisis. He accepted Kennedy’s terms (including keeping Turkey secret), saying that the Soviet government had, “given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the U.S.S.R.”
The crisis was over and Khrushchev had suffered a defeat. His momentum over Kennedy only one year ago had been reversed and he would never recover from it. The world would change quickly. One year later, Kennedy would be dead. A year after that, Khrushchev would be removed from power.
Why did he do it? From all accounts he really believed that the United States was preparing to attack Cuba and that he could forestall an invasion with the introduction of nuclear weapons to the island. He may have been trying to reduce the missile gap by using Cuba as a weapons platform, or he may have felt the necessity to reduce criticism at home by getting a success “under his belt.” Even the experts are at a loss to explain his actions. Theodore Sorenson later said, “I don’t know now and I didn’t know then. None of us knew.’ Robert McNamara immediately concurred: “I don’t know why the Soviets did what they did.'”
As 1963 began, there were shifts in foreign policy in the Soviet Union. East-West relations worsened and Moscow broke off nuclear test ban talks. Relations with China improved and moves were made to iron out differences between the two countries. These issues spilled over to the domestic side, as Khrushchev felt the necessity to stress heavy manufacturing over consumer goods.
Part of the reason for these changes was due to pressure that Khrushchev was feeling from more conservative elements within the party. He was vulnerable after the Cuban fiasco. Whatever the reason, the changes did not last long. As 1963 progressed, relations with the West improved, accompanied by a corresponding renewal of disputes with China. Domestically, Khrushchev renewed his attacks on Stalin, saying that he was “among the ‘tyrants in the history of mankind’ who stayed in power with the aid of the ‘executioners ax..'”
Economic conditions in the Soviet Union had begun to deteriorate in 1964, and by the time of his seventieth birthday, he had grown increasingly unpopular. His senior lieutenants began plotting against him. Attempts to warn him failed and he played into the plotters hands through his frequent absences from the capital. The plotters decided to make their move on October 12th, while Khrushchev was on vacation at his Black Sea dacha in Pitsunda. On his return on the 13th, he was driven to the Kremlin where he presided over the meeting to discuss his removal. He resigned the next day.
No one will ever be able to answer why Khrushchev did what he did in Cuba or how much it contributed to his final downfall. It may have been as simple as a miscalculation of the young President. Whatever the reason, the calm and deliberative actions of American leaders removed the unacceptable threat without plunging the world into a nuclear holocaust.
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Thompson, Robert S. The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 66.
Fursenko, Aleksandr and Naftali, Timothy. “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khruschev, Castro and Kennedy 1958-1964. New York W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 11.
Elie Abel. The Missile Crisis. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966, p. 15.
Arthur M. Schlesinger. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978, p. 471.
Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York W.W. Norton & Company, 2003, p. 493.
Ibid., p. 766.
Thompson, p. 144.
Fursenko and Naftali, p. 191.
Taubman, p. 551.
Schecter, Jerrold L. And Deriabin, Peter S. The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992, p. 331.
Document 12, National Security Action Memorandum 181, on Actions and Studies in Response to New Soviet Bloc Activity in Cuba, 8/23/62.
Thompson, p. 165.
Ibid., p. 169.
Ibid., p. 166.
Ibid., p. 170.
MacMilliam, Harold. At the End of the Day, 1961-1963. New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 94.
Thompson, p. 271.
Ibid., p. 273.
Ibid., p. 280.
Ibid., p. 302.
Fursenko and Naftali, p. 259.
Taubman, p. 575.
James G. Blight and David A Welch. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989, p. 118.
William J. Tompson. Khrushchev: A Political Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p.263.
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