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“You cannot fail to remember that both Hitler and Napoleon used such language in their day when speaking with small countries,” dictated an agitated Nikita Khrushchev to his stenographer. “Do you really think even now that the USA is made of one dough, and countries that you threaten of another?”

It was 24 October 1962, one of the tensest days of the Cuban missile crisis, and the Soviet leader was composing a response to his American counterpart, John F Kennedy. Two days earlier Kennedy had gone on TV to announce to his country, and the world, the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. He demanded their removal and declared a naval blockade of the island, euphemistically calling it a quarantine – in the language of international law, a blockade would have meant war. On 23 October, Kennedy also sent Khrushchev a private letter demanding that he turn back his ships heading for Cuba.

Khrushchev, now in a fighting mood, responded by threatening Kennedy with a nuclear attack. “If any aggressor should attack Cuba, in that case the weapons themselves will start firing in retaliation,” read his further dictation. This was already Khrushchev’s second letter to Kennedy composed that day. The first one was official, couched in diplomatic terms. This much longer missive of almost seven typed pages was supposed to be confidential, and Khrushchev did not conceal his frustration.

The letter was to be dispatched via Colonel Georgii Bolshakov of the GRU, an acquaintance of the president’s brother, Robert. But first the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the country’s ruling body, which Khrushchev had packed with his clients and supporters, had to approve it. That would have to wait until the next day, 25 October. But the letter never reached the Kennedys and would remain unknown to scholars until the autumn of 2014, when it was displayed at a Moscow exhibition marking the 120th anniversary of Khrushchev’s birth.

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On 25 October Khrushchev abruptly reversed course. Not only did he refuse to send his letter, but he agreed to recall his ships loaded with ballistic missiles and to dismantle Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Why the drastic about-face? “The Americans have taken fright – no doubt about that,” Khrushchev told the Presidium that day. Many of his closest aides thought differently. Khrushchev had “shat his pants”, recalled his deputy foreign minister, Vasilii Kuznetsov.

Within striking distance

The Cuban crisis had begun only 11 days before, on 14 October 1962, when an American high-altitude U-2 plane spotted Soviet ballistic missiles on the island. Khrushchev had put them there the previous month, along with a Soviet garrison of 40,000 troops. The 22-metre-long medium-range missiles, known to the Americans as SS-4 Sandals, had been built in the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk and brought to Cuba in complete secrecy. With a range of more than 2,000km, they could easily hit Washington, DC.

Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro meet
Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro meet in New York, 1960. The Soviet premier cultivated the relationship in order to keep his Cuban counterpart out of the clutches of his great foe, Mao Zedong (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Khrushchev had two motives for these actions. The first was to assure Fidel Castro, whose aides were flirting with Khrushchev’s sworn enemy, the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, that he had the Cuban leader’s back and would not permit another invasion as had happened at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (when American-backed Cuban exiles tried and failed to seize control of the island). Secondly, he wanted to compensate for the lack of long-range missiles capable of striking the US from the USSR. The Sputnik rocket aside, Khrushchev had very few of those, and they were highly unreliable.

Kennedy was alerted to the presence of the Soviet missiles on 16 October. He could not believe his ears: Khrushchev, who had publicly declared that he would not put “offensive weapons” on the island and privately assured Kennedy that he would do nothing to undermine him before the Congressional elections of November 1962, had deceived him. It took Kennedy and his advisers on the ExComm – the Executive Committee of the National Security Council – almost a week to come up with a response.

At 7pm on 22 October, a sombre Kennedy, having received intelligence that the Soviet missiles were battle-ready, addressed the nation. In Moscow it was 3am on 23 October. Learning of the forthcoming address, Khrushchev summoned the Presidium members to the Kremlin. “The point is that we do not want to unleash a war. We want to intimidate and restrain the USA vis-à-vis Cuba,” Khrushchev told his nervous colleagues as they awaited Kennedy’s speech, not knowing what to expect.

Khrushchev then asked what the Presidium should do in case of attack. One possibility was to declare that the USSR had a defence treaty with Cuba, making an American assault on Cuba tantamount to an attack on the Soviet Union. Another was to declare that the missiles were Cuban, and that Havana might respond to an invasion with nuclear weapons. In that case, Washington would have had to negotiate with Havana, not Moscow, and in the worst-case scenario there would have been a nuclear war between the US and Cuba, with the USSR remaining on the sidelines. Khrushchev liked the idea, but one of his close allies, Anastas Mikoyan, disagreed: the Americans would panic and hit the island with all their might, including nuclear weapons. It would be difficult for the USSR to do nothing.

It dawned on Khrushchev that permission had been given to attack the US mainland with nuclear weapons

As they were discussing possible responses to an attack, the Soviet defence minister, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, prepared a telegram to the commander of Soviet troops in Cuba, General Issa Pliev: he was to resist the attack with all means possible. It then dawned on Khrushchev that he was actually giving the commander on the ground permission to attack the American mainland with nuclear weapons.

“If ‘all’ means without reservations, that means missiles too, that is, the outbreak of thermonuclear war!” exclaimed Khrushchev. They revised the text of the telegram. Now General Pliev was prohibited from using ballistic missiles without orders from Moscow, but the telegram gave him de facto clearance to use tactical nuclear weapons (designed to be used on a battlefield) if attacked. Pliev now had the power to start a local nuclear war. What would stop it from going global was never discussed. They decided to postpone sending the telegram until they heard Kennedy’s speech.

To Khrushchev’s relief, Kennedy did not announce an imminent attack, opting instead for a naval blockade. In a private message to Khrushchev, Kennedy wrote: “I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”

Khrushchev’s response combined reassurance with threat. “We confirm that armaments now on Cuba, regardless of classification to which they belong, are destined exclusively for defensive purposes, in order to secure Cuban Republic from attack of aggressor,” wrote Khrushchev after a sleepless and nerve-wracking night spent in the Kremlin.

That night Khrushchev ordered the captains of ships carrying nuclear warheads and missiles near the Cuban shores to increase their speed and requested those farther away, who would not make it to the island before the imposition of the naval blockade, to turn back. But he refused to turn back ships delivering non-military loads, presenting Kennedy with the dilemma of what to do with those cargo ships as they approached the quarantine line.

The immediate crisis was resolved when news unexpectedly reached the White House that the ships Kennedy had just ordered to be intercepted had turned back much earlier. Relieved, Kennedy aborted the order. “We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” commented Secretary of State Dean Rusk. They did not know that Khrushchev had blinked long before, on the night of Kennedy’s television speech. The lack of timely information almost caused the outbreak of a shooting war. Unknowingly, Kennedy had in fact ordered the interception of ships moving away from the quarantine line, not toward it.

Kennedy braced himself for a possible confrontation on the high seas. Meanwhile, the military dusted off their plans for an invasion of Cuba, and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) raised its Defense Readiness Condition (Defcon) to Level Two – just short of Level One, which meant open warfare. Nuclear-armed B-52s were now in the air, flying to Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. They were prepared to strike targets in the Soviet Union.

Soviet intelligence intercepted the SAC order on 24 October, the day on which Khrushchev dictated his letter comparing Kennedy to Hitler and Napoleon and threatening him that nuclear missiles might start firing on their own if the Americans invaded Cuba.

Nuclear dumping ground

Admittedly, Khrushchev also had a friendlier proposal for the American president. He implied that he would consider removing the missiles as part of a comprehensive agreement leading ultimately to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. “Under such conditions,” suggested Khrushchev, “I think that we would not remove all weapons from Cuba but simply drown them in the vicinity if you were to do the same with your weapons.” Comprehensive nuclear disarmament was an old demand of Khrushchev’s; turning the Caribbean into the world’s nuclear dumping ground was a new one.

Khrushchev woke up on 25 October to a barrage of disturbing news. Kennedy had responded tersely to his official letter of the previous day, refusing to be pushed around. “I ask you to recognise clearly, Mr Chairman, that it was not I who issued the first challenge in this case, and that in the light of this record these activities in Cuba required the responses I have announced,” read the telegram.

The Americans were now ready to deliver all 2,962 of their nuclear warheads to the USSR and its Cuban ally

The news about the Strategic Air Command moving to Defcon Two and American nuclear bombers pirouetting over the eastern Mediterranean arrived around the same time. Those steps could be taken as an indication that Kennedy was getting ready to strike not only Cuba but the Soviet Union itself. A total of 1,306 bombers and 182 ballistic missiles were ready to deliver all 2,962 nuclear warheads in America’s possession to the USSR and its Cuban ally.

That was the moment when, according to Vasilii Kuznetsov, Khrushchev “shat his pants”. His draft letter of the previous day was discarded. “Do not get into a petty exchange of insults with the same arguments,” read the protocol of the Presidium meeting. “Compose a letter to Kennedy as dictated.” A Central Committee official wrote on a copy of the old letter that it should not be sent because of the Presidium’s decision to send a different letter.

“Mr President,” wrote Khrushchev, “we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.”

To the members of the Presidium, Khrushchev said: “It’s not capitulation on our part, because if we shoot, they‘ll shoot back.” He then proposed a new plan of action. “Kennedy says to us: take your missiles out of Cuba. We answer: give firm guarantees and promises that the Americans will not attack Cuba. That’s not bad.” Khrushchev’s aides, fearing that his adventurism would trigger nuclear war, unanimously supported his proposal. They wanted the nightmare to end. According to the protocol of the meeting, the Presidium decided to “dismantle the missile installations”.

Kennedy’s refusal to back down wrong-footed Khrushchev. The US leader had scuttled the Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier, and his Soviet counterpart expected him to do the same now. When he didn’t, a frightened Khrushchev felt that he had no choice but to blink; within three days of the presidential address, the Soviet leader had decided to remove the missiles from Cuba.

This, though, didn’t mean the danger and drama were over. If anything, they intensified. Khrushchev would not have been himself if he had not tried to bargain.

Khrushchev asked Kennedy to remove the US missiles in Turkey as a precondition of removing his missiles from Cuba. Kennedy was prepared to take the deal – he had contemplated such an exchange from the start of the crisis. But he could not do so openly or immediately without offending the Turks and sending a signal to Nato that one day he might remove the American nuclear umbrella without so much as a prior consultation. Tensions mounted. Ironically, things began to spin out of control just as the two leaders had all but agreed on a deal.

On 27 October, the captain of a Soviet submarine ordered a strike with a nuclear torpedo against American ships

On the morning of 27 October, exhausted after a sleepless night, General Issa Pliev, the Soviet military commander in Cuba, took a nap. Just then, his subordinates fired a surface-to-air missile at an American U-2 airplane surveying the island, shooting it down. They had been expecting a US air attack at any minute, and Castro had already ordered his air defences to shoot at low-flying US airplanes. The two Soviet generals who gave the order without consulting Pliev or Moscow believed that, with the U-2 registering the locations of their missiles, a US assault was imminent. The officers who executed the shot braced themselves for immediate retaliation.

With the U-2 down, the Cuban crisis had degenerated into a shooting war. It almost turned into a nuclear one when, during the evening of 27 October, the captain of a Soviet submarine in the Sargasso Sea ordered a strike with a nuclear torpedo against American ships. Only the interference of a senior officer on the submarine stopped the launch. In Moscow, Khrushchev woke up to the news about the downing of the U-2. Terrified of what might come next, he was prepared to withdraw his demand about the Turkish missiles.

At that moment, news arrived that the no less desperate Kennedy was offering a secret swap of the American missiles in Turkey for the Soviet ones in Cuba. Khrushchev jumped at the offer. He transmitted his agreement on Radio Moscow to prevent any new accidents – a note sent through diplomatic channels might take up to 24 hours to reach the White House. “We instructed our officers – these weapons, as I had already informed you earlier, are in the hands of Soviet officers – to take appropriate measures to discontinue construction of the aforementioned facilities, to dismantle them, and to return them to the Soviet Union,” read the key sentence of Khrushchev’s typically lengthy response.

Castro’s indignation

Khrushchev’s pledge to remove the missiles was met with jubilation in Washington and, as Fidel Castro would later state, with “indignation” in Havana. Castro, whose revolution was anti-imperial first and communist second, felt betrayed – his fate and that of his country had been decided by the superpowers without consulting him.

The Cubans refused to allow inspection of their missile sites – a condition of the Khrushchev-Kennedy deal. So the Soviets had to show the Americans the missiles loaded on their ships, and these US inspections of vessels heading back to the USSR humiliated the Soviet military, turning its commanders against Khrushchev.

In October 1964 Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defence minister, backed the palace coup that removed Khrushchev from power. It was led by Khrushchev’s other protégé, Leonid Brezhnev. Like others in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev was frightened of Khrushchev’s unpredictability and nuclear brinkmanship. “I will never forget,” he recalled, “how Nikita [Khrushchev], in a panic, would send a telegram to Kennedy, then ‘en route’ order it to be stopped and recalled. And why? Because he wanted to screw over the Americans. I remember he was shouting at the CC Presidium: ‘We can hit a fly in Washington with our missiles!’... And what happened? A shame! We nearly plunged into nuclear war.”

Khrushchev’s nuclear gamble backfired. His attempt to blackmail Kennedy with the threat of nuclear war failed, and he became so frightened that he was prepared to remove the missiles for nothing but a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev had confidently expected the missiles to prevent American aggression not only against Cuba but also against the Soviet Union. But once the missiles were discovered, he abandoned his scheme.

“Of course, I was scared. It would have been insane not to be scared. I was frightened about what could happen to my country and all the countries that would be devastated by a nuclear war,” Khrushchev told the visiting American journalist Norman Cousins later that year. “If being frightened meant that I helped avert such insanity, then I’m glad I was frightened. One of the problems in the world today is that not enough people are sufficiently frightened by the danger of nuclear war.”

Serhii Plokhy is professor of history at Harvard University, and author of Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Allen Lane, 2021). He recently discussed the crisis on the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine