“I think this is scarier than the Cuban missile crisis,” said my mom, as we recently chatted on the phone about the current events in Europe and the lack of response by the West due to the threat of nuclear war.
That seemed a bit extraordinary — but then again, I realized how little I knew of the Cuban missile crisis. Sure, President Kennedy seemingly went “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 and the world was this close (*makes pinching motion*) to nuclear armageddon. The Soviet Union eventually blinked and the world breathed a sigh of relief.
I’m always one to dig into history, and given the relevancy to current events, I decided to find the best book I could about this topic.
Oh, wow. This was a doozy.
It’s an hour-by-hour account of those stressful 13 days in October of 1962, switching between Washington DC, Moscow, and everywhere in between.
It’s surprising how close we actually were to war.
Kennedy agonized over whether to invade Cuba to remove the missiles, knowing that Russia would probably respond in kind in Europe. He had to balance the more hawkish elements of his cabinet (those who favored immediate airstrikes) with more diplomatic suggestions (remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and seemingly backstab a NATO ally).
A number of mistakes and miscommunication along the way didn’t help:
- A U2 on a reconnoissance mission over Cuba was shot down by a Russian SAM site and the American pilot was killed. A highly ranked supervisor was off duty, so subordinates took it upon themselves to shoot down the plane, believing it to be part of an imminent attack on Cuba.
- At the same time, a U2 on a high-altitude air sampling mission over the North Pole got lost, due to the aurora borealis (and being unable to properly sight stars for navigation), and ended up over Russia. Miraculously, the U2 made it back to Alaska (just barely). Russian fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. American fighter jets were also scrambled to escort the plane and defend it, if needed. The kicker: the fighter jets were armed with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles and the pilots had ultimate authority on whether or not to use them. Fortunately, the Soviet fighter jets had returned to base by the time the American planes met up.
- A Russian submarine that was being chased and harassed by American naval forces (who were dropping practice depth charges and grenades into the water) couldn’t surface at appropriate times to get the latest communications from Moscow. The captain of the sub feared that World War 3 could have already begun and they didn’t know it. The kicker: the sub was equipped with a nuclear-tipped torpedo that the captain had authority to fire if they felt they were in mortal danger.
- NORAD reported an (erroneous) missile launch reading from Cuba that was headed toward Florida. By the time military officials realized it was a false alarm due to a configuration issue, the “missile” would have already landed.
Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamarama, was later asked how we managed to survive and avoid a nuclear war:
Luck. Luck was a factor. I think, in hindsight, it was the best-managed geopolitical crisis of the post-World War II period, beyond any question. But we were also lucky. And in the end, I think two political leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were wise. Each of them moved in ways that reduced the risk of confrontation. But events were slipping out of their control, and it was just luck that they finally acted before they lost control, and before East and West were involved in nuclear war that would have led to destruction of nations. It was that close.
May we always be as lucky.