Julio Loace was 24 when, in the summer of 1962, soldiers from Havana turned up at his sleepy rural village to say he and his family had to leave the plot of land where they reared cows and planted black beans. A house would be built for them, he was told, beyond a new perimeter.
Soon after, lorries hauling ominous objects as long as trees drove through his village under cover of darkness. The ground trembled under their weight.
“They were huge,” Loace, now 86, said from a rocking chair while chickens pecked outside his house. “Nobody had ever seen equipment so big.”
He didn’t know it then, but the cargo was Soviet R-12 nuclear missiles.
Sixty years ago today, villagers here, many of whom still earn a living by making charcoal, were thrust into history, becoming enmeshed in a superpower battle for nuclear dominance. Despite Vladimir Putin’s current nuclear threats, most experts say the Cuban missile crisis, from 16-29 October 1962, is still the closest we have come to nuclear armageddon.
The 13-day showdown is known by different names. In the former Soviet Union, it is the Caribbean crisis. In Cuba it is the October crisis, reflecting the sense it was one in a line of crises during the first rocky years of the Cuban revolution.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was defeated a year earlier. Determined to make up for the embarrassment, John F Kennedy authorised Operation Mongoose, the largest CIA covert operation then undertaken, aiming to overthrow the government by means of sabotage, psychological warfare and “military-type support from outside Cuba”.
“We’d become used to the idea of invasion – it was part of daily life,” said Rafael Hernández, who was then a teenager picking coffee but is now editor of Temas, a social science magazine.
When Moscow proposed sending nuclear weapons to the island in May 1962, the revolutionary government accepted.
“You can see the way Cuba was arming, the way they were expanding their regular forces, was aimed at expanding their deterrent capability,” said Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada. “So if the Soviets come along and say, ‘We can make your deterrent a thousand times more credible,’ the Cubans are going to say, ‘Yes please!’”
The Russians had their own interests. Redressing nuclear inferiority was higher up their agenda than defending Cuba. The USSR had about seven times fewer nuclear warheads than the US. Unlike the US, which had missiles in Nato countries in Europe, the Soviets had no capability of striking the US. Missiles in Cuba would change that.
Experts arrived in Cuba in July, posing as “irrigation specialists”. By September, dozens of medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Miami, New York and Washington had been shipped across the Atlantic. It took weeks for US intelligence to cotton on: Kennedy was only informed on the morning of 16 October.
Kennedy ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba, enforced by US warships on 22 October, to stop more missiles reaching Cuba. Nuclear weapons already on the island, he demanded, must be removed.
For the next week, the world stood still, riveted and terrified, as Soviet ships carrying more warheads edged ever closer.
In Washington, the US secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, wondered aloud whether he “would live to see another Saturday night”.
On 27 October, dubbed “Black Saturday” by historians, the danger peaked. The US navy dropped “signalling” depth charges on a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo. Inside the sweltering control room, running low on air, the submarine crew thought the third world war might have broken out. The captain and political officer ordered the torpedo prepared to fire. An officer, Vasily Arkhipov, vetoed the launch. He saved the world.
The historian Ada Ferrer writes that a man running errands in Havana that day overheard two militiamen in an elevator talking about the time they were expecting the US attack.
“As he walked around majestic Havana – the ocean’s spray curling over the seawall, red flamboyant trees abloom, a beautiful woman walking under their canopy – [the man] suddenly thought, ‘What a shame that all of this will disappear between 3 and 4 this afternoon.’”
After a flurry of secret meetings and dramatic telegrams, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, proposed a swap. He would withdraw all missiles from Cuba if the Americans removed theirs from Turkey, which bordered the USSR. The US, he proposed, should also pledge not to invade Cuba after the Soviet withdrawal.
On 27 October, Kennedy accepted. The two men had taken the world to the brink, stared into the abyss, and backed away.
Recounting of the crisis has traditionally emphasised how Kennedy’s steely resolve averted catastrophe. Hi secretary of state Dean Rusk’s iconic line – “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked” – was etched into the collective imagination.
Philip Brenner, professor emeritus of history and international relations at American University in Washington, said: “The traditional view that Kennedy was firm and unblinking was conveyed by the Kennedy hagiographers. In fact, we were both blinking all the time. Kennedy was looking for ways to back down, trying to find a non-military way out of the crisis.”
While the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles publicly, the US insisted its missiles be removed in secret. The quid pro quo was only revealed in the 1980s.
Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, said that “distorted the real lessons of the crisis”.
“The lesson was not that if the United States threatens the use of force or uses force its enemies will back down. The lesson was that negotiation, diplomacy and compromise can solve existential crises in the world.”
A gentlemen’s agreement
As the crisis abated, the world breathed a sigh of relief. But not Fidel Castro.
“Son of a bitch, bastard, asshole,” the Cuban leader reportedly yelled after he heard of Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw his missiles. Castro only found out about the decision after it was broadcast on Moscow radio.
Furthermore, Kennedy’s promise not to invade, touted by Khrushchev as a major concession, was only ever a gentlemen’s agreement. The pledge was never formalised. Thirteen months later, Kennedy was assassinated.
Attempts at regime change resumed. The CIA continued to explore plots to assassinate Castro. Support for industrial sabotage and paramilitaries continued.
Conventional Soviet weaponry continued to flow to Cuba. But the crisis was a modelling moment for the island nation: feeling betrayed by an ally, and naked so close to the world’s only true superpower, Castro armed to the teeth.
Cuba would become one of the most militarised states in the world, second only to North Korea.