Today in History, October 22, 1962,
President John F. Kennedy announced an air and naval blockade of Cuba, following the discovery of Soviet missile bases on the island.
Talk about a few tense days. 13 to be exact. Had things gone differently, it’s estimated that 100 million people on either side would have died. The world would be a much different place, that’s for sure.
Here are some historical tidbits:
Cuban president, Fidel Castro, never wanted the missiles on his island. But, once there, he was told his island would have the full support of Russia should America attack. Castro was never consulted during the negotiation, and was livid with Khrushchev when he learned the missiles were going to be removed. This is when Castro turned his allegiance to the growing dissident group in Russia.
In the early days of the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy was doing a seven-state campaign swing in anticipation of the upcoming midterms. When it became clear Kennedy would have to return to DC, he figured it wasn’t a good idea to say, “So uhh … looks like we’re on the brink of nuclear war, I gotta take off.”
So Kennedy lied and said he had a cold and had to return home, a story which his physician corroborated. JFK, a man famous for saying he wasn’t sick when he really was, spent the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis saying he was sick when he really wasn’t.
On October 27th, the United States dropped some practice depth charges on a Soviet submarine located near the blockade. They were non-lethal charges meant to draw out the submarine, but the Soviets didn’t know that. And speaking of things people didn’t know, the US didn’t know that this submarine was armed with a nuclear warhead. Convinced they were under attack, the ship’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, ordered the ship to fire its warhead. Had that missile been fired, the dominoes would have fallen and likely nuclear war would have broken out across the planet. But protocol said all three officers on board the ship that day had to give the okay to launch the warhead, and one of them did not: A guy named Vasili Arkhipov, who is arguably the reason we’re all alive today.
That one incident was not the only moment that the Cold War almost turned hot. Also that day, a US U-2 spy plane made a wrong turn and flew into Soviet airspace. In response, the Russians sent fighter planes to confront the U-2 and, in response to that, the US had sent its own planes. When told the news, a frustrated Kennedy simply said, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word,” which is a thousand times cooler than the response we would have given if confronted with the same situation.
That same day, another US plane had been shot down over Cuba, and Nikita Khrushchev had received a letter from Fidel Castro expressing a desire to use nuclear weapons on the US in the event of an attack on Cuba. It was called the Armageddon Letter, which is the kind of name that you would normally say is overdramatic, but given the circumstances probably wasn’t. That day, October 27th, has gone down in history as “Black Saturday.”
Needless to say, that nuclear war we stood on the brink of never happened. The Russians removed their missiles, the United States removed their own from Turkey while promising not to invade Cuba, and a direct hotline, The Red Phone, was installed connecting D.C. to Moscow in case the leaders of both countries ever felt like calling each other just to chat.
Actually, there’s one thing we didn’t mention. Seems the Russians actually didn’t remove all their missiles.
Krushchev left behind about 100 nuclear weapons unbeknownst to the US as a sort of just-in-case policy. But Krushchev eventually decided Fidel Castro probably wasn’t the best guy to leave with 100 nuclear warheads, so they withdrew them in December of that year. Like with many things during that stretch, it could have gone a lot worse. It’s really amazing it didn’t.
K.R. And T.L.