Cuban missile crisis: missing detailsIn 1962, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union reached its pinnacle during the Cuban missile crisis. In a clandestine operation unprecedented in military history, the USSR moved a whole army around the globe and deployed the most sophisticated weapons of its time right under the nose of the overwhelming force of its potential adversary. In the following half a century, countless books, memoirs and mass media publications shed light on this crucial event of the 20th century, however many English-language accounts of the crisis are skewed heavily toward the American perspective and, as with the rest of modern history, often present a one-sided and simplistic interpretation of events, usually starting with the US "discovery" of missiles in Cuba on October 16 and declaring American "victory" few days later. This summary attempts to overview the Soviet side of the Cuban missile crisis, which obviously started many months before its culmination in October 1962, and included critical details mostly overlooked in western accounts.
A Soviet map showing position of missile units and supporting infrastructure in Cuba as of October 1962.
On January 1, 1959, a rebel movement lead by a young lawyer Fidel Castro overthrew a pro-American military junta in Cuba and took power on the impoverished tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean, just few hundred kilometers of the coast of Florida. With the world divided by the Cold War, Castro had little choice but to align his government with the Soviet Union, whose leader Nikita Khrushchev was more than happy to use the situation around Cuba as a playing card in the global competition with the US. For the people of Cuba it meant that their country turned from an underprivileged economic colony of the United States run by a corrupt military regime into another failed experiment with a total state-controlled economy and political life, along with an awkward alliance with a foreign government half a world away. However, even in their wildest dreams, could neither ordinary Cubans nor their new government imagine that their small country would become an epicenter of the nuclear standoff between two superpowers just three years after Castro's revolution.
By 1962, despite a major expansion of its nuclear arsenal, the Soviet military knew well that it had been far behind the United States in arms race. Upon his consolidation of power in the USSR following death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev quickly gave up an expensive and hopeless effort to match the US air power. With the Soviet territory vulnerable to long-range bombers from several fronts, Khrushchev banked on ballistic missiles as his asymmetrical response. However, the development, testing and deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, capable of reaching the US proved slow and expensive and, yet again, the USSR quickly found itself confronted with much greater number of US ballistic missiles. By October 1962, the USSR managed to build six huge and vulnerable pads for R-7 ICBMs near Tyuratam and Plesetsk and deploy only around 20 R-16 ICBMs. US estimates put a number of operational Soviet ICBMs at around 50.
That's when Cuba presented the Soviet leadership with an opportunity to target the US territory with more numerous and readily available short-range and intermediate-range missiles, not unlike, the US was aiming such weapons at the USSR from Europe or Turkey. Even with missiles in Cuba, the USSR would still be far from parity with the US in a number of deployed carriers of nuclear weapons.
Almost as importantly, Soviet missiles in Cuba could serve as a deterrent to an ever-present US threat to invade the island. Even though it is extremely hard to believe that interests of Cuba stood before strategic calculations, Khrushchev clearly managed to convince himself and others that he had been driven by altruism. (592) He would maintain this stance all the way when at the bring of World War III over Cuba, he put the issue of Cuban security before the problem of US missiles aimed at the USSR, even though, in the end, he did manage to resolve both.
According to his own memoirs, Khrushchev first brainstormed the idea to deploy missiles on Cuba during his official visit to Bulgaria which started on May 14, 1962. On May 17, stopping for a day of rest at the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna, normally affable Khrushchev wondered alone through the labyrinths of a seaside park, apparently hatching his audacious plan. He reportedly shared his thoughts with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on the way back to Moscow on May 20 and received no objections. (87)
Khrushchev quickly realized that a total secrecy would be a key to the success of the idea, in order to avoid an overwhelming domination of the US navy in the region. However that also meant that unlike the deployment of US missiles aimed at the USSR, which had been done openly, the USSR had to resort to an elaborate plan of deception making the whole enterprise look even more sinister to the US, when its government would finally find out.
Upon his return from Bulgaria, Khrushchev told about his idea to the members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, naturally presenting it as a strategy to protect Cuba. According to Khrushchev's memoirs, nobody but Anastas Mikoyan dared to question the plan as dangerous, but the Soviet leader countered that potential benefits would worth the risk. He did admit that miscalculation in such a decision could lead to a nuclear war. (215)
After several discussions of the plan, on May 24, 1962, the expanded meeting of the Presidium quickly made a unanimous decision to deploy nuclear-tipped R-12 and R-14 missiles in Cuba. The flight range of R-12 and R-14 could cover most of the Unites States except for the far northwestern section of the country. (34) In June, Khrushchev discussed the plan at the meeting of the Defense Council (Sovet Oborony) chaired by Semen Ivanov. (87) Minister of Defense Radion Malinovsky also endorsed the strategy (590), possibly after some hesitation. The commander of the strategic missile forces, RVSN, Marshall Sergei Biryuzov reportedly was enthusiastic. (592)
On June 13, the Minister of Defense issued a directive ordering preparations for the deployment of Soviet troops in Cuba. The chief operational directorate of the Chief of Staff led by Col. General S. P. Ivanov initiated Operation Anadyr, code-named after a river in the Russia's far north. (215) Due to high secrecy of the plan, even classified military documents referred to the operation as a "strategic exercise," aimed to test movements of arms and units around the Soviet Union.
In June, Chief of Staff of RVSN Col. General M. A. Nikolsky issued a directive ordering following steps in preparations for the "exercise":
Also in June, Chief of Staff of RVSN started drafting an organizational structure of the rocket division to be deployed in Cuba. By the middle of the month, Chief of Staff of the Soviet armed forces approved the new structure of the division and gave a green light to the formation of its units, including new ones that had not been part of their original makeup, for example, a bread factory and an engineering and mining unit.
Although the directive of the Chief of Staff of RVSN instructed to employ available soldiers and officers of missile regiments for a Cuban expedition, it also established strict selection criteria, based primarily on strict health requirements. Additionally, the KGB security service screened all personnel heading to Cuba. As a result, a considerable percentage of regular staff of the units had to be replaced with new members. Later, it would create considerable problems during the deployment of missiles in Cuba. (590)
The original idea of placing few missiles in Cuba soon expanded into a grandiose plan to deploy a 44,000-strong Soviet contingent capable of protecting the rocket units and the rest of the island from a full-scale US invasion. It would include the rocket personnel, guard units, anti-aircraft batteries, tactical navy bombers, fighter jets, high-speed missile-carrying boats and even tanks. Obviously, the Soviet Navy and the civilian Ministry of Sea Fleet, Minmorflot, got involved in the support of shipments to Cuba, therefore its representative was delegated to work at the Chief of Staff. At the beginning of July, RVSN formed task groups responsible for processing and shipment of rocket regiments on transport vessels. (590)
By June 20, the Ministry of Defense formed the Group of the Soviet Army in Cuba, GSVK, (215) and on July 7, Khrushchev and Podgorny personally approved its leadership. Upon a recommendation from Malinovsky, a World War II cavalry veteran General Issa Pliev, was appointed the commander of the army. Pliev received official identity papers for an "agricultural specialist" named Ivan Aleksandrovich Pavlov.
The scale, distance and secrecy of the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba had no precedents in the world's military history. A bulk of the rocket division intended to go to Cuba was to be formed from three regiments of the 43rd rocket division, which itself was a part of the 43rd rocket army stationed in Ukraine with the headquarters near the town of Romny. Two more regiments would come from other divisions. The combined Soviet missile force in Cuba was designated the 51st rocket division. On July 12, a veteran of Word War II Igor Statsenko was appointed its commander. (121)
The Soviet missile contingent in Cuba was to be controlled from the headquarters which included an operational control directorate and several departments: intelligence, ballistics, topography and geodesy, meteorological service, staff and accounting with a total personnel of 133 people.
The ballistic missile forces were to be protected by two anti-aircraft missile divisions with three squadrons each, (215) and a total number of anti-aircraft personnel reaching 10,000 people.
Additionally, the Soviet Air Force supplied 40 MiG-21 fighter jets, 36 helicopters and six Il-28 nuclear capable bombers with a total support personnel of 5,000 people.
Ground forces of the Soviet Army also supplied four mobile infantry squadrons with a total personnel reaching 10,000. Their core included 16 launchers with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Last but no least, the Soviet Navy contributed 36 nuclear-capable Il-28 mine and torpedo aircraft, 12 R-183 speed boats carrying a pair of P-15 cruise missiles each; two squadrons of cruise missiles with eight launchers each and a Sopka coast-guard squadron with six launchers. A total navy personnel reached 5,000 people. (537)
Agreement with Cuba
Apparently, the Anadyr operation had been well in the works when Khrushchev finally decided to inform the Cuban leadership about this unusual "present." A Soviet delegation, led by First Secretary of the Uzbekistan's Central Committee Sharaf Rashidov, and including the commander of the strategic rocket forces, RVSN, Marshal Sergei Biryuzov and Lt. General of the Air Force Sergei Ushakov traveled to Cuba at the very end of May and broke the news to Fidel Castro. (87) According to recollections attributed to Aleksandr Alekseev, a Soviet ambassador to Havana, Castro was initially stunned and flabbergasted. However, Soviet arguments about the inevitability of the US invasion and hints about the dependency of Soviet economic assistance on his cooperation, made him to accept the plan. (215) Other sources claimed Castro found the plan "interesting" right away.
In the first half of July, Cuban and Soviet defense ministers Raul Castro and Radion Malinovsky worked out a secret agreement in Moscow on the deployment of Soviet troops in Cuba. (87)
Soviet officials first proposed placing missiles in a heavy jungle of the central Cuba, while deploying numerous troops in improvised dugouts. They also reportedly had an "idea" of concealing missiles as coconut trees! (87) However the Soviet survey team, which landed on the island on July 12 and led by Igor Statsenko, the commander of the 51st missile division in Cuba, found these sites unusable. Statsenko later wrote that the region had poor roads and a difficult terrain for transporting missiles and was infiltrated with counter-revolutionary bands. Statsenko also argued that tropical climate with its high precipitation and humidity would make it impossible to house soldiers in dugouts. Instead, tent camps had to be built, later becoming one of the features betraying the presence of Soviet troops in Cuba. (215)
In August, the commander of strategic missile forces approved a plan of "interviews" with the personnel assigned for the departure to the "exercise." Apparently, upon departure from the base or upon arrival to the port, rank and file personnel would be informed that the unit received an assignment for an exercise aiming to develop the procedures for transportation of rocket units to other parts of the country by sea vessels. (590)
On August 26, Ernesto Che Guevara visited the USSR bringing the amendments to the agreement, which Khrushchev accepted.
The construction of the main missile site was conducted at the plato Esperon, under a cover of a training center for the Cuban army. Besides Castro brothers, a chief of the army intelligence service Pedro Luis was informed of the plan, along with 10 other people. By the time the massive deployment of the Soviet forces was completed, only 15 officials within the Cuban government were informed about these activities. (215)
According to the US intelligence, the first Soviet supplies for what would turned out to be missile bases started arriving to Cuba in late July. (591)
In the first leg of the journey, the missiles, their associated equipment and division personnel were sent to Soviet ports of Nikoalev, Sevastopol on the Black Sea and to Baltiysk in the Baltic Sea. (72) On August 10, the first rocket squadron led by I. Sidorov and the field repair and technical unit led by Lt. Colonel Shinenko started loading on railway transports. A total of 111 trains with 7,171 units of rolling stock would be used for the operation. To maintain secrecy, trains would first head toward the interior of the country and only then return to ports! (590)
On September 9, the first Soviet missile unit arrived to the Cuban port of Casilda onboard the Omsk vessel. A total of 85 Soviet ships had made 180 trips to Cuba before the US established a naval blockade of the island. Some 35 ships were apparently used to transport missile regiments.
Since Soviet soldiers and officers did not know about their destination, units would board tropics-bound ships with all their equipment and supplies including winter coats and woolen boots! During the sailing, rank-and-file military personnel would be housed below decks of freighters. Soldiers were prohibited to come upstairs, even when the temperature in bottom compartments would climb to 50 degrees. The people would be able to have food only twice and only during the night. Bodies of dead would be dropped overboard. (215) In the meantime, top military brass would mostly travel onboard civilian passenger ships. (590)
Upon entering the Atlantic, ships would first head toward South Africa and only near the Equator, captains would unseal envelops with directions to go to Cuba.
Soviet military guard units arrived first, then facilitating the arrival of missiles. All arriving Soviet military personnel were dressed as civilians and donned Cuban army uniforms upon arrival.
Unloading operations were conducted at night under conditions of total darkness. Every two hours, divers were checking bottoms of the ships standing in port.
The missiles were transported during night hours from midnight until 5 a.m. In advance of their pass, Cuban army would block all approaches to the routes followed by missile trailers. As diversionary tactics, the army would even simulate traffic accidents and send columns of regular tracks to various directions. (215)
All Russian personnel transporting missiles wore Cuban uniforms. Speaking Russian was strictly forbidden, instead Spanish phrases and commands would have to be used. Efforts were also made to change silhouettes of missile erector platforms and fueling vehicles.
The arriving Soviet missile regiments had no construction personnel with them, therefore they had to rely entirely on their own engineering service and regular soldiers. (590)
By the end of September, a group of high-ranking RVSN officials led by Lt. General A. S. Butsky flew in to Cuba on a routine commercial flight and inspected the missile division.
On September 16, at 15:00, the Indigirka vessel retrofitted with two 37-millimeter anti-aircraft guns with 1,200 rounds of ammunition left the Soviet port of Severomorsk carrying 160 nuclear charges. The loading of the special cargo was conducted by officers of the central nuclear base under protection of KGB security personnel. The captain of the ship learned about his destination only near Farer Island, upon opening of a special envelope.
The unloading started at Mariel port on October 4. By October 15, nuclear warheads temporarily located at the consolidated warehouse, were checked and made ready for integration with their missiles.
According to the directive of the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Army issued on September 8, squadrons armed with R-12 missiles had to reach battle readiness by November 1 and those with R-14s by January 1, 1963.
Missile squadrons led by N. F. Bandilovsky and two sub-divisions of Yu. A. Soloviev's squadron were declared operational first. The entire missile division deployed in Cuba was declared operational on October 27, or three days earlier than originally planned. (590, 215)
Extreme secrecy measures instituted around the deployment of missiles on Cuba worked long enough to let bulk of the Soviet nuclear forces arrive to the island unopposed.
Sometimes in mid-August, the CIA reported to the US president that "something new and different" had been happening with Soviet supplies to Cuba. A number of Soviet "specialists" on the island was estimated at 5,000 and some military-related construction was detected. New anti-aircraft sites appeared on photos taken by a U-2 spy plane during an overflight of the island on August 29. Surveillance flights increased two-fold during September and the first half of October revealing more construction, but no ballistic missiles. Sources on the ground in Cuba reported the presence of ballistic missiles, however they had been wrong before and thus could not be considered reliable. Still, this data apparently led to increased attention to the area in the west of the country. (34)
On October 10, the US government approved another overflight of the western section of the island by the U-2 aircraft piloted by Richard S. Heyser. However due to bad weather, the mission had to wait until Sunday, October 14. By the afternoon of October 15, photo-interpreters identified a ballistic missile, (which they had known as SS-4), as well as a launch pad and support infrastructure being built near San Cristobal. Kennedy was informed next morning (October 16) and immediately ordered more overflights, while keeping this startling news completely secret. On the same day, 14,000 US reservists were mobilized, tactical aircraft and anti-aircraft assets were ordered to concentrate in the southeast of the country.
Kennedy ended up between the rock and a hard place. Not only he was cunningly deceived by Khrushchev, but also had to defend himself from numerous "I told you so" critics in the US, whom he previously tried to persuade that there were no offensive weapons in Cuba. (592)
On October 17, Defense Secretary McNamara proposed a naval blockade of Cuba, against the advise of many high-ranking officers, who demanded an immediate military action.
On October 18, Kennedy received the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, but told him nothing about his knowledge about the missiles, only repeating his warning from September 13 against placing offensive weapons in Cuba. The possibility of US air strikes was actively discussed on October 19, with the military promising to be ready for the attack as early as October 21. These plans were still on the table as late as the afternoon on October 20. However on that day, Kennedy ruled out a full-blown war for the time being and firmly decided to go with a blockade.
On October 22, at 7 p.m. EST, (early morning Moscow Time on Oct. 23) Kennedy announced on TV an introduction of a quarantine of all shipments of offensive weapons to Cuba. (591)
October 23, Tuesday
On October 23, the US started the blockade, enforced by 90 navy ships and eight aircraft carriers. As many as 25 unarmed Soviet vessels en-route to Cuba including those transporting R-14 missiles were now risking a stand off with the American battleships. Soviet submarines provided escort for the ships, but they themselves had been targeted by American anti-submarine systems.
In Cuba, all preparations at missile sites on the island continued unabated, even though most of the work was switched to the night time. The assembly of Il-28 nuclear capable aircraft was also ongoing. At 5:40 in the morning local time, the Cuban government announced military readiness for the army and the rest of the country. By 8 a.m. as many as three Soviet missile units were declared operational, even though at two of them the technical work was still ongoing. (591)
According to Russian sources, a half of 36 R-12 ballistic missiles were ready for fueling and integration with their warheads, which apparently never took place. (177)
At 11:30, two US aircraft appeared over Cuba at an altitude of 100-150 meters and overflew launch sites commanded by Soloviev and Bandilovsky. Two minutes later, a pair of US aircraft flew over launch sites commanded by Sidorov and at 12:00, they flew over the site commanded by Cherkesov.
Late in the evening, in Washington, Robert Kennedy arrived at the Soviet embassy and talked to the Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, asking him among other things whether the Soviet government intended to stop the incoming ships. However Dobrynin seemed shaken and out-of-the-loop on what was going on and could not provide any assurances. To avoid seemingly inevitable clash at sea, Kennedy ordered the US navy to back away from the approaching Soviet ships to give the Kremlin a little bit more time to react. (591)
October 24, Wednesday
Soviet diplomats in Washington neither reacted to US demands nor showed any signs of real knowledge what was going on in Moscow. As it was confirmed decades later, the Soviet embassy had never been informed about the whole operation in Cuba, in fact, it had actually been used as a vehicle for disinformation in the run-up to the crisis. Even two days after the news exploded in Washington, the Soviet embassy had no instructions on what to do! (592)
However by the end of the day (on the morning of October 25 Moscow Time), the news came to the White House that Soviet ships were either slowing down or changing course. Through intermediaries, Khrushchev also signaled to Kennedy that a peaceful resolution was possible.
In the meantime, the US navy scrambled to detect and pursue Soviet submarines which were seen escorting Cuba-bound cargo ships. (591)
October 25, Thursday
Observations confirmed that half of the Soviet ships had turned around and others stopped. A lone Soviet tanker entered the quarantine zone, but Kennedy ordered to let it reach Cuba unopposed.
In the United Nations, US diplomats publicly revealed for the first time aerial images of Soviet missile installations in Cuba and demanded the USSR to admit the deployment of offensive weapons on the island. (591)
October 26, Friday
As reports about US preparations for war reached Moscow, Khrushchev wrote an emotional personal letter to Kennedy. It was delivered to the US embassy in Moscow around 17:00 local time (592) and after various delays for translation and transmission reached Kennedy in the evening Eastern Time. (591) The letter essentially proposed to remove missiles and Soviet military specialists from Cuba in exchange for a US pledge not to invade the island. The White House had a huge sigh of relieve, even if for just a moment.
October 27 ("Black Saturday")
By October 27, three units of the 51st rocket division were ready to fire missiles from 24 launchers. The warheads were also moved from the central warehouse to the launch sites. For additional protection of launch sites, the antiaircraft guns previously deployed around Havana were moved to the proximity of the sites. (215)
At that point, the Soviet government apparently believed that the US attack would start in the next two or three days.
Surprisingly, the Soviet radio publicly read Khrushchev's proposals for a resolution of a standoff, but with an added demand to remove US missiles from Turkey. These additional demand caused some confusion in Washington and even speculations that Khrushchev was pressed by hardliners or that he even been overthrown.
In the meantime, a U-2 spy plane was shut down over Cuba, further escalating tensions and prompting US military to put new pressure on Kennedy to attack Cuba. However, yet again, Kennedy refused to authorize the invasion.
To make matters worse, another U-2 plane "strayed" into Soviet airspace somewhere between Alaska and the North Pole and was chased by the Soviet fighters.
Kennedy then responded to Khrushchev to his October 26 letter with his own letter accepting his proposals on Cuba and hinting further concessions on the NATO front. Robert Kennedy gave a copy to Dobrynin along with a warning that without a response in 24 hours, the attack against Cuba would likely start on October 30. (591)
October 28, Sunday
At 9:00 in the morning Washington Time, (evening Moscow Time), the new letter from Khrushchev arrived, promising removal of offensive weapons and asking the US to put a stop to overflights of Cuba. Khrushchev promised further negotiations in the UN, but also warned that violations of the Soviet airspace like the one by a U-2 a day before could trigger a nuclear war. (591)
At 15:00 (local time), the commander of the Soviet forces on Cuba announced to the commander of the 51st rocket division, a decision of the Ministry of Defense to dismantle Soviet missile positions in Cuba and remove them to the USSR. (215, 590)
From October 29 to 31, Soviet units dismantled all ballistic missile sites in Cuba leaving one R-12 as a memorial. (215) During early days of November, Soviet ships with missiles on their decks steamed back home as the US navy aircraft watched from respectable distance. As was agreed, the United States removed missiles from Turkey and never again tried to invade Cuba. Ironically, long after most former Soviet republics initiated a transition to free-market economies, the Cuban government continued pursuing hard-line policies of a totalitarian communist state with little room for economic reform.
Preparing for war
For many decades, popular accounts of the Cuban missile crisis would not fail to stress how close the world came to the nuclear armageddon. The proximity of the events around Cuba to the real war are well illustrated by the developments not in Cuba itself but at Soviet ICBM sites, particularly in Tyuratam (Baikonur).
According to memoirs of veterans at Tyuratam, during the crisis, all launch sites were brought to operational readiness. Helicopters were reportedly used to bring nuclear warheads to launch facilities in preparation for installation on their missiles. Still, according to eyewitnesses in Tyuratam there were signs that the confrontation "had not been real." During most of the crisis, many officers on vacation had not been recalled back, moreover, some started their vacations in the midst of the crisis and were only asked by their superiors to leave their addresses in case of the recall. (537)
Even more importantly, as the situation around Cuba was escalating in mid-October, a major space launch campaign was shaping up in Tyuratam. On October 21, as the situation was near its culmination, Korolev's engineers rolled out the 8K78 launch vehicle with a Mars-bound spacecraft to the one of only two available launch pads for the R-7 ballistic missiles in Tyuratam. As things were deteriorating around Cuba, the Mars probe lifted off as scheduled on October 24 but got stranded in the low Earth orbit. A day later, yet another launch vehicle with a Mars-bound spacecraft arrived to occupy the strategically important launch pad. It was scheduled for a liftoff on October 29. However during the night from October 26 to October 27, all top officers in Tyuratam were called to the range headquarters and ordered to prepare their facilities for an emergency situation, including possible air attacks and even an invasion of paratroopers. All transport flights in and out of Tyuratam were discontinued, the security was beefed up around all launch facilities with the help of machine-gun-armed infantrymen, anti-aircraft batteries were also put to highest alert.
Kirillov who commanded the R-7 positions received an order to open his sealed envelope with instructions for the preparations of the R-7 ballistic missiles and their integration with a nuclear warhead. It was immediately done at Site 31.
However things developed slower at Site 1. On the morning of October 27, as Chertok reported to the processing building at Site 2, he discovered the launch personnel working with an R-7 ballistic missile, which normally sat under wraps by the wall of the cavernous building. Now it was at the center of attention, while a rocket for the third Mars-bound spacecraft was all but neglected.
Kirillov told Chertok that the nuclear warhead would arrive to Site 2 for the integration with the missile within two hours by which time all unessential personnel would have to leave the facility according to safety instructions. Kirillov also grimly informed Chertok that the second Mars-bound vehicle would have to be removed from the pad to give room to the ICBM. Chertok had no choice but to leave the military run things, however the nuclear-tipped missile never left the processing building. By the end of the day, doomsday crews were allowed to stand down and the space rocket remained on the pad. (466) It was launched successfully on November 1 and was announced as Mars-1.
Given the fact that the US probably would not attack Cuba until at least October 30, the R-7 team in Tyuratam would likely have enough time to prepare both of its missiles for launch. Obviously, Tyuratam itself would be targeted by the US.
At another R-7 launch site in Plesetsk, as many as four R-7 missiles could be prepared for launch reportedly as quickly as in seven or eight hours. In addition, as many as four unprotected launch pads for a much-more compact R-16 ICBM were also operational by the beginning of 1962. However three protected silos for R-16 would not be ready until Spring of 1963. In the anticipation of the crisis in Cuba, the Plesetsk launch base was brought to high alert on September 11 at 13:00 afternoon, with all launch pads ready to fire their missiles. The high alert officially remained in effect until 09:00 in the morning on November 21. Apparently, several times during the crisis, sirens were sounding around the residential complex of the base and the light curfew was instituted during the night time. (65)
Although the popular US press could not resist its usual temptation for self-congratulation, those who were involved on both sides knew better.
Kennedy's Special Assistant Arthur Schlesinger later remembered that "the President issued immediate instructions that there should be no claiming of victory, no cheering over the Soviet retreat." His public TV statement underscored "Chairman Khrushchev's statesmanlike decision" and the "compelling necessity for ending the arms race and reducing world tensions." (591)
The real war was avoided, however, the Cold War would continue if not escalate in the following years, with the USSR attempting to achieve parity with the US in the number of ICBMs.
After Khrushchev's fall in 1964, a popular joke among Moscovites was that he lost power because of "three C": China, Cuba and Corn! (In addition to foreign policy problems around China and Cuba, Khrushchev's experiment with corn production was blamed for a failure of the agricultural industry and near-famine conditions in many regions of the USSR.) Yet, decades after Khrushchev's death and the dissolution of the USSR, many semi-official Russian sources defended his decision to put missiles in Cuba and portray the outcome of the crisis as the Soviet "victory."
Chronology of key events in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962:
Key Soviet military personnel in Cuba during the missile crisis:
Major General Igor Demyanovich Statsenko - Commander of the 51st rocket division in Cuba.
Lt. General Pavel Borisovich Dankevich - First deputy commander of the Group of Soviet armed forces in Cuba, GSVK.
Major General Leonid Stefanovich Garbuz - Deputy General Commander of the Soviet armed forces in Cuba, GSVK.
Missile units comprising the 51st rocket division in Cuba:
Weaponry of the Group of the Soviet Army in Cuba, GSVK:
Soviet nuclear warheads and bombs delivered to Cuba:
Soviet military personnel and assets deployed to Cuba (72):
Soviet military specialists in Cuba in 1962.
One of several civilian vessels that brought Soviet military specialists to Cuba in 1962.
Commander of the 51st missile division in Cuba Igor Statsenko.
The R-12 ballistic missile. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Scale model of the R-12 ballistic missile on its trailer. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The Luna short-range battlefield missile was also intended for deployment in Cuba. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
Pairs of P-15 cruise missiles were carried onboard a dozen of Soviet Navy speed boats deployed in Cuba. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
Six launchers of the Sopka (Rock) coast-guard system were deployed in Cuba. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
The Il-28 (Ilyushin-28) bombers deployed on Cuba were capable of carrying nuclear bombs. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
A MiG-21 fighter jet. Aircraft of this type were also deployed in Cuba in 1962. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
The 8K78 launcher with a Mars probe occupied one ICBM pad in Tyuratam during the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: RKK Energia
Years after the end of the Cold War, the S-75 antiaircraft missile guards the entrance to the Baikonur museum, as a monument to its role in the air defense of the super-secret site in the early years. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
Although the United States were prepared to go to nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba, the USSR had lived with a similar US threat for years. The Royal Air Force had 20 squadrons with 60 Thor missiles, like the one shown above, deployed in East Anglia and Yorkshire since 1959, with their nuclear warheads remaining under control of the US. They were retired shortly after the Cuban missile crisis.