"Run Like Hell"


The loss of a U-2 over the Soviet Union was only the latest in a string of safety nightmares haunting the Strategic Air Command. Nuclear bombers had gone astray, reconnaissance planes had been shot down, bombs had been dropped accidentally, and early warning systems had given false alerts of a Soviet attack. An accidental nuclear war was not just the stuff of popular fiction. It was within the realm of actual possibility.

SAC already had more planes and missiles and warheads on alert than at any time in its history. One-eighth of its B-52 heavy bomber force--a total of sixty airplanes--was in the air at all times, ready to attack targets throughout the Soviet bloc. Another 183 B-47s had been dispersed to thirty-three civilian and military airfields around the United States, ready to take off in fifteen minutes. A total of 136 long-range missiles were on alert. A "Cuba Fact Sheet" supplied to the president by his military aide reported that General Power had been instructed to mobilize his "remaining force of 804 airplanes and 44 missiles as of 10 a.m. this morning." By midday Sunday, SAC would have a "cocked"--meaning "ready to fire"--nuclear strike force of 162 missiles and 1,200 airplanes carrying 2,858 nuclear warheads.

The more planes and missiles were placed on alert, the more stressed the system became. Even as the Maultsby drama unfolded, senior SAC officers worried about the possibility of an unauthorized launch of the revolutionary new Minuteman missile from underground silos in Montana. Unlike previous liquid-fueled missiles, which required a launch preparation time of at least fifteen minutes, the solid-fueled Minuteman could blast out of its hole in just thirty-two seconds. Deployment of the missile system had been accelerated because of the crisis, but nuclear safety officers were now concerned that too many corners might have been cut.

The decision to activate the first flight of ten Minuteman missiles had been taken soon after Kennedy went on television to announce the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Power wanted every available missile system targeted on the Soviet Union. He called the commander of the 341st Strategic Missile Wing, Colonel Burton C. Andrus, Jr., to find out if the Minuteman could be made ready for firing immediately, circumventing approved safety procedures.

In normal times, firing a Minuteman required four electronic "votes" from two teams of officers, located in two different launch control centers, twenty miles apart. The problem was that only one control center was complete. Contractors were still pouring concrete at the second center, which would not be operational for several weeks. But the "last thing" Andrus wanted to tell his short-fused boss was, "It can't be done." He knew that Power was "trying frantically to upstage LeMay's great record as CINCSAC." He would find a way to "kluge the system."

A World War II pilot, Andrus had inherited some of the theatricality of his father, the former commander of the military prison at Nuremberg and jailer of Nazi war criminals like Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. Burt Andrus, Sr., decked himself out with a riding whip and shellacked green helmet, telling friends, "I hate these Krauts." Burt Junior liked to jump up on a desk at the missile maintenance hangar at Malmstrom Air Force Base in his blue flight suit and growl at scared-to-death enlisted men: "Khrushchev knows we're after his ass." He walked around with three radio-telephones and told reporters that he could never be more than six rings from a phone, in case the president needed him. He was believed to be the only missile base commander with a license to drive the sixty-four-feet-long tractor-trailers that dragged the missiles out to their silos.

After serving in SAC almost since its inception, Andrus was "convinced that the weapons system had not yet been invented that professional airmen could not outsmart." The solution was to jerry-rig the apparatus so that the "critical part" of the shoebox-sized electronic control panel from the second launch center was plugged directly into the circuitry of the first launch center. All that was required was a screwdriver, some rapid rewiring, and a little Yankee ingenuity.

Over the next three days, Andrus roamed the back roads of Montana in his blue station wagon, pushing his crews to get the missiles ready to fly. Leaving Malmstrom Air Force Base on the edge of Great Falls, he drove up U.S. 87 into the heavily forested Little Belt Mountains. After about twenty miles, the road forked. Route 87 continued in a southeasterly direction to the Alpha One launch control center, six miles further on. Route 89 led south for another twenty miles across a mountain pass to the once booming silver-mining town of Monarch. A few miles beyond Monarch, on the right-hand side of the road, a plain link fence enclosed a couple of acres of barren land and some drab slabs of concrete. This was silo Alpha Six. Hidden beneath the concrete, protected by an 80-ton steel door, lay America's first fully automated, push-button missile.

There was something very impersonal about the Minuteman. The earlier generation of liquid-fueled missiles had required constant maintenance and observation. Missile crews were in attendance as they were fueled, lifted up out of their silos, and fired. The Minuteman was operated by remote control by crews ten, twenty, even thirty miles away. To make the missiles invulnerable to attack, they were stored in hardened silos, at least five miles apart from each other. It was impossible to destroy more than one Minuteman with a single nuclear weapon. If the Kremlin attempted a first strike, the American missiles could be launched while the Soviet missiles were still in the air. There were plans to install some eight hundred Minuteman missiles, scattered across Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Kennedy referred to them as his "ace in the hole."

Operating a Minuteman was a bit like getting a new car without being given the keys, according to the lieutenant colonel in charge of Alpha flight. "You can't drive it. You have no sense of ownership. With a liquid missile, you can run it up out of the silo on the elevator, fuel it, go into the countdown. We can't touch a thing." Sitting in their bunkers a hundred feet below the ground, the launch officers could not even see the Minuteman blast out of its silo. The closest contact they had with the enemy was a playful sign that boasted: "Worldwide delivery in 30 minutes or less--or your next one is free." Nuclear apocalypse was as mundane as delivering pizza.

By Friday afternoon, Andrus and his chief technician were ready to bring the first Minuteman on line. Viewed from outside, the Alpha One control center resembled a modest ranch home on a prairie. Once inside, the missileers descended by elevator to a small command post, known as "the capsule." As they ran through the final checklist, Andrus told the technician that he would keep his thumb on the shutdown switch. "If I don't get a light, or if you hear anything, see anything, or even smell something that seems irregular, yell, and I'll shut her down," he instructed.

"If we seemed nervous, it was because we were," he later acknowledged. "Being only ninety-nine percent sure that you can't have an inadvertent launch is not good enough when you are looking at the possibility of starting World War III."

The test went well enough for the first Minuteman to be declared operational. Several hours later, the secretary of the Air Force, Eugene Zuckert, reported to the president that three Minuteman missiles "have had warheads installed and have been assigned targets in the USSR."

In fact, the system was plagued by problems. There were only two telephone lines linking the launch control center to the support facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Communications failed repeatedly. Workmen from Boeing wandered through the supposedly secure site, making last-minute fixes. Lack of equipment "required many workarounds." Individual missiles were taken on and off alert as technicians tried to iron out the problems, which included short circuits and miswirings.

Having encouraged Andrus to deploy his missiles as soon as possible, his superiors at SAC headquarters began to have second thoughts. They had sufficient safety concerns about the jerry-rigged launch procedures to insist on a jerry-rigged safety precaution. To prevent an accidental launch, they ordered manual disabling of the heavy steel lids on top of the silos. If a missile was fired without authorization, it would blow up in its silo. Before a Minuteman could be launched, a maintenance crew had to reconnect the explosive charges that blew the lid away prior to liftoff. The SAC instruction outlining the new procedures was sent at 2:27 p.m. Washington time on Saturday, twenty-four hours after Alpha Six first became "operational."

The technicians who had the job of reconnecting the lids on the silos referred to themselves, only half-jokingly, as the "suicide squad." If alerted by launch officers that the missile was about to be fired, they had to plug the cable back in, jump into a waiting pickup truck, and "run like hell." They calculated that they had roughly three minutes to get out of the way before the big white bird exploded out of the ground. If they weren't killed by the outgoing American Minuteman, there was a good chance they would be targeted by an incoming Soviet R-16.

Two B-52 Stratofortresses lifted off from Carswell Air Force Base in Texas, powered by eight Pratt & Whitney jet engines. Nicknamed BUFF, for "Big Ugly Fat Fucker," each plane carried a six-man crew, plus a third pilot to allow the original pilots to grab some rest during the twenty-four-hour flight. Loaded in the bomb bay of each plane were four Mark-28 thermonuclear devices, SAC's primary Cold War weapon. Measuring some fourteen feet long by two feet across, the Mark-28 resembled a giant cigar tube, and carried an explosive charge of 1.1 megatons, seventy times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The crews had spent hours studying their targets in the Soviet Union, bombing techniques, and escape maneuvers. They were "ready to go to war." But they were also resigned to the fact that "it was unlikely that we would accomplish the whole mission." A nuclear exchange would probably mean that "the world as we knew it would be at an end." And they understood that their own bomber bases back in the United States were prime targets for a Soviet nuclear attack. Before leaving, many of the men had told their wives to pack up the family station wagon, fill it with gas, and head for the most remote place they could find if the crisis took a turn for the worse.

The B-52s headed out across the Atlantic on the southern route of the Chrome Dome airborne alert. Other BUFFs flew northward around Canada, circling the fringes of the Arctic Ocean. One pair of B-52s kept a constant watch over the ballistic missile early warning radar station in Thule, Greenland, just in case the Soviets bombed it. The number of bombers on airborne alert had increased fivefold with the declaration of DEFCONs-3 and 2. This was SAC's way of signaling Moscow that it was ready and able to deliver the "full retaliatory response" threatened by the president in his television address on Monday evening.

The bombers were refueled as they overflew Gibraltar and southern Spain on their way to the Mediterranean, and again on the way back. The traffic was so heavy that it was not uncommon to see six BUFFs being refueled at the same time. The refueling operation took about thirty minutes, with the B-52 hanging on to the boom of the tankers and sucking up every last drop of gas. As they headed toward their forward patrol zones, the Chrome Dome planes were often "spoofed" by Soviet electronic warfare experts. A mysterious radio station identifying itself as "Ocean Station Bravo" routinely requested flight information from Air Force planes off Greenland. The BUFF pilots were trained to ignore unauthenticated calls, but the jamming could be a nuisance. On Saturday afternoon, tanker pilots reported radio interference from a trawler off the southern coast of Spain as they flew in tandem with a pair of B-52s.

After skirting Spain and the southern coast of Italy, the BUFFs made a left turn as they approached Crete and headed up the Adriatic coast of Greece and Yugoslavia. This was their turnaround point. They were still an hour's flying time from the Soviet border, two hours from Moscow. They monitored their high-frequency radio receivers for "emergency action messages" from Omaha. If the president wanted them to bomb the Soviet Union, SAC would broadcast a coded order in the form of a jumbled six-character string of letters and numbers. At least two crew members had to authenticate the message from large black code books stored next to the pilot.

The B-52s would make their approach into Russia flying low to avoid enemy radars, just as LeMay's bombers had done against Japan during World War II. Some of the older B-47s carried weapons that had to be physically "armed" by a crew member, who crawled into the bomb bay to insert a rod into the core of the nuclear device. But the arming process was automatic on the BUFF.

The pilots had studied the ballistics of their weapon, and knew when to release it so that it would be "tossed" onto the target. The weapon was fitted with a delay fuse to allow the BUFF, flying at 400 knots, to escape the fireball and blast. The targeting was much less accurate than the test shots in the Pacific, which were conducted under near-perfect conditions. The pilots did not have sophisticated radar systems to guide the bombs to their targets. There was no "Kitty" back at SAC headquarters to make complicated ballistic calculations in the middle of a mission. They were on their own. To make up for the lack of accuracy, SAC insisted that the same targets be attacked multiple times to guarantee destruction.

The targets on the SIOP list included missile sites, airfields, defense plants, and command-and-control centers like the Kremlin, in the heart of Moscow, a city with a population of more than 6 million. The plan listed six "target complexes" in the Soviet capital, to be covered by twenty-three nuclear weapons, nearly four weapons per target. That worked out at around 25 million tons of TNT, at least five times the total amount of explosives used in World War II.

In theory, all the targets had some kind of "strategic" significance. But there was one notable exception. In case the BUFF failed to reach its target, and the crew was killed or incapacitated by a Soviet missile, the plane was equipped with a mechanism that provided for "automatic release of prearmed weapons" over enemy territory. Rather than "waste" the nuclear weapons altogether, SAC planners preferred to trigger an automatic detonation wherever the bomber happened to go into a final nose-dive. The macabre device was known to B-52 crews as the "dead man's switch."


Cuban national radio, Radio Reloj, broke into its afternoon programs just at 3:02 p.m. Washington time to announce that "unidentified war planes" had "penetrated deep into the national soil" that morning, but had been chased away by antiaircraft fire. "Cuban air forces are in a state of maximum alert, maximum fighting deployment, and are ready to defend the sacred rights of the motherland."

Around the time the government statement was being broadcast, the convoy of vehicles carrying nuclear warheads from Bejucal arrived at Calabazar de Sagua, 160 miles east of Havana. The special storage facilities for the warheads were still incomplete. Concrete foundations had been poured at one site, but work had not yet begun on assembling the ribbed aluminum arches that had been transported from Russia. At the second site, construction troops had just installed a chimneylike vent in the end wall and were waterproofing the roof. But the interior of the bunker was unfinished, and climate control equipment had not been installed. Since there was nowhere to properly store the warheads, they were kept in the humpback vans near regimental headquarters, about a mile from the launch positions. Technicians checked out the warheads inside the vans.

The missile site at Calabazar was tucked away amid palm trees and sugarcane fields between some low hills. The hills were no more than 150 feet high, but offered some protection to the north and east. There were four separate launch positions, several hundred yards apart. A launch stand consisted of a heavy steel table on which the missile was placed for firing, with a large hole in the center and a cone-shaped flame deflector beneath. A tractor-trailer waited near each launch stand to winch the missile up to the vertical position. The missiles themselves were stored in nearby tents.

The Calabazar site was one of two missile batteries under Colonel Ivan Sidorov, commander of the 79th missile regiment. A second battery, with four more launch positions, was located twelve miles away, closer to Sagua la Grande. These sites were more exposed to American attack than the sites in western Pinar del Rio, which were protected by wooded mountains. But they had one huge advantage, which explains why they were given top priority: they were some fifty miles closer to the heavily populated eastern seaboard of the United States than the sites around San Cristobal. Soviet missiles could not hit New York from San Cristobal, but the metropolis of 8 million people was just within range of missiles fired from the Sagua la Grande area. The maximum range of the R-12 was 1,292 miles; the distance between the Calabazar missile site and Manhattan was 1,290 miles.

The delivery of the warheads meant that Sidorov could now launch eight R-12 nuclear missiles against the United States, with a total payload of at least 8 megatons, an explosive force equivalent to all the bombs ever dropped in the history of war. The power of the 1-megaton nuclear warhead would compensate for the missile's lack of accuracy. Sidorov had four more missiles plus warheads in reserve for a second salvo, but little chance of firing them, given the certainty of massive American retaliation.

Like the other missile positions, the Calabazar site was surrounded by a series of defensive rings. The first line of defense was made up of Cuban antiaircraft batteries, deployed a mile to the west of the launch pads. The next consisted of forty supersonic MiG-21 fighter-interceptors, stationed seven miles to the south, at Santa Clara Airfield. Rugged, lightweight, and highly maneuverable, the MiG-21s were a formidable competitor for heavier, more sophisticated American fighters. The final defensive circle included the SAM sites along Cuba's northern coast and a motorized rifle regiment twenty miles to the east, equipped with tactical nuclear missiles.

The weak link in this defensive system lay at the very center. Sidorov's troops had the power to destroy several American cities with their missiles, but were unable to defend themselves against an airborne assault. Their defensive weapons consisted of a few machine guns and pistols for the officers. The ground was so rocky and hard that they had not been able to dig proper trenches, even with the help of explosives. The best they could manage were a few foxholes near the launching positions, where they spent the night and rested during the day.

Combat-scarred veterans toured the defense positions, offering advice to anxious youngsters. Where to run if the enemy attacks. What to take with you. Major Troitsky drew from his experience in the Great Patriotic War.

"Don't worry," he told the neophytes cheerfully. "The lucky ones will survive."

The regiment was formally on a "heightened" state of alert, Readiness Condition 3. Sidorov's men had practiced the final countdown many times: transfer the warhead to docking trolleys. Mate the warhead with the missile. Bring the missile to the launch pad. Raise it to the vertical position. Fuel it. Fire it. By cutting some corners, Sidorov could now launch his missiles against the United States within two and a half hours of receiving an order.

Although Sidorov did not have the authority to fire the missiles by himself, it was possible to conceive of circumstances in which they would be fired without an order from Moscow. There were no electronic locks on the missiles to prevent their unauthorized firing. The firing mechanism was under the control of the commander of each individual launch pad, a major. Communications links with division headquarters outside Bejucal were still unreliable. Specialists had not finished installing a sophisticated microwave network that would allow coded orders to be sent directly from Moscow to Bejucal to Calabazar and Sagua la Grande. Radio transmissions varied with the weather: sometimes the quality was good; at other times the messages were unintelligible.

Responsibility for timing the final countdown lay with a young lieutenant, Viktor Yesin, who would later rise to become chief of staff of the Soviet Union's Strategic Rocket Forces. As he reflected on his Cuba experience decades later, he was troubled by the thought of the likely result of a U.S. airstrike.

"You have to understand the psychology of the military person. If you are being attacked, why shouldn't you reciprocate?"


The CIA had long suspected that Castro would respond to an American attack on Cuba by lashing out against the United States wherever he could. The agency had intercepted coded letters to Cuban agents in Central America warning them to prepare for "a coordinated wave of terrorism and revolution to be started the moment Cuba is attacked." It had information that "at least a thousand" citizens of Latin American countries had traveled to Cuba in 1962 "to receive ideological indoctrination or guerrilla warfare training or both." Typically, the trainees reached Cuba by roundabout routes, stopping off in an Eastern European city such as Prague before traveling on to Havana. The training program meant that Castro had a network of loyal agents in countries like Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia who were ready to defend the Cuban revolution.

On Saturday afternoon, the CIA intercepted a message from "a transmitter somewhere near Havana" instructing Castro supporters in Latin America to destroy "any kind of yanqui property." Any American business or government-owned property was a legitimate target, from mines to oil wells to telegraph agencies to diplomatic missions. U.S. embassies and CIA stations around the world were immediately put on alert.

"Attack yanqui embassies and seize the largest possible number of documents," the message instructed. "Principal objective is the physical elimination of counterrevolutionary scum and the destruction of their centers. The less important ones you can beat up.... Keep the material secured from the yanqui embassy in a safe place until receipt of further instructions.... We shall know the results through the press. Viva America Latina libre! Patria o muerte!"

Since his final break with Washington in January 1961, Castro had made little secret of his desire to ignite a revolution throughout the continent. In February 1962, he issued what amounted to a declaration of guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed governments of Latin America. "It is the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution," he declared. "It is improper revolutionary behavior to sit at one's doorstep waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by." A secret plan known as Operation Boomerang called for Cuban intelligence agents to blow up military installations, government offices, tunnels, and even moviehouses in the New York area if the Americans invaded Cuba.

Spreading revolution was not simply an ideological issue for Castro. It was a matter of political survival. The United States had done everything it could to undermine his regime, from armed invasion to a trade embargo to numerous acts of sabotage. Ever since his days as a young revolutionary, Castro had been convinced that the best form of defense was attack. As he explained to his Soviet patrons, "The United States will not be able to hurt us if all of Latin America is in flames."

The Kennedy administration leaked word of the intercepted Cuban radio message to reporters as part of a larger effort to depict Castro as the number one danger to the stability of Latin America. Of course, the United States was hardly an innocent party. The previous week, the president had personally signed off on a series of acts of terrorism on Cuban soil, including a grenade attack on the Chinese Embassy in Havana, the demolition of a railroad in Pinar del Rio, and attacks on oil refineries and a nickel plant. Implementing these plans had proved impractical for the time being, but that did not mean the Kennedys had given up on sabotage as an instrument of policy. At the Mongoose meeting on Friday, Bobby Kennedy had approved a CIA plan to blow up twenty-two Cuban-owned ships in foreign ports.

It did not take long for Castro's sympathizers in Latin America to answer the call from Havana. Within hours, there was a spate of small-scale bombings against U.S. companies in Venezuela, the most pro-American country in the region. A series of explosions shattered the calm of Lake Maracaibo, a huge inlet off Venezuela's Caribbean coast. Three men in a motorboat threw sticks of dynamite at electric power-distributing stations along the eastern shore of the lake, cutting power supplies to an oil field owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey. The saboteurs inadvertently blew up their own boat while attacking the fourth substation. The skipper was killed instantly and two other men in the boat were seriously wounded. Security guards discovered them clinging to an oil derrick in the water.

The Venezuelan government immediately blamed Cuba for the attacks, claiming they had been carried out by a "Communist sabotage ring" on instructions from Havana. The Cuban government indignantly denied the charge, but reported the bombings with great relish, saying they constituted a "first reply of the Army of Venezuelan Liberation to the military mobilization decreed by the puppet Romulo Betancourt."

Operation Bugle Call was ready to go. Sixteen F-105 fighter aircraft were on alert at McCoy Air Force Base outside Orlando to bombard Cuba with a leaflet headlined LA VERDAD (THE TRUTH). One side of the pamphlet showed a picture of one of the Soviet missile bases taken by a U.S. reconnaissance plane, with labels identifying missile-ready tents, launch stands, and fueling equipment. The other side provided a map of the Soviet missile bases and a Spanish-language explanation for the American naval blockade.

"The Russians have secretly built offensive nuclear missile bases in Cuba. These bases endanger Cuban lives and world peace, because Cuba is now a forward base for Russian aggression."

The pamphlets--all 6 million of them, roughly one for every adult Cuban--had been printed at the U.S. Army's psychological warfare unit at Fort Bragg. They were then packed into fiberglass "leaflet bombs" bound with detonating cord that would explode over Havana and other Cuban cities, showering drops of verdad onto the populace below. Operation Bugle Call was awaiting the president's final approval when a last-minute hitch developed. The skies over Cuba had suddenly become much more dangerous.


The six Navy Crusaders took off from Key West at 3:41 p.m. and flew southward over the Florida Straits, under the level of Soviet radars. Approaching the Cuban coastline, they split off in different directions, heading westward to photograph the airfield at San Julian and the missile sites of Pinar del Rio, and eastward to check out the modern MiG-21s at Santa Clara Airfield and an R-14 site at Remedios.

Captain Edgar Love, an eight-year veteran with the U.S. Marine Corps, was the lead pilot for the mission over central Cuba. He entered Cuban territory near the elite beach resort of Varadero and headed southeast along the coast, following a railroad line for orientation. After about eight minutes' flying time, he could see a low humpbacked hill rising above the sugarcane fields to his left. This was the R-12 missile site at Calabazar. He shot some oblique pictures of the missile site, and headed on to Santa Clara. As he passed the airfield, he saw a squadron of MiG fighter jets about to land. He veered out of their way, banking steeply toward his left. For a moment, he thought the MiGs might try to pursue him, but they ignored him, and he turned northward toward Remedios.

As Love popped up to take his photographs, he saw the puff of antiaircraft fire. It was difficult to tell where it was coming from exactly, somewhere off to the right. His wingman zoomed in close, making it difficult to maneuver. He veered sharply left, almost colliding with his wingman.

"Move it out!" Love yelled to his wingman over the radio, as he switched on his afterburner. "You're too close."

Antiaircraft guns also opened fire on the Crusader reconnaissance planes overflying San Cristobal. The Cuban crews had been on alert ever since being taken by surprise earlier in the day. This time, the pair of U.S. Navy jets approached from the west, from the direction of the village of San Diego de los Banos. The jets had overflown the site known to the Americans as San Cristobal MRBM Site No. One, photographed by Commander Ecker on October 23, and were following the ridgeline of the Sierra del Rosario. A Cuban antiaircraft unit stationed outside the entrance of the missile site fired at the two Crusaders as they headed toward MRBM Site No. Two, three miles to the east.

From inside their cockpits, the pilots on Blue Moon Mission 5025 could see telltale puffs of smoke in their rearview mirrors. The cameras housed in their bomb bays were still clicking away methodically. When he glimpsed the first puff of smoke, the lead pilot yanked his steering column to the left, but quickly pulled level. His forward camera captured a sweeping panoramic view of MRBM Site No. Two that would later be released by the Pentagon as evidence of Soviet missile activity in Cuba. Launch stands and erectors were clearly visible on the left side of the picture, a few hundred feet from freshly dug personnel trenches, at the base of the heavily wooded mountains. A fraction of a second later, the pilot saw another puff of smoke. A series of previously unpublished photographs taken at the moment when the Crusader was fired upon is included on page four of the third insert. This time, the pilot did not hesitate. He banked sharply to the left, and headed over the Sierra del Rosario mountains for home.


News that the U.S. Navy jets had run into trouble began reaching the White House soon after the start of the afternoon ExComm meeting. McNamara reported that two Crusaders had "aborted" their mission and were "returning to base" because of "mechanical" trouble. Twenty minutes later, a message arrived that two other planes had been "fired what appeared to be a 37 mm antiaircraft gun."

The attacks on the low-level planes appeared to represent a significant escalation by the Soviets, particularly when combined with the apparent loss of Major Anderson's U-2 over Cuba that morning. The latest developments made Kennedy wonder whether it was a good idea to go ahead with the previously scheduled night surveillance flights. The acting director of the United States Information Agency, Donald Wilson, had been planning to broadcast a warning to the Cuban people about "harmless" explosions in the dark.

"I think we had better wait," Kennedy told Wilson. "I don't know whether tonight is the night to do it."

"We ought to evaluate certain things before we let them go," agreed Maxwell Taylor. The USIA chief left the room in a hurry "to make sure that nobody does anything wrong on this one."

The president turned his attention to a draft response by the State Department to Khrushchev's private letter of Friday evening and his public proposal earlier in the day for a Cuba-Turkey missile trade. Kennedy felt the State Department draft failed to adequately address the Soviet leader's offer and its likely appeal to international public opinion. He proposed softer language, saying the United States would be "glad to discuss" other matters once the Soviets halted work on their missile sites in Cuba.

"Otherwise, he's going to announce that we've rejected his proposal," Kennedy reasoned. "And then, where are we?"

Dean Rusk predicted that the Soviets would make "a big blast" about the U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union. The secretary of state read out a draft statement saying that the U-2 had been engaged in "routine air sampling operations," but "went off course" as a result of "an instrument failure."

Kennedy preferred not to say anything "if we can get away without having some leak." He remembered the embarrassment suffered by President Eisenhower in May 1960 following the downing of a U-2 over Siberia. He did not want to be caught in a series of conflicting explanations about what the U-2 was doing over the Soviet Union that would undermine his "credibility" with Khrushchev.

"It gives him a story tomorrow and makes us look like we're the offenders."

More details were coming in from the Pentagon on the afternoon reconnaissance flights. McNamara erroneously reported that one of the Crusaders had been "hit" by a 37mm shell. The pilot was okay and was returning to base, but there had obviously been "quite a change in the character of the orders given to the Cuban defenders." The defense secretary did not think it wise to "confuse the issue" by publicly acknowledging the American overflight of the Soviet Union.

"I agree," Kennedy said firmly. "Let's let it go."


Dean Rusk found the conflicting signals from Moscow difficult to understand. On Friday, he had received what appeared to be a backchannel message from Khrushchev via the ABC reporter John Scali, offering to pull Soviet missiles out of Cuba in return for a U.S. promise not to invade the island. Today, the Soviet leader had upped the ante by demanding the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey. The secretary of state asked Scali to find out what happened.

Late on Saturday afternoon, Scali asked Aleksandr Feklisov to come to the Statler-Hilton Hotel, where they had met the previous evening. This time, the reporter and the KGB rezident went up to the deserted ballroom on the mezzanine level. Scali was furious with his source, and did not want to be overheard.

"This is a stinking double-cross," he protested when they were alone. "The formula mentioned by Radio Moscow has nothing to do with what we discussed last night."

Feklisov tried to calm Scali down. There had been no "double-cross," he insisted. He conceded that his message to Moscow might have been delayed by the "heavy cable traffic" back and forth. He also pointed out that the idea of a Turkey-Cuba swap was hardly new. Even Walter Lippmann had mentioned it in his column.

"I don't give a damn if Walter Lippmann or Cleopatra mentioned it," the newsman exploded. "It is completely, totally, and utterly unacceptable. It is unacceptable today, it will be unacceptable tomorrow. It will be unacceptable until infinity. The American government just won't consider it."

Feklisov explained that he and Ambassador Dobrynin were just "small fry." Khrushchev was receiving advice from many different people. They were waiting for a message back from Moscow in response to their cable of the previous evening.

Saying good-bye to Feklisov, Scali walked the three blocks up Sixteenth Street to the White House. The deputy chief of intelligence at the State Department was waiting for him. It was 5:40 p.m. Thomas Hughes had been attending a matinee performance of The Mikado when one of the actors appeared on stage, in Japanese imperial regalia, and told him to call his office. His boss, Roger Hilsman, had retired to bed exhausted. Hughes was assigned the job of escorting Scali to the president's private office for a meeting with Rusk.

Rusk was mystified by the latest developments. One reason why the U.S. government had put so much stock in the private Friday letter from Khrushchev was the concrete proposal received via Feklisov. The original Khrushchev message had been very vague, saying merely that the "necessity for Soviet specialists" in Cuba would disappear in the event of a noninvasion pledge from Washington. Without the extra information provided by Feklisov, the original Khrushchev letter was "twelve pages of fluff," in McNamara's phrase. "There's not a single word in it that proposes to take the missiles out.... That's no contract. You couldn't sign that, and say we know what we signed."

What nobody on the ExComm realized was that the reporter and the rezident had greatly exaggerated their own importance. The Scali-Feklisov "backchannel" was itself largely fluff.

Back in the Cabinet Room, JFK was facing mounting opposition to his willingness to consider some kind of Cuba-Turkey deal. The revolt was being led by Mac Bundy, who feared the mere hint of a trade would cause "real trouble" for the United States. The experts were all agreed, the national security adviser insisted. "If we appear to be trading the defense of Turkey for a threat to Cuba, we'll have to face a radical decline" in the effectiveness of NATO.

Kennedy was irritated by Bundy's arguments. The allies might complain about a missile trade, but they would complain even louder if the Soviets responded to a U.S. invasion of Cuba by attacking Berlin or Turkey. "We all know how quickly everybody's courage goes when the blood starts to flow," he told the ExComm. "That's what is going to happen to NATO. When [the Soviets] grab Berlin, everybody's gonna say, 'Well, that was a pretty good proposition.' Let's not kid ourselves."

The president thought Khrushchev had to be offered some inducement to take his missiles out of Cuba. Having made a public offer of a Turkey-Cuba trade, he was not going to simply back down without getting anything in return. There were only two ways to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, Kennedy believed: by force or by negotiation. He preferred negotiation.

"I don't agree, Mr. President," objected Llewellyn Thompson. "I think there is still a chance we can get this line going."

"That he'll back down?"

The former ambassador pointed out that Khrushchev had been ready to settle for a noninvasion of Cuba guarantee less than twenty-four hours before. It was possible he was just trying to put "pressure on us," to see how much he could get. The president should try to steer him back to the ideas outlined in his private letter on Friday. Thompson was also worried by the terms of the proposed Cuba-Turkey deal. The wording of the Soviet letter suggested that Khrushchev wanted to exchange missiles for missiles, airplanes for airplanes, and bases for bases. Getting the Russians out of Cuba might require the dismantling not just of the Jupiters but of the entire U.S. military presence in Turkey, NATO's eastern flank.

By now, several rival drafts of a possible reply to Khrushchev were on the table. In a phone call from New York, Adlai Stevenson had objected that the State Department draft sounded "too much like an ultimatum." He proposed new, more conciliatory language. Kennedy attempted to merge the two drafts, and began dictating changes to Dean Rusk. Soon, everybody was offering suggestions.

"Change it a little," instructed Kennedy. "Start again, Mr. Secretary."

"You can cut the next sentence," chimed in Bundy.

"'Welcome the statement of your desire,'" said Rusk, reading back his notes. "Couldn't we just say, 'My desire is the same?'"

"My desire isn't the same as his," Kennedy objected. How about "I can assure you of the great interest of the people of the United States to find a satisfactory solution to this..."

"Interested in reducing tensions," murmured the secretary of state.

"We have to fudge it somewhat," conceded the president.

Rusk pressed on. "We are of course quite prepared to consider with our allies the suggestions that you and your partners in the Warsaw Pact might have in mind."

The notion that the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact was an alliance of free nations was too much for the hawkish Bundy. "Do we have to talk about their 'partners in the Warsaw Pact'? he interrupted peevishly. "What you [Khrushchev] have in mind."

"Yeah, I think you oughta..." the president agreed.

Seated across the table from Jack, Bobby could no longer conceal his frustration. The cobbled-together draft was full of noble sentiments but didn't actually say anything. Like Thompson, Bobby wanted to steer the exchange with Moscow back to the original Friday night proposal. He suggested his brother tell Khrushchev, "You made an offer to us, and we accept it. And you've also made a second offer, which has to do with NATO, and we'll be glad to discuss that at a later time."

The youngest and least experienced member of the ExComm, Bobby frequently veered between belligerence and inarticulateness. But he also had a knack for occasionally homing in on the essence of a problem. He sensed that the discussion in the ExComm was going around in circles, and that everybody was getting lost in a morass of commas and subordinate clauses. He urged his brother to permit him and Ted Sorensen to go off into another room and draft the reply to Khrushchev.

"Why don't we try to work it out for you, without you being there to pick it apart?"

The suggestion drew laughter from the rest of the ExComm. Nobody else dared speak so frankly to the president. Bobby broke the tension again a couple of minutes later when Taylor announced that the Joint Chiefs were calling for massive air strikes against Cuba by Monday morning at the latest "unless there is irrefutable evidence in the meantime that offensive weapons are being dismantled."

"Well, I am surprised."

ExComm members were still debating what to do about the Turks and the Jupiters when they were jerked back to the present. More than four hours had passed without any news on the fate of Major Anderson. He was almost certainly dead, but it was unclear whether his disappearance over Cuba was due to an accident or enemy action. An intercepted Cuban communication settled the issue.

"The U-2 was shot down," said McNamara, reading a note handed to him by an aide.

"Was the pilot killed?" Bobby wanted to know.

General Taylor had some more details. "The pilot's body is in the plane." The U-2 had likely been shot down over the town of Banes by a Soviet SAM missile. An American reconnaissance plane had picked up missile guidance radar signals from a SAM site near Banes at the same time as the U-2 overflight. "It all ties in in a very plausible manner."

Kennedy was taken aback by the apparent Soviet "escalation." There must have been a significant "change of orders" from Moscow. He began connecting the dots. A tough new message from Khrushchev earlier in the day following more conciliatory signals on Friday. Antiaircraft fire against low-level U.S. Navy reconnaissance planes. And now a U-2 shot down. The outlook suddenly seemed very bleak. Mixing metaphors somewhat, Bobby Kennedy would later describe a sense in the room that "the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling."

"They've fired the first shot," said Paul Nitze, the hard-line assistant secretary of defense.

The immediate question was how to respond.

"We can't very well send a U-2 over there, can we now, and have a guy killed again tomorrow," said the president.

Taylor agreed. "We certainly shouldn't do it until we retaliate, and say that if they fire again on one of our planes that we will come back with great force."

"We ought to go in at dawn and take out that SAM site," said McNamara.

His deputy, Gilpatric, argued that the downing of the U-2 was more ominous than the antiaircraft fire against the low-level planes. The antiaircraft batteries were probably manned by Cubans, but the SAM missiles were almost certainly controlled by Soviets.

"This is a change of pattern," concluded McNamara, thinking aloud. "Now why it's a change of pattern, I don't know."


The families of the U-2 pilots lived alongside each other at Laughlin Air Force Base outside Del Rio, Texas, a small town on the Mexican border surrounded by cactus and sagebrush. The 4080th Strategic Wing, which consisted of one U-2 squadron with about twenty-five pilots, was a large, rambunctious family. The Air Force had built brand-new bungalows on good-size lots for the pilots. Their social life revolved around bridge parties and church and backyard barbecues. Rudolf Anderson, Sr., and his wife, Jane, were pillars of the bridge-playing set, together with their best friends, Robert and Marlene Powell, who had children around the same age.

The pilots' wives had little information about what was taking place in the skies over Cuba. Their husbands all disappeared at the start of the crisis, without saying very much about what they were doing. The women were left to fend for themselves, stockpile canned food, and tape up their windows in case of a Soviet attack. As they tried to preserve a semblance of routine, there was one sight that encapsulated all their fears: a chaplain and a colonel walking up the driveway with serious expressions on their faces.

Jane Anderson had already been through this ghastly routine. A few months earlier, the Air Force had reported that Rudy had been killed in a U-2 crash during a refueling exercise. It turned out to be a false report. There had been a mix-up in the manifest, and another pilot had died. Shortly before the Air Force officers showed up on Jane's doorstep to deliver the news, Rudy called to let her know that he was okay. It took some time to sort out the confusion.

When the Air Force staff car appeared in the officer housing complex on Saturday afternoon, the women looked out of their windows to see where it was headed. As the car carrying the colonel and the chaplain passed their houses, everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, the officers got out of the car and went looking for Marlene Powell. She assumed that something had happened to her husband. Instead, they asked her to accompany them across the street to the Anderson bungalow. Definitive word on what had happened to Rudy had still not reached Del Rio. All that was known was that he had gone missing over Cuba.

When she heard the knock on her door, Jane ran into the bathroom and refused to come out. Marlene tried to comfort her through the locked door.

"Don't get worried," she told her friend, who was stifling her sobs. "There's still hope."

When Jane finally reappeared in the living room, an Air Force doctor wanted to give her a drug to calm her nerves. Marlene took the doctor aside. As Jane's best friend, she knew something nobody else knew.

"Don't give her anything," she whispered. "She's pregnant."

Rudy Anderson's widow gave birth to a baby girl seven and a half months later.

Because of the seven-hour time difference, it was already well after midnight in Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev was resting at his villa on the Lenin Hills, with its panoramic view of the Kremlin and the winding Moscow River. He had returned home late from the office and asked for his usual nighttime drink, tea with lemon. He suggested that his wife and son drive out to their weekend retreat outside Moscow in the morning. He had summoned other Presidium members to meet with him at a government villa nearby. As soon as he was free, he would join the rest of his family at the dacha.

Around 1:00 a.m., Khrushchev got a series of calls from his aides. A telegram had just arrived from the Soviet Embassy in Havana relaying the letter from Fidel Castro predicting an American attack on Cuba in the next twenty-four to seventy-two hours. It also contained a dramatic plea. Hearing the letter read to him over the phone, Khrushchev concluded rightly or wrongly that Castro was advocating a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. He interrupted his aide several times to clarify certain passages in the text.

Khrushchev viewed Castro's message as a "signal of extreme alarm." Earlier in the day, he had decided there was still time to negotiate a face-saving compromise with Kennedy. The Americans seemed to be wavering. A U.S. invasion of Cuba appeared unlikely at a time when Washington was responding to Soviet diplomatic feelers through the United Nations. But what if Castro was right? Khrushchev had instructed Soviet troops to come to the aid of their Cuban comrades in the event of an American attack. There would inevitably be many Soviet casualties. It would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to limit the fighting to Cuba.

Another factor to be considered was Castro's fiery personality. Khrushchev did not doubt that his Cuban friend was extraordinarily courageous, and willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. He liked and admired Fidel enormously, but he was also aware of his headstrong nature. Castro reminded the onetime Ukrainian peasant of "a young horse that hasn't been broken." It was necessary to tread very carefully with such a creature. The man Cubans called el caballo was "very spirited." He needed "some training" in order to turn him into a reliable Marxist-Leninist.

The idea that the Soviet Union would be the first to use nuclear weapons was completely unacceptable to Khrushchev, however much he threatened and blustered. Unlike Castro, he had no illusions about the USSR's ability to win a nuclear war. The United States had more than enough nuclear weapons both to sustain a first strike and to wipe out the Soviet Union. The Cuban obsession with death and self-sacrifice startled Khrushchev, who had seen more than his share of destruction and suffering. He understood, perhaps for the first time, just how differently he and Castro "viewed the world" and valued human life. As Khrushchev saw it, "We are not struggling against imperialism in order to die" but to achieve the long-term "victory of communism." To be Red and dead was to miss the point.

And yet here was this Cuban revolutionary talking blithely about launching a nuclear strike against the United States. Having lived through World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Patriotic War, Khrushchev shuddered to think what would happen if he followed Castro's advice. America would obviously sustain "huge losses," but so would the "socialist camp." Even if Cubans fought and "died heroically," their country would be destroyed in the nuclear crossfire. It would be the start of a "global thermonuclear war."

The jolt of Castro's letter was soon followed by another shock. At 6:40 p.m. Washington time, 1:40 a.m. Sunday in Moscow, the Pentagon announced that an American military reconnaissance aircraft had gone missing over Cuba and was "presumed lost." The Pentagon statement did not make clear whether the plane had been shot down, but the implications for the Kremlin were deeply disturbing. While Khrushchev had authorized his commanders on Cuba to fight back in self-defense, he had not ordered attacks on unarmed reconnaissance planes. He wondered whether Kennedy would be willing to "stomach the humiliation" of the loss of a spy plane.

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