5:59 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
By the afternoon of what was fast becoming Black Saturday, the U.S. Navy had located all four Soviet submarines. They were deployed in a large rectangle, measuring 200 by 400 miles, that stretched in a north-easterly direction from the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It looked as if two of the Soviet submarines had been assigned to protecting Soviet shipping along the northern route to Cuba across the Atlantic, while the other two were deployed along a more southerly route.
The hunt for the Foxtrots took place in secret, unbeknownst to the American public. For the most part, Kennedy permitted the Navy to conduct its antisubmarine operations without much second-guessing. McNamara had warned that it would be "extremely dangerous" to interfere with the decisions of the commander on the scene, or defer an attack on a Soviet submarine that presented a significant threat. "We could easily lose an American ship by that means," he cautioned the president. The ExComm approved procedures to be used by American ships to signal Soviet submarines to come to the surface. The signals consisted of four or five practice depth charges, to be dropped directly on top of the submarines. Navy chiefs assured McNamara that the depth charges were "harmless." They were designed to produce a loud explosion beneath the water, but would supposedly cause no material damage to the Soviet vessel.
Hunting Soviet submarines and forcing them to come to the surface was the ultimate game of cat and mouse. Arrayed against the submarines were four hunter-killer carrier groups, each one of which included an aircraft carrier, dozens of planes and helicopters, and seven or eight destroyers. In addition, long-range U.S. Navy P2V anti-submarine aircraft based in Bermuda and Puerto Rico were on constant patrol. The Foxtrots had an entire ocean in which to hide. But at least once a day, they were obliged to come out of their hiding places to communicate with Moscow and recharge their batteries.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Americans had photographed a previously unidentified submarine, designated B-4 by the Soviets, 150 miles inside the quarantine line. It submerged immediately after being spotted. B-36, under the command of Captain Dubivko, was moving slowly eastward after being detected in the vicinity of Grand Turk with the help of underwater sonar techniques. A group of hunter-killer destroyers under the aircraft carrier Essex was pursuing the submarine B-130, skippered by Nikolai Shumkov and moving slowly eastward under the power of just one diesel engine.
The most active chase under way on Saturday afternoon was for submarine B-59, known to the Americans as C-19. It was being led by the USS Randolph, a venerable aircraft carrier that had first seen action against Japan in World War II. Helicopters and twin-engined Grumman S2F trackers from the Randolph had been hunting the Soviet sub all day, dropping sonobuoys and triangulating the sound echoes. The search focused on an area three hundred miles south of Bermuda. It was an over-cast day, with the occasional heavy rainstorm.
"Submarine to starboard," yelled the spotter on the tracker plane. The sub was heading north, attempting to hide behind a squall line. Several men were visible in the tower.
By the time the S2F came round for a second pass, the Soviet sailors had disappeared and the decks of the Foxtrot were underwater. On the third pass, the sub was fully submerged. The Americans dropped practice depth charges to signal the Soviet sub to surface and identify itself. American helicopter pilots maintained sonar contact with the sub, and could hear the clanking of heavy machinery and the suction noise caused by a propeller. One pilot even heard the slamming of hatches from the area of the underwater explosion "leaving no doubt that we had a submarine contact." But B-59 remained below water.
Three American destroyers arrived on the scene, circling the area where the Foxtrot was lurking. "Dropped five hand grenades as challenge to submarine for identification," recorded the logbook of the USS Beale at 5:59 p.m. "No response. Challenged submarine on radar. No response." The USS Cony dropped another set of five practice depth charges half an hour later.
The purpose of the signals had been described in a Pentagon message transmitted to the Soviet government via the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Wednesday. "Submerged submarines, on hearing this signal, should surface on easterly course." Both Kennedy and McNamara assumed that the Soviet submarine captains had been informed about the new procedures and understood the meaning of the signals.
They were mistaken. The Soviet government never acknowledged receipt of the message about the underwater signals, and never relayed the contents to the commanders of the four Foxtrots.
6:30 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
While the American destroyers dropped hand grenades into the Sargasso Sea, a thousand miles away in Washington, Maxwell Taylor briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the results of the afternoon ExComm session. "The president has been seized by the idea of trading Turkish missiles for Cuban missiles," he reported. "He seems to be the only one in favor of it. He has a feeling that time is running out."
The other chiefs were suspicious of their chairman. They felt he was too "political," too close to the administration. Bobby Kennedy had even named one of his many children after the former D-Day paratroop hero. The president respected him as a soldier-scholar, very different from the no-nonsense military type personified by Curtis LeMay. Slightly deaf in one ear from an explosion, Taylor spoke Japanese, German, Spanish, and French. The word at the White House was that if you presented Max Taylor with a problem on the Middle East, "he would want to know how Xerxes had handled it."
With his keen sense of history, Taylor was beginning to wonder whether there was a danger of getting "bogged down" in Cuba. He felt it was necessary to keep in mind the experience of "the British in the Boer war, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish, and our own experience with the North Koreans." He was worried about the latest intelligence information suggesting a much larger Soviet troop presence than previously suspected. The American invasion plan, code-named Operations Plan 316, seemed "thin" to him.
The chairman had to straddle a delicate line between his loyalty to the president and his loyalty to his fellow chiefs. He shuttled back and forth between the two camps, conveying the views of the White House to the Pentagon, and vice versa. In the ExComm debates, he consistently spoke in favor of tough action against the Soviets, and had initially preferred air strikes to a blockade. But once the president made a decision, he implemented it loyally, and tried to explain the reasons behind Kennedy's thinking to his fellow generals.
Taylor told the chiefs that he had passed on their unanimous recommendation for air strikes against the missile sites by Monday at the latest. "Then we got word of the U-2 loss." By now, there was little doubt in anyone's mind that Major Anderson had been shot down by a SAM missile. Electronic eavesdroppers on board the USS Oxford had intercepted a teletype message saying that the Cubans had recovered his body along with wreckage from his plane. The National Security Agency also possessed a couple of minutes of Soviet air defense tracking suggesting that the U-2 went down somewhere near Banes in eastern Cuba.
"Should we take out the SAM site?" the chairman wanted to know.
Some members of the ExComm, including Taylor himself, favored an immediate attack on one or more SAM sites in retaliation for the downing of the spy plane. The Pentagon had drawn up a plan, code-named FIRE HOSE, for attacks on three sites in the Havana area. But the other chiefs were opposed to strikes against individual SAM sites and "piecemeal" measures like the proposed drop of propaganda leaflets, which they dismissed as "militarily unsound" because it could lead to the pointless loss of the delivery plane. They preferred to wait another day and destroy all Soviet military installations in Cuba, beginning with the air defense system. The minimum acceptable response for the Joint Chiefs was the elimination of all the SAM sites, not just one or two.
"We would only expose ourselves to retaliation," objected LeMay. "We have little to gain and a lot to lose."
"I feel the same way," agreed General Earle Wheeler, chief of staff of the Army. "Khrushchev may loose one of his missiles on us."
Like the other submarine skippers, Valentin Savitsky was near the end of his tether. The U.S. Navy had been chasing his submarine for the last two days. His batteries were dangerously low. He had been unable to communicate with Moscow for more than twenty-four hours. He had missed a scheduled radio session that afternoon because American airplanes had appeared overhead and he had been forced to make an emergency dive. For all he knew, World War III might have broken out while he was underneath the waves.
The four-week journey had been physically and emotionally draining for the skipper of B-59. His vessel was not in quite as bad shape as that of his friend Nikolai Shumkov, which had lost two of its three diesel engines, but it was still plagued with mechanical problems. The ventilation system had broken down. The diesel coolers were blocked with salt, the rubber sealings were torn, and several electrical compressors were broken. Temperatures aboard ship ranged from 110-140 degrees. The presence of carbon dioxide was approaching critical levels and duty officers were fainting from a combination of heat and exhaustion. The men were falling "like dominoes."
The hottest place in the ship was the engine room, next to the stern torpedo room. The noxious fumes from the three noisy diesels created an unbearably stuffy atmosphere. The electric batteries were housed in the adjoining compartment, together with the recharging equipment. Most of the crew had their bunks in the next compartment forward. The central part of the vessel was taken up by the command post, where the periscope was raised and lowered, a cubbyhole for the captain, and a radio room. The forward section consisted of the officers' quarters and the bow torpedo room. Men who were not on duty often lay down alongside the torpedo tubes, as far as possible from the suffocating engine room. This was also where the nuclear torpedo was located.
A lieutenant commander was assigned full-time to look after the torpedo and service its 10-kiloton warhead. He even slept next to the shiny gray container. According to regulations, a nuclear torpedo could only be fired on receipt of a coded instruction from Moscow, unlike a conventional torpedo, which could be fired on the orders of the flotilla commander. In practice, however, there were no special locks on the weapon that blocked its unauthorized use. If the officer in charge of the torpedo and the captain of the submarine were in agreement, it was physically possible to launch it.
B-59 was carrying several extra passengers, in addition to its regular seventy-eight-man crew. The passengers included the chief of staff of the submarine flotilla, Commander Vasily Arkhipov. Arkhipov and Savitsky were equal in rank, although Savitsky was captain of the ship and therefore ultimately responsible for it. A team of signals intelligence experts was also on board, charged with intercepting and analyzing American naval messages. To eavesdrop on the Americans, the submarine had to be close enough to the surface for its antenna to poke through the waves. Communications were interrupted whenever the sub went deep.
The sub was several hundred feet down when loud explosions began popping off all around. All compartments were dimly lit. Savitsky had switched to emergency lighting to conserve his dwindling batteries. Men were groping around in the semidarkness. As the explosions got closer, they became more nerve-wracking. Soon they were going off right next to the hull. Crew members felt as if they were seated "inside a metal barrel that someone is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer." Nobody knew what was going on.
Savitsky was in the control room, along with Arkhipov and the chief of the signals intelligence team, Vadim Orlov. He knew nothing about the signaling procedures introduced by the U.S. Navy. He had lost communications with Moscow and the other three Foxtrots. He knew only that he was surrounded by American warships and desperately needed to recharge his batteries. He could only guess at the fate awaiting him and his men. Judging by the deafening explosions, the Americans were doing their best to torment him. There was no greater humiliation for a submarine captain than to be forced to the surface by the enemy.
Four decades later, Orlov would recall what happened next:
The Americans hit us with something stronger than a grenade, apparently some kind of practice depth charge. We thought "that's it, that's the end." After this attack, a totally exhausted Savitsky became furious. In addition to everything else, he had been unable to establish communications with the General Staff. He summoned the officer who was in charge of the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to make it combat ready. "Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing somersaults down here," shouted Valentin Grigorievich emotionally, justifying his order. "We're going to blast them now! We will perish ourselves, but we will sink them all! We will not disgrace our Navy!"
7:30 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
In Washington, the president had ducked out of the Cabinet Room after more than two hours of tense, sometimes passionate debate to get his twice-daily dose of medicines. His doctors gave him an extra shot of hydrocortisone to compensate for adrenal insufficiency, in addition to the usual cocktail of steroids and antibiotics. Fifteen minutes later, he took a call from Jackie, who had taken the children off to their weekend retreat at Glen Ora in rural Virginia, away from the nuclear fallout zone around Washington.
Forging a consensus in the ExComm was becoming increasingly difficult. Everybody seemed to have their own ideas for dealing with the Soviets. Bobby and Ted Sorensen had gone to the president's private office to try to merge the rival State Department and Adlai Stevenson drafts. Bob McNamara was working on a plan to pull the Jupiters out of Turkey unilaterally, to deprive the Soviets of an easy target in the event of American air strikes against Cuba. John McCone was drafting his own ultimatum to Khrushchev: another attack on U.S. surveillance planes and we'll destroy all your military installations on Cuba. Paul Nitze was composing a demand that Moscow agree to begin dismantling its Cuban missile bases by 5:00 p.m. Washington time on Monday or face the consequences.
In the space of a few hours, alliances formed, fell apart, and reshaped themselves, as ExComm members agonized over various responses to Khrushchev. "There were sharp disagreements," Bobby would later recall. "Everyone was tense; some were already near exhaustion; all were weighted down with concern and worry." McCone joined forces with the veteran diplomat George Ball in attacking McNamara's plan for a unilateral withdrawal of the Jupiters. "If we're going to get the damn missiles out of Turkey anyway," Ball argued, let's trade them for the Soviet missiles and avoid "military action with enormous casualties and a great, grave risk of escalation."
"And what's left of NATO?" demanded an alarmed Bundy.
"I don't think NATO is going to be wrecked," Ball replied. "And if NATO isn't any better than that, it isn't much good to us." Just a few hours earlier, the under secretary of state had insisted that merely talking about the Jupiters to the Turks would be an "extremely unsettling business."
An aide whispered into Bundy's ear. The national security adviser interrupted the debate on war and peace to address a more immediate issue.
"Do people want dinner downstairs, do they want trays, or do they want to wait?"
"Eating is the least of my worries," snapped McNamara.
People drifted in and out of the Cabinet Room. In Kennedy's absence, the debate went round in circles, sometimes descending into barely concealed animosity. Vice President Lyndon Johnson had kept his views to himself as long as the president was around. But he became much more animated when JFK was out of the room, hinting at policy differences. He was worried that the administration was "backing down" from the firm position outlined in the president's speech. The American public could sense that the White House was wavering and felt "insecure."
"People feel it. They don't know why they feel it and how. They just..."
Bobby had wandered back into the room. He was angered by the suggestion that his brother was "backing down," but LBJ pressed ahead, claiming that Soviet ships were "comin' through" the blockade.
"No, the ships aren't coming through. They all turned back.... Ninety percent of them."
LBJ stuck to his guns. He repeated quietly that it was difficult to argue that "we are as strong as we were the day of the president's announcement." A few minutes later, after his nemesis had again wandered off, he startled other ExComm members by interjecting whimsically, "I think governments are old and tired and sick, don't you think?" He wanted action--such as an immediate attack on a Soviet SAM site. The shoot-down of the U-2 had grabbed everybody's attention much more than "all these signals that each one of us write." Words were becoming meaningless. Khrushchev was "an expert at palaver."
After his lengthy absence, the president returned to the Cabinet Room around seven thirty to wrap up the marathon ExComm meeting. He did not reveal what he had been doing while he was away, or who he had been consulting, but it was clear that he had begun to bypass the ExComm as a decision-making body. There were too many opinions to reconcile. Despite the objections of Bundy and others, Kennedy made clear he was still thinking about some kind of deal over Turkey. The United States could not invade Cuba to destroy the missiles it could trade away without incurring any carnage.
"If that's part of the record, I don't see how we'll have a very good war," the president said.
After initially supporting a trade, Johnson now feared that Khrushchev would merely use negotiations over Turkey to wrestle an endless series of concessions from the United States:
"It doesn't just mean missiles. He takes his missiles out of Cuba, takes his men out of Cuba, and takes his planes out of Cuba. Why then your whole foreign policy is gone. You take everything out of Turkey. Twenty thousand men, all your technicians, and all your planes, and all your missiles. And...and crumble."
"How else are we gonna get those missiles out of there?" JFK wanted to know.
In moments of crisis, the person in whom Kennedy had most confidence was Bobby. He saw him as "a puritan, absolutely incorruptible." But his brother's most important characteristics, from JFK's point of view, were his "terrific executive energy" and his intuitive, "almost telepathic" understanding of the president's wishes. The White House was full of exceptionally intelligent people brimming with brilliant ideas. The problem was getting things done. Bobby was a superb organizer. Jack trusted his brother to implement his will.
In their different ways, both men had been profoundly changed by their shared experiences of the last twelve days. When they first heard about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, their immediate reaction had been anger, even pique, at being thwarted by Khrushchev. They had come very close to bombing the missile sites. Now they were desperately looking for ways to step back from the edge of a nuclear abyss.
Working in the president's private office, Bobby and Ted Sorensen had managed to merge the rival letters to Khrushchev into a single document. The final version bore the marks of many authors:
I have read your letter of October 26th with great care and welcome the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem. [Original State Department draft, written mainly by Ball and his deputy, Alexis Johnson]
The first thing that needs to be done, however, is for work to cease on offensive missile bases in Cuba and for all weapons systems in Cuba capable of offensive use to be rendered inoperable.... [Stevenson/JFK] Assuming this is done promptly, I have given my representatives in New York instructions that will permit them to work out this weekend--in cooperation with the Acting Secretary General and your representative--an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem [Stevenson] along the lines suggested in your letter of October 26th. As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals--which seem generally acceptable as I understand them--are as follows: [RFK]
1. You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba. [State]
2. We on our part, would agree--upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments--(a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect [State] and (b) to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba....[ExComm discussion]
The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding "other armaments," as proposed in your second letter which you made public. [Stevenson]
I would like to say again that the United States is very much interested in reducing tensions and halting the arms race [JFK] and if your letter signifies that you are prepared to discuss a detente affecting NATO and the Warsaw Pact, we are quite prepared to consider with our allies any useful proposals. [Stevenson]
But the first ingredient, let me emphasize, is the cessation of work on missile sites in Cuba and measures to render such weapons inoperable, under effective international guarantees.... [JFK]
The president wanted Bobby to deliver the letter personally to the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, along with an oral message emphasizing the gravity of the situation. Unbeknownst to the rest of the ExComm, Bobby had already telephoned Dobrynin and asked to meet with him at the Justice Department, six blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
As the ExComm meeting broke up, Kennedy invited a select group of his advisers--including RFK, McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy--into the Oval Office to discuss the oral message Bobby would deliver to Dobrynin. He excluded LBJ and McCone from this session. The inner ExComm agreed that Bobby should warn the ambassador that time was running out and "further American action was unavoidable" if Khrushchev rejected the terms outlined by the president. That left the issue of how to respond to Khrushchev's call for a Cuba-Turkey trade beyond the promise in the letter to discuss "other armaments," diplomatic code for the Jupiters.
Drawing on a cable from the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Rusk had thought of a way to reconcile the differences in the ExComm. He suggested that Bobby simply inform Dobrynin that the Jupiters would be withdrawn soon anyway. That way, the obsolete American missiles would not be an obstacle to an agreement. But they would also not become a pretext for further haggling. To avoid giving the impression of a Soviet-American bargain at the expense of the Turks, it was important that the unilateral assurance on the Jupiters remain confidential. The secretary of state's ingenious attempt to square the circle quickly won unanimous support.
Knowledge of the arrangement would be tightly held, everybody agreed. In Bundy's words, "No one not in the room was to be informed of this additional message." Furthermore, the Soviets would have to observe the same secrecy, or the commitment would become "null and void."
8:05 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
Anatoly Dobrynin had mixed feelings about Bobby Kennedy. For the genial Russian diplomat, RFK was a "complex and difficult person who often lost his temper." He "behaved rudely," working himself into a state about Soviet misdeeds, real and imagined. Their conversations tended to be "uneven and broken." Bobby seemed to regard himself as an expert on foreign policy, but he knew little about the rest of the world. During his one visit to the Soviet Union, in 1955, he had gone out of his way to offend his hosts, inquiring about Soviet techniques for "tapping telephone conversations" and criticizing the lack of freedom. Nevertheless, he was the president's brother, and the best channel for direct, informal communications between the Kremlin and the White House.
They had seen a lot of each other in the seven months since Dobrynin arrived in Washington. To break the ice, Bobby had invited the new ambassador out to his home in McLean, introducing him to his "rather tumultuous family." On the subject of Cuba, Dobrynin thought that Bobby was "impulsive and excitable." He viewed RFK as one of the hawks on the ExComm, pushing his brother to take "a firm approach," up to and including an invasion of the island. At their previous meetings, Bobby had angrily denounced Soviet trickery and "deception." Summoned to the Justice Department on Saturday evening, Dobrynin braced for yet another explosion.
Instead, he encountered a subdued, almost distraught individual in a vast, dimly lit office decorated with children's paintings. In a cable to the Foreign Ministry written immediately after the meeting, Dobrynin described the attorney general as "very upset," with little of his normal combativeness. He had never seen him like this before. "He didn't even try to get into fights on various subjects, as he usually does. He persistently returned to one theme: time is of the essence and we shouldn't miss the chance."
Instead of the standard diplomatic demarche, Bobby addressed the Soviet ambassador as a fellow human being trying to save the world from nuclear destruction. He began by describing the shootdown of the U-2 and the firing on low-level U.S. Navy jets as "an extremely serious turn in events." He was not delivering an ultimatum; he was simply laying out the facts.
"We're going to have to make certain decisions within the next twelve, or possibly twenty-four, hours. There's very little time left. If the Cubans shoot at our planes, then we are going to shoot back."
Dobrynin objected that American planes had no right to fly over Cuba at all. Rather than argue the point, Bobby wanted the ambassador to understand American political realities. The military was demanding that the president "respond to fire with fire." Khrushchev should know that there were many hotheads among the generals--"and not only among the generals"--who were "itching for a fight."
"We can't stop these overflights," RFK explained. "It's the only way we have to quickly get information about the state of construction of your missile bases on Cuba, which pose a very serious threat to our national security. But if we open fire in response, a chain reaction will start that will be very difficult to stop."
A similar logic applied to the Soviet missile bases, said Bobby. The United States was determined to "get rid" of the bases, if necessary by bombing them. If this happened, Soviet citizens would almost certainly be killed, causing Moscow to take action against the United States somewhere in Europe. "A real war will begin, in which millions of Americans and Russians will die. We want to avoid that any way we can."
Bobby described the contents of Kennedy's latest letter to Khrushchev. The president was ready to end the quarantine and issue guarantees against an invasion of Cuba if the Soviet government dismantled the missile bases.
"What about Turkey?" the ambassador wanted to know.
This was the trickiest, most sensitive issue, the one that had preoccupied the president and the ExComm for much of the day. Once again, Bobby took the Russian into his confidence and explained the dilemma facing his brother. The president was willing to withdraw the Jupiters "within four to five months." But he could not make any kind of public commitment. The decision to deploy the Jupiters had been taken collectively by NATO. If it appeared that the United States was dismantling the missile bases unilaterally, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the alliance might crack apart.
Bobby asked for a quick answer from Khrushchev, by Sunday if possible. "There's very little time left," he warned. "Events are moving too quickly."
8:25 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
RFK checked back into the White House at 8:25 p.m. His meeting with Dobrynin had lasted no longer than fifteen minutes. He immediately went up to the executive mansion, where he found the president chatting with his four-year-old daughter on the phone. Over the past few days, Kennedy had been more than usually attentive to Caroline and John Junior, taking the time to put them to bed and read them goodnight stories. He told Dave Powers that he worried not just about his own children but "the children everywhere in the world" whose "lives would be wiped out" in the event of nuclear war.
Skipping his regular evening swim because of the pressure of meetings, the president invited Powers for an informal supper in the upstairs living room. The kitchen staff had left some broiled chicken on a hot-plate. Jack opened a bottle of white wine. A hungry Bobby asked if they could spare "an extra chicken leg" as he reported on his meeting with the Soviet ambassador. All three men were busy eating and drinking when Kennedy looked at Powers with mock disapproval.
"God, Dave. The way you're eating up all that chicken and drinking up all my wine, anybody would think it was your last meal."
"The way Bobby's been talking, I thought it was my last meal," Powers replied.
The lighthearted joking disguised increasing concern. The White House was the prime target for a Soviet missile attack. Over the last few days, the staff had been receiving packages of instructions telling them what to do and where to go in an emergency. Top aides like Powers, Sorensen, and Kenny O'Donnell received pink identification cards, which meant they would accompany the president to an underground bunker in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. An elite helicopter unit, the 2857th Test Squadron, had the sole mission of landing on the White House lawn if a nuclear strike seemed imminent, and whisking the president and his closest aides to safety. The helicopter crews were even ready to make a poststrike rescue attempt. Dressed from head to toe in protective clothing, they would smash their way into the White House bomb shelter with crowbars and acetylene torches, bundle the president into a radiation suit, and fly him out of the rubble.
The evacuation instructions were part of a secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war. The president would be evacuated to Mount Weather, fifty miles from Washington, along with cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, and several thousand senior federal officials. Facilities at Mount Weather included an emergency broadcasting network, decontamination chambers, hospital, emergency power plant, crematorium, and presidential suite complete with a special therapeutic mattress for JFK's bad back. Congress had just completed construction of its own "secure, undisclosed location" beneath the luxury Greenbrier Hotel, in the Allegheny Mountains. Contingency plans called for the rescue of Federal Reserve assets and cultural treasures such as the Declaration of Independence and masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art.
"What happens to our wives and kids?" asked Powers, after receiving his pink card.
The families had somehow fallen through the cracks in the doomsday planning. The president's naval aide, Captain Tazewell Shepard, was ordered to make the necessary arrangements. He told dependents to assemble inside a fenced-off reservoir in northwest Washington without bringing any personal belongings. "Minimal supplies of food and water" would be provided for a journey by motorcade to "a relocation site outside of the Washington area." Kenny O'Donnell felt that the chances of survival for his wife and five children were "slim" at best.
Lacking confidence in the government's plan, families of top officials devised their own evacuation plans. Dino Brugioni, a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile buildup, "succumbed to the general mood of apocalypse" on Saturday evening. Seeing no way out of the crisis "except war and complete destruction," he told his wife to get ready to drive their two children to his parents' home in Missouri, halfway across the country. The man in charge of the president's daily intelligence bulletin, Dick Lehman, had a similar agreement with his wife.
Often the higher the official, the gloomier they were about the chances for a peaceful outcome of the crisis. Earlier that evening, Bob McNamara had wandered out onto the veranda outside the Oval Office during a break in the ExComm discussions and watched the sunlight fade away. It was a gorgeous fall evening, but the defense secretary was too preoccupied to enjoy it. He thought to himself that he might "never live to see another Saturday night."
9:00 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (8:00 P.M. HAVANA)
The secretary of defense wanted the low-level Navy reconnaissance planes to be accompanied by fighter escorts in their missions over Cuba. "If our planes are fired on tomorrow, we ought to fire back," McNamara insisted, after ExComm members reassembled in the Cabinet Room for a final evening meeting.
The president did not see the point of taking out individual antiaircraft guns. "We just hazard our planes, and the people on the ground have the advantage." He agreed with the military chiefs. If there were any further attacks on American planes, he would announce that the United States considered the island of Cuba "open territory," and take out all the SAM sites. In the meantime, he would activate twenty-four air reserve squadrons, with roughly three hundred troop carrier transports. Known as "flying boxcars," the C-119 planes would ferry airborne troops and supplies to Cuba in an invasion. Calling up the reservists was a way of signaling American determination.
Even as he prepared for war, Kennedy was attempting to salvage the peace with a series of fallback positions. In addition to his informal promise to Khrushchev to withdraw American missiles from Turkey, he had privately agreed to a suggestion by Dean Rusk on a discreet approach to the secretary-general of the United Nations. It would be easier for the United States and its allies to accept a dramatic last-minute plea for a Cuba-Turkey trade from U Thant than from Khrushchev. With Kennedy's consent, Rusk telephoned a former UN official named Andrew Cordier, who was known to be close to U Thant. If Khrushchev rejected the secret deal outlined by Bobby to Dobrynin earlier in the evening, Cordier would get the secretary-general to publicly call for the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey.
But first the allies had to be prepped to accept such a deal. The Turkish government in particular regarded the Jupiters as a symbol of its international manhood and was loath to give them up. Rather than withdraw the missiles unilaterally, Kennedy wanted America's NATO allies to fully understand the probable military consequences of rejecting "a Cuba-Turkey connection." The alternative to a deal was a U.S. attack on Cuba, followed by some kind of Soviet attack on Turkey or on Berlin. If this happened, Kennedy did not want the allies to say, "We followed you, and you bitched it up."
The timetable for diplomacy was getting very tight. The Pentagon was calling for air attacks on Cuba to begin by Monday, October 29, in the absence of firm evidence that the Soviets were dismantling their missile sites. A meeting of the NATO Council had been called for Sunday morning in Paris. There was practically no time for NATO ambassadors to get instructions from their governments. Kennedy proposed pushing the military schedule back a few hours to give everybody a "last chance" to come up with something. Under the president's revised timetable, the bombing of Cuba would begin on Tuesday, October 30, followed by an invasion seven days later.
After Kennedy left the Cabinet Room, a few ExComm members lingered behind, exchanging desultory conversation.
"How are you doing, Bob?" RFK asked McNamara with forced jocularity.
The defense secretary did not want to admit his exhaustion. "Well," he replied. "How about yourself?"
"You got any doubts?"
"No, I think we're doing the only thing we can do."
McNamara's brain was still clicking away, thinking ahead. "We need to have two things ready," he told the others. "A government for Cuba, because we're gonna need one after we go in with five hundred aircraft. And secondly, some plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, 'cause sure as hell they're gonna do something there."
RFK was dreaming of revenge. "I'd like to take Cuba back. That'd be nice."
"Yeah," agreed John McCone. "I'd take Cuba away from Castro."
Someone else joked about putting the Mongoose crowd in charge.
"Suppose we make Bobby mayor of Havana," kidded one of the Boston Irishmen.
The tension dissolved into laughter.
The question of who should form the next government of Cuba was also on the minds of Cuban experts at the Department of State. Earlier in the day, the coordinator for Cuban affairs had signed off on a three-page memorandum proposing the creation of a "Junta for an Independent and Democratic Cuba." The Junta would serve as an advisory body to a military government during "the combat phase of operations," becoming a "rallying point" for all Cubans opposed to Castro.
The experts warned against any attempt to return Cuba to the discredited Batista era. Instead, the Junta should stress the idea that Castro had betrayed the revolution and the Cuban people now had "a real chance to carry out the original revolutionary program." The State Department's list of "prominent Cubans" aligned neither with Batista nor with Castro was headed by Jose Miro Cardona.
With his large spectacles, thinning hair, and trim mustache, Miro looked like the lawyer and university professor he had been before becoming a politician. The former president of the Cuban Bar Association had served as figurehead prime minister of Cuba after the triumph of the revolution in early 1959, lasting for fifty-nine days before being replaced by Castro. "I cannot run my office while another man is trying to run it from behind a microphone," he explained to a friend. With his moderate conservative views and anti-Batista, anti-Castro credentials, he was Washington's perennial choice to head a new Cuban government.
The role of Cuban leader-in-waiting was frustrating and thankless. Miro had seen his hopes rise and fall many times as his American sponsors bickered, schemed, and prevaricated over how to get rid of Castro. The most bitter disappointment had come in April 1961 when the CIA persuaded Miro and his friends to support the Bay of Pigs invasion. As the guerrillas waded ashore, Miro and other members of the Revolutionary Council were spirited away to a safe house in Miami by their CIA handlers, ready to move to the first available chunk of "free Cuba." The call never came. Instead of returning home as heroes, the exile leaders were kept locked up in the house for three days, unaware of the disaster unfolding on the beaches. When it was all over, many of them broke down and wept. Among the 1,180 men captured by Castro's forces at the Bay of Pigs was Miro's own son.
The exile leaders were flown to Washington to meet with the president. "I know something of how you feel," Kennedy had told them. "I lost a brother and a brother-in-law in the war." He assured them that his commitment to a free Cuba was "total." There would be other opportunities. Miro met with the president several times over the next year and a half, coming away with a different impression every time he left the Oval Office. The discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba persuaded him that the day of liberation had finally arrived.
Miro spent much of Saturday meeting with U.S. government officials in Miami. They told him that Cuban refugees serving in the armed forces were being kept at "maximum readiness," pending orders to land in Cuba. With an invasion apparently only hours away, they discussed "final details concerning the establishment of a Cuban belligerent government on liberated territory." After returning home, the exile leader asked an aide to draft a proclamation celebrating the island's "new dawn of freedom":
We do not come with impulses of vengeance, but with a spirit of justice. We do not defend the interests of any sector, nor do we intend to impose the will of any ruler. We come to restore the right of the Cuban people to establish their own laws and to elect their own government. We are not invaders. Cubans cannot invade their own land....
Cubans! Throw off the hammer and sickle of Communist oppression. Join the new battle for independence. Take up arms to redeem the nation, and march resolutely on to victory. Our sovereign flag proudly waves its splendid colors, and the island rises with the stirring cry of liberty!
In CIA safe houses around Miami, seventy-five guerrilla fighters were waiting impatiently to hear when they would be leaving for Cuba. They were organized into twenty separate teams, most with two to five members. One group had twenty members. The infiltration operation had been mysteriously put "on hold" on Friday afternoon following Bobby Kennedy's confrontation with Bill Harvey at the Mongoose meeting in the Pentagon. Nobody seemed to know what was happening, but some fighters were beginning to wonder if the Kennedys had lost their nerve again.
The reports of dissent in the ranks filtered up to Washington via the CIA station chief in Miami. After eight months in Florida, Ted Shackley had come to view the Cubans as a "volatile, emotional, expressive people." He worried what would happen if the operation was called off altogether and the teams disbanded. Cubans being Cubans, there was a great risk that the disillusioned fighters "would talk and their experience would sweep [the] exile community like wildfire." If that happened, the story would inevitably "hit press." Shackley outlined his concerns in flawless agency bureaucratese, describing "nuts and bolts intelligence realities based on clinical objective appraisal our situation." He began by emphasizing that his men were at "highest possible pitch of motivation and state of readiness" following "equipment checkout, commo briefings, discussion infil routes." He continued in a darker vein:
Human psychology and stamina being what they are, this high peak of proficiency cannot be maintained indefinitely because fighters of all types go stale as is so well documented in pugilistic annals and all other competitive fields where combat readiness is required....
While this [is] well known Headquarters believe fluctuations in go and stop orders over past seven days have been such that prudent judgment dictates that you be personally appraised that we are sitting on explosive human situation which could blow at any time within next forty-eight hours. Wish assure you that while full gamut of leadership tradecraft psychology and discipline will be harnessed to prevent any human explosion we cannot guarantee that it will not happen.
On the other side of the Florida Straits, in Havana, the Soviet ambassador was doing his best to calm down an indignant Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader had been outraged to learn from the radio that morning of Nikita Khrushchev's proposal for a Cuba-Turkey missile swap. His naturally suspicious mind interpreted this as a signal that his country could become a pawn in some kind of grand bargain between the superpowers.
"Friends simply don't behave in this way," he raged to Aleksandr Alekseev, when the ambassador called on him on Saturday evening with an official explanation of the latest Soviet position. "It's immoral."
After three years of dealing with Castro, Alekseev was accustomed to defusing his anger. He was constantly looking for ways to avoid offending his host while carrying out the instructions of his own government. It was a tricky balancing act. He sometimes reworded messages from Moscow to make them more acceptable to the explosive Cuban. His approach this time was to put his own reassuring spin on a message that had managed to set alarm bells ringing in Washington, Havana, and Ankara.
"As I see it, Nikita Sergeyevich is not posing the question of a trade," the ambassador said soothingly.
Alekseev depicted Khrushchev's letter as a negotiating ploy, designed to expose the hypocrisy of the American position. The United States claimed it had the right to deploy missiles around the borders of the Soviet Union, but denied a similar right to Moscow. It was most unlikely that Kennedy would accept Khrushchev's offer. Nikita's maneuver would make it easier to justify the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba to international public opinion.
Though still not satisfied, Castro began to soften. He told Alekseev that the first news reports on the letter had "confused" certain sections of Cuban public opinion, including the military. Some officers had asked him whether Moscow was reneging on its commitments to Cuba. He would do his best to explain the logic behind the proposal to the Cuban people.
Castro was not as nervous as he had been the previous night, when he appeared at the Soviet Embassy in Vedado and announced that a U.S. attack was imminent. As Alekseev later reported to Moscow, "He began to assess the situation more calmly and realistically.... He nevertheless continues to believe that the danger of a sudden attack still exists as before."
Despite his frustration with Khrushchev, Castro was delighted that his Soviet comrades had shot down an American spy plane. He told the ambassador that the Cuban authorities had collected the wreckage of the plane, along with "the corpse of the pilot." Without knowing the military details, Alekseev assumed that the U-2 had been downed by the Cubans, not the Soviets. His subsequent report to Moscow sidestepped the question of responsibility, but emphasized that Fidel felt fully justified in ordering his forces to respond to any American overflights.
"Castro said that in the event of an [American] attack, full fire would be turned against the aggressor, and that he was sure of success," Alekseev cabled.
9:52 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
Valentin Savitsky had finally concluded that the only reasonable choice left open to him was to come to the surface. The commander of submarine B-59 had been tempted to use his nuclear torpedo to blast his tormentors out of the water, but his fellow officers had persuaded him to calm down. He made the decision to surface jointly with the chief of staff of the flotilla, Vasily Arkhipov. As soon as they were able to raise the radio antenna, they sent a message to naval headquarters, giving their location and recounting what had happened.
As B-59 rose to the surface with a giant gurgling sound, the Soviet sailors were startled to find the whole area floodlit. They had surfaced in the midst of four American destroyers. Helicopters hovered overhead, illuminating the sea with powerful searchlights. Bobbing up and down on the waves were dozens of sonobuoys used by the Americans to pinpoint the location of the submarine, easily identifiable by their flickering navigation lights. It seemed as if the dark sea was ablaze with fire. U.S. Navy logs recorded the time as 9:52 p.m.
Savitsky went up to the bridge, accompanied by Arkhipov and several other officers. It was 30 degrees cooler up here than down below. They drank in the night air like drowning men gasping for breath. One officer "almost fell into the water from the sensation of gulping down so much fresh sea air." As they caught their first glimpse of the sailors on the decks of the American warships in their neatly pressed uniforms, the Soviet officers felt even more uncomfortable and humiliated. They were dirty, dispirited, and exhausted. Their submarine was in terrible shape. But they also felt a defiant pride. They had undertaken a 5,000-mile odyssey, to seas that no Soviet submariner had sailed before. They had endured physical hardships that their smartly dressed enemies could barely imagine. It was the machines that had failed, not the men of B-59.
Savitsky ordered his men to run up the Soviet flag. Not the blue-and-white pennant of the Soviet navy, but the crimson red flag of the Soviet state, with the hammer and sickle emblazoned in the corner. It was his way of signaling that his battered vessel was under the protection of a mighty superpower. One of the American destroyers sent a message by flashing light asking if he needed assistance. "This ship belongs to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Savitsky replied. "Halt your provocative actions."
American S2F tracker planes made repeated low-level runs at B-59, taking photographs and dropping more sonobuoys, recording devices, and flares. The flares dropped several hundred feet before igniting in a brilliant incendiary display. Each flare had the power of 50 million candles. From the bridge of B-59, it seemed as if the planes were making practice bombing runs. Lookouts reported that the Americans were spraying the sea with machine-gun tracer fire.
After an hour or so, a radio message arrived from Moscow instructing B-59 "to throw off your pursuers" and move to a reserve position closer to Bermuda. But that was easier said than done. Everywhere he looked, Savitsky could see American warships and planes. The sea was a cauldron of blazing light.
11:00 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:00 P.M. HAVANA)
Americans went to bed on Saturday night in a state of high uncertainty, not knowing what the next day would bring. The White House was almost deserted. Kennedy dismissed most of his aides, telling them to go home to their wives and families and get some rest. The one person he kept by his side was Dave Powers, Camelot's court jester. The wry little Irishman had the job of boosting JFK's spirits when they were low. On any given day, Powers was usually the first staffer to say good morning to the president and the last to wish him goodnight. His duties included ensuring a plentiful supply of clean shirts and cool drinks. He often arranged for women to visit his boss when he was traveling or Jackie was away.
An inveterate womanizer, Kennedy told cronies that he was prone to migraines if he did not get a "piece of ass every day." His libido certainly did not take a break because of the heightened risk of nuclear war. He was still seeing a longtime lover, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the wife of a senior CIA official, Cord Meyer. Artistic, sophisticated, and intelligent, Mary was different from the usual string of presidential girlfriends with nicknames like "Fiddle" and "Faddle." Kennedy had known her since his boyhood, and often turned to her at moments of high stress and tension. He had invited her at the last minute to a family dinner at the White House on the evening of Monday, October 22, at which Jackie's sister, Lee Radziwill, and her dress designer, Oleg Cassini, were also present. Mary telephoned Jack in the Oval Office on Saturday afternoon. Unable to reach him immediately because he was tied up in discussions, she left a contact number in Georgetown, where she lived.
Dave Powers makes no mention of Meyer or any other presidential girlfriend in his hagiographic memoir of JFK. By his account, the president spent part of Saturday evening writing a letter of condolence to the widow of Major Anderson. He then went to the White House movie theater to watch one of his favorite actresses, Audrey Hepburn, in Roman Holiday. Before going to bed and turning off the light, he reminded his aide of the schedule for the following morning.
"We'll be going to the ten o'clock mass at Saint Stephen's, Dave. We'll have plenty of hard praying to do, so don't be late."
Other officials grabbed what rest they could. At the Pentagon, there was a flurry of late-night excitement about the Grozny, the Soviet ship heading full speed for Cuba. It looked as if the tanker would reach the quarantine line by dawn, shadowed by two American warships. The president would then have to decide whether to stop her or let her go. The choice boiled down to risking a confrontation with Khrushchev before he was really ready or being viewed around the world as weak and vacillating.
George Anderson retired to bed with a cold shortly before 11:00 p.m. after receiving a briefing from Curtis LeMay on everything that had happened in Washington while he was at the Navy-Pitt football game. More than fourteen thousand air reservists had been called up for a possible invasion of Cuba. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had promulgated a revised schedule of reaction times for attacking Cuba:
Air Strikes against SAM sites: two hours.
Full Air Strike: twelve hours.
Invasion: Decision Day plus seven days.
All Forces ashore: Decision Day plus eighteen days.
Even more ominously, the ExComm was planning to announce that any Soviet submarine located within the 500-mile intercept zone would be presumed to be "hostile." American antisubmarine forces had located two Soviet submarines inside the zone; another two were just outside. The proposed declaration was vaguely worded. Under certain circumstances, it could be interpreted as granting U.S. warships the authority to open fire on the submarines inside the zone, if they presented "a threat."
In Havana, Sergio Pineda was preparing for another long night. The reporter for the Prensa Latina news agency had been filing dispatches to Latin American newspapers from the Cuban capital. On Saturday evening, he described the call-up of hundreds of young women into health battalions and the appearance of soldiers in steel helmets outside large office buildings "unloading enormous crates of medicine and surgical material."
"Now anything can happen," Pineda reported. "There is calm at this time in the city. Everything appears to be sunken into stillness." As he typed his report, the only sound he could hear was the fluttering of a flute from a radio receiver in a nearby guard post. The music was occasionally interrupted by a radio announcer repeating the words of Antonio Maceo Grajales, one of the heroes of the Cuban war of independence against Spain:
"Whoever attempts to invade Cuba will gather only the dust of its blood-drenched soil, if they do not die in the fight."