CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"Crate and Return"

2:00 A.M. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28 (10:00 A.M. MOSCOW)

Events had unfolded very differently from the way Nikita Khrushchev imagined when he sent his armies across the ocean, further than Soviet, or indeed Russian, soldiers had ever ventured before. At the time he made the decision, back in May, it had seemed inspired. He would defend the newest member of the socialist community from American aggression while strengthening the overall military position of the Soviet Union. He had assumed, naively, that it would be possible to hide the nuclear weaponry until he could present the world with a fait accompli. Now, he was faced with a choice he had never anticipated: an American invasion of Cuba and possible nuclear war or a personal humiliation.

The situation was changing hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, in dangerous, unpredictable ways. Meeting with his Presidium colleagues on Saturday morning, he had announced that an American invasion Cuba was "unlikely" in the near future. Even though he had already concluded that he would have to withdraw the missiles, it was still possible to negotiate, extracting maximum advantage for the Soviet Union from Kennedy's reluctance to go to war. But a series of unforeseen incidents--including the shooting down of one U-2, the penetration of Soviet airspace by another, and the alarming message from Castro predicting an imminent yanqui attack--had persuaded Khrushchev that time was running out.

He had asked the Soviet leadership to meet with him at a government dacha in the bucolic Moscow countryside. A fairy-tale landscape of billowing birch trees, picture-book villages, and the meandering Moscow River, the area around Novo-Ogaryevo had been the playground of the Russian ruling class for centuries. Tsarist governors of Moscow had carved ornamental gardens out of the thick forest; Stalin came here to escape the Kremlin demons; Khrushchev had his own weekend place nearby, where he liked to relax with his family.

A two-story mansion with a mock neoclassical facade, the Novo-Ogaryevo dacha bore a passing resemblance to the White House in Washington. It had originally been built for Stalin's putative successor as Soviet prime minister, Georgi Malenkov, who was quickly pushed aside by the more forceful Khrushchev. After Malenkov's disgrace, the estate was taken away from him and turned into a government guest house. Novo-Ogaryevo would achieve greater fame decades later as the presidential retreat of Mikhail Gorbachev and the site of negotiations that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Presidium members were seated in front of the first secretary along the long, polished oak table. The eighteen attendees included Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, and Rodion Malinovsky, the defense minister. Aides hovered in the background, to be summoned and dismissed as needed. As usual, it was Khrushchev's show. The others were happy to let him talk and talk. "You dragged us into this mess; it is now up to you to find a way out of it" was the unspoken sentiment in the room. Apart from Khrushchev, the only people who contributed very much to the discussion were Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan.

Lying on the table in front of each Presidium member was a folder with the latest missives from Kennedy and Castro. The White House had released the JFK letter to the press to avoid the long communications delays between Moscow and Washington. Dobrynin's report on his meeting with Bobby Kennedy had still not reached Moscow when the Presidium session began. But Khrushchev was encouraged by the passage in the Kennedy letter that expressed a willingness to discuss "other armaments" once the Cuban crisis had been resolved. He understood this as "a hint" on the withdrawal of the Jupiters from Turkey.

Khrushchev had prepared the Presidium for the inevitability of a tactical retreat by depicting the American promise not to invade Cuba as a victory for Soviet diplomacy. His defense was that he was acting in the tradition of the great Lenin, who had surrendered a huge swathe of territory to the Germans under the punitive 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to "save Soviet power." The stakes were even higher now. Khrushchev told his colleagues that they had to defuse "the danger of war and nuclear catastrophe, with the possibility of destroying the human race. To save the world, we must retreat."

An aide jotted down the two main points made by the first secretary:

1. If an attack [on Cuba] is provoked, we have given the order for a retaliatory response;

2. We agree to dismantle the missile sites.

The real question facing Khrushchev was not whether to retreat but the logistics for implementing the pullout decision and the concessions he could extract from Washington in return. That issue was largely resolved for him by a series of alarming reports that arrived while the meeting was in progress.

A telegram from the KGB residency in Havana reported that "our Cuban friends consider that invasion and bombarding of military objects is inevitable." The cable gave added emphasis to Castro's earlier warning. This was followed at 10:45 a.m. Moscow time by the formal Soviet report on the downing of the American U-2 the previous day. The message, signed by Malinovsky, made clear that the plane had been brought down by a Soviet, rather than Cuban, antiaircraft unit. But it did not say who ordered the shootdown. The possibility that Soviet commanders on Cuba were following Castro's orders on such a sensitive matter alarmed Khrushchev.

As the Presidium members were digesting this information, Khrushchev's foreign policy aide, Oleg Troyanovsky, was summoned to the telephone. The Foreign Ministry had just received a coded cable from Dobrynin on his meeting with Bobby Kennedy. Troyanovsky scribbled down the essential points and returned to the Presidium session.

As the Presidium members listened to Dobrynin's report, the "highly electric" mood of the meeting became even more charged. RFK's reference to hotheaded American generals resonated with Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders who had long suspected that the Pentagon was the real center of power in Washington. The ambassador's report made it clear that the "hour of decision" had finally arrived.

The Presidium members asked Troyanovsky to read the cable again, so they could fully understand its implications. The Turkey offer clearly sweetened the proposed deal even if, as Dobrynin reported, Bobby Kennedy insisted it be kept "extremely confidential." Any remaining desire to haggle about terms and conditions drained away. After listening to the latest message from Washington, the men around the table "agreed fairly quickly that they had to accept President Kennedy's conditions," Troyanovsky would later recall. "In the final analysis, both we and Cuba would get what we wanted, a guarantee that the island would not be attacked."

At this point, a phone call arrived for the secretary of the Defense Council. Colonel General Semyon Ivanov returned a few minutes later to report that the U.S. president would go on television at 9:00 a.m. Washington time. It looked as if Kennedy was about to make some kind of dramatic announcement, perhaps a U.S. attack on Cuba or the bombardment of the missile bases.

The good news was that Khrushchev had an extra hour to reply to Kennedy's letter. The time difference between Moscow and Washington had stretched from seven hours to eight hours overnight with the end of American Daylight Saving Time. The deadline for a Soviet reply was 5:00 p.m. Moscow time. To save time, the reply would be transmitted publicly by radio, rather than as a coded diplomatic cable.

There was not a moment to lose. Khrushchev called for a stenographer, and began dictating a personal letter to John F. Kennedy.

Despite all their differences, both personal and ideological, the two men had reached similar conclusions about the nature of nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy both understood that such a war would be far more terrible than anything mankind had known before. Having witnessed war themselves, they also understood that a commander in chief could not always control his own armies. They were awed, frightened, and sobered by their power to blow up the world. They believed that the risks of war had become unacceptably high, and it was necessary to act decisively to cut what Khrushchev had called "the knot of war." In short, they were both human beings--flawed, idealistic, blundering, sometimes brilliant, often mistaken, but ultimately very aware of their own humanity.

Kennedy had already decided, against the advice of many of his closest aides, that he was not going to risk a nuclear war over a few obsolete missiles in Turkey. He had concluded that "we are not going to have a very good war" unless he could provide the American people with a convincing explanation of the "whys and wherefores."

The master of the Kremlin did not have to pay as much attention to public opinion, at least in the short term, as the occupant of the Oval Office. But he too understood that his people would never forgive him if he led them into a "war of annihilation" without taking "all necessary measures" to prevent it. Castro's suggestion that he consider a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States filled him with foreboding. Even though Khrushchev was a gambler by nature--his Presidium colleagues would later accuse him of "hare-brained scheming"--he would not tempt fate. He had a crafty peasant's instinct for when to push and when to pull back. As he told his generals before sending them on their Cuban adventure, "Let none of you think that he can lead God around by the beard."

When they met in Vienna in June 1961, Khrushchev had privately felt "a bit sorry" for Kennedy even as he bullied him over Berlin. He vividly recalled the expression of deep disappointment on the president's face when the meeting broke up. But he reminded himself that "politics is a merciless business" and resisted the temptation to help his rival out. He felt free to bluster and threaten as long as there was no grand consequences. The situation now was very different. The world was teetering on the edge of nuclear destruction. The Russian had come to "deeply respect" the American. Kennedy had shown himself to be "sober-minded." He had not allowed himself "to become frightened," but neither did he "become reckless." He had not "overestimated America's might." He had "left himself a way out of the crisis."

Khrushchev's latest missive to Kennedy contained the usual outpouring of impulsive thoughts and pungent imagery. The diplomats would go over the text later, bringing it "up to standard," in bureaucratic jargon. Knowing that time was short, the chairman got to the point very quickly. The Soviet Union would withdraw its missiles from Cuba. A jumble of self-justification followed. Cuba had been "under continuous threat by aggressive forces, which did not conceal their intention to invade its territory." "Piratic ships" roamed freely around. The Soviet weaponry was for defensive purposes only. The Soviet people wanted "nothing but peace."

Having done his part to avert war, Khrushchev detailed his complaints about American behavior. At the top of the list was the provocative probing of Soviet territory by U.S. reconnaissance planes. He reminded Kennedy that the slightest spark could result in a general conflagration. Soviet air defenses had reported an overflight of the Chukot Peninsula by an American U-2.

The question is, Mr. President: how should we regard this? What is this: a provocation? One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time we are both experiencing, when everything has been put into combat readiness. Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step? And all the more so since the U.S. government and Pentagon long ago declared that you are maintaining a continuous nuclear bomber patrol.

After finishing the letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev dictated a message to Fidel Castro. Dealing with the prickly Cuban leader was difficult enough at the best of times. The rush to announce an agreement with Washington complicated matters even more. By the time the coded cable reached Havana, the whole world would already know about the "crate and return" order from Radio Moscow. Anticipating an explosion, Khrushchev pleaded with Castro "not to be carried away by sentiment." He acknowledged that the Americans had acted rashly in sending their reconnaissance planes over Cuban territory. "Yesterday you shot down one of them," he complained, as if Castro was personally responsible for the decision. "Earlier you didn't shoot them down when they overflew your territory."

Khrushchev advised Castro to "show patience, self-control, and still more self-control." If the Americans invaded, Cubans had every right to defend themselves "by all means." But Castro should not allow himself to be "carried away by the provocations" of "Pentagon militarists" who were looking for any excuse to invade Cuba.

There was one more message to send, to General Pliyev, the commander of the Soviet Group of Forces on Cuba. It was succinct and to the point:

We consider that you acted too hastily in shooting down the American U-2 spy plane, at a time when an agreement was already emerging to avert an attack on Cuba by peaceful means.

We have taken a decision to dismantle the R-12 missiles and evacuate them. Begin to implement this measure.

Confirm receipt.

At Khrushchev's behest, Pliyev's men had labored day and night to prepare the missiles for firing, and target them on American cities. Now, at the very moment they had completed their assignment, they were being told to disassemble everything. No explanation for this stunning turnaround was provided.

4:30 A.M. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28

The American destroyers had been trailing the Grozny all night. Standing on the bridges of the Lawrence and the MacDonough, U.S. naval officers could see the lights of the Soviet merchant vessel as she headed toward the quarantine line. They discussed how they would board the tanker and inspect her cargo, if ordered to make an interception.

The Navy was rethinking how to halt Soviet ships that refused to stop for inspection. "Firing a shot across the bow should be avoided if possible," read the latest message from the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk. "If this situation arises, a scheme has been devised to bring such ships to a stop." The new procedure consisted of entangling the target ship in "a long wire" or rope. Exactly how this would work was unclear. Further details were promised later.

As they waited for dawn, the Americans noticed that the Soviet ship had come to a standstill just outside the quarantine zone. A flash telegram was dispatched to Norfolk: "Contact dead in water since 0430."

The Grozny had received instructions not to challenge the blockade.

6:30 A.M. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28

Three hundred miles further north, American destroyers were still surrounding submarine B-59. The Soviet crew had painted out the number on the conning tower, but the ship was flying the red flag. Attempts by American warships to communicate with the sub by flashing light had been hampered by the language barrier and peculiarities in the Russian Morse code alphabet. American signalmen had interpreted the name of the Soviet submarine variously as "Korabl X" or "Ship X," and "Prinavlyet" and "Prosnablavst," two items of meaningless gibberish.

As dawn broke, American commanders decided to make another attempt to contact the sub. A pair of Russian-language speakers were dispatched by helicopter from the Randolph to the Lowry. The destroyer came alongside the submarine, within hailing distance by megaphone.

"Vnimaniye, vnimaniye," Captain Oscar MacMillan shouted into the microphone from the bridge of the Lowry. "Attention, attention."

"Kak vas zovut? What is your name?"

A couple of Soviet sailors were on the bridge of B-59. They ignored the shouted greetings from the Americans. Their faces betrayed no emotion, or any sign of recognition.

The second American interpreter, Lieutenant Commander George Bird, tried to speak louder. "Attention, attention please," he yelled several times. "What is the name of your ship? Where are you going?"

Still no reply.

The captain of the Lowry tried a new approach. He assembled the destroyer's jazz band on deck, and told them to play some music. Strains of Yankee Doodle floated across the ocean, followed by a boogie-woogie number. The Americans thought they could see a smile on the face of one of the sailors. They asked if there was any particular tune he would like to hear. The Soviet sailor did not respond.

The Americans on board the Lowry were dancing in tune to the music, and ostentatiously enjoying themselves. They threw some packets of cigarettes and Coca-Cola cans at the Soviet submarine, but the packages fell into the water. The B-59 skipper, Savitsky, told his men to "behave with dignity." The Russians photographed the Americans and the Americans photographed the Russians. When Savitsky spotted one of his men on the bridge discreetly tapping his foot in time with the jazz band, he ordered the sailor below deck.

It was a relief to know that World War III had not broken out. Even so, there would be no fraternizing with the Americans.

B-59 managed to break away from its pursuers after two days of continuous surveillance. Savitsky waited until his batteries were recharged, took his vessel down to five hundred feet, switched course by 180 degrees, and made his escape. Shortly afterward, the USS Charles P. Cecil was able to force another Soviet submarine, B-36, to the surface. A third Foxtrot, B-130, had to be towed back to the Kola Peninsula by tugboat after failing to repair its broken diesel engines. Only one submarine, B-4, under Captain Ryurik Ketov, managed to complete its mission without the humiliation of having to surface in front of American warships.

The submarine commanders returned to Murmansk at the end of December to a frigid reception from their superiors. No allowances were made for the technical shortcomings of the Soviet vessels or the superiority of U.S. naval forces. As usual, the failure of the mission was blamed on the men who had risked their lives to implement it rather than the admirals and apparatchiks who made a mess of the planning. The deputy minister of defense, Marshal Andrei Grechko, refused to listen to the skippers when they tried to describe the difficulties they had encountered. At one point, he became so angry that he removed his glasses and smashed them against the conference table. They promptly broke into small fragments.

Grechko seemed unable to understand that a submarine had to come to the surface in order to recharge its batteries. "The only thing he understood was that we violated the secrecy requirements, were discovered by the Americans, and that for some time we stayed in close contact with them," recalled Aleksei Dubivko, the commander of B-36.

"It's a disgrace," the marshal fumed. "You have shamed Russia."

The moment had arrived that Chuck Maultsby had been dreading ever since his safe return to Alaska. General Power wanted to see him. The SAC commander had a reputation for being a harsh taskmaster, intolerant of the slightest mistake. His associates believed he derived a perverse pleasure from stripping subordinates down in public. A top deputy would later recall that Power "enjoyed ridiculing people and heckling people, and he was an expert at it. He delighted in getting a group in his office for a briefing and then making an ass out of the briefing officer." If a wing commander was summoned to brief the general about an accident, "nine times out of ten he was going to go home fired."

The circumstances of Maultsby's debriefing could scarcely have been less propitious. He had almost fainted at Kotzebue Airfield when told that six Soviet MiGs had attempted to shoot him down. "Shit, oh dear!" was his first reaction. "I'm glad I didn't know it at the time...Whew!" He then "stumbled over to a chair and took the weight off, fearing my legs were about to give out." A special C-47 military transport plane was dispatched to Kotzebue to take him back to Eielson Air Force Base, while his unit commander recovered the U-2. From Eielson, another plane, a KC-135, flew him to SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the only passenger aboard.

An Air Force colonel escorted him to Power's underground command post beneath Building 500. It was a hive of activity. People were "running from place to place as if their lives depended on it." The colonel took him to a briefing room next to the command post, and announced that CINCSAC would be with him shortly. At the head of the briefing table was an aeronautical chart plotting Maultsby's route to the North Pole. A sheet of paper was taped over the portion of the chart that illustrated his overflight of the Soviet Union.

General Power finally entered the room, followed by "eight other generals who looked as if they hadn't been out of their uniforms for days." It had been a nerve-wracking twenty-four hours for Power and his colleagues. One U-2 pilot had got lost over the Soviet Union; another had been shot down over Cuba; all high-altitude air-sampling flights had been canceled until further notice; SAC had reached a level of mobilization never before achieved in its sixteen-year history. Maultsby stood to attention nervously while the generals took their seats around the conference table. General Power sat directly across the table from him. Unlike some of the other generals, he wore a clean uniform and was cleanshaven, but looked "extremely tired."

"Captain Maultsby, how about briefing us on your flight yesterday?" said Power, after everyone was seated.

Maultsby stood next to the navigation chart, describing the air-sampling mission and indicating his planned route to the North Pole. He mentioned the effects of the aurora borealis and the difficulty he had taking fixes.

"Captain Maultsby, do you know where you went after leaving the Pole?" CINCSAC finally interrupted.

"Yes, sir," replied Maultsby, as the other generals "squirmed in their seats," looking as if they were "sitting on tacks."

"Show us please."

Maultsby lifted the paper from the classified portion of the map, and showed the generals his flight route with a pointer. He had seen a similar map at the military radar station in Kotzebue soon after his return, so he knew where he had been. But he had no idea how the Air Force had been able to track his flight, and could not understand why he had not been "given a steer" before blundering over Soviet territory.

"Gentlemen, do you have any more questions?" asked Power, after Maultsby finished.

Nobody had any questions.

The general smiled.

"Too bad you weren't configured with a system to gather electromagnetic radiation. The Russians probably had every radar and ICBM site on maximum alert."

Power ordered Maultsby not to discuss his overflight with anyone. It was not the first time that a SAC plane had gone badly off track in the vicinity of Chukotka. In August, a B-52 bomber fully loaded with nuclear weapons got lost as it was returning to Alaska from Greenland. The B-52 was heading directly toward the Soviet Union and was within three hundred miles of the Chukot Peninsula when ground control finally ordered it to switch course. It appears to have been following a similar track to that followed by Maultsby. According to the official SAC history, the incident "demonstrated the seriousness of celestial computation errors in the polar region." Since it was twilight, the navigator had been unable to take accurate readings from the stars--just as Maultsby was confused by the aurora borealis.

The generals left the briefing room in order of rank. The last to leave was a one-star. On his way out of the briefing room, the brigadier general turned to Maultsby in amazement.

"You are a lucky little devil. I've seen General Power chew up and spit out people for doing a helluva lot less."

Miguel Orozco and Pedro Vera had recovered their catamaran from the mangrove swamp of Malas Aguas on the northwestern coast of Cuba. They had been trying to contact the CIA mother ship that was meant to bring them back to Florida for several hours, without success. The stomach pains that had plagued Miguel for the past three days were causing him agony. The two men would make further attempts to make contact with their CIA rescuers by radio on October 29 and 30. Their increasingly frantic messages went unanswered.

Gradually, the truth sank in: they had been abandoned.

The CIA later said that it "heard nothing" from the two agents after the successful infiltration on the night of October 19-20. Harvey claimed in a memo that it had been "operationally infeasible" to provide Orozco and Vera with communications equipment "in view of the operational timing, the terrain [and] the distance to be traveled." But his version of events, and the accompanying chronology of the Matahambre operation, appears to have been primarily designed to protect his own, severely damaged reputation. Forty-five years later, Vera was taken aback when told Harvey's account, which he dismissed as "nonsense." He himself had lugged the radio over the mountains after Orozco fell ill with appendicitis. The radio was their lifeline. "They knew we were trying to call them," he insisted. Vera's memory is more convincing than Harvey's official chronology. CIA records show that previous agent teams dispatched to Matahambre were equipped with radios.

In an apparent attempt to create a bureaucratic alibi for himself, Harvey would draw attention to a formal halt to "all action, maritime and black infiltration operations" from October 28 onward. A temporary stand-down had been imposed two days earlier, on October 26, following the Mongoose meeting at the Pentagon. Already in trouble with Bobby Kennedy for the unauthorized dispatch of agent teams to Cuba, Harvey did not have the stomach to challenge the stand-down order. Orozco and Vera were expendable.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 30, Vera finally concluded that they could wait no longer. "The boat had not come back, Miguel was dying, and nobody was answering our calls." He was a tough, wiry little man nicknamed el cojo--"the lame one." (Four years earlier, a truck had run over his foot, leaving him with a permanent limp.) He helped his friend onto the catamaran, originally intended to take them to the mother ship, and set out to sea. Using the stars to navigate, he headed northward, in the direction of the Florida Keys.

Waves were soon battering the little boat from all sides. The constant motion caused Orozco to cry out in pain. As land was disappearing below the horizon, a huge wave capsized the catamaran, washing their ruck-sacks into the sea. They managed to get it back upright, but the motor was useless. Their only usable equipment was a paddle that they had somehow salvaged. There was no way they could reach Florida. They began paddling back in the direction of Cuba.

Orozco and Vera were arrested by Cuban militiamen on the night of November 2 after approaching a peasant for help. A U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane overflew the Matahambre area earlier that same day. It was clear from the photographs of the mine and aerial tramway--which were both intact and functioning--that the latest CIA sabotage mission against Cuba had ended in failure.

9:00 A.M. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28 (5:00 P.M. MOSCOW, 8:00 A.M. HAVANA)

Soviet officials worked on the text of Khrushchev's message to Kennedy until the very last moment, cleaning up the rough draft and translating the finished version into English. At 3:00 p.m. Moscow time, the Foreign Ministry called the U.S. Embassy and told them to expect an important message "within 11/2 to 2 hours." Everybody was very conscious of the five o'clock deadline, when the president was expected to address the American people.

With time running out, several copies of the letter were entrusted to the Communist Party secretary in charge of ideology, Leonid Ilyichev, who had responsibility for mass media. He ordered his chauffeur to drive as fast as he could to the headquarters of Radio Moscow, a forty-minute drive with little traffic. The black Chaika sped along the winding forest road connecting Novo-Ogaryevo to the center of Moscow, up the vast expanse of Kutuzov Avenue, past the Triumphal Arch commemorating Napoleon's defeat in 1812, and across the Moscow River. When the militiamen saw the curtained Kremlin limousine approach, they waved other vehicles to the side of the road with their long white nightsticks. By disregarding all traffic regulations, Ilyichev reached the radio station in record time.

At the station, the announcers wanted more time to go over the script. They were used to getting scripts hours, sometimes days in advance, so they could perfect their delivery, striking the appropriate balance of pathos and ideological conviction. Known as diktors in Russian, the newsreaders were the voices of the Soviet state. Most of them were accomplished actors, trained by the famous Stanislavsky School in what was known as the Method. In order to seem sincere, an actor must completely live the part. If he can convince himself that he is hopelessly in love, he can convince his audience. Their voices dripped with pride as they recited five-year plans and steely indignation as they recounted the misdeeds of the imperialists.

The most famous diktor of all was Yuri Levitan. To hear his dulcet, authoritative voice was like listening to Big Brother himself. He had brought the Soviet people news of triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, persuading them to put their faith in the Communist Party, whatever the circumstances. Levitan had announced the start of the war with Nazi Germany in June 1941 and the defeat of Nazism four years later. He had broken the news of the death of Stalin in 1953 and Yuri Gagarin's space flight in 1961. It now fell to him to proclaim the end of Khrushchev's great Cuban gamble.

Since the deadline was fast approaching, Ilyichev insisted that the diktors go on the air live, with no time to rehearse. Khrushchev's message would be broadcast simultaneously in Russian and English.

"Govorit Moskva," Levitan began--"This is Moscow speaking." It was 5:00 p.m. in Moscow, 9:00 a.m. in Washington. He told his listeners he would read from a letter written by Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, first secretary of the Presidium of the Communist Party and chairman of the Council of Ministers, to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States of America.

The Soviet government, in addition to earlier instructions on the discontinuation of further work on weapons construction sites, has given a new order to dismantle the weapons you described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.

Levitan managed to make this sound like yet another triumph for Moscow's peace-loving foreign policy over warmongering imperialists. The supremely wise, always reasonable Soviet leadership had saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction.

Khrushchev's son Sergei had been waiting for his father at the family dacha when he heard the announcement over the radio. He was half-relieved, half-stunned by the turnaround. He would come to view his father's decision in a much more positive light, but at this moment it sounded to him like a "shameful retreat."

"That's it," he thought to himself. "We've surrendered."

Other Soviet citizens were grateful that the nightmare was over. When Oleg Troyanovsky finally returned to his apartment after a week on duty at the Kremlin crisis center, he was shocked to discover that he had lost five pounds. When he told his wife what he had been doing, she gently reprimanded him. "If possible, the next time you want to lose some weight, find a safer way to do it."

The five o'clock deadline turned out to be a false alarm. No new presidential address had been planned for that time. One of the American television networks had simply decided to rerun Kennedy's October 22 speech. Khrushchev had been misinformed by his intelligence people.

The bells began going off on the news agency teletypes in Washington soon after 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. McGeorge Bundy was having breakfast in the White House Mess, down the corridor from the Situation Room, when an aide rushed in with a bulletin torn off the printer. He called Kennedy on an internal phone. The president was in his bedroom, getting dressed to go to church, as his national security adviser read the item from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service:

Moscow Domestic Service in Russian at 1404GMT on 28 October broadcast a message from Khrushchev to President Kennedy stating that the USSR had decided to dismantle Soviet missiles in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union.

28 Oct 0908A

"I feel like a new man now," JFK told Dave Powers after digesting the news. "Do you realize that we had an air strike all arranged for Tuesday? Thank God it's all over."

Other members of the ExComm were equally ecstatic. John McCone was on his way back from nine o'clock mass when he heard the news over the car radio. "I could hardly believe my ears," he later recalled. The Soviet about-face was as unexpected as it was sudden. Donald Wilson "felt like laughing or yelling or dancing." After several nights with little sleep, wondering if he would see his family again, he was suddenly lighthearted, almost giddy.

It was a gorgeous fall morning in Washington. The leaves on the trees had turned a brilliant red and the city was bathed in golden sunshine. Arriving at the White House, George Ball was reminded of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of "a rose growing out of an ox skull." Life had magically emerged from the shadow of death.

Bystanders noticed an extra spring in the president's step as he leapt out of his black limousine at the Church of St. Stephen eight blocks from the White House. Just hours earlier, he had been calculating the odds of nuclear war, putting them at somewhere between "one in three and even."

Photo Insert Three

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A Soviet motorized rifle regiment stationed near Remedios parades in civilian clothes. Operation Anadyr was nicknamed Operation Checkered Shirt by Russian soldiers because they were issued very similar civilian clothes in hope of disguising their true identities. [MAVI]

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Previously unpublished U.S. Marine reconnaissance photograph of Tarara beach, east of Havana, renamed Red beach in the invasion plan. The Marines were expecting around five hundred casualties during the first day alone, an estimate that assumed the enemy would not use tactical nuclear weapons. [USNHC]

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Contemporary photograph of Tarara beach. Note the concrete bunker constructed in 1962 against a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba, now used as a lifeguard post for foreign tourists. [Photo by author]

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Previously unpublished photograph of the Bejucal nuclear storage site, taken from raw intelligence film shot by U.S. Navy Crusaders on Blue Moon Mission 5008 on October 25. Note the circular road, nuclear warhead vans, single security fence, and lax security at the main gate. See inset of vertical photograph of nuclear warhead vans, shot on the same mission. [NARA]

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Colonel Nikolai Beloborodov, commander of the Soviet nuclear arsenal on Cuba, at the helm of Indigirka, the first Soviet ship to arrive in Cuba with nuclear warheads. [MAVI]

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Previously unpublished photograph of the nuclear storage site at Managua, south of Havana, which was used to store the warheads for the tactical FROG/Luna missiles. Labels show the single security fence, the entrances to the bunker, and an antiaircraft site on top of the hill. Photograph shot on October 26 by U.S. Air Force RF-101 on Blue Moon Mission 2623. [NARA]

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Previously unpublished photographs of raw intelligence film from Blue Moon Mission 5025 on Saturday, October 27, showing frames before and after the pilot detected enemy antiaircraft fire. Frame 47 shows the San Cristobal MRBM Site No. 2. A fraction of a second later, in frame 48, the pilot turns sharply to the left to escape over the mountains. A photograph of a clock embedded in the film (see inset) shows the precise time of the incident, 20:22:34 GMT, which was 16:22:34 Washington time, or 15:22:34 Cuban time. [NARA]

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The Soviet cruise missile known as FKR, or frontovaya krylataya raketa, was aimed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base during the Cuban missile crisis. The FKR was an unpiloted version of the MiG-15 jet fighter and could deliver a 14-kiloton nuclear warhead. [Cuban government photo produced for the 2002 Havana Conference]

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U.S. Marines guarding Guantanamo Bay Naval Base had no idea that nuclear cruise missiles were stationed in hills fifteen miles away. [Distributed by the Pentagon]

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Photograph of the Banes SAM site, taken by the RF-101 pictured above on October 26. [NARA]

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Previously unpublished intelligence film of a U.S. Air Force RF-101 overflying the Soviet SAM site at Banes on October 26. The following day, October 27, a U.S. Air Force U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down by two missiles fired from this SAM site. Discovered by the author at the National Archives, the consecutive frames were cut and pieced together with Scotch tape by CIA analysts. [NARA]

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Flying right wing on Blue Moon Mission 2626, this U.S. Air Force RF-101, numbered 41511, took the photograph shown on front page from its left camera bay. [NARA]

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Colonel Georgi Voronkov (left), commander of the SAM regiment in eastern Cuba, congratulates officers responsible for shooting down Anderson's U-2. The officer on the right, with a pistol, is Major Ivan Gerchenov, commander of the Banes SAM site. [MAVI]

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Previously unpublished map of U-2 pilot Captain Charles Maultsby's overflight of the Soviet Union, found by the author in State Department Archives. [NARA]

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Air Force photo of Captain Maultsby. [Photo provided by Maultsby family]

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Another U-2 pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down over Cuba while Maultsby was in the air over the Soviet Union. [Photo provided by Anderson family]

The mood was very different across the Potomac at the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs were busy refining their plans for a massive air strike against Cuba followed by an invasion. Curtis LeMay was already furious with Kennedy for postponing the planned attack until Tuesday. The Air Force chief wanted his fellow generals to go with him to the White House to demand an attack by Monday at the latest, before the missile sites became "fully operational."

Tickertape of the Radio Moscow broadcast was distributed around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. The chiefs reacted with dismay. LeMay denounced Khrushchev's statement as "a charade," and a cover for keeping some weapons in Cuba. Admiral Anderson predicted that the no-invasion pledge being offered to Cuba by Kennedy would "leave Castro free to make trouble in Latin America." The generals were unimpressed by McNamara's argument that Khrushchev's concessions left the United States in "a much stronger position." They drafted an urgent message to the White House dismissing the Soviet move as "an insincere proposal to gain time" and warning that "there should be no relaxation of alert procedures."

"We have been had," Anderson told Kennedy when they finally got together.

"It's the greatest defeat in our history," insisted LeMay. "We should invade today."

Fidel Castro was at home in Vedado. He heard about the dismantling of the Soviet missile sites in a telephone call from the editor of Revolucion, Carlos Franqui. The Associated Press teletype was reporting the text of the letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy that had just been broadcast over Radio Moscow. The newspaper editor wanted to know "what should we do about this news?"

"What news?"

Franqui read the news bulletin over the phone and braced himself for an explosion.

"Son of a bitch! Bastard! Asshole!" Fidel went on in this vein for some time, "beating even his own record for curses." To vent his anger, he kicked a wall and smashed a mirror. The idea that the Russians had made a deal with the Americans "without even bothering to inform us" cut him to the core. He felt deeply "humiliated." He instructed President Dorticos to call the Soviet ambassador to find out what had happened.

Alekseev had been up late the night before. He was still in bed when the telephone rang.

"The radio says that the Soviet government has decided to withdraw the missiles."

The ambassador had no idea what Dorticos was talking about. There was obviously some mistake.

"You shouldn't believe American radio."

"It wasn't American radio. It was Radio Moscow."

11:10 A.M. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28

The report reaching the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs was startling. An air defense radar had picked up evidence of an unexplained missile launch from the Gulf of Mexico. The trajectory suggested that the target was somewhere in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

By the time the duty officers at NORAD had figured out where the missile was headed, it was already too late to take any action. They received the first report of the incident at 11:08 a.m., six minutes after the missile was meant to land. A check with the Bomb Alarm System, a nationwide network of nuclear detonation devices placed on telephone polls in cities and military bases, revealed that Tampa was still intact. The Strategic Air Command knew nothing about the reported launch.

It took a few nerve-wracking minutes to establish what had really happened. The discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba had resulted in a crash program to reorient the American air defense system from north to south. A radar station at Moorestown just off the New Jersey Turnpike had been reconfigured to pick up missile launches from Cuba. But the giant golfballlike installation was still experiencing teething problems. Technicians had fed a test tape into the system at the very moment that an artificial satellite appeared on the horizon, causing radar operators to confuse the satellite with an incoming missile.

A false alarm.

The ExComm began meeting at 11:10 a.m., after JFK returned from church, just as NORAD was clearing up the confusion about the phantom missile attack on Tampa. Aides who had expressed doubts about Kennedy's handling of the crisis a few hours earlier now vied with each other to praise him. Bundy coined a new expression to describe the divisions among the president's advisers that had erupted in dramatic fashion on Saturday afternoon.

"Everyone knows who were the hawks and who were the doves," said the self-appointed spokesman for the hawks. "Today was the day of the doves."

To many of the men who had spent the last thirteen days in the Cabinet Room, agonizing over the threat posed by Soviet missiles, it suddenly seemed as if the president was a miracleworker. One aide suggested he intervene in a border war between China and India that had been overshadowed by the superpower confrontation. Kennedy brushed the suggestion aside.

"I don't think either of them, or anybody else, wants me to solve that crisis."

"But, Mr. President, today you're ten feet tall."

JFK laughed. "That will last about a week."

Kennedy drafted a letter to Khrushchev welcoming his "statesmanlike decision" to withdraw the missiles. He instructed Pierre Salinger to tell the television networks not to play the story up as "a victory for us." He was worried that the mercurial Soviet leader "will be so humiliated and angered that he will change his mind."

Exercising restraint proved difficult for the networks. That evening, CBS News broadcast a special report on the crisis "brought to you by the makers of Geritol, a high potency vitamin, iron-rich tonic that makes you feel stronger." Seated in front of a map of Cuba, correspondent Charles Collingwood tried to put the latest developments in perspective. "This is the day we have every reason to believe the world came out from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since World War II," he told viewers. He described Khrushchev's letter to Kennedy as a "humiliating defeat for Soviet policy."

Bobby Kennedy had missed the early part of the ExComm meeting because of a hastily arranged meeting with the Soviet ambassador. Dobrynin officially conveyed Khrushchev's decision to withdraw the missiles from Cuba and passed on his "best wishes" to the president. The president's brother made no attempt to conceal his relief. "At last, I am going to see the kids," he told the ambassador. "Why, I've almost forgotten my way home." It was the first time in many days that Dobrynin had seen RFK smile.

On instructions from Moscow, Dobrynin later attempted to formalize the understanding on removing the American missile bases in Turkey with an exchange of letters between Khrushchev and Kennedy. But Bobby refused to accept the Soviet letter, telling Dobrynin that the president would keep his word but would not engage in correspondence on the subject. He confided that he himself might run for president one day--and his chances could be damaged if word leaked out about a secret deal with Moscow. Despite the determination of the Kennedy brothers to avoid creating a paper trail, dismantling of the Jupiters would begin as promised, five months later, on April 1, 1963.

AFTERNOON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28

Khrushchev's letter to Castro explaining the reasons for his decision to withdraw the missiles reached the Soviet Embassy in Havana several hours after the Radio Moscow broadcast. When Alekseev tried to deliver the letter, he was informed that Fidel had left town and was "unavailable." In fact, Castro had no desire to meet with the Soviet ambassador. He was furious with Khrushchev for "abandoning" Cuba at the climactic moment of its showdown with America.

Fidel did pay a brief visit to Soviet military headquarters in El Chico in an attempt to get more information. General Pliyev confirmed that he had received an order from Moscow to dismantle the missiles.

"All of them?"

"All."

"Very well," Castro replied, struggling to contain his anger. He stood up. "Fine. I'm leaving now."

To demonstrate his disapproval of the Soviet decision, Fidel drew up a list of five Cuban "demands" as a precondition for any settlement with the United States. They included an end to the economic blockade, a halt to "all subversive activities," and a U.S. withdrawal from the Guantanamo Naval Base. He also made clear that Cuba would not accept any international "inspections" of its territory.

As news spread of the Soviet climbdown, Cubans poured into the streets to vent their anger. Once ubiquitous posters proclaiming "Cuba is not alone" disappeared from walls. There were shouts of "Russians go home" and "Jrucho' maricon" ("Khrushchev is a queer"). Soon the crowds had invented a new chant:

Nikita, Nikita,

Lo que se da no se quita.

Nikita, Nikita,

What you give, you can't take away.

Russian soldiers in Cuba were as confused as their Cuban hosts. Many went out and got drunk. A CIA agent in Pinar del Rio described numerous cases of Soviet soldiers selling "watches, boots, and even eyeglasses to raise cash for liquor." Many were happy to be finally going home, but others broke down and cried, according to a dispatch from the Czech ambassador to Havana. "Some experts and technicians refused to work further and there were many cases of drunkenness in old Havana."

Most bewildered of all were the commanders who had spent the last three months shipping some of the most powerful weapons known to mankind halfway around the world and targeting them on cities like Washington and New York. The commander of the missile troops, Major General Statsenko, found it difficult to understand what Moscow wanted from him. As his men labored to fulfill Khrushchev's order to dismantle the missile sites, he vented his frustration to a representative of the Soviet General Staff.

"First you urged me to complete the launch sites as quickly as possible. And now you are criticizing me for dismantling them so slowly."

Over the next few days and nights, Fidel prepared his people for a long struggle ahead. He went back to la colina, the hilltop campus of the University of Havana that had been the scene of his early struggles against Batista, to urge students "to tighten your belts and perhaps even to die" in defense of their homeland. Cuba risked becoming "an abandoned island without oil and electricity," he warned. "But we prefer to go back to primitive agriculture than accept the loss of sovereignty."

But even as he fulminated against the Soviets, Castro remained the practical politician. "We won't make the same mistake twice," he told his youthful followers. Cuba would not "break with the Russians" so soon after "breaking with the Americans." Anything was preferable to being driven back into the arms of Uncle Sam. In order to save his revolution, Fidel was willing to make the supreme sacrifice: he would swallow his pride.

Back at the White House, after the rest of the ExComm had left, JFK found himself alone with Bobby. Together, they reviewed the events of the previous thirteen days, and particularly the final day, Black Saturday, when the world had seemed to teeter on the brink of nuclear war. There had been many times over the last twenty-four hours when Kennedy, like Abraham Lincoln before him, had reason to ask himself whether he controlled events or events controlled him.

History, Kennedy understood, does not always flow in predictable directions. Sometimes it can be hijacked by fanatics of various descriptions, by men with long beards, by ideologues living in caves, by assassins with rifles. At others, it can be yanked from its normal path by a combination of chance events, such as an airplane going astray, the misidentification of a missile, or a soldier losing his temper. Statesmen try to bend the chaotic forces of history to their will, with varying degrees of success. The likelihood of an unpredictable event occurring that can change the course of history is always greater at times of war and crisis, when everything is in flux.

The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all. In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash.

Much of the relief felt by Kennedy on the afternoon of Sunday, October 28, was due to the fact that he and Khrushchev had succeeded in regaining control of historical events. After threatening to erupt in nuclear conflagration, the Cold War would settle back into its familiar rhythm. Men of common sense and reason had defeated the forces of destruction and chaos. The issue now was whether the victory for order and predictability would be long-lasting or fleeting.

Casting around for an appropriate historical precedent, JFK thought of one of his predecessors. On April 14, 1865, five days after accepting the South's surrender in the Civil War, Lincoln decided to celebrate his moment of triumph by paying a visit to Ford's Theatre, to see a production of Our American Cousin.

"This is the night I should go to the theater," said Jack.

Unsure whether to be amused or protective, Bobby played along with his brother's macabre joke.

"If you go, I want to go with you."

Some of the characters in this story were quickly forgotten; others were destined for fame and notoriety. Some were disgraced; others rose to positions of great influence. Some led long and happy lives; others had their lives cut short by tragedy. But all were marked in a lasting way by "the most dangerous moment" in history.

The two CIA saboteurs, Miguel Orozco and Pedro Vera, spent seventeen years in Cuban jails before being sent back to the United States. The man who smuggled them into Cuba, Eugenio Rolando Martinez, was arrested at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 while breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Charles Maultsby was forbidden by the U.S. Air Force from flying anywhere remotely near the North Pole or the Chukot Peninsula. He died of prostate cancer in 1998.

Viktor Mikheev, the Russian soldier killed while preparing a nuclear missile attack on the Guantanamo Naval Base, was buried in Cuban military uniform in Santiago. His remains were later transferred to the Soviet military cemetery in El Chico. His family was told only that he died "performing his internationalist duty."

George Anderson was dismissed from his position as chief of naval operations in August 1963 and appointed U.S. ambassador to Portugal.

William Harvey was removed as head of Operation Mongoose after the missile crisis and sent as CIA station chief to Rome, where he drank heavily.

Dmitri Yazov became Soviet defense minister in 1987 and led a failed coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.

John Scali served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Nixon.

Curtis LeMay was caricatured as the maniacal Air Force general Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. In 1968, he ran for vice president of the United States on a ticket headed by the segregationist George Wallace.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to pursue his dream of worldwide revolution. He was killed in the mountains of Bolivia by CIA-supported government forces in 1967.

Robert McNamara remained secretary of defense until 1968. He later repented of his role in escalating the war in Vietnam, and came to believe that only "luck" had prevented nuclear war over Cuba.

Nikita Khrushchev was removed from office in October 1964. His fellow Presidium members accused him of "megalomania," "adventurism," "damaging the international prestige of our government," and taking the world to "the brink of nuclear war."

Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in California in June 1968 while campaigning to be elected president.

John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963. His assassin had been active in a left-wing protest group that called itself "Fair Play for Cuba."

Fidel Castro remained in power for another forty-five years. In February 2008, he was succeeded as president of Cuba by his brother, Raul.

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