3:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22 (10:00 P.M. MOSCOW)
Night had already fallen in Moscow when Nikita Khrushchev learned that his great missile gamble had probably failed. Reports had been arriving all evening of unusual activity at the White House and the Pentagon, culminating in the news that the president had requested airtime from the networks to address the American people on a matter of the "highest national urgency." The time set for the broadcast was 7:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 2:00 a.m. the following day in Moscow.
The Soviet premier had just returned from a walk around the grounds of his residence on the Lenin Hills when he took the telephone call. He had selected this spot, high above a bend on the Moscow River, for his home because of its fabulous view over the city. It also had a celebrated place in Russian history. One and a half centuries before, on September 16, 1812, Napoleon had stood on this very hill as the conqueror of Europe. What should have been a moment of triumph was transformed by the scorched-earth tactics of the Russian defenders into his most terrible defeat. Instead of the prize he had hoped to claim, the emperor gazed out over a burning, devastated city. A month later, he ordered a general retreat.
"They've probably discovered our missiles," Khrushchev told his son Sergei, as he ordered other members of the Soviet leadership to meet with him in the Kremlin. "They're defenseless. Everything can be destroyed from the air in one swipe."
A pair of chaika limousines--one for Khrushchev, one for his securitymen--whisked the Soviet leader across the river. Khrushchev detested nighttime meetings. He had held few, if any, of them in his nine years in power. They reminded him of Stalin's times, when the dictator would summon his terrified subordinates to the Kremlin in the middle of the night. Nobody had ever known what to expect. An angry glance could be a prelude to promotion. A smile might mean death. It all depended on the tyrant's whim.
The chaika deposited Khrushchev outside the old Senate Building in the heart of the Kremlin, overlooking Red Square. An elevator took him to his office on the third floor, off a long, high-ceilinged corridor, with an immaculate red runner down the middle. His colleagues were already gathering in the Presidium meeting room two doors down. Although power formally resided in the Soviet government, in practice all important decisions were taken by the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. As chairman of the Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Central Committee, Khrushchev headed both power structures simultaneously.
"It's a pre-electoral trick," insisted Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister, when the meeting finally got started at 10:00 p.m. "If they were going to declare an invasion of Cuba, they would need several days to get prepared."
Malinovsky had prepared a decree authorizing Soviet troops on Cuba to use "all available means" to defend the island. The formula alarmed Khrushchev. "If they were to use all means without exception, that would include the [medium-range] missiles," he objected. "It would be the start of a thermonuclear war. How can we imagine such a thing?"
Khrushchev was a man of many moods. He could switch from ebullience to despair in minutes. Uneducated in any formal sense, he dominated his colleagues through the force of his personality: bold, visionary, and energetic, but at the same time explosive, crafty, and quick to take offense. "He's either all the way up or all the way down," was his wife's description. His long-suffering foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, testified that Khrushchev had "enough emotion for ten people--at least." Right now, he was upset with the Americans, but he was also anxious to avoid a nuclear confrontation.
The way Khrushchev saw it, a U.S. invasion of Cuba was a very real possibility. He could not understand why Kennedy had been so indecisive at the Bay of Pigs. When counterrevolutionaries took over Hungary in October 1956, Khrushchev had waited a few days, and then ordered the Soviet army to crush the uprising. That was the way superpowers behaved. It was "only natural," he observed in his memoirs, many years later. "The U.S. couldn't accept the idea of a socialist Cuba, right off the coast of the United States, serving as a revolutionary example to the rest of Latin America. Likewise, we prefer to have socialist countries for neighbors because that is expedient for us."
Stopping an American invasion of Cuba had been the principal motivation for Operation Anadyr, Khrushchev told his colleagues. "We didn't want to unleash a war, we just wanted to frighten them, to restrain the United States in regard to Cuba."
The "problem," he now admitted, was that the Americans had apparently got wind of the operation before it had been completed. If all had gone according to plan, he would have flown to Havana for a triumphant military parade, at which Soviet soldiers would have made their first public appearance in uniform alongside their Cuban brothers. The two countries would have formally signed a defense agreement, sealed by the deployment of dozens of Soviet nuclear missiles, targeted on the United States. The imperialists would have been presented with a fait accompli.
Events had turned out very differently. Several dozen Soviet ships were still on the high seas, together with the intermediate-range R-14 missiles. The medium-range R-12s had been deployed, but most were still not ready to fire. Unbeknownst to the Americans, however, the Soviets had dozens of short-range battlefield missiles on the island, equipped with nuclear warheads capable of wiping out an entire invading force.
"The tragic thing is that they can attack us, and we will respond," Khrushchev fretted. "This could all end up in a big war."
He now regretted rejecting Castro's pleas to sign and announce a defense treaty with Cuba before deploying the missiles, thus avoiding American charges of duplicity. Washington had defense agreements with countries like Turkey, right next to the Soviet Union, and could hardly object to similar actions by Moscow.
Dominating the Presidium debate, Khrushchev outlined possible Soviet responses to the speech that Kennedy was about to deliver. One option was to formally extend the Soviet nuclear umbrella to Cuba by announcing a defense treaty immediately, over the radio. A second was to transfer all Soviet weaponry to Cuban control in the event of an American attack. The Cubans would then announce they intended to use the weapons to defend their country. A final option was to permit Soviet troops on Cuba to use the short-range nuclear weapons to defend themselves, but not the strategic missiles capable of reaching America.
The records of this crucial Presidium meeting are fragmentary and confused. But they suggest that Khrushchev believed that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent and that he was prepared to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against American troops. He was dissuaded from taking a hasty decision by his hawkish defense minister, who believed that the Americans did not have sufficient naval forces in the Caribbean to seize Cuba immediately. Malinovsky feared that a premature move by the Kremlin would do more harm than good. It might even provide an excuse for a U.S. nuclear strike.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had informed the Soviet Foreign Ministry that it would transmit an important message to Khrushchev from Kennedy at 1:00 a.m. Moscow time, 6:00 p.m. in Washington. "Let's wait until one o'clock," Malinovsky counseled.
A roar of tanks, missile carriers, and marching soldiers drifted over the redbrick walls of the Kremlin into the Presidium meeting room as Malinovsky spoke. Among the examples of heavy weaponry trundling through Red Square was the R-12 missile now in Cuba, escorted by troops of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the elite military arm responsible for nuclear weapons. Presidium members were too preoccupied with the looming confrontation with the rival superpower to pay much attention. They knew that the awe-inspiring display of military might beneath their windows was simply a dress rehearsal for the annual Revolution Day parade.
The immediate reactions of the two superpower leaders when confronted by the gravest international crisis of their careers were much the same: shock, wounded pride, grim determination, and barely repressed fear. Kennedy had wanted to bomb the Soviet missile sites; Khrushchev contemplated the use of tactical nuclear weapons against American troops. Either option could easily have led to full-scale nuclear war.
While their initial instincts may have been similar, it is difficult to think of two more different personalities than John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. One was the son of an American millionaire, born and bred to a life of privilege. The other was the son of a Ukrainian peasant, who went barefoot as a child and wiped his nose on his sleeve. One man's rise seemed effortless and natural; the other had clawed his way up through a combination of sycophancy and ruthlessness. One was introspective, the other explosive. The differences extended even to their looks--lean and graceful with a full head of hair versus short, plump, and bald--and their family lives. One wife looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine; the other was the archetypal Russian babushka.
The sixty-eight-year-old Khrushchev was the product of one of the toughest political schools imaginable: a despot's court. His meteoric ascent was due not to his public appeal but to his skill at pleasing Stalin and playing the bureaucratic game. He had learned that politics is a dirty business, requiring vast reserves of guile and patience. He knew how to win the trust of others, biding his time before mercilessly crushing his rivals from a position of strength. He had a flair for dramatic gestures that took his enemies by surprise, whether denouncing Stalin as a mass murderer, arresting the secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, or launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite.
Along with cynicism and cruelty, Khrushchev also displayed an idealistic, almost religious streak. He was a fervent believer, not in the afterlife, but in a man-made paradise on earth. The promise of communism had transformed his own life; it could do the same for his fellow country-men. He was convinced that communism would eventually prove itself to be a better, fairer, and more efficient system than capitalism. A Communist society--a state of egalitarian abundance in which everybody's needs are fully satisfied--would be "just about built" within two decades, he declared in 1961. By that time, the Soviet Union would have overtaken the United States in material wealth.
Khrushchev was proud of his humble roots and his ability to outwit stronger, richer, and more educated opponents. He compared himself to a poor Jewish shoemaker in a Ukrainian fairy tale, who is ignored and scorned by everybody but chosen as their leader because of his courage and energy. On another occasion, he said politics was "like the old joke about the two Jews traveling on a train." One Jew asks the other, "Where are you going?" and gets the reply, "To Zhitomir." "What a sly fox," thinks the first Jew. "I know he's really going to Zhitomir, but he told me Zhitomir so I'll think he is going to Zhmerinka." Taken together, the two stories captured Khrushchev's view of politics as a game of bluff and daring.
Dealing with Kennedy was child's play compared with dealing with monsters like Stalin and Beria. "Not strong enough," Khrushchev remarked after meeting JFK in Vienna. "Too intelligent and too weak." The difference in their ages--Khrushchev was twenty-three years older than Kennedy--was also apparent. The U.S. president was "young enough to be my son," the first secretary noted. Although Khrushchev later confessed to "feeling a bit sorry" for Kennedy in Vienna, he did not let that stand in the way of giving his rival a brutal dressing-down. He understood that politics was "a merciless business."
Khrushchev's approach to international relations was shaped by his awareness of Soviet weakness. While his public persona was that of the blustering bully, he felt far from confident in the summer of 1962. The Soviet Union was surrounded by American military bases, from Turkey in the West to Japan in the East. America had many more nuclear missiles targeted on the USSR than vice versa. An ideological schism with China threatened Soviet preeminence in the worldwide Communist movement. For all the boasts about the coming utopia, the country was still struggling to recover from World War II.
Khrushchev had done his best to disguise the fact that the Soviet Union was the weaker superpower with spectacular public relations feats. He had launched the first man into space and tested the world's largest nuclear bomb. "America recognizes only strength," he told associates. His son Sergei was taken aback when Khrushchev boasted that the Soviet Union was churning out intercontinental rockets "like sausages." A missile engineer himself, he knew this was not true.
"How can you say that when we only have two or three?" Sergei protested.
"The important thing is to make the Americans believe that," his father replied. "That way, we prevent an attack." Sergei concluded that Soviet policy was based on threatening the United States with "weapons we didn't have."
As the number two superpower, the Soviet Union had to constantly threaten and bluster in order to be heard. "Your voice must impress people with its certainty," Khrushchev told his Presidium colleagues in January 1962. "Don't be afraid to bring it to a white heat, otherwise we won't get anything."
There was a big difference, however, between deliberately bringing international tensions to a boiling point and permitting the pot to boil over. The purpose of the missile deployment, Khrushchev kept emphasizing, was not "to start a war" but to give the Americans a taste of "their own medicine."
Although Khrushchev initially preferred the Democrat Kennedy to the Republican Eisenhower, he had come to regard the two presidents as made from "the same shit." Spending the summer at his villa in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, he seethed with resentment over the presence of American nuclear warheads just across the water in Turkey, five minutes' flying time away. He would hand visitors a pair of binoculars and ask them what they could see. When the mystified guests described an endless vista of water, Khrushchev would grab the binoculars and announce angrily: "I see U.S. missiles, aimed at my dacha." But he was cheered by the thought of the surprise he was about to spring.
"It's been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy," Khrushchev told a mystified U.S. secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, in Sochi back in September. "Now we can swat your ass."
4:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22
It was, thought Kennedy, the "best kept secret" of his administration. A group known as the ExComm, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, made up of the president and twelve of his most trusted aides, had been debating the mounting crisis in Cuba for six days, without any leaks to the press. The White House had done everything possible to keep the story out of the newspapers. At one point, nine ExComm members had piled into the same car to avoid the spectacle of a long line of official limousines arriving for a crisis meeting at the White House. Distinguished cabinet officers like Bob McNamara and John McCone were reduced to sitting in each other's laps.
State Department officials whose responsibilities had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or Cuba were ordered to arrive at the White House in the biggest limousines they could find. The assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, Averell Harriman, spent hours in an empty West Wing office on Sunday morning, serving as a decoy for reporters assembled in the lobby. "How long do I have to sit here?" he grumbled.
By Sunday evening, reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post had pieced together much of the story. The president called the publishers of the two newspapers to ask them to hold back. With some reluctance--JFK had made a similar request prior to the Bay of Pigs, the greatest fiasco of his presidency--they agreed. The headlines in the Monday morning edition of the Post barely hinted at what the reporters really knew:
Major U.S. Decision
On Policy Is Awaited;
Moves Kept Secret.
Rumors Are Many
As Top Defense,
State Aides Confer.
By Monday afternoon, the secret was almost out. At noon, Marines began evacuating civilians from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, escorting 2,810 women and children to waiting warships and planes. Urgent messages were dispatched to vacationing congressional leaders telling them to return to Washington immediately. A military helicopter located Democratic house whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and dropped him a note in a bottle. "Call Operator 18, Washington. Urgent message from the President." Soon, Air Force jets were whisking Boggs and other congressional leaders to the capital.
Kennedy stuck with his scheduled appointments, spending forty-five minutes discussing African economic development with the prime minister of Uganda. At 4:00 p.m., he held a cabinet meeting, telling startled cabinet secretaries that he had decided on a naval blockade of Cuba to counter the deployment of Soviet missiles. P-hour--code word for the presidential address to the nation--was still three hours away.
In the meantime, the State Department had launched a vast logistical operation to inform governments around the world of the blockade, which would be termed a "quarantine" in order to sound less threatening. Most foreign governments, including the Soviet one, would hear the news at 6:00 p.m. Washington time, an hour before Kennedy went on television. A few close allies, such as Britain, Germany, and France, received advance notice from special presidential emissaries.
Former secretary of state Dean Acheson was ushered into the study of French president Charles de Gaulle in Paris after flying all night from Washington. Normally mistrustful of American assurances, the general dismissed Acheson's offer to produce photographic proof of Soviet missile deployment in Cuba with a magisterial wave of his hand. "A great nation like yours would not act if there were any doubt about the evidence," he announced. Of course, France would support its ally. It was only later that he agreed to examine the U-2 pictures with the help of a magnifying glass.
"Extraordinaire," the old soldier muttered.
4:39 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22
The air defense commanders participating in the conference call from NORAD headquarters could scarcely believe their ears. General John Gerhart, commander in chief of the North American Defense Command, wanted them to install nuclear weapons onto fighter-interceptor jets and dispatch them to dozens of airfields in remote locations. The order was to be carried out immediately.
Within minutes, worried commanders were flooding the Combat Center in Colorado Springs with calls. Surely there must be some mistake. Strict safety regulations governed the movement of nuclear weapons. The F-106s that Gerhart wanted dispersed were single-seater jets, whose mission was to destroy incoming Soviet bombers. To load these planes with nuclear weapons and send them across the country violated the "buddy system," a sacrosanct Air Force doctrine that required at least two officers to be in physical control of a nuclear weapon at all times. In the words of a shocked nuclear safety officer, Gerhart's order meant that a single pilot, "by an inadvertent act, would have been able to achieve the full nuclear detonation of the weapon."
The only exception to the buddy system was in time of war, when an enemy attack was considered imminent. While the newspapers were full of rumors about a crisis brewing over Cuba or Berlin, there was no evidence that the Soviets were about to strike.
Many Air Force officers were skeptical about the safety of the nuclear weapon that was to be loaded aboard the fighter-interceptors. Hailed by the Pentagon as a wonder weapon, the MB-1 "Genie" was an air-to-air missile equipped with a 1.5-kiloton warhead, one-tenth the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Some pilots considered it "the dumbest weapons system ever purchased." Rather than hitting a target, the unguided missile was designed to explode in midair, destroying any planes that might be in the vicinity through the sheer force of the blast.
The purpose of a dispersal operation was to prevent U.S. Air Force fighters and bombers from becoming sitting targets for Soviet bombers. To have the capability of responding to a Soviet attack, the U.S. war-planes had to take their weapons with them, even if this meant flying over heavily populated areas to airfields that lacked adequate nuclear storage facilities.
The officers in Colorado Springs checked with their superiors. The reply came back moments later. The dispersal order stood. Soon nuclear-armed F-106s were "booming off the runway" at Air Force bases all across the country without local commanders understanding what was going on.
5:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22
During the first week of the crisis, Kennedy and his advisers had the luxury of being able to consider their options without feeling the need to respond immediately to the pressure of public opinion. By keeping the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba a tightly held secret within the government, they gained a few days of reflection, which proved enormously valuable. They avoided alarming the Kremlin, and did not have to explain themselves constantly to Congress and the press. Had JFK been obliged to make a snap decision on how to respond to Khrushchev the day he found out about the missiles, events could have taken a very different course.
The pace of the crisis quickened dramatically as it moved into the public phase. The change became apparent as soon as congressional leaders filed into the Cabinet Room to receive a private presidential briefing two hours before Kennedy was due to go on television. The onetime junior senator from Massachusetts now had former congressional colleagues looking over his shoulder, second-guessing his decisions. Soon they would be joined by every political pundit in the country.
"My God," gasped Senator Richard B. Russell, at the news that at least some of the Soviet missiles on Cuba were "ready to fire."
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee could barely contain himself as he listened to the president present his plan for a naval blockade around Cuba. He felt that a much tougher response was required: an air strike followed by invasion. Giving the Communists "time to pause and think" was pointless because it would only allow them to get "better prepared." Russell agreed with General LeMay. War with the Soviet Union was all but inevitable, sooner or later. The time to fight it was now, while America was strong.
"It seems to me we're at the crossroads," the senator said. "We're either a world class power or we're not."
Kennedy tried to reason with Russell. He wanted the congressional leadership to understand how he had arrived at his decision. A blockade was risky enough: it could lead to war "within twenty-four hours" in Berlin or some other trouble spot. But the risks would be magnified many times by a surprise attack on the missile sites. "If we go into Cuba, we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won't be fired.... That is one hell of a gamble."
The Senate's intellectual oracle, former Rhodes Scholar William Fulbright, spoke up in support of his fellow Southern Democrat. He had opposed the Bay of Pigs adventure, but now wanted an "all-out" invasion of Cuba "as quickly as possible."
The criticism from his former colleagues stung the president. "If they want this job, fuck 'em," he exploded, his eyes flashing with anger, as he went up to the residence to prepare for the television address. "They can have it. It's no great joy to me."
6:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22 (1:00 A.M. TUESDAY, MOSCOW)
Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, was summoned to the State Department at 6:00 p.m. He knew nothing about the missiles on Cuba, having been kept in the dark by his own government. His normally jovial face went ashen as the secretary of state handed him a copy of the president's speech and a private warning to Khrushchev not to underestimate American "will and determination." Dean Rusk thought that the envoy seemed to age "ten years" in the few minutes he spoke with him. To Dobrynin, Rusk himself was "clearly in a nervous and agitated mood although he tried to conceal it."
"Is this a crisis?" the reporters yelled, as Dobrynin emerged from the State Department clutching a large manila envelope.
"What do you think?" the ambassador replied grimly. He waved the envelope at the reporters as he got into his black Chrysler limousine.
Seven time zones away in Moscow, Richard Davies, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy, delivered identical documents to the Soviet Foreign Ministry. They were in Khrushchev's hands fifteen minutes later. The news was not as bad as he feared. The president was demanding the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, but had not set a deadline. "This is not a war against Cuba, but some kind of ultimatum," was Khrushchev's immediate reaction.
His mood, always changeable, now shifted from despair to relief. "We've saved Cuba," he announced ebulliently.
Kennedy's decision to impose a naval blockade effectively halted the supply of Soviet military equipment to Cuba. Khrushchev was pleased to learn that the three R-12 medium-range missile regiments had already reached the island, along with most of their gear. Only one of the eighteen ships used to transport the regiments was still at sea. The 11,000-ton Yuri Gagarin, loaded with missile fueling equipment, was approaching the Bahamas, two days' sailing time from Havana. Most of the headquarters staff for one of the R-12 regiments were also on board.
The two R-14 regiments were a different matter. Fourteen ships had been chartered to transport the bigger intermediate-range missiles, which were capable of hitting targets throughout the United States, along with the troops and associated paraphernalia. Only one of these ships had made it safely to Cuba. Two more were less than a day's sailing time away. One was a passenger ship, the Nikolaevsk, with more than two thousand soldiers aboard. The other, the Divnogorsk, was a small Polish-built tanker. The rockets themselves were still in the middle of the Atlantic.
Most worrying of all to Khrushchev was the Aleksandrovsk, a 5,400-ton freighter crammed with nuclear warheads. Her cargo included twenty-four 1-megaton warheads for the R-14 missile, each one of which contained the destructive force of seventy Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. The explosive power concentrated on board the ship exceeded all the bombs dropped in the history of warfare by a factor of at least three.
After a sixteen-day voyage from the port of Severomorsk, high above the Arctic Circle, the Aleksandrovsk was approaching the northern coast of Cuba. The ship was still in international waters, nearly half a day's sailing time from the closest Cuban port. She was obviously a prime target for interception by the U.S. Navy. Nuclear-armed submarines had escorted the Aleksandrovsk part of the way across the Atlantic, but she was now practically defenseless, accompanied only by another Soviet freighter, the Almetyevsk. If the Americans tried to board, the captain had orders to open fire with automatic weapons, blow up his ship, and send the equivalent of 25 million tons of TNT to the bottom of the sea. The Aleksandrovsk must not be permitted to fall into enemy hands.
In addition to the surface ships, there were also four Soviet submarines out in the western Atlantic. Khrushchev had initially planned to build a modern submarine base in Cuba, but had scaled these plans back in late September. Instead of nuclear-powered submarines, which were capable of remaining under the ocean for weeks at a time, he dispatched four Foxtrot-class diesel-electric submarines. The Foxtrots were larger, updated versions of the German U-boats that had harassed Allied shipping in World War II. The difference was that they each carried a small nuclear-tipped torpedo, in addition to twenty-one conventional torpedoes.
Recovering from his initial shock, Khrushchev began making a series of rapid decisions. He ordered a heightening of alert levels for Soviet military units. He dictated letters to Kennedy and Castro. He drafted a statement denouncing the blockade as "an act of piracy" and accusing the United States of pushing the world to the edge of "thermonuclear war." But his anger was tempered with caution. To reduce the risk of a confrontation with American warships, he ordered the return of most of the Soviet vessels that had not reached Cuban waters. The recalled ships included the wide-hatch freighters Kimovsk and Poltava, both loaded with R-14 missiles, and the Yuri Gagarin, with equipment for one of the R-12 regiments. Ships with nonmilitary cargoes, such as the oil tanker Bucharest, were authorized to proceed to Cuba. The vessels closest to Cuba, including the warhead-carrying Aleksandrovsk, were instructed to head for the nearest port.
After earlier considering the idea of authorizing Soviet commanders on Cuba to use tactical nuclear weapons in response to a U.S. invasion, Khrushchev now rejected this option. He also decided against transferring control of Soviet weaponry to the Cubans or announcing a formal defense treaty with Cuba. Instead, he dictated an order to the commander in chief of the Soviet Group of Forces, General Issa Pliyev:
In connection with the possible landing on Cuba by Americans taking part in exercises in the Caribbean sea, take urgent measures to increase combat readiness and defeat the enemy, through the joint efforts of the Cuban army and all Soviet troop units, excluding the weapons of STATSENKO and all the cargoes of BELOBORODOV.
Major General Igor Statsenko was the commander of the Soviet missile troops on Cuba; Colonel Nikolai Beloborodov had responsibility for the nuclear warheads. Decoded, the message meant that Soviet troops on Cuba had orders to resist an American invasion, but were not authorized to use nuclear weapons of any kind. Khrushchev was determined to maintain personal control over the warheads.
Kremlin notetakers struggled to keep pace with a jumble of thoughts and instructions from the first secretary:
Order the return of the ships (those ships that have not yet arrived).
(Everybody says this is the correct decision.)
Issue a Soviet government statement--a protest.
The USA is on a course for preparing and unleashing the third world war.
American imperialism is trying to dictate its will to everybody else.
We protest. All countries have the right to defend themselves and to conclude alliances.
The USSR is also armed, we protest these piratic actions....
Let the four submarines continue. The Aleksandrovsk should go to the nearest port.
Send Castro a telegram.
We have received Kennedy's letter.
A crude interference in Cuba's affairs.
Foreign Ministry officials worked on the draft letters overnight, transforming the premier's excited ramblings into bureaucratic prose. In the meantime, Khrushchev urged his colleagues to sleep in the Kremlin, to avoid giving the impression of undue alarm to foreign correspondents and any "intelligence agents" who might be "prowling around." He himself retired to a sofa in an anteroom of his office. He slept in his clothes. He had heard a story about a French foreign minister who had been "caught literally with his pants down" in the middle of the night during the 1956 Suez crisis. He wanted to avoid a similar indignity. As he later recalled, "I was ready for alarming news to come at any moment, and I wanted to be ready to react immediately."
When Kennedy and his aides pondered Khrushchev's motives for sending missiles to Cuba, their standard explanation was that he wanted to change the balance of nuclear power. The Soviet Union was at a serious disadvantage in long-range rockets and planes--so-called "strategic" weapons--but had plenty of medium-range ballistic missiles, or MRBMs, targeted on Europe. Redeployed to Cuba, the MRBMs were magically transformed into strategic weapons, capable of hitting the territory of the rival superpower.
Achieving strategic parity with the United States was certainly an important motivation for Khrushchev, who deeply resented American nuclear superiority. He was eager to get even with the Americans for both political and military reasons. But declassified Soviet records show that his emotions also played an important role in his decision making. Castro and his barbudos had stirred the romanticism of the tired old men in the Kremlin, reminding them that they, too, had once been revolutionaries.
"He is a genuine revolutionary, completely like us," reported Anastas Mikoyan, after becoming the first Soviet leader to meet with Castro in February 1960. "I felt as though I had returned to my childhood."
A "heroic man" was how Khrushchev described Castro when they first embraced on September 20, 1960, outside the Theresa Hotel in Harlem. Both leaders were in New York for a United Nations General Assembly meeting, but Castro had left his hotel in midtown to protest the management's "unacceptable cash demands." The six-foot-four Cuban bent down and enveloped the five-foot-three Russian in an effusive bear hug. "He made a deep impression on me," Khrushchev recalled later. Eventually, he would come to love Fidel "like a son."
The Soviets had never been much interested in Latin America prior to Castro's rise to power. Moscow did not even have an embassy in Havana between 1952 and 1960. Totally unexpected by Soviet ideologists, the Cuban revolution permitted an encircled, economically backward colossus to feel that it could project its power to the very doorstep of the imperialist enemy. In 1960, the KGB began referring to Cuba by the code name AVANPOST, or "bridgehead" into the western hemisphere. From the Soviet point of view, the Cuban revolution was not merely an opportunity to annoy Uncle Sam but proof that the worldwide "correlation of forces" was moving in Moscow's direction.
The Cubans were well aware of the effect they were having on the Soviets, and used it to their advantage. "Nikita loved Cuba very much," Castro would recall forty years later. "He had a weakness for Cuba, you might say." When Castro wanted to get something out of his Russian patrons, he posed a very simple question: "Are you or are you not revolutionaries?" Put like that, it was hard for Khrushchev to say no.
Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev saw no limits to the extension of Soviet power and influence. Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, had once said that big powers had to "understand that there are limits to everything, otherwise you can choke." But Khrushchev was more of a dreamer than his predecessor. In some ways, his idealism was the mirror image of Kennedy's: the Soviet Union would "pay any price, bear any burden" to defend the gains of socialism around the world. For Khrushchev, Cuba and Castro were as much a symbol of Soviet success as Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin.
After the failure of the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev was convinced it was simply a matter of time before the United States again attempted to overthrow Castro. He reasoned that "it would be foolish to expect the inevitable second invasion to be as badly planned and as badly executed as the first." Information was reaching Moscow all the time about American plots against Cuba, both real and imagined. Some of the alarming signals arrived directly from the White House. When Khrushchev's son-in-law, Aleksei Adzhubei, met with Kennedy in January 1962, he was startled to hear the president say that the United States could learn something from the way the Russians had dealt with the unrest in Hungary in 1956. To the suspicious Soviet mind, this could mean only one thing: Washington was preparing to crush the Cuban revolution by force.
"One thought kept hammering away at my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba?" Khrushchev would recall in old age. "It would have been a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism."
As Khrushchev saw it, sending nuclear missiles to Cuba would enable him to solve many of his problems at once. He would make the island invulnerable to American aggression. He would equalize the balance of power. And he would teach the imperialists a salutary lesson. "It was high time America learned what it feels like to have her own land and her own people threatened," he would write. "We Russians have suffered three wars over the last half century: World War I, the Civil War, and World War II. America has never had to fight a war on her own soil, at least not in the past fifty years."
In April 1962, Khrushchev met with Malinovsky at his Black Sea retreat. He addressed the defense minister in the formal Russian manner, by name and patronymic. "Rodion Yakovlevich," he asked mischievously. "What if we were to throw a hedgehog down the pants of Uncle Sam?"
6:40 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22 (5:40 P.M. HAVANA)
The NORAD dispersal plan called for the F-106 squadron from the sprawling Selfridge Air Force Base outside Detroit to deploy to little-used Volk Field in Wisconsin. The pilots had practiced the short, thirty-minute hop many times, but never with nuclear weapons on board. Shortly before takeoff, the plan changed. Volk was shrouded in fog. They would fly instead to Hulman Field outside Terre Haute, Indiana.
There was a last-minute scramble to find the right charts. Then came news that Hulman Field was undergoing repairs, and there was only seven thousand feet of usable asphalt runway. It was tricky, but doable.
Flying with nukes was a signal to Dan Barry, a twenty-seven-year-old Air Force lieutenant, that "something big was about to happen." He and his fellow pilots knew that the president was scheduled to speak at seven o'clock that evening, but had no idea what to expect. As the six-plane squadron flew southwest across Ohio and Indiana, the pilots scanned the northern sky for incoming Soviet planes and missiles.
The first five planes landed without incident, avoiding the rocks and debris at the beginning of the runway. The last F-106 was piloted by the flight leader, Captain Darrell Gydesen, known as "Gyd" to his fellow pilots. Just before touching down, he felt a sudden gust of tailwind. He released the drag chute to slow the plane down.
The pilot chute deployed but failed to blossom properly. The drag chute remained in its canister. It took Gydesen only a fraction of a second to realize that his plane was hurtling at high speed toward the end of a shortened runway with a nuclear warhead in the rear of the missile bay.
The first information to reach Fidel Castro on the gathering crisis had come from Cuban spies inside the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Hundreds of Cuban service workers streamed through the Marine Guard checkpoints every day. It was a simple matter for Cuban intelligence to infiltrate its own agents onto the forty-five-square-mile base. Reports of Marine reinforcements were soon followed by news that women and children were being evacuated.
When Castro heard that the U.S. president was planning a televised address, probably connected with the situation in Cuba, he decided he could wait no longer. The regular Cuban army was 105,000 strong. By mobilizing the reserves, Castro could triple the size of his armed forces in seventy-two hours. His poorly equipped army might still be no match for the 1st Infantry Division but, with Soviet support, it could certainly make life very unpleasant for a yanqui invading force.
Even before Castro issued the alarma de combate at 5:40 p.m. Havana time, twenty minutes before Kennedy was due to go on TV, his commanders had already been implementing Operational Directive No. 1. The eight-hundred-mile-long island was divided into three defense zones, as during the Bay of Pigs. Fidel sent his younger brother, Raul, to the eastern end of the island. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born doctor turned guerrilla leader, took charge of western Pinar del Rio Province. Juan Almeida, the black army chief of staff, commanded the central sector, with his headquarters at Santa Clara. Fidel remained in the capital.
Soon, militiamen were reporting to their posts all over the island. Artillery batteries took up positions along the Malecon, Havana's north-facing stone seawall. A pair of gunboats moved into the bay. At the university, high on a hill overlooking the Vedado district, known to all as la colina, professors handed out rifles to students who were chanting, "Cuba si, yanqui no." Twenty-year-old Fernando Davalos had just enough time to rush home to collect his uniform, his backpack, a towel, and a couple of cans of condensed milk, before reporting to the University Battalion. His father wanted to know where he was going. He had no idea.
"The Americans," he said breathlessly. "Turn on the radio. We've been mobilized."
Thirteen hundred miles away, Captain Gydesen applied the brakes as hard as he could to his runaway plane. As the F-106 screeched down the tarmac, he radioed the control tower that his drag chute had failed and he was "taking the barrier." A controller pushed a button, and webbing flipped up at the end of the runway. A few months earlier, an emergency stopping system had been installed in F-106s. In the event of a landing overshoot, a hook in the bottom of the fuselage latched onto the barrier.
The landing gear of the F-106 engaged the cable, braking the plane sharply as it overshot the runway and skidded onto a rough blacktop extension. There was a loud popping sound from a bursting tire. The F-106 was still moving forward when it reached the end of the 750-foot overrun.
As the plane left the overrun, its nosewheel sunk down into the grass, snapping off when it collided with a slab of concrete. The $3.3 million jet slid along on its damaged nosewheel strut for another hundred feet before finally coming to a halt.
Shaken but happy to have survived, Gydesen climbed out of the cockpit. The F-106, widely considered the most beautiful interceptor ever designed, with its sleek fuselage and swept-back wings, teetered precariously on its nose. The tires were shot, the landing gear was badly dented, and the pitot tube--a pressure-measuring device that sticks out from the front of fighter jets--had broken off. Otherwise, the plane was only lightly damaged.
The next morning, rescue workers arrived with cranes and heavy tractors to extricate the plane from the soft Indiana clay. The nuclear warhead, miraculously unscathed, was still in the missile bay.
7:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22
"Good evening, my fellow citizens."
Kennedy looked into the camera, his jaw jutting grimly. His face was taut, lacking its frequent puffiness. "This Government"--slight pause--"as promised"--another slight pause--"has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week"--he pronounced the word "past" in a Boston twang, lingering on the vowel--"unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island."
The Oval Office had become a television studio. Black fabric had been placed over the desk made from the oak timbers of HMS Resolute. Cables crisscrossed the canvas-covered floor. Furniture had been removed to make way for camera equipment, recorders, and a battery of lights. Sound technicians, neatly dressed in suits, knelt in front of the president. A dark board was placed behind him as a backdrop, together with the presidential flag.
Alerted by hours of excited news flashes, more than 100 million Americans tuned in to the speech, the largest audience for a presidential address up until that time. Although he spoke more slowly and deliberately than usual, Kennedy betrayed none of the doubts and anguish that had been welling up inside him for the past week. His goal was to rally the American people and convey political will to his rival in the Kremlin. The crisis would only end if the Soviet missiles were withdrawn.
The president expanded the Cold War doctrine of nuclear deterrence to embrace another two dozen countries, in addition to the United States and its traditional NATO allies: "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
Kennedy was America's first television president. Many thought he owed his razor-thin victory in the 1960 election to the televised debates with his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. He came across as rested and handsome--in contrast to Nixon who sweated profusely and had big bags under his eyes. Soon after taking office, Kennedy allowed television cameras into his weekly press conferences. Some predicted disaster. "The goofiest idea since the hula hoop," said James Reston of The New York Times. But JFK liked being able to communicate directly with the American people over the heads of columnists like Reston. Thanks to a revolutionary communications satellite called Telstar, presidential news conferences could even be aired live in Europe.
On this occasion, a network of ten private Florida radio stations had been patched together at the last moment to carry the presidential address live to Cuba, along with a simultaneous Spanish translation. Toward the end of the seventeen-minute speech, Kennedy addressed himself directly to "the captive people of Cuba": "Now your leaders are no longer Cuban leaders inspired by Cuban ideals. They are puppets and agents of an international conspiracy which has turned Cuba...into the first Latin American country to become a target for nuclear war...."
Kennedy's sallow appearance during his big speech had little to do with Cuba. His weight varied sharply according to the medicines he was taking for his numerous ailments, which ranged from Addison's disease to colitis to a venereal infection he had picked up as a teenager that flared up intermittently. Over the weekend, his slender six-foot-one frame had dropped nearly five pounds, to 1671/2 pounds. He was constantly suffering from various aches and pains.
"Patient too tired to exercise," read the medical notes on the president for October 22. "He had some pain in the left thigh and some tightness in the lower third of hamstrings." This was in addition to chronic pain in his lower back, caused in large part by excessive steroid therapy as a young man. His doctors were constantly arguing with each other over the best course of treatment. Some wanted to shoot him up with even more drugs; others prescribed a regimen of exercise and physical therapy.
As he emerged from the Oval Office, Kennedy saw a little man waiting by the door. It was Hans Kraus, a New York orthopedic surgeon hired as a consultant by the pro-exercise faction. The former trainer of the Austrian Olympic ski team had flown down from New York, not realizing that he had walked into a major international crisis. He had been seeing the president once or twice a week for the past year, but was becoming exasperated with the court atmosphere at the White House. He wanted everybody to know that he was "ready to quit if not appreciated."
There were several reasons for Kraus's frustration. He had been treating Kennedy free of charge. His attempts to interest the president in launching a national foundation on physical fitness had received only a tepid response. He had wracked up $2,782.54 in travel expenses, shuttling between New York, Washington, and the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, for which he had not been reimbursed. Finally, he was dismayed by the feuding between the president's various doctors. He felt it was vitally important to establish a clear chain of medical command. The president was so wrapped up in his speech that he barely recognized the unhappy Austrian. When he figured out who it was, he was apologetic.
"I'm sorry, doctor. I just don't have the time today."
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had gone to Defense (Readiness) Condition Three (DEFCON-3) as the president addressed the nation. Two steps short of nuclear war, DEFCON-3 envisioned the launching of the country's entire nuclear bomber fleet within fifteen minutes of a presidential order. To ensure survivability in the event of a Soviet first strike, the bombers had to be dispersed to airfields all over the country. Even as Kennedy finished speaking, nearly two hundred planes began crisscrossing America with live nuclear weapons on board, headed in many cases for civilian airports.
Among the units affected by the dispersal order was the 509th Bombardment Wing. Stationed at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, the Wing had an illustrious pedigree. Planes from the 509th had dropped the atomic bomb first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki during the dying days of World War II, the first and only time that nuclear weapons had ever been used in combat. Nearly eighty thousand people were killed instantly in Hiroshima, forty thousand in Nagasaki. Almost every building within a two-mile radius of Ground Zero was destroyed. In recognition of its exploits, the Wing was the only Air Force unit authorized to include a mushroom cloud in its insignia.
Together with the rest of SAC, the 509th now had the mission of obliterating dozens of military and industrial targets in Russia in the event of nuclear war. Its primary weapon was the venerable swept-wing B-47 Stratojet, an atomic-age workhorse that could be refueled in flight over the Mediterranean. Armed with two nuclear warheads, a single B-47 could deliver hundreds of times the destructive punch of the bombs that fell on Japan.
It was a short twenty-minute hop from Pease to Logan Airport in Boston. The bombers had to be defueled before takeoff, as it was unsafe to land with a full tank of gas. Like many of his fellow pilots, Captain Ruger Winchester had never landed a B-47 at a busy civilian airport before and was initially confused by the bright lights of the city. It was difficult to pick out the runway, so he made a visual pass the first time around, and had radar guide him in on the second approach.
Ground Control led the B-47s to an unused taxiway on a distant part of the field. The pilots, nuclear release documents hanging from their necks and .38 revolvers strapped to their belts, were taken to an Air National Guard office that would serve as their quarters. In the meantime, a convoy of service vehicles was driving down from Pease with maintenance crews and military police to guard the nukes.
Logan was totally unprepared for Operation Red Eagle, and the hugely complicated logistics of hosting a strategic bombing force. Refueling the planes dragged out for fifteen hours because of incompatible equipment. An Air Force lieutenant colonel had to use his personal credit card to purchase fuel for the B-47s from the local Mobil station; other officers scoured local grocery stores for food. Cots and bedding did not show up until 2:00 a.m. Only one outside telephone line was available in the alert facility. Security for the nuclear weapons on board the cocked planes was inadequate. There was even a shortage of vans to transport the alert crews to their planes if the klaxons went off. Eventually, logistics officers hired the necessary vehicles from Hertz and Avis.
The 509th would have had difficulty living up to its motto--Defensor-Vindex (Defender-Avenger)--had the Soviets attacked that first night. When the pilots inspected their planes the following morning, the wheels of the heavy six-engine bombers had carved deep ruts in the unstressed tarmac. Towtrucks were needed to pull the planes out.
9:00 P.M. MONDAY, OCTOBER 22 (8:00 P.M. HAVANA)
Fidel Castro marched into the office of Revolucion less than two hours after Kennedy finished speaking. The newspaper had been the clandestine organ of the guerrilla movement during the uprising against Batista, and was a refuge for Castro at moments of crisis, a place where he could both gather news and make news. Because of its history, Revolucion was permitted a little more independence than other Cuban press organs, much to the irritation of Communist Party bureaucrats surrounding el lider maximo.
That morning, on its own initiative, Revolucion had come out with a banner headline stripped across the front page:
Preparations for Yankee aggression
More Planes and Warships
Head Toward Florida
At the time, the headline had seemed alarmist. "Irresponsible," muttered the bureaucrats. But Fidel himself was unperturbed. Quite the opposite, in fact. The prospect of war emboldened and invigorated him. Pacing up and down, he dictated the next day's front page:
The nation has woken up on a war footing, ready to repulse any attack. Every weapon is in its place, and beside each weapon are the heroic defenders of the Revolution and the Motherland.... The revolutionary leaders, the entire government, are ready to die next to the people. From the length and breadth of the island resounds like thunder, from millions of voices, with more fervor and reason than ever before, the historic and glorious cry,
PATRIA O MUERTE! VENCEREMOS!
MOTHERLAND OR DEATH! WE WILL WIN!
"We shouldn't worry about the Yankees," Castro told his entourage, in a fit of bravado. "They're the ones who should be worried about us."
Before the revolution, the country estate at El Chico had belonged to a wealthy, pro-Batista newspaper publisher. The compound included a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a dozen bungalows. The most notable building was a two-story villa in the functional, boxlike style of American fifties architecture, with sliding doors leading out to a first-floor porch and a veranda above. Secluded, secure, only twelve miles southwest of Havana, it was an ideal location for Soviet military headquarters.
Soviet commanders had been gathering all evening at Punto Dos (Punto Uno was reserved for Castro). They had been summoned to El Chico from all over Cuba to attend a previously scheduled meeting of the Soviet Military Council, but the session kept on getting postponed. Colonels and majors from missile regiments and antiaircraft batteries waited impatiently in the conference room exchanging rumors as generals met behind closed doors.
Finally, General of the Army Issa Pliyev appeared, looking tired and ill. A fifty-eight-year-old cavalryman from Ossetia in the Caucasus Mountains, he had distinguished himself in World War II, leading the world's last great cavalry charge, against the Japanese in Manchuria. He had also demonstrated his loyalty to Khrushchev, commanding troops that put down food riots in the streets of Novocherkassk in southern Russia, a few months earlier. But he knew virtually nothing about missiles, and many of his subordinates had trouble understanding why he had been selected to command Operation Anadyr. Junior officers privately made fun of his misuse of military terminology. He would talk about "squadrons," as if he was still leading men on horseback, when he meant "batteries." He was known as an officer of the old school, who loved to quote from the Russian classics.
Pliyev had accepted the Cuba post reluctantly, out of a sense of duty. He had protested vehemently when told he would have to adopt a pseudonym, Pavlov, for security reasons. Plagued with gallbladder and kidney problems, he was a sick man when he flew into Havana in July 1962 aboard a giant Tu-114 belonging to the Soviet airline Aeroflot. The tropical climate did not agree with him. His gallstones worsened and he spent much of his time in bed. By the end of September, he was in intense pain and on the critical list. Some of the other generals proposed sending the patient back to Moscow, but the commander refused to leave. Gradually, his condition improved. One of the Soviet Union's top urologists arrived in Havana in mid-October to treat Pliyev, just as the United States learned of the existence of the missile sites.
The general explained the situation quickly. The Americans had imposed a naval blockade; he was declaring a full combat alert; everybody must return to their regiments immediately to repel a possible American paratroop drop.
As the commanders left El Chico for the nighttime journey back to their regiments, the roads were already full of trucks and buses transporting Cuban reservists to their posts. There were checkpoints everywhere, but the companeros sovieticos were waved through to shouts of "Viva Cuba, Viva la Union Sovietica."
"Cuba si, yanqui no," the militiamen chanted. "Patria o muerte."
The whole country was suddenly on a war footing. As news spread of Kennedy's speech and the mobilization of the Cuban armed forces, bewildered Soviet soldiers realized that they might soon be at war with the United States over a thin slither of land on the opposite side of the world to their homeland.
3:00 A.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23 (10:00 A.M. MOSCOW)
Forbidden by Khrushchev to leave the Kremlin, Soviet leaders spent an uncomfortable night in their offices on couches and chairs. They met again at 10:00 a.m. to approve the documents drafted overnight by Foreign Ministry officials, including the official Soviet government statement. Orders had already gone out, starting at 6:00 a.m., to sixteen Soviet ships to return home. The major piece of unfinished business was what to do with the four Foxtrot submarines.
The submarines were still three days' sailing time from Cuba. They were scattered across the ocean, but the leading sub was nearing the Turks and Caicos Islands, at the entrance to the Caribbean. Anastas Mikoyan, the most cautious member of the Presidium, wanted to hold the submarines back. He feared their presence in Cuban waters would only increase the risk of a confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet navies. If they continued their journey to Cuba, it was likely they would be detected by American warships. Malinovsky argued that the Foxtrots should proceed on course to the Cuban port of Mariel, where they were meant to set up a submarine base. Several Presidium members supported the minister of defense. Khrushchev let the debate swirl around him. He could not make up his mind.
The argument was finally resolved by the head of the Soviet navy, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. He was not present at the overnight Presidium meeting, but was invited to address a session later in the day. It was difficult to fault his expertise. Gorshkov had been personally selected by Khrushchev to create a modern navy capable of projecting Soviet power to the borders of America from what had previously been a largely defensive coastal force. He had joined the navy at the age of seventeen and became admiral during World War II at the age of thirty-one. Now fifty-two, he enjoyed a reputation for both dynamism and professionalism. He was known as a hard taskmaster.
The admiral laid his naval charts out on the Presidium's baize-covered table. He pointed out the positions of the four Foxtrots, between 300 and 800 miles from Cuba. He then noted the chokepoints on the sea-lanes to the Caribbean. The direct routes to Cuba from the Atlantic all passed through a 600-mile chain of islands stretching in a southeasterly direction from the Bahamas to the Turks and Caicos. The widest passage through the archipelago measured only forty miles. The only way to avoid this thicket of islands was to skirt the eastern tip of Grand Turk Island, toward Haiti and the Dominican Republic, adding at least two days to the journey.
Gorshkov sided with Mikoyan. He explained that the Americans controlled the narrow sea passages with submarine location equipment, and it was impossible to pass through them without being detected. He agreed that the submarines should be held back two or three days' sailing time from Cuba. In notes dictated shortly after the crisis, Mikoyan recalled that Malinovsky was "unable to object" to the navy chief's presentation. The admiral had performed "a very useful service": He had shown the defense minister to be "incompetent."
Mikoyan breathed a sigh of relief. He congratulated himself on averting an immediate superpower confrontation. But the respite proved temporary. The U.S. Navy was already bearing down on the Soviet submarines.
There was one more piece of urgent business falling to the KGB secret police. For the past year, a Soviet military intelligence officer named Colonel Oleg Penkovsky had been providing top secret documents to his British and American handlers. Among the documents now in the hands of the CIA was the technical manual for the R-12 missile system, together with the layout of a typical missile site and detailed descriptions of the various readiness levels. Penkovsky had been under suspicion for weeks, but the KGB delayed moving against him because it wanted to smash the entire spy ring.
With the Cold War on the verge of turning hot, Penkovsky could not be permitted to feed any more information to the Americans. Plain-clothes agents burst into his apartment on the Moscow River and arrested him without a struggle. Because of the importance of the case, the head of the KGB, Vladimir Semichastny, decided that he would take personal charge of the interrogation. He ordered his men to bring the traitor to his third-floor corner office in the Lubyanka. They sat him down at the other end of a long conference table.
Fearing torture or worse, Penkovsky immediately offered to cooperate with the KGB "in the interests of the motherland."
Semichastny looked at him with distaste. "Tell me what harm you have inflicted on our country. Describe it all in detail, with the most pertinent facts."