6:45 A.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23 (5:45 A.M. HAVANA)
A week after the discovery of the Soviet missiles, CIA analysts were still unable to answer the president's most urgent question: where are the nuclear warheads? They had reexamined all the U-2 pictures to look for telltale signs of a nuclear storage site, such as extra security fencing and antiaircraft protection. Radiation detection devices were being supplied to U.S. ships enforcing the blockade to try to determine whether nuclear warheads were being smuggled into Cuba.
The photo interpreters had identified several possible storage sites, including an abandoned molasses factory protected by an unusual system of double fencing. At several missile sites, construction was proceeding rapidly on bunkers made out of prefabricated aluminum arches, similar to nuclear storage facilities in the Soviet Union. Despite these promising leads, there was no firm evidence of the presence of nuclear warheads on the island.
In fact, the Soviet nuclear arsenal on Cuba far exceeded the worst nightmares of anyone in Washington. It included not only the big ballistic missiles targeted on the United States but an array of smaller weapons that could wipe out an invading army or navy. There were nukes for short-range cruise missiles, nukes for Ilyushin-28 bombers, and nukes for tactical rockets known as Lunas.
An initial shipment of ninety Soviet nuclear warheads had arrived in the port of Mariel on October 4, on board the Indigirka, a German-built freighter designed for transporting frozen fish. That shipment had included thirty-six 1-megaton warheads for the medium-range R-12 missiles, thirty-six 14-kiloton warheads for the cruise missiles, twelve 2-kiloton warheads for the Lunas, and six 12-kiloton atomic bombs for the IL-28s. The Aleksandrovsk was carrying another sixty-eight nukes: an additional forty-four cruise missile warheads, plus twenty-four 1-megaton warheads for the intermediate-range R-14 missiles. (A megaton is the equivalent of 1 million tons of TNT; a kiloton, 1,000 tons. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was around 15 kilotons.)
For the Soviet soldiers and technicians responsible for this huge nuclear stockpile, the assignment was like nothing they had previously experienced. Back home, strict regulations governed the transportation and storage of nuclear weapons. Warheads were usually moved from one secure location to another by special train, with elaborate precautions taken to ensure the correct temperature and humidity. On Cuba, many of these rules were simply impractical. The transportation system was rudimentary and there were no climate-controlled storage facilities. Nuclear weapons had to be dragged in and out of caves on rollers and hauled up winding mountain roads in convoys of vans and lorries. Improvisation was the order of the day.
Lieutenant Colonel Valentin Anastasiev was in charge of the six gravity bombs for the IL-28 airplanes, a plutonium-type implosion device similar to the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. When he arrived in Mariel with the Indigirka, he was told that a suitable storage place had still not been found for his weapons, nicknamed "Tatyanas" after the wife of one of the bomb engineers. The Tatyanas were an afterthought on Khrushchev's part. He had taken the decision to send them on September 7, at a time when he was worried that the United States might be preparing to invade Cuba. Although the IL-28s could reach Florida, their main function was to destroy U.S. warships and troop concentrations.
Anastasiev was ordered to unload the Tatyanas from the Indigirka and take them to an abandoned military barracks ten miles down the coast toward the west, in the opposite direction from Havana. When he got there, he was shocked. The property was only partially fenced. It was isolated but, apart from a Cuban artillery post down the road, there was little security. The bombs, which were packed in big metal crates, were placed in a ramshackle shed, locked with a padlock and guarded by a single Soviet soldier.
The Soviet technicians were assigned rooms in the single-story barracks, not far from a seaside cottage that had once belonged to Batista. The nights were stifling. To get some fresh air, they hooked a boat propeller up to an engine, and placed it near the window. The breeze brought some relief, but the motor made a terrible racket, and everybody had trouble sleeping.
Cuba might be a tropical paradise--"the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen," in the words of Christopher Columbus--but for the average Russian soldier it was a strange, even terrifying place, full of wild animals, deadly grasses and insects, and poisoned water supplies. One of Anastasiev's colleagues drowned after being attacked by a stingray.
One day, to distract themselves, the Soviet guards captured a giant barracuda. They kept the fish in Batista's swimming pool, with a rope attached to its belly. When they were bored, they tortured and teased the animal, using the rope to yank it around the swimming pool as it bared its teeth helplessly. It was a "juvenile" form of relaxation, Anastasiev thought, but better than fighting the much bigger predator ninety miles away.
Despite controlling an arsenal capable of killing millions of people, Anastasiev felt enormously vulnerable. If the Americans knew where the nuclear warheads were stored, they would go to extreme lengths to capture one. Armed only with a pistol, Anastasiev lived in constant fear of a U.S. commando raid or an attack by anti-Castro rebels.
Ironically, the absence of security fences and armed guards proved to be the ideal camouflage for the Tatyanas. The Americans never did discover where they were hidden.
Like the Indigirka, the Aleksandrovsk was loaded with nuclear weapons at a submarine support base in the Kola inlet of the Barents Sea. By crossing the Arctic rather than the Black Sea or the Baltic, the two ships were able to avoid the chokepoints of the Bosphorus and the Skagerrak Strait between Denmark and Sweden, both of which were closely monitored by NATO.
Three 37mm antiaircraft guns had been installed on the upper decks of the Aleksandrovsk prior to her departure from Severomorsk on October 7. Since this was a merchant ship ostensibly carrying agricultural equipment to fraternal Cuba, the weapons were carefully concealed beneath coils of ropes. If the Americans attempted to board, Soviet troops had orders to rip away the ropes and open fire.
There was enough ammunition on board the modern, Finnish-built vessel for a short but intense firefight. Demolition engineers had placed explosives around the ship, so she could be quickly scuttled, if necessary. The switches for igniting the explosives were kept in a locked room near the captain's cabin. The senior military officer carried the key around with him at all times.
Since the Soviet military had no experience of shipping nuclear weapons by sea, the voyage required careful preparation. Special holds were constructed on both the Aleksandrovsk and the Indigirka to accommodate the warheads, with a double system of winches and safety bindings. The weapons themselves were placed inside metal containers, with a reinforced steel base, and hooks and handles for lashing the equipment to the walls. The coffin-shaped boxes measured six by fifteen feet and weighed up to 6 tons.
Despite the precautions, there were moments of near panic when the Aleksandrovsk ran into heavy storms in the mid-Atlantic, a week out from Cuba. Gale-force winds buffeted the vessel, threatening to smash the warheads against the bulkhead. Nuclear safety officers struggled for three days and nights to avoid disaster, attaching extra straps and hitches to keep the cargo intact. A military report later praised Captain Anatoly Yastrebov and two soldiers for "saving the ship" and its passengers. For his "great self-control, steadfastness, and courage," Yastrebov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the Soviet Union's second-highest military medal.
The Aleksandrovsk kept radio silence most of the way across the Atlantic, avoiding unwelcome attention. Communications with Moscow were handled by her escort ship, the Almetyevsk. The CIA located the Aleksandrovsk on October 19, four days out from Cuba, but listed her simply as a "dry cargo" ship of no particular significance.
Like the Indigirka, the Aleksandrovsk had been scheduled to dock at Mariel. But she was nearly two hundred miles away from Mariel in the predawn hours of October 23 when she received Khrushchev's order to make for "the nearest port."
The nearest port was La Isabela, an isolated, hurricane-prone village on Cuba's northern coast.
Surrounded by salt marshes and mangrove swamp, La Isabela was a strange place to hide an enormously powerful nuclear arsenal, even temporarily. It was stuck out on a lonely peninsula, ten miles from the nearest town. La Isabela had enjoyed an economic boom during the early part of the century, thanks to a railroad connecting the port to the sugar plantations of central Cuba. Foreign ships unloaded machinery and wood, and took onboard vast quantities of sugar. But the port lost much of its importance with the decline in foreign trade after the revolution. Goats roamed the streets, which were lined mainly by single-story wooden shacks with tiled roofs.
Because of its isolation, La Isabela had become a favorite place for armed raids by anti-Castro guerrillas, operating out of Florida and Puerto Rico. The sabotage operations approved by JFK on October 16 included "an underwater demolition attack by two Cuban frogmen against shipping and port facilities at La Isabela." The previous week, members of the insurgent group Alpha 66 had attacked the town after failing to place a magnetic bomb on the hull of a Soviet ship. The raiders later boasted that they had "bombed a railroad warehouse and shot twenty-two persons, including five Soviet Bloc personnel." They retreated after exchanging gunfire with Cuban militiamen.
The Aleksandrovsk and the Almetyevsk sailed into a bay protected by sandy keys, reaching La Isabela at 5:45 a.m. Nuclear storage experts and KGB security units rushed to the scene as soon as they heard the news. Knowing that the Kremlin was concerned about the vessel's fate, the Soviet ambassador in Havana, Aleksandr Alekseev, used KGB channels to report the safe arrival of "the ship Aleksandrovsk... adjusted for thermonuclear arms."
General Anatoly Gribkov, the Soviet General Staff's representative in Havana, went to La Isabela to greet the ship. "So you've brought us a lot of potatoes and flour," he joked to the captain.
"I don't know what I brought," the captain replied, unsure who knew about his top secret cargo.
"Don't worry. I know what you brought."
There was little point unloading the twenty-four R-14 warheads. The intermediate-range missiles were still at sea and unlikely to reach Cuba because of the blockade. The warheads would be more secure if they remained in the air-conditioned hold of the Aleksandrovsk. The forty-four tactical warheads, however, would be unloaded and taken by armed convoy to two cruise missile regiments at opposite ends of the island, one in Oriente Province, the other in Pinar del Rio.
The port soon became a hub of activity. Gunboats patrolled the entrance to the harbor. Frogmen constantly checked the hull of the Aleksandrovsk for mines. The nuclear warheads were unloaded at night. Floodlights lit up the wharf as the ship's cranes yanked the shiny steel containers, one by one, out of the hold and deposited them onto the dock. Nuclear safety officers held their breath nervously as the fissile material hovered precariously above the ship, aware that an accident could lead to the detonation of a huge nuclear arsenal.
As with the atomic bombs, the best security for the latest batch of nuclear warheads was the incongruity of their location. Mariel had attracted some attention from the CIA photo interpreters, but nobody in Washington thought of La Isabela as a possible nuclear storage site. By October 23, the White House had already forgotten about the plan for an "underwater demolition attack" approved by Kennedy a week earlier.
12:05 P.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23 (11:05 A.M. HAVANA)
If President Kennedy was going to make the case that Soviet missiles on Cuba were a menace to the entire world, he needed better pictures. Up until now, American intelligence analysts had been relying on blurry images captured by U-2 spy planes. The blown-up photographs had provided the first definitive proof of Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba, but they were difficult for nonexperts to interpret.
The first U-2 mission had been flown by Major Richard Heyser on the morning of Sunday, October 14. His flight route had been carefully planned to investigate reports of missile-related activity in a trapezoid-shaped area of western Cuba near the town of San Cristobal. CIA analysts had struggled for weeks to make sense of conflicting accounts of long, canvas-covered tubes rumbling through obscure villages and fincas as Cuban security forces closed off large tracts of countryside. Heyser took his photos from an altitude of seventy thousand feet.
Now the Americans were back, barely above treetop level.
The six RF-8 Crusader jets of Light Photographic Squadron No. 62 took off from the naval air station at Key West and headed south over the Straits of Florida. To avoid appearing on Cuban or Soviet radar screens, they skimmed over the ocean, flying so low that the spray from the waves sometimes splashed against the fuselage. They flew in pairs, a lead pilot accompanied by a wingman half a mile behind and slightly to his right. When they reached the Cuban coastline, the planes climbed to around five hundred feet and peeled off in three different directions.
The squadron commander, William Ecker, flew directly over a SAM site near Mariel and headed southwest across the Sierra del Rosario Mountains toward San Cristobal MRBM Site No. One with his wingman, Bruce Wilhelmy. (The CIA had named four missile sites after the town of San Cristobal, but this particular one was closer to the village of San Diego de los Banos, twenty miles to the west.) James Kauflin and John Hewitt made for the SAM sites and military airfields around Havana. Tad Riley and Gerald Coffee turned eastward toward central Cuba and the missile sites around Sagua la Grande.
Like the other missile encampments, the San Diego site was tucked away behind the mountains. Ecker made his approach from the east, sticking close to the pine-covered ridge line on his right. Wilhelmy kept a hundred feet behind him, a little to his left, closer to the open plain. When Ecker spotted the target, he popped up to one thousand feet and leveled off. One thousand feet was the ideal altitude for taking low-level reconnaissance pictures. Lower altitudes produced fuzzy photographs with insufficient overlap between the negatives; higher altitudes resulted in too much overlap and loss of detail.
To save their limited supply of film, the pilots waited until the last moment to switch on the cameras. There were six in all: a large forward-firing camera beneath the cockpit, three smaller cameras mounted at different angles for horizon-to-horizon pictures, a vertical camera further back, and a tail camera for sideways shots.
The two Crusaders flew over the palm trees at nearly 500 knots, giving the pilots a ten-second glimpse of the sprawling missile site. Their cameras clicked away furiously, shooting roughly four frames a second, one frame for every seventy yards traveled. The forward camera produced the most useful photographs, six-by-six-inch negatives that combined panoramic views of the countryside and details of missile launchers, trucks, and even individual soldiers. The vertical cameras recorded the most detail, a thin 150-yard wide chronicle of everything directly beneath the two planes.
The missile erectors photographed by Heyser nine days earlier were shrouded in canvas, with cables leading to a command post in the woods. The missiles themselves were in long tents, several hundred yards from the erectors. Fuel tank trailers were stationed nearby. Young men stood by some of the trucks, seemingly undisturbed by the roar of jets overhead. After photographing the missile encampment to his left, Ecker flew directly over a large, hangarlike building being constructed out of white prefabricated slabs, which stood out against the predominantly green background. Workers were crawling across the roof of the building, hammering the slabs into place. Photo interpreters would later identify the unfinished structure as a bunker for nuclear warheads.
Banking away from the missile site, the Crusaders headed back to Florida, landing at the naval air station at Jacksonville. Technicians removed the film canisters from the bomb bays and rushed them to the photo lab. After each mission, an enlisted man stenciled a drawing of a dead chicken onto the fuselage, a sarcastic reference to Castro's September 1960 visit to the United Nations, when the Cuban delegation cooked chickens in their hotel rooms. "Chalk up another chicken" would soon become the ritual cry of pilots returning from low-level reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
Commander Ecker flew on to Washington, where he was summoned, still in his flight suit, to brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their Pentagon conference room. Curtis LeMay was unhappy that the Air Force had been upstaged by the Navy, which was equipped with better cameras and generally considered to be better at low-level reconnaissance. When Ecker apologized for his rough appearance, the Air Force chief removed his cigar and scowled at him. "You're a pilot, damn it, you're meant to be sweaty."
Fernando Davalos, the Havana University student mobilized the previous night, spotted the jets as his military convoy headed west, toward San Cristobal. It was a gorgeous morning, and the sun glinted off the wings of the planes, temporarily blinding him. He thought the planes must be Cuban, flying into a nearby air base.
Valentin Polkovnikov had a similar reaction. The Soviet missile forces lieutenant was standing at a checkpoint at the San Diego site when he saw a plane with a white star emblazoned on its fuselage flash overhead. He knew that the Cuban air force used the white star emblem. The star was an American emblem as well, of course, but it was hard to imagine the imperialists being so brazen.
It did not take long for phones to ring, and for higher-ups to demand greater "vigilance." Surprise quickly turned to shame. There was a huge psychological difference between high-level and low-level flights. For most Cubans, the U-2s were merely dots in the sky, distant and impersonal. The Crusaders were a national humiliation. It was as if the Americans were taking a sadistic delight in flying over Cuba whenever they wanted. Some Cubans saw--or thought they saw--the yanqui pilots rock their wings in derisory greeting.
At the Soviet air force base at Santa Clara, MiG-21 pilots also expressed frustration about the overflights. "Why can't we retaliate?" complained one pilot. "Why are we stuck here like sitting ducks?" The generals pleaded for patience. They had orders not to fire. For the moment.
There seemed little doubt that the Americans could bomb the missile sites whenever they wanted. It was practically impossible to disguise sixty-seven-foot-long objects. They could be covered with canvas and palm fronds, but the shape was still visible. Before deploying the missiles, aides had assured Khrushchev that they could be hidden among the palm trees. What a joke, thought Anatoly Gribkov, the General Staff representative. "Only someone with no military background, and no understanding of the paraphernalia that accompanied the rockets themselves, could have reached such a conclusion."
The most Soviet commanders on Cuba could do was order a crash program to bring all the missiles to combat readiness as quickly as possible. Soviet soldiers were accustomed to Stakhanovite labor campaigns, organized bursts of mass enthusiasm designed to "fulfill and overfulfill the plan." Fortunately, the R-12 regiments were almost at full strength. By October 23, 42,822 Soviet soldiers had arrived in Cuba--out of a planned deployment of around 45,000.
Overnight, the missile sites swarmed with laborers. It took one regiment three and a half hours to erect the first semicircular beam for a nuclear warhead shelter. The pace picked up, and the entire shelter--forty beams in all--was completed in thirty-two hours. The shelters were designed to withstand a blast of 140 pounds per square inch.
The Cuban topsoil was so rocky that much of the digging had to be done by hand. Touring the missile sites, General Gribkov was shocked to see soldiers using pickaxes and shovels to clear land that resisted the efforts of bulldozers and tractors. He noted bitterly that the Soviet Union had shipped "some of the most sophisticated military technology of the age" to Cuba, but remained "shackled" to the Russian soldier's proverb: "One sapper, one axe, one day, one stump."
In the afternoon, the weather changed abruptly, and a cold north wind began to blow. The wind sent waves crashing across the Malecon in Havana, drenching marching militiamen with plumes of powdery spray. Soldiers were already erecting antiaircraft guns outside the venerable Hotel Nacional, where Lucky Luciano had once held summit meetings with other mafia bosses and luminaries from Winston Churchill to Errol Flynn had sipped daiquiris.
All day, little groups of people gathered on the stone walls of Havana's seafront boulevard, gazing expectantly northward as they scanned the horizon for the silhouettes of American warships. Curtains of wind and the rain crashed down along the coast, emphasizing the island's isolation. Following Kennedy's quarantine speech and Castro's mobilization order, the island was effectively sealed shut. Only official vehicles were permitted on the main roads. Civilian air traffic had been suspended indefinitely, including the daily Pan American flight between Havana and Miami.
For months, the Cuban middle classes had been lining up at Havana Airport to board the Pan Am plane, and make a new life for themselves in America. Dubbed "the ninety milers," the refugees were willing to abandon everything--homes, cars, jobs, even their families--to escape the revolution. Now even this lifeline had been severed, leaving opponents of the regime with a stifling sense of claustrophobia.
"Other people are deciding my life, and there's nothing I can do," the Cuban intellectual Edmundo Desnoes would later write in Memories of Underdevelopment, a novel set against the background of the Cuban missile crisis. "This island is a trap."
But most Cubans seemed unperturbed by the country's isolation. Overnight, tens of thousands of posters had appeared on the streets of Havana and other Cuban cities, showing a hand clutching a machine gun. A LAS ARMAS, the slogan read, in large white letters--TO ARMS.
"The poster--one color, three words, one gesture--summed up the instantaneous reaction of the Cuban people," wrote a sympathetic Argentinean eyewitness, Adolfo Gilly. "Cuba was one man and his rifle."
FIDEL HABLARA HOY AL PUEBLO, blared the headline in Revolucion that morning. FIDEL WILL SPEAK TO THE PEOPLE TODAY.
7:06 P.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23
The flashbulbs popped in the Oval Office as Kennedy signed the two-page proclamation authorizing the U.S. Navy to intercept, and if necessary "take into custody," Soviet ships bound for Cuba with "offensive weapons." He wrote his full name--John Fitzgerald Kennedy--with a smooth flourish. The quarantine would come into force at 10:00 a.m. Washington time the following day. To project a sense of international legality, Kennedy had delayed issuing the edict until his diplomats secured a 19 to 0 vote of approval from the Organization of American States (OAS).
Seated behind the Resolute desk, a white handkerchief jutting out of his breast pocket, with the Stars and Stripes behind him, he was the image of presidential determination. But that was not how he felt. He had been questioning his advisers all day about what would happen when U.S. warships came head-to-head with Soviet vessels, and was disturbed by the thought of everything that could go wrong. If the U.S. Navy tried to board a Soviet ship and the Russians fired back, the result would likely be "quite a slaughter."
Dean Rusk had mentioned the "baby food" scenario a few moments earlier. A Soviet ship comes along and refuses to stop. The Americans use force to board it, but a public relations disaster ensues when all they find is a shipment of baby food.
"We shoot three nurses!" mused McGeorge Bundy.
"They're going to keep going," the president reasoned. "And we're going to try to shoot the rudder off, or the boiler. And then we're going to try to board it. And they're going to fire a gun, then machine guns. And we're going to have one hell of a time getting aboard that thing.... You may have to sink it rather than just take it."
"They might give orders to blow it up or something," his brother interjected.
"It's this baby food thing that worries me," fretted Robert McNamara.
An even bigger worry was Soviet submarines, reported to be tracking at least two of the missile-carrying ships. An aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, was in the vicinity. Kennedy wondered if that was wise. "We don't want to lose a carrier right away."
After signing the proclamation, Jack met with Bobby in the Cabinet Room. With no advisers around, the two brothers were much more open about revealing their true thoughts. The president was irritated with his wife for organizing a formal dinner party that evening with the Maharaja of Jaipur, an unwanted distraction from the coming showdown with Khrushchev. For a brief moment, it seemed as if he might be having second thoughts, but he pushed them aside.
"It looks like it's going to be real mean, doesn't it?" he told his brother. "But on the other hand, there's really no choice. If they get this mean on this one--Jesus Christ! What are they going to fuck up next?"
"No, there wasn't any choice," Bobby agreed. "I mean you woulda...you woulda been impeached."
"Well, that's what I think. I woulda been impeached."
Four blocks away from the White House, Soviet diplomats were hosting a caviar and vodka reception in their embassy, a farewell party for a departing naval attache. Guests crowded around anyone in a military uniform, demanding Moscow's reaction to the blockade. "I fought in three wars already and I am looking forward to fighting in the next," blustered the military attache, Lieutenant General Vladimir Dubovik, wiping his perspiring hands with a handkerchief. "Our ships will sail through."
"He's a military man; I'm not," shrugged Ambassador Dobrynin, when asked about Dubovik's comment. "He is the one who knows what the Navy is going to do."
Other Soviet officials displayed less bravado. At the mission to the United Nations in New York, diplomats exchanged dark jokes about the epitaph on their tombstones in the event of nuclear war.
"Here lie the Soviet diplomats," was one suggestion. "Killed by their own bombs."
8:15 P.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23
Trailed by military and civilian aides, Robert McNamara walked out of his third-floor suite of offices on the E-Ring, the Pentagon's power corridor, overlooking the Potomac River. He was headed for the nerve center of the quarantine operation, Navy Flag Plot, located in the adjacent wing of the complex, one floor up. The president had instructed him to keep a close watch on the Navy's plans for enforcing the blockade.
At the age of forty-six, McNamara was the epitome of "the best and the brightest" minds that JFK had promised to bring to Washington after his election victory. With his metal spectacles and closely cropped, slicked-back hair, he looked and sounded like a human version of the computers that were beginning to transform American industry. His brain seemed to worked faster than anyone else's. He had a knack for quickly honing in on a complex problem and reducing it to an elegant mathematical formula. But he also had a more sensitive, soulful side that appealed to women. "Why is it," Bobby Kennedy once asked, "that they call him the 'computer' and yet he's the one all my sisters want to sit next to at dinner?"
While conceding that the secretary was brilliant, the uniformed military also found him arrogant and interfering. Many senior officers disliked him intensely. They were suspicious of his entourage of precocious young civilians, known as the "whiz kids," who appeared intent on shaking up the military. In private, they accused McNamara of circumventing the regular chain of command. They hated his habit of reaching down into the inner workings of the Pentagon like no other secretary of defense before him, challenging their figures, nixing their favorite weapon systems, and questioning the traditional way of running things.
For his part, McNamara was concerned that he wasn't getting accurate and timely information from the Navy. Neither he nor his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, were seeing the messages that were going out to the fleet from CINCLANT, commander in chief Atlantic, in Norfolk, Virginia. They worried that a small incident--such as an argument between a Russian and an American sailor--could snowball into a nuclear war. In the atomic age, it was no longer enough for the president to "command" the armed forces. He also had to be able to exercise day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, "control."
Entering Navy Plot, the defense secretary and his aides confronted a huge wall map of the Atlantic, charting the locations of American and Soviet ships. Armed Marines guarded the door. Enlisted men were using long handles to push markers around the map to reflect the latest intelligence. Flags representing American aircraft carriers and destroyers were forming up along an arc, five hundred nautical miles from the eastern tip of Cuba, stretching from Puerto Rico toward the coast of Florida. Nearly two dozen arrows denoting Soviet ships were pointed across the Atlantic toward Cuba.
In his brusque, no-nonsense fashion, McNamara began firing questions to the admiral on duty, similar to the ones JFK had been agonizing over all day at the White House. How does a U.S. warship signal a Soviet vessel to halt? Are there Russian interpreters on board? What if they refuse to reply to our signals? How do we respond if they open fire? Why are these warships out of position?
The duty admiral was either reluctant, or unable, to respond to the barrage of questions. This sort of interrogation went beyond the bounds of Navy tradition. As a naval officer who witnessed the scene later explained, "In the Navy, the ethos is, you tell someone to do something, not how to do it." McNamara was telling the Navy how to do its job.
Dissatisfied with the answers he was getting, McNamara asked to see the chief of naval operations, Admiral George Anderson. Known variously in the Navy as 00, CNO, and "Gorgeous George," the tall, handsome naval officer was a firm believer in the naval creed of choosing the right subordinates and letting them get on with it. His personal philosophy, he informed visitors to his E-Ring office, consisted of a few simple maxims. "Keep a firm grasp of fundamentals. Leave details to the staff. Go for morale, which is of transcending importance. Don't bellyache and don't worry." After signing off on the blockade regulations, he had sent a memo to McNamara that read, "From now on, I do not intend to interfere with...the Admirals on the scene unless we get some additional intelligence information."
Anderson had accepted the job of planning a naval blockade of Cuba under protest. He informed McNamara that the assignment was tantamount to "locking the barn door after the horse has already been stolen." Nuclear missiles were already on the island, so a blockade would not accomplish the objective of getting them out, and would mean a confrontation with the Soviet Union rather than Cuba. A better option, he thought, was to bomb the missile sites. Nevertheless, he would carry out his orders.
The admiral resented McNamara's meddling in operational matters. He was also determined to protect one of the Navy's most closely guarded secrets: its ability to locate Soviet submarines through a sophisticated network of radio detection receivers. The U.S. warships that McNamara had raised questions about were tracking the Soviet Foxtrots. Though the secretary and deputy secretary were obviously cleared for the secret information, several of the civilian aides who had accompanied them to Navy Plot were not. In order to explain what was happening with the submarines, Anderson steered McNamara and Gilpatric to a smaller room next door known as Intelligence Plot.
McNamara was less concerned about the precise location of different ships than the question of how the naval "quarantine" should be enforced. The Navy interpreted the notion of a blockade literally: banned weapons would not be allowed through. McNamara and Kennedy viewed it more as a mechanism for sending political messages to the rival superpower. The objective was to get Khrushchev to back down, not to sink Soviet ships. The defense secretary peppered the chief of naval operations with questions about how the Navy would stop the first ship to cross the quarantine line.
"We'll hail it."
"In what language--English or Russian?"
"How the hell do I know?"
"What will you do if they don't understand?"
"I suppose we'll use flags."
"Well, what if they don't stop?"
"We'll send a shot across the bow."
"What if that doesn't work?"
"Then we'll fire into the rudder."
"You're not going to fire a single shot at anything without my express permission. Is that clear?"
Earlier that afternoon, Anderson had drawn the attention of his commanders to a manual published in 1955, Law of Naval Warfare, that described procedures for boarding and searching enemy warships. He picked up a copy of the cardboard-covered booklet and waved it in McNamara's face. "It's all in there, Mr. Secretary," he told his boss. The manual authorized the "destruction" of warships "actively resisting search or capture."
As Gilpatric later remembered the episode, Anderson could barely contain his anger as he listened to McNamara's detailed questions. "This is none of your goddamn business," he finally exploded. "We know how to do this. We've been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones, and if you'll just go back to your quarters, Mr. Secretary, we'll take care of this."
Gilpatric could see the color rising in his boss's countenance. For a moment, he feared a blazing row in front of the assembled Navy brass. But McNamara simply remarked, "You heard me, Admiral, there will be no shots fired without my permission," and walked out of the room.
"That's the end of Anderson," he told Gilpatric as they walked back to their adjoining office suites. "As far as I'm concerned, he's lost my confidence."
The clash between the secretary of defense and the chief of naval operations would come to epitomize a much larger struggle for influence between civilians and the uniformed military. The story has been retold so frequently that it has become encrusted with myth. Most accounts of the missile crisis claim, for example, that the confrontation took place on Wednesday evening rather than Tuesday evening--after the quarantine had already come into effect. But a study of Pentagon diaries and other records demonstrates that this is impossible. Anderson was not even in the building on Wednesday evening at the time he is alleged to have had his acrimonious encounter with McNamara.
9:30 P.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23
On the other side of the Potomac, an agitated Bobby Kennedy appeared at the gate of the Soviet Embassy on Sixteenth Street, NW, just as McNamara was leaving Intelligence Plot. He was met by Anatoly Dobrynin, who escorted him to his apartment on the third floor of the grandiose, turn-of-the-century mansion built by the widow of railcar magnate George Pullman. Dobrynin sat him down in the living room and offered him a cup of coffee.
The president felt personally betrayed by the Soviets, Bobby told the ambassador. He had believed Khrushchev's assurances about the absence of offensive missiles on Cuba, but had been deceived. This had "devastating implications for the peace of the world." As an afterthought, RFK added that his brother was under heavy attack from Republicans and had "staked his political career" on the Soviet assurances. Dobrynin had difficulty replying as he too had been kept in the dark by Moscow. He gamely insisted that the American information must be wrong.
As the ambassador was escorting him back to his car, Bobby asked what instructions had been given to the captains of Soviet ships. Dobrynin replied that, as far as he knew, they were under orders to ignore "unlawful demands to stop or be searched on the open sea."
"I don't know how this is going to end," said RFK, as they bade each other good-bye, "but we intend to stop your ships."
"That would be an act of war," protested the ambassador.
9:35 P.M. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23 (8:35 P.M. HAVANA)
Eleven hundred miles away, in Havana, a convoy of government vehicles had just pulled up outside a television studio in the exclusive Vedado section of town. Fidel Castro jumped out of a jeep in his trademark olive green fatigues, followed by ministers in military uniform. A red-and-black diamond on his shoulder epaulettes identified him as a comandante, a major, the highest rank in the Cuban army. Like JFK the previous night, Castro planned to use television to deliver one of the most important speeches of his life and prepare his people for the difficult days ahead.
Television was as important to Castro as it was to Kennedy. It was a very personal medium, enabling Cubans to know him as "Fidel" rather than "Castro." He was not just the commander in chief; he was the professor in chief, constantly teaching, cajoling, explaining. The number of televisions per capita was low in Cuba compared to the United States, but high compared to Latin America. If one person in a neighborhood had a television set, everybody would crowd around to watch Fidel.
The mass media had always been critical to Castro's success as a revolutionary leader. As a young man, he had listened entranced to the weekly speeches of a fiery radical named Eddy Chibas who used the radio to denounce corruption and injustice. During the war against Batista, he set up a small transmitter in the mountains known as "Radio Rebelde" to drum up support for the revolution. He used an interview with Herbert Matthews of The New York Times to disprove government claims that he was dead. Virtually every step of Fidel's victorious five-day march across Cuba after Batista's hurried departure was shown on live television, culminating in his triumphant entry into Havana on January 8, 1959.
Like Kennedy, Castro was not a born public speaker. Both men had to overcome some initial shyness in order to find their voice. When he first ran for Congress in 1946, Kennedy would practice his speeches many times over in private until he gradually became more relaxed. Castro felt so uncomfortable in public that he had to consciously wind himself up into a lather of indignation. Some observers felt that his legendary loquacity--he often spoke for five or six hours at a stretch--was connected to his shyness. "Fatigued by talking, he rests by talking," the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez would later observe of Fidel. "When he starts speaking, his voice is always hard to hear and his course is uncertain, but he takes advantage of anything to gain ground, little by little, until he takes possession of his audience." Having made the huge mental effort to begin speaking, Castro found it difficult to stop.
After a brief introduction from a sycophantic "interviewer," he launched into a tirade against Kennedy and the United States. The speech was the usual hodgepodge of indignation, soaring oratory, long rambling asides, biting sarcasm, and the occasional non sequitur. He used his Jesuit training to dissect Kennedy's speech point by point, barely pausing for breath as he jumped directly from his "second point" to his "fourth point" with no mention of the "third point."
Kennedy's expressions of sympathy with "the captive people of Cuba" were grist to Castro's rhetorical mill. "He is talking about a people that has hundreds of thousands of men under arms. He should have said the armed captive people of Cuba."
"This is the statement not of a statesman, but of a pirate," he fumed. "We are not sovereign by grace of the Yanquis, but in our own right.... They can only take away our sovereignty by wiping us off the face of the earth."
Much of the force of Castro's delivery came from his mesmerizing body language, which was made for television. The voice alone was somewhat reedy and high-pitched. But he spoke with such conviction that it was easy to be carried along on the torrent of words and gestures. The fierce look in his eyes and the thick black beard wagging back and forth were reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet. The Roman profile assumed a dozen different expressions in rapid succession: scorn, anger, humor, determination, but never the slightest trace of self-doubt. His long, bony hands sliced the air for emphasis, occasionally gripping the sides of his chair. When he made a point, he raised his right forefinger magisterially, as if challenging anyone to disagree with him.
Speaking in front of a Cuban flag, Castro barely mentioned the Russians during his ninety-minute diatribe. Nor did he mention the missiles, except in rejecting Kennedy's various accusations against Cuba. Instead, he delivered an impassioned defense of Cuban national sovereignty, along with a warning that aggressors would inevitably be "exterminated."
"Our country will never be inspected by anyone, because we will never give authorization for that to anyone, and we will never abdicate our sovereign prerogatives. Within our frontiers, we are the ones who rule, and we are the ones who do the inspecting."
Castro's solo performance struck some foreign diplomats in Havana as restrained by his normal standards. But it was still riveting. As he launched into his peroration, he clutched the sides of his chair, as if struggling to stay in his seat. "All of us, men and women, young and old, we are all united in this hour of danger. All of us, revolutionaries and patriots, will share the same fate. Victory will belong to us all."
With a final "Patria o muerte, venceremos," he jumped out of his chair and rushed from the room. There was no further time to lose.
The streets of Havana had been deserted while Fidel spoke. When he finished, people poured into the rainswept streets, carrying candles and other improvised torches. The night sky was filled with thousands of specks of light as the crowds surged through the alleyways of old Havana singing the national anthem, celebrating an 1868 victory over the Spanish:
No temais una muerte gloriosa,
Que morir por la patria es vivir.
Do not fear a glorious death,
For to die for the Fatherland is to live.
Maurice Halperin, a former American diplomat who found refuge in Havana after being accused of spying for the Soviet Union, noticed that many of the men in the crowd had armed themselves with meat cleavers and machetes, which they carried proudly in their belts. "They were geared up for hand-to-hand combat without the slightest suspicion that they could be blown to bits by an invisible enemy."
The way Castro saw it, his ascent to power in Cuba was like a morality play. He was the hero, pitting himself against a series of much more powerful enemies, first domestic, then external. Whether his opponent was Batista or Kennedy, Castro's method was the same: uncompromising stubbornness. Since he was much weaker than his enemy, he could afford to display no weakness at all.
To get people to follow him, Castro had to project a sense of total conviction. He talked about the future with such certainty, another Third World leader once remarked, he might have been talking about the past. Everything depended on the will of the leader. It was a philosophy adopted from Jose Marti, the "apostle of Cuban independence," who died fighting the Spaniards in 1895. After Castro came to power, he turned one of Marti's sayings into a slogan for the revolutionary regime, and had it pasted on billboards the length and breath of Cuba: "No hay cosas imposibles, sino hombres incapaces-- There are no impossible deeds, just incapable men."
Like his role model Marti, Castro was willing to die for the cause in which he believed, and expected his followers to do the same. Patria o muerte expressed his personal philosophy. A revolution, almost by definition, was a high-stakes gamble in which there were only two possible outcomes. As his comrade-in-arms Che Guevara put it, "in a revolution, you win or you die." That did not mean taking unnecessary risks, but it did mean a willingness to gamble everything on a brilliant throw of the dice. If Fidel died, he would go down in Cuban history as a martyr, like Marti before him. If he lived, he would be a national hero.
It was this sense of going for broke that distinguished Castro from the other two main actors in the crisis. In their different ways, both Kennedy and Khrushchev recognized the realities of the nuclear age, and understood that a nuclear war would inflict unacceptable destruction on victors and vanquished alike. Castro, by contrast, had never been swayed by conventional political calculations. He was the antipolitician with an out-sized ego. For the British ambassador to Havana, Herbert Marchant, the Cuban leader was "the prima donna of prima donnas," "a megalomaniac with paranoiac tendencies," "an astonishing character," and "a passionate, mixed-up genius." Alone among the three leaders, Fidel had the messianic ambition of a man selected by history for a unique mission.
He was born on a sugar plantation in Oriente Province in 1926, the third child of a fairly prosperous Spanish immigrant. He was a rebel by the age of seven, throwing tantrums and insisting he be sent to boarding school. After being schooled by the Jesuits in Santiago de Cuba, he attended Havana University, the most prestigious academic institution in the country. He spent much of his time there organizing protests, including a forty-eight-hour general strike in 1947 following the killing of a high school student in an antigovernment demonstration.
The turning point in Fidel's young life was the attempted capture, on July 26, 1953, of the Moncada military barracks in Santiago by himself and 123 armed followers. The attack was a fiasco, resulting in the arrest of most of the outgunned and outnumbered rebels. But Castro was able to turn the defeat into the founding myth of his July 26 political movement and make himself the main focus of opposition to Batista. He used his trial as a platform to attack the government and gather more followers, uttering his most celebrated line, "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." ("La historia me absolvera.") He received a pardon after serving less than two years of his fifteen-year sentence, and left for Mexico in July 1955.
"We shall be free or martyrs," Castro told his eighty-one followers as they set sail from Mexico on board the yacht Granma in November 1956, bound for the Sierra Maestra, the ridge of high mountains along the southern coast of Oriente. As usual, he was absurdly optimistic about his chances of achieving the seemingly impossible, the overthrow of Batista. He looked ahead one step at a time. "If we leave, we shall arrive. If we arrive, we shall enter. If we enter, we shall win."
"We have won the war," he proclaimed exuberantly a few weeks later, after his army survived the first of many ambushes by the pro-Batista forces, leaving him with just seven followers and seven weapons.
Castro's life showed that individuals could change the course of history, whatever Marxists might say about the preeminence of the class struggle. In his version of history, which had more to do with Cuban nationalism than Soviet-style communism, the martyr-hero was always center stage.
Fidel had been preparing for a climactic confrontation with the United States for years. Even when he was in the mountains, fighting Batista's armies, he had assumed that one day he would be called upon to launch "a much bigger and greater war"--against the Americans. "I realize that this will be my true destiny," he wrote his aide and lover, Celia Sanchez, on June 5, 1958, after hearing that his rebel army had been attacked by the U.S.-supplied bombs of the Batista air force.
Castro's conviction that the decisive war would be against America reflected his belief that Washington would never permit Cuba to be truly independent because it had too many political and economic interests on the island. From the perspective of many Cubans, Fidel included, the history of U.S.-Cuban relations was the story of imperialism dressed up as idealism. The United States had kicked out the Spanish colonialists only to end up as a new occupying power. Although the Marines eventually withdrew, America continued to maintain a tight economic grip over Cuba through corporations like the United Fruit Company.
Americans, of course, tended to take a much more benign view of their involvement with Cuba. Men like Theodore Roosevelt and Leonard Wood, the last American governor-general of Cuba, saw themselves as altruists, assisting the infant republic along the path to political stability and economic modernity. Wood spent his time building roads, installing sewers, combating corruption, devising a democratic electoral system. It was a thankless slog. "We are going ahead as fast as we can, but we are dealing with a race that has been steadily going downhill for a hundred years," he complained in one dispatch.
Castro saw little difference between Kennedy and the imperialist Teddy Roosevelt. JFK was nothing but "an illiterate and ignorant millionaire." After the Bay of Pigs, it was simply a matter of time before the Americans tried again, with much greater force.
Anti-Americanism was Castro's strongest political card in the fall of 1962. A year that he had proclaimed el ano de la planificacion-- the year of economic planning--had turned into a year of economic disaster. The economy was in a state of free fall, partly due to an American trade embargo and the flight of the middle class, but mainly because of misguided economic policies. The attempt to emulate the Soviet economic model of central planning and forced industrialization had resulted in chronic shortages.
The sugar harvest, which accounted for more than four-fifths of Cuba's total export earnings, was down 30 percent on the previous year, to less than 5 million tons. Food riots had broken out in western Cuba in June. Farmers let their crops rot in the fields rather than hand them over to the state. With practically nothing to buy in state-run stores, the black market thrived. In the meantime, money was poured away on prestige projects designed to showcase Cuba's economic independence. One of the best known examples was a pencil factory, built with Soviet assistance. It turned out that it was cheaper to import pencils ready-made than import raw materials such as wood and graphite.
Castro's problems were political as well as economic. His troops were still fighting a guerrilla war with rebels in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba. Earlier in the year, he had beaten off a challenge from orthodox Communists, forcing their leader, Anibal Escalante, to flee the country and take refuge in Prague. Castro's denunciation of "sectarianism" was followed by a thorough purge of the Communist Party, with two thousand out of six thousand party members being weeded out.
Photo Insert One
Meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). White House, Cabinet Room, October 29, 1962. Clockwise starting from the flag: Robert McNamara, Roswell Gilpatric, General Maxwell Taylor, Paul Nitze, Donald Wilson, Theodore Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy (hidden), Douglas Dillon, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (hidden), Robert F. Kennedy, Llewellyn Thompson, William C. Foster, John McCone (hidden), George Ball, Dean Rusk, President Kennedy. [Cecil Stoughton, Kennedy Presidential Library]
President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy outside the West Wing of the White House in October 1962. [Cecil Stoughton, Kennedy Presidential Library]
Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy during their only meeting, in Vienna in June 1961. [USIA-NARA]
Nikita Khrushchev embraces Fidel Castro in Harlem, New York City, in September 1960. [USIA-NARA]
Fidel Castro at El Chico during the missile crisis, with Soviet commander General Issa Pliyev (right). [MAVI]
Castro and Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet leader who knew him best, in November 1962. Soviet ambassador Aleksandr Alekseev is in the background. [USIA-NARA]
Prior to a Cuba mission, ground crews service a U.S. Navy RF-8 Crusader at Key West, Florida. The main forward-shooting photo bay is visible at the bottom of the plane. [USNHC]
Navy Commander William Ecker (left), who led the first low-level overflight of Cuba on October 23, shakes hands with Marine Captain John Hudson. Drawings on the plane fuselage show Fidel Castro with chickens to commemorate each successful Cuba mission. [USNHC]
Photograph of a nuclear warhead bunker under construction at San Cristobal Medium-Range Ballistic Missile Site No. 1, shot by Ecker with a nose camera at the same time as the oblique photograph below. [NARA]
Photograph of San Cristobal MRBM Site No. 1 taken by Ecker on Tuesday, October 23, on Blue Moon Mission 8003, showing missile equipment, fueling vehicles, and nuclear warhead vans. The photograph was shot with a left-side oblique camera at the same time as the photograph above. [NARA]
Previously unpublished photograph of a USAF RF-101 "Voodoo" jet entering Cuban air space on November 1 to inspect the dismantling of missile sites. [NARA]
Previously unpublished photograph of a U.S. Navy RF-8 Crusader flying over central Cuba on Thursday, October 25, on Blue Moon Mission 5010. [NARA]
Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations during the Security Council debate on October 25, using photos of Soviet missile sites. [UN]
Previously unpublished Air Force photographs of the SAM site at San Julian in western Cuba showing radar and fire control vans in the center surrounded by entrenched and camouflaged missile positions. [NARA]
The first photograph, taken by a U-2 piloted by Major Richard Heyser on October 14, that convinced President Kennedy that the Soviet Union had deployed medium-range missiles to Cuba. It shows San Cristobal MRBM Site No. 1, the same site photographed by Commander Ecker on October 23. [NARA]
Colonel Ivan Sidorov, commander of a medium-range R-12 missile regiment stationed near Sagua la Grande. [MAVI]
Sagua la Grande MRBM Site No. 2, photographed October 23. [NARA]
There was a realistic side to Castro's romanticism. Under siege at home, he calculated correctly that most Cubans still supported him on the issue of national independence, whatever their economic or political grievances. He was confident that he could deal with more mini-invasions by Cuban exiles or even a guerrilla uprising supported by Washington. But he also knew he could not defeat an all-out U.S. invasion. "Direct imperialist aggression," he told his supporters in July 1962, on the ninth anniversary of Moncada, represented the "final danger" for the Cuban revolution.
The only effective way of dealing with this danger was a military alliance with the other superpower. When Khrushchev first broached the idea of sending missiles to Cuba back in May 1962, his Cuba specialists had been skeptical that Castro would agree. They reasoned that he would not do anything that might undermine his popular standing in the rest of Latin America. In fact, Fidel quickly accepted the Soviet offer, insisting only that his agreement be seen as "an act of solidarity" by Cuba with the Socialist bloc rather than an act of desperation. The preservation of national dignity was all-important.
Castro would have preferred a public announcement about the missile deployment, but reluctantly went along with Khrushchev's insistence on secrecy, until all the missiles were in place. At first, knowledge of the deployments was limited to Castro and four of his closest aides; but the circle of those in the know gradually widened. The garrulous Cubans, Castro included, were bursting to tell the rest of the world about the missiles. On September 9, the very same day that the Soviet freighter Omsk docked in the port of Casilda with six R-12 missiles, a CIA informant overheard Castro's private pilot claiming that Cuba possessed "many mobile ramps for intermediate-range rockets.... They don't know what's awaiting them." Three days later, on September 12, Revolucion devoted its entire front page to a menacing headline in jumbo-sized type:
ROCKETS WILL BLAST THE UNITED STATES IF THEY INVADE CUBA.
Cuban president Osvaldo Dorticos almost gave the game away at the United Nations on October 8 when he boasted that Cuba now possessed "weapons that we wish we did not need and that we do not want to use" and that a yanqui attack would result in "a new world war." He was greeted on his return by an effusive Fidel, who also hinted at the existence of some formidable new means of retaliation against the United States. The Americans might be able to begin an invasion of Cuba, he conceded, "but they would not be able to end it." In private, a senior Cuban official told a visiting British reporter in mid-October that there were now "missiles on Cuban territory whose range is good enough to hit the United States and not only Florida." Furthermore, the missiles were "manned by Russians."
In retrospect, of course, it is remarkable that the U.S. intelligence community did not pick up on all these hints and conclude much earlier that there was a strong likelihood that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. At the time, however, CIA analysts dismissed the boasts as typical Cuban braggadocio.
While Castro was haranguing the people of Cuba, Che Guevara was preparing to spend his second night in the Sierra del Rosario. He had arrived at his mountain hideout the previous evening with a convoy of jeeps and trucks, and had spent the day organizing defenses with local military chiefs. If the Americans invaded, he planned to transform the hills and valleys of western Cuba into a bloody death trap, like "the pass at Thermopylae," in Castro's phrase.
An elite force of two hundred fighters, many of them old companions from the revolutionary war, had accompanied Che into the mountains. For his military headquarters, the legendary guerrilla leader had chosen a labyrinthine system of caves hidden among mahogany and eucalyptus trees. Carved out of the soft limestone by rushing streams, la Cueva de los Portales resembled a Gothic cathedral, with an arched nave surrounded by a warren of chambers and passageways. Soviet liaison officers were busy installing a communications system, including wireless and a hand-powered landline. Cuban soldiers were doing their best to make the damp and humid cave inhabitable.
Situated midway between the north and south coasts of Cuba, near the source of the San Diego River, la Cueva de los Portales occupied a strategic mountain pass. Had he followed the river southward for ten miles, Che would have arrived at one of the Soviet missile sites. Looking northward, he faced the United States. He knew that Soviet troops had stationed dozens of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on this side of the island. These weapons would serve as Cuba's ultimate line of defense against a yanqui invasion.
At the age of thirty-four, the Argentinean-born doctor had spent the past decade wandering around Latin America and waging revolutionary struggle. (He acquired his nickname "Che" from his frequent use of the Argentinean expression for "pal" or "mate.") He had first met Castro in Mexico City on a cold night in 1955, and had fallen immediately under his spell, describing him in his diary as "an extraordinary man...intelligent, very sure of himself, and remarkably bold." By dawn, the ever persuasive Castro had convinced his new friend to sail with him to Cuba and start a revolution.
Che was one of the very few people other than his brother Raul whom Fidel trusted completely. He knew that an Argentinean could never aspire to replace him as leader of Cuba. Together, Fidel, Raul, and Che formed Cuba's ruling triumvirate. Everyone else was either suspect or dispensable.
After the triumph of the revolution, Fidel handed day-to-day control of the army to Raul and the economy to Che. As minister for industry, Che had done as much as anyone to ruin the economy through the doctrinaire application of nineteenth-century Marxist ideas. His travels around Latin America had exposed him to the evil ways of companies like United Fruit: he had sworn, in front of a portrait of "our old, much lamented comrade Stalin," to exterminate such "capitalist octopuses" if he ever got the chance. In Che's ideal world, there was no place for the profit motive or any kind of monetary relations in the economy.
Che's saving grace was his restless idealism. Of all the Cuban leaders, it was he who best encapsulated the contradictions of the revolution, rigidity and romanticism, fanaticism and fraternal feeling. He was a disciplinarian, but also a dreamer. There was a large element of paternalism in his attachment to Marxist ideology: he was convinced that he and other intellectuals knew what was best for the people. At the same time, he was also capable of ruthless self-analysis.
The role of guerrilla strategist was much more to Che's liking than that of government bureaucrat. He had been one of the architects of the victory over Batista, capturing a government ammunition train at Santa Clara in one of the decisive battles of the war. During the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro had sent him to organize the defense of western Cuba, much as he was doing now.
Like Castro, Che believed that military confrontation with the United States was all but inevitable. As a young revolutionary in Guatemala, he had witnessed a CIA-backed coup against the leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. He had drawn several important lessons from that experience. First, Washington would never permit a socialist regime in Latin America. Second, the Arbenz government had made a fatal mistake by granting "too much freedom" to the "agents of imperialism," particularly in the press. Third, Arbenz should have defended himself by creating armed people's militias and taking the fight to the countryside.
On Castro's instructions, Che was now preparing to do precisely that. If the Americans occupied the cities, the Cuban defenders would fight a guerrilla war, with the help of their Soviet allies. They had arms caches everywhere. Castro had reserved half of his army, and most of his best divisions, for the defense of western Cuba, where most of the missile sites were located and the Americans were expected to land. The whole country could be turned into a Stalingrad, but the focal point of the Cuban resistance would be the nuclear missile bases of Pinar del Rio. And Che Guevara would be in the thick of it.
6:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24 (5:00 A.M. HAVANA)
Timur Gaidar, the Pravda correspondent in Havana, was getting ready to dictate a story to Moscow when a young man burst through the door of his room in the Havana Libre Hotel, the former Hilton. It was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the enfant terrible of Soviet literature and semiofficial rebel. The poet was living a kind of gilded exile in Havana, working on an adulatory film about the Cuban revolution called Ya--Kuba (I Am Cuba) as he tried to worm his way back into Khrushchev's good graces.
"Has Moscow called?"
"I'm waiting. They'll call soon."
"Wonderful. I was afraid I would be late. I have been writing all night."
Yevtushenko had been in the television studio when Castro delivered his speech and had spent the last few hours recording his impressions. It was easy for him to understand Khrushchev's attraction to Castro because he too was half in love. Listening to Fidel speak, he was prepared to forgive him anything. What did it matter if there was only vinegar and cabbage in the grocery stores if Fidel had closed down the whorehouses and declared an end to illiteracy? In the struggle between tiny Cuba and mighty America, Yevtushenko knew which side he was on.
As he waited for the telephone call from Moscow, the poet paced up and down the room, declaiming his lines. Soon they would be splashed across the front page of Pravda, an editorial in verse:
America, I'm writing to you from Cuba,
Where the cheekbones of tense sentries
And the cliffs shine anxiously tonight
Through the gusting storm...
A tabaquero with his pistol heads for the port.
A shoemaker cleans an old machine gun,
A showgirl, in a soldier's laced-up boots,
Marches with a carpenter to stand guard...
America, I'll ask you in plain Russian:
Isn't it shameful and hypocritical
That you have forced them to take up arms
And then accuse them of having done so?
I heard Fidel speak. He outlined his case
Like a doctor or a prosecutor.
In his speech, there was no animosity,
Only bitterness and reproach...
America, it will be difficult to regain the grandeur
That you have lost through your blind games
While a little island, standing firm,
Becomes a great country!