8:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24 (3:00 P.M. MOSCOW)
Nikita Khrushchev saw no need to communicate directly with his own people at a time of grave international crisis. Even though he was the most personable of Soviet leaders--allowing himself to be photographed strolling through cornfields or waving his fists in the air--public opinion was a relatively minor concern. Unlike Kennedy, he did not face midterm elections. Unlike Castro, he did not need to rally his people against an invasion.
His main goal was to project a sense of business as usual. He went out of his way to be friendly to visiting Americans. The previous evening, he and other Soviet leaders had gone to the Bolshoi Theater for a performance of Boris Godunov with the American bass Jerome Hines, joining the singers afterward for a glass of champagne. His latest visitor was William Knox, the president of Westinghouse Electric International.
Knox was in Moscow to explore possible manufacturing deals. His knowledge of the Soviet Union was so limited that he had to ask Khrushchev to identify the sage with the large bushy beard whose portrait hung on the wall of his huge Kremlin office. "Why, that's Karl Marx, the father of Communism," a surprised first secretary replied. Two nights earlier, the Westinghouse president had been woken from a deep sleep by the roar of military vehicles and brilliant searchlights shining into his hotel room opposite the Kremlin. "It was hard to believe my eyes," he wrote later. "Red Square was full of soldiers, sailors, tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles of various lengths up to at least 100 feet, jeeps, artillery, etc. I simply could not figure it out!" It was not until the following morning that he found out that the nighttime exercise had been part of preparations for the annual November 7 Revolution Day parade.
The president of an electricity company was a strange choice for the role of superpower emissary. Knox's most important attribute was that he embodied the Soviet preconception of the American ruling class. Steeped in Marxist ideology, Khrushchev really did believe that corporate CEOs ran the U.S. government, like puppetmasters pulling strings behind the scenes. Hearing that a prominent capitalist was in town, he summoned Knox to the Kremlin at less than an hour's notice.
The message Khrushchev wanted to send America via Knox was that he was standing firm. He conceded for the first time that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on Cuba, but insisted they were there for "defensive" purposes only. Everything depended on the motive of the person with the weapon, he explained. "If I point a pistol at you like this in order to attack you, the pistol is an offensive weapon. But if I aim to keep you from shooting me, it is defensive, no?" He said he understood that Cubans were a "volatile people," which was why the missiles would remain under Soviet control.
Having confirmed the presence of the medium-range missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev next alluded to the short-range cruise missiles. If Kennedy really wanted to know what kind of weapons the Soviet Union had deployed to Cuba, all he had to do was order an invasion, and he would find out very quickly. The Guantanamo Naval Base would "disappear the first day."
"I'm not interested in the destruction of the world," Khrushchev told Knox, "but if you want us to all meet in Hell, it's up to you."
He then related one of his favorite anecdotes, about a man who had to move in with his goat after falling on hard times. Although he did not like the smell, he eventually became accustomed to it. Russians, Khrushchev said, had been "living with a goat" in the form of NATO countries like Turkey, Greece, and Spain for a very long time. Now Americans would have to get used to their own goat in Cuba.
"You aren't happy with it and you don't like it, but you'll learn to live with it."
10:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24
At the White House, the morning ExComm meeting began as usual with an intelligence briefing from John McCone. Colleagues had dubbed the ritual "Saying Grace," because of the CIA director's staunch Roman Catholic faith and droning papal delivery. According to the latest intelligence information, twenty-two Soviet ships were headed for Cuba, including several suspected of carrying missiles. Many of the ships had been receiving urgent radio messages from Moscow in unbreakable code.
McNamara reported that two of the Soviet ships, the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin, were approaching the quarantine barrier, a five-hundred-mile radius from the eastern tip of Cuba. A Soviet submarine was stationed between the two vessels. The Navy planned to intercept the Kimovsk with a destroyer, while helicopters from an aircraft carrier attempted to divert her submarine escort. The Finnish-built Kimovsk had unusually long ninety-eight-foot cargo hatches, designed for lumber but well suited for missiles. The rules of engagement promulgated by Admiral Anderson authorized the destruction of the Soviet ships if they failed to comply with U.S. Navy instructions.
"Mr. President, I have a note just handed to me," interrupted McCone. "We've just received information...that all six Soviet ships currently identified in Cuban waters--and I don't know what that means--have either stopped or reversed course."
There was a hubbub at the table and a gasp of "Phew!" but Secretary of State Rusk quickly squelched any sense of relief.
"Whadya mean 'Cuban waters'?"
"Dean, I don't know at the moment."
Kennedy asked if the ships that had turned around were incoming or outgoing. The CIA chief did not have an answer.
"Makes some difference," mumbled Rusk dryly, as McCone stepped out of the room to investigate. His remark was greeted with nervous laughter.
"Sure does," said Bundy.
Kennedy was alarmed by the thought that the first confrontation of the crisis might involve a Soviet submarine. He wanted to know how the Navy would respond if a Soviet submarine "should sink our destroyer." Without replying directly, McNamara told the president that the Navy planned to use practice depth charges to signal that Soviet submarines should surface. The depth charges would not cause any damage even if they hit the submarines.
From the other side of the Cabinet Room, Bobby saw his brother's hand go up to his face and cover his mouth: "He opened and closed his fist. His face seemed drawn, his eyes pained, almost gray. We stared at each other across the table. For a few fleeting seconds, it was almost as though no one else was there and he was no longer the President."
Suddenly, Bobby found himself thinking of the tough times they had had as a family, when Jack was ill with colitis and almost died, when their brother Joe Junior was killed in an airplane accident, when Jack and Jackie lost their first child through a miscarriage. The voices in the Cabinet Room seemed to blur together until Bobby heard Jack ask if it was possible to defer an attack on the submarine. "We don't wanna have the first thing we attack [be] a Soviet submarine. I'd much rather have a merchant ship."
McNamara disagreed. Interfering with the on-scene naval commander, he told the president firmly, could result in the loss of an American warship. The plan was to "put pressure" on the submarine, "move it out of the area," and then "make the intercept."
"OK," said Kennedy, doubtfully. "Let's proceed."
Half a mile down Sixteenth Street, at the Soviet Embassy, diplomats crowded around radios and television sets. They were as much in the dark about the Kremlin's intentions as everyone else. They watched with mounting tension as the networks reported Soviet vessels approaching an imaginary line in the ocean, counting down the hours and minutes until they came face-to-face with American warships. Dobrynin would later describe October 24 as "probably the most memorable day in the whole long period of my service as ambassador to the United States."
On the New York Stock Exchange, trading was hectic, and prices were going up and down like a yo-yo. They had fallen sharply on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, they were 10 percent down from their summer highs. Gold prices were up. A young economist named Alan Greenspan told The New York Times that "massive uncertainty" would likely result if the crisis continued for any significant length of time.
Fear of nuclear apocalypse was seeping into American popular culture. In Greenwich Village in Manhattan, a tussle-haired bard named Bob Dylan had sat up one night scribbling the words of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" on a spiral notepad. He later explained that he wanted to capture "the feeling of nothingness." Images of apocalypse came tumbling from his brain. Unsure whether he would live to write another song, he "wanted to get the most down I possibly could."
In another unpublished song, Dylan would describe "the fearful night we thought the world would end" and his fear that World War III could erupt by dawn the next day. He told an interviewer that "people sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I."
"Whadda ya have, John?" JFK asked impatiently, as McCone returned to the Cabinet Room.
"The ships are all westbound, all inbound for Cuba," the CIA director reported. "They either stopped them, or reversed direction."
"Where did you hear this?"
"From ONI." The Office of Naval Intelligence. "It's on its way over to you now."
News that the Soviet ships had turned around or were dead in the water came as an enormous relief to the ExComm. After hours of mounting tension, there was a glimmer of hope. An aircraft carrier group led by the Essex had orders to intercept the Kimovsk and her submarine escort. The intercept was scheduled for between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m. Washington time. Believing he had only minutes to spare, Kennedy canceled the intercept.
Dean Rusk suddenly found himself thinking of a childhood game back in Georgia in which boys would stand two feet apart and stare into each other's eyes. Whoever blinked first lost the game.
"We're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked," Rusk told his colleagues.
"The meeting droned on," Bobby Kennedy would recall later. "But everyone looked like a different person. For a moment the world had stood still, and now it was going around again."
"SECRET. FROM HIGHEST AUTHORITY," read the order to the Essex. "DO NOT STOP AND BOARD. KEEP UNDER SURVEILLANCE."
In fact, it was impossible to do anything of the sort. The Kimovsk was nearly eight hundred miles away from the Essex at the time this order was issued. The Yuri Gagarin was more than five hundred miles away. The "high-interest ships" had both turned back the previous day, shortly after receiving an urgent message from Moscow.
The mistaken notion that the Soviet ships turned around at the last moment in a tense battle of wills between Khrushchev and Kennedy has lingered for decades. The "eyeball to eyeball" imagery served the political interests of the Kennedy brothers, emphasizing their courage and coolness at a decisive moment in history. At first, even the CIA was confused. McCone erroneously believed that the Kimovsk "turned around when confronted by a Navy vessel" during an "attempted" intercept at 10:35 a.m. The news media played up the story of a narrowly averted confrontation on the quarantine line with Soviet ships "dead in the water." Later on, when intelligence analysts established what really happened, the White House failed to correct the historical record. Bobby Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would describe a standoff on "the edge of the quarantine line" with Soviet and American ships only "a few miles" apart. The myth was fed by popular books and movies like Thirteen Days and supposedly authoritative works like Essence of Decision and One Hell of a Gamble.
Plotting the location of Soviet vessels was an inexact science at best, involving a considerable amount of guesswork. Occasionally, they were sighted by American warships or reconnaissance planes. But usually they were located by a World War II technique known as direction finding. When a ship sent a radio message, it was intercepted by U.S. Navy antennas in different parts of the world, from Maine to Florida to Scotland. The data was then transmitted to a control center near Andrews Air Force Base, south of Washington. By plotting the direction fixes on a map, and seeing where the lines intersected, analysts could locate the source of a radio signal with varying degrees of accuracy. Two fixes were acceptable, three or more ideal.
The Kimovsk had been located 300 miles east of the quarantine line at 3:00 a.m. Tuesday, eight hours after President Kennedy's television broadcast announcing the blockade. By 10:00 a.m. Wednesday--just over thirty hours later--she was a further 450 miles to the east, clearly on her way home. An intercepted radio message indicated that the ship--whose cargo holds contained half a dozen R-14 missiles--was "en route to the Baltic sea."
The fixes on other Soviet ships trickled in gradually, so there was no precise "Eureka moment" when the intelligence community determined that Khrushchev had blinked. The naval staff suspected that Soviet vessels were transmitting false radio messages to conceal their true movements. American calculations of Soviet ship positions were sometimes wildly inaccurate because of a false message or a mistaken assumption. Even if the underlying information was correct, direction fixes could be off by up to ninety miles.
Intelligence analysts from different agencies had argued all night over how to interpret the data. It was not until they received multiple confirmations of the turnaround that they felt confident enough to inform the White House. They eventually concluded that at least half a dozen "high-interest" ships had turned back by noon on Tuesday.
ExComm members were disturbed by the lack of real-time information. McNamara, in particular, felt that the Navy should have shared its data hours earlier, even though some of it was ambiguous. He had visited Flag Plot before going to the White House for the ExComm meeting, but intelligence officers had termed the early reports of course changes "inconclusive" and had not bothered to inform him.
As it turned out, the Navy brass knew little more than the White House. Communications circuits were overloaded and there was a four-hour delay in "emergency" message traffic. The next category down, "operational-immediate traffic," was backed up five to seven hours. While the Navy had fairly good information about what was happening in Cuban waters, sightings of Soviet ships in the mid-Atlantic were relatively rare. "I'm amazed we don't get any more from air reconnaissance," Admiral Anderson grumbled to an aide.
Electronic intelligence was under the control of the National Security Agency (NSA), the secretive code-breaking department in Fort Meade, Maryland, whose initials were sometimes jokingly interpreted to mean "No Such Agency." That afternoon, NSA received urgent instructions to pipe its data directly into the White House Situation Room. The politicians were determined not to be left in the dark again.
When intelligence analysts finally sorted through the data, it became apparent that the Kimovsk and other missile-carrying ships had all turned around on Tuesday morning, leaving just a few civilian tankers and freighters to continue toward Cuba. The records of the nonconfrontation are now at the National Archives and the John F. Kennedy Library. The myth of the "eyeball to eyeball" moment persisted because previous historians of the missile crisis failed to use these records to plot the actual positions of Soviet ships on the morning of Wednesday, October 24.
The truth is that Khrushchev had "blinked" on the first night of the crisis--but it took nearly thirty hours for the "blink" to become visible to decision makers in Washington. The real danger came not from the missile-carrying ships, which were all headed back to the Soviet Union by now, but from the four Foxtrot-class submarines still lurking in the western Atlantic.
11:04 A.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24
The Foxtrot-class submarine that caused JFK to cover his mouth with his hand and stare bleakly at his brother bore the Soviet designation B-130. On Tuesday morning, the submarine had been keeping a protective eye on the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin in the Sargasso Sea. After the two arms-carrying ships turned back toward Europe on orders from Moscow, B-130 was left alone in the middle of the ocean.
The U.S. Navy had been monitoring B-130 and the three other Foxtrots ever since they slipped out of the Soviet submarine base at Gadzhievo on the northern tip of the Kola Peninsula on the night of October 1. Electronic eavesdroppers followed the flotilla as it rounded the coast of Norway and moved down into the Atlantic, between Iceland and the western coast of Scotland. Whenever one of the Foxtrots communicated with Moscow--which it was required to do at least once a day--it risked giving away its general location. The bursts of data, sometimes lasting just a few seconds, were intercepted by listening posts scattered across the Atlantic, from Scotland to New England. By getting multiple fixes on the source of the signal, the submarine hunters could get a rough idea of the whereabouts of their prey.
As the missile crisis heated up, the intelligence community launched an all-out effort to locate Soviet submarines. On Monday, October 22--the day of Kennedy's speech to the nation--McCone reported to the president that several Soviet Foxtrots were "in a position to reach Cuba in about a week." Admiral Anderson warned his fleet commanders of the possibility of "surprise attacks by Soviet submarines," and urged them to "use all available intelligence, deceptive tactics, and evasion." He signed the message: "Good Luck, George."
The discovery of Soviet submarines off the eastern coast of the United States shocked the American military establishment. The superpower competition had taken a new turn. Until now, the United States had enjoyed almost total underwater superiority over the Soviet Union. American nuclear-powered Polaris submarines based in Scotland were able to patrol the borders of the Soviet Union at will. The Soviet submarine fleet was largely confined to the Arctic Ocean, posing no significant threat to the continental United States.
There had been rumors that the Soviets were planning to construct a submarine base at the Cuban port of Mariel under the guise of a fishing port. But Khrushchev had personally denied the allegation in a conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. "I give you my word," he had told Foy Kohler on October 16, as the four Foxtrots headed westward across the Atlantic on precisely this mission. The fishing port was just a fishing port, Khrushchev insisted.
The commander of allied forces in the Atlantic, Admiral Robert L. Dennison, was alarmed by the appearance of Soviet submarines in his area of operations. He believed their deployment was equal in significance to "the appearance of the ballistic missiles in Cuba because it demonstrates a clear cut Soviet intent to position a major offensive threat off our shores." This was "the first time Soviet submarines have ever been positively identified off our East Coast." It was obvious that the decision to deploy the submarines must have been taken many weeks previously, long before the imposition of the U.S. naval blockade.
Patrol planes were dispatched from Bermuda and Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning to find the submarine close to the last reported positions of the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin. A P5M Marlin from Bermuda Naval Air Station was first on the scene. At 11:04 a.m. Washington time, a spotter onboard the eight-seat seaplane caught a glimpse of the telltale swirl produced by a snorkel five hundred miles south of Bermuda. "Initial class probable sub," the commander of the antisubmarine force reported to Anderson. "Not U.S. or known friendly." A flotilla of American warships, planes, and helicopters led by the Essex was soon converging on the area.
What had started off as an exotic adventure for the commander of B-130, Captain Nikolai Shumkov, had turned into a nightmarish journey. One thing after another had gone wrong, starting with the batteries. To outwit American submarine hunters, B-130 needed to glide silently through the ocean. The noise from the diesel engines of a Foxtrot submarine was easy to detect. The submarine was much quieter while running on batteries, but its speed was also reduced. Shumkov had asked for new batteries before his deployment, but his request was rejected. After a few days at sea, he realized that the batteries would not hold a charge for as long as they should, forcing him to surface frequently in order to recharge them.
The next problem was with the weather, which got steadily warmer as the submarines moved from the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean to the Sargasso Sea. Halfway across the Atlantic, Shumkov had run into Hurricane Ella and winds of more than one hundred miles an hour. Most of his seventy-eight-man crew fell seasick. As B-130 reached tropical waters, the temperature inside the submarine rose as high as 140 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. The men suffered from severe dehydration, exacerbated by a shortage of fresh water. The heat, the turbulence, and the noxious stench of diesel and fuel oil combined to make conditions aboard ship almost unbearable.
The commanders back home wanted him to maintain an average speed of at least 9 knots, in order to reach Cuba by the end of the month. Since the underwater speed of a Foxtrot was only 6 to 8 knots, Shumkov was forced to run his diesels at maximum speed while on the surface. By the time B-130 reached the Sargasso Sea, an elongated body of water stretching into the Atlantic from Bermuda, two of its three diesels had stopped working. The monster submarine--B stood for "Bolshoi," or "Big"--was barely limping along.
Shumkov knew the Americans were closing in on him; he had intercepted their communications. A signals intelligence team had been assigned to each of the Foxtrot submarines. By tuning in to U.S. Navy frequencies in Bermuda and Puerto Rico, the Soviet submariners had found out that they were being tracked by American antisubmarine warfare units. Shumkov learned about the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba, the imposition of a naval blockade, and preparations for a U.S. invasion from American radio stations. One broadcast even mentioned that "special camps are being prepared on the Florida peninsula for Russian prisoners of war."
Shumkov comforted himself with the thought that the Americans had not discovered the most important secret of his submarine. Stacked in the bow of the B-130 was a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo. Shumkov understood the power of the weapon better than anyone in the Soviet navy because he had been selected to conduct the first live test of the T-5 torpedo in the Arctic Ocean on October 23,1961, almost exactly a year earlier. He had observed the blinding flash of the detonation through his periscope, and had felt the shock waves from the blast five miles away. The exploit had won him the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union's highest award.
Before their departure, the submarine commanders had been given an enigmatic instruction by the deputy head of the Soviet navy, Admiral Vitaly Fokin, on how to respond to an American attack. "If they slap you on the left cheek, do not let them slap you on the right one."
Shumkov knew that he could blast the fleet of U.S. warships converging down upon him out of the water with the push of a button. He controlled a weapon that had more than half the destructive force of a Hiroshima-type nuclear bomb.
11:10 A.M. WEDNESDAY (10:10 A.M. OMAHA)
While the hunt continued for Soviet submarine B-130, the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command was preparing to signal the Kremlin that the most powerful military force in history was ready to go to war. From his underground command post at SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, General Thomas Power could instantly see the disposition of his forces around the world. The information on the overhead screens was constantly updated to show the number of warplanes and missiles on alert.
A glance at the illuminated screens informed CINCSAC that a B-52 Stratofortress was taking off from a U.S. Air Force base every twenty minutes, with enough nuclear weaponry on board to destroy four medium-sized Soviet cities. Other screens brought news from the rest of his far-flung empire: missile complexes, B-47 dispersal bases, tanker refueling fleets, reconnaissance planes. Clocks recorded the time in Moscow and Omsk, two of the Soviet cities targeted for annihilation.
A gold telephone linked Power with the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A red telephone allowed him to communicate with lower-level commanders, who would relay his orders to 280,000 SAC personnel scattered around the world. The man in charge of America's nuclear arsenal had to be able to answer a phone call from the president within six rings, whether he was at SAC headquarters, at home sleeping, or relaxing on the golf course.
To reach his command post, Power had descended three floors underground via a circular ramp. He had passed through several sets of thick steel doors on rollers, each protected by armed guards. The control room could withstand conventional bombs, but could not take a direct hit by a nuclear weapon. If destroyed, its functions would immediately be taken over by a series of backup facilities, including three EC-135 "Looking Glass" planes, one of which was in the air at all times with an Air Force general on board. Everybody understood that Building 500 was a prime target for a Soviet missile attack.
Power had ordered his forces to DEFCON-2--one step short of imminent nuclear war--at 10:00 a.m. Washington time, just as the naval quarantine of Cuba came into effect. Never before in its sixteen-year existence had SAC been placed on such a high state of readiness. By the time SAC reached its maximum strength on November 4, Power would command a force of 2,962 nuclear weapons, either in the air or on fifteen-minute alert. SAC's "immediate execution capability" would consist of 1,479 bombers, 1,003 refueling tankers, and 182 ballistic missiles.
A total of 220 "high priority Task 1 targets" in the Soviet Union had been selected for immediate destruction. The targets ranged from missile complexes and military bases to "command-and-control centers" like the Kremlin, in the heart of Moscow, and "urban industrial targets," such as steel mills, electrical grids, and petroleum facilities. Many targets were scheduled for attack several times over, by plane and missile, just in case the first bombs failed to get through.
At 11:10 a.m., Power addressed his forces over the Primary Alerting System, the same communications network that would be used for launching a nuclear attack. His subordinates had been ordered back to their command posts to hear his message. Each SAC base was represented by a little white bulb on a console in front of the commander in chief. As the distant operators picked up their phones, the lights blinked out. Power deliberately chose to broadcast his message in the clear, over high-frequency radio waves that were monitored by the Soviets.
"This is General Power speaking." His voice echoed across dozens of Air Force bases and missile complexes around the world. "I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness of the situation this nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies."
Contrary to some later accounts, Pentagon records show that Power was acting on presidential authority when he took his forces to DEFCON-2. But his decision to address his commanders over open communications channels was unauthorized and highly unusual. As Power expected, the message was promptly intercepted by Soviet military intelligence. It was received loud and clear in Moscow.
The Strategic Air Command was largely the creation of Curtis LeMay--an offshoot of his experiences as a bomb fleet commander in World War II when he ordered low-altitude nighttime attacks against Japanese cities. In a single night, March 9-10, 1945, LeMay's B-29 bombers had incinerated sixteen square miles of downtown Tokyo, killing nearly a hundred thousand civilians. LeMay later acknowledged that he would probably have been tried as "a war criminal" had Japan won the war. He justified the carnage by arguing that it hastened the end of the war by breaking the will of the Japanese people.
"All war is immoral," he explained. "If you let that bother you, you are not a good soldier."
The object of war, LeMay believed, was to destroy the enemy as swiftly as possible. Strategic bombing was a crude weapon, almost by definition. The idea was to deliver a devastating knockout punch, without worrying too much about precisely what you were going to hit. In dealing with enemies like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Communist Russia, restraint was not only pointless, it was treasonous, in LeMay's view.
When LeMay took over command of SAC in October 1948, it consisted of little more than an assortment of demoralized bomb wings. Discipline was poor and training inadequate. As an initial exercise, LeMay ordered his pilots to conduct a simulated attack on Dayton, Ohio, under conditions resembling live combat. It was a disaster. Not a single plane accomplished its mission.
LeMay spent the next few years transforming SAC into the most potent military weapon of all time. He meted out collective discipline to his pilots and airmen, promoting successful crews and demoting unsuccessful ones. SAC pilots were evaluated according to a strict rating system that made no allowances for technical problems or adverse weather conditions. Everything was determined by success or failure. For LeMay, there were only two things that mattered in the world: "SAC bases and SAC targets."
Anecdotes about LeMay became the stuff of Air Force legend. Crude and petulant, he used to show his contempt for his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff by belching loudly and leaving the door open when he visited their private toilet. When a crew chief asked him to extinguish his ever present cigar to avoid igniting an explosion on board a fully fueled bomber, LeMay growled: "It wouldn't dare." Asked for a policy recommendation on Cuba, he replied simply: "Fry it." Soon after the missile crisis, LeMay would became the inspiration for Buck Turgidson, the out-of-control Air Force general in Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove.
While respecting LeMay's abilities as a commander, other military leaders resented his empire-building tendencies. For LeMay, the Air Force could never have too many nuclear weapons. More weapons were always needed to guarantee the destruction of an ever-expanding list of targets. His bureaucratic rivals complained of "overkill." The chief of naval operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, accused the Air Force of attempting to dominate the other services just as the Soviet Union was attempting to dominate the rest of the world. "They're smart and they're ruthless," said Burke, referring to an alleged power grab by Air Force nuclear planners. "It's the same way as the communists. It's exactly the same techniques."
When LeMay became vice chief of staff of the Air Force in 1957, he was succeeded as SAC commander by Power, his longtime deputy. Power had the reputation of being even more of a disciplinarian than LeMay. He seemed to take a perverse delight in ridiculing his subordinates in public. One of his deputies, Horace Wade, described Power as "mean," "cruel," and "unforgiving," and wondered whether he was psychologically "stable." He worried that his boss "had control over so many weapons and weapons systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force." LeMay was "kind-hearted" compared to Power, Wade thought.
Power, who had flown bombing raids over Japan, shared LeMay's views about the virtues of a devastating first strike, even if it led to horrifying retaliation. "Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?" he asked one of McNamara's civilian whiz kids, who was trying to develop a no-cities, limited war strategy known as "counterforce." "The whole idea is to kill the bastards." For Power, if there were "two Americans and one Russian" left alive at the end of the war, "we win."
You had better make sure that the "two Americans" are "a man and a woman," McNamara's aide replied.
The McNamara aide who tangled with Power was William Kaufmann, a Yale-educated historian who had written his doctoral dissertation on nineteenth-century balance-of-power politics. A short man, with a high-pitched voice and a dour sense of humor, he now sat in a Pentagon office trying to answer one of JFK's bottom-line questions: what difference would Soviet missiles on Cuba make to the balance of nuclear terror? The Joint Chiefs believed the impact was considerable; McNamara felt that the missiles did little to change the big picture.
Using maps and charts, Kaufmann analyzed the likely consequences of a no-warning Soviet attack on the United States. He noted that thirty-four out of seventy-six SAC bomber bases were within range of the Soviet MRBMs on Cuba, and most of the remaining bases could be hit by the longer-range IRBMs. On the other hand, most of the hardened U.S. missile sites and the Polaris submarines would survive a Soviet attack. According to Kaufmann's calculations, a Soviet first strike without the Cuba-based missiles would still leave the United States with a minimum retaliatory force of 841 nuclear weapons. If the Soviets fired their Cuba-based missiles as well, the United States would be left with at least 483 nukes.
In other words, both the Joint Chiefs and McNamara were right. Deploying missiles to Cuba strengthened Khrushchev's hand, and compensated for his shortage of intercontinental missiles. On the other hand, Khrushchev could not deliver a knockout blow against the United States under any circumstances. The surviving U.S. nuclear strike force would still be able to wreak much greater damage on the Soviet Union than the Soviets had inflicted on America.
The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction--MAD for short--was alive and well even after the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba.
An army was on the move. To prepare for a possible invasion of Cuba, the president had ordered the greatest emergency mobilization of U.S. troops since World War II. All of a sudden, everybody in the military seemed to be heading toward Florida, by road, rail, and air, accompanied by huge amounts of equipment. There were bottlenecks everywhere.
Just to move the 1st Armored Division, 15,000 men plus tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, required 146 commercial airplanes and 2,500 railcars. The logistics experts decided that tanks and other tracked vehicles should remain on the railcars, in case they had to be moved rapidly somewhere else. Railcars were soon backed up all over the southeastern United States. To store the railcars, the Army needed at least thirty miles of sidings, but only six and a half miles were immediately available. Railroad storage space became a prized commodity, jealously guarded by each military service. SAC commanders refused to release siding space to the Army because it might "interfere" with their own mission.
So many soldiers and airmen converged on Florida that there was no place for them to sleep. Some airfields introduced the "hot bunk" principle, with three men assigned to the same bed, sleeping in eight-hour shifts. The Gulfstream race course at Hallandale, Florida, became a temporary base for the 1st Armored Division. "Soon military police were placed at all entrances," an observer recorded. "Parking lots became motor pools, and the infield was used for storage and mess. Troops were billeted on the first and second floors of the grandstand. Weapons and duffel bags were stacked next to the betting windows. Church services were held in the photo-finish developing rooms."
Ammunition was an additional headache. Several ordnance factories went over to three-shift, seven-day weeks to produce sufficient quantities of ammunition for the fighter aircraft that were expected to strafe Soviet and Cuban troops. Napalm bombs were stacked like "mountains of cordwood" at airfields in Florida.
The British consul in Miami was reminded of the atmosphere in southern England prior to D-Day. Military planes were landing at Miami International Airport every minute, troop trains headed southward to Port Everglades, and trucks trundled through the streets loaded with weapons and explosives. An armada of nearly six hundred aircraft waited for orders to attack Cuba and intercept Soviet IL-28 bombers taking off from Cuban airfields. So much military hardware was in Florida that Air Force officers joked the state would sink into the sea under the weight of all the equipment.
The further south you went, the more imposing the military presence became. The laidback resort of Key West, on the tip of the Florida Keys, suddenly found itself on the front line of the Cold War, like Berlin or the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. Every government agency wanted a piece of the action. The Navy ran reconnaissance and code-breaking operations out of the naval air station; the CIA established safe houses on neighboring islands; the army moved into the venerable Casa Marina Hotel, built at the beginning of the century by the railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. Soldiers in combat fatigues took over the local baseball stadium, the public beach, and most of the city's parking lots. Marines set up machine-gun nests on the beach, surrounded by rolls of concertina wire.
Florida was now the soft underbelly of the United States. Prior to October 1962, military strategists had expected a Soviet attack to come from the North, over the pole. Early warning radar systems all faced northward, toward the Soviet Union. Fighter-interceptor squadrons were trained to deploy along the so-called "pine tree line" in Canada against the heavy Soviet bombers known to NATO as "Bears" and "Bisons." Antiaircraft missile systems with small atomic warheads were deployed around East Coast cities like New York and Washington as a last line of defense against a surprise Soviet attack. Almost overnight, American defenses had to be reoriented from north to south.
Military shipments did not always receive priority. On the morning of Wednesday, October 24, a convoy of three trucks headed down U.S. Highway 1 from an Army depot in Pennsylvania. The commercial tractor-trailers, which had been leased by the Army, were carrying HAWK surface-to-air missiles to protect southern Florida from a Soviet air attack. But the Army had neglected to inform the Virginia State Police that the missiles were on the way. An alert highway patrolman pulled the trucks over at a weighing station in Alexandria, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. His suspicions were confirmed: the trucks were two thousand pounds overweight. The civilian drivers tried to explain that the shipment was "classified," but failed to sway the patrolman.
He ordered the trucks to turn around and head back to Pennsylvania.
1:00 P.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24 (NOON HAVANA)
Fidel Castro had spent the night in his underground command post, across the Almendares River from the Havana zoo. His bunker was much less elaborate than that of CINCSAC, but impressive nonetheless for the leader of a small island-nation. It consisted of a tunnel dug into the lush hillside, about two hundred yards long, with half a dozen different rooms branching off on either side. The main entrance was through a set of reinforced steel doors built into a cliff rising from the banks of the river. An emergency elevator led to the Kohly district of Havana, where the homes of many senior government officials were located.
The tunnel was still being constructed when the missile crisis erupted, but was sufficiently near completion to serve as a command post. Soldiers poured gravel on the roughly finished floors to make the bunker inhabitable. The main drawback was the absence of an adequate ventilation system. The high humidity and lack of fresh air made it difficult to sleep or even breathe, but the tunnel offered decent protection against expected American air attacks. In addition to Castro and his top military advisers, a Soviet general had an office in the bunker as liaison between the two high commands.
The bunker was equipped with an electric generator, and enough food and water to last for a month. But Fidel did not spend much time underground. Except for the three or four hours a night when he was sleeping, he was constantly on the move, visiting Cuban military units, meeting with Soviet generals, and supervising the defense of Havana. While Kennedy met with the ExComm, Castro consulted with his top commanders.
"Our greatest problem is communications," reported Captain Flavio Bravo, the chief of military operations, Castro's indispensable right-hand man. "Much of what we should have received is still at sea or hasn't yet left the Soviet Union. Our principal means of communication is the telephone."
Other officers complained of shortages of trucks and tanks and anti-aircraft equipment. Castro was more concerned by the low-level overflights of U.S. reconnaissance planes the previous day. The impunity with which the American pilots operated was outrageous.
"There's no political reason of any kind that should prevent us from shooting down a plane flying over us at three hundred feet," he insisted. "We must concentrate our 30mm [antiaircraft] batteries in four or five places. When the low-level planes appear, dejalos fritos."
"Dejalos fritos"--" Fry them." Almost the same language that General LeMay had used about Cuba.
After the morning staff meeting, Castro decided to inspect the defenses east of Havana. His convoy of jeeps drove through the tunnel underneath the harbor, skirting El Morro Castle, a stone fortress built by the Spanish at the end of the sixteenth century to deter the pirates roaming the Caribbean. The party passed by the fishing village of Cojimar, where Ernest Hemingway had set his Old Man and the Sea. This stretch of coastline had become a favorite recreation spot for Cuba's new ruling class. Fidel himself had a villa in Cojimar, which he had used as a secret hideaway during the early months of the revolution while plotting Cuba's transformation into a Communist state. A little further down the coast was the seaside resort of Tarara, where Che Guevara recovered from bouts of malaria and asthma attacks and drafted a slew of revolutionary laws, including the confiscation of foreign-owned sugar plantations.
A thirty-minute drive brought Fidel and his companions to a Soviet surface-to-air missile site overlooking Tarara beach, where they had a clear view of one of the most likely U.S. invasion routes. To his right was a five-mile stretch of gently sloping golden sand, fringed with palm trees and sand dunes, a tropical equivalent of the beaches of Normandy. Cuban militiamen were swarming along the beach, digging trenches and fortifying the concrete bunkers that Fidel had ordered built along the coastline. The ghostly silhouettes of American warships patrolling the Florida Straits were visible on the horizon.
Eighteen months earlier, the Americans had chosen one of the most isolated regions of Cuba, the swampy Zapata peninsula, as the site of the ill-fated landing by fifteen hundred Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. The invading force had been bottled up by the Cuban army and air force, and eventually decimated. They would not make the same mistake again. This time, Castro was convinced, the yanquis would stage a frontal attack in force, using the Marines and other elite troops.
The SAM site was on high ground, a mile and a half back from the seashore. It was laid out in a Star of David pattern, with six missile launchers in fortified positions in the spokes of the star and electronic vans and radar equipment in the center. The slender V-75 missiles poked up through the trenches in a diagonal slant.
Castro had pressed the Soviets for SAM missiles long before Khrushchev came up with the idea of deploying nuclear-tipped R-12s and R-14s in Cuba. The surface-to-air missiles were his best defense against an American air attack. No other Soviet weapon was capable of hitting a U-2, the high-altitude American spy plane designed to be invulnerable to normal antiaircraft fire. A V-75 had brought down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960, causing great embarrassment to President Eisenhower. The missile system had proved itself again on September 8, 1962, by destroying a second U-2 over eastern China. The Soviets had ringed Cuba with 144 V-75 missiles deployed at twenty-four different sites. Together, they provided almost complete coverage of the island.
Excited Soviet troops were anxious to show the Cuban leader what they could do. As Castro watched, they tracked an imaginary American warplane with a van-mounted radar that could spot targets 150 miles away; the missile itself had a range of up to 25 miles. Fidel was impressed. But he was also quick to grasp the principal weakness of the system: its ineffectiveness against low-flying targets. Just the previous day, the Americans had shown they could evade Soviet radar by sending in reconnaissance planes a couple of hundred feet above the water.
The SAM site was defended by a single artillery piece, a double-barreled antiaircraft gun mounted on a flimsy four-wheel carriage. It was manned by half a dozen Cuban soldiers in casual T-shirts. Like their Soviet comrades, the Cubans responded enthusiastically to Castro's words of encouragement, and were more than ready to fight. But there was no disguising the fact that they were extraordinarily vulnerable to a low-level U.S. air attack.
As he drove back to Havana, Castro knew he would have to completely reorganize his air defenses. Most of his antiaircraft guns were protecting Havana and other Cuban cities, which would be quickly overrun in the event of an invasion. Their value was largely symbolic. The more Fidel thought about the problem, the more he became convinced that the antiaircraft weapons should be moved inland, to defend the nuclear missile sites, his prize strategic asset. To defeat the invaders, he had to give his Soviet allies time to load and fire their missiles.
Far from being alarmed by the thought of nuclear war consuming his country, Fidel felt extraordinarily calm and focused. It was at times like this--when his situation seemed most precarious--that he lived life to the full. His aides understood that he thrived on crisis. A Cuban newspaper editor who watched el lider maximo in action during this period felt that "Fidel gets his kicks from war and high tension. He can't stand not being front-page news."
Castro was accustomed to daunting odds. A cold calculation of the balance of forces suggested that his position had improved rather than weakened since the revolutionary war, when his troops were vastly outnumbered by Batista's soldiers. He now had three hundred thousand armed men under his direct command in addition to the backing of the Soviet Union. He had a vast array of modern military equipment, including antiaircraft guns, T-54 tanks, and MiG-21 fighter jets. If all else failed, his Soviet allies had tactical nuclear weapons hidden in the hills behind Tarara beach and other likely landing spots that could wipe out an American beachhead in a matter of minutes.
The arrival of these weapons completely changed the calculation of how long Cuba could hold out against an invasion. A few months earlier, Russian military experts had estimated that it would take a U.S. invading force just three or four days to seize control of the island. That was no longer the case. Whatever happened, the yanquis would be in for a prolonged and bloody fight.
The Marine regiment selected to lead the attack over Tarara beach--renamed Red beach in the American invasion plan--was at that moment steaming off the north coast of Cuba, on its way back from Operation ORTSAC. The Pentagon had canceled the exercises on Vieques following President Kennedy's speech. The Marines were no longer preparing for the overthrow of an imaginary dictator. They had turned their sights on a real one.
Spirits were high aboard the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa, the temporary regimental headquarters. The Marines spent their time practicing boat-boarding drills, sharpening their bayonets, doing press-ups, and cursing Fidel. A Marine sergeant led the chanting as his men double-timed around the football field-sized deck.
"Where are we gonna go?"
"Gonna go to Cuba."
"Whatta we gonna do?"
"Gonna castrate Castro."
Below deck, officers from the 2nd Marine Division pored over Operations Plan 316, which envisaged an all-out invasion of Cuba involving 120,000 U.S. troops. The plan was for the Marines to attack east of Havana, at Tarara, while the 1st Armored Division landed through the port of Mariel to the west. In the meantime, the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions would conduct a paratroop assault behind enemy lines. In its initial sweep, the invading force would skirt Havana and head directly for the missile sites.
Many of the officers on board the Okinawa had been preparing for an invasion of Cuba for more than a year. Several had fought at Iwo Jima and Inchon, and were itching to get back into combat. They had studied the landing beaches, mapped out the routes inland, and perused Cuban "Most Wanted" lists. The invasion plan had been expanded and refined until it now included such details as the time the chaplain would arrive on the beach (H-hour plus 27 minutes) and quantities of civilian food relief (2,209 tons of canned chicken, 7,454 tons of rice, and 138 tons of powdered eggs).
The assault over Red beach and neighboring Blue beach would take the form of a classic amphibious landing, in the tradition of Normandy and Okinawa. The attack would begin with naval gunfire and air strikes. Underwater demolition teams would clear the beach area of mines. Amphibious tractors would arrive carrying troops, followed by larger landing craft, including the flat-bottomed Higgins boats familiar from D-Day. The Marines would link up with helicopter-borne assault troops landing inland to occupy roads and high ground.
The planners had given barely any thought to the possibility that the enemy might use tactical nuclear weapons to wipe out the beachheads. Defenses against "nuclear, chemical, and biological" attack consisted of face masks and chemical agent detector kits. Otherwise, troops were instructed to clearly mark "contaminated areas" and report burst and yield data for "every delivered nuclear fire" to higher headquarters. The seemingly routine task of drawing up a nuclear/chemical defense plan was given to a somewhat dim-witted major who "spent his time on things that were not the highest priority."
Whatever happened, casualties were likely to be heavy. The Marines were prepared for five hundred dead the first day alone--mainly on Tarara beach--and a further two thousand injured. Total casualties during the first ten days of fighting were estimated at over eighteen thousand, including four thousand dead. The Marine Corps would account for nearly half.
And that was without the participation of Soviet combat troops or the use of nuclear weapons.
5:15 P.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24 (4:15 P.M. HAVANA)
At the Pentagon, reporters had convinced themselves that an interception of a Soviet ship was imminent. Tension had been mounting all day, and officials would reveal nothing about the movement of Soviet ships. The president had ordered "no leaks."
The Pentagon spokesman was Arthur Sylvester, a former journalist who had spent thirty-seven years on the Newark Evening News. He had tried to stall reporters all day with what his assistant termed "diversionary replies involving tides, sea conditions, and weather." He refused to confirm or deny rumors that five or six Soviet ships had turned back. But the excuses were wearing thin and the press was clamoring for news.
Finally, late in the afternoon, McNamara authorized a cautiously worded statement. "Some of the Bloc vessels proceeding toward Cuba appear to have altered course. Other vessels are proceeding toward Cuba. No intercepts have yet been necessary."
Soon, Walter Cronkite, dubbed by opinion polls "the most trusted man in America," was delivering a special report on CBS News in his rich baritone. He, too, stalled for time. "It was beginning to look this day as though it might be one of armed conflict between Soviet vessels and American warships on the sea-lanes leading to Cuba. But there has been no confrontation as far as we know."
Correspondents were standing by at the United Nations, the White House, the Pentagon. None of them knew very much. "There is still considerable belief that the confrontation in the Caribbean could come tonight," reported George Herman from outside the White House. "Everybody's lips are sealed," said Charles Von Fremd at the Pentagon. "We are under what amounts to a wartime censorship system."
"There is not a great deal of optimism tonight," concluded Cronkite, his tiredness visible in the heavy lines under his eyes.
Castro exuded calm resolve when he arrived at Soviet military headquarters at El Chico. Dressed in a combat jacket and peaked cap, he shook hands briskly with his hosts. He then spent an hour and a half listening to their reports, jotting down notes on a memo pad, and asking questions through an interpreter. He struck one of the Soviet generals present as "purposeful and completely unruffled, as though war were not imminent and his life's work not at risk."
The comandante en jefe wanted to coordinate future military action between the two armies, and make sure they could communicate with each other. He quickly agreed with the Soviets on a plan to redeploy his antiaircraft weapons. The most powerful guns in the Cuban arsenal were two 100mm artillery pieces, with nineteen-foot barrels, capable of hitting targets eight miles away. Fidel would send one of the big guns to guard the Aleksandrovsk at the port of La Isabela and the other to protect Colonel Sidorov's R-12 regiment near Sagua la Grande, which had made the most progress toward getting its missiles ready for launch. Other missile positions would be protected by one 57mm gun and two 37mm guns.
It was difficult for Castro to know whether the Soviets would ever use the nuclear warheads that remained under their tight control. He knew what he would do if the decision was up to him. If he had learned anything from his exhaustive study of revolutionary movements and his own experiences as a revolutionary, it was that it was suicidal to wait for the enemy to attack. From the capture of the Bastille onward, fortune had always favored the bold. "A force that remains in its barracks is lost," Castro had concluded, after witnessing the failure of an antigovernment insurrection in Colombia in 1948.
Fidel would not just wait for the Americans to invade. He would find a way to seize the initiative.
10:30 P.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24 (9:30 P.M. HAVANA)
President Kennedy dined at the White House that evening with a small group of intimates that included Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and his journalist friend Charles Bartlett. At one point, Bartlett suggested a toast to celebrate the turnaround of the Soviet ships, but Kennedy was not in the mood. "You don't want to celebrate in this game this early."
Bundy popped in and out with news from the quarantine line. "We still have twenty chances out of a hundred to be at war with Russia," Kennedy muttered.
His dark forebodings were reinforced by a rambling, toughly worded message from Khrushchev that began churning out of State Department teletypes late that night. The Soviet leader accused the president of everything from "outright banditry" to "pushing mankind to the abyss of a nuclear war." He pointed out that the United States had "lost its invulnerability" to nuclear attack. The Soviet Union would neither withdraw its missiles nor respect the American quarantine.
"If someone tried to dictate similar conditions to you, the United States, you would reject them. And we also say 'Nyet,'" Khrushchev wrote. "Naturally, we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will be forced to take the measures we deem necessary and adequate to protect our rights."
Perusing the message after his guests had gone home, Kennedy picked up the phone and called Bartlett. "You'll be interested to know that I got a cable from our friend," he told the reporter. "He said those ships are coming through."
Had Kennedy known what was happening in Cuba that night, he would have been even more alarmed. Special emissaries had fanned out across the country to deliver top secret targeting data to the three R-12 missile regiments. Rehearsals were being held under cover of darkness to make sure that the missiles were ready for launch. The R-12 missile had a longer range than American intelligence analysts believed. In addition to reaching Washington, Soviet targeteers operated on the assumption that they could also hit New York. The CIA had informed Kennedy that New York was beyond the range of the R-12.
The targeting cards contained detailed instructions for launching the missile. The most important variables were elevation, azimuth, range, length of time the rocket was under power, type of explosion, and size of the nuclear charge. The cards were the product of weeks of painstaking geodesic research and complicated mathematical calculations. In contrast to a cruise missile, which is powered throughout its flight, a ballistic missile is only powered for the first few minutes after takeoff. It then follows a trajectory that can be calculated with varying degrees of accuracy. Mechanical gyroscopes kept the R-12 missile to its assigned path.
To aim the rockets properly, the Soviet targeteers had to know the exact location of the launch sites, including height above sea level. Detailed geodesic surveys had never been done in Cuba, so they started almost from scratch, building a network of towers across the country to gather topographic data. They laboriously adjusted the Soviet system of coordinates to the American system to make use of the old 1:50,000 American military maps that Castro had inherited from Batista. For precise astronomical observations, they needed a clock that was accurate to 1/1,000 of a second. Since the signal from Moscow was too weak, they made use of American time signals.
With only primitive computers and calculators, most of the mathematical work had to be done by hand. The calculations were checked and rechecked by two targeteers, working independently. Each R-12 missile regiment had twelve targets: an initial volley of eight missiles, plus four in reserve for a second round. Just when the targeteers thought they had finished their work, they realized that the target assigned to one of the missile sites was out of range. It took more than a week--and several nights without sleep--to reassign the targets and redo all the calculations.
Major Nikolai Oblizin was responsible for bringing the targeting cards to Colonel Sidorov's regiment, 150 miles east of Havana. As deputy head of the ballistic department, he had spent most of the last three months at the El Chico headquarters. He had been billeted in a former brothel, complete with swimming pool and luxurious beds.
During his three months in Cuba, Oblizin had formed a strong bond with his Cuban hosts. They greeted him with cries of "companero sovietico" and impromptu renditions of the Internationale or "Moscow Nights." Driving to Sagua la Grande with the targeting cards, he was reminded that not all Cubans were happy about the Soviet presence. A group of counterrevolutionaries opened fire from the hills on the armored vehicles escorting the targeteers to the missile site. But they were too far away to do any damage.
Designed by Mikhail Yangel, the R-12 was mobile and easy to launch, at least by the standards of the early sixties. The missile used storable liquid propellants and could be kept fully fueled on a launch pad for up to a month, with a thirty-minute countdown time. The pre-surveyed firing positions were built around a 5-ton concrete slab anchored to the ground with bolts and chains. The slab served as the firing stand for the missile. It had to be firm and flat, or the pencil-shaped rocket would topple over. Once the slabs were in place, it took only a few hours to move the missile from one site to another. Yangel's "pencil" became the most reliable Soviet ballistic missile of its time.
Once they had the target cards, Sidorov's men could practice aiming and firing the missiles. The layout of the missile sites was very similar to sites in the Soviet Union. Launching the missiles successfully required split-second timing and everybody knowing precisely what they had to do. Before the missiles could be fired, they had to be brought from Readiness Condition 4 (Regular) to Readiness Condition 1 (Full). Officers timed every step with stopwatches to ensure that all the deadlines were met.
The missile crews waited until night before starting the dress rehearsal, to avoid being seen by American reconnaissance planes. When the alert sounded, the crew on duty had exactly one minute to reach their assigned positions.
The real warheads were stored in an underground bunker near a small town called Bejucal, fourteen hours by car from Sagua la Grande. The missile crews practiced with cone-shaped dummies. Soldiers unloaded the dummy warheads from specially designed vans, and placed them on docking vehicles. They then pushed the docking vehicles into long missile-ready tents.
Inside the tents, technicians swarmed around the rockets, checking out the electronics. Cables led from each tent to electric generators and water vans. It took thirty minutes to mate the warhead. Engineers connected electric cables and a series of three metallic bolts, which were programmed to burst in flight at a preset time, separating the warhead from the rest of the missile. The missiles were now at Readiness Condition 3, 140 minutes from launch.
A tractor-trailer pulled a missile out of its tent, dragging it several hundred yards to the launch pads. Soldiers attached metal chain pulleys to the top of the erector on which the missile was lying. The tractor then winched the erector plus missile up to the firing position, a few degrees off vertical. The launch pads were oriented north-south, in the direction of the United States.
The next step was targeting. Engineers aligned the missile with the target, according to the instructions on the targeting card. For maximum precision, they used an instrument called a theodolite, which rotated the missile on the firing stand, measuring azimuth and elevation. The targeting procedures had to be carried out prior to fueling, as it was difficult to move the missile once it was fully fueled.
The missiles were pointed at the night sky, glistening in the moon-light, like stouter versions of the palm trees all around. Instead of feather-like leaves, the rockets sprouted sharpened cones, like the top of a pencil. Rain beat down on the soldiers as they completed the final preparations for launch. Trucks with fuel and oxidizer roared up to the launch positions, and connected their hoses to the rockets.
The control officer clicked his stopwatch, and ordered a halt to the exercise. That was enough for one night. There was no point fueling the rockets until the arrival of the live warheads. The missile crew had shown that they could successfully reach Readiness Condition 2, sixty minutes from launch.
The missiles were hauled back down from the vertical position and dragged back inside the tents. Exhausted soldiers crawled back inside their tents to sleep. The only evidence of the intense nighttime activity was a series of deep ruts in the mud left by fuel trucks and missile trailers driving across the rain-soaked fields.
The rocket forces commander, Major General Igor Statsenko, had moved to his underground command post in Bejucal. He still did not have a secure landline communication link with Sidorov's regiment at Sagua la Grande. If he received an order to fire from Moscow, he would have to retransmit it by radio, as a coded message.
Statsenko had reasons for both satisfaction and concern on the night of October 24. He had nearly eight thousand men under his command. Once supplied with nuclear warheads, Sidorov's missiles could destroy New York, Washington, and half a dozen other American cities. The regiment of Colonel Nikolai Bandilovsky, near San Diego de los Banos in western Cuba, would achieve combat-ready status by October 25. The third R-12 regiment, under Colonel Yuri Solovyev, which was stationed closer to San Cristobal, faced a more difficult situation. One of its supply ships, the Yuri Gagarin, had been prevented from reaching Cuba by the blockade. Solovyev's chief of staff was heading back to the Soviet Union, along with most of the regiment's fuel and oxidizer trucks.
There was only one reasonable solution under the circumstances. Statsenko would have to juggle the equipment that had already arrived in Cuba to allow Solovyev's regiment to become combat-ready as soon as possible. He ordered Sidorov and Bandilovsky to transfer some of their fueling equipment to Solovyev.
One other problem remained. U.S. Navy planes had flown directly over all three R-12 missile regiments. Statsenko had little doubt the Americans had discovered all the launch sites. He had planned for just such an eventuality. He wrote out another order.
"Move to reserve positions."