3:00 A.M. THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 (10:00 A.M. MOSCOW; 2:00 A.M. HAVANA)
"The Americans have chickened out," chortled Nikita Khrushchev. "It seems that Kennedy went to sleep with a wooden knife."
The other members of the Presidium were accustomed to the first secretary's colorful turns of phrase. Khrushchev often drew on his Ukrainian peasant heritage to sprinkle his conversation with crude language and aphorisms like "You don't catch flies with your nostrils," "Every sandpiper praises his own marsh," and "All of us together aren't worth Stalin's shit." But this time they were mystified.
"What do you mean 'wooden'?" asked Deputy Prime Minister Mikoyan, Khrushchev's closest friend in the leadership.
Like a stand-up comedian whose punch line has fallen flat, Khrushchev had to explain the joke. "They say that when someone goes bear-hunting for the first time, he takes a wooden knife with him, so it is easier to clean his pants."
Three days into the showdown with the United States, some Soviet officials were wondering who was most in need of a wooden knife: Kennedy or Khrushchev. A Soviet deputy foreign minister told colleagues that Nikita "shit in his pants" when he heard that the Strategic Air Command was moving to DEFCON-2. The head of the KGB would later claim that Khrushchev "panicked" after hearing that the Americans had discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba, announcing tragically: "That's it. Lenin's work has been destroyed."
Whatever his true mental state, Khrushchev was certainly disturbed by the latest turn of events. He had witnessed a conventional war up close, and had no desire to experience a nuclear one. As a top commissar at the battle of Kharkov in May 1942, he had seen an entire army wiped out unnecessarily because of the mistakes and stubbornness of political leaders. The Soviet Union had lost some 30 million people during the Great Patriotic War. The dead included Khrushchev's oldest son, Leonid, a fighter pilot shot down in a skirmish with the Luftwaffe. A nuclear war would almost certainly result in even more casualties. The chairman was determined to do everything in his power to avoid plunging his country into another war. But he also understood that there was now a danger of events spinning out of his--and Kennedy's--control.
Part of the problem lay in his own miscalculation of the likely American response to the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba. Khrushchev had assumed that Kennedy would end up grudgingly accepting Soviet missiles in Cuba just as he himself had accepted U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy. The Americans would be irritated, even angry, but they would not take the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
"You don't have to worry; there will be no big reaction from the U.S.," Khrushchev had told Che Guevara when they first discussed the matter back in July. "And if there is a problem, we will send the Baltic fleet." When he heard this remark, Che raised his eyebrows in disbelief, but did not protest. He may have thought this was simply another of Comrade Khrushchev's little jokes. The Russian Baltic fleet was scarcely a match for the U.S. Navy: the last time it had been deployed into foreign waters was in 1904, when it was annihilated by the Japanese imperial navy, one of the greatest military defeats ever inflicted on Russia.
Like his opposite number in the White House, Khrushchev had ordered his armed forces to an advanced state of alert. All military leave had been canceled, and discharges from the army deferred indefinitely.
As he looked down the Presidium table, Khrushchev understood he had to prepare his colleagues for a probable retreat. He had concluded that he had "to dismantle the missile sites." But he wanted to implement this decision in a way that would permit him to claim that he had achieved his primary objective, the defense of the Cuban revolution. As Khrushchev described the situation, it was Washington, not Moscow, that was backing down.
"We have made Cuba a country at the center of international attention," he told the Presidium. "The two systems have come head-to-head. Kennedy is telling us to take our missiles out of Cuba. And we reply: 'Give us firm guarantees, a promise, that the Americans won't attack Cuba.' That's not bad."
A deal was possible. In return for a noninvasion guarantee, "we could take out the R-12s, and leave the other missiles there." This was not "cowardice," merely common sense. "We will strengthen Cuba, and save it for two or three years. In a few years' time, it will be even harder [for the U.S.] to deal with it." The important thing now was to avoid bringing the crisis "to the boil."
There were murmurs of "That's right" around the table. Nobody dared challenge the first secretary. Khrushchev insisted that the setback, if it was a setback at all, was only temporary.
"Time will pass. If necessary, the missiles can appear there again."
The tone of Soviet propaganda changed abruptly once Khrushchev decided, at least in principle, to withdraw the missiles. "Hands off Cuba," the Communist Party newspaper Pravda had fulminated earlier that morning. "The aggressive designs of United States imperialists must be foiled." The next day's headlines would read: "Everything to Prevent War. Reason Must Prevail."
It was now clear to Khrushchev's colleagues on the Presidium that their explosive leader had no intention of going to war over the missiles. Five thousand miles and seven time zones away in Washington, ExComm members had reached a similar conclusion about Kennedy. The president regarded a nuclear exchange as "the final failure," to be avoided at all costs.
The initial reactions of both leaders had been bellicose. Kennedy had favored an air strike; Khrushchev thought seriously about giving his commanders on Cuba authority to use nuclear weapons. After much agonizing, both were now determined to find a way out that would not involve armed conflict. The problem was that it was practically impossible for them to communicate frankly with one another. Each knew very little about the intentions and motivations of the other side, and tended to assume the worst. Messages took half a day to deliver. When they did arrive, they were couched in the opaque language of superpower diplomacy, which barred the writer from admitting weakness or conceding error.
Once set in motion, the machinery of war quickly acquired its own logic and momentum. The unwritten rule of Cold War diplomacy--never concede anything--made it very difficult for either side to back down.
The question was no longer whether the leaders of the two superpowers wanted war--but whether they had the power to prevent it. The most dangerous moments of the crisis still lay ahead.
The two men sent by the CIA to sabotage the Matahambre copper mine were hacking their way through thick Cuban forest. Their progress was slow and tortuous. Before reaching the forest, Miguel Orozco and Pedro Vera had waded, knee-deep, through a mangrove swamp, with heavy packs on their backs. Orozco carried the radio transmitter, a small generator, and an M-3 semiautomatic rifle. Vera carried three packs of C-4 explosive and timing devices. They had maps and compasses to figure out the direction they were going.
They slept by day and hiked by night. The only sign of civilization en route was a rough road along the coast, which they crossed without incident. They met no one. Even animals were wary of penetrating the dense morass of prickly bushes. Heavy rainstorms made the going more difficult.
On the third day, they had spotted a line of wooden towers supporting an aerial tramway system. They were heading for one particular tower, the so-called "breakover tower," on a 430-foot hilltop between the copper mine and the sea. It looked exactly the same as the model at the Farm, the CIA training camp in Virginia. Vera, a late addition to the sabotage team, had never seen the mock-up. Orozco had practiced climbing the tower many times. This was his fourth attempt to sabotage Matahambre.
They reached the base of the tower around midnight on the fifth day. The tramway operation had halted for the night, and all was quiet. Orozco shimmied up the fifty-foot-high tower. He attached two packets of explosives to different portions of the overhead cable. When the tramway restarted in the morning, one bomb would end up in the copper purification plant in Matahambre, the other in the dockside storage facility in Santa Lucia. Both bombs were designed to explode on contact.
In the meantime, Vera placed a bomb at the base of the tower. He linked it to a timing device, a pencil-shaped metal stick with an acid interior. The acid would slowly eat away at the metal until it set off an explosion, bringing the tower crashing down, along with the power cable leading to the copper mine. Although the bombs were not specifically intended to kill anybody, destruction of the power line would likely trap hundreds of miners below ground with no easy means of escape. The lack of power would also shut down the pumps that extracted water from the mine, causing serious flooding.
Their mission almost accomplished, the two saboteurs headed back for the coast. The return trip would be easier as they knew the way and could see clearly where they were going. They had agreed to meet the CIA exfiltration team between October 28 and 30.
By dawn, they were already well on their way back. The sea sparkled in the distance, across a line of pine-covered hills. Orozco was beginning to experience a sharp pain in his stomach, which made it uncomfortable to walk. It was nothing, he assured his friend.
8:00 A.M. THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 (7:00 A.M. HAVANA)
At the Soviet Embassy in Washington, diplomats and spies were under pressure from Moscow to produce hard information about American invasion plans for Cuba. Agents counted the number of illuminated windows at the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and struck up conversations with journalists in bars and parking lots. Military attaches tried to keep tabs on the movements of U.S. troop units.
So far, they had little to show for their efforts. Much of the intelligence "information" transmitted to Moscow was culled from the newspapers. Some of it was wrong. A dispatch from Ambassador Dobrynin identified Defense Secretary McNamara as a leader of the hard-line faction on the ExComm, with Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon as a leading opponent of early military action. The reality was the reverse.
The paucity of accurate intelligence was particularly frustrating to the KGB station chief in Washington, Aleksandr Feklisov. He remembered the glory days during World War II, when Kremlin agents succeeded in penetrating the highest levels of the American government. As a young spy in New York, working under cover as a Soviet vice consul, Feklisov had helped run one of the most successful intelligence operations in history: the penetration of the Manhattan Project and the theft of America's nuclear secrets. His agents had included Julius Rosenberg, who provided Feklisov with a proximity fuse, one of the most prized items of American military technology.
It had been easy back then. Soviet prestige was high, particularly following the German invasion in June 1941. Many American left-wing intellectuals felt it was their duty to do whatever they could to help the country that was doing most of the fighting against Nazi Germany. Informants walked into the Soviet consulate in New York off the street, offering their services for purely idealistic reasons.
The Cold War, Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin's crimes, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 made life much more difficult for Soviet spies in the United States. They could no longer rely on ideology as the primary inducement for persuading American citizens to cooperate. Money, and in some cases blackmail, had become the KGB's preferred recruiting tools, but they were not nearly as effective as old-fashioned political sympathy.
The drying up of intelligence sources contributed to the Soviet leaders' many misconceptions about America. When Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, he was insulted to receive an invitation to spend a couple of days at a place called Camp David with President Eisenhower. None of his American specialists knew anything about Camp David. Khrushchev's immediate reaction was that it must be some kind of internment center "where people who were mistrusted could be kept in quarantine." Considerable effort was required to establish that Camp David was "what we would call a dacha," and that the invitation was an honor, not an insult. In his memoirs, Khrushchev would laugh about the incident, saying it showed "how ignorant we were."
When Feklisov returned to the United States in 1960 as KGB station chief, or rezident, in Washington, his sources consisted mainly of purveyors of low-level gossip. His agents prowled around the National Press Club, where reporters and diplomats swapped rumors. By keeping their ears open, Feklisov's men were sometimes able to come up with interesting information that had not yet made its way into the newspapers.
On Wednesday evening, a KGB agent working undercover as a TASS correspondent had picked up a prize morsel of gossip in the club. The barman, a Lithuanian emigre called Johnny Prokov, had overheard a conversation between two reporters for the New York Herald Tribune, Warren Rogers and Robert Donovan. Rogers had been selected as a member of a pool of eight reporters to accompany the Marines in an invasion of Cuba, if and when there was one. He thought action was imminent, and told Donovan, his bureau chief, that "it looks like I'm going." Prokov relayed a garbled version of the exchange to the TASS reporter, who passed it to Feklisov, who passed it to Dobrynin.
By this time, the information was third or fourth hand, but Soviet officials in Washington were desperate for anything resembling inside intelligence. In order to confirm the tip, Feklisov had another KGB agent "accidentally" bump into Rogers in a parking lot. The agent, whose cover was second secretary in the Soviet Embassy, asked the reporter if Kennedy was serious about attacking Cuba.
"He sure as hell is," Rogers replied belligerently.
Later that morning, Rogers received a call from the Soviet Embassy inviting him to lunch with a senior diplomat, Georgi Kornienko. He accepted the invitation, thinking it might lead to a story. Instead, Kornienko pumped him for information. Not knowing what was really going on inside the ExComm, the reporter depicted McNamara and Bobby Kennedy as the main advocates of an invasion. As Kornienko relayed the conversation to his superiors, Rogers stated that the Kennedy administration had already taken a decision in principle "to finish with Castro." U.S. invasion plans were "prepared to the last detail" and could be implemented "at any moment." The only thing holding up an invasion was Khrushchev's "flexible policy." The president needed a pretext for attacking Cuba that would satisfy both the American people and the international community.
It was the tip the KGB had been waiting for. Both Dobrynin and Feklisov sent urgent telegrams to Moscow recounting the episode, which soon ended up on the desks of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders. A hurried exchange in D.C.'s National Press Club had been elevated overnight into top secret intelligence information.
The Matahambre mine resumed operations at dawn. Several hundred miners had descended deep below the surface of the earth in metal elevator cages and were crawling through subterranean tunnels toward the rock face. The machinery was in need of repair--no new equipment had been imported into Cuba since the revolution--but the mine still managed to produce around 20,000 tons of copper a year. Much of the output went to the Soviet bloc.
A supervisor at the Santa Lucia end of the aerial tramway suddenly noticed that something was wrong. Felipe Iglesias had been operating the conveyor system for more than twenty years, from the period when the factory was still under American management. He was watching the conveyor buckets move slowly down from Matahambre when he spotted a strange object attached to the cable. If it went any further, it would get tangled in the machinery.
"Stop the conveyor," he yelled into the intercom that connected the Santa Lucia terminal with the copper purification plant in Matahambre. "There is something strange on top of one of the buckets."
"It looks like a bomb," shouted another worker, as he inspected the sticks of dynamite.
Within minutes, a second bomb was discovered, this time at the Matahambre end of the tramway. Teams of securitymen then walked the six-mile length of the tramway, meeting at the breakover tower. They found the final bomb planted by Orozco and Vera shortly before it was due to explode.
NOON THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 (11:00 A.M. HAVANA)
Lieutenant Gerald Coffee was on his second low-level reconnaissance mission over Cuba. He had taken pictures of the medium-range missile sites near Sagua la Grande. Deep tracks were visible in the mud from the exercise of the previous night. His Crusader jet was headed east toward an intermediate-range missile site at Remedios that was still weeks away from completion when something caught his attention off the left nose of the aircraft.
About two miles to the north of the missile site was a large military-style camp. Coffee could see rows and rows of tanks and trucks, many of them under camouflage. He had to make a split-second decision. As wingman to a more senior pilot, he was meant to fly in lockstep with the lead plane along a preassigned track. But the target was too tempting to miss. The military camp was unlike any he had previously seen in Cuba. He pulled his steering column to the left, leveled his wings, and began taking pictures. His camera recorded several sharp twists and rolls as he maneuvered for the best position, photographing the sky, horizon, and green cane fields in quick succession.
The Crusader roared over the camp at nearly 500 knots, too fast for Coffee to get much sense of what he was photographing. He made a hard right, and fell back in behind his lead pilot. The pilots gave each other the thumbs-up sign, switched on their afterburners, and flew back northward across the Florida Straits.
It would take many weeks for the young Navy lieutenant to realize the significance of what he had just photographed. In due course, a letter of appreciation arrived from the commandant of the Marine Corps commending Coffee's "alertness in a rapidly changing situation." The letter went on to praise "the most important and most timely information for the Amphibious forces which has ever been acquired in the history of this famous Navy-Marine fighting team."
Coffee did not know it yet, but he had just discovered a new class of Soviet weaponry on Cuba.
The overflight of the Crusader was merely the latest in a long string of setbacks for Colonel Grigori Kovalenko, commander of the 146th motorized rifle regiment. His unit possessed some of the most destructive weapons in the Soviet army: T-54 tanks, guided antitank missiles, multiple rocket launchers known as Katyushas, and nuclear-tipped Luna missiles. But Kovalenko's men were sick and exhausted. Almost everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.
Their troubles began on the eighteen-day journey across the Atlantic, when half the soldiers came down with seasickness. Their misery was compounded by being trapped below decks in the boiling heat. After staggering off the boats, they were taken by truck to their deployment area, an abandoned chicken farm. The site was almost completely barren save for a few palm trees, bamboo huts, and a water tower that spewed out a brackish red liquid. Within a few days, soldiers were complaining of dysentery. There were a dozen cases at first, then forty, finally a third of the regiment. It was an epidemic.
Not only was the water poisonous, there was not enough of it. Accustomed to making do with very little themselves, the Cubans assumed that a single well would provide enough drinking water for four thousand soldiers. But a motorized rifle regiment consumed 100 tons a day. Water was required not just for the men but also for the military equipment. There was insufficient time to dig wells. They would have to move somewhere else.
It had taken the regiment a week to redeploy, to another desolate piece of land fifty miles to the east, near Remedios. During the move, a car carrying one of Kovalenko's senior officers crashed head-on with a Cuban truck, almost killing the passengers. The conditions at Remedios were not much better than in the first camp. Drinking water was trucked in from a spring fifteen miles away, but at least it was clean. The men cleared the snakes and large boulders out of the undergrowth, and pitched their tents. Then the rains began, drenching everybody and turning the red earth into a thick mud.
The redeployment was just about complete when Kennedy announced his naval blockade. Kovalenko knew that his regiment was on the front line of a new Cold War crisis, but had difficulty extracting useful information from his superiors. Fortunately, one of his officers was fluent in English. By tuning in to Miami radio stations and the Voice of America, he was able to keep the colonel up to date with the latest news.
The primary mission of the regiment was to protect the nuclear missile sites at Remedios and Sagua la Grande. Two other motorized rifle regiments had been deployed around Havana to defend the capital and the missile sites in Pinar del Rio Province. A fourth regiment was stationed in Oriente Province, in the east, to stop a breakout from Guantanamo. All the regiments--with the exception of the one in Oriente--possessed battlefield nuclear weapons.
Mounted on a light tank chassis, the Lunas were easily maneuverable. It took about thirty minutes to prepare them for firing, and another sixty minutes to reload. The rockets could deliver a 2-kiloton nuclear warhead over a range of twenty miles, destroying everything within a 1,000-yard radius of the blast and spewing radiation over a much larger area. Exposed American troops targeted by a Luna would have been killed instantly by the heat and the pressure. Troops inside vehicles might survive a few days before dying of radiation.
Kovalenko controlled two Luna launchers and four nuclear warheads. The Lunas were lined up neatly in the parking lot, alongside the Katyushas and the T-54 tanks, where they were photographed by Lieutenant Coffee.
Three hundred miles to the east, in the hills above Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente Province, a CIA agent named Carlos Pasqual encoded his latest report in groups of five characters. He pulled his radio set and generator out of their hiding place. Together, they weighed a cumbersome fifty pounds. Making sure that nobody was around, he cranked up the radio set, tuning it to the high-frequency wavelength he used for communicating with headquarters. He tapped a succession of blips and bleeps into the ether and hoped for the best.
The message Pasqual wanted to convey to his superiors was not to expect much out of him over the next few days. They had been pestering him with requests and questions ever since the discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba. The Cuban authorities had just announced they were commandeering private vehicles for the duration of the alarma de combate. Moving around the countryside without official permission had become practically impossible.
The son of a former Cuban air force chief under Batista, Pasqual had left Cuba after the revolution and volunteered his services to the CIA. After being smuggled back onto the island by small boat at the beginning of September 1962, he had made his way to a coffee farm owned by anti-Castro dissidents. From there, he sent dozens of reports to Washington, recording the movements of troop convoys, the unloading of Soviet ships in the port of Santiago, and the construction of rocket bases in the mountains. His most recent report, the previous day, had described the transport of military equipment toward Guantanamo.
It was nerve-wracking work. A tall man with very pale skin, Pasqual stood out from the black and mulatto peasants who had provided him with a place to stay. Everybody was scared, and he was unsure whom he could trust. A couple of weeks before, a relative of the owner of the farm had shown up unexpectedly, and had begun asking questions about the stranger. Pasqual spent the next few days hiding in the mountains, frightened that the militia were about to call. After that incident, he slept down in the cellar, curling up next to sacks of coffee beans. He made sure to leave the farm well before dawn so that no one would see him.
Pasqual worked for a spy network code-named AMTORRID, one of two main groups of agents and informers that the CIA had managed to infiltrate into Cuba during recent months. The other network, code-named COBRA, was based in Pinar del Rio Province at the other end of the island. In addition to intelligence-gathering activities, the COBRA team had branched out into small-scale sabotage operations, and had been supplied with 2,000 tons of arms and explosives by the CIA. Its principal agent claimed twenty subagents and several hundred informants and collaborators.
The CIA's problem in Cuba was the opposite of the KGB's problem in Washington: not too little human intelligence, but too much. In addition to COBRA and AMTORRID, the CIA also received intelligence tips from dozens of disaffected Cubans and refugees arriving in Miami on the daily Pan Am flight. Reports had been streaming into Washington for months about mysterious tube-shaped objects trundling through obscure Cuban villages on giant trailers. Many of the reports lacked detail: untrained observers could confuse a thirty-foot missile with a sixty-foot missile. Some of the reports were demonstrably false as they described weapons systems that had still not arrived in Cuba at the time they were purportedly seen. There was an improbable Our Man in Havana quality to many of the rumors. Four years earlier, Graham Greene had written a best-selling novel about a vacuum cleaner salesman who was paid large sums of money by British intelligence for drawings of a "rocket-launching pad" in the mountains of Oriente. The "top secret information" turned out to be sketches of the inside of a vacuum cleaner. The movie based on the book was filmed in Havana in 1959 in the months after Castro's takeover.
As they sorted through a mass of agent and refugee reports--882 such reports were disseminated in the month of September alone--CIA analysts found evidence to support whatever hypothesis was most fashionable at the time. It was difficult to sort out which reports were accurate, which were exaggerated, and which were false. In the words of the CIA official who drafted The President's Intelligence Check List, analysts had "come to view all such reports with a high degree of suspicion." The predominant view in the agency, prior to the U-2 flight of October 14, was that the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba was far too risky for the Soviets to undertake. A September 19 National Intelligence Estimate concluded magisterially that "the establishment on Cuban soil of Soviet nuclear striking forces which could be used against the U.S. would be incompatible with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it."
Once the top CIA estimators had formally concluded that the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba was highly improbable, lower-level analysts were reluctant to challenge their opinion, even on the basis of eyewitness reports of missiles being unloaded from Soviet ships. On the night of September 19, just a few hours after the CIA issued its eagerly awaited Intelligence Estimate, a CIA informant was loitering on the dock at Mariel. He observed "large intercontinental rockets more than 20 meters [65 feet] long" being unloaded from a Soviet ship. His report made its way through a chain of agents to Miami and then to Washington, where CIA headquarters added the dismissive comment: "It is more likely that source observed [SAM] missiles being offloaded." In hindsight, the original report was extraordinarily accurate. An R-12 rocket packaged for transport without the nose cone measures sixty-seven feet in length, double the length of a V-75 SAM missile. Eight R-12 missiles had arrived in Mariel on board the Soviet freighter Poltava three days earlier.
It was not just CIA analysts who mistrusted reports of Soviet nuclear missiles until they were confirmed by overhead photography. Other experienced observers, along with the entire Western diplomatic corps in Cuba, were also skeptical. Britain's Man in Havana, Herbert Marchant, would later describe how he had picked up numerous rumors about "giant missiles, each one longer than a cricket pitch," being shipped to Cuba from the Soviet Union in the summer and early fall of 1962. He had dismissed the stories as "a wildly improbable sequel" to Greene's popular novel.
One of the rare dissenters from the conventional wisdom was CIA director John McCone, a hawkish Republican. McCone could not understand why the Soviets had stationed surface-to-air missiles all around the island unless they had something very valuable to hide. The purpose of the SAM sites was obviously to discourage the United States from sending U-2s over Cuba, he reasoned. Vacationing in the South of France with his new wife, he sent a stream of worried messages back to Washington questioning the official CIA estimate and speculating about the deployment of Soviet medium-range missiles. The messages became known as the "honeymoon cables."
As he tapped out his reports to Washington, Pasqual was unaware of the debate raging in the CIA about the value of human intelligence, or "Humint" as it was known in the trade. Recently, his AMTORRID network had picked up information about missile-related activity around the town of Mayari Arriba, in the Sierra del Cristal Mountains. Just two days earlier, on October 23, an AMTORRID message described a "convoy of 42 vehicles including seven missile carriers" heading up a newly built road to Mayari. There were also reports of "construction of underground installations" in the area.
The analysts back in Washington were too preoccupied with figuring out what was happening in the confirmed missile sites in western Cuba to pay much attention to what was going on in an obscure part of Oriente. They were unaware of the nuclear menace hanging over the Guantanamo naval base.
Western diplomats based in Santiago de Cuba had also taken note of a new road into the mountains and the frantic efforts to complete it. Driving through the area on the way to Guantanamo, the British consul noticed a "wide, unpaved, new road running North, curving over a low hill and disappearing from view." Cuban militiamen were dug in behind trees at the top of the hill, guarding the entrance to the road. Neither the consul nor any other foreigner had much idea what lay up the road.
Somewhat belatedly, U.S. intelligence had managed to ferret out many of the most powerful Soviet weapons in Cuba, including the R-12 medium-range missiles, the Ilyushin-28 bombers, the short-range Lunas, and the SAM antiaircraft missile network. But there was much that the Americans had been unable to find. They suspected that the Soviets had nuclear warheads in Cuba, but did not know where they were stored. They had grossly underestimated the numbers of Soviet troops. And they had absolutely no idea about the weapons system that was key to Moscow's plans for defending the island against a U.S. invasion. The story of the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles would remain a secret for forty years and is being told in detail here for the first time.
Had the Western diplomats been able to travel across the rolling hills past Mayari Arriba, they would have eventually come across a cruise missile base. The missiles were stored at a military barracks tucked away in the mountains. They looked like miniature MiG jets, about twenty feet long and three feet wide, with a stubby nose and folding wings. Some were still in their wooden crates; others were hidden under canvas in fields near the motor park.
The warheads for the missiles were located a few hundred yards away from the barracks, in concrete vaults previously used for storing artillery shells. Each warhead weighed about seven hundred pounds and contained a fourteen-kiloton nuclear charge, roughly the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The vaults were hot and humid, not at all suitable for storing nuclear warheads. But the ever resourceful Cubans had a solution for that problem. They scoured Santiago for old American air conditioners, ripping them out of the numerous brothels that had been closed down in the aftermath of the revolution. Before hooking the equipment up to Soviet army generators, Soviet technicians had to adapt the electric circuits from the American standard of sixty cycles per second to the Russian standard of fifty cycles.
Known by the Russian acronym FKR--frontovaya krylataya raketa, or "front-line winged rocket"--the cruise missiles were the descendants of the German buzz bombs that terrorized London during World War II. Nicknamed "flying bombs" or "doodlebugs" by the British, the German V-1 missiles were essentially unpiloted aircraft that dropped out of the sky when their fuel ran out. The Soviet trailer-launched missiles could hit targets up to 110 miles away, destroying everything within a radius of six thousand feet. A single FKR missile could devastate a U.S. aircraft carrier group or a major military base.
The Soviets had brought two FKR regiments to Cuba. Each regiment controlled forty nuclear warheads and eight cruise missile launchers. One regiment was stationed in western Cuba, not far from Mariel, near a town called Guerra. Its mission was to defend the vulnerable stretch of coastline west and east of Havana, where the Americans were expected to come ashore. The other regiment, headquartered at Mayari, had been ordered to get ready "to deliver a blow to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay." The plans for GITMO's destruction were closely coordinated with Raul Castro.
Raul was the quiet brother. For thirty-one years, he had lived in the shadow of his charismatic older sibling. He was small and scrawny, and had never been able to grow more than a few wisps of the beard that was almost part of the uniform of Cuban revolutionaries. He described Fidel as "the troublesome one" and laughed at his loquaciousness. He was as fanatical as his older brother, personally supervising the executions of many counterrevolutionaries, but he expressed his fanaticism in a different way. If Fidel was the visionary, Raul was the organizer.
It made sense for Castro to dispatch his younger brother to Oriente immediately after declaring the alarma de combate on Monday afternoon. Raul knew the region around Mayari intimately. The village had served as his military headquarters during the later stage of the war against Batista. Fidel had sent him and sixty-five followers from the Sierra Madre on Cuba's southeastern coast to establish a second front inland in the Sierra del Cristal. Mayari consisted of twenty-four ramshackle huts when Raul arrived in a convoy of ten jeeps and pickup trucks. He set up a command post in one of the huts, seized more territory, built an airstrip for the rebel air force, and established schools and health services. Soon Mayari was the capital of a "liberated zone" that extended across the mountains toward the Castro family finca at Biran.
Raul understood immediately that the cruise missiles would be crucial to preventing an American breakout from Guantanamo. Immediately after his arrival, he invited Soviet military commanders to his Santiago headquarters for consultations. Together, they reviewed plans for the destruction of the naval base. The commander of the local FKR regiment, Colonel Dmitri Maltsev, took out a map and briefed Raul on the positions of his troops.
The Soviet officer responsible for the ground defense of Oriente was Colonel Dmitri Yazov. (He would later become Mikhail Gorbachev's defense minister and a leader of the failed August 1991 coup against Gorbachev.) Like Kovalenko in Remedios, Yazov had great difficulty finding a suitable camp for his motorized rifle regiment. The first site was in a forest filled with poisonous trees and bushes. Unaware of the danger, the troops had used branches from the trees to construct makeshift huts and even beds. The monsoon rains released poison from the branches, infecting an entire tank battalion with terrible skin lesions. Other troops suffered from dysentery caused by spoiled food. The regiment redeployed to an airfield outside the city of Holguin, but its combat readiness was much diminished.
Soon after arriving in Oriente, Raul issued an order subordinating all manpower in the province to the Cuban army. Since he was minister of defense, this meant that every worker in Oriente was now under his personal command. Civilian jeeps and trucks became military vehicles that could not be driven without permission. Under the joint defense plan with the Soviets, Raul was also kept informed about the movements of Yazov's tanks and Maltsev's cruise missiles.
Everything was in place for an attack on Guantanamo. Raul had toured the hills above the naval base with Maltsev and had inspected the launch positions for the FKR missiles. Soviet troops had spent weeks clearing openings in the forest for the missile launchers, sealing off the sites with trenches and barbed-wire fencing. The launch positions were well camouflaged and much more difficult to detect from the air than the medium-range missile sites. Some equipment, such as antennas and generators, was prepositioned, but most would be brought in at the last moment.
Raul received regular intelligence updates from Cuban spies mingling with the workers who serviced the base, and commuted back and forth through the U.S. and Cuban checkpoints. The Cubans knew the numbers of Marine reinforcements and where they were deployed. The base was surrounded on all sides. If war broke out, the Soviet navy would mine the entrance to Guantanamo Bay while Yazov's troops blocked the land approaches. Several dozen heavy artillery pieces were stationed in the hills above the base.
The Soviet commanders were confident that the Americans still had no idea about the cruise missiles or their nuclear warheads, despite several U-2 flights over the area. An initial shipment of warheads had arrived on board the Indigirka in the first week of October, and had been distributed to the FKR regiments. Nuclear control officers had made the twenty-hour trip to La Isabela over bad roads to meet the Aleksandrovsk, unload the warheads, and bring them back to Mayari. They took elaborate precautions to conceal the destination of the convoy, sending decoy trucks and vans in the opposite direction to create maximum confusion.
In the meantime, trucks loaded with cruise missiles were already moving down the newly constructed road from Mayari in the direction of Guantanamo.
Known to the Marines as GITMO, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base looked like a heavily fortified slice of American suburbia plunked down on the edge of a tropical island. Jeeps stood outside pleasant little one-story bungalows with neatly trimmed lawns. Trucks dragging howitzers and mortars drove along streets lined with bowling alleys, grocery stores, sparkling swimming pools, and a roller-skating rink. Tanks were parked on the edge of the twenty-seven-hole golf course, near road signs reading: TEN M.P.H. ZONE. CHILDREN PLAYING.
The relaxed, small-town atmosphere had disappeared the day Kennedy announced the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba. That morning, Marines went door to door, telling women and children they had an hour to pack and leave. By nightfall, 2,810 dependents had been evacuated. Their places were taken by five thousand Marine reinforcements, who fanned out across the fifteen-mile-long land border with Cuba. Naval gunfire ships moved offshore, ready to pound artillery positions in the hills above the naval base. A reconnaissance plane circled constantly overhead, identifying Soviet and Cuban military targets.
On Tuesday morning, a few hours after the president's speech, a U.S. Navy cargo plane ferrying extra ammunition to GITMO crashed while coming in to land. Minutes after the accident, the ordnance on board the plane began detonating in the extreme heat, producing a series of massive explosions and scattering wreckage more than a mile away. It would take four days to clear the area and find the charred remains of the eight-man crew.
Surrounded by protective mountains, GITMO offered the U.S. Navy one of the best natural harbors in the Caribbean. It was also a historical anomaly. The base agreement dated back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, when Cuba was still under American protection. The fledgling Cuban government was compelled to lease the forty-five-square-mile enclave in perpetuity to the United States for an annual payment of $2,000 in gold coin, later converted to $3,386.25 in paper money. After the revolution, Castro denounced the base agreement as an "illegal" residue of colonialism and refused to accept the rent payments the Americans kept on sending. But he refrained from acting on threats to throw the gringos out of Guantanamo, knowing this would be treated as a casus belli by Washington.
Desperate for cash and intelligence, Castro permitted several thousand Cubans to continue servicing the base. Cuban workers manned the grocery stores, repaired and unloaded ships, and even participated in joint American-Cuban police patrols. After streaming through Cuban and American checkpoints at the main Northeast Gate, they were taken to their workplaces by U.S. Navy buses. The Cuban authorities also sold the base all its fresh water, pumping seven hundred million gallons annually from the nearby Yateras River.
As the naval blockade came into force, GITMO commanders braced for retaliatory action by the Cubans. But nearly half the 2,400 Cuban employees reported for work on Tuesday, and even more showed up the next day. The water supply continued uninterrupted. Many of the Cubans had been working at the naval base for years and were opposed to Castro. They provided information about Cuban and Soviet troop deployments to the Marines and welcomed the prospect of a U.S. invasion. Others cooperated with the Cuban secret police. The intelligence flowed in both directions, making everybody happy.
The Marines had good intelligence about troop movements and artillery positions in the immediate vicinity of Guantanamo. They had compiled a target list of dozens of key sites to be taken out in the first few hours of hostilities, including airfields, bridges, communications posts, military encampments, and suspected missile sites. But they attached little importance to the FKR missile base at Mayari Arriba, easily the biggest threat to GITMO. The Mayari area was described as a "low priority" military target in the joint operations plan.
Some of the intelligence coming back from the front lines was of dubious value. The GITMO commander, Brigadier General William Collins, was at first perplexed by reports of a mysterious Cuban signaling system in Caimanera, half a mile north of the fence line. Marines freshly dug in on the American side of the front line reported a series of yellow, green, and red flashes from the Cuban side.
Yellow, green, red. Red, yellow, green. Once he figured out the secret code, the general burst out laughing. His men had been observing a traffic light.
5:00 P.M. THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25
At first, Adlai Stevenson did not want to display the intelligence photographs of the Soviet missiles to the United Nations Security Council. It was the kind of flashy gesture that he naturally disliked. During a lifetime in politics, including two runs for the presidency, he found it distasteful to go for the jugular. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he prided himself on keeping the debate civil and reasonable. Besides, he could never forget the time the CIA had duped him into trying to deceive the world, making him look like a fool in the process.
In April 1961, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the State Department had persuaded the ambassador to show the United Nations a photograph of a Cuban air force plane that had bombed an airfield near Havana. The "evidence" turned out to be fake. The air raid had not been carried out by Cuban air force defectors, as the Kennedy administration claimed, but by pilots on the payroll of the CIA, in an old B-26 painted with Cuban insignia. To make the story about a defection more believable, CIA men had shot dozens of bullet holes into one of the planes, using .45-caliber pistols. Stevenson was humiliated.
Stevenson had his doubts about Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis. He felt that the United States should negotiate with the Soviets under UN auspices. It was clear to him that Washington would have to offer something in return for the removal of the missiles, perhaps the withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy or even the Guantanamo Naval Base. But he was also under pressure from the White House to take a tough public stand. Worried that Stevenson lacked backbone, Kennedy had dispatched John McCloy, all-purpose wise man and former American viceroy in Germany, to sit next to him in New York.
In the absence of live footage from Cuba or the blockade line, the Security Council was the closest the television networks could get to the climactic superpower confrontation. The Council provided the perfect backdrop for a contest of rhetorical gladiators. The chamber was dominated by a giant wall tapestry of a phoenix arising from the ashes--representing mankind recovering from the destruction of World War II. There was space for only twenty chairs around the circular table, providing an intimacy and dramatic intensity that the much larger General Assembly lacked. At moments of crisis, diplomats and officials would crowd around the entrances, watching the debate unfold.
As luck would have it, the Soviet ambassador, Valerian Zorin, was chairing the meeting when Stevenson asked for the floor. Zorin was tired and ill, and had been showing signs of mental deterioration in recent months. Sometimes, during private meetings, he would look up, as in a daze, and ask, "What year is this?" He had been left to fend for himself by Moscow. Without instructions, he had relied on the traditional techniques of Soviet diplomats: obfuscation and denial. Zorin continued to deny the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, even as Khrushchev was privately confirming them to the visiting American businessman, William Knox.
Zorin's denials had become too much, even for the patient, well-mannered Stevenson. Seated four chairs around the table from the Russian, Stevenson insisted on asking "one simple question."
"Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed, and is placing, medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba?"
There was nervous laughter around the chamber as Stevenson pressed his question. "Yes or no--don't wait for the translation--yes or no."
"I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and I do not wish to answer a question put to me in the manner in which a prosecutor does," replied Zorin, in his whining, high-pitched voice. He smiled and shook his head as if amazed by Stevenson's effrontery.
"You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist, and I want to know if I have understood you correctly."
"You will receive your answer in due course. Do not worry."
There was more nervous laughter as Stevenson tried to corner his opponent.
"I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision."
The phrase "until hell freezes over" would soon become celebrated as the perfect put-down to the stonewalling Soviet ambassador. In fact, it was the opposite of what Stevenson really meant. The Americans were not prepared to wait for a Soviet answer. They wanted it immediately. To force a response from Zorin, Stevenson had a pair of wooden easels set up at the back of the chamber and proceeded to produce the photographic evidence.
As everybody else in the room strained to see the photographs, Zorin ostentatiously scribbled notes to himself.
"He who has lied once will not be believed a second time," he told the Council, after a long pause for the consecutive French translation of his tormentor's remarks. "Accordingly, Mr. Stevenson, we shall not look at your photographs."
Among the millions of Americans watching the Security Council debate via television was the president. Seated in his rocking chair in the Oval Office, he made notes on a legal pad, circling and underlining key words.
"Missile," he wrote at the top of the pad. He drew a box around it, and then repeated the word, this time with a circle around it. "Veto, veto, veto, veto." "Provocative," he scrawled, with a heavy circle. He repeated the word "provocative," this time with a slightly lighter circle. He underlined the words "close surveillance" and "Soviet ship." At the bottom of the page, he drew a series of interlocking boxes that trailed off into the margins.
After Stevenson finished, Kennedy looked up from his legal pad. "Terrific," he told his aides. "I never knew Adlai had it in him. Too bad he didn't show some of this steam in the 1956 campaign."
1:03 A.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 (12:03 A.M. CENTRAL TIME)
The nightwatchman was on his regular rounds. Everybody was on alert for surprise raids by Russian commandos known as spetsnaz infiltrated into the United States in advance of war. War planners had warned that a Soviet nuclear first strike could be preceded by sabotage attacks against military command-and-control facilities. The sector direction center on the southern edge of Duluth Airport was an obvious target as it housed the computers and radar systems that pulled together air defense information across the Great Lakes. If Soviet saboteurs could blow up the fortresslike concrete blockhouse, the United States would lose much of its ability to track Soviet bombers flying in from the North.
The guard was patrolling the back of the four-story building when he saw a shadowy figure climbing a fence near the electricity generating plant. He fired a few shots into the darkness and ran off to sound the alarm. Within seconds, the klaxon had begun to wail, startling pilots in the mess hall several hundred yards away. Nobody knew what to make of the alarm, which was different from the standard scramble signal. They were still wondering what to do when someone reported that it was a sabotage siren, not a scramble siren.
While the pilots at Duluth were waiting for instructions, alarms began going off all over the region, from Canada to South Dakota. Could a Soviet sabotage plot be under way? The antisabotage plan called for "flushing" the interceptor force, Air Force terminology for getting as many planes into the air as quickly as possible. Unable to figure out what was happening in the Duluth direction center, the controller responsible for Volk Field in Wisconsin decided that "discretion was the better part of valor" and proceeded to implement the plan.
It had already begun snowing in central Wisconsin and temperatures were hovering around the freezing point. Volk Field was in an isolated area known for its deep ravines and dramatic rock formations. The field was mainly used for training purposes by the Air National Guard. There was no hangar for the alert planes, no radar-guided landing system, no control tower, inadequate runway overruns, and a chronic shortage of deicing equipment. Technicians were still tinkering with the klaxons, and were relying on a jerry-rigged phone system to distribute and authenticate a flush order.
Conditions at some of the other fields being used to host the nuclear-armed F-101s and F-106s of the Air Defense Command were even more rudimentary. Siskiyou County Airport in California lacked virtually everything "except a runway and a converted dental van" that served as a control tower. At Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, an Air Force pilot watched in horror as an inexperienced civilian contractor spilled twenty gallons of fuel onto the tarmac. It turned out that the contractor had pushed the wrong button. Instead of pumping fuel into the plane, he was pumping fuel out of it.
Aircraft from the big Air Force bases at Duluth and Detroit had been dispersed to Volk, ready to be flushed in the event of a Soviet attack. The Detroit pilots had flown in from Hulman Field outside Terre Haute, a couple of days after one of their colleagues overshot the runway. The pilots bunked down in hospital beds in the dispensary, a thirty-second jeep ride across the tarmac from their planes. They slept in their flight suits.
The order to flush came at 12:14 a.m. Central Time, eleven minutes after the klaxons went off in Duluth. Roused from their sleep, the pilots pulled on their zippered boots, and ran outside into a snowstorm. As he jumped into a jeep and headed to his plane, Lieutenant Dan Barry was convinced that war had broken out. It would be crazy to launch fully armed nuclear interceptors in these conditions in peacetime. He ran up the ladder into the plane, and flicked a switch to bring the engine from shutoff to idle. While the engine warmed up, he strapped on his helmet and the parachute, which was part of the seat. The F-106 was already fully loaded with an MB-1 "Genie" nuclear-tipped missile, two infrared heat-seeking missiles, and two radar-guided missiles.
A flushed plane is like an ambulance or a fire engine, with priority over all other traffic. After climbing to two thousand feet, the planes would make contact with sector headquarters at Duluth. The assumption was that they would head north, to intercept the Soviet Bears and Bisons believed to be swarming over Canada.
Barry was pulling onto the runway when he saw a jeep coming down the runway toward him, flashing its lights frantically. The lead F-106 was about to take off. A second message had arrived from the Duluth controller, canceling the sabotage alert. Since there was no control tower, the only way to prevent the planes from getting airborne was by physically blocking the runway.
It took exactly four minutes to call the planes back. Another minute, and the first nuclear-armed F-106 would have been in the air, the others immediately behind.
Back in Duluth, meanwhile, guards were still searching for the mysterious intruder. A short time later, they found some bullet holes in a tree. They eventually concluded that the suspected spetsnaz saboteur was probably a bear.