6:00 P.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 (5:00 P.M. HAVANA)
Although he had been in power for nearly four years, Fidel Castro still maintained many of his old revolutionary habits. He had no fixed schedule. He was on the move constantly, visiting military units, mingling with students, chatting with workers. He slept and ate at irregular intervals. The Soviet leader who knew him best, Anastas Mikoyan, was impressed by the "religious" intensity of Fidel's beliefs, but complained that he would often "forget his role as host." Like most Soviet politicians, Mikoyan was accustomed to three well-lubricated meals a day. But the man known to Cubans as el caballo frequently skipped lunch and had no use for alcohol. "The horse" seemed to sleep best in a moving car, rushing from one meeting to the next.
By Friday afternoon, Castro had decided he could no longer tolerate the U.S. overflights of Cuba. He had seen the jets roaring over the outskirts of Havana and shared the rage and impotence of his troops. After meeting with his general staff, he drafted a communique to the secretary-general of the United Nations: "Cuba does not accept the vandalistic and piratical privilege of any warplane to violate our airspace, as this threatens Cuba's security and prepares the way for an attack on its territory. Such a legitimate right of self-defense cannot be renounced. Therefore, any warplane that invades Cuban airspace does so at the risk of meeting our defensive fire."
Castro went to the Soviet military command post at El Chico, twelve miles southwest of Havana, to inform his allies about his decision. The Soviet commander in chief, General Pliyev, was listening to reports from his subordinates on the state of readiness of their units. Castro listened as each officer stood to attention as he delivered his report.
"Motorized rifle units in combat readiness."
"Air force regiment in combat readiness."
"Antiaircraft units ready."
Finally, it was the turn of Igor Statsenko, the commander of the missile troops. Five out of six R-12 batteries had reached full combat readiness, and could unleash a barrage of twenty warheads against cities and military bases across the United States. The last remaining battery had an "emergency operational capability," meaning that at least some of its missiles could be launched, perhaps not very accurately.
"Missile units ready for combat."
Castro complained that the low-level planes were demoralizing Cuban and Soviet troops. The Americans were in effect conducting daily practice sessions for the destruction of Cuba's military defenses.
"We cannot tolerate these low-level overflights under these conditions," Castro told Pliyev. "Any day at dawn they're going to destroy all these units."
Castro wanted the Soviets to switch on their air defense radars so they would be able to detect incoming American planes. The radars had been inactive most of the time to avoid giving away details of the network. Castro was now convinced that an American air raid was imminent. "Turn on the radars," he insisted. "You can't stay blind!"
He had two other recommendations for the Soviet commanders. He urged them to move at least some of their missiles to reserve positions to make it impossible for the Americans to destroy them all in a single raid. And he wanted the forty-three thousand Soviet troops on the island to take off their checkered sports shirts--and put on military uniforms.
If the yanquis dared attack Cuba, they should be given a worthy reception.
All day, crowds had been gathering on the waterfront in old Havana to cheer the first Soviet ship to pass through the American blockade. The skipper of the Vinnitsa entertained them with stories of the armada of U.S. warships, helicopters, and planes that had failed to stop his little ship. Clutching a Cuban flag and a portrait of Castro, Captain "Pedro" Romanov described how he had braved gale-force winds and the imperialists to deliver oil to "freedom-loving Cuba."
"Fidel, Khru'cho', estamo' con lo do'" ("Fidel, Khrushchev, we are with you both"), shouted the demonstrators, swallowing many of the words in the Cuban manner.
Another popular chant celebrated the ideological alliance between Cubans and Russians, and the powerlessness of the United States to do anything about it. In Spanish, the words had an insolent rhyme that made them easier to chant.
Somos socialistas pa'lante y pa'lante
Y al que no le guste que tome purgante.
We are socialists forward, forward
If you don't like it, swallow a laxative.
It was the zenith of the Cuban love affair with the Soviet Union. Cuban parents were naming their sons after Yuri Gagarin, watching Soviet movies, reading Yevtushenko's poems, and lining up to buy tickets for the Moscow Circus. But the admiration for the distant superpower was tinged with condescension. Even as they cheered the arrival of Soviet ships and hugged Soviet soldiers, Cubans could not help noticing the smell that the Russians brought with them--an amalgam of noxious gasoline fumes, cheap cigarettes, thick leather boots, and body odor. They even had a name for this strange aroma, "the grease of the bear."
And then there was the drunkenness. Even Castro complained about the wildness of the Russian soldiers when they were drunk, and the need for "stronger discipline." The thirst for alcohol led to a huge barter business. Poorly paid Russian soldiers would trade anything--food, clothes, even an army truck--for beer and rum. Military police tried to keep order as best they could, rounding up drunken soldiers and beating them to a pulp.
Many Cubans detected a curious contradiction between the sophistication of Soviet weaponry and the backwardness of ordinary Russians. When the writer Edmundo Desnoes visited a Soviet military airfield outside of Havana with a delegation of Cuban intellectuals, he was struck by the "primitiveness" of the living conditions. While the pilots waited for the order to scramble their modern MiG-21 jets, their wives washed clothes by hand in wooden tubs. The intellectuals were provided beds for the night in the infirmary alongside gurneys already tagged with little tabs for the corpses that were expected shortly.
Carlos Franqui, the editor of Revolucion, was amazed by how poorly the Russians dressed.
They were years out of style; their clothes were ugly and badly cut; and their shoes! The man on the street began to wonder why, if socialism is in fact superior to capitalism, everything these Russians had was so shoddy. The women didn't even know how to walk in high heels. And there seemed to be great differences between various groups of Russians: the leaders, technicians, and officers had one style, and the soldiers and ordinary laborers had another--much inferior. People began to wonder about the question of equality under socialism.
The Russians were less "overbearing" than the Americans, Franqui thought, and "pleasant" even when drunk, but they gave the impression of "the most absolute poverty."
The alliance with Moscow had coincided with the sovietization of Cuban society. The revolution was losing its carnival spirit; the bureaucrats were taking over. Most Cubans still supported the goals of the revolution, but their revolutionary ardor had cooled. Communist Party functionaries now occupied key positions in the government. Cuba was turning into a police state, with informers and neighborhood watchdog committees cropping up everywhere. One of the last bastions of intellectual freedom, a weekly literary supplement called Lunes de Revolucion, had been closed down the previous year. Once vibrant newspapers had become government megaphones. Even the language of the Cuban revolution was becoming stultified, full of Marxist-Leninist slogans.
The heavy hand of socialist rigidity was felt in the economy. Many economic decisions depended on Fidel's personal whim. When the comandante en jefe decreed that the countryside around Havana was ideal for coffee plantations, nobody dared contradict him, even though the land was completely unsuited for this purpose. A ban on private enterprise had led to chronic shortages and a thriving black market. A British diplomat described "a crazy wonderland" where "shoe shops sell nothing but Chinese handbags and most 'supermarkets' offer only a shelf of Bulgarian tomato puree." Confidential KGB reports complained that Cuban peasants were refusing to hand over their produce to the state and "a large number of gangsters are artificially aggravating the deficit in goods."
Popular dissatisfaction with the regime was trumped, however, by the threat of foreign invasion. Few Cubans were willing to sacrifice themselves for an economic system that was already failing, but many were ready to die for the motherland. For the time being, ideological divisions and disappointments were forgotten in the spirit of patriotism. People might grumble about the impossible bureaucracy and the lack of food in the shops, but most supported Castro in his struggle against "yanqui imperialism."
In the end, as one of Fidel's aides explained to Maurice Halperin, security and material goods were "not all that important" to the average Cuban. What mattered most were the traditional Cuban values of "honor, dignity, trustworthiness and independence," without which "neither economic growth nor socialism mean a damn." The regime did everything it could to exploit the national obsession with dignidad, whether individual dignity or national dignity. The British ambassador noted in his annual report that banners in the street proclaimed "paz con dignidad" ("peace with dignity"). Even Christmas card greetings came "con dignidad."
"Their Spanish blood may be wearing thin but there is still of lot of Don Quixote" in Cubans, Marchant reported. "This starry eyed brand of national pride in the Cuban revolutionary is a characteristic no observer can afford to ignore in interpreting events."
Confident in the level of their popular support, Fidel and his followers were busy preparing for a guerrilla war. Militiamen dug trenches around the Hotel Nacional on the Malecon. Arms were stashed all over Havana, in factories, apartment blocks, and government offices, from which weapons could be distributed at a moment's notice. If the yanquis came, they would meet an armed population. And even if the capital fell, the struggle would continue in the countryside and in the mountains.
The irony was that the United States had chosen to challenge the flagging Cuban revolution at its strongest point, the issue of national sovereignty.
A few minutes after 6:00 p.m., the teletype machines at the State Department in Washington began churning out a long message from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. It was the latest missive from Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet leader began his rambling, almost pleading letter by raising the specter of nuclear devastation and chiding Kennedy for being too concerned with domestic political pressures.
You are threatening us with war. But you well know that the very least you would receive in reply would be to experience the same consequences as those which you sent us.... We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but if war should indeed break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.
The letter had been hand-delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow at 4:42 p.m. local time, 9:42 a.m. in Washington. To speed transmission, American diplomats had chopped the letter into four sections, each one of which had to be laboriously translated into English, ciphered, deciphered, and typed. The first section had taken more than eight hours to reach the State Department. The final portion would not arrive until after 9:00 p.m. Washington time. World peace was hanging by a thread, but it took nearly twelve hours to deliver a message from one superpower leader to another.
The world was in the throes of a half-finished information revolution. Artificial satellites could beam Kennedy's speeches around the world almost instantaneously, but he could not talk to Khrushchev in real time. He could pick up the phone and call the British prime minister whenever he wished, but it could take hours to reach the leader of Brazil. Navy communications vessels were bouncing messages off the moon, but high-priority traffic between the Pentagon and the warships enforcing the blockade was routinely delayed by six to eight hours. On Wednesday, in the middle of the "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation with Khrushchev over Soviet missile ships headed for Cuba, the president had devoted a precious hour to discussing ways to improve communications with Latin America and the Caribbean.
The communications delays even extended to the emergency command posts that would be responsible for launching a nuclear war if the president was killed or a bomb dropped on SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. A Boeing EC-135 aircraft was in the air at all times, ready to order the destruction of Moscow or Kiev. When the missile crisis erupted, planners realized to their dismay that the "Looking Glass" planes lacked a device for authenticating emergency messages from the ground. On Thursday, they sent out a long top secret message describing how the authentication devices could be installed on board the airborne command posts. Many of the recipients of the message reacted skeptically.
"This is a joke," the chief of naval operations scrawled over his copy of the proposal, pointing to a "4 to 9 hr delay in op immed msgs." By the time an execution order was authenticated, Washington would already be obliterated.
The problem was even worse on the Soviet side. Some of their communications procedures were out of the nineteenth century. If the Soviet ambassador in Washington wanted to send a message to Moscow, it first had to be encrypted in groups of five letters. The embassy would then telephone the local office of Western Union, which would dispatch a courier on a bicycle to collect the cable. Soviet diplomats would watch the young black messenger cycling slowly down the street, and wonder if he would stop along the way to chat with his girlfriend. If all went well, the message would be transmitted to the Kremlin over a telegraph cable originally laid across the Atlantic a hundred years earlier.
At the State Department, officials tore off the latest message from Khrushchev from the teletype, analyzing it paragraph by paragraph. The department's top Soviet expert, Llewellyn Thompson, who had served as ambassador to Moscow, was sure that Khrushchev himself had dictated the letter since it lacked diplomatic polish and sophistication. He was probably "under considerable strain." Under Secretary George Ball imagined the "squat, morosely unhappy Chairman facing a blank wall," pouring out his "anguish in every paragraph."
The key paragraphs came toward the end. After insisting that the missiles had one purpose only--the defense of Cuba--Khrushchev suggested a way out of the crisis. If the United States recalled its fleet and gave a promise not to attack Cuba, "the necessity for the presence of our military specialists would disappear." He compared the international situation to a knot in a rope that became tighter and tighter the more political rivals tugged at either end.
A moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it. Then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly the terrible forces that our countries possess.
Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie the knot.
For Ball, the message was a "cri de coeur." Over at the Pentagon, Curtis LeMay was less sentimental. He told his cronies that the letter was "a lot of bullshit." Khrushchev must believe "we are a bunch of dumb shits, if we swallow that syrup."
7:35 P.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
As Khrushchev's letter continued to come out of the teletype on Friday evening, Dean Rusk was closeted in his seventh-floor office at the State Department, listening to a television reporter named John Scali. The ABC News correspondent had a strange story to tell. Earlier that day, he had been invited to lunch by the KGB's Washington station chief, Aleksandr Feklisov, serving undercover as a counselor in the Soviet Embassy. Over pork chops and crab cakes at the Occidental Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, Feklisov had floated a plan for resolving the Cuban crisis that appeared to echo the conciliatory tone of Khrushchev's latest message. As relayed by Scali, the proposal consisted of three points:
* The Soviet Union would dismantle its missile bases on Cuba under United Nations supervision;
* Castro would promise never again to accept offensive weapons of any kind;
* The United States would issue a formal pledge not to invade Cuba.
The proposal intrigued the secretary of state. If genuine, it could mark a breakthrough, a Soviet offer to end the crisis on terms that the United States could accept. The way in which the message had been delivered seemed a little odd: neither Feklisov nor Scali had previously been used as backchannel intermediaries between Moscow and Washington. But the Soviets presumably knew that Scali had good contacts at the State Department and was on particularly friendly terms with Rusk's intelligence chief, Roger Hilsman. By sending the proposal through a KGB man and a journalist, Khrushchev could disown the concessions if Kennedy refused to negotiate.
According to Scali, Feklisov wanted a reply as soon as possible. He had provided his home telephone number so that he could be called overnight, if necessary. Rusk drafted a response on a yellow legal pad. He cleared the draft with the White House and handed the sheet of paper to the newsman. It contained a two-sentence message that Scali was authorized to convey to Feklisov at the earliest opportunity:
I have reason to believe that the United States Government sees real possibilities in this and supposes that the representatives of the USSR and the United States in New York can work this matter out with [UN Secretary-General] U Thant and with each other. My definite impression is that time is very urgent and time is very short.
Feklisov was still at the embassy when Scali called back. They agreed to meet in the coffee shop of the Statler-Hilton on Sixteenth Street. The hotel was three blocks from the White House, one block from the Soviet Embassy. By Scali's watch, it was 7:35 p.m. when they arrived. They sat at a table in the back and ordered two coffees. Scali delivered Rusk's message from memory, without revealing precisely who it was from.
"Does this come from high sources?" Feklisov wanted to know, jotting down the points in his notebook.
"The highest sources in the U.S. government."
The KGB man thought about this for a moment, and then raised a new issue. He felt UN inspectors should be allowed into U.S. military bases in Florida and surrounding Caribbean countries to ensure that there would be no invasion of Cuba. Scali replied that he had no "official information," but his "impression" was that such demands would create political difficulties for the president. Right-wingers in Congress and the military were pushing for an invasion.
"Time is of the essence," Scali stressed.
Feklisov promised to convey the message to the "highest sources" in Moscow. He was in such a hurry to get back to the embassy, Scali later reported, that he paid for the coffee with a ten-dollar bill and did not wait for his change, most unusual behavior for a Soviet diplomat.
The encounter between the KGB agent and the reporter was a classic example of miscommunication between Moscow and Washington at a time when a single misstep could lead to nuclear war. Scali may have thought that he was being used as an intermediary to resolve the crisis--he certainly convinced the State Department and the White House that this was the case--but this was not at all the way the Soviets saw it.
Feklisov had been rummaging around for insights into U.S. government decision making since the start of the crisis. The onetime control officer for the Rosenberg spy ring was painfully aware of the pitiful state of Soviet foreign intelligence in the United States. He was under huge pressure from Moscow to come up with "secret information" from Kennedy confidantes. Since he lacked sources in the administration, he had to gather what crumbs he could from the outer rings of the circle. Well-connected reporters like Scali were the closest he could get to the Camelot court.
He had been meeting the ABC correspondent over coffee and the occasional lunch for more than a year. If nothing else, the meetings were a way of improving his English. A voluble Italian-American, Scali was "an exuberant type" from whom it was relatively easy to extract information. Feklisov's standard technique was simply to raise a topic that interested him and then insist at a certain point, "No, it can't be." Eager to display inside knowledge, Scali would reply with a comment such as "What do you mean, it can't be? The meeting took place last Tuesday at four p.m., and I can even tell you it was on the eleventh floor." Feklisov was constantly probing his American contact for information, without providing very much in return. He would throw out ideas just to test his reaction.
After leaving Scali at the coffee shop, Feklisov walked back to the embassy. Finally, he had some real information to transmit back to Moscow. He drafted a cable outlining the three-point solution to the crisis, emphasizing the fact that the reporter was speaking on behalf of "the highest authorities." But the two versions of the proposal differed in one crucial respect. By Scali's account, it was a Soviet initiative; Feklisov depicted it as an American one. What Scali and the Americans interpreted as a feeler from Moscow was in reality an attempt by his KGB contact to identify Washington's conditions for ending the crisis.
Feklisov only had authority to send cables to his direct superiors. To reach Khrushchev, or a member of the Presidium, he needed the agreement of the ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. After pondering the rezident's report for a couple of hours, Dobrynin refused to sign the cable. He explained that the Foreign Ministry had "not authorized the embassy to conduct this type of negotiation." Dobrynin, who had his own backchannel to Bobby Kennedy, was skeptical of KGB initiatives.
The most Feklisov could do was to send his report to the head of foreign intelligence. By the time his cable landed in Moscow, it was already Saturday afternoon local time. There is no evidence that the cable played any role in Kremlin decision making on the crisis or was even read by Khrushchev. But the Scali-Feklisov meeting would become part of the mythology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the same time that Feklisov was meeting with Scali at the Statler-Hilton, down the street at the White House the president was venting his anger over a wire service story saying that U.S. officials were hinting at "further action." Kennedy felt that his careful attempts to manage public expectations about the crisis had been jeopardized by an ill-considered comment from the State Department spokesman. He picked up the phone to personally reprimand the midlevel bureaucrat.
Of course, he knew that the spokesman had not meant any harm. Under pressure from reporters to feed them a little tidbit, Lincoln White had drawn their attention to a sentence in the president's address to the nation on Monday. In that speech, Kennedy had described the imposition of a quarantine around Cuba as a first step in a series of measures to oblige Khrushchev to withdraw his missiles. By singling out the phrase "further actions may be justified" if the Soviet continued "offensive military preparations," White had given the reporters a fresh news angle.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the ExComm had ordered White House press secretary Pierre Salinger to put out a statement summarizing the latest intelligence data from Cuba. Far from stopping work on the missile sites, the Soviets were "rapidly continuing their construction of missile support and launch facilities." With his finely tuned media instincts, Kennedy feared that the reporters would combine the White House and State Department statements and conclude that war was just around the corner. Headlines about imminent military action might force his hand, making it more difficult for him to find a peaceful way out. Any escalation had to be carefully calibrated.
"We got to get this under control, Linc," said Kennedy, his voice seething with frustration. "The problem is when you say further action's going to be taken, then they all say: 'What action?' And it moves this escalation up a couple of days, when we're not ready for it."
"I'm sorry, sir."
Apologies were not enough.
"You have to be goddamn careful! You just can't make references to past speeches, because that gives them a new headline--and they've now got it."
"I'm terribly sorry, sir."
10:50 P.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 (9:50 P.M. HAVANA)
Kennedy was not the only person to pick up on the State Department's hints about "further action." A thousand miles away, in Havana, Lincoln White's remarks had provoked concern among Cuban and Soviet military leaders. For Castro, they were yet another signal that Washington was preparing some kind of ultimatum on the removal of Soviet missiles. If the Soviets rejected the ultimatum, as he was sure they would, an invasion would follow "within forty-eight hours."
There had been other straws in the wind, in addition to the Prensa Latina report from New York earlier in the day. The most specific was a message to Castro from the president of Brazil, transmitted via the Brazilian ambassador in Havana, Luis Bastian Pinto. Brazil had information that the American government was planning to destroy the missile sites unless construction work was "suspended within the next forty-eight hours." Castro took this message very seriously. He was on good terms with Bastian Pinto, who was also well regarded in Washington. In the meantime, Soviet commanders on Cuba were hearing reports about the Strategic Air Command moving to a state of "full military readiness."
Analyzing all this information, Cuban and Soviet officials concluded that the most likely scenario was an American air strike followed by an invasion. The attack could begin any time. The more they thought about it, the more they convinced themselves that the first phase of the attack--the air strike--would probably come overnight.
The commander of Soviet forces on Cuba, Issa Pliyev, had a reputation for caution. A cavalryman with neatly parted gray hair and trim mustache, he weighed his decisions carefully. He had seen enough fighting during the Great Patriotic War. He had no illusions about the likely outcome of a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Still recuperating from his gallstone problems, he tried to avoid excitement, waving away subordinates with alarmist reports. A few days earlier, his adjutant had brought him a report about a possible landing by anti-Castro guerrillas. Other Soviet generals wanted to speak to the commander in chief urgently. "Don't panic. Let them investigate with the Cuban comrades. It might be just a few fishermen," Pliyev had told his adjutant. "When they have thoroughly investigated the matter, report back to me." The report turned out to be a false alarm.
Now even Pliyev was getting worried. After meeting with Castro, he too had come to the conclusion that war was all but inevitable. He had ordered his staff to move to an underground command post, near the El Chico headquarters. Like Castro's bunker in Havana, the Soviet command post was equipped with sophisticated communications equipment, large quantities of food, and bunks for the general staff. As rumors spread of an American attack on Friday evening, Pliyev ordered his troops to full combat alert. He was ready, if necessary, for months of partisan warfare.
"We have nowhere to retreat," he told his commanders. "We are far from the motherland but we have enough supplies to last us five or six weeks. If they destroy us at the army level, we will fight at the division level. If they destroy the divisions, we will fight as regiments. If they destroy the regiments, we will go into the hills."
Pliyev rejected Castro's plea for Soviet soldiers to put on their uniforms. But he agreed to turn on the air defense radars and authorized air defense commanders to respond to a U.S. air strike by firing on enemy planes. He ordered the mining of the land approaches to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. He instructed two of the Soviet air force's nuclear-armed cruise missile batteries to move up to their advance firing positions in eastern and western Cuba. And he ordered the release from storage of some of the nuclear warheads for the R-12 missiles aimed at targets in the United States.
There had been some initial confusion over whether Pliyev had the authority to use tactical nuclear weapons to resist a U.S. invasion. Soviet military doctrine called for field commanders to have responsibility for battlefield nuclear weapons in the event of war. The Soviet defense minister had drafted an order granting Pliyev such authority, but did not actually sign it. The latest version of the order, issued on October 23, made clear that Moscow retained full control over the use of all nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Pliyev wanted to make sure that the missiles were ready to fire if war broke out.
At 9:50 p.m. Havana time, Pliyev sent a message to the Soviet defense minister summarizing his actions.
To the Director [a pseudonym for Malinovsky]
According to intelligence data available to us, the U.S. has identified several of the deployment sites of Comrade STATSENKO [chief of Soviet missile forces on Cuba]. The U.S. Strategic Air Command has issued an order for the full military alert of its aviation strike force.
In the opinion of the Cuban comrades, we must expect a U.S. air strike on our sites in Cuba during the night of Oct. 26-27, or at dawn on Oct. 27.
Fidel Castro has decided to shoot down American war planes with his anti-aircraft artillery in the event of an attack on Cuba.
I have taken measures to disperse tekhniki [euphemism for nuclear warheads] within the operating zone and to strengthen our camouflage efforts.
In the event of American air attacks on our sites, I have decided to use all air defense means available to me.
He signed the telegram "Pavlov," his official pseudonym.
Colonel Sergei Romanov had the reputation of being as hard on himself as he was on others. He had built his military career on the transporting and storing of nuclear weapons, and it now was in jeopardy. A convoy under his command had been involved in a fatal accident shortly after arriving in Cuba. A Soviet truck had attempted to overtake a slow-moving vehicle on a winding road, and had collided with a car driven by a Cuban civilian. The Cuban was killed. Romanov had received a Communist Party reprimand--a serious punishment. When he got back to Moscow, he would have to face the consequences, a prospect that filled him with dread.
Despite the shadow hanging over him, Romanov had been put in charge of the central nuclear storage depot, where the warheads for the R-12 missiles were stored in shockproof bunkers. The site was hidden in a wooded hillside just north of Bejucal, a flea-infested town of muddy streets lined with dilapidated bungalows, some twenty miles from Havana. A drive-through bunker had been dug into the hillside, covered with reinforced concrete, and backfilled with earth. It had two wings in the form of an L, fifty to seventy-five feet long, connected to an underground parking garage. A circular access road permitted nuclear warhead vans to drive into the bunker from the north entrance and exit from the south entrance. The entire fenced-in complex covered about thirty acres and was easily visible from the air.
Originally constructed by the Cuban army for storing conventional munitions, the bunker had been adapted for nuclear warheads. The general staff had drawn up strict specifications for securing and maintaining the warheads. They were to be stored twenty inches apart from each other in an installation that was at least ten feet high. A space of at least one thousand square feet was required to assemble the warheads and check them out. The temperature in the storage area must not be permitted to rise above 68 degrees. Humidity had to be kept within a band of 45 to 70 percent. Maintaining the correct temperature and humidity levels was a constant struggle. The temperature inside the bunker never dropped much below 80 degrees. In order to bring it down to the maximum permitted level, Romanov had to scrounge air conditioners and boxes of ice from his Cuban hosts.
The stress of handling the equivalent of two thousand Hiroshima-type atomic bombs weighed heavily on everybody. Romanov, who was only getting three or four hours sleep a night, would have a fatal heart attack soon after returning home. His principal deputy, Major Boris Boltenko, would die a few months later of brain cancer. Fellow officers believed Boltenko contracted cancer as a result of assembling atomic warheads for a live test of an R-12 missile the previous year. By the time he arrived in Cuba, he was probably already suffering from undiagnosed radiation sickness. Many of the technicians and engineers who worked with the "gadgets"--as they called the warheads--would later develop cancer.
In contrast to the heavy security around nuclear storage sites in the Soviet Union, the Bejucal bunker was protected by a single fence and several antiaircraft guns. Romanov's headquarters were on a hill three quarters of a mile away, on the outskirts of town, in an expropriated Catholic orphanage formerly known as La Ciudad de los Ninos. U.S. planes flew overhead by day, gathering intelligence. At night, the Soviet troops guarding the site often heard the sound of gunfire in nearby hills, as Cuban militia units hunted rebels. Sometimes, nervous Soviet soldiers fired at shadows in the darkness. When they went to investigate in the morning, they occasionally found a dead pig in the undergrowth. The next night, they feasted on roast pork.
Bejucal was four to five hours' drive from the missile sites near San Cristobal in western Cuba, but fourteen hours by poor roads from the regiment commanded by Colonel Sidorov in central Cuba. Pliyev knew there would be no time to get the warheads to Sagua la Grande in the event of an American air strike. In addition to being the most distant of the three missile regiments, Sidorov's regiment was also the most advanced in its preparations. Since Sidorov had the best chance of delivering a successful nuclear strike against the United States, he would be the first to receive the warheads.
The thirteen-foot nose cones for the R-12 missiles were loaded onto specially designed nuclear storage vans, with rails that extended outwards to the ground. Night had already fallen when the boxy, humpback vans emerged from the underground facility, joining a line of trucks and jeeps. There were a total of forty-four vehicles in the convoy, but only half a dozen carried warheads. Trucks loaded with industrial equipment were interspersed with the warhead vans for purposes of disguise. Rocket troops were stationed along the 250-mile route to Sagua la Grande to block other traffic and ensure the safety of the convoy. Everybody was terrified of another accident.
Every precaution was taken to prevent detection of the convoy from the air. The operation would be carried out in darkness. Drivers were not allowed to use their headlights. The only lights permitted were side-lights--and only on every fourth vehicle. The maximum speed limit was twenty miles per hour.
Romanov and his colleagues were glad to be rid of at least some of the warheads. They lived in constant fear of an American airborne assault. They understood how vulnerable they were and found it difficult to believe that the Americans had not discovered their secret.
The CIA had been scouring Cuba for nuclear warheads ever since discovering the missiles. In fact, they were hidden in plain view all along. American intelligence analysts had been observing the underground excavations at Bejucal for over a year through U-2 imagery, and had carefully logged the construction of the bunkers, loop roads, and fences. By the fall of 1962, they had tagged a pair of Bejucal bunkers as a possible "nuclear weapon storage site." The CIA informed Kennedy on October 16 that the Bejucal site was "an unusual facility" with "automatic antiaircraft weapon protection." The agency reported "some similarities but also many points of dissimilarity" with known nuclear storage depots in the Soviet Union.
"It's the best candidate," the deputy CIA director, General Marshall Carter, told the ExComm. "We have it marked for further surveillance."
A more detailed CIA analysis three days later noted that the Bejucal bunkers had been constructed between 1960 and 1961 for the "storage of conventional munitions." Photos taken in May 1962 showed "blast resistant bunkers and a single security fence." Dozens of vehicles were observed coming and going, but little work appeared to have been carried out at the site between May and October. The lack of extra security precautions made it unlikely that the site had been "converted to the storage of nuclear weapons," the analysts concluded.
Reconnaissance planes overflew the Bejucal bunker several times during the second half of October. On each inspection, they gathered a little more evidence that should have alerted analysts to the significance of the facility. On Tuesday, October 23, a low-level U.S. Navy Crusader photographed twelve of the humpback vans used to transport nuclear warheads outside an "earth-covered drive-through structure," along with seven other trucks and two jeeps. On Thursday, the 25th, another reconnaissance mission discovered several short cranes specially designed for lifting the warheads out of the vans. The vans were all identical, with large swing doors at the back, and a prominent air vent in front, immediately behind the driver's cabin. Both the cranes and the vans were neatly parked two hundred yards from the clearly visible entrance to an underground concrete bunker. A fence of barbed wire, strung from white concrete posts, circled the site.
In hindsight, the cranes and the humpback vans were the keys to resolving the mystery of the Soviet nuclear warheads, but it would take many weeks for the American intelligence community to start connecting the dots. It was not until January 1963 that analysts examined a stack of photographs showing that the Aleksandrovsk had set out on its voyage to Cuba from a submarine base on the Kola Peninsula. No other civilian ships had ever been observed at the base, which had already been identified as a probable transit point and service center for nuclear warheads. The incongruity of a merchantman being sighted at such a sensitive military facility piqued the interest of the analysts, who re-reviewed all the Aleksandrovsk imagery. Nose cone vans were photographed on board the ship when she returned to the Kola Peninsula from Cuba in early November.
Despite making a belated connection between the Aleksandrovsk and the nuclear warhead vans, the analysts never made the connection with Bejucal. Dino Brugioni, one of Lundahl's top aides, wrote a book in 1990 in which he identified the port of Mariel as the principal nuclear warhead handling facility on the island. In fact, Mariel was merely a transit point for warheads arriving on board the Indigirka on October 4. Soviet officers, including Colonel Beloborodov, the head of the nuclear arsenal, began talking publicly about the significance of the Bejucal site only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The locations of the Bejucal nuclear storage bunker and a similar bunker, dug into a hill overlooking the town of Managua five miles to the northeast, are being revealed for the first time in this book, based on a study of declassified American reconnaissance photographs. (The precise coordinates are provided in an endnote on Back Matter.) Previously unpublished photographs of the Bejucal and Managua bunkers taken on October 25 and October 26 by U.S. Navy and Air Force planes are shown on pages two and three of the third insert. The Bejucal bunker was the hiding place of the thirty-six 1-megaton warheads for the R-12 missile; Managua was the storage point for the twelve 2-kiloton Luna warheads.
The CIA's dismissal of Bejucal as a nuclear storage bunker--after it had been earmarked as the "best candidate" for such a site--can best be explained by the tyranny of conventional wisdom. "The experts kept saying that nuclear warheads would be under the tight control of the KGB," recalled Brugioni. "We were told to look out for multiple security fences, roadblocks, extra levels of protection. We did not observe any of that." The analysts noted the rickety fence around the Bejucal site, which was not even protected by a closed gate, and decided that there were no nuclear warheads inside. The photo interpretation reports referred merely to an unidentified "munitions storage site."
The photo interpreters were much more excited by the former molasses factory at Punta Gerardo, a sugar port fifty miles down the coast from Havana toward the west. The factory was located on a well-defended bay, close to a good highway network. New buildings were going up nearby. Most significantly, "a double security fence" had been built around the facility, in typical Soviet fashion, with guard posts all around. All of which were strong indicators of a possible nuclear storage site, the CIA told Kennedy just before his television address.
The molasses factory proved to have nothing to do with nuclear warheads. It was being used as a transfer and storage point for missile fuel. Once again, as in the case of the Aleksandrovsk and the Tatyana atomic bombs, the lack of obvious security precautions around the Bejucal site was the best security of all.
Like his Soviet opposite number, Issa Pliyev, Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze was a cavalryman by calling. His military career had spanned the transition from horses to helicopters: he now commanded American airborne troops. He already had a family connection to Cuba through his father, Robert Lee Howze, who had charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. "As dashing and gallant an officer as there was in the whole gallant cavalry division" was how T.R. described him. If the United States invaded Cuba a second time, the old cavalryman's son would be the senior American commander on the ground.
Howze's men were eager to get to Cuba. The invasion plans called for 23,000 men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to capture four airports in the Havana area, including the main international airport. While the paratroopers seized the enemy's rear, the Marines and 1st Armored Division would launch a pincer movement around Havana, cutting off the capital from the missile sites. Howze notified the Pentagon on Friday that he was "having a hard time keeping the lid on the pot" of the two airborne divisions. It was difficult to keep highly motivated troops in a prolonged state of alert without sending them into action. The scale of the overall operation was comparable to the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944. A total of eight divisions, around 120,000 troops, would go into action across a forty-mile front from the port of Mariel to Tarara beach, east of Havana. The force that landed in Normandy on D-Day numbered around 150,000 troops along a fifty-mile front.
The invasion plan was code-named Operation Scabbards. The landings were to be preceded by an intensive air bombardment, involving three massive air strikes a day, until the missile sites, air defenses, and enemy airfields were obliterated. Low-level reconnaissance flights had identified 1,397 separate targets on the island. A total of 1,190 air strikes were planned for the first day alone from airfields in Florida, aircraft carriers in the Caribbean, and the Guantanamo Naval Base.
Inevitably, with an operation on such a scale, all kinds of problems arose. The Marines had been in such a hurry to put to sea that they sailed without proper communications equipment. Many Army units were below strength. There was a shortage of military police because some units had been dispatched to the Deep South to enforce federal court orders on desegregation. Planners had underestimated the number of vessels needed for an amphibious invasion and miscalculated the gradients at some of the beaches. There was a scramble for deep-water fording kits when the Army discovered that the beaches at Mariel were not as shallow as had been assumed. The Navy complained of a "critical shortage" of intelligence on sandbars and coral reefs at Tarara beach, which could jeopardize the "success of entire assault in western Cuba."
The U.S. advance forces circling around Cuba were shockingly ill-informed about what they would find if they were ordered to land on the island. They assumed that their opponents would be primarily Cuban, supported by an unknown number of "Soviet Bloc military technicians." U.S. intelligence estimates referred quaintly to "Sino-Soviet" troops and advisers, two years after the rupture between Moscow and Beijing became public. The intelligence gleaned from the October 25 reconnaissance photograph of a Soviet combat unit near Remedios, equipped with FROG missiles, had still not filtered down to the level of the Marines and airborne units preparing to invade Cuba on the afternoon of Friday, October 26.
As word spread within the upper reaches of the U.S. bureaucracy about the sighting of nuclear-capable battlefield weapons in Cuba, in the hands of Soviet defenders, American commanders began clamoring for tactical nuclear weapons of their own.
The order to move against the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo came late on Friday evening, when it was already dark. Several hundred Soviet soldiers, equipped with three cruise missile launchers, each with its own Hiroshima-sized nuclear device, had been waiting in a "pre-launch position" in a former American military school in the village of Vilorio, about fifteen miles inland from the base. They had moved to Vilorio two days earlier from the supply center at Mayari Arriba in the Sierra del Cristal Mountains. To preserve maximum secrecy, they would only redeploy to the launch position if war was expected to break out.
The deployment order was brought by courier in a sealed packet: a radio message risked being intercepted by the Americans. The new position was near an abandoned coffee plantation in the village of Filipinas, also fifteen miles from Guantanamo but closer to the sea. The distance from the pre-launch position to the launch position was about ten miles. At the launch position, they would prepare to "destroy the target" upon receipt of instructions from the general staff in Moscow.
The Soviet preparations to destroy the Guantanamo Naval Base would remain secret for nearly five decades. The activities of the FKR regiments stationed in Oriente and Pinar del Rio provinces have received scant attention from historians, even though these units controlled more than half the Soviet nuclear warheads deployed to Cuba. Equipped with a 14-kiloton explosive charge, roughly the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, the FKR cruise missiles were several times as powerful as the short-range Luna missiles sighted in central Cuba. And there were many more of them: the Soviets brought eighty FKR warheads to Cuba, compared to just twelve Luna warheads.
The movements of the cruise missile convoy on the night of Friday, October 26, as the crisis was about to climax, are being revealed here for the first time. The story has been pieced together from Russian documents and the recollections of participants, which closely match details contained in declassified U.S. intelligence reports. Despite the secrecy surrounding the operation, the Americans were able to follow the cruise missile convoy through radio intercepts and aerial reconnaissance. But, as with the photographs of the Bejucal nuclear storage site, the significance of the raw intelligence was never understood.
Among the Soviet soldiers ordered to Filipinas was a twenty-one-year-old conscript named Viktor Mikheev. He had been serving in the Engineering Corps for just over a year, using his skills as a carpenter to help prepare cruise missile launch positions. He was twenty-one years old when he ended up in Cuba. Photographs that he sent to his mother from the army show a stocky young man, with a piercing gaze and brushed-back hair. He was dressed in a private's uniform, wearing high leather boots and a wide belt with a big red star.
Mikheev's background was typical of the conscripts who took part in Operation Anadyr. He was from a little village in the flat Russian countryside around Moscow. His parents worked on a collective farm. Although he arrived in Cuba in mid-September 1962, he was not allowed to write home until the middle of October. The letter was brief. Military censors prohibited him from saying very much or even revealing his location. "Greetings from a faraway land," he wrote in a letter filled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. "I am alive and healthy." He explained that "it was forbidden" to write earlier, and gave a post office box in Moscow as his return address.
Mikheev was among twenty soldiers from the field engineering unit riding in the back of a powerful, square-fronted truck known as a KRAZ when the convoy pulled out of Vilorio and headed south, toward the sea. Immediately behind the KRAZ was a truck dragging an FKR cruise missile, a stripped-down version of a MiG-15 jet fighter with swept-back wings and a 14-kiloton nuclear warhead in the middle of the fuselage. The missiles were hidden under canvas. A line of support vehicles, including radio vans used for guiding the missile to its target, trailed behind. The convoy crawled forward in pitch darkness, observing a strict blackout. The commander of the battalion, Major Denischenko, rode in front of the convoy in a Soviet army jeep, together with his political commissar.
Suddenly, through the darkness, came the sound of a mighty crash followed by terrified screams. The troops in the FKR truck thought they were under attack by rebels, possibly even by Americans. Soldiers jumped out of the truck and dived into defensive positions behind rocks and cactuses. There was total confusion.
It took a few minutes to figure out what had happened. The KRAZ truck carrying the engineering team had tipped over into a ravine. When the other soldiers went to investigate, they found the truck at the bottom of the ravine. Mikheev and his friend Aleksandr Sokolov had been crushed to death, along with a Cuban bystander. Half a dozen other soldiers sitting on benches on the right side of the truck were badly injured. Their comrades pulled the dead and injured out and laid them by the side of the road.
Denischenko was unable to avoid calling for help over the radio--even if it meant revealing his position to the Americans. News of the accident reached the regimental commander, Colonel Maltsev, at his field headquarters outside the Cuban town of Guantanamo, ten miles north of the naval base. There were three dead--two Soviets and a Cuban--and at least fifteen wounded, some seriously. Maltsev called for surgeons and sent trucks and ambulances to the crash site.
As usual after such accidents, the priority was not casualties but completing the mission successfully. The long line of trucks dragging the FKR cruise missiles and nuclear warheads headed on into the night as soon as the rescue vehicles arrived.
MIDNIGHT FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 (11:00 P.M. HAVANA)
It had become impossible for foreign journalists to report freely from Havana. Those who complained about the restrictions were arrested and accused of being "American agents." A Swedish television reporter, Bjorn Ahlander, asked Cuban militiamen whether he should "dress for dinner or for prison" when they burst into his hotel room on Thursday evening. Not receiving a reply, he dressed for dinner and spent a night locked in a cell at police headquarters. He was allowed to return to his hotel on Friday after giving his "word of honor" as a reserve officer in the Swedish army that he would not try to escape.
Foreigners willing to participate in propaganda operations against the United States were, of course, welcome. The Cuban government provided radio facilities to a fugitive American civil rights activist named Robert F. Williams who denounced Kennedy as "the Napoleon of all Napoleons." Addressing his "oppressed North American brothers" over Radio Free Dixie, Williams called on black soldiers serving in the U.S. military units preparing to invade Cuba to rebel against their officers.
"While you are armed, remember this is your only chance to be free," said Williams, in his weekly Friday night broadcast to the Deep South. "This is your only chance to stop your people from being treated worse than dogs. We'll take care of the front, Joe, but from the back, he'll never know what hit him. You dig?"
Carlos Alzugaray had spent the day digging trenches outside Havana with other Cuban diplomats. When he returned to the Foreign Ministry, the talk was all about an American attack on Cuba, expected to take place overnight. The government needed an urgent report on the likely consequences of a nuclear strike, in or near Havana.
Fortunately for the young American expert, Cuba still belonged to an international library consortium and continued to received official U.S. government publications from the Library of Congress. The Defense Department had done an exhaustive study on the effects of nuclear war, outlining different scenarios for atomic annihilation. There were vivid descriptions of what would happen to a medium-sized city like Havana, with a population of nearly 2 million, depending on such variables as the size of weapon, height of burst, and prevailing winds. As Alzugaray read through the material, he felt a growing fatalism.
A 1-megaton bomb--similar to the warheads on the Soviet R-12 missile--would leave a crater about one thousand feet wide and two hundred feet deep if it exploded close to the surface. The explosion would destroy virtually everything within a 1.7-mile radius of the blast--office buildings, apartment blocks, factories, bridges, even highways. In the next five-mile rung out, the force of the blast would blow out walls and windows, leaving the bones of some buildings intact but a pile of debris in the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people living in central Havana would be killed instantly, most from blast injuries or falling debris. Tens of thousands more would die within hours from thermal radiation. Fires would rage across the rest of the city, as far as the outlying suburbs and the Soviet military headquarters at El Chico, twelve miles from the city center.
Alzugaray described the events that would follow a nuclear attack for his colleagues. A blinding flash. A mushroom cloud. Intense heat. Certain death. He then drafted the briefest report of his diplomatic career: "In the event that nuclear weapons are used in or near Havana City, it and we shall all be destroyed." He had completed his assignment. There was nothing more to add.
In the streets around the Foreign Ministry, there were few signs of any civil defense preparations. The calmness with which Cubans went about their daily lives was difficult for foreigners to understand. Maurice Halperin, the American exile, had listened all week to radio broadcasts from Florida reporting the hoarding of food and preparations for evacuation of American cities. He wondered "what was wrong" with his fellow Havana residents, who paid little attention to the antiaircraft batteries on the Malecon, the sandbagged machine-gun nests in the streets, and the barbed wire along the shore. Nobody "seemed to notice or care that in the event of a bombardment, there would be nowhere to hide, no shelters stocked with medical supplies, and no trained personnel to take care of the wounded, put out fires, and bury the dead."
On the fifth floor of the ministry, Alzugaray and other diplomats prepared to spend the night in their offices. They bedded down on top of their desks, exhausted by digging trenches, "without the prospect of certain death affecting our sleep in the very least."
The stage was set for what Theodore Sorensen would later call "by far the worst day" of the Cuban missile crisis, a day that would come to be known around the White House as "Black Saturday." After picking up speed following the president's address to the nation on the evening of Monday, October 22, events were about to accelerate dramatically once again. The crisis was acquiring a logic and momentum of its own. Armies were mobilizing, planes and missiles were being placed on alert, generals were demanding action. The situation was changing minute by minute. The machinery of war was in motion. The world was hurtling toward a nuclear conflict.